David Koepp seems to have always been drawn to the craft of great storytelling. With his renowned achievements as screenwriter, director and producer, Koepp is considered to be a multifaceted master behind the magic of movie making.
Born and raised in Pewaukee, Koepp started honing his craft at an early age.
“I was always writing stories when I was little. I started using a typewriter when I was pretty young because I had terrible handwriting,” explains Koepp during a phone interview from his office in London. “I would write about what was interesting to a 10-year-old kid: camp, spies in the woods, things that live under rocks, the usual stuff.”
When he was a teenager, blockbuster hits such as “Jaws,” “Star Wars” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” inspired Koepp.
“I would ride my bike to the movie theater, and I loved going to the Park and Pix theaters in downtown Waukesha,” he says.
Only Koepp’s extraordinary imagination could ever dream of the possibility of one day joining forces with Steven Spielberg to co-write the screenplay for the 1993 sci-fi adventure film “Jurassic Park.”
Script to screen
For three decades, Koepp’s consummate ability to transform stories for the cinema screen has earned him international acclaim, establishing him as one of the most-prolific screenwriters of all time.
His first co-writing venture with director Martin Donovan on “Apartment Zero” in 1988 opened the door to future opportunities.
Koepp continued to churn out movie scripts, including “Bad Influence” (1990), “Toy Soldiers” (1991) and “Death Becomes Her” (1992). He also had the opportunity to work with director Brian De Palma on “Carlito’s Way” (1993), “Mission: Impossible” (1996) and “Snake Eyes” (1998).
Several of Koepp’s more recent screenwriting credits include “Spider-Man” (2002); “Panic Room,” starring Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart (2002), which Koepp wrote and produced; and “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit” (2014).
Koepp tried his hand as writer/director with “Suspicious” (1994) and continued to wear both hats for other feature films, including “The Trigger Effect” (1996), “Stir of Echoes” (1999), “Secret Window” (2004), “Ghost Town” (2008) and “Premium Rush” (2012). In 2015, he directed “Mortdecai” starring Johnny Depp and Gwyneth Paltrow.
Koepp also created the television series “Hack,” starring David Morse, which aired on CBS from 2002-04.
Stage before screen
Growing up on Pewaukee Lake, Koepp attended Catholic elementary school at St. Anthony’s on the Lake, or as he fondly quips, “Tony’s on the Lake.”
“Pewaukee Lake was great place to grow up; I loved it. The lake is a huge part of everything, especially in the summer with swimming and sailing. I had a wonderful childhood. I didn’t understand how idyllic and perfect it was,” reminisces Koepp.
When he was a freshman at Kettle Moraine High School he discovered his passion for the theater.
“I tried out for ‘The Crucible’ and played Rev. Hale. It was a turning point for me, and I didn’t want to do anything else. I did plays throughout high school, and when I graduated, I would come home and help direct the summer musicals,” says Koepp.
Diane Powell taught at Kettle Moraine High School for 34 years and also helped found the theater program, producing 84 plays as drama director, many of which included her young protégé Koepp.
“David had this great sense of humor and fit right in with the older kids. It was clear he was talented, not only with acting, but also writing and directing,” she says. “I’m so proud of David. He’s such a good and modest person and a real pleasure to work with.”
The two stayed in touch after Koepp graduated in 1981. When the new auditorium at Kettle Moraine High School opened in 1996, Koepp returned for the celebration.
“David has always been so supportive. When he was filming ‘Stir of Echoes’ in Chicago, he invited KM students to spend two days on the set to work as extras. We were invited to the Chicago screening of the film and had dinner with him. It was very cool,” says Powell. “The kids met most of the cast members, even Kevin Bacon. Later, one of the kids said, ‘Kevin may get top billing, but David is the real star!’"
Both David and his brother Stephen Koepp were inducted into the Kettle Moraine School District Laser Trailblazer Hall of Fame in 2004.
“Finding that kind of encouragement early on is great, and I will be forever grateful,” adds Koepp.
After graduating from high school, Koepp applied to Yale with the intent to pursue his passion in theater. When that plan fell through, he spent a semester at the University of Minnesota before transferring to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s theater program.
“I was also writing, and I took playwriting classes. My plays seemed more like movie scripts. So, after two years hanging out in Madison, I applied to the film school at UCLA,” Koepp explains.
Koepp will often partner with other creative forces, including his long-time friend and fellow KM schoolmate John Kamps.
“John and I have been friends forever. We worked on our first movie together -– “Apartment Zero”-- and have been doing projects together for 30 years,” says Koepp.
Koepp and Kamps would also co-write “Zathura: A Space Adventure” (2005), directed by Jon Favreau; “Ghost Town” (2008) and “Premium Rush” (2012), both directed by Koepp. They are currently working together on an animated movie, “Adventures in SpaceTime.”
Koepp also joined forces with his older brother and journalist Stephen Koepp to co-write the screenplay for the iconic movie “The Paper” (1994), directed by Ron Howard.
A graduate of UW–Eau Claire, Stephen was deputy managing editor of Time Magazine and executive editor of Fortune magazine. He recently retired as editorial director of the book publishing unit of Time Inc.
“Working with Steve was fun, and it was a great excuse for us to hang out together. It combined his area of expertise as a journalist and mine as a screenwriter; it was a well-chosen subject,” explains Koepp.
'Inferno' and 'Indiana 5'
Koepp’s newest movie project, “Inferno,” directed by Ron Howard, hit theaters Oct. 27. Based on the best-selling novel by Dan Brown, the movie stars Tom Hanks and is a sequel to Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” (2006) and “Angels & Demons” (2009). Koepp co-wrote the screenplay for “Angels & Demons,” which was also helmed by Howard.
Koepp started writing “Inferno” in summer 2013. “This movie is terrific. Hank’s character is placed in an unusual and vulnerable position. I think it’s the best Dan Brown movie so far,” he states.
Koepp is keeping busy with his latest project, writing “Indiana Jones 5” due to open in theaters July 19, 2019. The fifth film in the hit franchise will once again be directed by Spielberg, with star Harrison Ford reprising his role as an adventurous archeologist.
Koepp also penned Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” (2008), co-wrote “War of the Worlds” (2005) and wrote “The Lost World: Jurassic Park” (1997).
“Right now I am deep in the draft (for "Indiana 5"), and it’s really hard to stop thinking about it. Even if I’m not working, my brain is still on it,” he says.
The creative process
Koepp claims there is not much mystery to the process of writing a screenplay.
“There’s a lot of thinking before writing a first draft. Sometimes it takes a couple of years. A good first draft will take me about six weeks to write if I’m focused,” says Koepp.
Then there's the task of rewriting.
“You do a lot of rewrites; it’s a constant process. When I was younger, I would write at night because it was quiet. Now I get up, get the kids off to school and go to my office to work,” he explains.
People will often ask him about the secrets to his success.
“The hardest thing by far is writing a good screenplay and you’ll only do that if you sit down and focus on putting words on a page. You just need to start,” says Koepp. “It all comes down to butt plus chair equals script. There is no substitute.”
Of course, making movies has its ups and downs.
“It can be hugely challenging, and that’s part of the job. Sometimes when stuff is difficult, I just say to myself, ‘You can’t have a life in the circus without a certain amount of elephant poop,” he says, laughing.
Despite all that, Koepp admits writing screenplays is what he was meant to do.
“Writing is what I love to do best. Writing is the only pursuit in the movie-making world where you need no one’s permission. You just do it, and no one can stop you,” Koepp explains. “For me, a good writing day is a really good day.”