A graduate of the UCLA Film School, David Koepp has established himself as the blockbuster screenwriter du jour. From Jurassic Park to Mission: Impossible, from Panic Room to Spider-Man, Koepp has injected the summer movie with smarts and logic without ever skimping on the spectacle. War Of The Worlds marks his third collaboration with Spielberg and Empireonline caught him in his New York office to talk scripting the latest skirmish between aliens and humanity….
What discussions did you have about how the adaptation should go?
The first thing you’re looking for is “Why do this again? It’s been done before” and I think that the first idea that I had, re-reading the book, was that it had never been done the way the book was, which is from the point of view of this narrator and only from the point of view of the narrator. So I said “Well, what if we make this from a very limited point of view and do it from someone on the very periphery of events rather than someone involved in events?” We need involvement, but not in they way that they usually are in this kind of science fiction movie. We actually made a list, “We don’t want to see the president of the United States, or famous landmarks being trashed; we don’t want capital cities.” All these things that we felt are clichés of this genre, you know: “How can we do this in a way that is new?” That interested him and interested me and it went from there.
How did you see Wells novel as framework?
I think we did a very faithful interpretation of it and that’s what I wanted to do because it’s a book that’s worked for 110 years so, you know, let’s try and cash in on some of H.G.’s success! I think it wasn’t so much a case of needing to modernise it as needing to take the modern world back to the 1800s. So once we came up with a device to get rid of electrical power and modern techniques of communication then I think it got a lot easier.
How concerned were you that this huge summer blockbuster was so dark?
I like that stuff. I think that great tragedies bring out the best but also bring out the worst, and if you don’t show both then you’re not making a powerful piece of work or a truthful one. It’s very strong stuff, but I like to be grabbed in a movie theatre by powerful material happening in front of me.
How do you collaborate with Steven?
The first thing is he looks at you and says “Well, do you have an idea? We’ve hired you, what do you think?” The first pass is yours. Certainly he throws in some ideas but mostly what he’s hired you for is your point of view, what would your perspective on this be? Then you go off and come up with that and when you give him the first draft, if I’ve done an OK job he’ll have three or four notes. If I’ve done a good job, he’ll have about 100, because then his brain will have been engaged, his imagination is involved and that’s what you want to do. The first job as a writer is to capture the imagination of the director and hold it hostage until you make the movie.
War Of The Worlds seems to be a film that combines all of Spielberg’s signature elements; kids, aliens, broken families etc. Were you conscious of that?
Well, the one way to get him to not put it in the film is to say “Boy, this is very much like a Spielberg movie!” I don’t know, that’s just something that comes naturally, you try not to think about “What are my signature pieces?” I certainly don’t imagine he thinks about what’s Spielbergian or isn’t. I was interested in writing this character, bad dad and divorced and stuff and aliens. He must have been drawn to it too because he called me, but you try not to think about that stuff. In fact, sometimes he’ll take it out; he’ll say, “Oh you know what, this is very much like something I did in Jaws; we gotta get rid of that.”
Were there scenes and characters you couldn’t find room for?
There was a lot of stuff we couldn’t find room for. Tim Robins’ character, for example, is an amalgam of two characters in the book with the name stolen from a third character. I think that condensation just happens.
What were the tough scenes to crack?
I think the hardest thing was probably exposition, because when you make the decision that it’s only going to be from this person’s point of view and that there’s no means of communication like telephones, televisions, radio, that means the only way you can transmit information is what he sees with his own eyes or what other people tell him – and other people are often misinformed in situations like this. Once I stopped seeing that as a problem and saw it as a virtue I think it helped a lot. It's interesting to watch the way information blows or fails to blow. There’s a scene where they’re going to the ferry and it cuts between different people talking about what they know is going on and directly contradicting one another. That was really interesting and a truthful note about how information is passed from word of mouth. I think also the not knowing what’s going on is powerful, that old fear of the unknown thing.
Did you have concerns that the script hammered 9/11 paralells too hard?
Yeah but naah - I trust in Steven’s lightness of touch. At first I was a little worried. I remember Dakota Fanning had a line I wrote, she says “Is it the terrorists?” and I thought, “Shouldn’t we take that out?” because you know, it’s a little direct. And Steven said, “No, she’s 11; it’s 2005, she’s going to say that. That’s what an 11-year-old would say, that would be her fear.” And once we decided to neither deliberately remove or deliberately add anything relating to 9/11 or Iraq, or the world we live in today, then it just was itself because we all live in the same world, same year, so it should look like that.
How detailed on the page are the action set-pieces?
Very detailed. I think that a writer’s first job is to imagine the movie fully and that includes an action sequence, so I write my action sequences with great detail. I know the director’s going to redo them, that’s his job, but your job is to give him something to redo. I can’t remember who, but there’s a choreographer who always used to say, “Alright, let’s put something up there so we can change it” and I think that’s what you got to do.
The scene where Robbie runs off to fight the aliens needs a lot of swallowing. Was that a tough write?
Yes, but I didn’t debate whether he would or not. I felt like teenagers do a lot of things like that, it’s kind of the point, and even if it was a little bit of a stretch for that specific person’s situation and believability, I was thinking of teenagers in Gaza throwing bottles and rocks at tanks, and I think that when you’re that age you don’t fully consider the ramifications of what you’re doing and you’re very much caught up in the moment and passion, whether that’s a good idea or not.
What’s your take on blockbuster screenwriting?
It’s really, really hard because you’re writing at usually a very high level of fantasy and that’s hard too because they operate it by internal rules which people will accept or not, and you’re also under a lot of pressure because usually there’s a lot of money at stake so there’s a lot of people weighing in, corporate destinies hanging in the balance. It’s just really hard to do, it’s hard to dial out those voices and do something that’s coherent. The nice thing about writing for Steven is you really only have his voice. No one really messes with him, so I think it makes it easier when you’re working for him than some of the other situations I’ve been in.
Are you given enough time to nail these things?
That’s OK, I like to work fast and I think that movies tend to reach their peak around the third or fourth draft and after that they diminish, they get watered down so I think the best movies happen quickly.
I wrote a script called Ghosttown for Dreamworks that’s a comedy, which I’d like to direct in the spring so we’re working on that together now. It’s bad luck to talk about it ‘til it’s cast, so we’re trying to put it together.