The creative pairing of Jim Dunn ’88 and Sam Ernst ’88 got its start 26 years ago in Dupre Hall. Now producers of a Stephen King-based TV series, they’ve finally hit the big time.
By Brad Zellar | Photos by Darin Back
In 2003, Jim Dunn ’88 and Sam Ernst ’88 were struggling to make it as writers in Hollywood and had finally decided maybe they’d had enough.
The two longtime friends and business partners—they first met as computer-assigned roommates at Macalester in 1984—were dealing with marriages, kids, dwindling bank accounts, scratch gigs, and the regular grind of rejection that has killed a million Hollywood dreams. Ernst, a self-described New York Jew, remembers the period well. “When you get to a certain point,” he says, “you really have to ask yourself, ‘How much longer are we going to give this?’ We seemed to be getting to that certain point on a fairly regular basis. The reality is that there are a lot of people who just don’t catch a break, and a lot of times it has nothing to do with whether they’re good or not.”
The duo’s complementary personalities and insistence on sticking it out together served them well, even through situations that were as hilarious as they were occasionally humiliating. When Ernst, for instance, was offered a low-level position in a Disney production office, he insisted on sharing both the job and the paltry salary with his partner. Even an opportunity to write a script for the video game version of Shrek the Third couldn’t break their spirit, and seven years after they’d first decided maybe they’d had enough, the big break finally came.
“We’d been getting closer, and we kept working at it,” Ernst says. “But I was still thinking the whole thing was maybe ridiculous. I was broke, and I’d taken a job as a CFO with an entertainment marketing company, and hired Jim to write copy. But whenever we’d really start to question what we were doing, it seemed something encouraging would happen.”
Ernst was in France—“Taking a vacation paid for by my in-laws,” as he tells it—when Dunn called to tell him that ABC had bought one of their scripts, Thief River Falls, for development. “That was our first really big break,” Ernst says. “And it was a crazy time. My wife had been diagnosed with cancer, and Jim’s wife was pregnant, so we were swapping this script back and forth between hospitals.”
ABC ultimately passed on the project, but the experience opened doors and in 2007 it landed Dunn and Ernst jobs on the writing staff of The Dead Zone, a USA Network series based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.
The King connection proved fortuitous. After The Dead Zone experience, the writing partners turned their attention to an adaptation of The Colorado Kid, a King novella. ABC again bought the pilot, but again the project didn’t get off the ground.
This time, though, Dunn and Ernst didn’t have to live with their disappointment for long. They simply went back to work, retooled The Colorado Kid script, and sent it back out. The new project, with backing from Scott Shepherd, executive producer of The Dead Zone, and the powerful Stephen King brand and blessing behind it, was rechristened Haven, sold to the Syfy channel (a division of NBC Universal), and guaranteed a full slate of 13 episodes. [Editor’s note: Last fall the Syfy Channel picked up Haven for a second season.]
Even more improbably, the creators were given executive producer titles, which meant they would be involved in everything from scripts (they co-wrote the first seven episodes, and are working on the season finale) to casting to post-production and editing.
The show, which runs Friday nights on the Syfy channel, debuted July 9, and has thus far garnered decent ratings and a good deal of positive Internet chatter among King obsessives. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Haven takes place in a Maine town overrun with people dealing with what Ernst describes as "supernatural afflictions."
By the time Dunn and Ernst undertook their Hollywood gamble, they had already (barely) survived life as restauranteurs back in the Twin Cities. In 1988, the proud owners of freshly minted English degrees decided to open a cutting-edge eatery right next door to the Mac campus and joined at the hip with neighborhood institution The Hungry Mind bookstore.
From its opening in 1990, Table of Contents was a critical and commercial smash, and Dunn and Ernst were emboldened enough to launch a second version across the river in Minneapolis in 1995. When they eventually ran into lease issues at the St. Paul location they simply crossed Grand Avenue, reinvented the original TOC as Red Fish Blue Fish, and found themselves with another hit on their hands.
As Dunn recalls it now, the whole restaurant thing was just something Ernst talked him into.
“What did we know about the restaurant business?” he says. “By that time we were already talking about wanting to write a movie, and maybe getting into advertising. We didn’t have a lot of life experience, and Sam thought this would be a way of meeting lots of different people and getting some good stories and experiences.”
Ernst remembers paying for the business’s first meat order with a college-issued credit card. Neither of them ever expected they would eventually be overseeing a mini-empire with more than a hundred employees. It was a long way from their days as some of the early employees of the original Dunn Brothers coffee shop, just down Grand Avenue from their first restaurant.
Dunn (no relation to the coffeehouse) came to Macalester from a farm town in Indiana, and he and his new roommate hit it off immediately. “I ended up at Macalester because I was looking for a place that met three criteria: it would offer me a scholarship; it didn’t have a Greek system, and it wasn’t in Indiana.”
“That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of Macalester,” Ernst says. “And I’d like to point out that I paid my own way. Full rate.”
The burgeoning friendship—and partnership—was cemented in room 211 Dupre, Second West. Today the duo’s production company is named Second West. “We hit it off from day one,” Dunn says. “We were both campus guys, and hung out mostly in St. Paul. Guys up and down our hall would come in all the time and complain about their computer-assigned roommates. They’d come in shifts.”
“And now we’ve been together longer than we’ve been with our wives, by a long stretch,” Ernst says. “We were lucky; there was a really good community at Macalester in those days. Coming from New York it was all so exotic to me. There were so many wholesome, optimistic people.”
Both profess nothing but fond memories of the Macalester English department. “Patricia Kane was our favorite,” Dunn says, “And Bob Warde.” Dunn would become the editor of the campus literary magazine, The Chanter; Ernst admits that he “never did a minute of creative writing the whole time I was at Macalester.”
The partners also cemented their ties to the college by marrying fellow Mac grads. “I met the woman I eventually married in a Shakespeare class,” Ernst says. “The problem was—like virtually everything else at Macalester at the time—this was Shakespeare taught from a gender perspective, which annoyed the hell out of me but was, in fact, the main reason my wife took the class, so we basically argued the whole semester.”
There was a brief overlapping period when Dunn and Ernst were still trying to keep their Twin Cities restaurants afloat while getting their Hollywood careers off the ground, but when they opened their revamped Table of Contents in Minneapolis on September 9, 2001, timing finally caught up with them, and by 2003 all three restaurants were shuttered.
“Those were some pretty dark days,” Ernst says. “We were struggling out in California and still dealing with a lot of debt back in the Twin Cities.”
They can both shrug it off now: “Our default mode has always been laughter,” Ernst says. “And we still regularly have what we call ‘spit-valve’ meetings, where we’re both allowed to vent and clear the pipes. It sounds corny, but our relationship really is like a marriage, other than the fact that we don’t get to have make-up sex.”
Dunn gives Macalester credit for nurturing the pair’s persistence in the face of obstacles. “You don’t really learn a lot of technical, useful, nuts-and-bolts stuff in the English Department,” he says. “But you learn how to think, and I think Macalester gave us both this weird confidence that we could do the things we wanted to do.”
For Ernst the ultimate payoff for all those years of highs and lows came when he made his first trip to Nova Scotia, where Haven was shooting. “We walked onto the set and there was this building with Haven Production Offices on the door. We looked at each other and realized that, you know, after all we’d been through, this thing was finally real. At a moment like that, it really doesn’t get any better than to be able to turn to your best friend and say, ‘How cool is this?’”
BRAD ZELLAR is a Minneapolis writer.