David Koepp is tired of waiting for Tom Hanks’s help. As the screenwriter of such Hanks vehicles as Angels & Demons and Inferno, Koepp kept his end of the screenwriter-actor bargain while promoting those movies through media interviews and industry-junket gauntlets. So why shouldn’t his one-time star return the favour, now that Koepp is out there selling his first novel, the darkly comic sci-fi thriller Cold Storage?
“I kept waiting for Tom to go on Jimmy Kimmel and sell the book, but strangely he wouldn’t,” Koepp says with a laugh. “But this has gotten me to appreciate how books are sold by hand, one at a time. Movies, we do a $25-million advertising campaign even if we know it’s not good, just to trick people into seeing it. But the book business is a much more thoughtful process.”
More thoughtful, and more slow – although this is a speed that Koepp, who has had the good fortune of barrelling through a Hollywood career at a near-record pace thanks to his work on everything from Carlito’s Way to Jurassic Park to Spider-Man to War of the Worlds, could get used to. During a recent book-tour stop in Toronto, the 56-year-old author (and screenwriter, producer and director) spoke with The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz about the pleasures of working outside the grip of movie studios.
Do you feel like you have had to live with this book longer than any film that you’ve written or directed?
It’s more singularly yours. Often when a movie is done, it becomes so much other people’s thing that you’re not quite attached to it. This is also incredibly freeing – stuff that I could never have written in a screenplay before. It was so solitary, and there were no expectations.
Is it easier to deal with notes from a book editor than a movie studio?
It’s much gentler and more intelligent. I’m killing my screenwriting career by saying that out loud, but this is the first time I’ve been given notes from a person who viewed it as essentially mine versus essentially theirs. I don’t blame directors – they have to take ownership, because everything becomes something they see and hear. Studios, I’m a little more resentful of. I’ve thought about it more than they have.
Was there any trepidation, then, about going into the realm of books, where your name is the only one to blame?
I was anxious because, like most people, one of the things I fear is public humiliation. And we live in a time not known for its great civility. The last thing I wanted was either blanket rejections or to be critically reviled, which is never a fun experience. But happily neither of those things came.
At least when you write a screenplay, you’re shielded from public ridicule by a couple steps …
Well, not really. You don’t get it as bad as the actors or the director, but screenwriters can get hammered. You tend to be hated by other writers who don’t understand that screenwriting is difficult, or don’t like that screenwriters are well paid. I used to feel sorry for myself about that, but now I don’t know anybody who doesn’t get abused on the internet. The things I’ve read about you are pretty nasty!
Wait … really?
I'm not being serious. But it is awful.
Well, you pan one Avengers movie …
While chatting about this book in another interview, the Sony and Marvel situation came up, as they had a little falling out [over Spider-Man], and because I worked on the first movie, I was asked what I thought about that. I said I’m not sure why everyone is so quick to defend Disney, because they’re not an underdog to be defended. And viciousness ensued. But you’re reviewed very directly online, and you can choose to read that or not. It’s been ever thus.
So, do you?
Of course. It's hard to avoid. But if you wait a few months and one day you get an especially peaceful inner sense, you can do a deep dive and read them all. Discount the outliers who say you're either a genius or Satan, and you can learn what's working and what's not.
The film rights to Cold Storage are already sold, and you’re adapting it. How odd is it to be adapting your own voice for the screen?
I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I considered a movie version of this while I was writing it. That’s old instincts and hard to shut off. But there were a bunch of things that I did in the book that would be impossible to show in a movie, and now the moment has come when I have to put it in a movie, which is when I cursed myself. But the hardest bit is cutting stuff you like. Adapting other authors’ work, I can cut 50 pages without batting an eye. Now I know why I wrote those 50 pages, though, and how long it took me to write those 50 pages. The next time I go to adapt someone else’s work, I might not be as effective, because now I’m sympathetic.
But you have no desire to direct this adaptation?
No, because I’ve lived with the idea for a long time already, and it needs fresh blood and a different perspective. Movies are helped by the dynamism of different writers and directors. I also find directing brutally difficult work, personally and psychologically. I just finished a small movie [the horror film You Should Have Left], and I hope it’s my last. There are many people who are very good at it, but for me it’s turbulent and difficult.
Yet, you’ve directed eight films now …
I've directed more movies than most people who have never had a hit movie. I've had successful ones, but not a hit. And I've only managed one outright disaster.
So, Mortdecai with Johnny Depp, if we’re talking about the same thing. But you know, that film’s found quite a strong cult audience, especially in Toronto. There’s a group of film writers here who are especially attached to it.
Well that’s nice to hear. There was an unfortunate confluence of events that conspired to bring that one down. One was a movie star who both the public and the critical establishment decided, “Let’s get that guy, it’s his turn.” And there were failings in the movie, certainly, and they’re my fault. But also what surprised me about it was the vitriol for … you know, we made a $55-million Terry-Thomas movie, which is not playing it safe. My fear was this was way too specific and esoteric a choice for a mainstream movie, and I was correct. But it wasn’t done from a lack of courage.
So many of your scripts turned out to be franchise-starters: Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man. Did you write Cold Storage thinking that it could kickstart its own series?
I have ideas where the story can go in movie form, but I have different ideas for a next book. And it's also very dangerous for movies to think that way, because any time that you think, "We're going to make five of these," it's a terrible flop.
This conversation has been condensed and edited.
Barry Hertz is the Film Editor of The Globe and Mail.
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