Get to Know the Pros: A Q&A with Film & TV Writer, Executive Producer, and Author Jeffrey Stepakoff
In 1998, the day after receiving his MFA in Playwriting from Carnegie Mellon, Jeffrey Stepakoff drove straight to Hollywood to begin his career as a film and television writer. The big risk and long drive were apparently worth it. For the next 20 years, he enjoyed a highly successful career in ‘the business’ – earning “written by” or “story by” credits on thirty-six television episodes, having written for fourteen different series and working on seven primetime staffs, producing hundreds of hours of internationally-recognized television, including the Emmy-winning THE WONDER YEARS, SISTERS, WILD CARD, HYPERION BAY, THE MAGIC SCHOOL, C16: FBI, ROBIN’S HOODS, LAND’S END, FLIPPER, SONS & DAUGHTERS, MAJOR DAD, THE YAKOV SMIRNOFF SHOW, BEAUTY & THE BEAST, HAVE FAITH, SIMON& SIMON, and DAWSON’S CREEK where he was Co-Executive Producer.
He has also created and developed pilots for many of the major studios and networks, including 20th Century, Paramount, MTM, Fox and ABC. And he has developed and written major motion pictures, including Disney’s TARZAN and BROTHER BEAR, and EM Entertainment’s LAPITCH, THE LITTLE SHOEMAKER, Croatia’s selection for the 1998 Academy Awards.
A few years ago, Stepakoff returned to his hometown of Atlanta, and has focused his creative energy as an author. His first book – BILLION DOLLAR KISS – a biographical account of his career in the television business and a great historical reference about the television industry – made him a key commentator during the 2007-2008 WGA strike. He is currently focused on fiction and his second novel THE ORCHARD has just been released by St. Martin’s Press. In his spare time, he builds forts in living room with sofa cushions.
WFTV: When did you know that you wanted to be a writer?
I think I always pretty much knew I wanted to tell stories. I started writing when I was about eleven or twelve, on this old typewriter we had in the basement. I became more serious about it when I wrote my first play in the tenth grade.
WFTV: To what do you attribute your storytelling ability?
I grew up watching television and going to the movies, as well as constantly reading – young adult novels and comic books. I suspect that consuming story so much as a kid has a lot to do with my interest in developing my own skills.
WFTV: You’ve had an awesome career – working on lots of great shows and movies. How did you get started writing for TV and Film?
First, thank you! I went to Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh for graduate school where I got an MFA in Playwriting. In 1988, a few months before graduating, I met John Wells – a Hollywood writer who created ER – and he sent my sample scripts around to agents. There was interest, so I moved out to LA. But there was a writers’ strike going on, so I took an internship at Universal Studios in Motion Picture Marketing. My boss at Universal in introduced me to his friend who was in charge of staffing writers on Universal TV shows. He sent my scripts around the lot and when the strike was over, I was offered the chance to write an episode of SIMON & SIMON. That went well and afterwards, with the help of my agent, I began regularly working.
WFTV: The world of media and entertainment are certainly a lot different today than they were in 1988 when you were getting started. How should young aspiring storytellers think about getting their writing careers started? What can they be doing right now while in high school or college?
Actually, the delivery platforms – meaning how people watch entertainment, cable, broadcast, over the internet, DVD – yes, much of that is different. But much is the same. It’s a great business to pursue. The first task, particularly for writers, is to master the craft. Watch TV. Go to the movies. Understand the form inside and out. Perhaps study it in college or a specially school or workshop. If you want to work in TV, you write a spec – or speculative, i.e., sample – script. For film, obviously you write a screenplay. Then you get your material to people who represent and/or hire writers. Then you write some more. I’m a big believer in going to Los Angeles if you can, though there are ways to break in from outside. There’s the whole indie film scene, which given the affordability of digital equipment and the online distribution possibilities, is very exciting. Still, while clearly connecting with the market and the people that buy your work is key, it’s really about the work. So always be writing, always be making story.
WFTV: What was the most exciting thing you worked on during your career?
That’s a tough one. Everything I’ve worked on has had something exciting about it. THE WONDER YEARS is a series that I am especially proud to have been involved with. I really enjoyed writing and producing DAWSON’S CREEK. I find writing fiction, which I’m doing a lot these days, to be very exciting.
WFTV: When you’re creating something new, what’s your starting point – character, plot, situation, etc.?
Great question. The initial spark or lightbulb for a concept can start with anything – a character, a scene, a moment, perhaps a high concept or some sort. But ultimately, you look for the inciting incident to begin story. This is that first moment when the protagonist’s life is fundamentally altered, and the character must impart on some sort of journey or path to set things right. Then of course the task is to make that difficult for the character to do, and hopefully surprising and funny or moving! Character is discovered along the way as we develop this path.
WFTV: You’ve done a lot of writing for television and film. How is your process different between the two formats?
The over all story development process is pretty much the same, but for TV you work towards a franchise or story engine that will support a hundred episodes, and with film, or course, you want to work towards a profound and ultimately resolving climax, one that is both inevitable but, hopefully, unanticipated.
WFTV: When you’re in need of creative inspiration, what do you do, where do you look?
I look everywhere. That’s the job of the writer, always be open to story. I read the news and various media websites virtually every day. I listen to people a lot. I think part of the job of the writer is learning to keep your mouth shut, listen and observe.
WFTV: What do you think are the best shows on television today?
Wow, there’s some great stuff on today. Mad Men, Big Love, Game of Thrones. I like Chuck and Human Target. Parenthood. I still love The Simpsons. And there’s some really great programming in development for 2011-2012.
WFTV: Do you think that teens are well served by current television programming?
I do. Disney in particular does a great job creating really entertaining shows and franchises that are well written, don’t talk down, and present values that don’t pander. Of course, I’m always on the look out for the next great show!