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Out of the Shadows

Out of the Shadows

Articles - Directing

In Hollywood, where everyone’s, writing a screenplay,

your odds of selling a script are about as good as winning the

lottery. If you do manage to sell one, the odds of seeing it reach

the screen are somewhat better – roughly the odds of hitting a

number in roulette.

Those odds are what make David Koepp such an anomaly.

In the last two years, the 31 year old Wisconsin native has had

five of his scripts produced – and not exactly low-budget, B movie

scripts, either. Directing and starring in the films of Koepp’s

scripts have been a virtual who’s who of Hollywood talent.

Let’s start with Steven Spielberg’s dinosaur extravaganza Jurassic Park (cowritten with novelist Michael Crichton), the

most commercially successful film ever made. Before that came Robert

Zemeckis’s black comedy Death Becomes Her (co-written by Martin

Donovan), starring Bruce Willis, Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn. Then

there was Brian De Palma’s gangland thriller Carlito’s Way,

which stars Al Pacino and Sean Penn. That was followed by Ron Howard’s The Paper (cowritten by Koepp’s journalist brother Stephen),

starring Michael Keaton, Glenn Close and Robert Duvall. And now, to

round things out, comes one of this summer’s most eagerly awaited

films, the adaptation of the legendary radio series The Shadow,

starring Alec Baldwin.

Alec Baldwin knows about evil.

Not, incidentally, all of the aforementioned films

were produced by Universal Pictures, the studio where Koepp was

under contract for the last four years – a fairly uncommon arrangement

these days, but one that harkens back to the bygone days of the

studio system. Now, having established himself as one of Hollywood’s

craftiest writers, Koepp is a free agent, though he’s still stationed

on the Universal lot. Currently, he’s working on an original script,

which he not surprisingly hopes to direct. While he’s reluctant

to talk about that new project "I’m superstitious," he

admits he’s happy to speak his mind about The Shadow and

a variety of other subjects. And yes, as the headline to a New Yorker

profile put it a few months back: "David Koepp is a very nice

screenwriter. Really.

MM: What’s it like for a writer to be under

contract to a studio in the ’90s. Is it like Barton Fink, or do

you have more freedom?

DK: No, no, nothing like that. It was pretty

much a mutual consent decree. If they had a project, I’d have to

want to do it; they couldn’t force me to do it. And likewise, they’d

have to like my ideas; I couldn’t force them to let me do something.

It wasn’t like they’d say, "Here, rewrite this Wallace Berry

wrestling picture."

MM: Do you see a common thread that runs through

all of your films? They seem to be a pretty diverse bunch.

Screenwriter David Koepp on the set

of The Paper. Sean Penn and Robert De Niro in Carlito’s


DK: It depends on the movie. I’ve

tried to work in a number of genres, and also on some scripts that

were kind of beyond genre, I hope. Certainly the first couple of movies

had more in common than the last couple. Apartment Zero, Bad

Influence and Death Becomes Her were all of a piece. There’s

a macabre sense of humor to all of them, although Death Becomes

Her is more overtly trying to laugh than the other two. But I

think The Shadow sort of comes out of that period. It’s about

good and evil impulses, the divided nature of everybody – especially

of heroes.

MM: Obviously, you’re too young to have heard

the radio shows when they were first aired. How did you get to know

"The Shadow"? What sources did you rely on in writing

the script?

DK: Actually, I remembered the radio shows

from when I was a kid. On Sunday nights, CBS Radio Mystery Theatre,

hosted by E.G. Marshall reran The Shadow every Sunday at

10. But I also went back to the original pulp novels, which I was

not aware of before, and I read a bunch of those. I drew a lot of

specifics from the pulp novels, but the tone came from the radio

show. We’re kind of a hybrid.

MM: Was the plot taken from one of the books,

or is it your invention?

DK: I went off and came up with the plot on

my own. I worked closely with [producer] Marty Bregman, and ran

it by him at every stage. He’d been working on this for years, so

I had to respect that. Any time I come onto a project later, I try

to work with what others have done. Like with Jurassic Park,

for example. When people have been hard at work on something for

years, you have to work with them.

MM: Given that "The Shadow"

is about the super heroic alter ego of a millionaire, there would

seem to be similarities between "The Shadow" and

"Batman." Was that a concern?

DK: A lot of those super hero stories came out of the same social circumstances

in the early ’30s, and there certainly were similarities. Most notably,

a wealthy bachelor, man-about town with a dark secret who actually

fights crime. The thing too is to find out what the key to yours is,

and explore that storyline. In Batman it was revenge. In ours,

I decided it was guilt. I was always struck by the copy line, ‘Who

knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?’ and wondered how he knew

what evil lurks in the hearts of men. And I decided that perhaps it

was because he was uncomfortably familiar with the evil in his own

heart. When it became a story of guilt and atonement, in my mind it

became a very different story. While many of the external circumstances,

like the mansion in Manhattan and the running around and throwing

creepy shadows on things may be similar to Batman, I think it’s a

very different story.

MM: While "Batman" is set

in a vague near future, "The Shadow" is set in

its original period, the ’30s. Does it explore social issues, like

the depression?

DK: No, because as they say in one of the musical

numbers in Annie, the depression is depressing. I guess the only

thing that would put it in a social context is that Cranston, like

Bruce Wayne, was shaped by World War 1. We do suggest that something

profoundly life changing happened to him in World War 1, and that

he went off and became a different person as a result of it. That’s

where we start the film. So maybe that puts it in a historical context,

but other than that, there’s no real social commentary.

MM: Alec Baldwin seems ideally cast in the

role. Did you have him in mind when you wrote the script?

DK: Actually, I did. I usually try to avoid

thinking of a specific actor, because it tends to limit your thinking

when you’re writing a character in a way that it shouldn’t. You’re

going to have to make changes to suit the actor soon enough anyway,

so I figure that the early drafts are the only time that the characters

are really yours. But in this case, I’ve always been a fan of Alec

Baldwin, and he just came to mind early on. In addition to being

a great actor, he has the eyes and the voice; he had so much of

what I pictured Cranston being. And then we were lucky enough to

get him, which never happens. You never get your first choice.

MM: What sorts of changes do you have to have

to make to suit actors?

DK: I think you try to take advantage of what

they do well. I think if in rehearsals you hear them throwing in

funny lines, or things just sort of slip out that seem natural,

you’re foolish not to incorporate it. Alec’s very funny, and we

tried to pepper humor throughout the film, and he’d make a lot of

off-the-cuff remarks that would end up in revision pages, because

they were just right. So you try to take advantage of what they

do well, and if they’re having trouble with something you make it

easier; if a line’s unpronounceable, you have to deal with that.

MM: What about bigger changes? I understand

the role Glenn Close played in "The Paper" was

originally written for a man. Whose idea was it to make the character

a woman?

One of the stats of Jurassic Park inspecting a used car; Bruce Willis carrying a torch in Death

Becomes Her.

DK: When Ron Howard read the script, he said,

"In terms of large notes, I’ve only got one: it’s an awfully

maledominated newsroom. Wouldn’t it be interesting if Alan was a

woman?" My brother Steve, who I wrote it with, and I talked

about it a lot, and we decided that we would like to try that, because

we decided that it gave the film an interesting dynamic. But our

thinking was that what you had to do was not change a word except

the name: change it from Alan to Alicia and leave everything else

the same. Anything else would be trying to figure out, "How

would a woman in power behave?" And it shouldn’t be about that.

It should be about how a person in power behaves, and since that

behavior is judged one way when it’s a man, why should it be judged

differently if it’s a woman? So we did it, and as an experiment

I think it turned out really well. I liked the edge it gave the

character, and it especially made the fight scene more interesting.

MM: You’ve worked with a lot of big-name directors,

including Steven Spielberg, Brian De Palma, Ron Howard and Robert

Zemeckis. Do you find that you have to tailor your scripts to their

specific sensibilities?

DK: What you have to understand is that every

director I’ve worked with, I’ve completely dominated in every way.

My personality has been the dominant one, and I’ve dictated shot-for-shot

how they should make the film. [Koepp smiles]. No, seriously, it

depends on where you came in and where he came in. With Jurassic

Park, Steven had been working on that for a year and a half,

so I was very conscious of my role as someone who’d arrived late

and wanted to help out as much as he could. On Carlito’s Way,

I had been working on it for about three years before Brian started

working on it, so I felt that I had more moral authority. But as

the project went on, and he was logging incredible hours that I

wasn’t, it became more his film. The Paper was the most even

collaboration I’ve had with a director. Steve and I had put in a

lot of work, and it was our idea, which makes a big difference,

and Ron was great in including us every step of the way. So it all

depends on whose idea it was, and when they started, and what the

director’s personality is like. But I’ve been very lucky to have

really good collaborations.

MM: You’ve written both adaptations and original

scripts. Which do you prefer?

DK: Whatever I’m not working on is what I love.

If I do an original, I long for the days when I’m working on an

adaptation, and vice versa. I think an original is easier, because

books start out so determinedly not movies, that it’s kind of a

miracle that they become movies at all. Carlito’s Way was

two books: 800 pages of material. And to make that into a two hour

movie was brutal; it was really hard. With an original, it’s conceived

as a movie, so there’s something innately cinematic about it. But

on the other hand, you’re cutting from whole cloth. You’ve got nothing,

and that can be hard, too.

MM: With an adaptation – and I think especially

with something as familiar as "The Shadow" – you

have to deal with audience expectations based on previous incarnations.

Are the audience’s expectations always in the back of your mind?

DK: Well, every time The Shadow moved

from one medium to another, it changed a little bit. They changed

the rules a little bit to suit the radio: the power to cloud men’s

minds was never in the pulp novels. That came out of how perfectly

it fit the medium of radio. So we felt license to mutate a little

bit ourselves. Truthfully, I think it makes you a little nervous

to mess with something people are familiar with. When you change

the Coke recipe, it’s bound to make you a little nervous. But I

think we did a good job. I think people will be pleased.

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