The Sweet Sting of Success
David Koepp is the 31-year-old screenwriter who's worked with directors like Spielberg (Jurassic Park), Zemeckis (Death Becomes Her) and De Palma (Carlito's Way). What he'd really like to do is direct a movie himself.
I got hung up at a script conference at Paramount," says 31-year-old screenwriter David Koepp, who's trying to explain why he's late for our meeting. Sure, being delayed because one is being paid $1 million to write Mission: Impossible for director Brian De Palma and star Tom Cruise is a better excuse than most, but I want to know precisely what problem he was solving. "We were looking very carefully at one emotional scene with the three main characters, trying to figure out exactly how it might play out," he says. Don't things like this come naturally to an in-demand writer whose credits include Jurassic Park, The Paper, Carlito's Way, Death Becomes Her and The Shadow? "You'd think I'd be more secure about writing these scenes," Koepp says, "but the older I get, the less secure I feel."
"Did Brian De Palma make any useful suggestions today?" I ask.
"He said, 'Just vomit it onto the page and we'll clean it up later.'"
Enough small talk. "Let's cut to the chase, Dave. Every screenwriter would like to be where you are today. What's your secret? How did you claw your way to the top?"
"Careers happen incrementally," he replies. '"You meet someone, like Robert Zemeckis, who introduces you to someone else, like Steven Spielberg, There is one turning point I can think of, though. Had I not gotten into UCLA film school, I probably wouldn't have come to Los Angeles."
I ask this native son of Pewaukee, Wisconsin, "What did you learn at UCLA?"
"In the film history classes, we'd see all the films of Stanley Kubrick and Billy Wilder, or Max Ophuls and Joseph Losey--who we called Awfuls and Lousy--and then we'd discuss them. That, to me, is a film education. The other stuff you can pick up on your own."
"You mean the writing?"
"Yeah, you can read a few good books on screenwriting, and then you just have to write. You get better by doing it over and over."
Like most grads, after film school Koepp wrote spec scripts; his fifth was called Bad Influence. Unlike most grads, Koepp said "no" when Casey Silver, an executive at Universal Pictures, wanted to buy it.
"You were unknown, unproduced, and broke," I say, "How could you say 'no'?"
"Bad Influence was a pretty good thriller," he responds, "and they wanted to turn it into a comedy."
When the movie was later made--not by Universal but by an independent company--Koepp got his big break: Silver, by then president of Universal, saw the movie, remembered the writer who'd walked away from a deal, and offered Koepp a job as an in-house, contract writer. Koepp loved the idea of a steady paycheck, and signed on at the studio, where he stayed for four years.
Now, you might think that when a studio is paying a writer to work on the premises that the relationship would be analogous to plantation owner and slave, but Koepp says it was fine. "They never forced me to do anything. Most of the projects I worked on were my ideas." One of the few movie ideas he did not generate turned out to be Jurassic Park, which Koepp rewrote after Michael Crichton had written a script.
"Where were you," I ask, "when you realized that the movie was going to go through the roof?"
"I was in New York, working on both Carlito's Way and The Paper. I went out to dinner on a Thursday night and, walking past the Ziegfeld theater, I saw that the midnight show was sold out in advance. So were the Friday shows, as well as the Saturday shows. It was a once-in-a-life-time thing. Too bad Jurassic Park came so early in my career--it's all downhill now."
"Many Jurassic critics carped that the dinosaurs were more interesting than the people. How did that feel?"
"It stung," he admits, "A lot. I felt like saying, 'You try to write human char¬acters in a dinosaur movie!'"
"I could see that you tried to give Sam Neill a character arc..." I begin to say, but I'm cut off, mid-sentence, by Koepp.
"You know, this character arc thing is spreading like a rash," he remarks, "I don't know who laid down this law that movies have to be about people changing. I don't know anyone who changes." What would Koepp like to do about this trend? "I say we mutiny and tell stories in a different way."
He'll have his chance next year. After years of working with A-list directors-- "Guys with so much clout that if they wanted to turn a piece of origami into a film, they'd get a go"--Koepp is going to direct his first film, The Trigger. He's looking forward to this chance to do thing his way. "I don't want anyone else screwing it up," he says, "I'd rather screw it up myself."
Jeffrey Lantos interviewed Bruce Joel Rubin for the December '93 Movieline.