“It all begins with the story”: An Interview with Tim Hunter

Tim Hunter is an esteemed film and TV director who began his career as a writer of independent movies, before going on to become one of the most famous episode directors in American television. 16:9 met him in Los Angeles for a talk about his career, about the film and television industries, about his predilection for stories and film history and about the changes in the mediascape. Fittingly, the interview is lengthy, inclusive and anecdotal, forming a sort of double feature that tells the small story of one director and writer in Hollywood and a larger story of Hollywood itself and the changes in the industry.

He is stylistically interesting, and he is known for his uses of lengthy reveals, wide lenses and off-angle shots in films like River’s Edge (1986) and episodes from seminal and groundbreaking TV series like Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991), Beverly Hills 90210 (Fox, 1990-2000), Deadwood (HBO, 2004-2006), Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015), Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-2013) and Hannibal (NBC, 2013-2015). But the acclaimed film and TV director Tim Hunter (b. 1947) began his career as a writer, and he is, first and foremost, a great storyteller (fig. 1).

Fig. 1: Acclaimed film and TV director Tim Hunter talking with 16:9 outside the City Garage in Santa Monica, CA. Photo: Morten Blaabjerg.

This is true of Hunter’s own films and television episodes, which might have some noteworthy stylistic trademarks, but without ever becoming overly conspicuous and showy, and it is true of his own career and the anecdotes that he can tell about the AFI, the film and television industries and changes in the film and TV landscape. In fact, Hunter’s story almost looks like a personal, microcosmic version of the American film and television history – from the fall of the double features and the rise of McCarthyism in the 1950s to the boom of cable television at the end of the 1990s and the so-called multiplatform era of the new millennium.

Hunting Stories, Dodging Subpoenas

AH: You have had a long career. Could you say a few words on how it all began?

TH: I wanted to write and direct movies since I was 10 years old. My dad, Ian McLellan Hunter, was a screenwriter. He was blacklisted in the McCarthy era, so I grew up with a bunch of wonderful, left-wing, blacklisted writers in New York City. I was born here in California, but because of the HUAC hearings we fled Los Angeles. My dad was dodging a subpoena, basically, and we went to Mexico City for a year. A lot of the blacklisted writers moved to Mexico for a while, thinking that they could make a living there, that it was close enough to Los Angeles. Dalton Trumbo was down there, Ring Lardner, Jr., my father’s best friend, was down there, Hugo Butler and his family were down there, Albert Maltz from The Hollywood Ten was down there. But except for Trumbo, who could make a living anywhere, it was too far away and too difficult, so we went to New York.

I was moved to New York when I was six years old, and I was a movie brat at that point. I loved movies, even from an early age, and it all sort of crystallized for me when I saw in the window of our local West Side bookstore a very early coffee table book on the movies called The Movies (1957) by Richard Griffith and Arthur Mayer, with a red binding and a red cover. It was a beautiful coffee-table history of the movies from the silent era to Cinerama or something. I saw this book in the window, and I just thought: This is for me.

So I have always been very directed in that way. I made a lot of student films. I was in the first class of the AFI in 1970, and that was a bit disillusioning. Afterwards, I taught for four years, Film History mostly, at the University of California, Santa Cruz. I taught large lecture courses. I taught Hitchcock, I taught film noir many years before it was as popular as it is now, I taught Hawks and Ford, I taught a love story class, a westerns class and a course on Chuck Jones.

I started teaching when I was 23, and because I was so young I was mostly friends with the students. At that point, I met this guy called Charlie Haas, and we started writing the script for a film called Over the Edge (fig. 2) which, many years later, was the first thing that Charlie and I ever sold. It was directed by my good friend Jonathan Kaplan, who was the son of a blacklisted composer. They wouldn’t let me direct it because I hadn’t directed anything yet, and it was too much of a risk. Jonathan had worked for Roger Corman and had a string of B-movie successes under his belt at this point, including Truck Turner and White Line Fever and a bunch of Corman pictures, so he was acceptable. I actually suggested the producers that they should hire Jonathan, and they did, so we made Over the Edge. It was Matt Dillon’s first picture. His casting directors discovered Matt Dillon smoking outside his high school in Mamaroneck, New York, and cast him as the fun bad kid in the movie, and Charlie and I quickly felt, like everybody else, that this kid had a lot of star potential.

Fig. 2: Over the Edge (1979), a coming-of-age drama directed by Jonathan Kaplan and written by Tim Hunter and Charles S. Hass.

When we were researching Over the Edge, which was a story about teenagers rebelling in a suburb, we talked to a lot of kids in the communities at the bay area where some of the real-life events that we were writing about had taken place. We discovered that the only writer that any of these kids read was S.E. Hinton, the author of The Outsiders and Rumblefish, so I wrote to her publishers to hear whether she had anything else in the pipeline. And the timing was good. Her fourth novel, Tex, was just about to be published, and they sent it to me, and I thought this would make a lovely movie. So basically I was able to parlay our writing credit on Over the Edge, Matt Dillon and the book into a deal to write and direct Tex (fig. 3) at Disney in the early 1980s, and that’s how my directing career got started. That was pretty much it. We did an adaptation of Tex, S.E. Hinton became a really close friend, Matt became a movie star, and I went on to my long, if chequered, career.

Fig. 3: Tex (1982) – an unusually ‘mature’ Disney film, directed by Tim Hunter and written by Charles S. Haas.

“God watches over independent film”: River’s Edge

AH: Your 1986-film, River’s Edge, became something of a phenomenon, not just in the US, but also in Scandinavia, and it was an interesting story that also featured some up-and-coming stares. Could you describe the casting and production process on that film and your choice of location?

TH: River’s Edge was based on an actual murder case that took place outside of San José where a kid had strangled his girlfriend and left her body in the woods and brought all his friends back and forth for a period to see the body. It took about a week before anybody found out about it. Besides the horror of the murder itself, there was the spectacle of a bunch of kids going back and forth for a week to look at the body without anybody calling the police.

The script was written by Neal Jimenez, a really excellent writer who had gone to school in Sacramento where the opening scene (fig. 4) was shot, so he based the film on newspaper accounts of the murder, filtered through his own experience in high school of stoner deadhead kids and his friends. The script was owned by two producers named Midge Sandford and Sarah Pillsbury who had produced a really good film called Desperately Seeking Susan, and then also went on to produce John Sayles’ baseball picture Eight Men Out and a bunch of other films.

Fig. 4: The slow reveal from the opening of River’s Edge (1986).

Because of the success of Desperately Seeking Susan, which had been made at a five-million dollar budget, they were sending the River’s Edge script around the studios as a prospective studio picture at something like a five-million dollar budget, and all the studios turned it down. It was way too dark for them. Finally, they got around to showing me the script, and I was not eager at that point to do another teenage picture because I had written Over the Edge and directed Tex, and I followed that up with an adolescent horse movie called Sylvester. But the script was so wonderful, so I told Midge and Sarah that I had to do it, and that I would do it for a million dollars, and once they started pitching it for a different range of companies at a lower budget range, then there was interest in it. In fact, River’s Edge was set up unusually quickly. I think we were in pre-production maybe three or four months after I read it. The film ended up costing 1,7 million dollars, and it was a lengthy shooting schedule for a film of that small budget. I shot it for almost 30 days. Today, you couldn’t shoot for 18 days on a 1,7 million-dollar movie. That’s half of what a standard TV episode costs at this point, but of course people do make films for a million dollars and less, and there are terrific independent films out there. Just look at The Florida Project.

Anyway, we set out to make it, and we had a first-time casting director called Carrie Frazier, who was very good, and we couldn’t afford any of the sort of John Hughes brat pack kids (fig. 5), who were popular at the time.

Fig. 5: The brat pack known from John Hughes’ popular teen dramas.

There was no question of casting Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez or anybody like that, so we had a lengthy audition process. Casting was everything on River’s Edge, and we had heard that Crispin Glover (fig. 6) liked the script, and Crispin had been in Back to the Future, so he was potentially our star and our anchor to draw in the rest of the cast.

Fig. 6: Crispin Glover added an element of heightened realism to River’s Edge.

But although he made it clear that he liked the script and wanted the part, he refused to come in to audition right away because he said that he had to prepare his audition, so we had to wait several weeks to see him, always thinking that he was a likely candidate for the part. We really had no idea what he would be like, and he showed up in his wardrobe with his wig and his hat, and everything he is in the movie he showed up as during the audition. His character was already fully formed, and we did a sort of double take and had to consider what it would do to the film if we cast Crispin and his fairly radical interpretation of the part.

The part itself, on the page, was a sort of twisted but charismatic leader of this high school peer group, and anybody could have played it. You read it on the page, and it could have been Charlie Sheen or Judd Nelson, but Crispin’s interpretation was so radical that we had to reimagine what the complection of the film would be like, and we decided to go with it.

Some of the parts were easier to cast than others. Dan Roebuck, who played the killer, came in early, and it was clear to us that he was great, and I got Roxana Zal to play the best friend of the lead girl, and she had some cache because she had done some TV movies that were successful. That was important to us, even though her part wasn’t that big.

The biggest problem was casting the characters played by Keanu Reeves, Ione Skye and Dennis Hopper (fig. 7). We read a zillion different people for the part that Ione finally got, and I couldn’t find anybody that I thought was quite right. I spotted Ione in a fashion photo in the LA Weekly, and I thought she looked interesting, so we tracked her down and brought her in to audition. She had never done anything. She was 15 years old, but she had the right quality. Her father was Donovan, the musician, and she was great.

Fig. 7: The young stars from River’s Edge.

We also auditioned a ton of guys for Keanu’s part and couldn’t find anybody, but we were lucky in terms of timing. Keanu had had a few smaller parts in Canadian sports movies. He had come down to Hollywood for the first time to see if he could get his career going, and our casting director heard that there was this hot kid from Canada, so we auditioned him, and he was, far and away, the best guy that we had seen for the part. It was really his first lead role.

For Dennis Hopper’s part, I originally wanted John Lithgow because I knew John from college, but John wouldn’t go near it. It was much too twisted and radical for him. He just turned it down, and we ended up auditioning a lot of people for the part. Dennis Hopper was out there. He had done Blue Velvet, and we heard that he liked the part. I was a little worried – incorrectly – that it would be too much type-casting to cast Dennis as a kind of dark, twisted guy. Also, he wanted some money to do it, which wasn’t in the budget, but it all worked out in the end. We became very clear in the process that we wanted him, if we could get him, but the company, Hemdale, didn’t want to pay him, so I tricked them into doing it by auditioning, at some length, an actor named Timothy Carey. He was a well-known Hollywood madman, also known from Kubrick’s The Killing and Cassavetes’ The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, and he would never stick to the script, he would rewrite dialogue, and the dialogue he would rewrite was always about farting. And I basically had to threaten Hemdale to cast Timothy Carey in order to get Hemdale off the dime to pay for Dennis Hopper. I always say that God looks after independent films, and this was just a film where stuff came together.

We shot the film up here in the Burbank foothills in an area called Tujunga, and for Los Angeles this is a fairly countrified or countryish foothill community. It had been built up in the 1920s as an area where tuberculosis patients could go to sanitariums because of the good air. At the time we got to it, it was a smut pit. I didn’t want the film to look like the modern suburbs in Over the Edge, and that was partly because Spielberg had done so much stuff in these kind of modern tract house, cookie-cutter suburbs. I wanted the film to have a more timeless quality, and Tujunga was full of old houses built out of rock. They called them river-rock houses.

I always refer to Tujunga as “the land that time forgot” because it was so not of this modern, Los Angeles world. So we shot most of the film up there, and then there was the question of the river, and because Neal Jimenez, the writer, had grown up in Sacramento, we decided that we would go up to Sacramento to shoot the river scenes. We went up there to scout it, and we settled on the north-east branch of something called The American River, and that is what you seen in the opening of the film. But it didn’t look like the river we see in the opening of the film.

We had scouted the locations, and then we started shooting here in Los Angeles, and an enormous flood hit Northern California, and the highway was closed, and the river was flooded. It was hanging over us during the whole production whether or not the road would open, whether or not we would be able to get up there. And on a low-budget film, in order to have insurance, they have to take out a completion bond, which is basically an insurance policy saying that the picture will be finished, in case of unforeseen disaster, and the completion bond company put a lot of pressure on us not to go to Sacramento because of the extreme weather conditions. They wanted us to shoot the river scenes in Malibu Creek, and Malibu Creek runs from my knee to your knee basically – it’s barely a stream – and the producers were on the verge of buckling under because of all the pressure from the completion bond company.

But at the very last minute, the road opened, the sun came out, and it became viable, and I just said, “Guys, get the trucks. We’re going.” We went up there just by the skin of our teeth, and the location, which had been a very normal river within the city limits, all of a sudden looked like the place you see in the film. The river was big and swollen and turbulent. The grass was wild, the log that Dan Roebuck’s character is sitting on in the opening of the film had washed up in the flood, and it gave the picture the look that it got. A look we had never anticipated. God watches over independent film.

AH: The film is also quite interesting in terms of cinematography (the DP is Fred Elmes, who is known for his long-standing collaboration with David Lynch) and music. Could you say a few things on those two elements?

TH: I can’t remember where I met Fred Elmes – of course none of us had seen Blue Velvet yet – but he had shot the Cassavetes movie. Once we went to work together on it, he was great. We didn’t have very much money, so Fred and I went to the location and mapped out a lot of it in advance. He was concerned that we didn’t waste a lot of time on extra shots, so he wanted to know what we were going to do, and we pretty much stuck to the plan. Every once in a while, I would add a shot, and he would chastise me, kiddingly, for adding extra set-ups. And then he also shot The Saint of Fort Washington (1993; fig. 8), the picture about homeless people that I did with Matt Dillon and Danny Glover in New York, and that was a good experience also. He is a great camera man.

Fig. 8: The Saint of Fort Washington (1993) was the second film where Tim Hunter collaborated with cinematographer Fred Elmes.

But for the music of River’s Edge, I picked Jürgen Knieper because of the Wim Wenders scores that he did. He did the score for The State of Things and The American Friend, and that was really why I picked Jürgen to do the score for River’s Edge. That was a good experience. I love the River’s Edge score. We went to Berlin to record it at the Hansa Studio by the wall where David Bowie had recorded Low and Heroes, so that was exciting.

AH: As I see it, the music contributes to a sort of heightened realism, and the same could be said of the acting, as you mentioned earlier. Would that be a fair way of putting it?

TH: That is exactly what I like to do on that kind of picture: to heighten reality. In a melodrama like this, you push it as far as you can without sacrificing believability. And the score is really bold. I pushed him to do a bold, big score, more than one would expect on a picture like that. It is a very dramatic score. So, all of that gives it a little extra oomph, making it a little bigger than you would think of. I always thought of River’s Edge as a black comedy anyway, so that and Crispin Glover added an element to it beyond the docudrama reality of the murder case. It was such a good script. It all starts with the script.

AH: What is it about independent cinema that you find particularly appealing as opposed to those big tent-pole or blockbuster movies?

TH: I’m sure that if somebody were hiring me to do a big studio production, I’d be perfectly happy to do it, as long as the material is good, but the big mainstream movies are not very interesting these days, so I think you have to turn to independent film. It’s a dilemma for the Oscars. They used to give awards to big studio productions, and now they basically have to ignore the big studio productions and give awards to independent movies that fewer people have seen because those are the only films that have any interesting style or content at this point.

Certainly, independent cinema at this point – whether it’s shot on a cellphone or shot with a camera – is more interesting. Nowadays, you can have a budget of 10 mio. dollars, and they still call that an independent film, and it can still get an award at The Independent Spirit Awards, and I would think of that as a studio film. But studio films have gone so big into their comic book niches, their franchises, their romantic comedies etc., that interesting film only exists at an independent or semi-independent level at this point.

Changes in the Film and TV Landscape

AH: On a similar note, the director Lesli Linka Glatter has told me that mid-budget movies have become almost impossible to make in Hollywood. Do you agree with that comment, and, if so, why has it become increasing difficult to make mid-budget movies?

TH: I think the reason is that mid-budget movies cannot compete in the mass marketplace. By the time you make a mid-budget movie, if it doesn’t have a mass-appeal, and you still have to double that budget to market it, you’re going to lose money on it. That’s why the drama or genre pictures that used to be the staple of Hollywood no longer exist, except as television or independent film. I think a lot of it, historically, started with television which basically wiped out the B-picture, wiped out the western, wiped out the film noir. All of that ceased to exist when the double feature ceased to exist. You used to have the big releases and then you had the B-pictures or the smaller films, and they would have their first run, say, in downtown Broadway or in the main theaters, and then they would fan out to the neighborhood theaters for an extended run as part of a double bill. Television wiped all that out. Not only are there not neighborhood theaters with double features anymore, there are no smaller films. There’s no second run for a feature anymore. It makes most of its money on the first weekend, and then it’s a question of how badly it falls and how many weeks they can sustain it, and that’s it!

From Experimentation to Excess: Twin Peaks

AH: You mention the rise of television. In this context, it seems only natural to mention Twin Peaks. You directed three episodes of the original series, episodes that were very different aesthetically and inspired by various films and filmmakers. How did you get to be a part of that show?

TH: I had known David Lynch for many years. David was also in the first class at AFI, and he asked me to do it. They were very encouraging for directors to do their thing, and they would even give you a certain amount of over-time if you needed it. And that’s unheard of in the television business today. It was a great environment.

I always felt that some of the directors that they brought later on in the show went overboard to sort of demonstrate stylistic flourishes or gags, and I always try to keep it close to the story. My dad is a writer, and I started out as a writer, so no matter how stylized a show I am doing, my basic orientation is to deliver the script. But the opening of Episode 16 is rather stylized, and the shot of the policemen walking in slow motion toward the moving camera was my Wild Bunch (fig. 9-10).

Fig. 9: The opening of Tim Hunter’s famous Twin Peaks episode (Ep. 16, 2:9, 1991).
Fig. 10: An iconic scene from Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).

That wide shot was inspired by Peckinpah, but the off-angle stuff was inspired by film noir: Siodmak and directors like that. Fritz Lang never used much off-angle stuff, neither did Otto Preminger, and those are my favorites, but I did it for Twin Peaks because it seemed right.

It is so rare to find a show like Twin Peaks that allows directors to do the stuff that I did in the opening of Episode 16: the lengthy tilting shot, the wide shots and the off-angle stuff. The way that the camera tilts down from the tree in the opening of that episode is really the same shot that we see in the opening of River’s Edge. I’m always big on how to reveal stuff. I think, in melodrama, it is all about how and when to reveal stuff. In the opening from Twin Peaks, you have a long textured pan down from the trees before we get to that shot of the hand, and that camera movement is similar to the opening of River’s Edge where the camera slowly goes down to the kid’s face and then to the doll in his hand.

You don’t often have a chance in television to do long, extended tracking shots. I mean, nobody is doing the Steadicam shot from Goodfellas in a TV episode, but, on the other hand, if you can use a dolly well, keep things fluid and stage a master, so that it has some flow to it, then you can build up a rhythm in the cutting, and it helps tell the story.

I don’t think anybody cares about it, I swear. I think I’m a pretty good craftsman in terms of that kind of stuff that you are talking about, but nobody cares. Nobody cares about the craft.

For another stylized scene in Episode 16, the scene where Leland dies, we had to build a moat around the police station to accommodate all the water that came out. We shot that scene in a warehouse up at San Fernando Valley, and we shot long into the night because we had to drain the moat every time. I have never seen so much water on a sound stage. It was like Titanic.

The Designated Hitter in Television

TH: It was very special doing Twin Peaks. I was either coming in after or right before David Lynch, and I always felt like he used me the way you would use a designated hitter in a baseball game: I was there to get the story clear, so that he could come in and do something wild, or he would come in and do something wild, and then I would have to clean it up or make it clear again.

I went back to do my third episode, and at that point we all knew that it had been canceled. I wanted to do it one more time and say goodbye to everybody because there was so much enthusiasm in the early stages of the show – everybody knew that we were doing something special and different, and that it was always a matter of how long ABC would sustain it – and the cast was wonderful and very dedicated.

I came back at the end of the second season, and at that point everybody had gotten cynical. Kyle MacLachlan said that it was a piece of shit, and Mark Frost had gone on to do features, and it was somewhat disillusioning at the end. They had this Windom Earle stuff, and they said to me that I could not get any more than 16 shots a day. Usually, you get about 40 shots a day on an episode like that, so I asked to see the production reports on the previous episodes and, lo and behold, there were maybe 16 set-ups in a day’s work.

The camera man was a nice guy, and he was good, but he had slowed down to a crawl, so I was trying to think how I could change my own style and approach to it to accommodate the fact that I could only get less than half the number of shots I was used to. So I watched Ozu’s Tokyo Story and a lot of elegant, minimalist films from Japan, and I always refer to that episode as my Japanese-style Falcon Crest because it had become a kind of soap opera at that point (fig. 11-12).

Fig. 11: A typical composition from Tokyo Monogatari (1953).
Fig. 12: A similar composition from Twin Peaks (ABC, Ep. 28, 2:21, 1991).

I kept the camera in a low position like Ozu did, sitting on a chair while shooting the scenes. It is not a very good episode. I did one gag, though, in that episode. There was an early scene where we meet the bad guy, Windom Earle, and I had him open his mouth, having blacked out his teeth, sort of like the ghost in Kwaidan or another Japanese film where they open their mouths and their teeth are all blacked out. That was my homage to Japanese, minimalist film in the ending of an episode of Twin Peaks (fig. 13-14).

Fig. 13: This traditional Japanese spirit/monster is called Ohaguro bettari (meaning “nothing but blackened teeth”) and is known for the eerie, blackened teeth. The artificial blackening of teeth is known as “ohaguro,” and has a long tradition in Japan, sometimes connected with beauty and sometimes connected with horror.
Fig. 14: An homage to Japanese traditions and ghost stories in Tim Hunter’s last episode of Twin Peaks (ABC, Ep. 28, 2:21, 1991).

The Ethic of Tourneur, the Aesthetics of Lang

AH: You describe your different sources of inspiration when directing the three episodes of Twin Peaks. Do you often draw consciously on old films and classic filmmakers when directing a film or a television episode?

TH: I think of myself as a student of film, and I love classical Hollywood and old Hollywood directors, so I like that kind of stuff. I am a classically oriented director myself. Part of the fun of doing a TV soap opera, for example, is that you can find something that reminds you of Douglas Sirk or Vincente Minnelli, and if you do a TV noir or crime show that has some mood to it, like Twin Peaks or Hannibal, you can find yourself being influenced by Fritz Lang, an Otto Preminger move or some shot in a Jacques Tourneur picture. That’s just fun. I don’t talk that much about it because nobody knows those names from the past, and nobody cares, but to me it’s like doing a B-picture for a second run. That’s all you’ve got left these days: to go to television.

When I came out to AFI, I was both a Filmmaking major and a Critical Studies major, and I wanted to do an oral history of Douglas Sirk, but Jon Halliday had done that big Sirk on Sirk oral history that became an excellent book, and Sirk had gone back to Europe. So then I said to AFI that I wanted to do an oral history on Jacques Tourneur, the director of Cat People, Curse of the Demon and some wonderful westerns, so we contacted Tourneur, and he said: “Well, I would do it, but I am just finally retired, and I am going back to Paris where I was born the day after tomorrow, so I can’t do it. But come on over and have a cup of coffee.”

I went over to Tourneur’s house, which, really, was like a duplex in Beverly Hills, and there were suitcases everywhere and sheets over the furniture, and he was just ready to leave. So I asked him: “In lieu of the oral history that we cannot do, what is the thing that you liked most about your career?” “I never turned down a job,” he said, and that has really stayed with me as a freelance director working in television. I wish it could have been movies, but I think I have something of that ethic as a freelancer: You just take what’s offered you, and you make the best of it.

AH: You mention that you were inspired by Tourneur’s work ethic, but you have also, on a few occasions, mentioned that Lang was a big inspiration to you. How?

TH: I knew Fritz Lang actually… A friend and I were both involved in college films and film society stuff, and we tracked him down when his last film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, opened on Times Square in New York. I saw him again when I came down to Los Angeles for the AFI, and we spent a fair amount of time together. He was pretty much blind, lived in a small house up in Coldwater Canyon with his companion, a woman named Lily Latte, and I would drive him around a fair amount. I became his de facto film student chauffeur. He was pretty great, Fritz. He never told me all that much. He used to say (imitating Fritz Lang): “Tim, my angel, never fuck the lead lady before the picture is over.” That was his big advice to me. I used to drive him up to Malibu, and he’d point to the hotel up at Paradise Cove saying, “That’s were Joan Bennett had the affair with somebody and that’s where they used to go fuck on the weekend.” Fritz was great.

From Freelance Director to Television Nomad

AH: I think of you as an independent director, and you have done a lot of stuff that would usually be described as artsy or edgy. But, in fact, you have worked on quite a few different productions, and some of these are not nearly as dark or edgy as River’s Edge or Twin Peaks. One example of this is Beverly Hills 90210. You directed the pilot episode in 1990, but after that you left the show, and the pilot is tonally quite different from the rest of the series. Could you tell me about your work on that show?

TH: They offered me the two-hour pilot. It was ultimately cut down to 90 minutes. Darren Star had written the script, and Aaron Spelling had it. Spelling was a TV mogul who, at that time, didn’t really have anything on the air. He was in a period where he hadn’t been able to get to much going. He lost a lot of his production apparatus, and I brought in the line producers, actually, who were a lot of the people who had worked on Twin Peaks. This company called Propaganda.

We made the pilot, and the experience of making it was quite good. It was funny. The pilot script was kind of light, and I always look for the laughs in stuff, even if it’s fairly dark material, which this certainly wasn’t. But I never went on with the show after that. They didn’t like the pilot even though it sold, and it was always Spelling’s idea to turn it much more into a teenage soap opera once the show got going.

The pilot really has a different tone from the rest of the series, and they weren’t particularly enamored of it (fig. 15). But I had a good time doing it, and again there was a lot of casting involved because on a TV pilot – it’s awful – you have to bring your candidates for the final parts in front of a group of network executives. I actually remember doing the final auditions in a small amphitheater with network executives in tears up to the top row. It was just a brutal process. I did a couple of unsuccessful TV pilots after 90210, but I’ve always hated the process. I much prefer just to come in and do episodes and not have the extra pressure.

Fig. 15: The slow reveal at the opening of the Beverly Hills 90210 pilot (Fox, 1990).

A TV episode is kind of a form unto itself. It’s very basic to the history of television: the one-hour episode. You prep it in a few days, you shoot it in seven or eight days, and I think that you can do them quite well, if the script is any good and the show is well organized. But the minute you apply pressure to that form, it becomes difficult. In a TV pilot, which has to be more than a regular episode – sometimes I have also been asked to do a season premiere or a season finale – you do not have any more time and money than with an ordinary episode, but the expectations are much higher.

By the way, I came up with that gag that there would be valet parking at the high school, which you see in the extended title sequence. It wasn’t in the script, and we shot that title sequence – even more than you can see in the televised version – and they hated it. They axed all of that stuff when they aired it in America.

It was a nice cast. Jason Priestley was the last person to be cast, and it was the same thing as with Keanu Reeves. He had done some stuff up in Canada, and we couldn’t find anybody for his part until he came along. There was a lot of casting. I actually went to New York on my own impetus, to ask some casting people I knew in New York if they could find any more kids, and we turned up with Ian Ziering out of New York, who otherwise wouldn’t have been cast.

I didn’t cast Luke Perry, though, and, in fact, I didn’t work with him until years later when I did an episode of Riverdale where he plays Archie’s father. We had a good laugh over the fact that I did the pilot of 90210, and then he entered the show afterwards. He said, “I always say that you directed the pilot, and I directed the other 300 episodes.”

Anyway, I did that one episode of 90210, which stood out tonally, and the producers didn’t really like it. There were even articles that came out at the time where some of the stars from the show badmouthed the pilot, but I thought it was a decent episode.

AH: From Beverly Hills and Twin Peaks, you have gone on to work on some of the most prominent TV series. One of these is Riverdale, a stylized teen soap that is evidently inspired by 90210 and Twin Peaks and perhaps even River’s Edge. Do you think they chose you because of that?

TH: Every episode of Riverdale has the name of a classic movie, and the title of the pilot was River’s Edge, so, yes, I think they hired me because of River’s Edge. I don’t know what they thought. The ending of my episode was pretty interesting (fig. 16).

Fig. 16: The creepy ending from Tim Hunter’s episode of Riverdale (The CW, 2016-).

They wanted it creepy, and I got it and cut it that way, and that was exactly the way it wound up in the show, but I haven’t heard much from them. I tend to think that they felt I was not stylish enough on that episode, that maybe they wanted me to push it even further. They push the visuals more broadly on that show, and I may have shot my episode very specifically. I captured all of the nuances of that episode, but I think, in retrospect, that they had wanted me to go broader to a more conspicuous and showy visual style. But the ending certainly did the job.

AH: The story of Breaking Bad is slightly different. Here you did the finale of the first season, which was widely hailed by fans and critics, yet you never came back to do a second episode. Why do think that is?

TH: Vince (Gilligan) was just the opposite. I did that episode of Breaking Bad which became the season one finale, and it went very well. For years, people talked about that episode, to me, as being a stand-out episode, but they never brought me back on Breaking Bad, and I never could figure out why. I have a friend who is a producer, and who was working several years later with one of the Breaking Bad producers, and I said: “Would you ask this person why they never brought me back?” And the answer came back that Vince Gilligan thought that I moved the camera too much on the show. That was the reason why I never came back on Breaking Bad, and I can understand it. Breaking Bad had all those super-wide angle establishing shots, and then, I guess, it was fairly conventional after that. It was mostly the wide-angle lens stuff that seemed to set Breaking Bad’s style rather than the mise en scène of the individual, inner scenes. Great show, though.

AH: You also worked on a few episodes of Mad Men, and here you have told me that Matthew Weiner, not unlike Vince Gilligan, thought that you veered away, if only slightly, from the signature style of that show. How so?

TH: I ran into trouble on the beginning of the second season because they were trying out their new camera man, Chris Manley, who ended up shooting the rest of the show, I believe, from the beginning of the second season and onwards. He also directed some episodes, and he was good as a director, but I had the misfortune of directing his first episode as a camera man, and he didn’t know the style. The stuff that I had gotten with Phil Abraham during the first season, I couldn’t get with Chris. He didn’t know how to set them up, and you don’t have the time to teach the camera man how to do it, and Matt came to me and said, “It’s not my show. It doesn’t look like my show.” I said that Chris hadn’t figured out the style yet, but they were committed to him, and within three or four episodes he had figured out the look of the show, but I got nailed because of his learning curve, basically. He is a lovely guy and a great camera man. It just took him a few episodes to figure out that very low, precise framing that Matt wanted. Matt didn’t like to cut people off at the head. He wanted room over them, and the wide shots had to look composed.

Eccentric Showrunners and Producer-Driven Excess

AH: You have worked with quite a few of the most renowned showrunners and TV autuers. People such as David Lynch, Vince Gilligan, Bryan Fuller, Matthew Weiner and David Milch. Are they very different to work with, or are they equally eccentric and potentially difficult?

TH: David Milch is very different from, say, David Lynch. Lynch’s office on Twin Peaks was an empty room with a chaise longue, sort of an open couch, that he would lie on, and there was a kind of pole with a feather on it – some kind of talisman that he probably used as an aid in meditation – and that was it. There was no decoration, no furniture, and he wasn’t there very much either. You would know when he was coming to do one of his episodes, but he didn’t have the script much in advance, so it was always like: “Oh, David is coming. What’s it gonna be?” It was always great on Twin Peaks, though.

David Milch was eccentric in a different way, and, when doing Deadwood, he would never deliver the scripts on time (fig. 17).

Fig. 17: Deadwood – a critically acclaimed TV series by an eccentric and excessive showrunner.

AH: In that context, you have even talked about a kind of producer-driven excess. How would you say that the television industry and the productional circumstances have changed over the course of the last 20-30 years?

TH: Generally, the producers want more production value today, they want it to be more like a feature film. They want more action, more production value, and they put much more pressure on you to give it a “feature look,” but they don’t give you any more time or money, and they won’t give you a minute of over-time, which sometimes you need. I hear stories all the time like, “Oh, my God, the show is out of control. They’re shooting 14 hours a day.”

On Riverdale, we were shooting 14-16 hours a day. The kid who played Archie fell asleep at the wheel and cracked up his car, going home after a series of 14-hour days. But when I go on the set, they say 12 hours. If you go a minute over, you will never work in Hollywood again. The pressure is enormous.

Certainly, the kind of camaraderie that was there on Twin Peaks where you felt people were behind you, and they were giving you room to do stuff – and if you needed some extra time, it wasn’t the end of the world – is a rare thing today. It’s much more of a corporate business these days, but the pressure is still to make these shows look bigger and bigger even though they don’t give you the means to do it.

I did a cable show a couple of years ago, a show called Underground, and it was about slaves who had escaped a plantation, trying to find freedom on the underground railroad, and when I took the job, I thought: This is going to be great material because it’s about slavery, and it’s political. But when I got there, it was essentially an action show, and these runaway slaves were armed, they were holding up stagecoaches, there were gun battles with people, and they were doing all kinds of stuff.

I looked at this script, which was an eight-day episode, and it had in it a knife fight, a hanging and a stagecoach chase. Also, they had written something for a bridge where people were either trying to cross the suspension bridge or the Mississippi, and people were shooting on them with guns on the one side and with bows and arrows on the other side, and I thought: You can’t do this in eight days.

The show was way over schedule. Nobody could finish their episode, and the scene on the suspension bridge was undoable, and the network finally had to go in and say: “You can’t do this. We don’t have the budget to do it in a way that’s even safe for the actors.” And there’s no Mississippi River in Baton Rouge. There was a stream with a park on one side and a golf course on the other. They just push, push, push. There are some very unrealistic expectations on many of these shows.

Hannibal was a bit like that also because they wanted the most outlandish corpse effects, special effects and stylistic stuff, and the scripts came in too late for anybody to prep them. We all did the best that we could, and it was a very stylish show, but it was very difficult.

I can’t imagine that there would be too many television industries in Europe that would put up with the kind of producer-driven excess that we have in America where a producer with a big ego says he wants to write everything and where nothing is there on time because the producer is rewriting everything while we’re in prep. When we did Hannibal, we didn’t even have the scripts for the next day’s shooting. That was true on Deadwood also. Now, there’s an upside to it because some of these people are brilliant. Bryan Fuller was a very distinctive writer, and once we had the scenes, I liked shooting them, and the actors liked playing them because he wrote in a way that was different and had a lot of style to it.

The same thing is true of David Milch, who is a great writer. I don’t think the episode I did was particularly great, but the first season of Deadwood was spectacular, and the writing was extraordinary. But even David has taken the fall because it costs so much money when the scripts are not there on time, and people are sitting around without knowing what they’re doing because the scenes don’t come in until the night before, at best.

On Deadwood, I remember the first day of shooting where we were in the saloon, and I just assumed that we would do all the saloon scenes that day because that’s the way you schedule a movie or a TV show: You shoot out your locations as efficiently as possible. And they just laughed at me because the scripts had not been written for the saloon, and he didn’t even know whether he wanted to return to the saloon. So if you had to shoot one saloon scene on Day 1 and one on Day 8, that was just the way they did it. It was the whim of the producer. I think even HBO got fed up with him because it was so expensive to have that kind of disorganization, nobody knowing if the actors would be needed for a certain day and having to pay them. I don’t think they would do that in Denmark. I think someone would say, “We have to run the show in a professional way.”

* * *


This interview is based on conversations with Tim Hunter in Santa Monica in March, 2018, and a phone interview about River’s Edge (1986), conducted in January, 2018. In 2019, a filmed interview will be released as part of a new project called Traveling the TV Landscape. Thanks to Morten Blaabjerg who helped me conduct one of the interviews in LA and thanks to Adrian Martin for valuable feedback. 

Tim Hunter was born in Los Angeles in 1947.

Selected Filmography

  • Over the Edge (1979; writer)
  • Tex (1982)
  • Sylvester (1985)
  • River’s Edge (1986)
  • Falcon Crest (CBS, 1981-1990; 2 episodes from 1988 and 1990)
  • Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991; 3 episodes)
  • Beverly Hills 90210 (Fox, 1990-2000; 1 episode/pilot);
  • Eerie, Indiana (NBC, 1991-1993; 2 episodes)
  • The Saint of Fort Washington (1993)
  • Homicide: Life on the Street (NBC, 1993-1999; 3 episodes)
  • Carnivàle (HBO, 2003-2005; 2 episodes)
  • Deadwood (HBO, 2004-2006; 1 episode)
  • Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015; 6 episodes)
  • Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-2013; 1 episode)
  • Sons of Anarchy (FX, 2008-2014; 1 episode)
  • Dexter (Showtime, 2006-2013; 2 episodes in 2008 and 2009)
  • Nip/Tuck (FX, 2003-2010; 3 episodes in 2009 and 2010)
  • American Horror Story (FX, 2011-present; 1 episode)
  • Hannibal (NBC, 2013-2015; 4 episodes)
  • Underground (WGN America, 2016-2017; 2 episodes)
  • Riverdale (The CW, 2016-; 1 episode: “Chapter Twenty-Three: The Blackboard Jungle”)
  • Bosch (Amazon Studios, 2014-present; 2 episodes in 2016 and 2018)