In the short story “How to Win an Unwinnable War,” a seventh-grade boy named Sam enrolls in a summer school class called How to Win a Nuclear War. The story traces Sam’s morbid reflections spurred by the course—“He wonders what the stars will see the day the war begins, the whole planet brightening, then going gray like a dead bulb”—as he simultaneously grapples with the dissolution of his parent’s marriage.
“It’s taking cold war theory and applying it to human relationships,” says Austin Bunn, Performing and Media Arts. The story’s premise is based on an experience Bunn had in middle school, when he, too, took a class on nuclear war. The piece is included in Bunn’s recently released book titled The Brink (Harper Perennial, April 2015), a collection of short stories about “people experiencing what you might call transformational, apocalyptic, end-time experiences,” says Bunn.
Creating across Genres
A short story collection from Bunn might seem surprising. He is perhaps best known for his original screenplay Kill Your Darlings, a biographical film about a murder and its tie to Beat Generation poets Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William S. Burroughs during their early years as writers. It made its debut at Sundance 2013 and was released the following fall.
Bunn, however, isn’t tied to a single genre or medium. His projects span fiction and nonfiction, from the page to the screen to the stage. Besides the short story collection, Bunn is in production on a documentary, developing a play with a group of students, doctoring a feature film script, and finally, working toward another documentary. One common theme throughout his work is its grounding on real events.
“I like to build from the true stories,” says Bunn. “I think that comes from my experience as a journalist. I believe in the real world—there’s something important about understanding the facts and the honest genuine narrative and then elaborating from there.”
In the Hollow, a Documentary Film
One such project is a hybrid documentary, narrative work called In the Hollow, which went into production in August 2014. The short film is about a 1988 shooting that took place on the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania, where two women, who were partners at the time, were hunted, stalked, and shot by a mountain man. One of the women, Rebecca Wight, died. The other, Claudia Brenner, survived and today lives in Ithaca, New York. The shooting was a biased crime against gays, and Brenner became an advocate against LGBT victimization in the early 90s.
Bunn’s documentary is about the history of hate crime legislation, with a focus on this particular crime. He and his team took Claudia back to the trail and re-hiked it as she recounted the shooting. In addition to the re-telling, Bunn wrote a narrative script and had actors re-create the event at the scene to provide “real-world credibility, and hopefully a very haunting, evocative film.”
A Devised Play
In October 2014, Bunn worked with students to develop a devised play—a play constructed on found and sourced material. “We’re leaping off of an accidental hazing death that happened on campus in 2011,” says Bunn. The premise is that the sister of the victim comes to campus to figure out what happened to her brother.
He is perhaps best known for his original screenplay Kill Your Darlings, a biographical film.
The process of developing the play involves research into actual events and digging through primary sources. “I know as a writer that good research will do a lot of the writing for you,” says Bunn, “when you get the right testimony, interview people, and find the right material.” To that end, Bunn is asking his students to identify stakeholders in the situation, read the histories of fraternities, and interview people who have gone through the hazing process and de-affiliated.
Between Nonfiction and Fiction
This research process mirrors what Bunn does for each of his projects. Whether he is working on a documentary about environmental activists or a short story about the Heaven’s Gate cult, Bunn immerses himself in the world in which he’s writing. Though he is a former journalist, Bunn says that he is now more interested in exploring the world between nonfiction and fiction, especially in narrative film.
“Most people are not reading the newspaper as much. Film and television are where people are actually looking,” he says. “It all really begins with having an obsession with something—that makes you pursue a line of inquiry that provides a lot of details. You try to do something that’s honest and in line with whatever ethics you’re trying to explore.” He adds, however, that it is tricky, especially as so many films and TV shows come out with claims of being based on a true story. For Kill Your Darlings, however, Bunn says they had to “triple check” every factual detail.
When asked how he balances between his various types of work, Bunn credits his time in the film industry. “You learn quickly to have a bunch of different projects at any given time and at different stages, because you never know what’s going to go forward,” he says. “You have to put a lot of irons in the fire, as my mom says. You never know which one you’re going to need.” Or more simply put, “I just try to stay busy.”