HEAT VISION

David Koepp on 'You Should Have Left' and Leaving 'Indiana Jones 5' Behind

The filmmaker and frequent Steven Spielberg collaborator looks at beloved lines from ‘Jurassic Park’ and reflects on the challenges of writing an ‘Indy’ movie: "It has to be great."
'You Should Have Left' (Inset: David Koepp)   |   Universal Pictures; Albert L. Ortega/Getty Images
The filmmaker and frequent Steven Spielberg collaborator looks at beloved lines from ‘Jurassic Park’ and reflects on the challenges of writing an ‘Indy’ movie: "It has to be great."

Think of a major studio film from the last 30 years, and chances are David Koepp has written at least a draft of it. Whether it’s Jurassic Park and Spider-Man or Panic Room and Carlito’s Way, Koepp has shown that he can succeed in almost every genre. As a long-time collaborator of the genre-jumping Steven Spielberg, such versatility is practically a prerequisite. Koepp has also directed seven feature films since 1996, and he’s now returning to the screen and horror genre with You Should Have Left, starring his Stir of Echoes leading man, Kevin Bacon, and Amanda Seyfried.

After the trailer for You Should Have Left premiered on June 8, the Internet’s side-eye was in full effect thanks to the significant age gap between Bacon and Seyfried’s husband and wife characters. However, unlike the countless Hollywood movies that have ignored the noticeable age gaps of their romantic pairings, Koepp not only acknowledges the age disparity between his two lead actors and characters, but he also uses it as a story point that sets up his film’s resolution.

“I said to Kevin as I started writing the script, ‘Listen, buddy, this is about a marriage that’s inappropriate. She’s much too young for you, and you’re much too old for her,’” Koepp tells The Hollywood Reporter. “‘We’ve all seen these relationships. We know people that are in them. And I don’t want to hide it; I want to make it the dramatic substance of the story. And to do so, I need to tell the audience immediately, ‘Hold on, hold on. This isn’t bad casting. This is story.’ And I’m going to have to make jokes about how old you are, early and often.’”

When Steven Spielberg officially departed Indiana Jones 5 in February, Koepp followed suit out of deference to incoming director James Mangold and his creative process. As disappointed as he was to not see the fruits of his labor, Koepp is now opening up about the challenging time he had on the long-gestating Indiana Jones 5.

“The reason Indiana Jones movies are so difficult is because it’s really difficult. It’s hard. It has to be great. The first and third movies in that series are just utterly beloved, and ‘utterly beloved’ is a high bar,” Koepp explains. “So, I did a couple versions of this last one that I thought were good; the last one, in particular. But it didn’t quite come together. Steven couldn’t do it in the end and whatever. It just didn’t come together. Sometimes, they do; sometimes, they don’t. But if there’s going to be another Indiana Jones movie, I think James Mangold is a great guy to explore it. Certainly, what he did with Logan was remarkable…”

In a recent conversation with THR, Koepp also discusses Robert Zemeckis’ unknowing contribution to Jurassic Park, Dennis Nedry’s famous Barbasol can and Blumhouse’s willingness to do reshoots.

So, no script is easy, but relative to the complex stories you’ve written in your career such as Jurassic Park and Mission: Impossible, is the horror genre a walk in the park for you?

Well, that’s the drag. I think it’s going to be, and then it isn’t. (Laughs.) I think I went into this movie, not saying it out loud, not even saying it in the front of my mind, but in the back of my mind, thinking, “Okay, this is going to be a 26-day shoot with one location. It’s basically three or four actors. How hard can it be?” And logistically, it wasn’t because it was that number of days and one place. But storytelling just kicks your ass every single time, and it never gets easier. I think this is my 30th movie, 29 or 30, and storytelling is a mystery every single time. Things that you think will work, don’t. Things that you didn’t expect to work, do. Things go together that you didn’t imagine. You’re uncovering stuff as you go. Every single one of them is hard. So, no. (Laughs.)

Was “the sins of the fathers are visited upon the children” on your mind when writing this?

Yeah, I grew up in Wisconsin in the ‘70s and went to a Catholic school in a small town. So, guilt, purgatory and retribution are all very much in my head every day when I’m walking around. (Laughs.) Also, I have four kids, and my youngest is nine years old. You see the way your young kids look at you, and what they see is an idealized version of you. And I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for the way she looks at me, and I hope that it never changes. But I know it must because I’m human and I have flaws, and she’s going to learn them. I hope that none of my kids ever get caught in the sort of swirling, muddy waters of my flaws and my bullshit. I hope they go off to find their own bullshit in life, but that’s kind of what I wanted this story to be about, as well. 

I appreciated how you not only acknowledged the age difference between Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried’s characters, but you also discussed it in a way that sets the stage for the resolution. Since too many movies have swept significant age gaps between couples under the rug, were you consciously doing the opposite?

Yeah, I said to Kevin as I started writing the script, “Listen, buddy, this is about a marriage that’s inappropriate. She’s much too young for you, and you’re much too old for her. We’ve all seen these relationships. We know people that are in them. And I don’t want to hide it; I want to make it the dramatic substance of the story. And to do so, I need to tell the audience immediately, ‘Hold on, hold on. This isn’t bad casting. This is story.’ And I’m going to have to make jokes about how old you are, early and often.” (Laughs.) I didn’t want to be misinterpreted. So, one of the first things Amanda’s character does is call him old man. And then, somebody in the very next scene says, “You’re her Dad?” I wanted to say, “This is the point.” I think it’s a horror movie and a domestic drama, and I wanted the domestic tension to be very real and right there. And so, I’m glad you appreciated that because I was afraid that we’d get yelled at for it, but I do feel that it’s valid dramatic material. Why can’t we mine that?

I’ve always respected the fact that Blumhouse is willing to do reshoots for their low-budget films. It shouldn’t be a practice that only gigantic blockbusters can afford. Generally speaking, what did you revise or clarify via reshoots?

So, we shot for 26 days, and we shot it in, like, fall of 2018. Then, we cut it, and we had it done in the spring of last year — like February or March. But I didn’t like the opening. We went somewhere underground that I thought was just too confusing. It pushed even my desire for disorientation too far, and it was incomprehensible. And as you say, yeah, it’s great that they’re open to additional shooting. In fact, they kind of planned for it in the budget. So, I came up with another thing I wanted to do instead that was going to be four days of shooting. We just had to wait six months because Kevin, at that point, was doing City on a Hill for Showtime and had grown this enormous mustache. So, we had to wait until Kevin could shave, and then, we went and shot the other stuff. But additional shooting is the greatest thing in the world for a director and for a storyteller because you get to look at your story, try to be honest about its strengths and flaws, get rid of all of the flaws and put in more strengths. 

For the interiors of the house, were they mostly built on a soundstage, or did you mix in some actual locations?

Both. It was a real Rubik’s Cube because the location in Wales is a real place called the Life House, which you can see online. It’s designed by this architect named John Pawson, and it’s a beautiful house. It’s only one story; I added the second story in post. It’s got these marvelous hallways and so, some of our early shots are in the actual house. They’re long takes for a reason because I wanted to lay out the geography very specifically and say, “Look, here’s the light hallway. It forms an L with the dark hallway. If you pass through here, you come into the living room.” And then, I was going to mess with that geography substantially later. So then, we built it onstage. It matches mostly, but it’s too big. There are additional hallways, and doors aren’t where we thought they should be. They even lead to different places. Because I wanted that sense of disorientation and dislocation. I wanted the last 45 minutes of the movie to feel like the feeling you get when you wake up in a strange hotel room and try to go to the bathroom in the night, and the door’s not where you thought it was. And for ten seconds, you can’t figure out where you are. I wanted it to feel like that for the second half of the movie.

One of my favorite shots is when Kevin’s character turns his head at his desk, only his reflection continues looking straight. Was that a relatively painless shot to pull off?

That was a pretty simple green screen. You put a green window up there, have him sit in the chair and shoot it once as reflection Kevin and once as real Kevin. All the effects in the movie are pretty simple, and we tried to be simple but ingenious. And I’m glad you liked that shot. That’s one of my favorites too.

Avery Essex gave one of the better child performances I’ve seen in quite a while. Did you cast a wide net to find her, or was she discovered rather quickly?

She came easily to me because Terri Taylor showed me her tape, but Terri looked at more than a hundred kids for this. I’m glad you like her because we were all blown away by her. Avery had done, I think, just a couple commercials and a couple episodic TV things. I looked at a bunch of tapes and met a bunch of kids, and she was just, by far, the best. And she’s so natural. She’d be bouncing around off the walls and being a normal kid on the set, and then you say, “Action,” and she just locks in in a way that’s almost disconcerting. She’s so good. And then, you say, “Cut,” and she’s back to being a crazy kid again. I’ve seen a couple kids who are really something like Dakota Fanning in War of the Worlds and Joseph Mazzello in Jurassic Park. There are some kids who really have that natural thing, and I really feel that she’s another of them. I don’t know if she wants to act anymore, or if her parents want her to, but, boy, I think she’s got a future if she wants it.

Besides the Universal connection, was there any particular reason why the PA (Joshua C. Jackson) was wearing a Furious 7 hat?

(Laughs.) Well, I wanted him to be a PA on a movie, and I needed a movie that I could clear. I also wanted it to be a recognizable movie, so we knew immediately, “Okay, she’s a film actress.” So, yes, I could clear that with Universal, and Chris Morgan, the producer, was very generous to let me use it.

You’ve said that you’re no longer writing Indiana Jones 5 after doing several drafts of it for Steven Spielberg. I know it comes with the territory, but do you ever get used to the fact that no matter how much time and energy you devote to a screenwriting project, it always has the potential to be put in a drawer for eternity?

Well, that’s never one’s hope. (Laughs.) No, you don’t and you’re always disappointed if it doesn’t work out with the things you write. And they invariably become your favorite thing. I have a Howard Hughes script that I wrote with Brian De Palma like 20 years ago, and I’m convinced it’s the best thing I’ve ever done because it never got made. So, it’s easy to say! The reason Indiana Jones movies are so difficult is because it’s really difficult. (Laughs.) It’s hard. It has to be great. The first and third movies in that series are just utterly beloved, and ‘utterly beloved’ is a high bar. It’s really tough to get there. So, I did a couple versions of this last one that I thought were good; the last one, in particular. But it didn’t quite come together. Steven couldn’t do it in the end and whatever. It just didn’t come together. Sometimes, they do; sometimes, they don’t. But if there’s going to be another Indiana Jones movie, I think James Mangold is a great guy to explore it. Certainly, what he did with Logan was remarkable — with Scott Frank’s great, great script. So, we’ll see. But it’s okay. Usually, by the time you either get fired or they move on to somebody else or the project just evolves away from you — by that time, you’re secretly a little bit relieved because at least you don’t have to bang your head against it anymore. (Laughs.)

I’ve heard the origin of Jurassic Park’s “hold on to your butts” line and how it came from Robert Zemeckis at a Death Becomes Her dailies screening. Does Zemeckis joke about royalties whenever you see him, or is he completely unaware?

I’ve never told him. I was talking about it with somebody the other day, and I realized, “I should tell Bob one day.” (Laughs.) No, I don’t know if he’s heard that one or not, but it’s his risk. You shouldn’t say clever things around a writer. They’ll write them down and use them.

On some level, do you wish you could’ve done something with Dennis Nedry’s missing Barbasol can even though The Lost World’s plot was pretty much established via the book?

You know, I really thought that was buried. My intention with the shot the way I wrote it — and I believe Steven’s intention with the shot the way he shot it — was to say, “Oh look, the gold dust has blown away in the wind.” That’s the treasure that he sought. That was the thing. And like the money in the suitcase at the end of The Killing that blows away in the propeller wash or the gold dust in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, we were trying to imply that it’s gone forever. And so, I thought that buried in that mud, it was to imply that it was gone forever. So, I didn’t want to do anything with the Barbasol can myself, but I understand people have interpreted it differently. So, I guess I’ve got to live with that now.

Can you lay claim to either “spared no expense” or “clever girl”?

No, I wish I could, but that’s very honest. (Laughs.) Oh wait! “Spared no expense,” yes? Uhhh… “spared no expense,” I don’t remember. “Clever girl” was Steven’s.

Are you glad to be free of superhero stories at this point?

You know, never say never on anything. I mean, I had a great time with the Spider-Man movie, but superhero movies have evolved so profoundly and in such a sophisticated storytelling way. They are just very different from when I was interested in them. So, I like to watch them, but I like to think of new stuff whenever I can.

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You Should Have Left is now available on VOD and Digital HD from Universal Pictures.

  • Brian Davids
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