DAVID KOEPP has written or co-written the screenplays for more than thirty films including Jurassic Park, Carlito's Way, Mission: Impossible, and most recently Kimi, now streaming on HBO Max. As a novelist, he has a brand new book, AURORA, which arrives June 7th, and is to be adapted by director Kathryn Bigelow for Netflix. We met recently at the Wisconsin Film Festival, and later spoke about the kinds of films that inspired him growing up, why he's drawn to fantastical ideas, and his favorite cinematic moment which still gives him chills.
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Dave Watson: Congratulations on your new book. How did this come about?
David Koepp: I’ve been interested in the theme of powerlessness, both literal and metaphorical, for a long time. I actually made a movie about a blackout called THE TRIGGER EFFECT, back in 1996. That movie was quite insular, and only followed the experiences of three people who were together over a period of three days, and the blackout was unexplained. But I remained interested in the idea of a more sweeping, global event that lasted far longer, and the ways in which two different communities might come together or fall apart during the stress of the crisis. I wanted to look at someone who was drastically underprepared for such an event, and someone who was crazily OVER-prepared, and see how their paths might diverge.
DW: Amidst a pandemic, science is a theme in your work. Were you always interested in it? Especially biology and chemistry given your screenplay of two JURASSIC PARK movies and the novel COLD STORAGE.
DK: I’m drawn to fantastical ideas that have their roots in reality, and the way a science-based thriller or adventure can tell the story of ordinary people in an extraordinary situation. This kind of science fiction is also a great jumping off point from which to speculate about human behavior and the nature of our character. Kurt Vonnegut broke the ice on that kind of blending of science and literature back in the 1960s and 70s, but really H.G. Wells was doing the same sort of thing a century earlier.
DW: You test characters in your work, be it in suspense thrillers or in the action-adventure genre. Do you see these tests as bringing out character facets? Their humanity?
DK: Pushing people to their limits, and then beyond, is what storytelling is all about, I think. We all think of ourselves in a certain way going into a crisis, and we hope to consider ourselves in that same favorable light when we’re coming out. But we don’t all make it. Some of us do better than we’d expect, and conduct ourselves with heroism, or surprising patience, kindness, or generosity. Others — perhaps most of us — let ourselves down in one way or another. But intense circumstances in general are a great place to see what a character might be capable of, for good or for ill.
DW: You and I met at a screening of SORRY, WRONG NUMBER, and in your great intro. you talked about advents of technology that simultaneously bring us closer together and push us farther away from each other. Do you start with these ideas when you start crafting a story?
DK: I don’t consciously start with a broad societal theme in mind, I tend to begin with an idea or situation, and then think to myself, “Now who is the best — or worst — person that this could possibly happen to?” In the case of SORRY, WRONG NUMBER, the 1948 classic about a woman who overhears a murder plot on the party line of her telephone, and my own recent film KIMI, about a voice stream interpreter who hears a sexual assault on a randomly selected stream, both characters are witnessing something they would not have had access to without new technology. I think technology always follows a similar pattern — it’s fascinating, we love it, and then we are shocked by the ways in which it dehumanizes us, or creates problems we hadn’t previously considered. Machines and algorithms aren’t human, so predicting their impact on soft tissue is almost impossible. And rarely encouraging.
DW: Who were writers and directors you admired growing up? Why?
DK: You can’t have come of age in the 1970s and not been influenced by Steven Spielberg. I was no different, but I was also heavily influenced by Alfred Hitchcock, Roman Polanski, Brian DePalma, and a number of the other makers of the great, paranoid thrillers of that era and earlier. Lawrence Kasdan, for his unrelenting insistence on writing and directing his own work, was a significant inspiration for me as well.
DW: What's next?
DK: I’m currently working on the screenplay for AURORA, which is going to be a Netflix movie directed by the great Kathryn Bigelow (THE HURT LOCKER, ZERO DARK THIRTY). I can’t get far from this story, it seems! The film version is going to be different from the book, it is more of an interpretation of the book rather than a straight recording of it, but that is fitting and as it should be with all adaptations. You can’t make the jump from one medium to another without a necessary amount of re-imagining. In this case, Kathryn’s vision is clear and specific, so I’m in the process of telling the same story, but from a slightly different world view. It’s fun for me, and makes it a bit fresh and exciting, rather than just typing up my book into script form.
DW: Finally, what is your favorite cinematic moment?
DK: A brutally difficult question, as there are so many! I do, however, vividly remember lying on the couch as a teenager, flipping through channels, and ROSEMARY’S BABY came on. I’d heard about it, of course, knew it was a creepy movie, but the full extent of its creepiness — and its underlying message, which is that you can’t trust the ones you love — really shook my cage. I’ve been trying to write stories with that level of unease ever since.
Clip: ROSEMARY’S BABY
Founder and editor of Movies Matter, Dave Watson is a writer and educator in Madison, WI.