Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sceenwriting Is Rewriting: Interview with Jack Epps!

As part of the class I teach at USC, Rewriting The Feature Script, I encourage my students to read Screenwriting is Rewriting, by Jack Epps. Not only does the book mirror all the week-by-week assignments in my course, it is one of the most useful screenwriting manuals I have ever read (and I've read quite a few,) particularly for advanced students.

Jack Epps Jr. has been working as a screenwriter for over forty years. He is best known for co-writing iconic movies like Top Gun and Dick Tracy. He also did extensive revisions on movies such as Sister Act and Die Hard 3. Today, he is the chair of the writing division of USC's School of Cinematic Arts.

SH: Why do we need a book on "Rewriting" and how is this book different than all the other books on screenwriting?

JE: As professional writers know, most of our time is spent rewriting our own work or someone else’s work. The importance of first drafts is way over-rated. If you want to succeed as a screenwriter, then you better be a great rewriter or they will hire someone else who is a great rewriter. First drafts are fine, but they are only a sketch of an idea. The real work is done in the rewrites – that’s rewrites with a huge “S.” Knowing how to rewrite successfully is the key to a successful career.

Most screenwriting books only focus on the first draft and pay scant attention to rewriting. Screenwriting is Rewriting assumes the writer has written a first draft. The primary goal of my book is to focus on rewriting. There are chapters that review essential fundamentals, since it is the failure to execute these fundamentals that cause major script problems. The book is based on my years of professional experience as a screenwriter. Most of my time was spent rewriting. I expected to rewrite even before I began the first draft.

SH: Why do you distinguish between different kinds of rewrites or "passes"?

JE: One of the great mistakes aspiring writers make is they often try to resolve every note in one giant rewrite that usually results in a much weaker, flawed, screenplay. I learned during my career that it was much easier, and more effective, to execute a series of small focused rewrites rather than one giant rewrite. Each pass focuses on a different essential aspect of screenwriting. First, start with the major fundamental elements, and then work through the notes.

The challenge in writing the book was that every rewrite is different. There is no “one size fits all” approach to rewriting. I broke the book into eleven different passes so writers can choose which pass best fits their needs. They may also consider combining passes. This is not a “checklist” book. It’s a resource guide, and it is meant to be flexible.

SH: What are some common mistakes screenwriters make while rewriting? How can the book help?

JE: “Preciousness” is probably the biggest mistake an aspiring writer can make. They’ve written a first draft and they are enamored with it. They think it’s perfect, and not a word should be changed. In my experience, that’s not the way it works professionally. Another common mistake is that aspiring screenwriters often favor plot over character. Plot serves character. A great plot is essential, but it must serve character. Another mistake is to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” and start all over again on page one. Page one rewrites usually result in a weaker, less inspired, imitation of the first draft. There must be some gold that can be mined in the next draft. It’s important to know what works. Try to protect what works and revise the problems.

SH: Much of the book is structured around responding to notes - notes from producers, executives, and peers. Why is it so important to get feedback while rewriting a script? 

JE: It is really hard to have distance and perspective on your own work. Good notes give the writer perspective on how the work is “actually” being perceived—not how they “think” it is being perceived. But notes are not always clear or right. One of the challenges of rewriting is learning how to interpret notes. Notes are not always what they seem, and often the solution to the note is not what is suggested or apparent. I focus a lot in the book on interpreting notes. It’s also important to find people you trust to give you good notes, and to learn to let go and embrace the change necessary to take your screenplay to the next level.

SH: Manuals like "Save The Cat" are directed at amateurs who say to themselves "I've got a movie idea, and I think I'll write the script!" Is it fair to say that your book targets more advanced writers, students, and professionals?

JE: Rewriting itself is an advanced skill. My book is written for aspiring writers as well as professionals. I am assuming the writer is experienced and has written one or two scripts. For the professional, I hope it works as a way to help jump start their rewrite— to serve as a refresher. As professional writers, we often drift from away from screenwriting essentials. The book also serves as a refresher for professionals and helps them refocus their work.

SH: What is the best way to use the book when tackling a particular rewrite?

First, use the book to help organize notes and create a game plan to attack the rewrite. Secondly, decide which elements to prioritize in the first pass. It’s really easy to get lost in the middle of a rewrite, and the book can serve as a guide to help the writer work through their rewrite. I stress throughout the book how much work rewriting is, but I also hope it will serve as inspiration for those times when the writer feels like throwing in the towel. We’ve all been there, but it’s those writers to stay at it, and continue to dig deep, who will succeed.

Rewriting is hard work. If you stay at it, not only will you get a significantly better screenplay, but you will also become a much better screenwriter by going through the rewrite experience. You will definitely know what you “must” have before you begin your next project. The goal is to become a better, more efficient screenwriter. As I tell my students, writing never gets easier, but you can become more efficient.

Also on Genre Hacks...

Interview with Head of Amazon Studios Roy Price: How to Write for Amazon.

Levin's Tips -- Rewriting (A.K.A. Welcome To The Rest of Your Life)

Hey, you!

You wrote a script! Maybe it was your first! Let's get two things out of the way. Here's the first:


No, seriously. It's a huge fucking deal. I hope you're happy with it, but even if you're not... Remember: There was NOTHING on those pieces of paper/virtual agonizingly white screen of Final Draft and now there IS.

Revel in the miracle of that, friend! Last time someone did that, they wrote a bestselling book about him!

Oh, shit. Wait. There was also a second thing. Oh yeah. Now you gotta do a, GULP, a REWRITE. And, well, if you don't know what that looks like...

To some, like yours truly, rewrites seem like a labyrinthine process. Some people are creators, they are not fixers. They don't know where to begin. A blank page was blank enough, but how do you make a better marble statue out of the marble statue you have already carved? When you first carved it, there was nothing to destroy, it was just stone. Now it's a statue. Why should you risk destroying the statue you have so much time building?

Can't the marble statue you have already carved be good enough?

Chances are, it's not. In today's market, your screenplay needs to be A+ good to rise above the clutter. It's pretty, pretty rare for someone to write an A+ first draft. It's not impossible, sure, but then neither is winning the lottery.

Have you ever read the first draft of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? It starts in a future where people travel in massive tubes. There is a whole subplot about Joel's ex girlfriend. It ends not on that poignant "Okay." moment. It ends in a future where people are getting sucked up in tubes.

The first draft of Back to the Future? Marty is a suicidal alien from Pluto! No, really.

The first draft of Birdman, the Oscar Winner? That last scene is pretty iconic, right? Emma Stone looks up, that ambiguity. I'm not the biggest fan of the movie, but there was something there. It at least reached for something ineffable... In the first draft: Last scene was Jack Sparrow and Johnny Depp talking about Pirates of the Caribbean 5.

In case you're still not convinced, BRUCE WILLIS WASN'T DEAD IN SIXTH SENSE until the 7th draft. YES. Sit with that for a second.

So, good. Glad to have you on board!



First steps are hard, especially if its your first time taking them. You look at your script now and you don't even know where to begin your rewrite journey. You need an anchor, a starting point.

Good news: It's already in your script. More good news: People will tell you.

You wrote this script from a starting point. Maybe that was thematic: You wanted to write about the injustices in the five different institutions of Baltimore. Or maybe you had a spontaneous image when you were walking down the street one day listening to Kanye West. Whatever it is -- an image, an idea, a memory -- there is a core to your idea.

And then you had to take that core and mushed it through the meat grinder that is your brain so that little letters and words can appear on the page. That core muddled a little bit, maybe. Some parts of it didn't turn out the way you wanted to.

Your anchor, your starting point, is that one scene where you fucking nailed that core. It's that miracle of a moment where, for a second, your vision is actualized. You point your finger at it and say: "This is what I wanted to write. This is my movie!" If you can't find it, the chances are the people reading your script can tell.

Hold onto that scene. It's going to be your key, your anchor. This is why Sean likens the rewriting process to an excavation. You're going to find your spot and dig deeper.

And you will do this in one of two ways. Either you're an Architect or you're a Gardener.


A Gardener writes from Inside Out.

They have ideas, memories, scenes and they shuffle them around, put them in a bottle and shake them until something special comes out. I saw Paul Thomas Anderson give a talk once and someone asked him: "How do you write?" He said: "I put two people into a room and make them have a conversation. Hopefully it's interesting. If it's not, then I put them in a different room. If it's still not working, I'll change one of the people. Maybe I'll change both."

The Poster Child for this method of writing is... George R. R. Martin.

He waters his garden with your tears.
The challenge for this kind of writer is usually molding the scenes and the tone of the script into a coherent, satisfying structure. This might end up forcing you to cut some wonderful character moments or even entire characters in order to write a screenplay. This is of course a maddening, cruel process but a necessary one.

Or maybe, you're an...


Talk about a script that needed a few rewrites.

An Architect writes from Outside In.

They build the World of the story first, then zoom into the scenes. They love charts and highlighters and cards and maps. They want to have the blue print before they start building the house. They know the ending before they start writing.

The pitfall for this kind of writer is to turn in stories that feel stiff. They tend to lean on their influences a bit too much when writing their first drafts. So, instead of the incoherence of a Gardener, an Architect might suffer from producing a work that is too predictable or perhaps with a tone too familiar to the movies that influenced it.

For those of you in our class, Sean is an Architect and I'm a Gardener. We deal with that dreaded Writer's Block different ways. He writes on index cards and re-composes his structure. I write fake reddit posts from the point of view of my main character and try to figure out what he or she should do in a scene. Different strokes for different folks.

Of course maybe you fall somewhere in the middle. That's alright too. Creative process is a fickle, schizophrenic thing. But knowing your process intimately will help you in the rest of your creative life. After all, in the class, we're not only learning writing as a craft, we're also learning HOW to write.

Alright, that's that for this week. Next week is going to be more about the nuts and bolts of it all (Story! Tension! Feedback!) as we dive deeper into the quagmire known as... Re-writing!

Also on Genre Hacks...