From Mission: Impossible To Mortdecai: Writer/Director David Koepp Talks Screenwriting

Image for From Mission: Impossible To Mortdecai: Writer/Director David Koepp Talks Screenwriting

David Koepp has one heck of a CV. He's the writer of Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, Carlito's Way, Mission: Impossible and many more, as well as the director of Premium Rush, The Trigger Effect, Stir Of Echoes and, most recently, Mortdecai (out this week), the Johnny Depp comic caper that sees His Deppness gambolling about the globe with his Cockney manservant Jock Strapp (Paul Bettany). Speaking to the writer/director about just a few of his films, there's plenty to learn about the scriptwriting business, as well as the best definition of a film "gizmo" outside of a group of Gremlins.

"I think the Mortdecai’s 'gizmo' – and by that I mean the outlandish thing that makes a big movie possible – is the character itself, and his language that jumps fully-formed into the room. Jurassic Park and Spider-Man and big conceptual movies like that do lend themselves more towards a 'gizmo', while this is a movie where the lead character is what makes it work.

"Part of the fun of this film was enjoying ornate turns of phrase. The film's written by another screenwriter, Eric Aronson, but there’s a line in the movie that I adore. It's never got a laugh in a screening I've been in, but I personally feel it's hysterically funny – I’m eager to see it with a British audience tonight – which is when Mortdecai is climbing up the ladder while his manservant Jock deals with the guard dog at the rich guy’s house in LA: 'Oh how I long for the rain and indifference of Europe.'"

"If I were in charge of Spider-Man right now, and money was no object, I would… (Pauses) Well, now you can see why they are having trouble! (Laughs) Not so easy, is it?

"When I was doing Spider-Man the first time, I remember distinctly having thoughts about three movies, each of a different kind. The way the comic-book lines switched, it was Spider-Man, Amazing Spider-Man, Spectacular Spider-Man… there were a number of them.

"So rather than try to persue the same course, or any kind of similar tone, you’d have strikingly different tones. The classic Spider-Man, that would be the top-of-the-line, studio Sam Raimi ones, then the Amazing Spider-Man ones, they’d be done for $75-80 million, and have a rougher, edgier, almost R-rated feel to them – if not R-rated, though I don’t think they could ever bring themselves to do that. Tougher, nastier, a rougher look... shorter movies. I don’t like superhero bloat, personally.

"And these series didn’t have to be consecutive, they could be released concurrently. Then I also thought there should be a Spectacular Spider-Man series, because Spider-Man leaves out a large group of its audience. Little kids are fascinated by Spider-Man by the time they are three, or younger. But when I was a kid, I loved the animated series, so I always thought there should be separate lines to cater for different ages of Spider-Man fans.

"And I’d certainly develop other characters in the Spider-Man universe, which is what they are trying to do, I know. Black Cat deserves her own movie series. As for the superhero genre generally now, I am stunned at its viability, its quality, its longevity, and its ability to grow and deepen. I think they’re great. I was so continually wrong about where superhero movies were going that now I am just an audience member, thrilled to see them continue to improve."

"I didn’t view the early reveal as spoiling the story, because we come out and say, ‘This guy... he’s probably going to die.’ But then the idea was that you, over the course of the film, come to know and love him, and hope that he can escape. Who doesn’t want the hero to escape a life of violence and crime? So against your better judgment, you think he’s going to be okay. We never said he dies, we show him dying.

"Then at the end of the movie you see the truth: ‘Oh, well, I was right. He’s going to die.’ So you’ve been prepared for it in a way, so it wasn’t a shocking downer, it seemed like the logical end to a Greek tragedy. People saw it as operatic, and I think at that point the studio was very happy to have Al Pacino with a gun in his hand, so they were like, ‘You guys go ahead!’ Everyone knew it was a kind of a downer, but no-one questioned it.

"In the 'bag of money movie', you can’t have them get away. The money has to blow away in the wind, or in the airplane propeller, the gold dust has to fly into the air – or you have to die. The only time I ever saw one when they made it to the beach at the end with the money was True Romance, and the ending was my least favourite part of the movie.

"And the phrase 'bag of money movie'? I think I stole that from Danny Boyle. Shallow Grave, Trainspotting, Millions... He’s well versed in bag of money movies."

"Steven [Spielberg] thought that if we were in a theme park, why can’t we see what the theme park would tell you about all the science? Obviously there are mountains of exposition in the book to deal with, and you want the science to be easily understood by a mass audience, but you don’t want to dumb it down too much.

"But you’re in a theme park, and they’re going to explain it so your average smart seven year-old, so why not go all the way with it? Spielberg then got really excited that he could go full-screen animation in the middle of this summer blockbuster action movie.

"We both remembered and were inspired by a show we’d seen in health class back in junior high school called ‘Hemo The Magnificent’ about hemoglobin. It talked about blood and how the circulatory system worked. It was fascinating because they’d wheel in the cart with the movie projector on it, and there’d be a guy from the department down the hall that sort of knew how to run the projector, but we were mostly interested because we got to see a movie in class. But Hemo was this animated character that danced around these live-action characters, and we wanted to do something like that.

"Why Mr. DNA had a ten-gallon hat and a Texan accent, I’ll never understand."

"Are you questioning the physics of the Eurotunnel sequence? Because that’s a valid question… But yes, it’s been observed that Brian De Palma has been inspired by Mr. Hitchcock, and one of the things they share in common is one of Hitch’s old maxims: ‘When in Switzerland, use cuckoo clocks and chocolate.’ You use what’s there! You go to a location and you use the location. You don’t try to make it into something else.

"And the Chunnel had just been completed, so we used that. We did a couple of things in that movie because they were new, and we could. Prague had just opened up again, so we wanted to shoot there, to keep things fresh. I can’t remember if the helicopter going into the tunnel was my idea or not, but I’d imagine it was Brian's..."

"[Studios and filmmakers] always take your ideas in the script and evolve them. Sometimes it’s better; sometimes, in my opinion, it’s worse. As a screenwriter, you need to become comfortable with saying goodbye around the third draft. First drafts are exciting, but they’re loose and problematic. Second drafts tend to be a little worse, because you’re trying to address people’s notes, and you go too far on some things, and not enough on others – you throw out a few perfectly good things in a good faith effort to make it all better. Third drafts, you wonder why you ever cut the bits you cut in the second draft, so you put them back in and realise that the note in question wasn’t a good note, and find some other problem. The third draft usually hits the sweet spot.

"After that, it can become different. It can get worse – I don’t often see them get better. I think, if I am just the writer, in my head I just say goodbye after the third draft. But sometimes it’s brilliant, and sometimes it stinks. An example of it going brilliantly is Panic Room, which was realised within an inch of its life – David Fincher really made that into something that was really special. You can get actors doing it too, like with a small film I directed, Ghost Town, where Ricky Gervais took a very good script and every single day improved it."

"I’ve been a screenwriter for much too long to add a writing credit to a film if I'm a director and I've tweaked it. I wouldn't do that to Mortdecai's writer, Eric Aronson, for example. They say it often, but it’s a collaborative medium. But here it is: sometimes people spring out of the bushes and collaborate on you against your will, and other times it’s a really true collaboration, like with Mortdecai.

"When it comes to script doctoring, how invested you get in a project varies. I’ve done some, and I think I’d like to do it a little more now, at this age, because like Liam Neeson, you acquire a certain set of skills after 25 years using the tools of your craft, so it’s nice to come in and use those.

"It can be a little soulless, because they usually want two or three weeks of help. And the third week is right around when you’re getting warmed up. That’s when you’re really starting to care about something, and you’ve got to go. Some guys like that. Usually you’re not credited, too, but it’s not about that. Credits also offer you up for public mockery, so if you’re able to be a silent partner, that’s no bad thing.

"Let’s take Men In Black III. Put it this way: if you have children, ever, at any point, don’t let them write time travel movies. It’s awful. It’s so hard. So incredibly hard. I never saw the finished film because, you know, I’m just going to get mad. I love Barry Sonnenfeld dearly, he’s a friend of mine, but those Men In Black movies are such an amalgam of volatile personalities that shouldn’t probably be in the same room together, so things can become... a bit of a hash.

"But the script itself is wonderful, and Etan Cohen deserves the credit and is a terrific writer, but it’s the toxic brew of all the people on it that makes it a little dicey."