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So What Do You Do, David Koepp?

How to stare down a huge blockbuster sequel and why New York can trump L.A. even if you're employed in entertainment

By E. A. Puck - March 21, 2007
David The mind of David Koepp (pronounced "kepp") is a place we should all visit. Stay for a while. And order food. Writer of the screenplays for The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Mission Impossible, Spiderman, and Panic Room, director of Secret Window and Stir of Echoes, he talks about deli suspense, sleep as an editor, how to stare down a huge blockbuster sequel, and why he lives in New York instead of southern California.

Name: David Koepp
Position: Screenwriter, also film director when I'm lucky
Education: B.F.A. in film, UCLA
Hometown: Pewaukee, WI
First script: Against the Law, a.k.a., Common Law, a.k.a., couldn't sell it to save my life.
Last 3 scripts/movies: War of the Worlds, Ghost Town, "Indiana Jones and the pending title."
Birthdate: June 9, 1963
Marital Status: married
Family: Wife, Melissa Thomas; sons, Benjamin, Nicholas, and Henry.

What's the first thing you do when you get to the office?
I drink my double tall skim latte, check my email, and commence the lengthy process of wasting time on the Internet until I am so filled with self-loathing for not writing that actually writing becomes the only way to salvage any shred of my self-image. That usually takes two or three hours.

So you have an office?
Yes. I've worked at home on and off over the years, but it gets kinda weird -- like, you look up and realize you haven't been out of the house for 72 hours, and when you do go out in the street and see people, you start sort of cringing. So even though the office is only a dozen blocks from home, I usually figure, "Well, I came all this way, I might as well write something."

O.K., there's an office. Do you have 'people'?
I have a great assistant. He's also a writer, so we try to stay out of each other's way.

What's the first work-related thing you do before you get to the office?
Probably wake up in the middle of the night with an idea that turns out to be no good in the morning. I think the nature of writing is such that you're always working, or at least always able to be working -- "Hey, look at this piece of origami I found on the street! Maybe I can make a scene out of it!"

So much of writing is a matter of recycling and reinterpreting the tiny little minutiae of your own life, but that's all you've got. Of course, the danger with that is that your life and interests can become so narrow and repetitive, as life tends to push us in the direction of anyway, that your writing gets repetitive. I'm writing something now for a director I've worked with in the past, and the other day he said, "Didn't you use a version of this same line in the last movie?" And I said "Hey, I've only got so many tricks, man." But I'm working on that.

You live in New York City, so there are no bungalows and lunches at The Palm with agents... or are there?
No bungalows or studio lots, but you can always have lunch at The Palm if you want. Agents and studio executives and directors and producers -- they all come to New York. I really love working in Hollywood, but living in New York, it's a much calmer lifestyle for me. Being in Los Angeles arouses the crazy-competitive-fearful side of my nature. I couldn't walk into [popular West Coast coffee chain] the Coffee Bean [and Tea Leaf] without noticing how many people had laptops with screenplays on the screen. It felt like they were all breathing down my neck trying to take my job. Which they are, but it's easier to put that out of your mind when you live in New York.

What are you working on now? And if you can't tell us, make something up.
I wrote the script for the new Indiana Jones movie, which starts shooting in June. I'm doing rewrites now. I've been trying like hell for about two years to get a certain movie going for myself to direct, but that is an endeavor roughly equivalent to pushing a large beached whale back into the sea.

First thing you have to do in any writing job is put all the voices out of your head and write a movie that you, yourself, would enjoy seeing. Any other approach and you're chasing the parade instead of leading it.

How do you approach a project like Indiana Jones, that has such history? Is it daunting to write a sequel to such a blockbuster? Did you approach this script in any different ways because of its legacy?
I'd be a fool if I didn't consider the history and impact of the Indiana Jones movies before starting this one. I mean, Raiders was the movie that made me first consider screenwriting as a valid career choice. Until then, it had never occurred to me that somebody actually WROTE these things and that, in this case anyway, it seemed like they had a pretty good time at the office while they were doing it. Of course, I'm somewhat daunted by the past when trying to push "Indy" into the present, but the first thing you have to do in any writing job is put all the voices -- studio, critics audience, etc. -- out of your head and write a movie that you, yourself, would enjoy seeing. Any other approach and you're chasing the parade instead of leading it.

I also think there's a huge risk of writing a "fan" movie in this case, instead of writing an actual movie. I tried to approach this as a standalone movie; you don't need to have seen the others to appreciate or enjoy it.

Other than that, the truth is, I only know one way to write, so I wrote it that way.

What is your level of involvement with a movie once the script is done? Any torturous rewrites requested by lame-brained ferrets?
The best projects for me are the ones where I can be involved from inception all the way through looping at the end. Those are satisfying experiences. During shooting, though, I tend to stay away as much as I can. I used to go to the set all the time when I was younger, but the actors and director have a tendency to see me as a big walking keyboard and want to bang on me (so to speak).

There's a great temptation to change things on the day, new ideas always sound better because they're fresh, and just different from the stuff you've been working over and over for a couple years. But you have to resist that temptation; just because you're tired of the other stuff doesn't mean it isn't good. It's held up for two years for a reason. My hope is that if I stay away, they'll shoot what's on the page.

As you are a very successful screenwriter and director, are there contracts that prohibit ferrets from changing your work?
Absolutely none. Nobody, but nobody, has those kind of guarantees as a screenwriter, and the only way to get them as a director is to have a couple hits so that you can negotiate final cut into your contract. Moviemaking is a very rough-and-tumble business, creatively speaking, and if you've got no taste for the fray, you'd better stay away.

How are you a better director as a screenwriter or vice versa?
They're separate disciplines, but I think that doing one job helps you understand the other one better, or at least more sympathetically. I think that goes for all the disciplines on a movie -- directors should take a few acting classes to see what it feels like, actors should try to write a script or two to get a feel for the big picture, and writers should try directing so they can experience what a director means when he says, "Say it with pictures."

How difficult is it to see the final movie with your words completely changed? On average, how much are your words changed?
I've been lucky to have had mostly great experiences with directors, and I think it's because I've gotten to work with talented and secure people. It's the ones who, deep down, know that they kinda suck, who are a drag to work with, because they're threatened by everyone and everything around them: including the sunrise -- so they develop a tendency to trample those around them to remind themselves they're in charge. And, they can do that because of their job title. The result is usually not so good. Sometimes it's best to just take a hike early on when you smell that process coming.

Tell me about your writing process: Is it linear, do you work on several scripts at once?
Of course, the best thing is to work on one thing at a time, but that doesn't seem to be the nature of freelance work: it's usually feast or famine. And, no movie ever went into production because the writer's schedule opened up, so when the great and happy moment of having a movie made comes along, it's usually at the worst possible time for me, in terms of work and my personal life. But, it's a dilemma I will happily take.

Do you keep notes and notebooks with you at all times?
Whenever I start with a new script idea, I buy one of those marbled composition books like we used to have in school, and if the thing ends up getting made, I fill a couple of them by the end. Of course, I have a bunch of notebooks that have splashy titles on the cover, two pages of notes inside, and the rest stayed blank forever.

My wife recently bought me a bunch of notecards in a little box for my nightstand, because I usually think of stuff that seems important as I'm falling asleep, and that's been great. Ideas are your currency, and you never know when they're going to show up, so you'd better take care of them.

Describe your writing 'area' -- any rules for yourself? Schedule you try to adhere to? Special pens, paper, pets? Strange routines we would delight in hearing?
My writing area is an L-shaped desk facing a wall. The left side of the L is the computer and other writing-related stuff, the right side of the L is anything else. I used to have a view out a window, but that was a huge mistake: I barely wrote anything for six months. So, I closed the blinds and turned to face the wall, and got a lot more done.

As for a schedule and a routine, I would absolutely love to have one, but I think I lack the discipline. I get there when I can, and I stay as long as I can take it. The only thing I do with consistency is order lunch. I order one of only two menu items every single day from the coffee shop across the street, and I am so consistent I no longer need to identify myself when I call. Sample conversation:

I like that last order in particular, because of the natural tension between the egg whites and the cheese.

Describe your awareness of what's going on in the world when you're writing: Did you know that Anna Nicole Smith died?
Jesus, I'm not a hermit.

In fact, when I'm writing I'm always exceptionally well-informed about bullshit media stories, because I spend so much time working up my self-disgust on the Internet.

What is the most interesting media story you're aware of right now?
I'd have to go with that war we got goin' on.

What's the first thing you bought with your first big check, from selling a script?
I bought time on a mixing stage so we could finish Apartment Zero, an independent movie I cowrote and produced that had run out of money in post[-production]. I sold a screenplay called Bad Influence around that time, and plowed the money back into Apartment Zero. John Kamps, a very funny and wonderful writer whom I partner with sometimes, had also worked on Apartment Zero, and we took a couple of disreputable rewrite jobs (which we were lucky to get) around that time to pay for the rest of post. I never saw the money again, but I still think it was well-spent.

Your work is broad -- thrillers, comedy, drama... Is Hollywood more comfortable niche-ing writers and directors? (Yes, I made that word up.)
Oh, Hollywood nichifies like crazy, and you can't really blame them. I mean, I wouldn't hire a plumber to build my kitchen cabinets. It's your responsibility to continually try to force your way out of your niche, and they're not going to let you do that on their dime. I try to write on spec at least every year or two, and even in the cases where I haven't been able to sell them, they've been good experiences. Frustrating, sure, but you learn a lot about different kinds of writing, and there's nothing that feels quite as good and clean as the feeling of writing a first draft of something that nobody knows or cares about.

What's your favorite movie? Why?
Probably Rosemary's Baby. It's just the perfect blend of character study and genre movie, and that is so incredibly hard to pull off -- it's right up there with hitting a curveball or writing a good pop song. The writing, the performances, the direction, there's just not a wrong note anywhere in it, and, it's massively entertaining.

What is your favorite movie as a screenwriter?
There are so many. His Girl Friday, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Sunset Boulevard, Tootsie, The Apartment, Jaws, Dr. Strangelove, Double Indemnity, The Godfather -- you know, it just goes on and on.

As a director...
John Ford's cavalry trilogy (Fort Apache, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Rio Grande) and, you know, see above list. I think with really great filmmaking, you can't spot the line between writing and directing very easily. A recent movie that was just astonishingly well-directed is Children of Men. I was overcome by how good it was.

What's the last book you read, or what are you reading now?
I just swore off any more Iraq books, because I read them all, and halfway through the last one, I felt I got the point -- we kinda screwed the pooch over there.

I'm reading another Patricia Highsmith novel now, this one's called The Blunderer, which is about a would-be criminal who makes every mistake in the world. [It'll] never be a movie -- audiences would throw things at the screen -- but [it's] fascinating to watch her characters slowly rip themselves apart through sheer self-destructiveness.

What were the challenges to break into the business when you started out?
Same as it is now: "Who the fuck are you?" But, what is usually perceived as the hard part -- getting your script read -- is actually much easier than the process of actually writing a great story. If you can do that, it'll be easy to find somebody to sell it for you.

What are the challenges now that you are successful and established?
Staying motivated and self-critical and hardworking, because there is just absolutely no substitute for hard work. And, as I slide inexorably into middle age, the challenge becomes to stay relevant and to make myself irreplaceable. If anybody figures out how to do that, please let me know, because I have yet to see a single human being pull it off.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This interview contains excerpts, and has been edited for clarity.]

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