Jack Epps, Jr.: Screenwriter & Professor and Chair of the Writing for Screen and Television Division at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts

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Jack Epps, Jr. is a professional screenwriter, and Professor and Chair of the Writing for Screen and Television Division at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. Epps is best known for co-authoring the screenplays for Top Gun, Dick Tracy, and The Secret of My Success. In addition, he has recently authored, Screenwriting is Rewriting, published by Bloomsbury Books. Epps became involved in motion pictures while an undergraduate at Michigan State University. He wrote and directed award winning films including, Throwing Off, From Dusk and The Pigs vs. The Freaks. Upon arriving in California, Epps co-wrote an episode of Hawaii Five-O and Kojak. While continuing to pursue his writing, Epps worked as a cinematographer and assistant cameraman on local productions. Epps also had the good fortune to work as an assistant cameraman for Orson Welles on his last film, The Other Side of the Wind.  

When Epps united with his screenwriting professor from Michigan State University, Jim Cash, they began their screenwriting career. After seven unproduced screenplays, their first produced screenplay was Top Gun which went on to become the #1 world wide box office hit of 1986. Within eleven months, the writing team of Cash & Epps had three produced screenplays in the theaters:Top Gun, Legal Eagles, and The Secret of My Success. Over his career, Epps co-authored over 25 screenplays and eight produced motion pictures including Dick Tracy, Turner & Hooch, and Anaconda. Epps also did extensive revisions on Sister Act and Die Hard With A Vengeance.

He was honored as the recipient of the Victoria and Jack Oakie Endowed Chair in Comedy at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, and in 2008, he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Michigan State University. The team of Cash & Epps were honored by the American Film Institute for one of the Top 100 Greatest Quotes in American Cinema for their line: "I feel the need… the need for speed." Epps was named one of fifteen “Noteworthy Art Professors” in Los Angeles by the Art Career Project. In 2015 his film, Top Gun, was one of twenty five films added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. Epps is a member of the Writer's Guild of America, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

What do you do best?

I have a great sense of overview and the big picture.  This helps me as a screenwriter and an academic. I’ve always had a good sense of the “movie.”  Once I have a vision of how something works, I can hold it in my mind as I try to achieve that vision on paper. My writing partner Jim Cash and I wrote movies not screenplays. There is a fine line distinction between the two. We wrote for the big screen experience and used screenplays as a guide for the movie. Yes, we wrote scripts, but our scripts were visual movies that were written to engage the audience and entertain them. I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, which is a city with big movie palaces built in the 1920’s. I’ve always seen movies as a big screen experience and I write for that audience experience.

I also understand how the pieces fit into the whole. As a kid I liked to do giant puzzles and had a great sense of satisfaction getting every piece to fit. Stories are puzzles with thousands of pieces, and one of the roles of a screenwriter is to unravel the puzzle of the story, the characters, and the structure, and then to put the pieces into an order with each piece interconnected and working together. So, I like the challenge of putting the pieces together into a compelling narrative.

I am also good at problem solving. I seem to be facile with ideas and solutions to problems. Writing is really answering questions. Who are they? Why do are they acting this?  What are they afraid of? What do they want? If this happens, how it if affect them?

What makes you the best?

I’m clearly not the best. There are remarkable people who do things way better than I ever could, but I work each day at being good at what I do. I don’t see life as some huge competition where I have to “best” someone for me to be satisfied with the work I do. I set high standards, and try to achieve the best possible results. I continually push and educate myself. Life is one great university. I never stop being curious and I want to know more. One of my great regrets is that there is a limited amount of time and so much to learn. Libraries are grossly unfair: so many books—so little time.

What are your aspirations?

I just finished one of my long term aspirations to write a book and have it published.  It’s been a goal since saw my first book, I wanted to know what was inside the cover, and once I started to read, I wanted to write a book and have it published.  My book, Screenwriting is Rewriting, has just been published and I’m really pleased with it. It’s the culmination of a great deal of accumulated knowledge that I want to share with my students and other young writers and filmmakers. My favorite page is the copyright page because it now has my name where I have seen thousands of others. Even though I have written my produced screenplays, getting a book published is a different kind of thrill. 

The push to meet the publishing deadline with all the changes and edits has been really creatively draining. I’m filling up the well now, and then I’d like to turn my hand to creating a television series. What is happening in television is very exciting. There is a great deal of respect for the written word and the work of writers. The longer Dickensian narrative is very appealing.

Biggest Success?

This going to sound corny, but my greatest success is my children. Every parent knows what I mean, so I’ll go for the other answer you are probably looking for.  Getting a movie made is ridiculously difficult, and having gotten 7 films produced with my writing partner, Jim Cash, is a great accomplishment. Then to have one of them, Top Gun, become an international sensation, and still be watched and talked about thirty years later, is probably my greatest “career” success. I’m also very proud in 2015 the film was named to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. I’m most proud of with Top Gun I had a vision, and my partner and I were able to accomplish that vision. The greatest compliment I got after Top Gun was from a fighter pilot who thanked me for the film because he could show it to his family and they could understand what he goes through every day. 

Most Challenging Moment?

Life is a series of challenging moments. The death of my writing partner, Jim Cash, has been my most challenging moment. We worked together over twenty-five years, and although we worked in different cities—Jim lived in East Lansing, Michigan and I live in Santa Monica—we had a deep relationship and a high mutual admiration for each other’s work. Jim was a remarkably talented writer with a great love and ability to work with words. When you lose some that close, it really hurts. In addition to the personal sense of loss, which is inconsolable, it was also a professional blow. We had so much more work to do. Making the transition to working without my writing partner has, and continues to be, challenging, but I feel I learned so much from Jim, and he has continued to stay with me in my writing and my daily life. You never get over loss. It’s always there, but you have to move on and take from it what you can, and that’s what endures.

(Jim Cash) 

Favorite Motto?

“It’s a marathon and not a sprint.” Any one who is interested in pursuing a career in the arts must have a long term perspective. You have to be in it because it is something you must do, not something you want to do. If that is the case, then you must do it for a long time without regard to how successful you are or how much money you make.  If you’re in it for the money start a hedge fund. As in a marathon, you have to train, practice, grow, face setbacks, and then run your marathon. And, when you are finished with your race, you have to start all over again.

I know you asked for only one motto, but I want to share a second motto that I think is equally important: “Perfection is the enemy of the good.” This is important because in writing we strive for perfection, but perfection is impossible to achieve.  Many writers beat themselves up because their work is not good enough. They have a very loud negative voice inside them saying, “Terrible. Not good enough. You’re a failure.” This is a horribly destructive voice and damages many a writer’s self confidence as well as severely crippling their creative talents. I constantly tell my students to work on being “good,” but to allow themselves to write badly. They will have good days and bad days, but if they are consistent, and work diligently, they will have many more good days than bad days. All writers write badly. It’s goes along with the territory. Try to be good in your work and you will achieve you objective. Force yourself to be perfect and you will fail. Perfection is the enemy of the good.

Favorite People?

Beside my wonderful, and long suffering wife, Cynthia, and my amazing children Liza and Kerri, I am fortunate to be currently teaching at a remarkable place, USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. Each day I am surrounded by amazing bright energetic young students who work hard to learn their craft. It is a pleasure to engage them, and help them learn the art and craft of writing. In addition, the faculty at the school are all working writers, directors, producers, editors. They are remarkably creative and accomplished, and inspire me each day to work at my craft and take pride in my work. In addition to that, I also like gnomes. They are very unpredictable by have a great sense of humor.

From a professional point of view, I remain a Billy Wilder fan. Wilder seems to be falling a bit out of favor as we move onward in film and television, but when I was first studying screenwriting, Billy Wilder was my go-to person for how to handle any screenwriting situation. His character work, and intricate story plotting, is really unmatched. In addition, he could work across all genres easily.

Favorite Places?

I have a second home in Mammoth Lakes, California right on the edge of the Eastern High Sierras, and it’s a place that I have been going to for 30 years. I’m still not tired of it. Every time I go there to either ski or hike the beautiful trails, I’m in heaven. Mountains really put everything in perspective—their grace, beauty, majesty, sense of time, and how they are going to be there a long long time way after we are gone. They are such a powerful solace for all the foolishness of our daily lives, whether it’s insane politics or interpersonal problems—standing in front of the majesty of the Sierras, all the chaos and anxiety fades away.  I feel so small and insignificant, and feel the great sense of time. Just thinking of the mountains takes me on that kind of exploration of why we are here and where we are going?  Plus the air is great, the trees are beautiful, the lakes are pristine. What’s not to like?

I also love Hawaii. So, if I want Mai Tai, next to the ocean, you’ll find me beachcombing on Kauai. I love the North Side of the Island. The rainy side.  It’s so beautiful and isolated.  (Please don’t go there–it rains all the time–you’ll hate it!) I’ve been going to Hawaii since the early 80’s and it never disappoints.

Favorite Products?

I will admit this is the first time I have been asked this question. I think the Vegamatic is a pretty remarkable device. It quickly goes from slicing to dicing with just a turn of the wrist. And if you call now you can get a set of knives thrown in. Who knew?

PS. For those who don’t know, the Vegamatic was the first “As Seen on TV” kitchen device sold by the legendary Ron Popiell who, for all practical purposes, invented the infomercial. See the SNL skit by Dan Aykroud, “Bass-O-Matic.” 50’s TV was outrageous.

Okay, the computer is remarkable tool for a writer. I like to type really fast so with spell check, and the ability to edit work easier, the computer has made it much easier for me to write. Plus I can’t read my own handwriting, so it’s nice to be able to read what I write.  

Current Passions?

One of my current passions is reading American history during the revolution and post revolution period. American history is so rich in striking contradictions. What is unfortunate is how it is taught as patriotic pabulum that has been so mythologized that it’s unrecognizable and far removed from the facilitating truth. As a culture, we are so removed from our actual history that not only are we continually repeating our mistakes, but we are fooling ourselves about who we are and where we came from. This makes it much difficult for the culture and the country to grow and evolve. We seem to be stuck in the mud without a strategy on how to move forward. If there is one book to read from the period, it would be Ron Chernow’s remarkable book, Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton was a brilliant man—complex and deeply flawed. His flaws are what make him human and relatable. Chernow has a great quote about Hamilton: “If Washington was the father of the country, and Madison was the father of the constitution, then Hamilton was the father of the government.”