David Koepp: Writer Not Auteur
David Koepp reveals why all screenwriters want to be directors, why directing is psychologically-damaging, and why new film technologies are like pornography.
By Erik Bauer and David Goldsmith.
Growing up in Pewaukee, WI, Koepp initially pursued acting, but eventually studied screenwriting at UCLA Film School. His first screen credit was Apartment Zero, co-written with brother-in-law Martin Donovan. This Argentinean drama didn’t light many fires in Hollywood, but his next screenplay Bad Influence, would net Koepp a young agent on the move and serious interest from the studios.
Koepp would go on to write the script for Death Becomes Her (with Martin Donovan again), but it was his work on Jurassic Park that truly established his position in Hollywood. Yet that important screen credit didn’t come easy. Against the advice he received, Koepp filed with the Writers Guild for sole screenplay credit, even though Michael Crichton had written the novel and the initial drafts of the script. His efforts would be rewarded, however, with shared screenplay credit on the highest grossing film of that day.
Koepp admits that he’s spoiled—most of his screenplays have been produced. But one major factor behind this success has surely been his ability to work with the most prominent directors in Hollywood, including Steven Spielberg (Jurassic Park, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), Brian De Palma (Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes), Ron Howard (The Paper, co written with his brother Stephen Koepp, Angels & Demons), Robert Zemeckis (Death Becomes Her), Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) and Kenneth Branagh (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit).
He has also directed several of his own screenplays, including Stir of Echoes, Secret Window, Ghost Town and Premium Rush.
Creative Screenwriting interviewed David Koepp in both 1998 and 2001, and the following article contains highlights from these.
What was your life like between finishing UCLA film school and selling your first screenplay Bad Influence?
Well, before Bad Influence I did Apartment Zero. I was working as an intern for a guy who represented foreign distributors and when I finished school he gave me a paying job. We bought American B movies for release through foreign video companies. I was writing scripts at night and was working with a guy named Martin Donovan, who had a great idea for a story, so we wrote the script together. Then Morrie Eisenman, the guy who I was working for, helped us sell the foreign rights to the movie and we used the money to pay for about half of the film. We didn’t get paid for Apartment Zero, but I was working on a movie within a year or so of getting out of film school.
How many scripts did you write before Apartment Zero?
I think Apartment Zero was probably my sixth.
Since you’ve become successful, have you sold any of those?
No. I think the scripts that didn’t get made from that era and a script I wrote recently that didn’t get made…. I think there’s very good reasons why. I’m content to learn from those mistakes in private rather than force the public in on it.
How did you go about getting representation by Gavin Polone?
I had written the script Bad Influence and thought that was the one which would help get me an agent, so I just followed William Goldman’s advice in Adventures in the Screen Trade. He says, “Call everybody you know and ask them if they know an agent.” From that I got three contacts and people who said they would read my script. Gavin was one of them—an old girlfriend of mine had gone to high school with him. So I got the script to him sort of by hook or by crook, he liked it and signed me. He was at ICM at the time.
In the past you’ve said that one of the reasons for your success is that you’ve worked really hard. I’m wondering, do you think people underestimate the amount of work it takes to produce a good screenplay?
I think they find out once they get in and start writing it. I think that a lot of people are unwilling to go beyond a first or second draft, and to really listen to what other people are telling them—including myself sometimes. But if you really listen to what people are saying and you’re getting some consensus of response, sometimes it implies a really thorough start-over. And that’s not always easy to face. So, I don’t know if they’re unwilling to accept it, but I think a lot of people are unwilling to do it.
What about the work it takes to create an ongoing screenwriting career? How does that differ?
Well, it depends what kind of career you want. It depends on what your goals are for yourself. To keep a career going you first have to decide what you want. Is your career about money? Respect? Personal satisfaction? Is it about impressing women? The biggest thing is to decide what is important to you.
How have your career goals changed over the years?
Well, it’s very nice to have a successful movie. I mean you want to have something that does well so that people want to hire you and you can continue to work. And having a successful movie does feel really good. It feels even better, though, to have a movie that’s well reviewed and that people admire. That’s important. Because you know, it seems like with the stuff I’ve worked on that has had success, sometimes it seems like it’s almost the inverse: the stuff that is praised doesn’t do well and the stuff that is successful gets picked on.
Tell us about your work on Snake Eyes.
I was really happy with that one. I particularly liked it because it’s an original. Working on an original is always more satisfying than an adaptation. And working with somebody that you’re friends with is a lot of fun too. Brian De Palma and I have gotten to be really close over the years. This was our third movie together, and I like the way it came together. We sort of noodled with it for a couple years before finally deciding to get serious about it, and it wasn’t until we felt the script was pretty much done that we went out to get the financing for it. I think there’s a lot to be said for solving your script problems in private because when you take a job or go out with a script before it’s ready, you’re going to have a lot of people who are very anxious to help you solve your script problems. The best scripts always come from the fewest people in the room.
Is that true with rewrites as well? Do they tend to get worse with the number of people who’ve worked on them?
My feeling is that they get worse or they get different, but they never get better. I think the idea in a screenplay reaches its fruition around the third or fourth draft. Any further improvements strain at the limits of the idea, because the concept always limits how good the script is going to be, and they’re not limitless. They are occasionally, but those are classics. After the third or fourth draft you can make it different, but you have an overwhelming chance of making it worse. And that is what usually happens.
Your work on Mission: Impossible was a re-write. What were your marching orders on that script?
Brian De Palma and Steve Zallian had worked out a treatment and then Zallian had other commitments, so I came in and continued to work on the treatment with Brian. I wrote the first half dozen drafts or so. And then I came back later, after they had gotten someone else to work on it, and worked on it again for several weeks.
How did your work on Mission: Impossible differ from your work on Jurassic Park?
Not strikingly. In Jurassic Park I came in and worked from the book and in this I came in and worked from a treatment. It differed in that I was replaced. That was different, and not so enjoyable. I think Mission: Impossible was brilliantly directed but people had trouble following the story. That’s what you get when you shuffle different writers’ script pages together and hope for the best.
How conscious of structure are you when you sit down to write a first draft?
So, how do you approach writing a new script from stage one, when you just have an idea?
I let the idea cook for as long as I can without doing anything. It’s like the germination stage, where I’m just leaving it in the back of my mind. Then I’ll start to do research, which can vary wildly depending on what kind of thing it is, even if it’s just talking to people. In the research phase, you’re sort of formulating characters. Then when I get serious about it, I’ll sit down and outline it on index cards.
I usually do scene cards. That said, on Panic Room I wanted to try something different, so I wrote a treatment, which is something I almost never do. It was about thirty pages long, and it just told the story. And then from that I wrote the script. It was one of my favorite writing experiences ever, because I got the five or six soundtracks that I thought were appropriate, and I wrote most of it with headphones on in a very compressed amount of time. I had the idea, and I thought about it for a couple of years. Then I wrote the treatment, and thought about that for a couple of months. Then I sat down and wrote the script almost as a sprint during a two-week period. A first draft. And then I revised it for a year and a half.
But I think first drafts—especially first drafts with this kind of movie—you have to burn through them fast; you don’t want to lose your focus. In this case, there are a lot of esthetic boundaries that I made for myself. I wanted to see if I could do the whole thing in one location. And I also wanted to do the whole thing without any dialogue. The one-location thing I achieved in the first draft. There’s a little exposition on the streets of New York at the beginning of the piece, and there’s a scene at the end that’s also on the streets, but it’s ninety-six percent in one location. But the no-dialogue thing quickly became artificial. I couldn’t get through the first twenty pages without having somebody say something!
What about with an adaptation? You said that’s not quite as enjoyable an experience.
Well, just because it’s not yours. They’re fine, you know, and usually when I’m working on an original I wish I was working on an adaptation and vice versa, just because you have something to work from. Especially in something with a science or espionage element or any really detailed field, it’s great to be working from source material because you know, you get these techno-geeks who’ve spent three years researching big government spy stuff, so that’s extremely helpful. But in an original the characters are always going to be a little more from your heart. It’s more satisfying because it’s a little more personal.
In building and maintaining a career in Hollywood, how should a writer divide their time between writing and networking?
Well, if you have a good agent or manager, that’s their job. Writing is so hard to do well that it’s a big enough job for anybody. I think that it’s good to maintain relations with people you’ve worked with in the past whom you would like to work with again. But as far as going out and trying to schmooze studio executives, I can’t think of a bigger waste of time.
You’ve said in the past that visual effects movies are pushing the screenwriter into a less important role in Hollywood.
In certain kinds of movies, yes.
What do you think writers can do to fight against that trend?
Well, in the creation of your original material just find better and more organic— although I hate that word because studio executives use it a lot—uses for the effects. When Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park came out, they were like The Jazz Singer—they brought a whole new age of a cinematic tool that audiences and filmmakers alike were fascinated with. And so a lot of the first movies that come from that, from any new tool, they’re like porn.
What do you mean?
The first application of any new technology is always pornographic. Like the porno sites on the Internet. When anything new comes along, the first application of it is always going to be base because it’s a new toy. You want to see whether we can make a city explode. Can we make tornadoes? Can we make volcanoes? There’s that sort of fascination with it, and that’s okay because you’re trying it out. Those movies are satisfying in their way because what you’re going to them for is the kick of the digital effect. It’s not necessarily what you call a writers’ medium when you’re dealing with that kind of thing, it’s more a technician’s medium, because the writer’s tools are too limited to compete when the fantastic thing is the center of everything.
The classic model of Hollywood filmmaking is the big backstory with even a fantastic or outlandish premise, but a tight focus on the characters and what they’re doing. I’m wondering if that might be a model for writers writing these kinds of stories? You know, have this fantastic situation but don’t necessarily focus on the effects, focus on the characters and what they’re doing.
Yes, that’s one model, and a good one. I could see writing a movie by that model. But another model is, what’s the biggest, most outrageous thing we would like to see on screen that we can do with our new toy. That’s an okay model too. It’s a different kind of movie—you’re not going to be moved by the vivid characterizations but you might still have fun.
At the Writers Foundation Forum you once said that in writing effects-driven movies, you need to write with more of an eye to the audience. Is that what you meant by that?
The point I was trying to make is that there are many different models for movies. People enjoy different kinds of movies and people go to movies to have different kinds of experiences. When you start hammering at a certain paradigm for storytelling, for the construction of a story, you’re just being dogmatic and you’re being silly. Sometimes people go to movies because they just want to see a great big tornado rip through the countryside. They don’t particularly care about the people in it because they went to see the thing because it’s the middle of the summer and they wanted to go to the movies because it’s hot out. They wanted to get somewhere air-conditioned, you know? This is a valid kind of movie making. It’s not necessarily going to win anybody any Oscars. It’s not going to make anybody change their life. But they are, after all, in the words of Alfred Hitchcock, only movies.
They’re the new B movies.
Yeah, they are. And there’s nothing wrong with B movies. Some of our fondest memories of childhood moviegoing or seeing movies on TV are B movies. However, I think there’s a real danger, particular with B or genre movies: many of the unsuccessful ones seem to be where the filmmakers felt they were above the material. Or they tried to elevate material that resisted it. Sometimes the best thing you can do in your filmmaking is wallow in its baseness. You know, it’s a popular art and sometimes that’s called for. And that’s okay. Oscar Wilde said when someone tries to do important art it’s usually a sure sign that they’re doing the most trivial.
You’ve said that all screenwriters are directors or at least want to be directors. But haven’t a number of really good screenwriters shot themselves in the foot with a move to directing?
Some, but I don’t know that they ruined their screenwriting career by trying to direct. It’s really hard to direct, and it’s a different job. Some screenwriters do it well and some screenwriters don’t. And some full-time directors do it well and some don’t. It’s really hard. I just meant that—especially if you write original scripts—it’s very difficult to watch someone else direct them. Because even if they do it far better than you ever could, it’s still different. And you prefer your admittedly inferior version because it coincides better with the image you had in your brain.
On Snake Eyes, for example, Brian and I reached a very friendly point where we admitted to each other that we don’t like it when I’m on the set. So, you know, I didn’t hang out much. I would go when there was a script issue and I’d go up and we’d rehearse it for a while but even then I wouldn’t hang out on the set, because if I saw the door as being on the left side of the screen, he’s always got in on the right side of the screen. And that drives me crazy. Whenever he’s shooting a scene the first thought that goes through my head is “Oh, that’s wrong.” And for his part, he says when I’m standing next to him he starts to see a scene through my eyes and it makes him nervous. So there’s a little tension that neither of us like.
You don’t seem to view the writer as an auteur.
Well, he’s not. How could he be? He’s delivering something that’s going to be thoroughly reinterpreted by someone else. He’s the auteur of the screenplay, but not of the film. A screenplay is a half-finished work, it’s a proposal of what might be. I don’t know a lot of people who check out screenplays and read them for pleasure. We read them to torture ourselves. So it’s not really an art form by itself, it’s part of an art form.
Do you have any problem with the possessory credit?
Oh yeah, huge. I think it’s ridiculous. I don’t know what it says that “directed by” doesn’t.
Well, it guess it says “this is the work of one person.”
Yeah. I think it’s preposterous. I think it’s ridiculous self-aggrandizement. The only possible argument for it is it helps sell tickets when a director is a star like Spielberg or Hitchcock. But in 90% of the other cases I just think it’s the biggest ape or gorilla taking all the bananas because he can. That’ll get me work, huh?
Definitely. But, your essay “Trading Places” argues that to be a director you have to be able to consider everything your idea. That could be interpreted as an apology for directors who claim that kind of credit.
Well, that is true. I think film directing is a very psychologically damaging way to spend your time because… out of necessity… you’re creating a world. So you sort of have to end up like that.
Do you think that explains why many directors, even if they don’t take a possessory credit, seem to view films as singular pieces of their work?
Yes, I suppose. Also, just because the nature of the job is corruptive. You have the ability to walk into a set, or a space, and look at something and say, “If only that wall weren’t there.” And five minutes later, it’s not. That’s just not a healthy relationship with the world.
You made your feature directing debut with The Trigger Effect in 1996. I’m wondering, was that the right time in your career to make that transition, or was it the right script?
I don’t know. I liked it… that was a very personal script for me. And you only get to make your first film once. Even though I kind of knew it wouldn’t do well, I wanted to do it anyway, I felt like now’s the time I could sort of jam this through.
When writing a script, how much of your time do you spend on the style and how much on the content of a scene? As far as creating a really readable draft, that is?
It’s all content; the style is just the way you express yourself. I talk the way I talk to you. I use certain expressions and I insert jokes or I stammer in certain areas and that’s just the way I express myself verbally, so the way I express myself in a script is like second nature. I don’t really think about it that much, I just do it. I mean I use certain devices where I feel like we need to draw out a moment—like that double dash thing—just because it seems to make the eye move at the pace that I want it to move. Because I’m trying to simulate the filmgoing experience, the experience of watching a film.
There are times I need to bulk it up with description because I want you to slow down and think about things. And then there are times when I feel like what you need is white space, white space, white space, and just keep flying because you’re implying that you’re in a section of the film where there is going to be a lot of cuts and a lot of action. There’s a lot of things moving quickly.
I try to use a writing style that matches the content of the scene. So if you’re in an action scene and you don’t stop for four five-sentence paragraphs in a row, it reads like action. Screenplays are so unnatural. They’re so difficult to read and so mind-numbing that you have to do everything you can to help the reader get through it, to survive it. It’s tough.
A lot of writers overuse asides to the reader in their scripts. Do you have any rules that you use in determining when those should stay in and when those should go?
Yeah. It’s just…as infrequently as possible. I mean basically, only what you need for clarity. If you feel like a line is supposed to be sarcastic and people might take it straight and that would cause some confusion put in “sarcastic.” You know, just do only what’s necessary to help you with your story.
I’m even more interested in the postmodern asides you make to the reader. For example, in the initial scene of Snake Eyes your protagonist is chasing after the drug dealer, and your aside to the reader is “This guy’s a cop?” I thought that was great use of that device.
Again, you want that moment to be revelation. And you’re telling the director it would be nice if the audience were surprised to discover that he was a cop. That’s just trying to make a suggestion.
Your stories are quite different from each other. Do you like exploring various genres?
Yeah! I mostly work on spec now, and the great thing about that is you can avoid getting pigeon-holed. Hollywood’s not going to offer you stuff that is different from what you’ve already done; they’re going to offer you exactly what you did before. So if you want to try anything different, you just have to try it yourself.
Now that you are also a director, do you still write spec scripts that you don’t intend to direct?
If I can write on spec, and either sell it or have a great director do it, that’s okay with me. I’ll take that lifestyle.
Finally, how has directing changed or influenced your writing? Have you ever experienced moments on your own sets where you said to yourself, “who wrote this thing?”
Oh, yeah. Absolutely. It’s easy to forget why you made certain decisions while you’re out there in the heat of directing it. But the one thing that directing does for you as a writer is it just makes you infinitely aware of how important it is to express things visually.
Anything you can get across with a picture is ten times better than any thing you get across with dialogue. Any setup has to be visual. An important setup must have a visual component. Even if it can only be expressed in dialogue, then at least the camera has to be on that person, otherwise, it just won’t register.
Any script I write, I’m thinking about ways I can tell it with a picture. As a director, you’re just so grateful when the writer gives you something you can do with a picture, instead of just having a bunch of people talking to each other.
So you’re grateful to yourself in those instances?
No, I hate myself!