Artist Profile: Jim Burnstein fulfills multiple dreams at 'U'

By Carly Keyes, Daily Arts Writer
Published March 19, 2014

Jim Burnstein, Hollywood screenwriter and founder of the University’s Screenwriting department, was almost a lawyer instead.

“I took creative writing and playwriting (at the University), and I did pretty well, but I was going to law school from the time I was ten years old,” he said.

A University alumnus, Burnstein developed an affinity for Shakespeare after studying English under Russell Fraser, former English Department Head and a leading expert on the revered playwright.

“(Fraser) said, ‘If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be a screenwriter,’ ” Burnstein recalled. “I knew what a playwright was, but I just didn’t think, ‘Wow, somebody really writes those movies.’ ”

After graduation, Burnstein got married and headed to Madison to attend law school at the University of Wisconsin. During the drive there, he realized he really didn’t want to be a lawyer.

“This is the wrong time to be thinking this,” he said. “I’m driving to law school, and I’m thinking, ‘What do I really want to do?’ So, I got this idea in my head, ‘I want to teach Shakespeare to people who wouldn’t have it if it weren’t for me.’”

Burnstein also dreamed of writing his own drama, so he finished off the term and then returned to the University where he earned a Master’s degree in English in a year.

“I thought, ‘Maybe, I’ll get a Ph.D. in English literature, teach Shakespeare, and then I’ll write,” he said. “But nobody then was getting an English Ph.D. and getting a job. The unkindest cut of all was when my Chaucer professor announced on the last day that he was leaving being an English professor and he was going to law school. It was bizarre.”

That’s when Burnstein realized he just had to “do it.” Shortly thereafter, he wrote an episode of a half-hour drama that got syndicated to all the various PBS stations. It inspired confidence, and in the meantime, he was still looking to fulfill his other dream of teaching Shakespeare.

“I went to a senior citizen place in Birmingham (Michigan) and said, ‘I’d like to teach Shakespeare,’ and they said, ‘Can you teach aerobics?’” Burnstein recalled. “I couldn’t give it away.”

Then, a friend who was an admissions counselor at Wayne State informed Burnstein that Selfridge Air National Guard Base was looking for an English teacher.

“And I said, ‘Soldiers?’ ” he said. “God has spoken. That’s exactly who I was looking for.”

Little did Burnstein know that his experience at Selfridge would eventually fulfill both of his dreams.

Burnstein wrote the script for “Renaissance Man,” and after several re-writes under the mentorship of Academy-award winning screenwriter Kurt Luedtke, it was optioned and sold to Touchstone Pictures at Disney. Penny Marshall, just after “A League of Their Own,” had come out, signed on to direct, with Danny DeVito in the lead role.

“So, they made it,” Burnstein said. “And once they made it, I’ve worked fairly steadily since.”

Just after Burnstein had finished penning the third sequel in the beloved Mighty Ducks franchise for Disney, the University called.

“They heard that I was still living locally and asked, ‘Why aren’t you teaching for us?’ ” Burnstein said. “First night I got here, the line was out the door and around the block because there was such a demand for screenwriting.”

Burnstein was instrumental in expanding the Screen Arts & Cultures Department, known then as Film and Video, which now features a Screenwriting sub-major, several introductory and re-write courses for both feature film and television, the Donald Hall Collection of scripts, and the James Gindin Visiting Artists Series where each term industry professionals come to the University to speak.

Today, Burnstein balances his responsibilities as a professor and a working professional with his writing partner, Garrett K. Schiff, with whom he’s collaborated since the success of their recent film, “Love and Honor,” which was filmed largely in Ann Arbor.

“I write every day here, and now because you can just send the file, (Schiff) works on it, kicks it back. But when I have to go out (to Los Angeles) for meetings, I just try to schedule it when I have a three-day chunk or on a break.”

Currently, Burnstein has a few projects in the works including a script he is writing on spec, an animated feature, and another story inspired by Shakespeare.