Director of Screenwriting Jim Burnstein Gives Heartfelt Tribute to His Friend and Mentor
My mentor and friend Kurt Luedtke died on August 9. I met Kurt forty years ago when I was a young aspiring screenwriter and he was a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who was writing his first screenplay, Absence of Malice, which would earn him his first Academy Award nomination. When my early flirtation with television resulted in heartbreak, Kurt offered to teach me how to write a feature-length screenplay. Foolish pride caused me to resist at first, but fortunately, I got over myself and learned to write and rewrite my first screenplay and first produced movie, Renaissance Man. It was hard as hell -- four drafts over three years -- but what Kurt taught me not only launched my career as a screenwriter but also laid the foundation for the University of Michigan’s Screenwriting Program.
Every student at Michigan who has ever written a treatment, step outline, first draft, second draft, etc., has been influenced by Kurt’s lessons. Kurt also taught me how important it was to read screenplays if you wanted to write them. That’s why we have the Donald Hall Collection built by FTVM’s amazing librarian Phil Hallman. Phil can tell you how many of those screenplays in the DHC were donated by Kurt himself. Since Kurt, like me, never moved from his home in Michigan, he was the first guest artist I ever called upon to speak to and work with our students. Professors V. Prasad, Dan Shere, and Oliver Thornton and many of their classmates can tell you how vital that experience was to their growth as writers. As a result, we built our various guest artist series, featuring screenwriters, television writers, directors, producers, studio executives, agents, managers, animators, etc. But Kurt still holds the record for most appearances, speaking in large and small classes alike from 1996 to 2012, and even working one-on-one for many years with screenwriting students from our advanced seminar, FTVM 427.
Kurt would win the Oscar for his second screenplay, Out of Africa, and become a Hollywood legend. We are lucky indeed that Kurt Luedtke’s legend lives on in Ann Arbor.
Jim Burnstein, Professor and Director of Screenwriting
Photos courtesy of Mary Lou Chlipala