Jere Cunningham (TSF #8)

Welcome to our newest TSF column, “What The Hell Ever Happened To…?” In each installment of this column, I’ll track down a writer who achieved some degree of notoriety in the horror genre in years past, but who has not been heard from in quite some time.  The timeframe that I aim to cover is quite broad—writers who were active in the field as recently as five years ago will be profiled, as well as those who haven’t produced any horror-related work in decades (hell, I’ll probably even profile some dead folks, too).

After much thought—or at least some thought—I selected Jere Cunningham as the subject of the inaugural column.

Cunningham published five novels in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, four of which clearly fell into the horror genre. After his initial book, Hunter’s Blood, which would perhaps more accurately be deemed a thriller, Cunningham proceeded to publish The Legacy (1977), The Visitor (1978), The Abyss (1981), and Love Object (1985). However, that was the last that the world would see of Cunningham’s fiction (except for a couple of short stories, the last of which appeared in Omni), as the author left the field in order write for the silver screen.

Cunningham explains his decision to change mediums thus: “I wrote The Abyss for Simon & Schuster with a guaranteed promotion budget, which they re­neged on, and a guaranteed first printing size, which they also reneged on. I then wrote a book called Horror Story, which I was offered a $75,000 hardcover advance for, and that deal included a rewrite—that was not Simon & Schuster that made that offer, it was Ballantine. And… I had a family, a wife and two kids,

I looked at the situation and said ‘I’ve already put a year into writing this book. It’ll take me six months more to rewrite this book. I can’t afford to live on $75,000 for the period of time that this would involve’—there was the year-and-a-half  I’d already have put into it, and then probably another year to write the next book, so 1 was looking at a period of about two-and-a-half years, during which I’d have to live on $75,000. I put that book in a box and didn’t sell it. I decided not to write novels anymore if that was the best I could do financially.

“So I turned the offer down and came to Hollywood. We put our two kids in a car and—I’m fortunately married to a great woman, we’ll be married twenty years this year—grabbed a typewriter and some quilts, and hit the road.”

In addition to the financial aspects of his deci­sion, it’s clear that Cunningham was also motivated to seek change because of his publisher’s broken promises, which had a significant demoralizing effect on the author. “Writing is the only work that love to do. My approach has always been to avoid anything and anyone that would make me hate writing.”

Given Cunningham’s long apprenticeship writing fiction—“I worked really hard learning to write nov­els; seven-and-a-half years. I wrote six novels before I sold the first one.”—one might think that he occa­sionally misses working in that form, but such is not the case.

“Since I made the decision not to write novels anymore, and to get involved in writing for film, I’ve never reconsidered it. I’ve found screenwriting to be a very pure form, very tight. You look at a screen­play, and it looks so easy to do, and that’s what so hard about it.”

Cunningham made the move from Memphis to Hollywood in the winter of 1982-83, and he has found the change of scenery to his liking, with the sup­posed pitfalls of being a writer in Hollywood—con­stant rewrites of your work, no control over your project, etc.—leaving nary a mark on him.

“One thing that I’ve found ironic is that…people say that in Hollywood your voice (as a writer) is never heard because your material always gets rewritten so much—but (with the publishing world) in New York, it’s just as bad. The agent wants you to rewrite it for him, then the editor wants you to rewrite it for him.”

Eagle-eyed observers will note that Cunning­ham’s last book, Love Object, appeared well after his decision to forsake fiction, an occurrence explained by Cunningham: “That was a manuscript that I had laying around. I had decided not to write novels any­more and Jeff Conner (of Scream/Press) asked me if there was something I’d like to publish through his small press, and I said ‘yeah, there’s this thing that I did for fun, that I like a lot,’ and he published it.”

Cunningham broke into the film world by writing ‘spec’—in other words, writing a script based purely on ‘speculation’ that a producer will be interested in it.

“It’s just like it is with novels, really—you write something hoping someone (a publisher) will be in­terested, you take the risk. I wrote the first screen­play in eleven days, and Columbia bought it. I wrote the second one in four weeks and MGM paid a good deal of money for it.”

In the option-crazy world of Hollywood, where large sums of money are spent to secure the rights to projects that never see the light of day, Cunningham has found his work to be very lucrative, even though only one of his films has so far been produced.

“I’ve probably had eight or ten things optioned, and only one has been produced—THE LAST OF THE FINEST, which was an Orion picture. And I executive-produced that also.”

Cunningham currently has a script in the works with Touchstone Pictures, which he is also executive- producing in partnership with Interscope. “That’s called SHIVA, and it’s a ‘darker’ project. I’m also pro­ducing a project at Fox, based on my idea, that Peter Gent (author of North Dallas 40 and others) wrote the first draft for. I’m also executive-producing a project at Warner that Joel Silverberg is producing, based on an idea of mine, that we brought in the Tho­mas Brothers (of PREDATOR fame) to actually write. I’m also writing a new spec screenplay myself and I have three spec screenplays being written at this time by other writers based on my ideas. Two are being written by novelists, who are disgruntled with the book world—as I was when I was writing novels.”

One of Cunningham’s own novels, Hunter’s Blood, was filmed not too long ago. However, as the author explains, he had nothing to do with that par­ticular project. “I didn’t want to be involved in that. It was a small production, just a little thing that they were going to go off and do, and I said ‘go ahead and do it. I was writing a picture for Fox at the time. I didn’t really have time to deal with it.”

When asked about the ultimate reason for his at­traction to the film world, Cunningham’s response makes him sound like the proverbial southern riverboat gambler: “Hollywood is all about risk-taking. If you’re not a risk-taker, you shouldn’t be out here, be­cause you’ll lose your mind. Everybody from inves­tors on Wall Street to the studio heads with their vari­ous projects are involved in risk-taking, but the only person who can generate his own projects is a writ­er—so there is no better game to play (if you’re a writer) than the Hollywood game. You rise or fall on your own energy, your own initiative, your own tal­ent. And the rewards are commensurate with the risks, in my opinion. I’m a redneck from Tennes­see—if I can come out here and survive, that should encourage a lot of other people.”

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