David Koepp has had an enviable career as a screenwriter (and sometime director) in Hollywood. Who else can say they have collaborated with Steven Spielberg on four movies – including Jurassic Park, no less – as well as having worked on Spider-Man, Mission: Impossible and cult favourite Death Becomes Her?
Not one to rest on his impressive laurels, Koepp recently wrote his debut novel Cold Storage, which was described by The New York Times as “pure, unadulterated entertainment”. Drawing on his wealth of experience crafting suspenseful scripts, the novel is an intense science fiction thriller about the discovery of a strange, hyper-aggressive new organism that threatens to end of life as we know it. All that stands in its way is an unlikely group consisting of a government agent and two unwitting storage unit security guards just trying to make it through to the end of their shift.
We spoke to Koepp about Cold Storage, his amazing film career, the legacy of Jurassic Park and a certain upcoming Indiana Jones sequel…
Cold Storage balances a global disaster narrative with the personal stories of these characters, a technique you were also praised for in War Of The Worlds. How has your work in screenwriting influenced your novel writing?
The book originally started as a movie idea only by assumption. I figured my ideas are always movie ideas. And I’ve been doing that for 30 years. It’s hard to change.
If it’s an original, I always start with just putting down a few thoughts about the characters. But I couldn’t face a movie treatment again. Movie treatments are so awful. Really, they’re like a sketch of what a screenplay could be, and a screenplay is a sketch of what a movie could be. So they’re two levels removed from an actual thing that people might enjoy.
So I started writing what I thought was half-decent prose, and then I quickly realised, “Oh, this is really fun.” I just loved that I could write inside a character’s head. I could talk about things that had little to do with the forward momentum of the story. Within a day or two, I thought, “Oh, this is probably a story.” I didn’t want to say ‘book’ because it’s too overwhelming, and I’d quit. But by the time I got to page 100, I had to admit that it was a book.
And as for how movie-writing influenced it… and you know, as I said, several decades of writing in a certain form does influence you. Movies are slaves to pace and story advancement. So the book does have a very brisk pace, especially in the last half. That’s just old instincts that can’t be overcome.
Had you ever considered writing a novel before?
I had talked about it once before, but to be fair, I think I’d been drinking. [laughs] So you know, it crosses your mind when you write words for a living. But I enjoyed movies so much. I never gave it a serious thought until now.
Do you think you’ll write another book?
Absolutely. I have the idea. I hope to start it this fall. I was deliriously happy with the process. You have good days and bad days, like any kind of writing, but it was so much fun. I’m 56 years old – well into mid-life, to be generous. It was nice to do something different, and to find it all new and wondrous.
That sense of creation and discovery, it was great to have it back again, because it’s not always the case for screenwriters. Sometimes you’re trying to accommodate so many other people that what you want to do is lost. I can’t wait to do it again.
Cold Storage shares some aspects with John Wyndham’s The Day Of The Triffids – the kind of story of mankind’s hubris coming back to bite us in the arse. What was your inspiration for it?
I would have to say Michael Crichton. I love his writings. The science is incredible. The Andromeda Strain, certainly, you know, is a landmark about some weird microbes coming from space.
I was most interested in my very few central characters. I had been walking down the street in New York. It was 7am in the morning in August, and it was an incredibly hot day already. There was this young guy walking towards me in a security guard’s uniform, about 24 years old, and he just looked miserable. I mean, I could tell that he hated his job. And I thought: that’s an interesting character. If he works the night shift and something horrible happens, and he decides, “It’s a terrible job, and I hate it, but it’s my terrible job, and I’m going to do it right.” I thought: that’s a character I’d watch a story about. That’s cool.
I had a similar approach in War Of The Worlds, which is to really narrow the focus. Because we assume the worldwide implications, but if we really focus on just a couple of characters, it makes it all much more intense.
You said that you started out assuming it was going to be a movie at the initial stages. Do you see this becoming a film later on, or is it something completely separate?
I do. Well, it is separate. It is separate and I see it becoming a film. The book thing is different, and it’s done, and it will always be. But also a movie thing can happen. We sold the movie rights to Paramount, and I finished the first draft of the script fairly recently. So we are hoping to make it a film as well.
Let’s go way back to the beginning now with Apartment Zero, which was the sixth script you’d ever written and the first you had made. Is it fair to say that that early success is quite unusual?
Yeah, it was. It feels great while it’s happening because young people are very impatient. I learned a lot. I co-wrote it with Martin Donovan. It was his idea, his story. And then we produced it together as well.
I think early success has advantages and disadvantages. Obviously, who doesn’t want early success? That’s great. The problem is, you learn on the job. You don’t learn necessarily in peace and quiet. You can’t have your failures privately, because if your failures are getting made into movies, everybody sees them and has an opinion.
I feel lucky to have survived early success, because it also spoils you terribly. You imagine things are going to go great and be really easy. And you’ve got to be prepared for the fact that any kind of creative life is full of disappointment.
But, yeah, it happened the way it happened, and I’m grateful that it did.
A few years later, you made Death Becomes Her, which is just this phenomenal, utterly strange cult classic. What were your inspirations for that?
That was also Martin Donovan. I wanted to do a movie with four stories set in the apartment building in Beverly Hills that had four units, and in each unit, something grizzly was happening. Grizzly but funny.
The first story was about a guy whose wife was a witch, and unbeknownst to him, has done something to make herself live forever on the very day that he finally works up the nerve to kill her. So he kills her, but now she’s undead. She knows that he tried to kill her and she’s very bitter. I thought that would be funny – Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? with zombies.
And that one we found so enjoyable, we said, “Screw all the other three – let’s just do this one.” So that was what we wrote.
Do you remember anything about the other stories?
We never had them. We got one, and then… we were having a good time and never bothered to do the other three.
The cast for that film feels so vital to it. Were Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn and the rest in your mind when you were working on it?
No. I had never done a studio movie at that point. Martin and I figured that this would be another independent. You know, maybe $5 million, and the best actors we could get. But Universal then sort of reluctantly took it on, because I was doing some other work for them. And they thought, “That could be interesting,” but it was so weird, they didn’t know what to do with it.
I remember, when the head of production called me one day, and said, “Well, Bob Zemeckis wants to direct your script.” He was so disappointed, because at that point, Bob had done the Back To The Future movies and Roger Rabbit. They wanted him to do some great, big commercial movie. But instead, he likes the weird thing with the zombies in Beverly Hills. They were very supportive of it. But nobody ever quite knew what to do with this really weird movie.
And then when they were casting, I was like, “Meryl Streep? Sure! Of course we’ll get Meryl Streep! Why wouldn’t we?”
Then the year after, a little film called Jurassic Park arrived on our screens. This was still fairly early on in your career. Were you daunted to work with Steven Spielberg?
I was. It took me several movies to get over it. Jaws and Close Encounters came out when I was between 13 and 18 – you know, that portion of your life when all your tastes are being formed. So to work with him was weird.
The thing about working with Steven that I enjoy so much to this day is that you work with just him, thinking up ideas. There isn’t a large committee. There aren’t a lot of people sitting in on it. That was pretty great.
How hard was it to conceive while you were writing it? Because the special effects were so groundbreaking, could you imagine how they would look in the finished film?
It was 1992 when we were working on it. So there was no guarantee that any of that stuff was going to work. I said, “What’s the limitations of what I could write?”
I remember, he said, “Your imagination.” He said, “Write anything, and we’ll see if we can figure it out.”
There was a test that was done of a Velociraptor running in place that ILM had done. There was no musculature, no skin. It was just a skeleton running, to see if that could look believable. I remember looking at it in the Amblin screening room, and we all sort of gasped, and thought, “This is going to work!” Because up until then, it had been stop-motion, which was cool but didn’t look real.
The way Jurassic Park stuck around – it’s still culturally referenced a lot, 25 years later. I’m enormously grateful for it. It obviously changed my career quite a bit.
The sequel The Lost World was a bit more of a tough sell. How do you look back on it now?
I haven’t seen it in a long time. I think sequels are really difficult. With that one, I always found it hard to get over the “yeah, but why do they go back?” That was something I could never quite solve. It’s hard to do the awe and wonder again. You can’t recapture the magic of discovery. So it’s necessarily a darker story.
I think it’s a cool movie. I think it’s entertaining. It just couldn’t beat the magic of the first one. It couldn’t. How could it?
With that in mind, how do you look on the new entries – the Jurassic World films?
I only saw one of them. And it seemed cool. It seemed exciting. It’s hard for me, because, like, “Wow, more dinosaurs.” But they certainly seem to please an audience, and they’re really popular.
Yet another incredibly popular property you’ve worked on was Spider-Man, and before that, you wrote The Shadow. Did you anticipate the enormous superhero movie boom that was coming down the line?
Yes, I saw the whole thing coming. No! [laughs] That was what was also exciting about Spider-Man. No one had done [anything like this before]. Well, X-Men had come out a year before, but we were working on Spider-Man long before that. And comic book movies were trash. No respectable person wanted to work on them.
I think some ground was broken by James Cameron because he famously wrote a treatment for Spider-Man, so the thought of, “Well, Cameron thought it was good enough to make something out of it,” probably encouraged some people. But no, that kind of success you never see coming.
Have you been keeping up on the news of Disney and Sony splitting on the Spider-Man stuff recently?
I’ve read a few articles about it, yes. I understand both sides. Disney wants what it wants, and obviously it’s used to acquiring and controlling. But I understand Sony’s point of view better: “But wait, it’s ours. We own it. You can’t just have half of it. You can’t just take it.”
So it’s a tough situation. And I think certainly the last couple of Spider-Man movies have been terrific. But the animated film that they did without Disney’s involvement was, you know, even more terrific.
What’s weird to me is those Marvel movie fans who are quick to spring to Disney’s defence like they’re a plucky underdog who needs to be defended. [laughs] They are not a plucky underdog.
Coming up, you have You Should Have Left with Blumhouse.
Yes. I have four days of additional shooting next week to finish the movie. We had a hiatus and wait while Kevin Bacon went and shot his TV show for Showtime.
Jason Blum’s an interesting figure. You’ve worked with these big names like Spielberg and De Palma. These days, big-name directors don’t have the same position in Hollywood that they once did. But Jason Blum just seems to be everywhere.
He does. I think what he’s done is, he had a clear and coherent idea about what kind of stories he wanted to tell, and how he wanted to tell them. I think a clear and coherent idea gets you really far in Hollywood. He’s also very intelligent and has good taste.
But instead of chasing the parade, he led the parade, and that is rightfully rewarded in Hollywood… Or you’re run out of town if you fail. But he didn’t fail.
Talking about Disney and the focus on established properties that is the Hollywood standard these days: do you feel like if you were starting out now, the films you made, would they have happened? Would Jurassic Park be made today?
Probably, because it was a hit book. Anything original has a very tough road these days. Death Becomes Her certainly wouldn’t have been made. Mission: Impossible might have been, because that was a TV show. They just love existing IP.
The Mummy was criticised for trying to too quickly kick off a whole franchise – the Dark Universe. What was your experience of working on it?
They can’t all be winners. [laughs] Yeah, you know, sometimes they don’t work out. It was difficult to work on. The entire [Dark Universe] thing was a little ill-conceived, and I think Universal realised, “Wait a minute – we are chasing the parade, not leading it. Let’s stop and rethink. We love monster movies. Let’s do this in a different way.”
I think when you’re trying to imitate someone else’s organically evolved style or idea, and make it your own, it’s tough. And it’s not probably fated to work out.
I don’t know how much you can talk about Indiana Jones 5. You were working on it for a bit, and you’re not anymore.
I actually am again. I’m working on it again. We’re still trying. And I think we’ve got a good idea this time. We’ll see.