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.
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
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
MM: Do you see a common thread that runs through
all of your films? They seem to be a pretty diverse bunch.
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
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
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
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
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
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.