David Koepp

The writer/director talks about his new comedy, working with Ricky Gervais and future projects

While his isn't a "household" name as of yet, David Koepp's films are some of the biggest around. He's written such blockbusters as Jurassic Park and Spider-Man and the list goes on and on. He's also written and directed some fine films as well with Stir of Echoes, Secret Window and his latest film, Ghost Town, which comes to DVD and Blu-ray on December 28. I had a chance to speak with Koepp over the phone about his latest film, and here's what he had to say.

This is the first comedy you've done in a while, and I can't help but wonder, how much of this was just poking fun at The Sixth Sense for the whole Stir of Echoes/The Sixth Sense thing there was for awhile there?

David Koepp: Oh, none of it (Laughs). It was really just, I was in a bad mood and I went for a walk and I saw a sign for a dentist. I thought, 'There's a good profession. You get to shove cotton in people's mouths.' So I called up my friend John Kamps and we just started about how to make the story work.

I saw that John is from Wisconsin as well, so how did you first meet up with him and start working with him?

David Koepp: Oh we met in high school, and just had been friends for a long time and when we were in our early 20s, I was a couple of years older than him, so I had went out to California to start working in the movie business and he had just graduated as an English major and was working on stories and I said, 'Come out here. Write your stories out here. ' We had worked together on and off. We both like to write our own stuff too, so we don't work together every time, but whenever there's something that looks like a comedy, I always call John because he's just the funniest guy I know and it's just fun. I mean, writing comedy by yourself is just really hard. There are only a couple of people that I can think of that really have done it well over the years. You know, Neil Simon, Woody Allen. Those guys come to mind. You need another person in the room, or at least to bounce stuff off of.

How early of a decision was it to cast Ricky (Gervais)? He's had phenomenal success abroad and even here, but this is the first time he's starred as the lead in a feature. How did that whole process come about with Ricky?

David Koepp: That was pretty early. When you're working on a comedy in a Hollywood studio, there are certain names that are going to pop up, and we talked about all those. As soon as, I think it was Stacy Snider at DreamWorks, mentioned Ricky's name, I thought, 'Well, yeah. Fantastic.' It was such a fresh idea, I just loved it.

So how did Ricky take to this material? Was he always up to the challenge?

David Koepp: Yeah. He is a really decisive guy and he does a lot. He's a very busy fella. He read and just said, 'Yes.' We had one meeting and about a half an hour through, he got out a yellow legal pad and started writing down his schedule to tell me when he was free. I think that he just, like most good actors, responds to the material and decides whether its in him or isn't. This, I think, had a lot in common with some of the shows he's done, in that his character was capable of being quite unpleasant and awful to people. But also, there is a sort of sentimental side to it, cloaked in cynicism, but still there, which you see in everything he's done. There is a big heart beating beneath the crusty façade.

You have a great supporting cast as well, with Greg Kinnear, Tea Leoni, Kristen Wiig and Aasif Mandvi.

David Koepp: Yeah, it's great. The nice thing about working in New York, is there's a lot of very funny people that live here. Kristen, we were shooting during the SNL season, but we were able to get her by doing, just scheduling her on her days off. It was great. I loved my cast.

So how close did these characters, when you saw the final product, how close did they come to the original vision you might have had, when you and John wrote this?

David Koepp: Pretty close. You forget that when you write it and then you direct it, you're present for your changes in the vision, so you don't notice them as much. There's a thousand decisions along the way that change what you're doing, like locations change, actors change. So it's not like the shock of when you write something and someone else directs it and you look up one day and it's completely different than you had pictured. That usually happens when you're writing, but that doesn't happen when you're directing as well, because you're presiding over those changes.

You've directed before and you've written a comedy before, but I believe this is the first time you've both written and directed a comedy before. What kind of a different animal is that, from directing some of the darker fare that you've done before?

David Koepp: I just loved it because there's a large technical component that's removed. You can't get too... you can't mess it up with too much camera work and too many complex shots. It just isn't appropriate. Your job as a comedy director is to make a playable space where your funny people have time and space to be funny, and you're there to record it. I think you want it to look beautiful, and we tried hard to make it a good-looking film, but you don't want it to be a visually complex film. Let the people be funny. I found that was a great relief to not have to worry about building sequences in the technical way in things that I had in horror or thriller or something like that. You just get to work with the actors and the material, and that's my absolute favorite thing to do.

Is there a favorite or most memorable scene in the film that sticks out for you?

David Koepp: It's sometimes hard to separate making the scene from the scene itself. The one in the hospital, with Ricky and Kristen where she doesn't want to tell him that he died was so hysterically funny on the set. The scene where she keeps interrupting him, that wasn't really scripted that way, it just sort of evolved after 20 or 30 takes. It was just so piss-your-pants funny that I almost did. I had such a great time doing that and, to me, that's what being a comedy director is. Finding these really funny people and helping them do their thing.

Was it a pretty crazy set? Was Ricky as much of a cut-up as I imagine he'd be?

David Koepp: It's not so much Ricky cutting up, it's Ricky not being able to stop laughing. He has, in fact, the gag reel is entitled 'Some People Can Do It,' because he complains that he can't get through takes without laughing. Some people can do it, but he can't. It's almost pathological. It's really quite funny. It was a very funny experience. Sometimes you feel like you're going insane, because someone is going to have to get through this with a straight face.

You've written some of the bigger blockbusters of the last couple decades or so, but it seems that your directorial projects are smaller, more personal projects. Has that been on purpose and is there any chance that you might direct one of these summer tentpole kind of movies?

David Koepp: The things I'm interested in as a writer and as a director are different. As a writer, I do enjoy those big canvas things, but one of the things that I enjoy about it is working with a director like Spielberg who has the ability to go out and produce these spectacular things. I just don't have that skill, and I'm not really interested in acquiring it. A lot of that kind of work requires a kind of vision and the persistence and patience that I just don't have. When special effects come up on the set, I almost fall asleep in my chair. It's so hard for me to focus on it, because it's just not interesting to me. The things I do like, as a director, are smaller and tend to be more intimately involved in the characters, not that you don't try to have good character work in the big blockbuster stuff. Spider-Man is just something that I could never have that skill and I think I have that skill as a writer, but as a director, it's just not my thing.

Angels & Demons is shaping up to be one of the bigger and most anticipated films of this coming year. What can you tell us about your experience on that film, and what can you tell us about a possible full trailer? Super Bowl, perhaps?

David Koepp: Oh, I don't know. I saw the teaser, which was on the James Bond movie, that I thought was really terrific. I think the movie will be great. I'm excited to see it myself, I haven't yet, though.

So are they locked on that yet?

David Koepp: Probably not, no. It's not until May, so they're working away.

Is there anything that you're currently writing or developing now that you can give us a heads-up on?

David Koepp: I'm working on a political thriller, that would be a bigger more complex thing. I'm writing the script now that I would direct at Sony.

OK, cool. Is there anything you can tell us about that, plot-wise?

David Koepp: Umm, no (Laughs). That would jinx it, but it's a political thriller.

Finally, the DVD and Blu-ray come out on the 28th. What would you like to say to entice the viewers out there, maybe redeem their gift cards, and pick this up?

David Koepp: (Laughs) Yeah. Just that I think that it's a movie they might have missed when it came out, because there is always a lot out at the box office and, I think, smaller movies like ours get overlooked. Every audience we showed this movie too, really loved it. It's always played great for audiences, so I think it's something people would really enjoy at home.

Excellent. Well, that's about all I have. Thank you so much for your time and I really enjoy your work.

David Koepp: Oh, great. Thank you. Talk to you later.

Ghost Town will bring the laughs to DVD and Blu-ray when it hits the shelves on December 28.