David Koepp at the End of Civilization


David Koepp writes, and now directs, superior B-movies.

This is an admirable and tough-to-master skill given how few major movie studios are willing to take chances on films with lower budgets that don’t employ a found-footage gimmick or generally look like they were made on an aglet-less shoestring budget. So it’s refreshing to see that Koepp, one of the highest paid screenwriters in the industry, has used the clout that comes with working with Steven Spielberg on such films as Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to continue making personal, highly polished movies.

Koepp’s fifth and latest film as a director is Premium Rush, an accomplished but light action-comedy starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a bike messenger tasked with delivering a mysterious package. Michael Shannon co-stars as a villainous cop who gives chase. Koepp said that Rush‘s scenario, which had been gestating in his head for about six or seven years, was always something he knew he wanted to direct himself. This turned out to be easier said than done, especially when it came to shooting stunts in traffic along Broadway near Columbia University’s Morningside campus—a task that made him the rare director who would rather be screenwriting.

Koepp compares the process of shooting in traffic to “filming on water, because everything is constantly shifting in relation to itself. So it’s like everything is moving, but none of it is moving at the same speed. Worse than water, I think, because if you fall on water, it’s a much softer landing than if you fall on Broadway.”

Premium Rush is the first Koepp-directed film to rely on stunt work; his previous movies primarily concerned the inner lives that Indiana Jones and those dinosaurs never much deal with. In Secret Window, Johnny Depp plays a writer who slowly loses his mind; in Ghost Town, Ricky Gervais plays a misanthropic dentist who sees ghosts. Then there’s The Trigger Effect, Koepp’s first feature as a director, which Koepp calls a “domestic drama”: A trio of survivors looks for respite during an inexplicable blackout.

So it’s not that surprising to note that many of Koepp’s films, including ones he has only scripted, like War of the Worlds, are influenced by George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. Koepp has even said that the scenario for Death Becomes Her, which he co-scripted with Martin Donovan, is basically “what Night of the Living Dead would be like if it were a comedy.” In fact, the Romero influence is so pervasive in Koepp’s work that he was afraid that he would be accused of plagiarizing his story for The Trigger Effect in his War of the Worlds script. “The moment in War of the Worlds where I thought Steven [Spielberg] kills—in a good way—was when the protagonists have got the only working car, and they get to the ferry. And there’s a guy ripping his way in through the windshield. I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘Oh, God, that seems so true and so ghastly.’ That thin veneer of civilization—I guess I think about that a lot.”

Koepp’s pragmatic focus on what it would take for his characters to survive under extraordinary circumstances is what makes his movies so refreshingly atypical. That brick-and-mortar mentality is also a key aspect to Koepp’s creative process, even regarding script notes that he gets from producers, directors, and actors. “As time has gone by, I’ve developed some clarity in how I approach script notes,” he says. “That is: I would like to work with you to make the script work. I won’t do stuff that I feel like I can’t execute. Because I’ve done that in the past, and it comes out badly because it’s stuff I couldn’t execute. Whether the note is good or bad, I either know I can execute it, or somebody else can. You’re more than welcome to try with someone else. I’m happy to say that I finally, after 20-some movies, can say that without rancor.”

Although directing action scenes gave him a singular challenge, Koepp still generally treats screenwriting as the backbone of his storytelling process. “I think you’re guilty of abdication if you don’t provide enough descriptive details as a writer,” Koepp says. “You have to suggest everything. You’re like the choreographer, and you tell people how everyone moves, and then the director and the dancers tell you what’s working and what isn’t. But it’s you first, man. You’re up. Go.”