You might not know David Koepp’s name, but you definitely know his work. As one of Hollywood’s most successful screenwriters, Koepp is the wordsmith behind blockbusters like Jurassic Park, Panic Room, and the first Mission: Impossible. Koepp recently took a pause on the scripts to write his first sci-fi horror novel, Cold Storage, about a fast-spreading killer fungus — yes, fungus — and the unexpected heroes who save humanity. David took some time to talk to me about how his 12-year-old son inspired his book, his very real fear of “public humiliation,” and why he’d never pick his least-favorite movie he’s worked on (“I would NEVER pick a red-headed step-child to make fun of, in part because I’m a red-headed step-child myself!”).
Katie Couric: After 30 years as a screenwriter, you’ve written a novel. What made you want to escape into novel-writing? How did it feel to live in this world for a bit?
David Koepp: The idea started out as a movie idea, because I just assumed it was — all my ideas for 30 years had been as movies, so I figured this was too. But when I sat down to write yet another movie treatment, I realized I just couldn’t face that format again. So I started just by trying to write half-decent prose, and within a few paragraphs I started to think, “Oh dear, this is a book.” Once I accepted that and let my mind switch fully into that gear, I became delirious with the freedom and possibility. To be able to write what someone was actually THINKING, after an entire career of being limited to just what an audience sees or hears — it was intoxicating.
Is it true that the main fear you had in writing a novel was “public humiliation”?
That’s my main fear on a daily basis. A few dozen movies will do that to you. It’s a very public line of work, and when criticism comes, it tends to come in an extremely public manner. The difference on a novel was going to be that there would be no one to hide behind. On a movie you can always blame the director, the actors, the studio, etc., but with a book it’s all you, baby. For good or bad.
How did you decide to write about a deadly, fast-spreading fungus? What was the inspiration for that?
I knew I wanted something nefarious and deadly to be stored in the basement of this rather innocuous place, and to have it discovered by ordinary people, working the kind of job where you don’t ever expect to have to put your life on the line. While I was digging around for a likely microbial villain, my son Henry, who’s 12 and a major science enthusiast, started telling me about an article he’d read about Ophiocordyceps unilaterlis, the so-called “zombie fungus.” I heard the word zombie and was immediately hooked.
The heroes include Teacake, a reformed petty criminal, and Naomi, a single mom/college student, who work the night shift at a storage facility. How did you land on this unexpected pairing saving humanity?
The character of Teacake really was the genesis of the entire book. I was walking down the street in New York early one August morning — the kind of morning where it’s already 90 degrees at 7 a.m. — and I passed a young guy in a security guard’s uniform. He looked tired and miserable, and I figured he was either on his way to or coming home from a job he hated. My mind started to wonder, what if something happened at this guy’s boring-ass job, and he decided that yes, it is a shitty job, but it is MY shitty job, and I’m going to do it as well as I possibly can. I’m going to make this MY problem. I liked that character, and I thought “Now there’s character I’d watch a story about.”
All of the reviews are saying that the book is hilarious. How does one make a horror story funny?
I am naturally given to smart-assery, and sometimes the more serious the situation is, the easier it is to make fun of it, or make a joke that gets a laugh because it dispels the tension. The caution is you can’t do that too frequently — dispel the tension too often and you’ve got no tension left.
You’ve written everything from Jurassic Park to Mission: Impossible and Panic Room. Do you have a favorite child and least-favorite child?
It’s hard not to love Jurassic Park, not least because the rest of the world has embraced it so tightly, and for so long. I still get more compliments or sincere “thank you for that movie” type remarks about JP than I do about any other movie I’ve ever worked on. It was also my first hit movie, and the outrageousness of the movie’s success was a feeling I’ve never had before or since in my professional life. As for a last favorite child — c’mon, I would NEVER pick a red-headed step-child to make fun of, in part because I’m a red-headed step-child myself!
I often say, we never INTEND for any of them to be bad movies, they just sorta turn out that way, over an extended period of time, and because of a number of people making miscalculations — the writer foremost among them!
One last one: What name would you give this chapter of your own life & career?
“Chapter Twenty-Six: He Tries to Throw Them Off the Scent”
This interview originally appeared in Wake-Up Call with Katie Couric. Subscribe here.