Jim Kouf may have left San Luis Obispo’s laid-back lifestyle for the fast-paced Hollywood scene but he brought with him his love for writing that he developed while attending Cal Poly.
Since graduating in 1974, Kouf has become a screenwriter, director and producer for films and television shows. Some of his credits include writing screenplays for “National Treasure,” “Rush Hour,” “Snow Dogs,” “Stakeout” and episodes for the TV shows “Ghost Whisperer” and “Angel.”
Kouf returned to his roots last week as part of the College of Liberal Arts distinguished speaker series. He discussed his career path, offered advice to students and community members interested in working in the movie and television business and screened his new independent film “A Fork in the Road.”
Kouf majored in English with a history minor. Ironically those were his two least favorite subjects in high school.
“I decided it was more of the teachers than anything else that made the subjects come alive. The professors I had here were great; especially Krieger in history,” Kouf said.
His history background came in handy when writing the script for “National Treasure,” a film filled with historical landmarks that the main characters encounter as they embark on a hunt for treasure.
Kouf said discovering he had the ability to write well was the most important skill he learned at Cal Poly.
“It was when I took playwriting that I discovered I could do this and get As and it wasn’t that difficult and I really enjoyed it,” he said. “Everyone was suffering with their senior projects and I wrote a play. It was really then that I discovered I could maybe do this and make a living at it.”
After graduation Kouf moved back home to Burbank, Calif. for a few weeks before moving in with friends in Canoga Park, Calif.
“I didn’t want to leave San Luis Obispo. I was living the life, there was no traffic, the weather was good, I was right next to the beach,” he said. “That was a hard, hard transition; I didn’t know what I was going back to.”
Kouf worked jobs selling paint and driving a truck while writing in his spare time. Two years, 11 TV and six feature scripts later, he had his first success. He gave the script to his future agent, who was working in the mailroom at the time and who then forwarded it to his mother, a producer at the time.
“His mom liked it enough that she paid me $500 and made me rewrite it about 10 times,” Kouf said. “It took me awhile to understand that you really need to go over it again and again and again to make sure it’s alright, but that script got into such great shape that the script then started to get me work.”
His script “Whitewater” was later renamed “White Water Rebels” and appeared as a made-for-TV movie. And he’s been working in the industry ever since.
Kouf met his wife on the Paramount Pictures set. She is a producer and was working on “Airplane 2” while he was working on “Airplane 3,” he said in his presentation. The couple has four children and have worked as business partners for the past 20 years.
“We’re always around our offices at home; he’s in one room and I’m in the other,” Lynn Kouf said. “Then at six o’clock, sort of when it’s all over, then we are parents and husband and wife. It’s great; we work really well together.”
Their most recent film, “A Fork in the Road,” cost $1 million dollars and was filmed in Montana where they live sporadically throughout the year.
“We cast this movie out of our living room; it was great. We had all these actors showing up at our house and the kids kept peeking around the corner while they were reading,” she said.
The movie’s fate is unknown. It is currently with a sales agency that will try to find buyers worldwide who then sell it to distributors.
Kouf described the film as a classic farce.
“‘A Fork In the Road,’ the basic idea was what if a guy escapes from prison, hides out in a house and sees something that will ultimately changes his life? That was the basic beginning of that.”
Kouf said he doesn’t know how his brain keeps coming up with new ideas for scripts but it just does.
“I think of complications or you know there is drama going around everyday all around and some of it’s funny and some of it is not,” he said. “You get an idea and you write it down and my feeling is that if the idea sticks with you long enough, it is worth pursuing and some ideas you look at it the next day and think that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.”
He explained his thought process when writing the script for “Stakeout.”
“I wanted to do a movie about two guys stuck in a room; that was it, that was my basic concept. Two guys stuck in a room, why are they stuck in a room? Who gets stuck in a room?” he said. “Well cops can get stuck in a room during a stakeout. Well now I have two cops stuck in a room, now what can they do?”
The movie won an Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Motion Picture in 1988.
Kouf said his proudest accomplishment is his family. Professionally, however, “I have had three movies in the top 10; ‘Stakeout,’ ‘Rush Hour’ and ‘National Treasure’ have all been in the top-10 money makers for their respective years,” he said. “There is a movie called ‘The Hidden’ and my name on it is Bob Hunt because at one point in my career I had a science fiction side and a regular side and that happened to go into the science fiction side and that became a cult movie.”
In the future he has no plans of retiring or to stop what he loves best, writing movies.
“I don’t think this has ever been a job because I’ve never not wanted to go to work and my hours are never set so I could work a five-hour day or a 14-hour day, you never know,” he said.
He compares his line of work to a circus with constant travel. Kouf’s films have taken him to France, England and Mexico. Currently he’s developing several different projects and will go to Italy for five weeks to teach a writing class for New York University.
“My advice is find whatever you are passionate about and do it,” he said. “If you’re passionate about it that’s what you’re going to want to do and you’re not going to object to going to work.
“Follow your passions because money doesn’t matter,” he added. “If you love what you are doing, you don’t care, you really don’t care.”