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Hollywood Writer Stepakoff to Speak at DPAC

Observer Scene | Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Film and television writer Jeffrey Stepakoff always knew he wanted to write, but he didn’t always know Hollywood was in his future.

On the phone on Monday, Stepakoff says he studied theater in school, but when producer John Wells (“ER,” “The West Wing”) visited his graduate school, Carnegie Mellon University, he told Stepakoff that Hollywood was looking for writers like him.

Although Stepakoff says going to Hollywood was considered a “wacky and eccentric thing to do,” he made the move that so many other aspiring film and television writers had done before and after him.

Stepakoff will be at the Browning Cinema tonight at 7 to give his lecture “The Rise of the Writer in Hollywood.” Stepakoff’s appearance is a continuation of the FTT Talks series, which most recently brought NBC development executive Katie O’Connell to campus in November. Stepakoff says his talk will be “a history of writers, that is writers in Hollywood, specifically during the last 20 to 25 years, told from a personal perspective.”

The man who went on to write for shows such as “The Wonder Years” and “Dawson’s Creek” started his career in Hollywood during the last writers’ strike.

“In 1988, I kind of stumbled toward Hollywood and realized there was a way to use my skill set,” he says.

However, the strike prevented Stepakoff from working right away. Although he was offered a job as a scab writer for CBS’s “Charles in Charge,” produced by Universal Television, he turned it down. When the strike ended, he was offered another job by Universal to write for “Simon & Simon.”

Stepakoff says his theater background helped him because he had experience working with directors as both a writer and producer.

“Theater, I believe, is a really good training ground for screenwriters,” he says.

Stepakoff was a writer and co-executive producer for “Dawson’s Creek” on the WB. Although the show was immensely popular with young people, he says he wasn’t always aware of the influence of the show.

“It was very exciting,” he says. “You know, when you’re working on a TV show, you’re so busy writing the show and producing the show that you don’t have a full awareness of the cultural impact of the show. Occasionally you’ll think about it.”

Ultimately, Stepakoff says, the success of a series comes down to finding a good story.

“Whether you’re working on a popular show or a struggling show, you always start at the same place, which is crafting good story,” he says.

Stepakoff has written for 14 different television series and says he has enjoyed working for each of them.

“There’s something special about all of them,” he says.

Stepakoff doesn’t have a preference for film or television either. He says he loves “all media that allows writers to be writers,” whether that be film or television writing, fiction writing or writing for the Internet.

However, Stepakoff does make a strong case for television.

“Television writing in particular is arguably the most satisfying medium for a writer to work in because he or she ultimately gets total control,” he says.

During this past writers’ strike, Stepakoff says he wrote a novel – a love story in which he drew from his experience working on “Dawson’s Creek.” Other writers he knew created new content for the Internet.

“The legacy of the 1988 strike was that the studios learned how to make entertainment without writers,” he says.

The film and television writer has three pieces of advice for students who aspire to write in film, television or theater. “Number one,” he says, “master the craft, which really isn’t difficult.” He says to take courses in writing to get to that point. “Number two,” he says, “which is probably more important than number one, write constantly.” His third piece of advice is to “put yourself out there” in order to meet people to help with the job search.

And just because you start in one field doesn’t mean you can’t switch to film and television. Stepakoff worked in advertising after undergrad, but knew that what he really wanted to do was write creatively.

“I just set out to write cool stuff,” he says.

Contact Cassie Belek at cbelek@nd.edu.