What do Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible and Spider-Man all have in common? They were all written or co-written by David Koepp, a prolific screenwriter and filmmaker who’s penned some of the biggest blockbusters in history, when he wasn’t directing lower budgeted horror-thrillers like Stir of Echoes and the new release You Should Have Left.
Speaking to Bloody-Disgusting from his home in Amagansett, NY – before and after a brief interruption by his friendly pet dog – Koepp revealed the process behind adapting Daniel Kehlmann’s best-selling novel and why You Should Have Left required an unexpected number of flowcharts.
You Should Have Left stars Kevin Bacon, who previously starred in Koepp’s supernatural thriller Stir of Echoes over 20 years ago, as Theo, a banker with a young movie star wife (Amanda Seyfried) and a young daughter (Avery Essex) who vacation at a mysterious house in Wales. The family soon discovers that the house’s many hallways and doors don’t always lead to the same place twice, and gradually become stuck in a literal and figurative labyrinth.
But funnily enough, Bacon’s protagonist wasn’t a banker in Daniel Kehlmann’s novel. One of the first changes the screenwriter made to You Should Have Left was making the protagonist anything but a screenwriter.
“I couldn’t take a movie about a screenwriter,” David Koepp chuckles. “I just, I don’t think anybody really wants to see it. I know I don’t. But even more than that, movies about a writer in a remote house possibly losing his mind? There are several prominent ones.”
Koepp should know, since he wrote one of them in 2004: Secret Window, a Stephen King adaptation starring Johnny Depp as a writer losing his mind from marital jealousy and mysterious accusations by a creepy stalker, played by Jon Turturro.
“Arguably The Shining was even bigger than mine,” Koepp argues, drolly, when this is brought up.
“So we’ve seen that movie and I’ve made that movie, and I felt like I wanted to change that off the bat. It was one of the first changes,” Koepp continues. “It was one of the first things I said: ‘He ain’t gonna be a writer.’ And the other was, because we have questions about this guy and Kevin so beautifully plays characters where you’re not quite sure if he’s a good guy or not, and I wanted to play that mystery of, you know, there’s this cloud in his past and we’re not quite sure how we feel about him and [so] I wanted him to have a profession where he could have made a lot of money and one that suggested there might be this aura of guilt about him.”
“And I think we all have a lot of complicated feelings about bankers these days, particularly the kind who make hundreds of millions of dollars. I just thought it brought some baggage with it that was interesting to me,” Koepp says.
But doesn’t that fundamentally alter the character from the novel; changing a character who’s a writer, a fabulist, to someone who is more business-oriented?
“No question,” Koepp says. “Yes, I think it does. I think in our case it changes it in a helpful way. I think that the writer in the book who is imagining all these things, who imagines things for a living and therefore may or may not be imagining things that are happening in the house – although it seems clear he’s not – I think yeah, it was just a dynamic I didn’t want to explore. But yes, it does certainly change him. No question.”
The character is brought to life by Kevin Bacon, an actor with over 40 years of experience, now reuniting with Koepp after over two decades. According to Koepp, not much has changed.
“I hope I’ve grown as a filmmaker. You hope that in 20 years you pick up a few things,” Koepp admits. “I found him, I don’t know, I guess he was probably in his late 30s when we did Stir of Echoes and late 50s when we did this, he’s so accomplished. This guy was in movies when he was 19, I think, when he started in Animal House? And he’s just the most meticulous professional, highly skilled actor you can imagine.”
“So I didn’t see a great deal of change in that way. I got the same Kevin I got last time. I hope I’ve grown a bit,” Koepp adds.
David Koepp certainly needed his filmmaking experience on You Should Have Left. In addition to the film’s human drama about marital strife, parenthood anxieties and lifelong guilt, the movie represents a complex filmmaking challenge as Bacon’s protagonist gets lost in a house where the geography and geometry can’t be trusted.
“I wanted to create that sense of disorientation. I wanted the movie to increasingly feel as it went on the way you feel if you’re staying in someone else’s house or you’re in a hotel and it’s the middle of the night and you get up to go to the bathroom,” Koepp says. “You kind of forget where you are and the door’s not where you thought. I wanted that moment of, wait, where am I? Wasn’t there a door here before?”
“I wanted that to sustain through the latter half of the film. So I think that geography is something that is incredibly important as a film director. Everybody has to know this is here, this leads to that. That’s what makes a suspense sequence work,” Koepp explains. “That’s why Spielberg’s movies are always so effective, because you know exactly where things are before he starts to screw them up.”
“And so I wanted to lay all that out, which is why you have, when they arrive at the house there’s numerous shots that are devoted to ‘This is here, that hallway is from here.’ I continue the shot so you can see, ‘Look, if you go through here the living room is there,’ so that I’m laying everything out very specifically and clearly, hopefully,” Koepp explains. “So that later, when that door leads back to that instead of here, it works.”
But it takes a lot of careful planning to be completely disorienting.
“We planned out as much as we could in advance,” Koepp reveals. “There were seven different hallways in the movie that are named. […] There’s Light Hallway, Dark Hallway, Study Hallway, Scary Hallway, Black Hallway, Basement Hallway, Basement Hallway 2. And there are probably, in the house, in real life there’s probably a dozen doors. In our movie there’s twice that many and the doors never open, or frequently don’t open to the same place twice.”
“So there really were flowcharts about hallways and doors and that was some of the most exhausting part of the prep, was just getting all that down between me and the production designer and the D.P. and then helping the actors keep straight what emotional state they’re in,” Koepp says. “Because some of it was shot on location in the real house and then some of it was shot in the stage which we built to match the real house. So they’re going through… could you hang on just one second? My dog is whining to get in.”
Ah, the perils of interviews on Zoom. One brief friendly dog interruption later, Koepp is back to the topic at hand.
“So keeping all that straight, how an actor feels… there’s a scene in the middle of the movie, you’ll remember when Kevin is looking and the little girl disappears the first time and he’s looking for her and his alarm is growing and he keeps ending up in the wrong room. Just calibrating that performance over two locations, a set and reality, and none of the doors are doing what they’re supposed to do, was rather a headache,” Koepp admits.
You can see how all these elements came together in You Should Have Left, now available On Demand.