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October 11, 2001

Carl Kurlander: From Pittsburgh to Hollywood and back again

The journey that brought Hollywood screenwriter Carl Kurlander back to his hometown as a visiting professor in Pitt's English department began one night 17 years ago, in a Volkswagen Rabbit.

He and a young actress were parked along Mulholland Drive, gazing down at the lights of Los Angeles. After just a few years in Hollywood, with a successful screenplay to his credit, Kurlander already sensed he was betraying his artistic integrity. Flushed with the saki he had drunk to wash down his sushi dinner ("I hate sushi!" Kurlander confided recently. "I'm from Squirrel Hill. I like Mineo's pizza."), Kurlander turned to his date, a curly-haired South Carolinian named Andie MacDowell, and announced: "You know what I'm going to do? I'm leaving Hollywood and I'm going to write short stories. I'm going to write from my heart again…."

But instead, Kurlander's next project was, in his words, "the script for some dumb movie about a guy who can talk to babies." Kurlander hadn't wanted the job, but his agent had advised him: "In this town, you don't say 'No.' You ask for more money than they'll pay." So, Kurlander requested an astronomical fee…to which the producer agreed. Kurlander wrote the script, but the movie was never made.

Another dumb movie script followed and then a sitcom about teenagers, "Saved by the Bell," for NBC-TV. The show generated four spinoffs. Kurlander was executive producer of the last one, "Malibu."

"Basically, 'Malibu' featured girls wearing bikinis instead of short skirts like on 'Saved by the Bell,'" Kurlander explains. "It was a syndicated show. I think it was shown on the Fox network here in Pittsburgh. I'd be just as happy if no one ever saw it."

Kurlander's dream of doing serious writing — once as bright, if distant, as the L.A. lights viewed from Mulholland Drive — was dimming with each year. "I found myself justifying more and more schlocky work. I felt like I had become an unsympathetic character in my own life," recalls Kurlander, now 42.

He hadn't begun his Hollywood career writing schlock. In fact, his breakthrough success could not have been more heartfelt: A screenplay, co-written with director Joel Schumacher, based on a short story Kurlander wrote as a Duke University undergraduate. The story was a fictionalized account of Kurlander's infatuation with a girl he met when both were working at a hotel in southwestern New York. The girl had (gently) rejected him, yet would remain the love of his young adult life.

In real life, the story of Kurlander's infatuation began one spring day in 1977, when he came home to find a moving van in front of his family's house in Squirrel Hill. His mother, an impulsive woman given to marrying doctors ("We used to say that my mother didn't get divorced, she just got referred to different husbands") informed him that she was moving to New York City to become an actress.

Kurlander's mother enrolled him at Shady Side Academy, where he would board five days a week, spending weekends with a Pittsburgh family that owned the St. Elmo Hotel in Chautauqua, New York. Shady Side Academy had just gone co-ed, but the enrollment in those days was about 400 boys and 10 girls, Kurlander says. Those daunting numbers did nothing for his self-confidence with the opposite sex.

"I can't remember talking to more than three girls before I was 17," he recalls. "So, you can imagine why I jumped at an offer to work as a bellhop at the St. Elmo Hotel, where the boy-girl ratio was two male bellhops to 13 waitresses, all of them beautiful college girls."

Kurlander soon noticed that one waitress was a little behind in serving her tables. Gallantly, he put a busboy outfit over his bellhop uniform and helped her. She smiled at him. He cleared another of her tables. She smiled again.

Kurlander later would write, "There are several quintessential moments in a man's life: Losing his virginity, becoming a father, getting married — not in that order, necessarily — and having the right girl smile at you."

It turned out that the girl was from Pittsburgh and attended Winchester Thurston. Kur-lander wasn't crazy about her name, Lynn Snyderman, but figured the surname would change when he married her.

"I was quite deluded," he acknowledges.

Kurlander pursued Lynn shyly but relentlessly. When she enrolled at Kenyon College, Kurlander turned up uninvited and arranged an "accidental" meeting in her dorm building. "She was surprised, but again, she'd always be really nice," he remembers.

Kurlander considered enrolling at Kenyon himself, but opted for Duke. There, he half-hoped, he would meet other girls who would make him forget about Lynn.

But he couldn't put her out of his mind. One day, Kurlander boarded a plane for Pittsburgh, knowing Lynn was visiting home here, and called her from the airport. Lynn patiently explained that she was celebrating Father's Day with her parents, but Kurlander talked her into seeing him for a few minutes at her parents' home in Squirrel Hill.

"Well, what are you doing here?" Kurlander remembers her asking.

"I came to see you."

"No, what are you doing in Pittsburgh?"

"I came to see you."

"All this way?" Lynn asked.

"Okay," Kurlander said, realizing it was now or never. "I've been madly and passionately infatuated with you for the last three years."

Lynn, startled, could only reply that she was "flattered."

"Three years," Kurlander says, chuckling ruefully at the memory, "and she was flattered!"

Sad and confused, Kurlander returned to Duke, where he wavered between majoring in pre-med or pre-law. Panicked by Lynn's approaching graduation ("I suddenly thought, 'I'm going to lose her!' I was nutty.") Kurlander locked himself in his room and skipped classes while he wrote a love story aimed at winning over Lynn — or, at least, making her cry. After reading it, she wrote Kurlander that she was "really impressed. In fact, I'm flattered." She was using that "F"-word self-mockingly, acknowledging her lame reply to his confession of love.

"Lynn was actually a very nice person, and that's the difference between her and a lot of infatuations," Kurlander points out.

Following an awkward reunion with Lynn at Ronald Reagan's first Inaugural Ball — she by then was a Republican law student; Kurlander was there as an Army-jacketed protester — Kurlander won an internship at Universal Studios in Hollywood, largely on the strength of the short story he'd written to impress Lynn. In the evenings, he worked on turning the story into a screenplay.

One rainy afternoon at Universal Studios, Kurlander's boss, director Joel Schumacher, had time to kill. Kurlander began telling him the story about the waitress at St. Elmo's Hotel. Schumacher read Kurlander's screenplay and said: "You know, I think there's something here."

After three days of driving around Hollywood in Schumacher's Mercedes, swapping ideas, the two began rewriting Kurlander's script. One month later they had a finished draft. Several months later, studio execs "green-lighted" the movie, to be called "St. Elmo's Fire," the same title that Kurlander had used for his short story.

Schumacher asked Kurlander for suggestions on where to film the movie. Kurlander, who had kept in touch with Lynn, said: "How about Georgetown?" Schumacher agreed, and "St. Elmo's Fire" was filmed in Washington, D.C., not far from the house where Lynn, by then a lawyer, was living at the time.

Kurlander recalls, "One day, I came home and heard a familiar voice on my answering machine: 'Hi, Carl, this is Lynn. I was driving home from work today and heard a message on the radio about a casting call for this movie, "St. Elmo's Fire." I don't know if you have anything to do with it, but if not, you could sue.'"

"St. Elmo's Fire," released in 1985, was a hit and remains a favorite film romance among Generation X-ers. It starred most of Hollywood's "Brat Pack," including Rob Lowe, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez and, in the role of waitress "Dale Beaverman," Andie MacDowell. According to Kurlander, MacDowell turned all of her Southern charm on him during the filming, once spurning a date with Sean Penn in favor of dining and parking with Kurlander.

But Kurlander by then had few romantic illusions, at least about actresses. "Andie was a 'method' actress, and I think she was only flirting with me as a way of getting into her role," he says. "Besides, I still had a thing about Lynn Snyderman. I guess I preferred the real thing to the fictionalized version."

Kurlander's "thing" for Lynn gradually would morph into a friendship that still continues. When Kurlander was in Pittsburgh several years ago doing research for a Disney project, he needed a computer and called Lynn. "I ended up writing the script in her attic — with Lynn, her husband, their two kids and their dog downstairs," he says.

It was Kurlander's turn to be flattered when, working in the attic, he found not only a "St. Elmo's Fire" movie poster but also a Polaroid of himself and Lynn from the early 1980s. In the photo, they're standing together in the snow, in Georgetown. It was taken on a day that Lynn made Kurlander promise to get on with his life and never see her again. He reneged on that promise, of course.

In his office, Kurlander has a nearly identical Polaroid of Andie MacDowell and Emilio Estevez, posing in the snow in Georgetown during the filming of "St. Elmo's Fire." The location is the same. But in Kurlander's Polaroid, Estevez is kissing MacDowell.

"That was a rewrite," Kurlander admits, with a smile.

A lost credit card was the key to Kurlander's appointment as a visiting professor here.

Kurlander was making his annual contribution to Shady Side Academy. "That's where I learned to write, and I'm grateful," he says. After misplacing his credit card, Kurlander e-mailed a staff member at the school to straighten out the problem. As Kurlander and the staffer e-mailed back and forth, he mentioned his dissatisfaction with Hollywood. She mentioned her friend David Bartholomae, chairperson of Pitt's English department.

"I e-mailed Dave, asking if he might have an opening for a visiting faculty member," Kurlander says. "Dave replied, 'We'd love to have you.' I said, 'Really?'"

Bartholomae says: "The great thing about Carl is that he's actually been successful as a writer in Hollywood. We've had people from Pittsburgh Filmmakers teaching here about filmmaking and writing for the movies, but Carl has real-world experience."

Besides teaching, Kurlander plans to write fiction while he's in Pittsburgh.

He figures the salary for his one-year Pitt appointment "represents a 90 percent pay cut from what I made last year in Hollywood. But as you may remember, there was a big rumor of a writer's strike this year. Also, it had been my fantasy to get away from Hollywood, at least for a year or two, ever since that night in 1984 up on Mulholland Drive."

It helped that Kurlander and his wife had recently received a windfall offer on their house in Hollywood's Sunset Plaza, located a mile from the Sunset Strip. "Within a one-mile radius, there were four clubs featuring live nude girls," he says. "My wife and I decided it wasn't the best place to be raising our 2-year-old daughter."

So, Kurlander and his family moved this year to Pittsburgh, to a house in Squirrel Hill. Coincidently (he swears), it's located two blocks from the house where Lynn Snyderman grew up.

  — Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 34 Issue 4

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