West Coast Connection
From LA, veteran TV writer-producer stays in touch with KSU class KENNESAW, Ga. (March 27,…
Georgia (Mar 27, 2015) —
From LA, veteran TV writer-producer stays in touch with KSU class
KENNESAW, Ga. (March 27, 2015) — Kennesaw State professor Jeffrey Stepakoff has spent an average of eight hours a day since Jan. 1 holed up in the “writers room” of a large production studio in Santa Clarita, just North of Los Angeles, adding flesh to the ideas that will become next season’s episodes of Chasing Life, a series that began airing on the ABC Family channel in 2014.
As co-executive producer for the series, Stepakoff is doing what he has done so well as a 25-year veteran television writer. He has earned story or writer’s credits on 36 episodes of the 15 different prime-time TV series he’s worked on, including award-winners like the The Wonder Years, Sisters, Simon & Simon and Dawson’s Creek.
While movies are a director’s medium, he explains, TV is all about the writers. “Most executive producers in television are writers. And the ones who really run a series — the “showrunners,” as they’re called — are almost always writers.
Stepakoff spends most of his time working with the other writer-producers on the staff, brainstorming story “arcs,” developing characters, and giving notes on scripts. He also attends production-related meetings, table reads, and spends time on set. Production of season two of the series began in mid-March and will run until early August.
Meanwhile, in a Kennesaw State classroom holding 65 students enrolled in Film 3105, an introductory scriptwriting class Stepakoff developed and normally teaches, physical distance is proving no barrier to the transfer of his well-informed insights on the craft and the industry.
In Stepakoff’s absence, Aaron Levy, a playwright and associate professor of English and English education, is guiding students through the five-part structure of a script, story elements and the processes involved in creating content for film and television. The Power Point slides Levy uses during class lectures typically include a slide with Stepakoff’s image and an audio from taped conversations the two hold every Sunday.
The class is one of six film courses now offered at Kennesaw State, where discussions are underway to develop an interdisciplinary film program that will provide a pipeline to Georgia’s burgeoning film industry and beyond. Like Stepakoff’s introductory class, which was originally designed for 15 students, film courses typically fill up quickly, leaving students to chance a waiting list or try again the following semester.
Launching into a lesson about climax and resolution in the script-writing class, Levy solicited opinions about the “energetic markers” leading to the climax in the movie Kramer vs. Kramer — a text case study this semester. He played a series of scenes, elicited agreement on the defining climactic moment, then gave students a chance to test their understanding by identifying the markers in some of their favorite movies, Psycho, Fargo and Amadeus among them. If the actual point of climax was different than they thought, Levy gently guided them to it, reiterating the essential characteristics: “the point where the story’s most important value is revealed or where the protagonist makes the crisis decision.”
Then, via audiotape, he gave them Stepakoff’s take on it — a rapid-fire, no nonsense, non-theoretical way of knowing.
“It’s the inevitable but unexpected end of what the story has been moving towards,” Stepakoff advised. “And it’s this unexpected part that we get paid for. How are you going to make your work fresh and unique and utterly breathtaking? This is what you must ask as you design your stories.
“Always drive towards the most difficult circumstances for your characters,” Stepakoff urged, citing what he calls the “you had me at hello” moment in the movie Jerry McGuire, when the protagonist is forced to profess his love for the character of Dorothy in front of a room full of disenchanted, divorced women.
In a previous unit, Stepakoff chimed in via Power Point to advise the class that the best way to prevent getting stuck in the critical middle of their scripts — a common fault of poor story design, he said — is by using conflict and antagonism.
“You know how your story is starting; you’ve got your hook; you’ve got your bookends and you’re kicking it off; you have a sense of where you’re going, but you get stuck. What you thought was an end may be just an intermediate theme,” Stepakoff instructed.
“Use the forces of antagonism — nature, internal conflict and antagonists — to turn up the heat and put the characters through hell,” he said, using examples steeped in literature and movie scenes. “I’m reminded of the quote by Aristophanes that Aaron Sorkin planted in the opening scene of The Newsroom: ‘In act one, chase your protagonist up a tree; in the second act, throw rocks at him; then get him down from the tree in the third act.’”
With a series of colorful, animated slides, Levy completed the discussion with reiteration of the principle of antagonism and no less than a dozen images, links and examples illustrating it. As the author of an award-winning play that has become a staple in high school theater repertoire, Pizza With Shrimp on Top, Levy offers his own insights into story development as well.
This double infusion of instruction guarantees, as Stepakoff intended, that students learn to practice the craft and do it the way industry professionals do. “This is not a traditional academic course,” the catalogue description stipulates, “but the beginning of professional training for those who want to work in the entertainment industry.”
In addition to lectures on structure and story elements, Levy said, students leverage each of the script elements as they outline the story, creating a “beat sheet.” They also write scenes each week and learn to workshop with each other in groups of three to four to read their scripts and get feedback.
“When Jeff and I talk every Sunday, we don’t just talk about the elements of the script,” said Levy, who tapes the conversations and embeds audio from them into his Power Point slides. “We talk about things that are happening in the industry, which Jeff knows so well because he’s there; he’s experiencing it.”
A recent conversation, for example, followed a Writer’s Guild meeting Stepakoff had attended. He conveyed a discussion about the shift in opportunities for writers — that 70 percent of script writers now work in TV compared to film due, in part, to new cable series and online offerings like those on Amazon and Netflix.
“I was excited to share that information with the class because it’s encouraging for KSU students who are interested in careers in this field,” Levy said. “They need to know what’s really happening.”
It’s the kind of information and the depth of practical knowledge Brelyn White was hungry for. The sophomore English major hopes to work for a television network as a writer, with other ambitions to write film screenplays, publish novels, and eventually work on Broadway as a librettist.
“I didn't know much about writing screenplays before this,” said White, who is already at work on her first novel. “I just loved movies, so I really wanted to learn the bare bones of how to craft compelling scripts, which is easier said than done. [The class] has helped me tremendously with writing prose as well. I've learned so much about story, characters, act structure, etc., and all of this applies to fiction as well as television and film.”
For his part, Stepakoff, also the bestselling author of four acclaimed novels, is enthusiastic about the growth and development of film studies at Kennesaw State and what that means for students like Brelyn White.
“We’re teaching a professional class here — the professional craft — in the same way we teach nursing and accounting,” he said. “The students who take the [introductory and advanced] film classes will be able to walk into a studio in Hollywood or anywhere and be ready to contribute.”
Click here and see page 18 to read about some of the professional experiences alums of Stepakoff’s script-writing classes are having in the industry.
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— Sabbaye McGriff
A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its nearly 43,000 students. With 11 colleges on two metro Atlanta campuses, Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 6 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.