LOS ANGELES — Upon graduating from Minnesota’s Macalester College in 1988, roommates Jim Dunn and Sam Ernst took a gamble. They got into the restaurant business. Against all odds, the two newbies struck it big when they opened Table of Contents just a pencil’s throw from the St. Paul campus, drawing long lines of patrons willing to wait hours for a seat. A splashier Minneapolis version followed, along with a critically acclaimed seafood bistro, Red Fish Blue Fish.
And then they walked away for an even riskier endeavor: Hollywood.
This time, there was no overnight success story. The path to becoming top TV writers was littered with rejection letters, wadded-up ideas, unsold scripts and utility bills. Both considered a safer, more secure career, like yanking teeth from a great white shark.
But Dunn and Ernst are finally discovering that second dreams can come true — even if it takes a decade. Their series “Haven,” based on a Stephen King novel, debuts Friday on the SyFy Channel with an ironclad guarantee of 13 episodes and an embedded fan base that will flock to anything with King’s imprint on it. The break came just in time.
“I was done,” said Dunn, 44, a roly-poly, eager-to-please wit who grew up in small-town Illinois. “It was just too long chasing stuff that was never actually becoming attainable. It’s one thing when you come out when you’re 20 and you’re working your way up, learning the ropes, but I’ve got a 4-year-old son. I had to start pulling my weight.”
Ernst took matters a step further. After helping his cousins come up with a business plan for a design firm, he reluctantly took on part-time duties as the company’s chief financial officer, a decision that brought in much-needed cash but left him on the brink of quitting show business.
“I didn’t tell anybody in Hollywood, because I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t completely committed,” said the New York-born Ernst, 43, the more persistent of the pair. “My last day there was three weeks ago.”
It was mid-January and the partners were swapping war stories and celebrating their good fortune in an L.A. office tucked away in the back of a former glass factory. The space isn’t much to look at, unless you have a jones for whiteboards and long, gray tables cluttered with pens, Blackberrys and tissue boxes. But this is the room that may save Ernst and Dunn.
This is the room where they would ping-pong ideas with their mentor, Scott Shepherd, the “showrunner” who is in charge of bringing “Haven” to the screen. This is where they auditioned more than 60 actresses before falling for Emily Rose to play a Fox Mulder-type FBI agent who discovers supernatural spookiness in a sleepy Maine burg. This is where they’d learn how to edit, supervise, cast, cooperate, clash — or leap through the window. This is where they’d either create a fan favorite that will run for five years or yet another TV series that fails to capture a wide enough audience.
Shepherd, the veteran of 25 shows, including “Miami Vice” and “Quantum Leap,” is betting on his proteges.
“These are the quickest learners I’ve ever met,” he said. “They came here with entrepreneurial skills and maturity, and it makes you look at things differently. That’s why they’ve succeeded as much as they have, even though they don’t have as much on their resumes as other guys.”
Of course, if it were up to Ernst and Dunn, they would be well-honed veterans by now.
The two English majors didn’t know each other when Macalester cast them as roomies.
“It’s kind of like the prequel to ‘Saw,’” Dunn said. “They threw us both in a box to see who survives a Minnesota winter.”
Not only did they survive, but they became fast friends with a common desire to write scripts. But Ernst suggested they first open a restaurant, luring Dunn in by promising that they’d meet hundreds of patrons who could inspire future works.
“Sometimes it feels to me that people are writing characters based on characters they’ve seen on other TV shows, instead of digging into their own lives,” Dunn said.
While the restaurants took off, the partners quietly spent their off-hours writing sample scripts for “The Simpsons,” “Will & Grace” and “The Drew Carey Show” — projects that amused Minnesota friends but hardly anyone else.
A winter trip to Los Angeles left the two convinced that if they really wanted to make it in Hollywood, they would have to move there. All they needed was a break. When it came, it was less than glamorous.
Ernst got a call in 1999 from a friend of a friend who had just gotten promoted at Disney and had an opening for an assistant. Was Sam interested? He was, but only if he could take his partner. The result: Leaving behind a booming business for a menial job with a $30,000 salary, which they’d have to split.
Over the next five years they toiled in obscurity, with occasional, less-than-glitzy writing breaks. The video game for “Shrek the Third.” An indie movie called “Myron’s Movie,” best known for an appearance by Orson Bean.
Then they got a glimpse of the promised land, which turned out to be a mirage.
In 2005, ABC bought a project they developed called “Thief River Falls,” an offbeat drama about a Minnesota town populated with members of the witness protection program, leading to misadventures like a Boy Scout troop that makes book at St. Paul Saints games. The network eventually passed, deepening the pair’s funk.
“The first time you go through the gates of Warner Brothers or Disney to make a pitch, you think, ‘This is cool,’” Ernst said. “Then after a while, it’s like, ‘OK, let’s get this done because I’ve got to get my kid.’”
There was a silver lining. Shepherd’s company, Piller/Segan/Shepherd, was impressed enough by “Thief River Falls” to hire them for an existing show, SyFy’s “The Dead Zone,” based on a King novel. The two were brand-new to a writing room, especially one populated with more than a half-dozen experienced scribes. According to the unofficial Hollywood book of etiquette, they were supposed to lie low and barely mumble during writing sessions.
They ignored protocol. Matt McGuinness, who wrote for “Dead Zone” and is now writing for “Haven,” said he knew the pair had something special when Dunn got the writers out of a logistical jam with an idea about how a space station could be signaled without regular communications.
“They were as green as green could be,” McGuinness says. “So when Jim stood up, all heads turned and thought, ‘Yes, young Skywalker?’ When he was done I thought two things: Really cool idea and very effectively presented.”
He wasn’t the only one impressed. The company was looking at adapting King’s novel “The Colorado Kid,” and asked Ernst and Dunn for ideas. Their pitch — creating a mythology about a town where people struggle with supernatural powers — impressed the company and, most important, King. The subsequent pilot, filled with smart, sexy banter and eccentric touches, including a cop who craves pancakes and a pair of newspaper publishers who shuttle around town on a tandem bike, also impressed the actors.
“They have a beautiful marriage of the absurd, the mundane and the humanity,” said Lucas Bryant; he plays a sheriff’s deputy who is immune to physical pain. “Everything is always real, even in the wildest circumstances.”
Thanks to financial backing upfront and the King association, the series is guaranteed a full season, a rarity in a cutthroat business that Ernst and Dunn have gotten to know all too well.
“We’ve kind of won the lottery on this thing,” Dunn said.
“Yeah,” Ernst said. “We won the lottery, but we bought 10,000 tickets.”