Ghosts of Hollywood
Talking to "Stir of Echoes" writer-director David Koepp about the scary stuff in the dark.
By Ray Pride
SEPTEMBER 20, 1999: In a season of spook stories, writer-director David Koepp's "Stir of Echoes," a kind of Chicago working-class "The Shining," holds its own with atmosphere and troubled characters. It's the latest release from Artisan Entertainment, the distributor that unleashed "The Blair Witch Project." And on the heels of the still-startling grosses for "The Sixth Sense," the modest second feature (after "The Trigger Effect") by the writer of studio mega-blockbusters like "Jurassic Park," "The Lost World: Jurassic Park" and "Mission: Impossible" could tap into the voracious pre-millennial appetite for sinewy, otherworldly terror.
There's a parallel to "Sixth Sense" at the opening of Koepp's compact nail-biter about guilt and ghosts. Kevin Bacon plays Tom Witzky, a telephone lineman and bar-band musician who's not the most communicative man in Cook County. The household is stormy, but loving: wife Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) reassures failed musician Tom, "I didn't marry you because I expect you to be famous, I just liked the way your ass looked in jeans."
But in the opening scene, while Tom is distracted from bathing his son, Jake, the boy continues a conversation with someone unseen, addressing the camera as if we were a spirit or demon or devil. At an impromptu beer blast later that night, we find Tom's sister-in-law Lisa (Illeana Douglas) hypnotizing Tom. (Koepp shows us what Tom imagines without intercutting an overacted "trance.") Lisa offers the suggestion that Tom be "open," and Tom reluctantly discovers he has something in common with his son: a "mind open to everything," the power to see surly ghosts, to be overtaken by ghastly, druggy visions. Bacon's performance is raw and genuine; Tom's a haunted man even before his first headachey vision. Koepp's attention to his made-up Chicago is also impressive: an autumnal pastiche of parts of Wicker Park, Polish Village, Brighton Park and Joliet, it has the feel of a real city where real people work, live, fight and have more nightmares than sweet dreams. "Stir of Echoes" seems a throwback: practical locations, little obvious computer-generated effects.
"Computer-generated stuff you've got to be very careful of," says Koepp. Married and the father of two, the 35-year-old Madison, Wisc. native seems almost like a friendly, unassuming academic as we talk over sandwiches in a suite in the hotel where he stayed while shooting the $12 million "Stir of Echoes," which proudly bears the end credit: Filmed entirely on location in Chicago, Illinois. "It's a new tool, so there's a fascination with it. There's a tendency toward overuse. I tried hard to keep computer effects out. I've got maybe two dozen shots, but they're just things that need to be there."
There's Bacon's cold breath in one scene. I wonder, is this too regular, too well lit?
"That's very realistic, but even then, you're still looking for it because you can tell," Koepp says. "You see this with 'The Haunting.' Computer effects aren't frightening, because of how the sheer technical proficiency it takes to accomplish them is somehow perceived by an audience. You're reassured; you can picture a guy sitting at a terminal creating this effect. I've written a number of films that used them, but it's tough. It's hard to put believable humans interacting with digital effects because it's some kind of bizarre reality that no one can identify with. That was why I wanted to do the ghost [in this film] with purely in-camera type effects. Because whenever we found a low-tech solution on this movie it was better, it was more human. It was more unsettling to an audience because it seemed more real. Some movies would be twice as good with half as much money."
Bacon's performance is a wonderfully consistent portrait of a man whose life has run him ragged. "Kevin walks the line really well. He said early on, 'I'm in the movie for about four minutes when I say "bummer!" when my wife tells me she's pregnant,'" he says. "'From then on, I'm a prick.' I said, 'I know. It's going to be hard. Don't lose him. Good luck to ya.'"
The films out there that have Koepp's name on them suggest a darker personality. He's worked with people who have a really specific visual sense, like Zemeckis or de Palma or Spielberg, while directing personal films that are smaller, idiosyncratic.
"There's the stuff I would like to do, the stuff that interests me. Then there are the films I can get paid for. Y'know, 'Apartment Zero,' 'Bad Influence,' 'Trigger Effect' and this, I made scale [salary] for all of them," Koepp says. "Actually, that's not true. 'Apartment Zero' I paid $100,000, I did a bunch of rewrites to finish the [sound] mix. If you want to pursue what interests you, it's got to mean a lot to you. I enjoy big adventure movies and there are a lot of obvious temptations to do them. Y'know, especially if you have a success at one, Hollywood wants you to do another one. There's money and industry prestige and knowing that a film will actually get made. The adrenaline of working on something that's really big and really inevitable and could be a big hit or a catastrophe, that's kind of fun. It is depressing when it's a catastrophe. But it doesn't have much of you in it. These big summer movies now, studios view them as part of their corporate destiny.
"I'm doing 'Spider-Man' now as a writer. I'm still in the script stage. There's no producer and no director, and I'm already dealing with four executives at the studio, including the chairman of the company, the head of the comic book company and a vice president. Six executives already. When the final voices are in, there will be a dozen people with input into the script. That's just guaranteed to iron out any idiosyncrasies or personal touches you can put in. So it's got its ups and downs."
That's why it's interesting when a big movie blows up in a big way. It can be fascinating when nothing coalesces, when it doesn't come out the way anyone would have thought.
"I race to those things," Koepp says. "When I hear there's some big-budget catastrophe, I'm desperate to see it. Part of it's the traffic accident [aspect], you can't wait to see how this happened. But also those things are tough on you. 'Mission: Impossible' almost killed me. It was such a chaotic environment. I think Brian did some brilliant filmmaking, but the way the producers juggled writers and shuffled things and hired and fired and hired it was just crazy. Sometimes you have to throw up your hands.
"I was in a hotel in London. Robert Towne was in another hotel, they didn't want to put us in the same hotel. I was writing for Brian, Towne was writing for Cruise. I had to work about forty-eight hours at one point, the studio was going to shut us down. I had a horrible attack in the middle of the night. I had been smoking too much and not eating and I was crawling across the floor, I had rented a room next to where my wife and son were and I was crawling back to our room to say, 'Help me, I think I need a doctor!' I was thinking, 'What the fuck am I doing?' This is not worth it for the remake of a TV show!" he laughs.
What's different about directing his own work? What's the philosophy?
"I remember before I started 'The Trigger Effect,' I asked de Palma, what do you think is the most common mistake of first-time directors?" he says. "And he said, 'Not listening to good advice because you're afraid it'll make you look weak.' The times I've seen directors look panicky and weak on the set is when they're afraid to admit they don't know something. I try to wear my ignorance like a badge of honor. It puts the crew members whose department you're talking about a little bit on the defensive if you say, 'Well, I don't know. I have no idea how to do that. I've never done that before!' Then they're much more eager to help you figure out how to do that."
"Stir of Echoes" was written on spec. Does it help Koepp limber up between scripts? (Koepp and de Palma are currently circulating a spec script on the life of Howard Hughes.)
"The Hughes script is easily the best thing I ever did. I really love it. So naturally Hollywood is trying to kill it," Koepp says. "The interesting ones are supposed to be hard, so that's okay. I don't mind. I'm doing 'Spider-Man' now. I'm finished with my first draft but I can't bring myself to turn it in. They keep calling and saying, how's it doing? In my head, I'm saying it's done, it's totally done, but I know as soon as I turn it in, I'm going to be besieged by phone calls so I'm sitting on it.
"What Hollywood does is, you're walking down the street unsuspectingly' Hollywood drags you into the bushes, like five guys collaborate with you at once. I have a couple of ideas I want to spec," he says. "Specs are tricky. Two years ago, I spent six to eight months on a spec and I couldn't sell it to save my life. I tried something ambitious and it was a failure. I see that now. But not for lack of trying. Then you've got to deal with all the bullshit. It's not only the rejection, but the glee. They resent you when you've got a couple of hits, they have to pay you the big money. They hate it. When they say, oh, he's over, they like it. That's one of the reasons I moved to New York. Hollywood is a tough place to live. If you work in the movie business, you tend to only meet people in the business. I don't want my kids to only know people in the business.
"Also, it's bad for me. I'm a nervous, competitive person anyway. I don't need constant, daily reminders of my status, if it's up or down or sideways. That's why I haven't had a deal at a studio for five years. They kept moving my parking spot depending on how my movies did. There's this constant reassessment. When you're in New York or Chicago or anywhere else, Hollywood you picture in your mind as safely contained behind a little wall on the coast and you go there when you have to. You go in, then you leave. The day I decided to move, I had this spec script that I was unable to sell. It went out on a Monday, it was now Friday, it wasn't going anywhere. It was clear it was dead. My wife and I went out for this, like, consolation dinner. I went to the restaurant and saw this agent who I sort of never really liked very much and I don't think he liked me. I saw him, he was like, 'Hey! How's your spec doing!' I start to go through an answer and I get to the end and I realize as I'm walking away something he said indicated he knew perfectly well no one had bought it. All he wanted to do was force me to talk about it in front of people. So this tiny little prick, y'know, just made me feel like shit. This is when I'm out, it's Friday night, I'm not even supposed to be working!"
So friends and family keep you sane. Maybe "spec" is short for self-respect.
"Yeah. One thing that's nice is this film has tested great. It's the best audience-recruited test of any film I've worked on," he says. "My friends unabashedly tell me that they like it. They don't say it in that way, 'I liked it. I did!' where they feel like they have to sell you a little bit on it. It's nice. Some of the movies I've done have turned out to be kind of shitty. Reviewers are always quick to point that out. As a writer, you're really hammered. Screenwriters take the worst of it. Brian de Palma says that's why we pay you so well. You're the flak man. You've got to get out front and take some of this shit."
At the start, you justifiably worry that "Stir of Echoes" is going to be one of those movies where the house is right next to the El, so we know we're in Chicago. But Koepp monkeys with the geography so that it's a complete pastiche, yet convincingly lived-in.
"I didn't find everything I needed in one area. I had to make conscious attempts to lay off the train a little bit. It's so tempting. It's incredibly photogenic and noisy and nice," he says.
So like in many films, it looks like Chicago, but you can't place the neighborhood.
"Because it's a little bit of several. I looked at Union Station and at the Chicago Theatre, which are big and beautiful and very tempting. but I didn't want to over design the film. I was afraid that would crush the story and that I was trying to look like a big Hollywood movie and dwarf what's going on. I wanted to bring it here because I think that good scary movies have a strong sense of place and they really carefully create a domestic environment. I thought I could do that because I know this area. It's interesting to look at, too, because it's got some age to it," Koepp says.
There's a nice, consistent autumnal damp to the film as well.
"We got very lucky with the weather. We had rain on all the right days," he says. "The last scene in the movie, it was pouring rain all day and it wouldn't have been as good without it. The weather is another reason to go on location. I was desperate not to shoot this in Southern California. I had done 'The Trigger Effect' there and I think that was a mistake. It's very tempting, when you live in L.A. It's easy. You live there, you sleep there, your kids are there. Unfortunately, everybody is tempted by that. Los Angeles is on television three hours a night on every channel. And it's not even good looking. The topography is kind of nice, the desert, the ocean and the mountains. But that's not where everybody shoots. They shoot on Beverly and La Cienega. Plus it's better for you to be away, to be in a hotel, to miss your family. It's better to be a little lonely and depressed. then you only think about the movie and you just have a lot more ideas. You put more into it. I'm so glad I came to Chicago."
Koepp's passion for the story came from one animating image in Richard Matheson's novel.
"The hypnosis," he says. "Aside from all the themes [in the story] being in the right ballpark [of my interests], there's the hypnosis scene where Illeana narrates the stages, and I show what Tom's imagining just as he's picturing it and cut out all the actor-pretending-to-be-in-a-trance stuff that you always see. That was the reason I wanted to make that movie."
And Artisan let him make his movie, much to the multi-hyphenate's contentment. "I have no complaints at all," he says with a grin. "I just hope they can sell it."
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