“I love the idea that you can go into a house and your grip on reality starts to loosen,” says director and screenwriter David Koepp, who confesses, “I feel like I’ve been telling that story for 25 years, but what can you do? You like what you like.”
Over Zoom, the Hollywood veteran weighs in on the parallels between his latest film You Should Have Left and his previous directorial efforts, particularly 1999’s Stir of Echoes and 2004’s Secret Window. He’s not wrong: All three films revolve around troubled male protagonists left to their own devices as they dig deeper holes for themselves.
But Koepp is also being modest. After all, you don’t become one of the most successful screenwriters of all time by telling the same damn story again and again — and, to be frank, he hasn’t. For 30 years and counting, Koepp has amassed one of the most enviable resumes in the industry, having delivered one box office smash after another.
He shattered Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn to pieces in Death Becomes Her, he cloned dinosaurs twice in both Jurassic Park and The Lost World, he designed Tom Cruise’s inaugural Mission: Impossible, he spun Marvel’s first cinematic web with Spider-Man, and, yes, he even managed to whip Indiana Jones out of development hell.
Those are just a few of the highlights, which is why this installment of 10 Years and 10 Questions proved so difficult. With Koepp, it’s both the years and the mileage, to paraphrase the aforementioned archaeologist, and you’ll see why below. From Apartment Zero to his latest thriller You Should Have Left, we tried to cover it all…
…so much so that we had to kick it up to 11.
Let’s start at the beginning with Apartment Zero. How did you get involved with Martin Donovan?
I was working for Morrie Eisenman, who’s a producer’s representative and a distributors representative. This was my internship in college, and then it became a slightly-paying job when I got out of college. He would represent an independent film that was trying to find distribution in the US or foreign video distributors that were looking for US films to put on video in their country, typically horror. A lot of horror.
Martin had written and directed a very small movie in England and was looking for an American writer, who would help him with a new script, because Martin’s Argentinian and he didn’t feel like he had the American vernacular down. Ironically, it turned out to be a movie that was set in Argentina, but with an American character.
So, we hit it off. I was, I think, 24 at the time, Martin was probably in his late 30s, and we loved a lot of the same kinds of movies. I certainly learned an enormous amount from him because he’d seen, as far as I can tell, every movie ever made to that point, and he exposed me to a lot of great cinema. Our ideas bounced off each other nicely, and our styles complemented each other pretty well.
We put that movie together in the way that you do independent movies when you’re young: We borrowed money. We told lies to people. We convinced a couple actors to be in it — Colin Firth and Hart Bochner — when we had no financing. And then we went out and sold foreign video rights to the movie with Morrie’s help and borrowed against the contract. We entered production with only about two-thirds of the money that we needed to complete the film.
It’s not an experience I was ever eager to repeat, but it was an exciting way to get started.
The two of you re-teamed on Death Becomes Her. Would you ever collaborate again?
We kept writing stuff together. We wrote another script in between there that was never made. But Death Becomes Her… I had this idea that I wanted to do a quartet of movies set in an apartment building in Los Angeles. There were four units in the building, and each unit would have a horrible thing happen in it.
The first story was about a guy who kills his wife. I’ve always loved Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and I thought a comedic horror movie that has a Virginia Woolf-type relationship in it would be a lot of fun. He kills her, but she’s a witch and doesn’t die. So I just thought, God, you know, imagine the thing she has to hold over his head now he’s actually killed her.
We thought that was pretty funny, and we started writing, and we quickly bagged the idea of the three other stories because we liked that story so much. And we wrote what we assumed would be an independent movie — maybe slightly bigger than Apartment Zero, maybe a $5 million budget if we were lucky — and then it became something completely other. Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine the director and cast that we would get.
Martin and I have stayed in touch over the years, but I think the wildly divergent nature of our personalities and our styles made it work for a couple of movies, but not for much more. I think our differences creatively were best summed up in one argument where I insisted on outlining something and Martin said, “How can I possibly decide what happens next if I hadn’t written what happens first?” And I said, “Well, how can I possibly write what happens first if I don’t know what happens next?”
And there was no resolving that argument.
What was the collaborative process like with Michael Crichton on Jurassic Park? Are there any set pieces you still wish you could see on screen?
Given how well the movie did and how much people embraced it, it’s hard to go back and say, “Ah, we should have done this… If only we would have done that…” So, I feel pretty happy with the way it ended up.
But, I never met Crichton. Nope. Never once. That is often the case in Hollywood. He had written a draft of the screenplay before I got there, and then I think one or two other writers had taken a shot at it. I think, like a lot of novelists, he was less interested in pursuing a script than he was in pursuing his next book. So, I just never met him.
The number of set pieces were made by Steven [Spielberg] before I got there. He didn’t have a script, but he knew which sequences he wanted to shoot. Then we made up some more, swapped up this for that, and, you know, the normal process. So, my primary — really, my only — collaboration with that script was with Steven — and it was pretty thrilling.
But that tends to be — even to this day — how things go on his movies. It tends to be just you and him, and he will seek other opinions from those he respects, but it’s really just the two of you in a room, which I find great. There’s an old expression: No one of us is dumb as all of us. I think if you get a bunch of people in the room together, we can make some pretty boneheaded decisions.
But movies, I think, are better when they’re told from a more restricted point of view.
What’s it like working with Spielberg one on one? Do you feel the movie magic?
There’s a profound love of popcorn that he has as an audience member. I’ve never worked with him on an historical drama; I’ve worked with him on more popcorn movies. When he feels like there’s an idea, that he can really picture himself sitting there in the audience eating popcorn and loving that movie, there is a great twinkle in his eye.
I still think there’s nothing he enjoys as much as making them up, and that’s good because that’s the part I like, too, and it’s the part that’s the most fun and the most pure because it’s the least hampered by reality. Or money. Or trying to get people to do stuff and the weather not screwing you over and all of those millions of things that can go wrong on a movie.
But like anybody, there’s ideas he has that don’t fly, and he’ll immediately turn on them and say, “No, that’s dumb.” What’s nice is the atmosphere around him. It’s a safe space where creatively you can feel free to say anything, and if it doesn’t work, then it doesn’t work. But I think he understands that without making that place where people can feel free to create and succeed or fail, you’re not gonna get their best ideas.
You wrote The Paper with your brother Stephen. How was that collaboration different than, say, with Martin Donovan? Have you two flirted with the idea of a followup in the age of New Media?
That’s an interesting idea. We have. What was great about [The Paper] is Steve is and has been a journalist his whole adult life, so I was really going into his world. He had the knowledge and expertise and the contacts to get us into all these press rooms around town, and I had a reasonable command of the craft of screenwriting.
So, our duties were pretty separate, which was great because where screenwriting teams often conflict and collide and eventually break apart is when you’re both trying to do the same thing and you’re both trying to have your own way. But our responsibilities were fairly different, our abilities were different, and that was wonderful.
We talked on and off over the years about another movie, and we also talked about how we unknowingly made a time capsule movie because the world changed so drastically and journalism changed so drastically. You look at that movie, which is 94 … within two years, the Internet would really have taken hold in mass culture and in most homes.
Journalism was about to go through profound changes, which it has, so it would be interesting to try it a follow up. The only thing is, I hope in that follow up you could still get the three o’clock meeting, which was the whole reason to do the movie. Those groups of witty people — witty, unhealthy people — jammed into a room together, being smart asses … those scenes to me were the whole reason to do the movie.
We hung out at The Post a lot, and then The Post was bought and sold a couple times, and everybody got fired at one point. Then the people we had been working with moved on to The Daily News, so we started hanging out there. A lot of the best lines, moments, situations, or character beats were things that happened right in front of us, and we just wrote it down on the side of our leg, hoping nobody noticed, and put it in the script.
Mission: Impossible still remains the most complex screenplay in the franchise. Was that always intended or was it a result of working through so many writers like Steven Zaillian and Robert Towne.
It was designed to be complex, yes. I don’t if it was designed to be perhaps quite as complex as it turned out… [Laughs.] But We meant it to be complicated. It’s a spy story. It’s supposed to have twists and turns, so there was a lot of emphasis on that — and we worked very hard on that. I think that the somewhat tortured development and production history of the movie, which has been chronicled elsewhere, contributed to that complexity.
There was a point in the few weeks leading up to production where I was in London in one hotel, and Robert Towne was in London in another hotel, I was writing for Brian [De Palma], Towne was writing for [Tom] Cruise, they were waving pages at each other, arguing over what to shoot, and, you know, that’s gonna make it a little more complicated.
But, out of it, they persevered and made a really terrific movie, and I think sometimes the creative strain is great for a movie. There’s the old expression: “great experience, bad film.” I think sometimes the opposite is also true: “rough experience, good film.” Not always, though. Sometimes it’s “rough experience, shitty film,” which is very discouraging. [Laughs.]
Were there ever discussions for you and De Palma to continue with M:I2?
No, it was a tough experience, so I think Tom was eager to try somebody new.
Stir of Echoes arrived three years after your directorial debut in The Trigger Effect. Did your approach towards the screenplay change now that you had experience behind the camera?
I was more determined to think of interesting visuals. Everybody says writing scripts is about, yes, nice characters and dialogue, but it’s also about writing cinema, writing visuals, and you don’t get that fully until you have to edit what you’ve shot. And when what you’ve shot is three people sitting around a room in overs and close ups, you think, Gee, it would have been nice to have some interesting shots in here.
With Stir of Echoes, certainly, I was trying to create more compelling visuals, and the hypnosis sequences were a big part of that. And also trying to come up with ways to shoot people in rooms talking that wasn’t just overs and singles, so I think that there was a leap.
I also had really good source material to work with. Stir of Echoes is based on a Richard Matheson novel, and Matheson, of course, is the fantastic fantasy writer who wrote most of everybody’s favorite Twilight Zones, and What Dreams May Come, and tons of other stuff. This was a somewhat neglected book of his from the 1950s that I had gotten the rights to, and it’s easy to think of good visuals and good ways of telling a story as a director when you have a really solid story to work from — and that’s a really solid story.
Click ahead into the new millennium with stories on Spider-Man, Indiana Jones, and Stephen King…
Looking back on Spider-Man, what are your thoughts on the comic book movies today and do you have any interest in returning to the genre? Do you feel you had more freedom in the genre in 2002 than today?
Well, certainly in 2002, there were no there pre-determined story constraints. We weren’t operating according to somebody’s master plan. Now, sometimes a master plan is really great to have; other times, you’re just kind of filling in the blanks. Obviously, Marvel’s done a great job, and made fantastic movies, but I don’t know that I have anything
particular to offer the genre. I feel like I did it. It was cool. I liked it a lot. The movie turned out great.
But I also don’t know that they’re interested in me. I think they’re interested in an on-going system of movies, and I’m not… I like on-going systems of things, but I’d rather … I don’t know. It’s a great big machine that I’m not sure I would be a productive part of, so back then… [jokes] “Back in my day…” [Laughs.] But back then, it was exciting because it was dangerous, you know?
When we started developing it, there hadn’t been a successful comic book movie since the second Batman, and there had been a lot of really bad ones in the meantime. Comic book movies were looked down on, and then X-Men came out while we were shooting, and that was pretty exciting because it was taken more seriously. Aside from being a very good movie, it was warmly received — not just by audiences, but my critics too — and that started to change things.
And then I think Raimi’s Spider-Man really changed things. Profoundly.
It absolutely did; it was phenomenon. I saw it 12 times in theaters! How embarrassing! [Laughs.]
Nothing embarrassing about seeing it 12 times. When I was 16, or 17, Empire Strikes Back came out, and I saw it easily 15 times. A number of them in a drive-in in Waukesha, Wisconsin, which was really awesome. But, when you’re in that window… There’s this thing between like 14 and 24, where you’re really a sponge and your preferences are being formed and the things that are gonna define your aesthetic preferences for the rest of your life are coming in. And when you hit something that really speaks to an aesthetic that agrees with you, you have to go see it a lot. You got to see it over and over and over again because that’s what you like, and I’m glad you picked ours.
Why Secret Window? What drew you to this particular Stephen King story?
King is the master. I love his stuff. I love the way he writes. I love the way he writes about writing. His book On Writing and Danse Macabre, his overview on American horror fiction is essential reading. So, I love his stuff. The fact that it was his made me want to do it, but I also really like person-alone stories. That’s one of the things I love about You Should Have Left. It’s about a guy alone in a house. His wife and his kid are with him, but it’s a pretty solitary struggle. I love that stuff.
I Am Legend is one of my favorite novels of all time, and though it’s been made into a movie four times, I don’t think it’s ever been done justice — particularly not the book’s beautiful ending. It’s one of the most perfect endings for a story that I’ve ever read, and it’s never made it into the four separate versions of the movie.
But anyways, Secret Window. I love that aspect of it. I love the tone. I love the idea that you can go into a house and your grip on reality starts to loosen. I feel like I’ve been telling that story for 25 years, what can you do? You like what you like.
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was in development hell for years. Given the talent and history behind it, was this project tedious?
All projects are tedious because they all have to go through numerous stages, and you have to deal with a lot of people. I would really call it a dream and a nightmare rather than tedious because obviously I love Raiders so much, I love Steven [Spielberg], and to get to work on [an Indiana Jones film], you’re really lucky.
However, you’re also cursed because everybody owns it — not you. And everybody’s got ideas about how it ought to be, and you will never be good enough for them. Now, I’m not saying everything I wrote was a work of genius and it was misunderstood by anybody who didn’t like it, but …
I liken working on that movie to when a basketball team is on the road, and somebody goes to the line to shoot free throws, and all the fans behind the basket are screaming and waving and banging those things together to try to make them miss. I kind of felt like that while I was writing it because there were a lot of opinions about what it ought to be like.
And by then, by 2007, when I was working on it, the Internet’s up and running full steam, and it was hard to tune out the noise. So, I think I did some things that are good, I think I did some things that weren’t, but it was never for a lack of trying.
Do you think we’ll ever see another adventure with Indy?
Boy, I don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine. I did several versions of the story with Steven. I feel like we got really close, in particular, with the last one, but it didn’t quite work out for Steven and Harrison. It didn’t all work out. So, I would love to see what James Mangold comes up with, and I hope there’s one because I’d love to go to it without the pressure of hoping people like it. I can just go to see if I like it.
The Mummy was set to kick off Universal’s now-reworked Dark Universe franchise. I’ve read you’re still interested in reimagining Bride of Frankenstein.
I did. I wrote it not long ago. I finished it about a month ago. I had kept with it with Universal because after the Dark Universe didn’t work out, I loved that Universal stepped back and said, “Hang on, that’s not working. Everybody stop. Everybody out of the pool. Let’s think about this for a year or two.”
I just thought that was great corporate guidance, because when do they ever say that? “Let’s think about it for a year or two.” And they did step back and said, “We think we don’t have a master plan. We want to hear what filmmakers think. And we want to try and make interesting and unusual movies that don’t cost a fortune and don’t have huge movie stars. Let’s see what that’s like.”
And so, with that in mind, I had these ideas about how I’d like to take another shot at the Bride script, and happily, they let me. So, I gave it to them about a month ago, and they really liked it, and they’re talking to directors now. Hopefully, there’s news on that soonish
Like Stir of Echoes and Secret Window, You Should Have Left follows another man haunted by his inner demons. To circle back to our discussion earlier, is this something that terrifies you personally?
I grew up in rural Wisconsin in the 1970s, and I went to Catholic school ’til I was 12, which I feel like could answer that question just on its own. I remember one of the things that scared me the most was The Exorcist. It came out when I was 11 probably. Was it 74? Oh, 73? Okay, that sounds right. So, let’s say, I was 10.
I remember I didn’t see the movie, of course, because my parents aren’t going to take me to that, but there was an ad in the paper that said, “Fact: The devil can possess any man, woman, or child of his choosing,” and it was terrifying. It was horrifying to me. I just like that they put the word “Fact” on it also. How’s that provable exactly?
But that idea, that your mind… that you could be taken… that never stopped rattling around inside my head. So, I guess I have a Warner Brothers marketing executive to thank for that. Now that I’m saying all this out loud, though, I remember that I would have been 17 when The Shining came out. So, how does that not affect me profoundly, too?