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 3, Jack and I discuss to other movies he worked on: Legal Eagles and The Secret of My Success:
Scott: You can tell the whole character-centric vibe that you and Jim brought to it just from hearing how you’re talking about it because the way that you focus on the characters, you think about Top Gun as a sports movie, these are these supreme athletes, the “no man is an island” as a theme, it gives the characters an arc, so you can see how somebody like Tom Cruise would attach himself to that project.
Jack: It’s the only movie I ever cast. I said to Jim when we wrote it, “Look, here’s this young actor by the name of Tom Cruise. He’s great. We should write this movie for Tom.” We wrote it with him in mind. When I gave the script to Jerry Bruckheimer, I said, “Think Tom Cruise.”
The producers loved it. Simpson called and said, “I will kill to get this movie made.” They agreed that Cruise was the guy, and so their brilliance was actually landing Tom. He initially didn’t want to do the movie and it took a while to get him to agree to do it.
The kicker was when we handed in the draft to the studio, they turned it down. They said, “There’s too many planes in the sky. Nobody wants to see all those planes.” They put it on the shelf. It did not get green‑lit. We were crushed. This was our seventh unproduced screenplay and it was dead. Fortunately, those executives left the studio and Frank Mancuso came in as head of Production. He looked in the cupboards and they were bare. Mancuso asked Simpson/Bruckheimer, “Guys, what have you got? We need to make a movie.” They handed him Top Gun and said they wanted to make it. Mancuso said, “Fine. Go ahead. Make it.”
Scott: That’s another little wonderful Hollywood trivia, man.
Jack: We did everything we possibly could to write a hit movie and then nothing. When the movie was initially put on the shelf, our agent put us in touch with the hottest director in town, which was Ivan Reitman, because he had just finished Ghostbusters. We were desperate to get a movie made, so it was like, “All right. Ivan makes movies, so whatever we’re going to do with Ivan, he’s going to make it.”
Scott: That’s Legal Eagles.
Jack: That’s Legal Eagles.
Scott: “A New York District attorney works and flirts with his adversary and her kooky artist client who’s on trial for a murder she didn’t commit.” You move from Tom Cruise to Robert Redford, and Debra Winger and Daryl Hannah, and working with Ivan Reitman, so that’s how you got involved in that. What do you remember from working on that project?
Jack: Ivan’s a wonderful guy. I really loved working with Ivan. Originally, he brought us on because he wanted to take the characters of Dustin Hoffman and Bill Murray from Tootsie, and create a movie around them. So our first draft was a story between the two guys, with Bill Murray being sort of a wacko ambulance chasing attorney and Hoffman being a very uptight neurotic district attorney.
We got half way through the script and Ivan decides, “We’ve got to get the script to Bill and Dustin.” We didn’t want to send out an unfinished first draft. Not the way we liked to work, but Ivan is in charge. Bill looks at the script and he goes, “I hate attorneys. I’ll never play one.” Dustin Hoffman gets pulled away by Warren Beatty to make Ishtar, and suddenly we have no movie. Then Ivan calls and said, “What about if we do this as a romantic comedy for Robert Redford? Could we do that?” I said, “Yeah, we can do that.”
Scott: At this point are you thinking maybe you’re cursed? Like you’re never going to get a movie made?
Jack: Pretty much. It’s that hard to get a movie made. Much harder than everyone thinks. As the saying goes, it’s amazing movies get made at all. But Ivan is a very determined individual, and of course having Ghostbusters, they would have greenlit the phone book for Ivan. He wanted to do something a little different than the improv stuff, and so he was interested in working with someone like Redford.
Scott: You had two movies come out in 1986. That must have been some heady times for you.
Jack: It absolutely was. We were working in obscurity, seven unproduced screenplays and suddenly we have two films released in one year. Our first film produced is Top Gun and it becomes the number one box office in the world.
Scott: That leads to one of my favorite ones that you did, The Secret of My Success, which I just though was a wonderful movie starring Michael J. Fox. I guess it was pretty much at the height of his stardom of the TV show and Back to the Future, directed by Herbert Ross. Such a fun film. Could you maybe talk a bit about your involvement with The Secret of My Success”?
Jack: It was very exciting to be able to write for Michael J. Fox. It was interesting, sometimes things fall your way. Usually, they don’t, so because we had been working on Dick Tracy, we were very well known at Universal, and knew the Head of Production, Frank Price, who I think was one of the best executives of all time.
Frank had a project called “Family Affair.” They had a script they didn’t especially like, but they were going into production in eight weeks come hell or high water. Michael J. Fox had a hiatus from his TV show, Family Ties. They had to start on a certain day in June and finish on a certain day in August. They were going to shoot whatever script they had.
Early, I had pitched Frank Price an idea about a young kid trying to be his first jobs but they didn’t pick it up. Then Frank thought, “We can take that idea and marry it with The Secret of My Success.” Being that I love Billy Wilder, I wanted to my sort of homage to Some Like it Hot, and have a character who’s playing dual identities.
We came on board and basically wrote a script in six weeks. It was reboot from beginning to end. The director was Herb Ross. Herb was fabulous. Every director is a little different. Herbert basically came from Broadway, and so he was very friendly and respectful of the script.
Because they had this short window, I think the film has the truest Cash and Epps dialogue and captures our tone and comedy. Right director, right actor, right script.
Scott: It’s such an interesting comment that you make, the Billy Wilder connection, because once you said that he’s my favorite writer-director. Great run, Some Like It Hot and The Apartment, but it has that sensibility. It’s kind of edgy, The Secret of My Success, and it’s got that conceit like Some Like It Hot, the dual role thing, so that’s very interesting that you made that comparison to Billy Wilder.
Jack: I hope young writers today know who Billy Wilder is and if they don’t, they should watch all of his work. For Jim and me, he was our go‑to person. We always asked: “What would Billy Wilder do?” Wilder had such an amazing career from drama to comedy. He could do anything and do it brilliantly, and move you in the process through character and wonderful stories. At the center of all his work was a character the audience could emotionally identify with.
With Secret of My Success, we had a director who could pull it off. There’s a farce scene at the end — a French farce where everyone’s changing bedrooms in this house. Very hard to write. Harder to direct. I was so pleased when I saw it in a premiere that Herbert just nailed this thing and made it work. You’ve got to have the right director to pull off something like that. It came together very well.
Scott: I’m so glad you mentioned that scene because I was going to mention it too. It’s like a classic farce. The director has a stage background and a play is like a classic farce, the whole thing. Everybody’s going from one room to the next. That’s great to hear.
Jack: It really was one of those things where it just happened, fell into our laps. We executed very quickly. We had clarity all the way though the writing and we were hitting on all cylinders. And we were writing for Michael J. Fox. What else can you say? We both really liked writing for specific actors. Really helped with the voice.
Here is the farce sequence in The Secret of My Success Jack and I discussed:
Tomorrow in Part 4, Jack talks about two other movies he worked on as a writer: Turner & Hooch, Dick Tracy.
For Part 1, go here.
Part 2, here.
For Jack’s book “Screenwriting is Rewriting: The Art and Craft of Professional Revision,” go here.