One of the best things about doing an interview outside of a press junket is time. When a studio holds a big junket at a hotel, everyone’s time is extremely limited because the people need to be able to speak with all the reporters. While you occasionally can land twenty minutes with someone in a one-on-one setting, it’s not the norm.
So when I arranged to speak with veteran screenwriter David Koepp about writing the movie adaptation of Ron Howard’s Inferno, one of the things that really excited me was that he was going to give me enough time to have an in-depth conversation. We not only got to discuss the latest Robert Langdon adventure, but also his work on films such as David Fincher’s Panic Room, Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, Brian De Palma’s Carlito’s Way, the first Mission: Impossible movie, and a lot more.
If you’re not familiar with Inferno, the film marks the third in the Robert Langdon franchise, following 2006’s The Da Vinci Code and 2009’s Angels & Demons, and finds Tom Hanks returning as the franchise’s hero. In Inferno, Dr. Langdon wakes up in an Italian hospital with amnesia and must team up with Dr. Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) to recover his memories and stop a madman from unleashing a plague inspired by Dante’s Inferno. Inferno also stars Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, Ben Foster, and Sidse Babett Knudsen.
Collider: So the first big question is: What do you get as an award when the worldwide box office for the movies you’ve been involved with pass $2 billion?
DAVID KOEPP: Well you get certificate good for working again in Hollywood. Whenever something does well I think, “OK, that buys me another 18 months” and when something does poorly I think, “I wondering if that eats into my 18 months?”
That’s really funny. You’ve been working in Hollywood as a screenwriter for a very long time, how has your process changed at all or do you still have a very typical routine?
KOEPP: I have a typical routine. I mean, you know, I think writing scripts for me hasn’t changed since my early twenties, which is…you know there’s thinking, research –Thinking is just like when you have an idea that’s just rattling around in your head for a year, or a week, or two years or whatever. Research, which can be extensive or not depending on the subject. Outlining, first draft, and perpetual rewrites. So that has not tended to change, the only thing that really changed was I used to work at night, and since I have kids I work in the day. Because you know kids force you into more of a regular schedule. But I think that still screenwriting, the best that tends to come from fewest people in the room and so that’s why I thought it would be nice to work with successful directors, because they tend to get the space that you need and you get a lot of other people in the room. I know that like the writers rooms is very popular in TV and certainly there’s a lot of per TV, like everyone else I watch a lot of TV these days but I don’t think the writers room approach has ever really worked for movies or maybe I’m just not good at it. I like the push and pull of two people talking, you know I try to go and seek out those situations although they’re harder and harder to find because of the way the movie business has changed.
Yeah, I agree with you. I don’t think when there’s ten screenwriters on a project you get a coherent vision.
KOEPP: Right, and not even like cooking up the story. I mean it’s not even just sequential stuff, sequential writers. I don’t have a lot of success when there’s three or four people trying to come up with a story and I’m supposed to go write it. I don’t do well in that situation.
Jumping into Inferno, the ending of the book is different than the ending of the movie. I’m curious, without going into the exact specifics, how that came about, that discussion of, “we’re gonna make some changes.”
KOEPP: I think that there’s ideas that you can work out in book… I don’t know how to answer it exactly without falling back into the cliché that, “well books and movies are very different.” But they are and there’s ideas –I ideas and people’s thoughts can work great in a book but you have no access to them really in a movie. And I think the ending of the book which I found really cool, as a book was not something that I felt you could dramatize very well in terms of what people say and do, which is really all you have in a movie, what people say and do, what we see and hear. The book rested on an idea and some thought processes and having the opportunity to…well the book half the Earth is realized at the end. And that’s a cool idea, that’s a really cool idea and I enjoyed reading about it and he gets to spend a couple pages expounding on that idea, but unless I put that in some character’s mouth as a monologue that doesn’t give me much to dramatize. So it felt like we needed a different ending, which would suit the movie.
When you’re writing the screenplay, but you have an author like Dan Brown who is very popular and arguably pretty powerful with his stuff, how much are you guys talking back-and-forth and how much is it Dan just saying, “Hey the movie’s gonna be the movie and the book’s gonna be the book.”?
KOEPP: I think Dan says that –I don’t really communicate with Dan much if at all. We met several times and I like him and he’s been very encouraging and supportive of the movies and two of the scripts I’ve written for the movies. But I find that a novelist and a screenwriter don’t really, you know, we don’t have a lot to talk about. It was the same with Michael Crichton, I adapted two of his books without ever meeting him. I find that most of the communication going through the director is really the way to go because I can speak frankly about the problems I might be having changing the book and he can speak frankly about the problems he might have with the script without trying to navigate that with each other. If I wrote a book and some idiot screenwriter was adapting it I wouldn’t want to hear about it, because I would think everything they’re doing is wrong. So if somebody else adopts your child I don’t think you want to watch them raise them. I think the only time I spent a lot of time with an author of a book was Edwin Torres in Carlito’s Way because it was really about his childhood and people he really knew and an experience that he really had. And I knew nothing about it so the sole source of my research was his wife who I did get to hang around some.
When you’re writing a script like Inferno or maybe any of your other scripts, how cognizant are you of writing with a budget in mind and how much are you, “I’m gonna write the script and I’m gonna let the director and the studio figure out how to pay for it.”?
KOEPP: You know, I used to worry about budget and then [Steven] Spielberg told me on one of things I was writing for him, “Don’t worry about that. There are no limits except your imagination.” So I really try not to think about it at all and I write what I want to see. The only thing I care about is what I want to see when I’m at the movie, and then I hope that other people want to see that too. Because they’ll tell you if something’s a problem and you just think of another way to do it, but I think that you can’t self-sensor that way unless something’s ridiculous. But usually if you write a twelve page chase, that’s gonna be a budget problem and structurally also because that’s an awfully long chase, are you sure you want that there? So the demands of the story often takes care of budget problems themselves.
One of the things I really like about Inferno is that the antagonist… so many movies have a shitty antagonist and it’s very frustrating as a moviegoer, and one of the things I liked about Inferno is Ben Foster’s characters is playing someone trying to deal with real world problems, and maybe he’s going about it a little extreme, but it’s a conversation piece we should all be having. Can you talk about having a strong antagonist with a clear vision.
KOEPP: Well, the great thing is that about the character is that he’s got an excellent point and to me he’s the best kind of antagonist because he can articulate and defend his point, and you can even agree with him, and you can agree with him all the way up until the last part. He says there’s a terrible overpopulation problem, I agree with that. All of the woes that are plaguing humankind can be traced to human overpopulation, spread of disease, global warming, you know, the list goes on, I agree with all that. We need to do something to combat overpopulation, I totally agree with that. What we should do is wipe out half the planet and sterilize the other, “Wait a minute! I was with you for a long time there but you lost me on that last bit.” That’s where the madness or the sociopathic part of the bad guy comes in. But the good ones you don’t want them to have just a level of malevolent intent, the more defensible it is and the more sense it makes, the more formidable they are as a villain. For me the real challenge of this film was that he was dead from page 2, that makes it tricky.
I would agree with you on that. Talk a little bit about when you’re writing a script like Inferno, how much are you meeting with Tom [Hanks] and Ron [Howard] or the studio and sort of talking about knowing what you’re gonna do before doing it? How’s that process work at the beginning in terms of figuring out what you’re gonna do and how many people are involved in the kitchen?
KOEPP: There’s conversations at the very beginning with Ron [Howard] and the studio, Tom [Hanks] some although he wants you to try it and give him something to react to. It really is just conversations with Ron and the studio where you say what’s important to you, what might be tough to adapt or need changing from a book to a movie, the broad strokes of it all. Then I’ll start announcing what my problems are and someone will inevitably say, “Well, yeah that’s why we called you though.” That’s the lonely time, because it’s all your problem and you really have to give them something to react to. You know there’s some conversations, really extensive, they want to know. Generally, your intent is to preserve what they like and change what’s problematic. But after that you just have to go do it. Some entities like to see an outline, which I’m loathed to do. I’m happy to talk through an outline, but writing them up is terrible because I write an outline for myself but it’s not really a readable document. If you give it to somebody you can say this is an outline and it lacks character depth and humor and then inevitably they will call you and say, “I’m not feeling the characters deeply and it’s really not that funny.” and you’re like, “Yeah, well, it has none of the tools of a screenplay. I had only the boring bits.” So long answer, but the short version is: a couple extensive conversations, and then I gotta go try it.
You wrote Panic Room and I hear all the time about actors’ experiences working with David Fincher, in fact, I’m fascinated by it. But I don’t get to talk to too many screenwriters about working with him, so what was that process like, collaborating with him?
KOEPP: He was great. He was the greatest. He’s so protective of writers, it’s really lovely. I mean, he will push you –as he pushes anybody and as he pushes himself– to do better, but most directors do. What’s really touching is he takes –He doesn’t like people fucking with his writer at all, that’s his job. I remember we were at some meeting at the studio prior to shooting and they gave me some notes that I didn’t particularly like and I think I sort of made a face or something, and he excoriated the executive for giving me the note, he just really let him have it. And I thought, “Yeah! I’m not doing that note, that’s fucking stupid!” And then we left the meeting and we were walking down the hall and he said, “You know you really ought to think about that, it’s a really good point.” [Laughs.] And I was like, “Oh, I get it. You just don’t want them telling me what to do.”
Whatever happened to the Thin Man remake that you were writing for Johnny Depp and Rob Marshall?
KOEPP: I never wrote that. Sometimes you start a job and you work on it a couple of weeks, you write an outline, and I really liked it, they didn’t see it the way I did. Everybody’s better off if you immediately say, “Don’t give me any money until it’s done.” Because if you think, “Well, let me try it, we’ll agree on it later” then money changes hands and they all start screaming at each other. I backed out of that.