The original post for this episode can be found here.
Craig Mazin: Hi friends. Today’s podcast contains some salty language, so if you are in the car with the young ones put their earmuffs on or wait to listen to it later.
John August: Hello and welcome. My name is John August.
Craig: My name is Craig Mazin.
John: And this is Episode 418 of Scriptnotes, a podcast about screenwriting and things that are interesting to screenwriters.
Today on the program we are joined by legendary screenwriter David Koepp whose credits include Jurassic Park, Death Becomes Her, Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man, and Panic Room. His seventh movie as director, You Should Have Left, comes out next year. But his first novel, the bio-thriller Cold Storage, has just come out to rave reviews.
Welcome to the program David Koepp.
David Koepp: Thank you. Nice to be here, guys.
Craig: I have not heard of any of those movies. I’ve got to be honest. Can you say them again? Because I don’t recognize any of them.
David: I should mention I also wrote Guns of Navarone.
Craig: No. [laughs] Also drawing a blank.
David: That was 1958. No, but you know.
Craig: When you were a mere 30.
David: I was negative five.
Craig: I don’t know about you John, but of the many David Koepp films that you just mentioned that I love, it was Death Becomes Her that made me an early Koepp fan. What a surprising movie. I just had no idea what I was in for. And then it was just this wonderfully wicked dark thing. No one would ever make it today.
Craig: In a million years. But it was so literate and smart.
David: Universal was kind of regretful while they were making it.
Craig: Oh wow.
David: I remember, OK, are anecdotes allowed–
John: Absolutely. This is an anecdotes show.
Craig: Mother’s milk on this show.
David: I wrote it with Martin Donovan who I did my first movie, Apartment Zero, with. And we wrote this script which we assumed would be another weird dark indie sort of comedy-ish.
David: You know. But I sold this to Universal and Casey Silver who was very supportive at the time, he sent it around. And he called me one day and he said, “Bob Zemeckis wants to direct Death Becomes Her.” And he said it with such resignation.
Craig: Like we have to make this movie now? [laughs] Yeah, by the way, nothing has changed at Universal. That’s kind of their, “Ah, darn it, we have to make a movie.”
David: You know, he was just off like all three Back to the Futures and they wanted something big and great and hugely profitable.
Craig: You said I’ll show you.
David: And he said, no, I’m going to do this weird one. And I’m still going to throw her down the stairs.
John: Totally challenging.
Craig: But what a cast. I mean, you still got this great cast.
David: It came together beautifully and it was big and weird and stuck around. There’s a drag show of it that pops up in different cities from time to time and I tried to go in London and I couldn’t make it. Anyway, I would love to see it sometime.
Craig: We should go together.
John: We should.
John: Well today while we have you on the show I would love to talk about adaptations, embargoes, books, the modern blockbuster, which I think you had an outsized role in helping to shape. But we also have some listener questions which are just for you because I tweeted out that you were going to be on the show. And so people wrote in with specific questions for you to answer on this podcast.
David: Great. Can I set that I always like – when I listen to a podcast I like to have a visual of what’s going on. So just in terms of what we’re wearing.
David: I’m in a lightweight, dark blue, worsted, you know, suitable to the environment, but mindful of the calendar.
David: John is in a t-shirt. Looks like it says, “It’s wine o’clock somewhere.” Craig is shirtless, which is cool.
Craig: And also worsted.
John: Craig is wearing an ascot. I think it’s important that people get the full visual.
David: Obviously that was a bit of material I worked on. Now everything else will be spontaneous.
Craig: No, this is nice. And we’re on the beach. Let’s go.
John: So I would love to start with the thing that I mentioned your name most in relation to is when people talk about adaptations and they talk about how difficult it is to take all the information that is in a book and put it in a visual form so that that author who could just directly tell you a bunch of a stuff as a screenwriter you have to find a way to show a bunch of stuff. And I always single out a moment in the first Jurassic Park where the audience and the people who just arrived on the island have to understand what it is that’s being done on the island and sort of how DNA processing works.
So I imagine in Michael Crichton’s book, which I read a zillion years ago, it’s probably 20 pages worth of material, going back all through this. In the film that you wrote it is an animated sequence which they are watching in a little exploratory–
Craig: In a theme park style goofy tone.
John: And so we’re watching the actors watch this little thing. Can I play a clip of what – this scene?
Craig: Think he’ll get money for this.
David: Kind of sounded like they’re taking a dump there in that last part. That’s a long time that it can directly download exposition into the audience’s head.
Craig: Today they would say to you, “OK that’s great. Now do it in one-third as much time, or maybe a quarter of as much time.” I feel like they wouldn’t let you go on that long today.
David: No. It would be problematic. It was a real gift that it was a theme park. And so we were wrestling all this exposition stuff to the ground and how do you have five or six scientists standing around talking to each other for so long and make it interesting. And we had two great advantages. One was Jeff Goldblum who is so charming and has such offbeat line readings that, you know, he can read stereo instructions and they sound witty and unusual. And the other was that it was a theme park. So I would love to say Mr. DNA was entirely my idea but it wasn’t. Steven said, “They’re in a theme park. Can’t there be a little movie?”
And one of us said, well, what’s there supposed to be like an animated guy, like Mr. DNA?
John: Exactly that.
David: Mr. DNA.
David: So it was kind of lifted from, I don’t know if you saw this in your seventh grade health class in middle school, but Hemo the Magnificent was about your blood. And it was a live action movie but it had an animated character in it, Hemo, and he would tell you all about blood. And I remember he had an accent for some reason.
Craig: They always would.
David: Because you have to throw in a little fun. It’s animation.
Craig: I’m in your body.
David: So they were there and they were getting the tour, well then you can have the little movie on the tour. And the idea of going into full frame animation in the middle of this great big summer movie kind of tickled us and was really fun. So we had these built in advantages in a great performer in a flexible premise that let us get away with a lot of that.
John: Well what was so clever about it is that usually the problem you run into is that there’s information that you need the audience to understand but some of the characters in that scene would already know the information. So the Sam Neil character would already have that information, so it does not make any sense to tell it to him. But the fact that it’s already a pre-filmed piece of animation.
David: And the scientists are beyond it. They want to go – they keep saying, OK, OK, they’re trying to get out of the little ride thing so they can go to where it’s more interesting. Because we know this and this is for nine year olds. But we’re like, yeah, but we want to sell tickets to nine year olds.
Craig: Yeah. I mean, I would argue that the real gift you had may have been more that there were kids there. Because somebody needs to explain this to kids. And when it comes to science the audience is probably not that far off from kids in the sense of well a lot of people don’t know what DNA is or how it functions. And they certainly don’t understand how you brought dinosaurs back to life. But if you have two kids, whether it’s a theme park movie or just somebody sitting down and going, OK, let me just draw in the sand with a stick.
Characters that don’t know things are the most beneficial for writers who need the audience to know things. Otherwise you end up with the terrible, “As you know…”
David: Exactly. How long have we been brothers? It’s why journalists and detectives are so great. Because they fundamentally have to find something out. So, asking questions doesn’t seem like it’s morally safer. You know, it seems like they’re working toward a discernible goal.
John: What happens at the end of this clip is that we do see Sam Neil and Goldblum and everyone are trying to push to get beyond just the information that was in this little thing. And that’s the other crucial thing about an information dump is like if there’s no conflict, if there’s no drive, if the characters don’t want anything in it it’s going to feel flat. So, we get to see the characters respond to that information by trying to push past. You’re still keeping the scene alive even as this information is coming at us.
David: Yes. Also the animation format let us jump to the really apropos visuals. We didn’t see it, we just heard the audio, but when they’re explaining how the mosquito is trapped in amber there’s one really great visual of a mosquito on a branch and amber oozing over it and the mosquito getting trapped. And you really understand in that image, because images always express it so much better than words.
John: So talk us through the process of adapting Jurassic Park into the screenplay. At what point did it come to you and at what point did you have to figure out these are the beats of the movie. This is how the movie wants to tell itself. What was the process for you in getting the book and then being able to report back like this is how I can make the movie version of this?
David: So I was at Universal and they still used to do overall deals then. So they had been through a couple writers on Jurassic Park and it wasn’t – it was really hard to work out so it wasn’t quite coming together. And they were a little bit running out of time which is always the best time to enter a project if you can.
David: If you can work it that way.
Craig: There’s only so much disagreement they can do.
David: Yeah. And so Casey Silver actually suggested me to Steven and said, “Try this guy, he’s on the payroll so he’s super cheap and seems like he’s relatively fast. Why don’t you see what you can get?” So I read it and I thought, wow, this is really difficult. But I had an approach, so I went and met Steven and told him this is what I think. And he said, “Great. Do that.” And so with really very little guidance up front. I mean, a few general – and to this day he’ll give you some general stuff, but he really wants to see what you do. And you go try. I know what I think. Avoid this, avoid that. I’d love to see this. And in that case he had a couple sequences where he said – the T-rex attack on the road basically was already storyboarded and he said, “I don’t know who the people are, but this is what happens in the sequence. See if you can figure it out.”
And so there was, again, built in advantages. But it was winnowing the characters and who needed to be combined. How does the tone of the book, which is pretty dark and not necessarily going to sustain in – it’s not that it was, well, we want a wider audience than that. It was Steven’s viewpoint is more uplifting than that. So if you give him something that’s, you know, this is the guy who found the uplifting tale about the Holocaust. It’s just his world view. So to try to find a lighter tone, preserve a few characters who used to die, and find a different approach for Hammond and stuff like that.
So I just kind of came in and told them what I thought. And then I went and did an outline. And it just kind of went well.
Craig: This is something that you probably thought had a good chance of going well. It’s Steven Spielberg. It’s a bestselling novel.
David: Well you didn’t. That was the thing. Because it was ’92 when we made the movie. So it was the dawn of CG.
David: So really the last reference of dinosaurs was still Ray Harryhausen, which is referred to in the movie with the “when dinosaurs ruled the earth” banner that floats down. So everything – stop motion was the last time we’d seen dinosaurs on film I think.
Craig: Or Guys in Suits.
David: The remake of King Kong didn’t do them. Yeah. So the notion that they were going to be realistic was just a leap of faith. And they could have been laughable. And I remember the test – there was going to be a lot more robotic dinosaurs initially. Stan Winston, you know, there’s a ton of robotic stuff in it. Stan Winston did great work but basically if you see them from the head up it’s robotry and if you see their legs it’s CG.
But I remember the day it all changed was this test came back from ILM that was a velociraptor running in place. And it was just the skeleton. There was no musculature, no skin or anything. And we were in the Amblin screening room and watched this test and it was so cool. And the movement was so smooth and not herky-jerky at all that everybody thought, “Oh, this might work. This actually might work.”
Craig: That’s so interesting. So your frame of reference was stop motion which is characterized by its herky-jerkiness because there’s only so many, I mean, you are moving it physically so you can’t make a thousand movements a second. You can make 24 movements a second, which turns out to be pretty herky-jerky, or even fewer.
So it was simply the smoothness of the motion. Before you see textures. Before you see anything. That’s what got you?
David: Yeah. It was.
David: And also the only other big CG movie there had been, I may be wrong, but it seems was Terminator 2. But that used really fluid and inhuman stuff.
Craig: Right. It was shiny liquid metal.
David: Right. Which is totally cool, but it wasn’t like trying to create an animal. And dinosaurs were supposed to be real animals, not monsters. There was always a thing, you’d get fined on the set if you’d call them a monster. They’re animals. They’re not monsters.
Yeah, so it was very much a gamble.
Craig: And then on the other side of it coming out, now you’ve got this enormous blockbuster under your belt, a true blockbuster. When it’s time for you to write your next one do you now – I’m just always curious about how success impacts us as writers. Do things change? Do you now feel like, OK, I’m aiming for something now? Or do you just ignore all of it and do your job?
David: It’s really hard to – I feel like I stayed a very decent human being.
Craig: Oh, you are. I don’t mean according to me. I’m not a great judge of character.
David: And I think I’ve done good writing on and off. But it’s very hard. I was 29 when it came out, or just turning 30. And it became the biggest movie of all time. There’s no way that doesn’t just fuck you up. If only in that – can you ever be satisfied again? You know? And I really feel like it took me till my early 50s – I’m 56 now – to where I felt like I’m going to stop feeling like, gosh, you know, sure would be great to have another one of those someday. And I’m going to feel like, well, there will never be another one of those but I’m grateful that I had it. What an extraordinary experience. How lucky am I?
David: I feel like it took a very long time. And I did have, you know, I wrote a lot of bigger movies, but a lot of that – a lot of it is because I love those movies. And I had a great time writing them. Usually. Sometimes had a horrific time writing them. But those are the movies that I wanted to go see. And that was always my litmus test was would I want to pay, you know, whatever a ticket costs at the time to sit down and see this movie. Would it make me happy to sneak in a burrito at lunch time and watch this movie?
And I feel like I obeyed that all the time. And with varying degrees of success. Sometimes even if you say that you’re kind of doing it because it feels like well that would be a hit and wouldn’t it be fun to have a hit. But I don’t know, your sincerity gets sniffed out pretty quickly I think by the gods.
John: Well going from a giant blockbuster adaptation to this next movie you’re going to – the movie you directed, I Think You Should Leave, is based on an incredibly slender German novel.
David: It’s actually You Should Have Left.
John: You Should Have Left.
David: It’s much more conclusive. It’s not an expression of opinion.
Craig: That sounds even shorter. That’s so German. You should have left.
John: I’m confusing it with there’s a Netflix show I Think You Should Leave. And You Should Have Left.
David: This is after. And I’ve seen that show. It should leave.
John: Yes. So it’s a tiny paranoid, it’s almost more like a Panic Room situation where it’s a metaphysical kind of haunted house, you know, Borgesian sort of stuck in a place. What draws you to that kind of adaptation after doing these giant, you know, Da Vinci Code kind of adaptations?
David: Well, I’ve always tried – I like all different kinds of movies, so I’ve really tried to mix it up. And I also, you know how it is. If you’re lucky enough to have a success in any area that’s what Hollywood would like you very much to replicate.
Craig: Is that so? [laughs]
David: There’s a lot of unanswered questions from Chernobyl. I really think you could go back to them. I do. There’s at least 10 more episodes in that. What happened between the episodes? There’s 10 more shows in there, easy.
Craig: Oh, between. Everybody just sleeps. Of course. They just sleep. They don’t move. They just sleep.
David: But I, you know, try to throw them off the scent a little bit. Try to keep it fresh for yourself and do things that are interesting and different. I’ve always felt like in my original stuff, and I’ve tried to split my time about 50/50. And I have. It’s just the originals get made less often.
In my original stuff I’m drawn to slightly darker, certainly paranoid kind of things. And it also helped as a writer when it’s not an adaptation by having a very well defined bottle. You know, in Panic Room it was I never wanted to leave the house. And I almost succeeded. There’s a few minutes at the beginning and a scene at the end where they’re outside the house. The Paper is a movie I wrote about journalism with my brother and it was 24 hours. It was exactly what was then the news cycle, from 7am to 7am. And within that structure, once I have the box I feel like now I can decide what goes in it. And I feel actually freed by the constraint. Because when you can just pick from anything—
Craig: It’s overwhelming.
David: Exactly. It’s too difficult. Even Lawrence of Arabia had containment. It was a period of this guy’s life.
So, I feel like I forgot the question.
John: Well going back to You Should Have Left, it has a tremendous amount of constraint because essentially you get to a house and you’re at that house. It’s almost a Blumhouse kind of model where it’s a very–
David: It is a Blumhouse.
John: Oh, it’s literally the Blumhouse model.
David: As a matter of fact, yeah.
Craig: It is the Blumhouse model. Because it’s Blumhouse.
David: It’s a model for Blumhouse.
Craig: Well that’s new for them.
David: But even before they were involved I thought these are going to be the guys for this. That one I really wanted to do, heavily mixed feelings about directing, because it can be great fun and incredibly satisfying when you get something the way you want it. And whether it’s successful or not, it’s the way you want it. But it takes over your life and ruins it.
David: Just physically, emotionally, socially, domestically awful.
John: It’s been 10 years between my last directing thing largely because of that thing. I just couldn’t, you know, I had a young kid. I just couldn’t go off and do it.
Craig: I’m not. I don’t see any reason to direct. There’s all these wonderful directors out there.
David: It’s dog’s work. It really is.
Craig: That’s what John Lee Hancock calls it. Dog’s work.
David: I think I got it from him via Scott Frank.
Craig: Yeah, that’s probably right. It’s dog’s work. But you keep doing the dog’s work.
David: Yeah, isn’t that weird? I know.
Craig: You’re into it.
David: You should talk to my wife about that.
Craig: I will.
David: No, she’s articulate on the subject. But also resigned. She’s like, “No, I don’t think you should do it. I think it makes you unhappy. We’re fine. We’ll cope. We’ll miss you. But you’re miserable. But good luck, sweetie. I hope it goes well.”
But yeah, You Should Have Left, there were a couple things. Kevin Bacon is a great actor and I saw a potential for something really special for him to do. And he’s done a spectacular job with it. I wanted to do – I like a bottle. And I wanted to do this little family in this weird place and strange things happen to them. He’s not a writer. In the book he was a writer, but I don’t think the world needs anymore movies about writers.
John: He’s literally a screenwriter in the book.
Craig: Oh, that’s terrible.
David: That was the first thing we changed.
Craig: That’s awful.
David: Nobody wants to see a movie about us.
David: Unless you guys are writing one, in which case.
Craig: If we are we should stop.
David: I implore you to stop. And the last movie I directed before that was this kind of catastrophe in every way, shape, and form.
Craig: Which I liked.
David: And I couldn’t leave it like that. There are many likeable things in it and I thank you for that.
Craig: No problem. It’s really funny.
David: There are bits that are funny. But it’s inarguable that critically, commercially, and personally—
Craig: Oh yeah. Absolute disaster.
David: It was horrible. [laughs]
John: This was Mortdecai.
David: But I didn’t want to leave it at that. I felt like well I don’t want to ever direct again, but I certainly don’t want to leave it at that.
Craig: I can’t go out that way.
David: Yeah, right.
Craig: So you’re literally making a movie just to say—
David: No, because I liked the subject matter a lot and I love Kevin and I felt like he could do something special.
Craig: Good. And?
David: And I could cleanse the palate in what’s worse the hard way. Just one more man. Just one more. Just one more.
Craig: I have, well you know what I like about you?
Craig: So much. And, you know, full disclosure we’ve been friends for a while, so this is genuine. But aside from being a terrific writer who has this remarkable track record and really does deserve what John said at the beginning. You are one of our legends. You take huge swings. It’s not like you’ve sat on your laurels. You’re not one of those guys who said, “OK, well you know what? I’m going to make these two huge movies and now I’ll just show up every six years to sprinkle my magic fairy dust on something that was already going to be beloved anyway.” You take big swings. You’re always risking things to get out there. And whether it works or it doesn’t work commercially or critically or any of that stuff, I think that’s wonderful.
I think there are so many people who are so petrified of violating whatever it is, their own brand. I mean, when people say the word brand I lose my shit. Because it’s essentially the antithesis of what we’re supposed to be doing as writers or artists which is being genuine. And that should mean taking swings. So I just think that’s wonderful that you do it and that you’re still doing it.
David: I’m trying. You know, I admire Steven Soderbergh’s career a lot. And he’s a great guy. You know, he really takes a cut at stuff. Sometimes, you know, he hits that one. And other times you’re like, whoa.
Craig: That’s what a big swing is.
Craig: I mean, when you swing hard and you fall down everyone laughs.
David: I was a bit surprised as long as we brought up the M word, this movie I directed recently, I was a bit surprised not that it got bad reviews, because certainly by the time it comes to reviews you’ve shown it to enough audiences and enough people and you’re getting a sense that the reaction is less than enthusiastic.
Craig: You’ve caught trouble in the air.
David: But the anger does surprise you. Because I felt we didn’t hurt anyone. And it was by no means a safe choice. We were trying to make like a 1966 comedy like Terry Thomas would have made.
Craig: I’m so with you.
David: That’s gutsy.
Craig: I thought people just – at least, look, people, I can’t blame people for liking or not liking things. But I thought at least critically this pile on and this kind of orgy of delightful hatred completely missed the point of what you’re just saying, which is, you know, they will say, “Oh, well here comes another super hero movie, blah, blah, blah.” Well, OK, here’s someone taking a shot. If you think it doesn’t work, explain it. But you’re right. When was the last time a movie studio released a Terry Thomas style comedy which is sort of in and of its time, but out of its own time. And there’s slapstick. And the most bizarre stuff. And an entire plot line about a mustache. It’s just wonderful. I thought, I don’t know, listen, a lot of people think that my taste in movies is terrible because of so many of them that I’ve written.
I don’t care.
David: It’s also a thing about comedy, though. If a horror movie doesn’t work out they’ll say, well, that wasn’t that scary. If a drama doesn’t work out they’ll say, well—
John: They didn’t care.
David: Yeah, I didn’t like the guy.
Craig: “Didn’t love it,” is what they say.
David: Yeah, I didn’t love it.
Craig: I didn’t love it.
John: I won’t say that anymore.
David: Comedy comes out they say, “That was horrible. That was a terrible set.”
Craig: How dare they?
David: Exactly. Those assholes. You’ve really angered people.
Craig: Yeah, no, comedy is the hardest. It’s the most punishing. And even in great success people are like, oh, yeah, that was funny. You know what I mean? They don’t give you the Oscar. It’s, yeah. Yeah. Well, see. I’m grouching.
John: Talking about swings and doing different stuff, this is your first book.
David: This is really fun. I can write about stuff that will never see the screen. I can write what someone is thinking or feeling, which as you know there’s no way to access it other than their faces or their dialogue. And I just started having a lot of fun. So within about three pages I thought, OK, it’s a – then I began the lying the process. I said – because I didn’t want to face how much work it would be to write a book. And so I said, well, it’s probably a short story. And so by page 25 I was like it’s not a short story. It’s a novella. Yeah.
So I got to page 100 and my friend John Kamps said, “You must admit it’s a book.” Because I could digress. I could go into three – when I was in high school I worked at a McDonald’s for a couple of years. So there’s a character in the book, he’s not even one of the main characters, and he’s the manager of this storage place. And he’s a jerk. And I got to go three pages into where he used to work before he came to the storage place and talk about life working at McDonald’s, which I thought was fascinating. And it was to me anyway.
And, no, the book is not 600 pages. I mean, 30 years of screenwriting impulses came to bear. Exactly. But especially because the book was going to have a lot of science I had this incredible freedom to explore and expound and I like to learn stuff that I didn’t know before. And I like science that is somewhat accessible and compellingly told. When you come across somebody like Brian Greene or somebody like that who is just a really good science explainer. They’re fascinating. They’re like the teachers whose classes you loved the most. You know, there’s a reason like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson and the really good explainers are popular.
David: So I wanted to be able to – also I think science can be very funny because the natural world is really brutal. It’s just mean and nasty.
John: It doesn’t care about you.
Craig: No, no, good lord no.
John: So, as you’re writing this as a novel, you’ve accepted that you’re writing this as a novel, some part of your brain must also be thinking like, Ok, well this could also be a movie. I mean, it’s a movie style premise. And so how are you balancing the David Koepp novelist versus David Koepp screenwriter who is going to have to adapt this? Did you try to balance that all in your head?
David: It’s hard. You and I talked about it a little bit from your books and your experiences with it. And you really have to actively squelch that part. Because the screenwriter part of you, the first thing I do when I’m adapting a book is I do scene cards for the whole book and I lay the structure out and look at it on a table and figure out how that happened. And then I start just – obviously we’re not going to have the scene where they go visit her daughter. That’s useless. And chuck out a bunch of stuff.
But the scene where they go visit her daughter may be the whole reason somebody wrote that book. It just doesn’t fit in a movie. So, I really tried to tell the screenwriter part of myself to shut up because they wouldn’t let me do the three pages on McDonald’s. And it’s not in the screenplay, which it’s a first draft of.
Craig: Oh, so you are doing the screenplay of this?
David: I did, yes.
Craig: Oh, you already did?
David: Or I am. It depends who you ask. I feel I’m nearly done.
Craig: Oh, and they do not?
David: We’ll see. Opinions vary.
John: So it’s a fascinating that a person with 30 credits and a giant career still gets that sense from a studio of like, oh no, this isn’t really the draft.
Craig: Not just 30 credits.
John: 30 giant.
Craig: Let’s just list some of them again. By the way, that’s the studio that is being held aloft by Mission: Impossible which was started by David Koepp. And they’re sort of like, “Uh, we don’t know if you’re done yet.” I kind of love that.
David: Everybody’s got thoughts, you know.
Craig: Everybody’s got thoughts.
David: That’s the thing, though. In a book–
Craig: No one has thoughts.
David: They don’t have their thoughts.
John: No, absolutely.
David: And your editor, Zach Wagman who is the editor of this, I was just stunned – it was the first time in 30 years someone had spoken to me about the writing as if they viewed it as essentially mine instead of essentially theirs.
Craig: It’s a lovely thing. That is a lovely thing.
John: So let’s talk about that. So we physically have a copy here sitting on the table, and what is so different about writing a book versus writing a screenplay is that this book is finished. Like you cannot go back and change stuff in it. It is actually done and the Cold Storage that you intended to write is that book. And it is just done and finished. In a way is it liberating now that you’re going to the screenplay knowing that you can make different choices and it doesn’t go back and change the original document?
Because so often when I’m approached to do an adaptation I’ll talk with the author and I’ll sit down with them and say like, “Listen, you wrote a fantastic book. I will not change anything in your book. But I will change some things in the movie because it’s a movie and just works under different things.” In some ways—
David: Some of them will appreciate that, and some of them—
John: And I’ve had both situations. And some really rough situations.
David: Have you ever forged a working relationship with the author of a book?
John: Yes. Daniel Wallace who wrote Big Fish. I sat down with him and he had never read a screenplay before until I showed him the screenplay for Big Fish. We talked about sort of all the stuff that’s sort of off stage in the book that he wrote. And he loved it. He became a screenwriter. And he’s still an active part of every version of Big Fish. And he’s in the movie Big Fish. So he’s deeply involved in it.
But something like Jurassic Park, were you talking with Crichton about stuff?
David: No. Almost always everything goes through the director and it’s better that way. The only time I ever really needed the author of the book and he was great was Edwin Torres who wrote the books that Carlito’s Way was based on. And I needed him because I could adapt the books but it was Spanish Harlem in the mid ‘70s. Not my background. It was his life story. Everybody in that book is somebody he knew. And I just – I needed to be able to talk to him. And he was great and loquacious. It helped that he wasn’t only a novelist. He was a New York State Supreme Court judge. So he viewed novel writing as novel. And he viewed a movie from one of his books as just like the greatest party of all time. So he was excited about it.
Craig: He had a day job so—
David: Yeah. He’d go to court. I ran into him in New York the other day. And he was colorful when I – this was 25 years ago and he was probably in his mid-50s. So now he’s probably closer to 80 and he’s just let his colorful flag fly.
Craig: I love it.
David: I said, “Judge Torres is that you?” He said, “You bet it is.”
Craig: What a cool guy.
John: Now, David, you brought up Carlito’s Way and I think that was the first screenplay of yours I ever read. So I was working as an intern at Universal when you guys were making Carlito’s Way. So I got to read the script for Carlito’s Way.
David: On paper probably.
John: On paper. With brads in it. The whole thing.
Craig: And the words Carlito’s Way written in Sharpie on the outside.
John: Yes. That whole process that young people will never understand. How you had to slam the script on the edge, and hold it down. You brought in the Sharpie so you could stack them or put them on the shelf.
Craig: Stack them in the shelf.
John: I remember reading that and as opposed to the James Cameron scripts I was reading at the same time, you wrote a really dense page. There was a lot happening. Those were dense pages. Over your long career have you seen the form of screenwriting change at all or at least the form of screenplays change at all? I feel like we are much lighter and airier now than when I started. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed any differences over the years.
David: Yeah. I try not to be as dense as that. Sometimes, I don’t often have a reason to go back and look at my old stuff, but like if I’m moving boxes around or something I’ll say, oh yeah, look at that. And I open it and then I think, wow, I used way fewer double dashes and spaces and I wrote whole sentences. This is pretty good. I had a decent attention span back then.
I don’t know if maybe it’s fatuous that all of our attention spans have changed and we want to assimilate information faster. But also that particular story was – it was ruminative. Because it was a guy’s memory in the last minute or two before he dies. I’ve ruined the ending.
Craig: He dies.
David: Yeah. So, it kind of seemed to suit it. And I had a wealth of literary material to draw on. But, yeah, I think things are a little more spare than they used to be. I think there’s no excuse though for not having good sentences. You know, even if they’re terse and Hemingway-esque sentences. Ideally they would be that. But you can’t write a semi-literate screenplay. You can’t use sentence fragments. You can’t – I feel – you can’t say, “He comes in the room. Sits. Looks around. Something’s not right.” Something’s not right is not bad because it has a noun and a verb.
Craig: Something’s not right has a, yeah, there is a certain kind of – you can trip over into a sort of laziness. But also a kind of lack of intention. I mean, John and I talk about this all the time. If you’re going to write things in sort of a short staccato then maybe it’s because the character is a short and staccato kind of person, or the situation is one that it requires fast thinking.
David: Or ideally you could vary your rhythms.
John: Of course.
Craig: That would be nice.
David: There are fuller paragraphs when the movie slows down a little bit.
Craig: Sounds like you’re thinking about things is what you’re doing and you’re being a writer. And I don’t know. If I were teaching a class on screenwriting at Stark for instance I would want to teach a class just on the stuff that isn’t dialogue. Because I actually think so much can happen there. So much more than people understand. And for fucking fear of “don’t direct on the page” everyone it seems like there is a generation of screenwriters that have abdicated responsibility.
David: Yeah. I hate that. The thing that drives me the craziest is when someone comes out and says, “There’s a spirited chase,” or a big set piece to go here. I’m like who is going to design it? This is your shot.
Craig: It’s also your job.
David: And you know what? Even if they throw the whole thing out and do their own, it’s still your job.
Craig: It’s still your job.
David: If it’s a four-minute chase you better cover about four pages to give us simulation of the rhythm of the thing.
Craig: Correct. And something surely is happening in this chase that’s relevant to character or–
John: And if there’s not then there really is a fundamental problem.
Craig: Then it’s just a fucking chase.
David: These fucking people.
Craig: I mean, you know what, let’s be as old as cranky as we can possibly be. Let’s go maximum crank.
David: But you also – you can direct on the page. You just can’t use the word “camera.”
Craig: You don’t have to. [laughs]
David: Or anything like that. I hate to keep referring to the early ‘90s, but I don’t know, it was a nice period. One of the early lessons I learned about writing for a director was Zemeckis in Death Becomes Her said, there’s a moment Meryl Streep’s character is teetering at the top of the stars. And then he pushes her down with like a finger. And when we wrote the script I put, “For a moment she just hangs there like Wile E. Coyote off the edge of the cliff.” And he said that told me more about the style of the movie than anything. Because it was sort of heightened Chuck Jones reality.
Craig: Exactly. Exactly. Tone.
David: It’s only a few words. It doesn’t take forever. And it doesn’t refer to any specific shot. It refers to a feeling.
Craig: Direction. Ugh.
John: The sense of what’s supposed to be there. We’ve got some questions that are specific to you, so can we ask you some questions?
John: All right.
Craig: Why are you such a legend? [laughs]
John: I would love to know how David’s approach to action sequences has changed across films like Mission: Impossible, Spider-Man, and Indy.
David: I don’t think it really has changed that much. I think you have to fully imagine the sequence. I mean, all those are different situations. So, it depends on the director. Like Mission: Impossible I worked out those set pieces De Palma specifically beforehand. The last Indiana Jones movie it depends. Sometimes Steven would tell me something or we’d work it out together. Other times he’d say, “Well take a crack at it.” And I’d take a crack at it first. I think that – as we were just saying – it’s always a writer’s responsibility to do it first. I would beware of dense paragraphs in an action sequence because you’re supposed to have a sense that the movie is moving faster. Because it has to be a reading experience first let the eye move quickly across the page. But I think I’ve preserved the same approach to action sequences, or suspense, which is that you have to take them really seriously and allow yourself – there’s a big set piece in the middle of the movie, say, OK, well that’s three day’s work. Take it seriously and don’t just dash it off. And certainly don’t abdicate. You know, make it as exciting as you would want it to be in the movie.
John: I always describe action sequences as being the musical numbers in an action. So it’s like you may have stopped the characters talking but you’ve moved into a higher register. And you’re communicating this thing, but it’s still just as important as all the dialogue that happened before it. So it has to feel like there’s a reason why we’re doing this big production number here. And we’re going to come out of it with a new place, with characters having gotten someplace new. And otherwise it’s just a bunch of–
Craig: It’s just stuff.
John: It’s just stuff.
Craig: Which is probably why some writers abdicate because if you think about your analogy, when people sing in a movie musical perhaps the writer is concerned that they don’t know what’s supposed to happen other than the singing. And similarly if there’s a chase, like what’s supposed to happen other than [makes car noises].
But environment becomes an enormous thing. How you’re interacting with the environment. What choices can you be making on screen that are not specifically about turning the wheel to the left or the right? What’s changing so that you’re not just driving or just singing?
It’s hard work. Those are the hardest things to write. I mean, well, they’re really arduous to write I find. You know, because there’s so many more decisions that are happening per page in those sequences then a conversation which maybe there are a lot of decisions but they come a bit – I’m a bit more – I find those more accessible.
David: I actually find in – because my outline will be 3×5 cards on the coffee table. And there may only be one card for the sequence. But then when I get to the sequence I get out a legal pad and I just put down all my ideas for the sequence with dashes. And that’ll be three or four pages. Then I go back through and number them because the order may be very different from – you know, you have moments in your mind that you think belong there.
And you know generally at the beginning they’re breaking into the bank and at the end they’re driving away in the car. But in between that are all your action-y moments.
The other thing to consider is consider carefully can you cut that sequence and the story still tells? Because you have a big problem if so.
David: And it’s the same with a song I would imagine. If you can cut it completely – I was watching them film a little West Side Story the other day and they were doing America, which is so beautiful and cool and fantastic. But what I hadn’t noticed but saw this time is it plays like an argument or fight scene. They have very different–
Craig: It’s a debate.
David: Yeah, it’s a debate.
Craig: This place sucks. No, this place is great.
David: The story can’t be told without it. And those characters can’t be fully understand without it.
Craig: It’s illuminating who they are, what their point of view is, where they come from. All that is necessary.
John: One of the reasons why action sequences can be so exhausting to write, and so challenging to write for screenwriters, is that there’s a tremendous amount of crosscutting. You’re generally going between multiple points of view. And so making that look efficient on the page is really tough. So, things that could be like 60 cuts in the actual cut film, you can’t be jumping back and forth so much. So you need to get the sense that you are seeing all these different points of view without–
Craig: That’s a great point.
David: And you also have to have those great little bridging phrases like, “Back with Craig. Things haven’t gotten any better.”
Craig: “Runs into a…” I find that every time I write INT or EXT I feel like I need a break. Honestly. I feel like I need a break. So, in sequences where you are shifting back and forth, I feel like I need a lot of breaks. There’s something about writing a good old scene where two people are chatting in a café–
John: I love it.
Craig: Where you get to write INT and then just live in there in that place and have them do their thing. But my god, every time you EXT, INT, blah, EXT. I’m exhausted.
John: Tim asks, “My question for Mr. Koepp is when working with directors who are not necessarily writers like David Fincher, Steven Spielberg, or Sam Rami, what is the process of writing and revising based on the notes they provide?”
So, I guess you’ve probably worked with more directors than nearly any screenwriter out there. What are the different ways you see in interacting with a director? So even if you’re not talking about a specific director, what is the range of sort of how you work with them? Because I’ve had every different interaction with a director.
David: A director who does write is usually harder to work with than a director who doesn’t. A director who doesn’t usually has a healthy amount of respect for it and is grateful that you’re doing that. A director who writes themselves – and they try hard. Even when they’re good people, like Curtis Hanson was great. And who else did I work with that writes? I can’t remember. But they do it. And they kind of wish you’d shove over and just let them do it. And sometimes that is the reality and they do shove you over and do it themselves. So they’re a little tougher.
But my relationship with the directors have been 90% really good. The ones that are bad, or, you know, unpleasant tend to end fairly quickly, either by me or by them. But I do after about the third draft of a script I do say a little goodbye to my script.
David: Because that’s the way it is. And sometimes in the very – the way New York crews do, or actually New York deli guys also – I call the director “boss” in part to remind myself, because they are. And they want a collaborator and they deserve a collaborator, but they are the boss. And you better not try – you’re better served – your material is better served if you don’t try to talk them into something, because if they do it they’ll do it poorly because they don’t see it.
David: And if they don’t see it it’s just much better for them not to do it. And you’re also – you can talk them out of some stuff, but if it keeps coming back, and back, and back you better do your best with it, because it’s going to be in the movie. Either you wrote it, or somebody else did, or they just made it up on the day.
Craig: Have you thought about television, David Koepp?
David: I’m told it’s different.
David: Yeah, but you got to keep doing it.
Craig: No, you actually don’t.
John: You can just do five and walk away.
Craig: You can do five hours and that’s it. It’s amazing. You can do two hours from what I understand. It’s quite remarkable.
David: Yeah, I hear it’s better.
Craig: It’s something else man. Yeah. Everyone calls you boss. [laughs] It’s pretty nice. I know. You see? He just got a faraway look in his eyes.
David: But I do like working with directors and when it goes well there’s nothing like it, because you come up with something neither of you could have done on your own. And when the conflicts are too great it usually does end quickly.
And getting fired, you know, it’s kind of the greatest thing that can happen to you. It’s awful. And you get very upset. But you get to be righteous.
David: You get to be totally self-righteous. You’re suddenly free. They usually pay you anyway. And sometimes they come back. And you say, “Well, let’s just see about that.”
Craig: [Crosstalk]. You two guys are not Jewish, because there’s no like – when you’re Jewish and you get fired you’re not righteous. You’re like, “Yeah…” [laughs]
David: I had it coming.
Craig: Pretty much.
David: I get it. I got fired from something once. And I heard it from my agent, because they had hired someone else. I was waiting for notes and they’d hired someone else.
Craig: God, that’s a terrible way to find out.
David: It’s awful. So I called the studio executive who I was close with. And I said, “You know, what are you guys doing? You hired so and so.” And he sighs heavily and says, “Dave, this is a really tough phone call for me to make.” And I said–
Craig: You didn’t make it!
David: Exactly. I called you! I heard it in the gutter.
Craig: This is a really tough phone call for me to get.
David: That’s beside the point. All right. But see, self-righteous. I get to be self-righteous.
Craig: Self-righteous. Where I would have apologize and said, “I know. I’m sorry.”
David: I’m sorry I made you hire that guy.
Craig: I’m so sorry. I’ve made you uncomfortable by dying in front of you. [laughs]
John: Not just self-righteous, there is a quality to like I know the movie that I wrote and the movie that I saw in my head and you’re never going to make that movie. And so I know that the movie that I was going to make is going to be better than the movie that you made. There’s that comparison, too.
Craig: God, I wish I were you guys. How do I get this? Is there a food I eat? Is there a drink?
David: But there’s other times, though, where you really are the horse staggering through the desert. Just waiting to be shot. Thank god, what took you guys so long?
Craig: Yes. I will say that’s – my new jam is I’m desperate to be fired and it doesn’t happen anymore. It’s sort of really bad. It’s been a while. And I’m not saying that to humblebrag. I’m saying it like it kind of sucks because there are times when I’ve been on things and I just think well some – I feel like the guy – it’s the only thing I truly love from Waterworld. I don’t know if you remember this. On the boat, so there’s that big oil tanker that Dennis Hopper, he’s the villain, he’s in charge of. And there’s this old wretched man in the darkness inside who is like, I don’t know, shoveling oil or something. And in the climax someone throws a cigarette down there which is going to ignite everything and blow him up. And he looks up and goes, “Oh thank god.” And it’s exactly – like he waited for somebody to do this. Please let me go and it won’t happen. That’s actually worse than being fired.
David: It’s the great moment in Kingpin when Woody Harrelson comes out of his trailer park and there’s this guy sitting in a folding chair, smoking a cigarette with an oxygen tank, and he says like, “Hey Bob, how’s it going?” And Bob says – or he says, “Hey Bob, how’s life?” And Bob says, “Taking forever.”
Craig: That’s basically it. I mean, why won’t you kill me? Please kill me. And they never do.
John: This past week a couple people tweeted at me a story, an article by Alex Billington. He is a reviewer. He’s writing how at the Venice Film Festival, we also just got through the Toronto Film Festival, audiences are seeing movies and the critics are sometimes being held to embargoes so they cannot write about the movie, they cannot review the movie at the time. So we are not film festival goers. We are not reviewers. But I want to talk a little bit about embargoes because it’s a thing I think people outside of the industry may not be aware of is that sometimes reviewers are seeing movies way in advance and they are sort of prohibited from writing about the movie until the embargo drops and they can suddenly write about the movie.
We’ve all had movies that have probably been under embargo and then the embargo is lifted. How are we feeling about embargoes, or that sense of like when it’s OK to talk about a movie and when it’s not OK to talk about a movie that has not come out yet?
David: I think once it’s done if you show it in a public forum you can get reviewed. I think, remember when [unintelligible] showed up and it was horribly destructive. You know, you’re trying to work out your filthy business in private.
John: And they’d review test screenings.
David: And it’s really destructive because sometimes you’re having a test screening to confirm that the ending doesn’t work.
Craig: Yes. Correct.
David: Before you go make a new one.
Craig: Sometimes you’re having a test screening because the studio insists on this terrible version of your ending.
David: And you’re like well I’ll show you this doesn’t work. I’ll put it in front of an audience.
Craig: It’s the same thing with these people who review scripts. I mean, I agree with David. Once you show it to an audience – I mean, the point of an embargo is we’re going to make a deal with you. We’ll give you exclusive access. In return you agree to not talk about until the day we want you to. And now it’s your choice as a reviewer or an outlet to agree or not agree to those terms. But once they’ve shown it to people it does seem bizarre.
Although I will say Walter Chaw who is a very smart guy and a film critic had this really great idea that he tweeted about which will never happen but I loved it. He said, “The real embargo should be that no critics are allowed to post their reviews of movies until one week after it has come out in theaters.” Because at that point they’re no longer trying to review or influence or crap on or anything. They’re actually – they can do the job of film criticism which is to analyze and think about and thoughtfully talk about. And I thought oh my god what a wonderful utopic notion that is that will never, ever, ever happen.
David: We’re endosymbiont.
John: I don’t know what that means.
Craig: Oh nice.
David: One creature that lives inside or with another to their mutual benefit.
Craig: Like Quato.
John: That also feels like that could be part of Cold Storage.
David: Well it actually is. My novel Cold Storage, available now.
John: I love it that you’re bringing it back to plugging your book.
David: Well I learned all this science.
Craig: Yeah, use it.
David: I’m not going to just throw it away.
Craig: Pepper it into every discussion.
David: But, you know, we need critics. We need people to know about our movie. Ideally they’ll say nice things about it. And they need our stuff so they’ve got something to write about. But I think reviewing anything you’ve got by, you know, unscrupulous means or unauthorized means, of course that’s off the table. Anything that’s not done. I think if you show a work in progress at Cannes you can announce this is a work in progress and it should not be reviewed. And that’s fine. That’s a decent set of rules.
But if you have a finished film and you take it to Venice or Toronto and you’re showing it to people with the purpose of exposing it, but you’re showing it to the world, it’s too late.
Craig: It’s out. It’s done.
David: Yeah. You can’t control that anymore.
Craig: I agree. It’s not like in Broadway they’ll have runs, but then there’s the official opening.
David: And everybody understands.
Craig: And everybody understands. And Ben Brantley doesn’t show up until official opening night, or I guess the night before, or a week before so he has time to write his review that either destroys you or lifts you up.
John: Been there.
Craig: But the whole point is that the show is and can be changing throughout that time period. So it makes sense that you’re showing it to the public. But you’re saying, “But we’re still moving pieces around.” A movie is a movie. It’s done. I mean, by the time you’re showing it at – you’re not going to recut something after Venice, right?
John: Sometimes it happens, but yeah.
Craig: Oh really? OK. Well. I don’t know anything about film festivals. That’s obvious.
John: So here’s a modest proposal. So let’s say you see a film early and it is embargoed or for whatever reason you cannot talk about it. But of course you’ve seen this thing and you want to say like, “I saw this and this is my opinion on it,” if you wait until everyone can say that, you’re just like one extra opinion on that. But you want to say like, “No, no, I saw this first. This was my opinion when I saw it.” What you could do is write that up, encrypt it, and publicly post it and then on the day the embargo lifts like post the password to see what you wrote back then.
It’s a way of deep-freezing your reviews so that–
Craig: You could. That’s presuming that I care—
David: That you value that.
Craig: That those people had that opinion first.
John: Yeah. But people always want to be first.
Craig: They want to be first. Yes. They want to be first. I don’t care who is first.
John: I don’t know. See if other people think that is a good idea. It’s probably not a good idea, but it’s something that occurs to me.
Craig: I mean, you can do these things where you can – well, I guess you can password protect it and then on the day you can just say here’s the password to my review.
John: Exactly. That’s what I’m saying.
Craig: You could do that. Which I guess that makes sense.
John: Because you can definitively say like, no, this really was my opinion. I’m not changing my opinion based on–
Craig: Because suddenly other people like it, or, right. OK, then I’m on board. I’m on board with your idea.
John: So we’ll build an app for that.
John: It has come time for our One Cool Things. Craig Mazin, do you want to start us off with a One Cool Thing?
Craig: Yeah. So you know I’m old school. I like email. The kids don’t like email.
John: No, I don’t like email.
Craig: You know, my children don’t use it at all. When I look at their email it’s just spam. It’s all spam. Because they go to stupid sites and they do sign up for things and then it’s just spam. It’s useless. But I’m still an emailer. And I’m always looking for the best email client. The mail.app that comes with Mac, I don’t really love it at all. I’ve been using Airmail for a long time. But I’ve switched over again, this time to Spark. Which has been around for a while. It wasn’t quite like ready for prime time for a while. But now it’s pretty great. They’ve got it down to a really nice science. It looks good.
It organizes your inbox in an interesting way. So, there’s new stuff and then if you read it it goes to Seen Stuff. So your inbox has new and seen, it doesn’t just like leave it in its spot, which is kind of cool. It also has little icons to indicate if it’s like a regular email from somebody you know, or a notification email, or a spammy kind of thing.
So, Spark, I don’t know how much it costs. How much does it cost, John August?
John: I’m looking it up right now. So free for 5GB for a team. Then it goes up to $6 a month, $7 a month.
Craig: So if you’re just a single person I think it’s free. Yeah, so there you go. For the exciting cost of free you too can have Spark. And obviously it’s cross platform. It works on Mac OS and iOS. That’s what I call cross platform. I don’t care about other ones.
John: So, Craig, is this one of those services that is downloading your email to their servers and then sending it back to you?
Craig: Great question, John. I don’t know. I don’t think so?
John: Because that’s one of the concerns with some of these things is that they are potentially privacy nightmares because they’re able to do a bunch of stuff, that processing, because they’re actually intercepting the mail before it gets to your service.
Craig: Well why don’t you look on their thing and tell me, because if it’s doing that then maybe I should stop using it.
David: I can take back what I just said.
John: And a private team, comments, shared drafts. It feels like it’s one of those things, but–
John: We’ll look into it. Next week we’ll get back to you.
Craig: Yeah, look into it. Yeah, I don’t want to do something wrong. I mean, I do. [laughs] I’ve got to be honest. I do. But I don’t want this—
David: The horse is out of the barn. Everybody has got everything.
Craig: Everyone has got everything.
David: Cover your camera. That’s about it.
Craig: By the way, do you do that? You don’t do that. I always feel that’s dumb to put the little Post-it over your camera?
David: I don’t know. Sometimes I feel paranoid and I do.
John: Yeah. I mean, I feel like the Macintosh has pretty good lockouts, like hardware lockouts. But they can – people can override stuff.
Craig: If they can override it they can probably shoot a laser right through that Post-it.
John: That’s what they’re going to do.
Craig: Yeah, or just assassinate.
David: Do you remember Chat Roulette?
Craig: Oh my god.
John: I do remember Chat Roulette. Chat Roulette is still in existence I think.
David: It was for about 48 hours Chat Roulette seemed like, oh this is terrific. This is the dawn of the Internet stuff. And then, you know, my sons who were like 12 and 10 at the time, within 48 hours it was all dicks all the time. There was no…
Craig: Dicks really have taken over the Internet. All new technology, it used to be porn. Now it’s just dicks. Terrible.
David: My Cool Thing, you guys I would imagine know about it already. Many people may know about it already. But it bears repeating because it changes my writing life. Which is the Freedom App. I love to use it.
Craig: Yes. I believe it’s been one of our One Cool Things at some point.
David: Oh, darn it.
John: No, no.
Craig: No, no, it’s great that you. Tell them, because it’s been a while.
David: Let me explain.
Craig: We’ve been doing this for a long time, so years have gone by. People have been born while we’ve been doing this.
David: All right. Let me explain. As we all know the Internet has ruined everything. Well, the political process and human interaction.
Craig: Other than that.
Craig: But it’s much easier to buy a book.
David: Oh yeah.
Craig: Way easier.
David: So, you know, like anyone I’m tempted by it. There’s tons to see and tons to do. Like, you know, so you can be writing and things are going OK for about four minutes. And then you realize, holy shit, I’ve got to click on the Guardian to check on Brexit, which is my – I’m crushed by the way because Brexit has been this fantastic TV show that has built to a climax.
Last night as we record this, Parliament was prorogued.
David: And John Bercow resigned. John Bercow is like the greatest supporting character of any show ever. And now I’m bereft. Like what do I follow?
Craig: But they’ve also said that they’re not going to be a no-deal because they won’t support that.
David: Yeah. Well they passed a law that will get the royal ascent today I think. That they cannot leave without a deal.
Craig: So he’s prorogued for nothing.
David: Oh yeah, no, he’s screwed.
Craig: He’s done.
David: But what’s fascinating if you look at it as a TV show is this season was so great and they brought in a new character because the old Prime Minister character was a little boring so they got rid of her. They brought in this new crazy guy and he’s more interesting. It’s a terrible, terrible situation, but as a soap opera it’s been riveting. So, you know, reading Brexit news destroys my writing, as it does whatever your interest is of the moment.
And you know how it is. You’ll be writing along and you forgot to turn off alerts and a text pops up and suddenly you’re out of it and you’re in something else. Or an email comes in. Oh, I got to deal with that right now. Of course you don’t.
And Freedom is an app you can download and you enter in a certain amount of time for how long it will shut down your Internet and a degree of severity. You can shut down everything on all your devices. You can shut down just the computer you’re working on. Put your phone across the room. But whatever you choose.
I pick 60 minutes at a time. And within – that shuts down everything – and if there’s like a research question I have to just jot it down for when my 60 minutes is up. But really within about a minute and a half of turning on Freedom I start working. There’s no – it’s unbelievable. And your concentration is unimpeded. And I just think it has saved a lot of bad situations for me.
Craig: When I’m on a plane that doesn’t have Wi-Fi—
David: That’s outrageous first of all. That’s bullshit.
Craig: Which is outrageous. It’s a bunch of bullshit. How dare they? But my choice is write or clean up a bunch of files on the computer. In other words, or watch TV on that stupid little screen which I refuse to do.
So, yeah, you start working when you don’t have the Internet. It’s amazing. It’s actually disturbing.
John: Yeah. How [unintelligible] it is.
David: So I thought Freedom deserves another plug. Because every writer should have it. There’s no reason to not have it.
John: Yeah. I’m a big fan of working in sprints. And so I’ll start a 60-minute sprint. And I don’t use Freedom anymore, because I don’t need to shut down my Internet.
Craig: He doesn’t need it, dude.
David: You have mental discipline?
Craig: He’s beyond that.
John: No, because I start a 60-minute sprint and there’s a little timer that goes. And so as long as that timer is going I’m not switching to another window.
John: Especially if I go full-screen that also distracts me from–
Craig: So when I keep texting, like John, John I’m dying, I’m bleeding. John, this guy keeps stabbing me. Help.
David: He’s sprinting.
Craig: Sorry, sprinting.
John: Can’t help. My One Cool Thing is a book I’m reading called The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes, by David Robson. I am liking it. It’s about how IQ tests don’t have the correlation to wise decision making you’d expect. So there’s some correlation but not really a very strong correlation. And sometimes the smartest people you know on IQ tests do really dumb things, or believe conspiracy theories. And he makes a pretty compelling case that being so smart on an IQ sense just lets you reinforce your mistaken beliefs again and again and again.
And it strikes me in a very D&D sense the difference between intelligence and wisdom. And those are two ideas that are related, but they’re not really the same thing. And some people who are not especially smart can be very wise. And so The Intelligence Trap, a book I’m enjoying.
David: If we’re doing books as well, can I throw in a Second Cool Thing?
John: Go for it.
Craig: Cold Storage? Out right now. By David Koepp.
David: Sure. But this came out about a year ago. It’s called Essentialism. And the title tells you pretty much what it’s about. But it’s a self-helpy thing. It’s actually more of a management book. It’s written for businesses. But it applied to your personal life.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve taken joy in what I get rid of, as opposed to what I accumulate. And asking yourself what is essential, not just among my possessions but in my interactions with other people. What’s really essential lets you focus on that and making them really be of quality, as opposed to a lot of incredibly superficial ones a few meaningful ones. And, you know, that book meant a lot to me.
John: Absolutely. It fits in with that sort of Marie Kondo, winnowing down to the things that are actually crucial, the things that you actually enjoy. We’ve talked about that in terms of screenwriting as well. It’s like getting rid of some of the frills and really focusing on what is fundamental to the story that you’re trying to tell.
David: Or in a scene. When you find that moment where you cut away like a page and a half at the beginning and a half a page at the end and you’re down to three lines but they’re great.
Craig: There we go. The one that Melissa is really into is Swedish Death Cleaning. Have you heard of that one?
John: No, tell us.
Craig: I guess the Swedes as they are so comfortable with death, their whole thing is you make sure that you’ve really gotten rid of a lot of stuff before you die. Because otherwise your family is going to have to get rid of it, which is a huge hassle.
John: My mom to her credit has totally done that.
Craig: Yeah. So just clean up as if you’re going to die next week.
David: You know that Billy Wilder story about – some movie that must never have been made. But he asked some poor writer to write a scene of marital discord. And so the guy wrote this couple, this middle-aged couple, they’re not getting along. And it starts out they come out of their apartment, they get in an elevator. They argue down the hall. Argue all the way down the elevator. Argue out on the street. It’s four pages long.
He says, “I don’t want to shoot this. We’ve got to do the hallway. I’ve got to do the elevator. I’ve got to do the street.” He says, how about this. They don’t say anything. They come out, they’re not talking. They get in the elevator. They get in the elevator and the guy is wearing a hat, of course. The elevator stops a few floors down and an attractive young woman gets on. The guy takes off his hat and his wife looks at him.
Craig: That works.
Craig: That works. Yeah.
John: That is our show for this week. Scriptnotes is produced by Megana Rao. It is edited by Matthew Chilelli who also did our outro this week. If you have an outro you can send us a link to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s also the place where you can send longer questions. For short questions on Twitter, Craig is @clmazin. I’m @johnaugust. David Koepp, I believe you are not on Twitter. Is that correct?
David: I am not. I’m on Instagram. Dgkoepp.
John: Fantastic. Find him on Instagram.
Craig: You can see all of his pics.
John: You can find the show notes for this episode and all episodes at johnaugust.com. That’s also where you’ll find the transcripts. We get them up the week after the episode airs.
You can find all the back episodes of the show at Scriptnotes.net. And you need to sign up there to use the Scriptnotes app for iOS or for Android. You can also download 50-episode seasons at store.johnaugust.com.
You can find David Koepp’s book anywhere books are sold I believe.
David: You can.
John: And overseas as well? It’s in all markets?
David: Yes. It’s all over the place overseas. I’m going to London next week to shit on the government and sell it a little bit.
Craig: Look out Boris Johnson. Here he comes.
John: Fantastic. David Koepp, thank you so much for joining us.
Craig: Thanks David.
David: Thanks for having me guys.
- David Koepp
- Alex Billington on embargoes.
- Cold Storage by David Koepp
- Spark Email App
- Freedom App
- The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes
- John August on Twitter
- Craig Mazin on Twitter
- David Koepp on Instagram
- John on Instagram
- Outro by Matthew Chilelli (send us yours!)
Email us at email@example.com
You can download the episode here.