Back in March, I wrote here about "The Man Who Saved Mr. Spock." It was about screenwriter Jack Sowards, who wrote the film, Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan," and figured out a way to keep the character of Mr. Spock in the franchise when Leonard Nimoy was all set to quit.
Jack B. Sowards, who passed away a few year back, much too early, though if it was 30 years from today, it would still be much too early, was a friend and an absolutely wonderful guy -- a remarkable, unlikely combination of a down-to-earth, solid, no-nonsense, rambunctious old hippie, complete with gray-haired ponytail. He was his own man, outspoken and crusty but as decently friendly and supportive as a person can be. This Email Interview gives a good sense of Jack, though still only touches the surface. It includes a short version of the tale I told in the earlier article about the best writing advice he ever got.
He also leaves out a particular bit of information when asked about how he writes. I think he may have left it out because few people would believe him -- or out of kindness to writers because they tend to go into apoplexy when he hears it. To be clear, I'm not sure if Jack always, always wrote this way, but the fact that he did as often as he did lot is enough to leave most writers in shock -- when Jack finished a first draft...he would often then -- throw it away! And start his second draft from a blank page. He of course remembered enough of it to have a grounded place to work from, but he wanted a fresh outlook. You get a sense of the importance of "a fresh outlook" from the answer he does give.
Hey, like I said, Jack was his own man. And an absolutely vibrant guy.
Jack B. Sowards
Edited by Robert J. Elisberg
Jack Sowards is probably best known for writing the feature film "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," for which nominated for a Hugo Award. His TV movie "Deliver Us From Evil" was nominated for a Writers Guild Award. And his TV movie "Desperate Women," was nominated for a Golden Spur Award. He also was nominated for a Writers Guild Award for his episode, "The Invasion of Kevin Ireland," part of the TV series "The Bold Ones."
Sowards wrote extensively for television, most notably on “Bonanza,” “The Streets of San Francisco” (for which he was executive story consultant), “The High Chaparral,” “Barnaby Jones,” and was executive story consultant for “Falcon Crest,” and among many other credits. He also wrote an episode for “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”
>>: Were there any movies, TV shows or books that first got you interested in writing?
JS: Fifteen years as an actor got me interested in writing.
As an actor I needed a play, a cast, a stage, a director and an audience in order to work. As writer I needed a only pencil and a piece of paper. In the words Blaise Pascal... "Reduce everything to its simplest element."
I was very happy, and very poor, as a stage actor... saying the lines of wonderful writers. When I came to Hollywood and started reading some of the scripts I thought... "Hell, anybody can write this stuff."
And since I was just "anybody" I became a writer, and soon realized how wrong I was. Not just anybody can write this stuff... but ALMOST anybody can. All it takes is talent, luck, connections, luck, friends in high places, luck, patience, luck, perseverance, luck, a benign critical faculty, an inexhaustible imagination, a pencil, a piece of paper... and a lot of luck.
They say that writing is a lonely profession, but it actually takes two people to make a successful writer. The Writer, and a Reader who understands and appreciates what the writer has written. Finding a talented reader in Hollywood is much more difficult than finding a talented writer.
There was a book, however, that taught me enough to jump start my first five scripts... THE ART OF DRAMATIC WRITING by Lajos Egri. It's still one of the best books on writing characters.
>>: When do you write, how do you generally work?
JS: I like to write early in the day, while my Critical Faculty is still having its first cup of coffee and is not fully awake yet.
Once the Critical Faculty is up to speed it looks over my shoulder, sighs, shakes its head, and whispers in my ear...
"It's terrible, Jack. It's awful. It stinks on rye bread. It's pompous, pretentious, people don't really talk like that. When are you gonna get it right?"
I ignore it. You cannot be a writer and a critic at the same time.
By midnight the writer is tired and the critic takes over, chopping out brilliant repartee, rewriting the deathless prose, and saving me from my own excesses.
>>: Are you a good procrastinator?
JS: The very best. Why do you think I became a writer?
>>: What sort of characters interest you? What sort of stories?
JS: My men are usually strong, aggressive, and emotionally constipated. My women are usually intelligent, ambitious, and emotionally confused. They're like most of the people I meet. I like my characters. I like to hear them talk to each other. They're just people, and I hope interesting people.
I like character stories. I like stories about people. In some scripts there may be action, excitement, and adventure... but it's there because it helps to expose or illuminate the characters. It's not just action for the sake of action.
I remember back in the days when I was writing Westerns, a writer said to me... "I love to write Westerns. Everybody wears a gun, and when the story gets dull you just shoot somebody."
I think his career ended with the passing of the Western.
>>: How do you work through parts of the script where you hit a roadblock in the story?
JS: There's no simple answer to that. I remember a Writer/ Producer once told me... "If you're having trouble with the middle, the problem is all the way back in the beginning. If you're having trouble with the ending, the problem is probably in the middle."
Sometimes I will pull out the books. There are a lot of books on "How To Write A Screenplay...." I think of them as a First Aid Kit. I only open them when I'm in trouble.
Maybe it's the structure. Maybe it's the characters. Then again, maybe it's the writer.
Sometimes I will go back to my characters and let them deal with the situation. Most of the time that works. The characters usually know more about what's going on than I do. There are times when I like them and might make them a little too nice. A scene between people who agree is a waste of time.
Sometimes you'll find a fascinating character you like and they'll take the story off in the wrong direction. As interesting as that character might be, you can't let them destroy the story.
And sometimes... there are simply more problems than there are solutions.
Q: What is your best (and/or most memorable) experience as a writer.
The most memorable moment was when I realized people liked what I was writing enough to pay me for it. Nothing can ever compare with that moment. It wasn't until a few days later that wondered if I was really that good, or did those people just have no taste.
Also... In 1972 (or thereabouts) I'm sitting at the breakfast table, reading the L.A. Times and having my first cup of coffee, and I see an article about one of my scripts being read into the Congressional Record by Senator William Proxmire.
I believe what made it so memorable was... there was no mention of my name in the article... just the title of the script. <sigh>
>>: How did you get involved with "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan"?
JS: Therein lies a tale... which is equal parts trivia and object lesson.
Harve Bennett and I were acquaintances, he's a personable gentleman, and when he was assigned as producer on "Star Trek" he called my agent (Leonard Hanzer)...my agent called me and asked, "What do you know about Star Trek?"
I said, "Everything!"
When in doubt, and a job may hang in the balance... lie.
Between the day I received that phone call, and the day I met with Harve at Paramount, I did a crash course in "Star Trek" at my local bookstore.
I had seen enough of the series to know that the "Star Trek" fit the classic sci-fi mold... The ordinary man caught in an extraordinary situation. (I believe it was Nick Meyer who wrote the line in a later Star Trek that best defines Captain Kirk's character for me, "I'm from Kansas, I just work in outer space.")
Also I had begun as a western writer, and there are many similarities between "Star Trek II" and a western... ending up with the "shootout at the old Mutara Nebula corral."
>>: Was there any particular writer who acted as sort of a mentor to you? If so, what did you learn?
JS: There was more than one.
The first was James R. Webb who gave me my first piece of advice when I decided to be a writer. He said...
I'll have to admit I was expecting something more, but that was the best piece of advice I ever got.
The next was Bill Bowers who gave me the secret of writing stories. I had sold my third script and was bone dry. I asked Bill where he got his stories... like THE GUNFIGHTER, with Gregory Peck...
"It's about this guy who's the fastest gun in the
West, and sick of it. He wants to settle down
with his wife and child."
THE SHEEPMAN, with Glen Ford...
"It's about this guy who's the stubbornest man in
the world. He does a lot of things just because
people tell him he can't."
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF with James Garner...
"It's about this guy who's on his way to Australia..."
I had the secret! I wrote those words and posted them up over my typewriter, and never had trouble with a story again...
"It's about this guy...."
And finally there was John Hawkins... who taught me more about writing than I can tell in a few paragraphs.
>>: Why do you write?
JS: It's not that I want to... I have to.
Writing is not a profession, it's a calling... like the priesthood. If you're not truly called, don't come...because it takes the heart of lion, the soul of artist, and a skin like the armor plate on a Sherman Tank to protect you from the criticism that comes from those who know all there is to know about writing... but can't.
Of course, I'll have to admit I didn't feel I had been truly called until they started paying me for it. Up to that point it was more like an obsessive hobby.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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