An interview with Dr. Jeffrey Couchman
By: Sidney Mansueto
Dr. Jeffrey Couchman is a screenwriting professor at the College of Staten Island. A member of the CSI community since 2012, his focus on screenwriting extended his career from screenwriter to educator.
Couchman earned a bachelor’s degree in film production from Southern Illinois University, and then a master’s in English from CUNY Hunter College. Later on, he earned his PhD in English from the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.
I sat down with Couchman recently to interview him, where I asked some of the most intriguing and fascinating questions about the screenwriting industry and his life as a creator.
Couchman first discovered his interest in screenwriting by reading a lot when he was younger.
“I devoured books as a kid,” he says.
He also watched tons of movies and television, and he would even act out scenes from them.
“Watching, of course, lead to creating. When I was in 5th grade, I knew I wanted to work in film. I didn’t know what I wanted to do in film exactly, because at the time my focus was short stories and novels. When I got to college was when I realized I wanted to work in the writing part of the film industry.”
Couchman always had a passion for film and books. “I would spend my summers watching a lot of television, which was where most ideas came from. I started writing stories and novels in the 5th grade, and screenwriting in high school.”
“It wasn’t until college,” he says, “when I wrote my first full screenplay of 170 pages.”
He always knew that he was going to teach.
“Throughout college,” says Couchman, “I kept a file box of notes and information, and always wondered how I can put that information to good use. I began my teaching career in the PhD program while at Hunter, where I got my start as a teaching assistant.”
Couchman began teaching at the College of Staten Island in 2012. He sent out his resumes to numerous openings and CSI’s Media Department called him to offer him a job as a professor.
When asked about the best thing about the art of screenwriting, he responded, “the idea of living and being alone with the characters I create. It’s simply the isolation and interaction that excites me.
“The interesting thing is how their realm suddenly becomes mine. It’s fun to watch them come to life and interact.”
Couchman said that the worst thing about screenwriting is the lack of credit the writers get. “When you look at someone like a director or an actor, the contrast in the amount of credit they receive is unbelievable. The whole film is literally in the writer’s hands. I would like to see writers be acknowledged more in the film industry.”
A valuable thing that he learned as a screenwriter is to always trust yourself. This also applies to when working with collaborators who may influence or change your ideas.
His screenplays are mainly character-driven.
“There is something interesting about a character’s initial needs and how they manage to jump from point A to point B. Structure begins with a character and tells a lot of who they are, where they are, and what they are doing.”
Couchman wrote the lyrics to the musical “Battleship Potemkin,” which was based on the film. The musical was translated into German and performed at the New York Theater, and the Hartt School in Connecticut.
He also wrote the play “Three Wise Guys,” which was an off-Broadway production that ran at the Beckett Theatre in New York.
The hardest project he wrote was a novel about his sister who attempted suicide. The deep, dark and personal subject matter made it difficult for him to write it.
The easiest project he wrote was “Three Wise Guys” since it “…was based on two short stories by Damon Runyon. Scott Evans worked as a collaborator with me.”
Couchman wrote his first screenplay right when he got out of college. He had just gotten married and had some friends in his apartment and they were constantly writing.
The project soon became 170 pages, but was too long for a screenplay.
He finds most of his inspiration for his projects by observing people. “I think looking at what they are doing at a specific moment makes me think. It makes me want to write.”
When Couchman hits a “dead end” when writing, he likes to take naps or walk. “It’s good to remove yourself from the space of the paper for a while.”
He is influenced by the works of Billy Wilder and Robert Towne. Wilder’s “… films have everything you need to know about structure. There is also snappy dialogue.” Towne’s film “Chinatown” “…is so organic and pieced together beautifully.”
Couchman’s advice for someone who wants to pursue screenwriting is to read a lot and see a lot of movies. He also recommends going back to the classics, and studying the past and watch films analytically.