David Koepp is a first-call Hollywood screenwriter, a designation earned through his work with Steven Spielberg (on Jurassic Park and its sequel, The Lost World) and his continuing relationship with Brian De Palma (Carlito's Way, Mission: Impossible, Snake Eyes, and the upcoming Mr. Hughes). Koepp's second feature as a writer-director, Stir Of Echoes, is an effective supernatural thriller that could help put him on the first-call director list, as well. The Onion recently spoke to Koepp about the difference between working on his own project and working for someone else, filming on location, low budgets versus high budgets, and his much-anticipated Spider-Man script.
The Onion: Whose idea was it to make the girl in The Lost World a gymnast? Was that you? Did you do that?
David Koepp: No, I don't think that was me.
O: The scene where she gets up on the parallel bars and starts kicking the dinosaurs is pretty ridiculous.
DK: Well, what do you think she should have done?
O: I don't know. Maybe she should have been eaten?
DK: Well, write one [yourself]. I'm just sick of that subject.
O: I would imagine. Stir Of Echoes is different from a lot of the Hollywood movies you've worked on: It's very dark, and there was obviously a lower budget. How would you categorize the film, as a Hollywood movie or a mainstream movie?
DK: [Brightens.] It's definitely a Hollywood movie, because it's a major independent studio [Artisan]. So it's definitely aimed at a wider audience, but the nice thing about not having a huge budget is that you don't have the responsibility of trying to reach every man, woman, and child in America. So you can pursue stuff that interests you a little more instead of trying to have the audience so firmly in your mind. The problem with working on big, behemoth summer movies like The Lost World is that they kind of become this corporate destiny, you know? You're not really ever at peace, because there's always a cacophony. Unless it's Spielberg—obviously, no one in Hollywood tells him what to do—you still have a cacophony, because you're trying to reach a mass audience. You have all these voices in your head whether you like it or not. So, yes, it's a Hollywood movie, but it's free of the limitations of a big budget.
O: Why did you choose to shoot on location in Chicago?
DK: The novel was set in California. But it was set in 1958, during Eisenhower America. It was a boom time in California for the aircraft industry, so there were all these tract houses and suburban developments springing up, and it was set in one of those. It was a great setting, but I didn't want to do a period movie, and that world doesn't exist anymore. I liked the working-class setting, so I tried to think of another city with older architecture and some working-class neighborhoods that I was personally familiar with. I grew up in Wisconsin, and my mother is from the South Side of Chicago. I liked the way Chicago looked, and I felt like I hadn't seen a ghost story set in that kind of setting before. Also, I didn't want to shoot in L.A. I shot my first film there [Trigger Effect], and it was a little lazy. I shouldn't have. I lived in L.A. at the time [Koepp has since relocated to New York], and it's very tempting to just shoot there because you get to go home at night. But it's just shot to death. People have seen every inch of Los Angeles. It's not that interesting photographically, unless you're making a nature movie. The ocean and the mountains are interesting, but the city is very dull to shoot.
O: So, when you don't have $100 million to spend… How much did Stir Of Echoes cost?
DK: $12 million.
O: See, that's just a couple million more than American Pie, and that looks terrible.
DK: But that's a comedy. It's important in comedy to be a little flatter. You have to light things well, widen the lenses, put two or three people in the shot. It's about the actors interacting with each other. But that's not a great deal of money. [Stir Of Echoes] is plenty of movie; it's worth your eight bucks. But necessity is the mother of invention: Most movies, I think, would be twice as good with half the money. Too much money is a problem, because it encourages lazy solutions. The football game in our movie was supposed to take place in the stands while Kevin Bacon's character is getting anxious because of this premonition he's having with these red images. And I just couldn't afford it. To make it look good, there would be too many extras, cardboard extras, digital extras. We were trying to figure out all these ways to make it look big. And I remember it was Brian De Palma who suggested, "Don't ever go in the stadium. Just put them in the tunnel." That was a great idea, because you hear the game, with all this roaring and sound and stuff, but it's much more claustrophobic and confined. There are all these people jamming up against him. It's a much more inventive solution, and sometimes a lack of money forces you to go beyond your first or second idea and think of something better.
O: When you're working on a larger project, can you see it getting out of control? I know you're connected to the Spider-Man movie, which I imagine will end up costing as much as they have to spend on it.
DK: Exactly. That one I'm writing right now. I haven't been on an out-of-control budget yet, I believe.
O: The Lost World came in under budget, right?
DK: Yeah, well, Spielberg is like that. I don't think I've been on one that really raged out of control. Mission: Impossible was an out-of-control situation, but in terms of budget I think they were fine. That was just a chaotic, crazy way to go about making a movie.
O: Does the budget ever directly affect the screenplay?
DK: Oh, sure. You're encouraged to write your first draft and go crazy. "Don't even worry about it, and we'll deal with it later." Then you turn in your first draft, and they call you up and say, "What, are you crazy?!" [Laughs.] "You just wrote anything you wanted, didn't you?!" And then you have to trim, cut, cut, cut.
O: Does it ever work the other way around? You know, "We have $20 million extra, so give us a car chase."
DK: Not quite that way. If you've got a visual-minded director, he'll come up with stuff and say, "Instead of them just racing off here…" In Jurassic Park, you know when the T-Rex chases the jeep? That was sort of a last-minute thing. We had just had a script meeting, and I was walking out of Steven's office. It used to be that you would hear the footsteps pounding, and they would just jump in the jeep and drive away. And as I was walking down the hall, he just said, [yelling] "Hey! Have the T-Rex chase 'em for a while!" And I said, "All right," wrote the scene, and I think it's one of the coolest scenes in the movie.
O: The more you direct, is it harder to go back to just screenwriting and standing on the sidelines while Brian De Palma films?
DK: Yes and no. Screenwriting is a great gig: The hours are good and they pay you well. But part of the reason they pay you well is so you'll shut up. So it is a little hard. But on the other hand, like with Spider-Man, it's nice to be able to write this great big fantasy action thing and realize you're not the one who will have to get up at 5 a.m. to figure out how to shoot it. I kind of like that.
O: When you're working with Spielberg or De Palma, how much say do you have?
DK: It's their show. I think both of them give me a lot of respect and a lot of rope, but you're clearly there to serve them. That's just the limitations of screenwriting: It's a director's medium and it always will be. At a certain point, the writer has to stop and let the director do it. Also, I've found that in 9 out of 10 cases, if the director has an idea he's really excited about, it's always better to pursue it. If he sees it really clearly in his mind, that means he'll probably really do it well. In most cases, he's going to do it whether you write it or not, so if you don't do it, someone else will. It's tricky. The hard part about being a screenwriter is choosing your fights: "Am I arguing against something because it's not my idea, or am I arguing against something because it's not a good idea?" Conversely, "Am I acquiescing to something because it's a good idea, or am I acquiescing to something because it's easy to write?" Those are the tough choices. [Laughs.] Both jobs have their advantages, but if I had to pick, directing is absolutely the grabber. It's like the last legal dictatorship.
O: With big-budget films like Spider-Man, do you ever feel like you're just part of a machine?
DK: You are. You really are. Spider-Man is just at the script stage. There's no director or producer [attached], and I already have to answer to four executives and two comic-book guys. That's six people, and the film is only at the script stage!
O: And all six of those people could lose their jobs if you screw up.
DK: [Laughs.] Yep.