Go Into The Story Interview (Part 2): Jack Epps
My talk with the co-writer of Top Gun, Legal Eagles, The Secret of My Success.
In 2016 as part of the DePaul University School of Cinematic Arts Visiting Artists Series, I had the pleasure and honor of moderating a Q&A panel with two screenwriting giants: Jack Epps, Jr. and Steven E. de Souza. I followed up with both to do a GITS interview. This week: Jack Epps.
Jack Epps, Jr. is an award winning writer and filmmaker who first became involved in making films while an undergraduate at Michigan State University. Inspired by a student film festival, Epps made his first film the following semester and has been making movies ever since. His student film The Pigs vs the Freaks, was purchased by NBC and made into a Movie of the Week, re-titled Off Sides. Epps produced and worked as second unit director on the film.
Upon arriving in California, Epps wrote an episode of Hawaii Five-O and Kojak. While continuing to pursue his writing, Epps also worked as a cinematographer and an assistant cameraman on various local productions. Epps had the good fortune to work for a period of time as a second unit cameraman and assistant cameraman for Orson Welles on Mr. Welles’ last film, The Other Side of the Wind.
Epps united with his screenwriting professor from Michigan State University, Jim Cash, and began writing screenplays together. After writing seven unproduced screenplays, their first produced screenplay was Top Gun which went on to become the #1 world wide box office hit in 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. As a screenwriter, Mr. 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 III.
While Epps is primarily known for co-authoring big actions movies, Epps equally enjoyed writing romantic charm and chase comedies inspired by the films of Hitchcock, Wilder and Sturges. Films like The Secret of My Success, Legal Eagles, Turner & Hooch, Viva Rock Vegas, and Sister Act are examples of the comedy of Cash & Epps. Recently, Epps wrote the video game Top Gun for the Sony PlayStation network. Epps has also written video games for THQ.
Epps had the pleasure to write for some of the most successful actors in the motion picture industry including Robert Redford, Tom Cruise, Tom Hanks, Warren Beatty, Michael J. Fox, Debra Winger, Al Pacino, Anthony Edwards, Bruce Willis, Meg Ryan, and John Voight. He also worked with such motion picture giants as Ivan Reitman, Jerry Breckheimer, Joel Silver, Herb Ross, Tony Scott and Dick Donner.
Epps was recently honored as the recipient of the first Victoria and Jack Oakie Endowed Chair in Comedy at the School of Cinematic Arts. Epps was the fall 2008 commencement speaker at the Michigan State University graduation ceremonies and was awarded an honorary doctorate by Michigan State University. In addition, Epps is recipient of the Michigan State University Spartans in Hollywood Lifetime Achievement Award. In addition, the team of Cash & Epps was recently honored by the American Film Institute as one of the Top 100 Greatest Quotes in American Cinema for their line: “I feel the need… the need for speed.”
Epps is a thirty five year member of the Writer’s Guild of America, and a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
Today in Part 2, Jack talks about working on Top Gun and how that movie became such a phenomenon.
Scott: That segues right into this famous Cash and Epps relationship. When I broke in, you guys were on a roll. How could you describe how that worked? Because he’s teaching at Michigan State, you’re living in Hollywood. How did you make it work back then? I think it was much different pre‑Internet, but how did that happen?
Jack: Jim and I invented the Internet.
Scott: It wasn’t Al Gore?
Jack: No, that was us. After taking Jim’s class at Michigan State, we stayed in touch. He would read my scripts and I would read his novels. Jim was a real wordsmith and it was always a pleasure to read his writing. I went out to California and when Jim heard I had written a Hawaii Five-O, he suggested we write together.
After Andy and I parted ways, Jim and I stated talking long distance, but nothing really happened. The distance seemed formidable. I went back to Michigan to pick up my motorcycle and drive it back to California. I drove up from Detroit to East Lansing to visit with Jim. We pitched eight ideas at the MSU Union Grill but none of them stuck. While I riding across the country on my motorcycle, one of Jim’s ideas clicked and when I got to California I called him and said let’s give it a try.
At the very beginning, we didn’t know how to work together. We had no money for long distance phone calls which were really expensive because of the AT&T monopoly. We sent cassette tapes and pages through the mails. At the same time, we both had to pay bills. I was doing a lot of crew work to pay my bills. Because I had made a lot of short movies, I was very good with cameras. I was cameraman and an assistant cameraman In fact, I was assistant cameraman for Orson Welles on his movie The Other Side of the Wind. So my crew work took me to interesting places. Jim was still in East Lansing, Michigan working as a writer/producer at a local PBS TV station.
It took us about two and a half years and five drafts, to finally figure out how this relationship worked. I like to say we had a “words and music” relationship. I wrote the music and Jim wrote the lyrics. We’d talk the script through over the phone so we agreed on what it was about. At first, we sent pages to each other through the mails and talked by phone. We broke down our responsibilities so we would do hand offs and then come together when each of us completed our work. We’d go away and work on our own and then come back together. Invariably, we would have the same solution time and time again. I think the key to our collaboration is that we had the same taste and the same instincts. We also did different functions so we didn’t compete with each other as a team. There was Cash, Epps, and Cash & Epps.
It wasn’t until much later, after Top Gun, that computers came in and we could link up our computers and work on the same page at the same time. That was a miracle and save a whole bunch of time.
Scott: What about those times when, say, you may have disagreed like on a particular story point? How did you go about resolving that?
Jack: We’d just hang up the phone.
Scott: Whoever hung up first wins.
Jack: I’ve worked with partners in the room, and one of the tough things about that is, it’s a lot of face time with somebody. The fact that Jim lived in East Lansing, and I lived in Santa Monica, meant that we didn’t have to have social lives together. On the weekends, we didn’t have to get together. It really allowed us to get away from each other and then come together to do the work. Usually, we’d come back and have the same solution to a story or character problem.
We agreed more than disagreed, and ultimately on a partnership, it became about passion. If one of us was so passionate about an idea and said, “No, I think this is the way it should be done,” we’d do it. We’d try it, and the worst was it didn’t work. Once we made a decision, it was “our” decision. If it didn’t work, we’d share it. We didn’t mind taking chances and running some things out, seeing how the story worked. We weren’t in a hurry. Let’s get it right. Best idea wins. We really learned quickly to bury the ego.
For instance, I wanted to do Top Gun. Jim had a fear of flying, so he really didn’t see it. His initial instinct was, “I don’t get the movie.” I had my private pilot’s license — I’m a pilot — I got the movie. I had the passion. He said, “All right, let’s do it.” Then on Turner and Hooch, Jim had three dogs, “Oh, I want to do a dog movie. I love dogs.” I’m going, “I don’t really want to do a dog movie,” but he was passionate, so I said, “All right. Let’s do it.” But once we committed, 100 percent in. We both owned it success or failure. No recriminations.
Scott: Let’s talk about this. I want to focus on five movies that you had in a string of five years. It was a great run. As I say, I broke into the business in1987, so I was able to watch this firsthand unfolding. Of course, Top Gun, which has become a cultural phenomenon, you really hit the floor running with that in 1986.
I think it’s like three‑quarters of a billion dollars in box office revenue if you figure the adjusted gross for today. The movie stars Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, Kelly McGillis, director Tony Scott. I know you have an aviation background, so how did you intersect with that project?
Jack: I had a breakfast meeting with Jeffrey Katzenberg. At the time, we were working on Dick Tracy. Tracy was a co‑production between Universal and Paramount, so I got to know Katzenberg at Paramount, and Jeffrey liked the work that we had done on Tracy.
So we had one of those 8:00 AM breakfast meetings. He had 10 ideas that he threw out, and Top Gun looked interesting because I had my pilot’s license. We had six unproduced screen plays up to that point, and I sort of figured that if the movie didn’t get made, I get a Navy jet ride out of it. Very hard to get up in a Navy fighter jet. But we didn’t say yes immediately. I was very concerned about whether this would get made. We had six unproduced screenplays and needed to get a movie produced.
So we set come conditions. One of the concerns was that we felt that if we couldn’t get the Navy’s planes, if we couldn’t get the Navy’s cooperation, then the movie would never get made. The movie to be shot at 28,000 feet or it wouldn’t work. The producers, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, agreed. So, we went to the Pentagon, we met the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, talked to admirals, pitched them this heroic movie about these pilots, and they said, “OK. Great. We’ll give you all the gear you want.” That was nice.
Then I was concerned about the movie, The Right Stuff, coming out. I had read the book and the Chuck Yeager story had a lot of the same fighter pilot elements. The producers got me the script and I read it, and said, “OK, this is a very different movie.”
At this time we had a lot of work, and were turning down offers virtually every week, so we said, “OK, we’ll write you this movie, but we’re not going to pitch it to you. We’re not going to show you pages. You’ve got to trust us and let us go and just figure out this movie.” We all agreed the movie was about “the best of the best,” “the highest level of competition” and it would end in a real fight. Those were the only working orders, and because we had said “no” so many times, they said, “OK, we’ll agree to it.” Then I went and did a ton of research. I went on the base and flew on navy jets several times.
That’s when the breakthrough happened. The pilots love to take you upside down or flip you around, and pull eight Gs, and do all sorts of crazy stuff. I mean, they were taking me for my first ride and they kept saying, “Oh, we’re not supposed to be doing this but…” and then they go do something crazy.
I was so exhausted when I got off from the G forces, all the upside‑down, and the physical exhaustion of it all. I immediately called Jim and said, “This is not what we thought this was. We’re not some guy sitting in a cockpit. This is a sport, and these guys are the world’s greatest athletes, and this is what this movie is about.”
That became our metaphor. So for me, Top Gun is a sports movie. It’s about these amazing athletes trying to figure out who’s the best athlete. It’s really a team movie. That’s sort of how we found the heart of that movie.
Scott: I don’t think I’ve ever heard that particular take on it, but it makes perfect sense. It is a sports movie, isn’t it?
Jack: It is. I was a goaltender at Michigan State. I was a walk on and made the freshman team and beat out the scholarship kid from Canada for the position. As a goal tender, you have to be the starter. There’s only one guy on the ice. Sitting on the bench is not an option.
Jack: Jim was a quarterback in high school, so he was that guy. To be a starter you have to be the last man standing. The script was really personal for us. We understood the psychology of it. That’s also why there was a lot of locker room scenes because as an athlete, things happen in the locker room. You put your game face on, and you get ready to play, or you have the consequences of a bad game.
Scott: Did you have any idea, when you were writing this, that it was going to become the phenomenon that it did?
Jack: No. Absolutely not. It was just a movie. No one was paying a lot of attention. That’s why Don and Jerry said, “Yeah, go off and write this thing.” No one really cared about it. It was another movie in development. When was the last time anyone had a hit aviation movie?
I think the best thing we did was not pitch the movie. If we had pitched the movie, it would have been an entirely different movie. I would have pitched a plot like saving the admiral or some mission driven plot. Instead, it really was about this extraordinary world and these amazing pilots, and all that came out of the research. It’s really about this man’s journey. “No man is an island” was our theme. But because we were left alone to discover the movie, we became absorbed with the pilots and found the story between them and not the action.
The Top Gun pilots were some of those most amazing, charismatic, crazy people I’d ever met in my life. And the stories they told were just remarkable. One of the other keys in doing the research was that when they talked about losing somebody, somebody they had lost on cruise, or who has been shot down over Vietnam, their countenance completely changed. They became silent. You could feel it still hurt and how deeply it affected them. I realized that my goal as a writer was to capture the emotion these guys felt and put that up on the screen. If I could get the audience to feel the sense of loss that these pilots felt, I would have achieved something.
Not only did I want to have Maverick’s heart broken, but I wanted to break the audience’s heart broken so they had a stake in it emotionally, too. Then when Maverick loses his confidence, and is overwhelmed by his guilt for Goose’s death, the audience feels it, too. We also broken one of the cardinal rules of motion pictures which is don’t kill off the most popular character in a movie.
Tomorrow in Part 3, Jack shares some stories about two other movies he wrote as part of Cash & Epps: Legal Eagles and The Secret of My Success.
For Part 1, go here.
For Jack’s book “Screenwriting is Rewriting: The Art and Craft of Professional Revision,” go here.