Interview with screenwriter Jack Epps, Jr. of 'Top Gun', 'Turner & Hooch' & more '80s films

(This interview was originally published November 6, 2012 on the now-retired Kickin' it Old School blog. It is one installment in an incredible series of interviews we are republishing on Rediscover the '80s for posterity and your enjoyment. These are more than just interviews in a way; they are more like '80s timelines or oral histories on their respective subject matters. Please keep in mind the original date because some content could be specific to the time of the interview, though the majority should be timeless and totally rad.)

When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the '80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.

This time that awesomeness is Jack Epps, Jr. You might not recognize the name of this 35-year member of the Writer's Guild of America and member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He, along with his late screenwriting partner Jim Cash, wrote the scripts to some classic '80s films. Most notable to many is that the duo are responsible for the screenplay to 1986's Top Gun. I am probably not alone when I say that Top Gun is still one of my very favorite movies of the entire decade. They also wrote Legal Eagles, The Secret of My Success and Turner & Hooch among others. The actors and director usually get most of the credit, but the screenwriter can often play just as integral of a part in the greatness of a film. We'll find out more about his role in creating Top Gun and these other '80s movies as we get on to some selections from my interview with Jack Epps, Jr...

(This interview was conducted shortly after the untimely death of Tony Scott in August 2012 who directed many films including Top Gun, the most successful film Mr. Epps has written thus far.)

Jack: Let me start by saying that I am deeply saddened by the recent death of Tony Scott. Tony was a remarkable director and created vibrant visual films. His contributions to Top Gun were immeasurable. His death was a shock to all who knew him. I send my most sincere condolences to his family.

We certainly echo those sentiments and now on with the interview.

Q: At what point did you decide you want to be a screenwriter? Then when and how did you get your start in screenwriting? How did you end up writing for Hawaii 5-0 and Kojak back in 1976?

Jack: I fell backwards into screenwriting. I came to California to be a director but didn't have the money or know-how to become a director. Anyone can write. You don't need the studio or millions to write. I figured I would write a script that would eventually lead to directing. I found I liked to write and enjoyed the process, as well as the freedom.

I had another writing partner when I first arrived in California - Anderson House. His father knew the executive producer of 'Hawaii 5-0', Phil Leacock, and we got a treatment to him. We thought of every cliche' we could think of and wrote that treatment. We sent it off and a day later 5-0 called and said we knew their show and bought it from us. I worked with Andy for several years and we sold a few more things to television. Andy went into producing, and I began to work with Jim Cash. Writing for TV was a great training ground for learning how to break stories. You had to break five or six stories each week to pitch for many different shows. I got pretty good at it.

Q: When and how did you meet Jim Cash? How did the two of you end up becoming writing partners?

Jack: I met Jim Cash at Michigan State. He was my screenwriting instructor. I was making movies at MSU and I figured if I was going to make them, I needed to learn how to write them. Jim and I formed our own mutual admiration society and we kept in touch after I left East Lansing. When he heard Andy and I had sold a script to TV, he suggested we try something together. Once Andy and I parted, I started to work with Jim.

Q: How did the dynamic of your partnership work? Did each of you focus on different aspects of writing or did you just bounce ideas off of each other?

Jack: We had a "words and music" relationship. Jim was a frustrated novelist and a really good writer. Great with words. I'm the big picture story guy. I like to conceive the movie and then develop it. We developed all our projects together initially, but eventually, I would go off and detail the concept out. Then I would give Jim the details of the scenes and sequences, and he would take a first pass. After Jim sent me his pass, we would revise it together.

This was before the internet. At first we communicated by phone, by mail, and then hooked up our computers with a program called Carbon Copy. It linked our computers over the phone line. We'd also keep a second phone line open and we would talk about the rewrite. I guess we invented the internet and not Al Gore.

We brought our separate strengths to the relationship and that's why I think it was successful. We also lived in different cities. Jim lived in East Lansing, Michigan, and I lived in Los Angeles. We never worked in the same room together, but enjoyed the distance to keep our lives separate and to allow us to come together with new ideas.

Sadly, Jim Cash passed away in March of 2000 at just the age of 59 due to an intestinal ailment. The duo of Cash and Epps are credited with writing the screenplays for seven films together.

Q: What can you tell us about the late Jim Cash and your experience working together with him

Jack: Jim Cash was a remarkable guy and his early death was tragic. He had a host of people who loved and admired him. He left us way too young. There is not one of us who knew Jim closely that does not miss him every day. Beside his remarkable talent, Jim was one of the finest most ethical moral and responsible people I've had the pleasure to meet and get to know. He was funny, smart, well read, and enthusiastic. Jim taught at Michigan State University and inspirited scores of students. He was a one in a billion guy. There is no replacing someone like Jim. I'm currently writing alone and it's not as much fun. Every day working with Jim was filled with laughs and creative excitement. To say I miss him tremendously is a huge understatement. There is a hole in my heart that can never be filled. I look at my time with Jim as being extremely fortunate to have had the opportunity to have spent so much time doing what we loved together.

Q: On most projects were you given a subject/concept and commissioned to write a screenplay or did you create the stories from scratch and sell the ideas back to the studios? What is your typical screenwriting process? Do you begin with characters first or plot?

Jack: This is a huge question and would take a book to explain. Every project we did was different and each project had a separate set of challenges. We started writing speculative scripts but we moved to commissioned work once studios would pay us to write. Better to have the check in hand than to try and sell original work. It doesn't matter where you begin a screenplay, what counts is to find that thing - be it a character, an image, a moment - that inspires you. Every screenplay eventually gets to: whose movie is this? And you have to answer that before you can get very far.

Q: You and Jim Cash are credited with writing the 1986 film Top Gun. How did that project come to you? What inspired the story? Did you have any idea when you were beginning the project on how much attention it would get and how big the potential success of the film could be?

Jack: We were working for Paramount at the time. I had an 8:00 AM story meeting with Jeffrey Katzenberg who was the head of Production. He had a list of eight ideas that he offered us. Because I had my Private Pilot's license, I was interested in 'Top Gun.' Paramount had optioned a magazine article ["Top Guns" by Ehud Yonay from California magazine in May of 1983] that basically described the school and how much fun these guys were having. There was no story or characters, just a world.

The story was really inspired by the actual pilots I met when I was doing my research. Virtually everything that happens in the film is based on a story that was told to me by a pilot. I linked many of those real life events into a narrative. It's a simple movie but took a long time to discover. The fact that the movie flows so easily came out of a lot of long hours and hard work. As a writer you have to get rid of all the story and character distractions and find the heart and soul of the idea. It's easy in hindsight but during the "fog of writing," it's really difficult to find.

I took a jet ride and I always had faith that if we could capture the real feeling of flying F-14's the movie would be a hit. I did not ever realize it would become a cultural icon. No one plans on making a cultural icon. It was the right crew with Simpson-Bruckheimer being the right producers, Tony Scott being the right director, and Tom Cruise as the star.

Jim and I wrote the movie with Tom in mind. I had been following Tom's career since 'Taps' and felt he had the right look and character to play the "All American" pilot. You could say I cast Tom for the part. He was likable yet could be egotistical. He owned every role he had played and it felt right. Simpson-Bruckheimer agreed and went all out to get Tom. They were great producers and eventually landed Tom. He was initially reluctant, but they got him up in jet and that turned him around.

Top Gun was released in theaters in May of 1986 and became the first feature film screenplay written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps, Jr. to be produced. After writing seven unproduced screenplays, their first produced screenplay went on to become a worldwide success and the highest-grossing box office hit of 1986. The film helped shoot Tom Cruise's career into the stratosphere, dramatically increased sales on Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses and, as I mentioned earlier, has become one of my favorite movies of the '80s. Here is the original preview trailer for Top Gun...

Q: What research did you do before and while writing Top Gun? Were there any specific moments you witnessed during your research that inspired specific scenes within the film?
Jack: I spent over a month at NAS Miramar interviewing pilots, doing water training and then taking jet rides. During the water training it was mentioned that pilots sometimes hit the debris above the cockpit. I noted that and used it later. That's why we had the mid-air, or jet wash, (we were told the Navy did not have mid-air collisions) over the water. The Navy floats in a big bathtub, so we wanted the crash to happen in the water.

The flights were physical and exhausting. It became clear these guys were top athletes. They weren't just flight jockeys, they were top athletes. Pulling eight G's is exhausting and fighting a three-dimensional battle upside down is remarkable. I came out of the plane drenched in sweat, exhausted - mentally and physically. It changed the way we conceived the film. It became a sports movie and the sport was ACM, Ariel Combat Maneuvering. These guys were at the top of their game.

Jim and I were both high school and college athletes, and at every try-out, you are eyeing the next guy trying to figure out who is the best. Your job is to make the team and make the starting line-up. No one who loves sports wants to be #2 and sit on the pine. It is to be the best any way you can and play as long in the game as you can.

Q: Who came up with and what inspired the call signs that the characters ended up with (like Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Slider, Hollywood, Viper, etc.)?

Jack: We came up with ALL of the call signs. I came up with Maverick and Iceman. It represented their personalities. We thought it would be a placeholder to help out with the character but ended up in the film. Jim came up with Mother Goose. Viper was named after Pete Pettigrew, and the other guys we filled in together. We tried to stay away from pilots we met so there would be no conflict of interest - saying we based the film on them.

Q: I have read some accounts that your first draft was quite different from the final version of the film. Is that true and, if so, what were some of the major differences? I assume the beach volleyball game was something that was added later?

Jack: Let me use this opportunity to set the record straight. The first draft was not quite different from the final version of the film. That is a bunch of internet bulls**t. As they say, "success has a thousand fathers and failure is an orphan." The first draft was pretty much the final film. The final film was shorter with some tone shifts and some judicious editing. Some guy with no credits or credentials, did an "analysis" of several drafts, and posted his "civilian" opinion on the internet. Don't know who that guy was or what his credentials were, but he obviously does not know anything about screenwriting. He didn't read my second draft and drew conclusions that were false and misleading. Any joker can post anything he wants on the internet but that doesn't mean he knows anything.

For the untrained eye, one might see all the window dressing changes and think those were big changes, but in fact, it's like changing the color of the room from light blue to dark blue. Same color, different shade. The hardest work any writer can ever do is start with the blank page and create all the characters, stories, relationships, plot, plot events, theme - in other words, the entire movie. None of those essential elements changed in any significant way. Maverick is still Maverick as we wrote and created him. Iceman, Viper, Goose, Hollywood, Wolfman were all characters we created.

The biggest change was Maverick's love interest, but even Charlie was based on work we did in our second draft. She became a Navy Information Officer and was subsequently changed to an Independent Contractor at the request of the Navy. The story, and the characters, and all the events are ALL as we wrote them. Every fight was choreographed with a specific outcome that affected Maverick. All stayed the same. The relationship between Maverick and Goose did not change from day one. Trying to rewrite history through Wikipedia is kind of pathetic.

Film is a collaborative medium. Don [Simpson] and Jerry [Bruckheimer] brought something to the film, Tony [Scott] brought something to the film, Tom [Cruise] brought something to the film, the cinematographer contributed a great visual look. Each individual involved contributed something that ultimately adds up to the final film.

In regards to your question about the volleyball scene, volleyball was initially basketball. The idea was that these guys competed in the air and on the ground. The difference is the location and the amount of baby oil they lathered on the guys. We didn't write it as male beefcake. We wrote it as the highest level of competition. Tony Scott added another layer to the film with his visual style as well as what he chose to focus on. Tony has a good commentary on the recent Top Gun DVD release. Tony did great work and made it "Rock N' Roll" in the skies. It did become slicker and more main stream. But the story remained the same. Tony influenced the look, tone and style. Directors interpret screenplays and visually leave an imprint. Tony was the right guy to direct Top Gun. He made it his movie but stayed with the story and characters we wrote.

Q: What inspired the classic bar scene where Maverick and Goose serenade the girl with "You've Lost that Loving Feeling"?

Jack: This came out of the research with pilots. These guys live life much bigger than the rest of us and had a line or an approach for everything. At this time, these were really wild and crazy "set your hair on fire" kind of guys. After the Tailhook scandal [1991], the Navy clamped down on that kind of image. Tailhook really crossed the line and changed the culture.

Q: Who came up with the line, "I feel the need, the need for speed"?

Jack: "I feel the need" is a Cash and Epps original. I wish I had a nickel for every time that line has been uttered. That was really the core of the movie. These guys fly supersonic and live at high rates of speed in the air and on the ground. They never slowed down for anything. They had really - and still do - have a hard time coming home after cruise and re-entering their family lives. It's a difficult thing to be moving at 1,000 miles an hour and then suddenly be driving kids to school.

That line was ranked on AFI's "100 Years... 100 Movie Quotes" list as one of the best. Here is that quick scene where Maverick and Goose say the classic line...

Q: Any other behind-the-scenes details about Top Gun that you can share with us?

Jack: Most of the stories are on the DVD and it's basic movie stuff. I guess one question that keeps coming up is that people have falsely said the Navy dictated the film. Not true. The Pentagon and the Defense Department were really hands off. The Navy had only four issues. The name of the school was Top Gun and not Top Guns which was the initial title of the film.

The second was the relationship between Maverick and Charlie. Officers cannot fraternize. So, Charlie became an independent contractor so they could end up in the sack together and not be brought up on charges. The third was when we were doing research I asked the pilots who they thought was our biggest potential for a conflict. This was during the cold war and instead of saying the Soviet Union, they all said North Korea. The U.S. was trying to thaw relations with North Korea, so they asked us not to make the end conflict with North Korea. So, it ends up being a "nameless" country they fight against. And the fourth was that the Navy does not have mid-air collisions. So, it was changed to a jet wash situation that disrupted the flow of air over the wings. None of these requests made any difference in the final film.

One of the true unsung heroes of the film was our technical advisor, Pete Pettigrew. Pete supplied a lot of the stories and facts about how the Top Gun School and the Navy worked. Without Pete, I do not believe the film would have been as good. Pete has a cameo in the film. He's the "old guy" at the Officer's Club that Charlie was "making a mistake with." The inside joke is he's a real Top Gun - he's the real Viper. Pete was a MiG killer from Vietnam and a fighter pilot's pilot. Pete's influence is all over the film. Also, Mike McCabe, his REO, also contributed a lot of great stories. All the pilots we met were open and told great stories. The best people, as a group, I've ever met in my life. Remarkable. They say a lot about our men and women in service.

Q: Also in 1986, you and Cash are credited with writing the screenplay for Legal Eagles. How did this project come to you? Did you write it before or after Top Gun? When did Robert Redford get attached to play your main character of "Tom Logan"?

Jack: We wanted to work with Ivan Reitman who had just released 'Ghostbusters.' Originally, we wrote the script for Bill Murray and Dustin Hoffman. Murray said he hated attorneys and would never play one. And Hoffman went off to do Ishtar - serves him right. The project died. Then Ivan came back to us and wanted to know if we could turn a buddy film into a romantic comedy with Redford and Winger. We felt it could work and began going through several drafts. Redford has a self-deprecating sense of humor when you meet him personally, so we wanted to make his character a big clumsy. He was all for it right until the moment he arrived on the set. We did get him to tap dance to "Singing in the Rain" and a few other moments. He's really very funny and I wish he had played a bit more Cary Grant for this film. We wrote the film after 'Top Gun.'

Legal Eagles was released in theaters in June of 1986. It was directed by Ivan Reitman and starred Robert Redford, Debra Winger and Daryl Hannah. Here is a trailer for Legal Eagles...

Q: When you write your different characters for a film, do you usually envision a specific actor playing that part right from the start? You have had some pretty great lead actors for your films including Tom Cruise, Robert Redford, Michael J. Fox, Tom Hanks and Warren Beatty. That has to be pretty cool to see those guys bring your characters to life.

Jack: Yes, I like to write for specific actors. It helps to give the role a concrete feel. As I said, Jim and I wrote 'Top Gun' with Tom Cruise in mind. We wrote 'The Secret of My Success' for Michael J. Fox. We knew his dialogue rhythm, and the way he does physical comedy, so we tailored the part for him. Beatty was not attached to do 'Dick Tracy' when we wrote it. We wrote Tracy in about 1983 or '84. We were writing Tracy and 'Top Gun' at the same time - going back and forth on rewrites. Dick Tracy didn't get made until 1990.

I have been fortunate to have really great actors play parts I have created. They always amaze me in the way they bring the characters to life. A script is a blue print for a movie. The actors breathe life into the characters. They add a huge dimension.

Q: In 1987, you and Cash are credited with writing the screenplay for The Secret of My Success. I have always really enjoyed this film. How did this project come to you? What can you tell us about bringing this story to life?

Jack: We were doing a lot of work at Universal Pictures then. Frank Price had a project that was starting with Michael J. Fox in eight weeks and the script needed a complete rewrite. The script was about a nephew working for his uncle and falling in love with his uncle's prostitute. The characters were thin and the movie was pretty straight forward. We brought in the whole second identity and the complication with his aunt. Margaret Whitton did a great job with Auntie Vera. This is an example of how an actress can grab a role and really take it to another level.

We also changed the prostitute to a mistress and gave her a bigger role. It was a fun project. Herb Ross, the director, was terrific and did a great job with the film. This was a film that was a joy to watch when it came out. A lot of fun. Herb nailed it and was very confident in his direction. I wish we had done another film with Herb. We were a natural fit.
The Secret of My Success was released in theaters in April of 1987. Michael J. Fox was already a superstar from Family Ties and 1985's Back to the Future. I remember liking this film a lot when I first saw it and I still do like it a lot to this day. I have a feeling that has a lot to do with Fox and his character portrayal. Here is a trailer for The Secret of My Success...

Q: Then in 1989, you are credited along with a group of others with writing the screenplay for Turner & Hooch. How did you end up working on this project? Most of your other films were done with just you and Cash, why did this film end up having so many other writers? What can you share with us about your role in writing this film?

Jack: 'Turner & Hooch' was another project where they had the actor, Tom Hanks, and they had a start date, but the script was weak on character. Tom didn't have much to play. We were brought in to beef up Tom's character. We added him leaving his small town, and also strengthened the relationship with Hooch. We thought Hooch was the star and gave him a bigger role to play. Tom was great to work with. Very generous with his time. Once we created the character, Tom felt confident he had something to play.

There were a bunch of writers who contributed to Turner & Hooch and the Writer's Guild felt all of us deserved some sort of credit.

Turner & Hooch was released in theaters in July of 1989. It stars Tom Hanks as a obsessively neat police investigator who ends up with a big slobbery dog as his "partner" in sort of an odd couple relationship.

Q: Were you aware that another dog and cop film was being produced at the very same time? What were your feelings regarding Turner & Hooch when you saw the final film back then?

Jack: We knew about K-9 but weren't worried about it. We had Tom Hanks.

I was surprised when I saw the film at how much emotion I had when Hooch died. It really hit me. I knew it was coming, but Tom really developed their relationship. And I'm a dog person anyway. I didn't show that movie to my kids until they were 13 and 14. And they were still mad at me. Two questions I get are: Did you have to kill Goose? And why did you kill Hooch? Makes me feel like the angel of death here...

Q: How involved, if at all, have you been in the films you've written after filming begins? Are you there on set every day in case re-writes need to be done or scenes need to be changed?

Jack: For me, sets are really boring unless you are the director, star or cinematographer. It's all sit around and wait. Once a movie goes into production, I'm usually off working on another project. If the director needs something he will give me a call. I was on the set of 'Legal Eagles' a lot. Ivan was very open that way. Ivan is a confident director and was always looking for the best idea. There was an editing problem at one point on 'Legal Eagles' and we had to do some reshoots to fix a hole in the picture. Pretty standard stuff.

Q: Is it difficult to write a film's screenplay and then relinquish it to a director or producer or even an actor who can take creative license to change it however they see fit? Have you ever clashed with a producer or director over changes they've made or directions taken with your work?

Jack: At first when we began we were protective of every word, but once we saw the process, we quickly understood it's a collaborative medium and everyone contributes in some way. If you want total control over it all then write a novel. If you want to be involved in film, get used to it. Or, direct your own films. We also worked with top directors so the process was always creatively interesting: Herb Ross, Tony Scott, Ivan Reitman, Roger Spottiswoode and Warren Beatty.

Already back in the early '80s, Cash and Epps were brought in to work on the script for a Dick Tracy film. The movie rights changed hands several times as did the director. Warren Beatty was attached to play the title role and, then in 1985, he decided to option the rights himself along with the script written by Cash and Epps. It was not until 1988 that Disney ended up financing the film with Beatty on as producer, director and star. Dick Tracy would eventually be released in theaters in June of 1990 and was the ninth-highest grossing film in the U.S. that year. Even though the film was not released until 1990, it really was an '80s project which took the entire decade to come to fruition.

Q: Please tell us a little about where your career has taken you since the '80s. How have your priorities or goals changed over the years? What are some of your proudest professional accomplishments? Are you still actively writing screenplays? Please tell us about what you are doing at USC.

Jack: Jim and I were working steadily until he died. I've done a few TV pilots since then, but pilots are hard to get picked up. Getting a pilot to series is a lot like hitting the lottery.

Right now I've transitioned to teaching at USC. I started teaching one class and was so impressed with the quality and seriousness of the students that I became more deeply involved. I was offered tenure and a professorship, so I have put a lot of my time and energy in creating a professional program to help young writers get started. Currently, I'm the Chair of the Writing for Screen and Television program at the School of Cinematic Arts. It's a remarkable place to work with great colleagues who have accomplished a great many different things throughout the industry. We're almost like a mini-film studio, except we're a school.

I continue to write. I'm developing a screenplay/novel. If you are a writer, then it doesn't matter whether your work is produced or not. It's you and the written page. That is a life-long relationship.

Q: What else is Jack Epps, Jr. up to nowadays? Writing and otherwise? What can we expect in the future? Any remaining ambitions or regrets?

Jack: I'm currently finishing a writing book. I want to get my theories on writing down. As a professor, I spend a lot of time in the classroom and have been able to verbalize a lot of my methods and theories. After I finish that I have a bio pic I want to write.

We had a lot of fun and don't regret a thing. I'm wiser and smarter, and looking back would do some things differently. But that's wisdom and not regret. The '80s were a great time to be making movies. Studios were in the movie business and not international conglomerates where movies are just an arm of a huge corporation. Now, it's all about marketing. The international market is 65% of the box office so films are made more with an eye to the international market than ever before. Decisions are based on franchise and brand, not on instincts or because a film should be made.

Television is really interesting right now. Breaking Bad, The Wire, Mad Men, Treme, Boardwalk Empire, etc. A lot of great writing on TV - cable TV. A very interesting period. A lot of feature writers are moving over to television because of the freedom and because you can produce edgy material that will find its audience. I think if I were starting out right now I would probably be drawn to television because the idea of developing a four or five season narrative is very attractive creatively.

I am very honored that Jack was able to take some time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. I just enjoy Top Gun so much that I was simply ecstatic to get first hand insight from one of the creators of that iconic film which left such an impact on my favorite decade. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Jack Epps, Jr. for his incredible contributions to '80s pop culture through his screenwriting and, even more, for going back to the '80s with us here for a little while as well.

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