With the Stephen King-based, Johnny Depp-starring Secret Window (opening March 12 from Columbia), David Koepp seems ready to finally make the transition from gold-standard go-to screen scribe to bona fide auteur, complete with quirky personal themes and obsessions. Not that Koepp, self-deprecatingly humble and apparently normal to a fault, would ever make such grandiose claims.
His is one of the more interestingly ass-backward careers in recent U.S. film. He first gained attention for penning the riveting, quirked-out indie Apartment Zero, then fell wallet-first onto Hollywood A-list, scripting a slew of mainstream hits—among them Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man and Panic Room. Of late, he created TV’s working-class-hero series Hack and had a (likely) uncredited hand in the Spidey sequel. Along the way, he helmed two ambitious, modestly budgeted thrillers:The Trigger Effect, where claustrophobia-induced race and class issues were the side effect of a citywide power failure, and Stir of Echoes, which combined old-school ghost tropes with Kevin Bacon’s cabin fever and, again, thorny class conflicts.
Fango meets up with Koepp as he dashes about a mid-Manhattan editing suite trying out a modified finale for his suspense/horror combo, based on King’s novella Secret Window, Secret Garden from the Four Past Midnight collection. With his short, tousled blond hair, work shirt and chinos, one could mistake him for WASPy below-the-line help, which is part of his charm. In casual chat, his speech is a considered Midwestern semi-drawl, but talk about Secret Window and it changes to a clipped near-Scorsesean cadence. “It’s a different ending story,” he says. “It does go rather over the top. People could reject it. I have no idea. I don’t know. It works great for me.”
In a craven attempt to find out more about Koepp’s Secret, Fango inquires about what works well for him. “I can’t tell you,” he says. “It’s a hard one to talk about. There are surprising elements; it might ruin the experience of seeing the movie. It does become very Edgar Allan Poe. It gets . . . it gets big. The question is, is it good Poe or bad, wannabe Poe? That’ll either work or it won’t. It works for me. So I’m being true to myself.”
The vision thing is important to Koepp. Still, did he shoot a safety ending in case this over-the-top “Poe” ending flops? “Nope. You gotta commit to your ideas. There’s plenty of opportunity for panic later.” he says.
After adapting King’s most notable influence, Richard Matheson, for the excellent but somewhat underadored Stir of Echoes, Koepp dipped into King territory proper courtesy of a query from Sony, which had bought the novella’s screen rights. “It was a very good story,” Koepp says. “And it never hurts to have King’s name involved, especially if it’s a scary movie, which I hope this is.” A mention of the recent, remarkably lamentable Dreamcatcher, and Koepp glances leftward. “Some of his stories are better suited to movies than others. I thought this one was well-suited. I hope I’m right.”
Actually, King’s tale is a perfect fit for Koepp on several levels. The basic plot: A popular writer, Mort Rainey (Depp), discovers his wife (The Cooler’s Maria Bello) in bed with another man. A messy divorce results. “She gets the house in New York,” Koepp says, “and Rainey gets the cabin up in the woods,” where he’s soon confronted by a backwoods lunatic named John Shooter (John Turturro) who claims that Rainey stole a story from him. “Rainey denies it—but he actually did steal a story in the past,” Koepp explains. “We’re not sure if he [stole Shooter’s story], but Shooter is incredibly persistent. We know he’s crazy. We don’t know how far his craziness extends. And he wants recompense and will stop at nothing to get it.
“It starts as a divorce drama,” Koepp adds, “but it’s supposed to be a scary movie—but a very dramatic scary movie.”Echoes, Panic Room and the earlier Trigger Effect and Apartment Zero all display Koepp’s obsession with mental deterioration via forced confinement. In Secret, he sounds almost cheery as he revisits his pet theme: “Johnny Depp’s character is terribly depressed, sleeping 16 hours a day holed up in his cabin in the woods.” As film editor Jill Savitt curses her malfunctioning Avid in the other room, and an intern brings coffee, Koepp says in bemused aside: “I don’t know why people in states of emotional distress in movies go out to remote outposts where they have a cabin. Why not just a nice hotel in town?”
Anyway: “I believe everyone has felt cabin fever, especially if you’ve been depressed. You can really go crazy with it in the four walls of your own head. I like the challenge of shooting in just one spot and making it continually interesting and scary.” His goals with Panic Room were similar, to “limit myself in terms of time, space and dialogue. In speed and telling a story with pictures. And confinement.”
That Secret hew to the basic elements of another King tale famously adapted to film—Misery, with its blocked writer/isolated location/lunatic scenario—bugs him not a whit. “King writes about writers and their torments a lot,” Koepp notes. “Authors have their motifs and your materials, and you write around them 16 different ways and then you die. It doesn’t bother me that he wrote another story that had similar themes and characters. I believe this story works great.”
As for King himself: “We talked. He’s very supportive. He’s great, because he has all the controls in the world and doesn’t use any of them. He’s allowed to approve basically every step of filmmaking but he doesn’t; he said that’s only for emergencies. Otherwise, he wants you to go make your movie.”
Koepp scored Depp for the Rainey role before his off-the-wall commercial triumph in the blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean, via an almost fannish letter to the star. “When I was writing,” he recalls, “I was thinking, ‘Wouldn’t Johnny Depp be great in this?’ So I just sent [the script] to him, to his agent, with a letter. You only get to say this once when you’re casting a film—to say, ‘I had you in mind when I wrote this. Please do it.’ We got lucky. He liked it.”
Working with Depp was a low-key buzz of constant invention. “He’s not terribly volatile—he just doesn’t want to be shut down,” Koepp says. “He’s got a great gift. He works hard. He’s bold and comes out trying something both really well-thought-out and a little bit dangerous. He’s got a lot of ideas and he wants to try them. You have to not be threatened by that. You want someone who’s going to bring something to the party and not just be some wonk who shows up and you have to prod them into a performance. I talked him out of a few things and he talked me out of a few things. And I talked him into some, and he talked me into some. It worked very nicely.
“What I love about his Pirates of the Caribbean thing is—aside from the fact that it was a terrific, incredibly entertaining performance—he took a $150-million movie and just rolled the dice. No one could know if that character was going to connect or be booed out of the theater. There is the possibility for catastrophe in every one of his performances, which is what’s great.” Were there any Depp catastrophes while shooting Secret? “I hope not,” Koepp laughs. “We’ll find out later. It’s not an over-the-top performance—it’s really heartfelt and emotional.”
In balancing contrast to Depp’s glum scribe, Turturro’s Shooter is another of the actor’s trademarkable scene-stealers. “He’s from Jackson, Mississippi,” Koepp notes. “No, he’s not even from Jackson; he’s from somewhere that aspires to be Jackson. He’s bigger than life, more extreme . . . more fun.”
Both artistic consistency and the need for Secret to come in at a modest $40 million (“Yes, that includes Johnny’s salary”) were assured by the assemblage of what’s becoming a “Koepp Krew” of ace supporting talent. “I like Jill Savitt,” says Koepp of the plucky film editor in the adjoining room cursing her Avid editor, which has crashed again. “This is the third movie she’s done with me. I like working with a lot of the same people. [Cinematographer] Fred Murphy did Stir of Echoes, as did [Producer] Gavin Polone [along with Panic Room]. Howard Cummings, the production designer, was on Trigger Effect.” James Newton Howard, who scored both Stir and Trigger, shares composing duties on Secret with Hans Zimmer.
Again, due to a deep and abiding concern about totally blowing his film’s multiple surprises, Koepp would rather not speak about the process of filming beyond noting, “Pirates came out, like, three days before we started shooting. Which made for a very happy set. It’ll certainly get Secret Window a higher level of awareness [due to Depp]. That’s a good thing.”
Unlike Mort Rainey, Koepp fairly well delights in admitting from where and whom he appropriates. “There are a few things stolen from Magritte [the 20th-century Belgian surrealist artist],” he reveals. “There’s a shot in the movie that looks just like ‘Empire of Light,’ a very beautiful painting of a nighttime street with a daytime sky. And there’s one shot, a mirror shot, that is a Magritte painting. I literally tore it down and put it up [Fango assumes Koepp means a poster and not Magritte’s priceless original] and said, ‘Here’s what we’ve got to do.’
“And there are other films that were influences; there’s a lot of Roman Polanski,” he continues. “There’s a rabbit you’ll recognize from Repulsion. There’s also a scene in a diner where a busboy tries to sell Depp a pack of cigarettes just like in The Tenant.” Koepp adopts a quick, clipped delivery: “‘Wouldja like-a-pack?’ I was coaching the actor, ‘No, you didn’t say it quite like in the movie.’
“If you’re gonna acknowledge your inspirations,” he adds, “you’ve gotta really acknowledge them so people know you’re not just trying to get away with something. In fact, I had The Tenant playing in a loop in my office during preproduction. I don’t know, if felt like good luck. Johnny, that appealed to him as well, because he had done a movie with Roman [The Ninth Gate] and found him an interesting—and exasperating—person.”
Koepp continues to balance scripting other people’s films and writing/directing his own, but that stubborn streak of humility and reluctance to tempt the fates stop him from out-and-out declarations of auteurism. Especially considering the fate of Stir of Echoes, a fine film that fell victim to box-office bad luck. “We told the studio [Artisan], ‘There’s this other movie, with a similar psychic kid. Can we come out in April?’ They said, ‘Nah. We’re not worried about that other movie.’
“And so they came out in August and they were The Sixth Sense, and we came out in September and got creamed by Sixth Sense. Even in some reviews; one critic I remember, somebody who ought to know better, said, ‘It’s amazing how quick Hollywood is to imitate success.’” For a moment, Koepp channels Ashton Kutcher for his reaction: “I’m like, ‘Dude, in five weeks you think we conceived, wrote, filmed and edited the movie? Come On!’”
Shrug. “It only cost about $10 million, so it ended up making a lot of money, especially on video. It played so well for an audience; the tests were great. It would have obviously been nice for it to be a big theatrical hit. I’m proud of it. I like it a lot.”
Koepp says that he was “as involved as a writer can be” on David Fincher’s Panic Room, and “went to the set when there was an issue. But I don’t really like to go to the set if I’m not directing, because I have a lot of opinions and it’s no longer appropriate really to express them. It’s the director’s movie, and he doesn’t want you there, looking over his shoulder, unless there’s a problem.”
Although he’s pleased with Fincher’s Room, it was “completely different from what I would have done, and therefore, wrong. [A wry chuckle] You always think that! Because it’s different. But Fincher made a great movie; I was very happy.”
Even more flummoxing was Koepp’s experience writing this year’s Spiderman movie. “I wrote a draft, but I don’t think they used it,” he says. “I don’t know much about it. I’m supposed to get the [final] script because they’re going to have arbitration, but I doubt if I’ll have a credit on it. There’s the corporate machine—lots and lots of opinions, and a bunch of writers and giant piles of money at stake. But I enjoyed the time I had writing in the guest room at my house. I had all the music and all the comic books I liked and wrote the story just the way I wanted it. Then I read it through one last time and said, ‘Boy that would be a great movie! And then ‘That’ll never make it!’”
Why? Koepp shrugs. As for what a returning director Sam Raimi thought of his work, the writer says, “I never quite know what Sam thinks. He plays his cards very close to the vest.” And anyway, he didn’t want rewrite work and such to “threaten this, because I really wanted to direct Secret Window.”
Although he claims he still “likes writing for others,” Koepp notes that there’s a dichotomy between the movies he directs and those he only scripts, a separation possibly echoed in Secret Window. Depp and Turturro’s characters, he points out, are “both writers, but I believe Turturro’s character is the artist, and Johnny’s is the successful commercial writer. Anybody who writes in a commercial medium like I do can relate to the artist who doesn’t sell out and whose writing is probably better but is not successful. And his feelings of anger and resentment.
“Johnny’s character is successful,” Koepp continues, “and has clearly been trying to reach an audience—and sometimes making his work less good as a result, and his feelings of inadequacy [from being a] sellout . . . . It’s a very fuzzy line. When are you doing something because you know it’ll make it better? When are you doing something intentionally to appeal to an audience? Is that OK too, because you’re sincere? I mean, I like genre movies, studio movies, so when I write them I believe I’m being sincere—but sometimes I’m not. It’s not a clear line, and it moves all the time.”
A good deal of that work has encompassed the suspense and horror genres, and Koepp shrugs off questions of why. “I don’t know! Death. Mutilation. Pain. I don’t know why I like those kinds of movies.” He slouches in his chair just a bit. “But I’m developing less of a stomach for it as I get older. Maybe it’s a function of having kids.
“There’s a very brutal scene toward the end of this movie that I just really found unpleasant to shoot. I didn’t enjoy it at all. And 10 years ago I would have found it funny. I don’t know. Maybe because I’m a little closer to the finish line. And it’s not as funny anymore.”
Perhaps realizing he’s getting too serious about things, he perks up and suggests we take a look at a Secret Window scene on Savitt’s Avid, which is working again. “I still will always love suspense. Let’s see if this one works first, and if I’m forced to retire.”