With his first semester as head of the USC School of Cinematic Arts’ writing division winding down, associate professor Jack Epps Jr. took time to reflect on how he can help educate the next generation of screenwriters.
“We’re in great shape,” said Epps, acknowledging the high marks set by predecessors Howard A. Rodman and John Furia. “I want to follow what they set up and focus on characters since it’s not what happens in a story but who it happens to that counts. Character is plot.”
With Top Gun, Legal Eagles, The Secret of My Success, Dick Tracy and Anaconda among his seven feature films, Epps’ 30-year career also extends to television, where his credits include Hawaii 5-0 and Kojak.
“One thing I believe in is instincts,” Epps said. “Good writers have excellent instincts and learn to trust themselves. Our mission is to develop great instincts in our students.”
Moving to Los Angeles from the Midwest in 1974, Epps found that the cheapest way to accomplish his goal as a would-be director was to write movies. He “had so much fun” at it that he decided to pursue the profession.
“I love creating a magical world,” he said. “The best training I had was staring out the window in high school and daydreaming for hours. Screenwriting is channeled daydreaming.”
Epps and his writing partner Jim Cash enjoyed enormous success in 1986 as the writers of Top Gun.
“Top Gun took over a year and a half to get green lit and then another year and a half to get made. What’s frustrating is that once a big hit happens, it’s all people want you to do. I like writing comedies, but once you have a hit like Top Gun, they want you to make things blow up. I’d rather make people laugh.”
He added, “You have to feel comfortable with the script that reflects you best.”
As part of his new role, Epps recently helped the school reach out to non-majors with a preview screening of the Robert Zemeckis hit Beowulf. “A movie screening is a great way to convey what the School of Cinematic Arts is all about to non-majors across the campus. We have a lot of great electives that any student can take.”
While adjusting to the administrative aspect of his position, Epps said that walking into a classroom is “always a breath of fresh air.”
Asked if he had any words of advice for the next generation of writers coming through the program, Epps did not hesitate to offer his thoughts.
“Writing for me is about imagination. Have fun and allow your mind to be playful. Take a flat, one-dimensional story then give it life and muscle,” he advised. “Above all, be passionate. You have to love this more than anything else in the world. Stick to it and hang in there for the long haul.”