This piece contains spoilers for Snake Eyes and Mission: Impossible (the first one)
David Koepp has a rather solid CV as a director, including Secret Window with Johnny Depp, the underrated ghost story Stir Of Echoes, and the really fun Joseph Gordon-Levitt bike messenger action film Premium Rush. But as a screenwriter, he’s worked on some of the biggest films of the last 25 years – Jurassic Park and its sequel, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Angels and Demons, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man.
He’s also had a hand in other notable Hollywood hits (and flops) including Carlito’s Way, The Shadow, Snake Eyes, Zathura, Panic Room, Death Becomes Her, and many, many more. He’s had a fascinating career.
His latest directorial effort is Mortdecai, a hammy little action romp based on the cult novels by Kyril Bonfiglioli. Johnny Depp plays dashing English cad and art dealer Charlie Mortdecai, who gets into all sorts of scrapes in a globe-trotting chase for a stolen Goya. Gwyneth Paltrow, Ewan McGregor and Paul Bettany all back him up.
Ahead of its release, we spoke to Koepp about depicting a mythical England on screen, facing the wrath of hardcore fanbases, and how much power writers actually have in Hollywood. He’s a man with many stories about your favourite films and we could have talked to him for hours.
How did Mortdecai come about? Had you read any of the books before?
I had not. Johnny sent me the script. [Screenwriter] Eric Aronson had found them in a used bookstore in London some years ago and responded to it, and he’d written a few drafts of the script. Johnny had read it and just loved the character. He just said “I know how to play this guy, I think we could have a good time.” I read it, and within about two or three pages, I knew why he wanted to do it, and I knew that he was probably the only person who could do it. It was such a particular part, and he is such a particular actor.
How did you approach the Britishness of the film, especially having two American leads? Obviously, it’s not a meant to be a realistic depiction of the UK, but how do go about depicting a culture you’re not from?
It’s not a realistic film, you’re absolutely right. Well, I’m from Yorkshire, so… no of course I’m not, no! But part of the problem was to make a movie about another culture, even if it’s a slightly mythical culture that you’re making up as you go. I think it’s fun to be a stranger, when you go some place new.
I’d been to London a few times but I’d never lived in London. We were here for like six months, I brought my wife and my two little kids with me, and they went to school here. You really observe things differently; everything is new to you, at first at least. The colour of the white paper even seems different. But you also work with an incredibly talented British crew, who’ve been steeped in this culture all their life. But part of the fun is being the outsider.
One notable British face that pops up in the film is Paul Whitehouse, who did an upper-class cad character very similar to Mortdecai on The Fast Show – how did he get involved?
I know Whitehouse’s stuff of course, and we all wanted to get him in the movie, and [his character] Spinoza seemed like a great choice. He’s great because he gets this great entrance, he’s given a good introduction, goes on for a bit, and then is immediately shot and killed. Which seemed great.
Are there any plans for any more Mortdecai movies, either by you or a different director?
I have no idea. They’re great characters, I’d love to see them again, I don’t know if that would be me or somebody else. Or if anyone would even want one. It’s hard enough to even make one good movie, so I think it’s bad luck to talk about making more than one.
You’ve had a long career as a screenwriter as well as the films you’ve directed – you don’t have a writing credit on this one, do you? How was your relationship with screenwriter Eric Aronson?
I just directed. I worked as a director normally would with a writer, which is to supervise rewrites, and get involved, and give as many good ideas as you can. It was nice to have another voice. When you write and direct it gets a little lonely because it’s only your point of view. To have someone else’s perspective on something is invigorating, and you come up with something dynamic that neither one of you would have come up with on your own.
How do you feel when you’re writing for another director, and knowing something might not even make it to the screen? People always say writers are the least powerful people in Hollywood…
When you direct something it might also change by the time it gets to the screen, not necessarily by someone else’s hand but by your own. I think that writers are far more powerful than we think we are. We’re still the only profession in Hollywood that doesn’t need anyone’s permission. A director has to be given a script, an actor has to be given a role. We can go home and start up a new file on the computer and write something new, and that’s terribly liberating. And in fact I think that’s probably why writers are disliked a bit, because nobody likes that kind of freedom!
Can we speak about some of the other films you’ve worked on throughout your career?
How did you go about adapting Jurassic Park from a slightly dry science-heavy novel into a big exciting blockbuster?
Well I had some very talented help. Steven Spielberg’s a good director! But that was the challenge – it’s a 400 page book and probably 280 pages of it was science. Getting that into the movie in a way that’s understandable but also not dumbed down.
I think what helped us enormously was that the people in the movie were in a theme park. So they would have to explain it in a way that was understandable to your average smart seven year old. Mr DNA, which was Steven’s idea to go to this full screen animation thing, was a great idea; we had enormous fun with that. You could, in the set up of your movie, stop, go to animation and say this is exactly how it works. Without tortured dialogue or characters telling each other things they already knew. It was really the setting, the theme park, which made it work.
When the first Mission: Impossible came out, it caused some controversy as you made Jim Phelps, the main character from the original TV series, into a traitor and the bad guy [played by Jon Voight]. You also created an all-new character, Ethan Hunt, for Tom Cruise to star as. Where did these decisions come from?
Tom was involved first. He was interested in doing it, and he was producing it. And then Brian [De Palma] called me and said why don’t you take a crack at it. You have to consider who’s in it, and then make it work.
The essential problem was Tom Cruise was the biggest star on the planet, and [the original TV show] was an ensemble that tilts towards no-one. I’d never viewed the TV show as sacrosanct. We had to acknowledge who our cast was. So I can’t remember whose idea it was, either De Palma or Steve Zaillian said let’s start by killing the team, lets just get rid of them. Because you had to work out how you get this ensemble piece into a star vehicle. So we killed everybody, and we were feeling very cheeky, and decided we’re going to do want we want, we’ll kill people, we’ll make the good guy the bad guy, and added in the new recruits. And I think it worked out well.
It’s a ballsy move – it’s hard to imagine Marvel doing that with one of their characters today…
[The Marvel characters] actually have a more devout following though. Mission: Impossible was a relatively popular TV show, but I don’t think people were going to take us to task for it. Well, maybe a few. But with Spider-Man, there were significant departures that we were worried about. The organic web shooters were hugely controversial, until they weren’t. You change media, you get to make up your own thing. It’s not like you’re rounding up all copies of the comic book or TV show, [instead] you’re doing something that’s inspired by them and grows from it.
Did your original script for Spider-Man have Doctor Octopus in it, as it’s sometimes reported?
No. My original script was the Green Goblin/Harry Osborn thing. Then I kind of lost faith in it and at the last minute re-wrote it completely with Electro. And then the studio were looking for a director, and [Sam] Raimi came in and said “I love it, but you already have one with the Green Goblin, shouldn’t we do that?” So we went back to that and it went down very nicely I thought.
What is it like coming onto a project like Spider-Man, which had been in production for so long, over a decade at that point? Did you throw out everything else that had already been written?
There weren’t really any scripts that I was aware of, because it had been at Cannon. It was mostly in litigation for ten years I think, it wasn’t really in active development. There was a treatment by James Cameron, but I probably didn’t read any scripts other than that, if there were any at all. I just immersed myself in the comic books again, as I once had, and picked up what I thought was helpful.
You’re working on the adaptation of Marcus Sakey’s novel Brilliance, which on paper sounds like it could be a bit like X-Men. Is that how it’s turning out?
I’d say a bit more thriller-y. I’ve always thought of Brilliance as social fiction, that kind of ‘Imagine if the world was like this…’ It’s not a superhero movie, it’s not a big effects-y movie the way X-Men is.
Are you still working on The Huntsman?
I’m not actually. When they wanted to do a Snow White And The Huntsman sequel, I wrote that. But then they decided they just wanted to do The Huntsman, and that’s a whole other thing, so I’m not involved. And neither is Frank Darabont. [Darabont was previously attached to direct]
Since you brought up Frank Darabont, his unmade script for Indiana Jones 4 is widely available online, and a lot of fans say they prefer it to yours. Is that annoying, considering that yours was actually made and released, which is a bigger achievement?
No, it’s not. When you work on something that has a big history and fanbase, I always likened it to when you have free-throws in a basketball game, and the crowd is all waving trying to make you miss. And you really have to tune it out. If you want to ask me in another way and provoke me, I can say something more!
No, it’s fine! Unless you want to say you hate Frank Darabont or something!
I’ve never actually meant Frank Darabont, but I hear he’s a lovely guy. Just for the record, the Indiana Jones jumping into the fridge bit is in the Darabont script. And I loved it, which is why I pushed it into the movie! I thought it was a great idea!
You also wrote Snake Eyes for Brian De Palma, which I believe had its ending changed?
It had a different ending, yep. And I’m trying to remember what the original ending was… [Gary Sinise’s character] didn’t die, Nic Cage’s character saved him at the end. It’s not uncommon to change things. It didn’t end up that much different, it’s just that they wanted the bad guy to get his comeuppance. So he did.
How do you react to changes like that to your scripts?
When I write for someone else…, I think the [script] reaches it’s best state around the third draft. And I think after the third draft you kind of need to say goodbye, because it’s going to become something else. You can fight for things you believe in, but the number of fights screenwriters have won over everyone else can be counted on one hand. I always try to look at it like a writing experience; I get the script to the state where I’m really happy with it. And then I say bye, and it’s going to go off and make the presence it makes in life like a child! It’ll make mistakes and it’ll be a different thing, it won’t be yours.
What else have you got coming out soon?
Inferno starts shooting in April, the Dan Brown thing, which I think is going to be very good. I’m happy with that.
David Koepp, thank you very much.