How 'Jurassic Park' Screenwriter David Koepp Turned Zombie Fungus Into a Freaky Novel

david koepp, cold storage
David Koepp photo by Melissa Thomas; collage by Frannie Jiranek/Thrillist
David Koepp photo by Melissa Thomas; collage by Frannie Jiranek/Thrillist

You're probably already a fan of David Koepp, even if you don't know it. As a screenwriter, he's helped launch some rather popular movie franchises, including Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man. He's also written or co-written screenplays for some cult classics, like the macabre comedy Death Becomes Her, the supernatural horror film Stir of Echoes (which he also directed), and David Fincher's home invasion thriller Panic Room.

Some of Koepp's scripts tackle serious topics, but his wicked sense of humor lightens them. Take the zombie fungus at the center of his debut novel, Cold Storage, which just arrived. Ophiocordyceps is a real parasitic fungus that has a taste for insects, primarily ants. This fungus hijacks an ant's brain, which drives it to climb to a high vantage point, where its head will burst, contaminating the ground with more fungal spores. "Cordy" makes its host calm, impervious to pain, and focused only on climbing up to the best location to spread the contagion. The difference in Koepp's book is that this Cordy is after humans, too -- and a small band of misfits become the world's only hope of stopping this parasite before it starts spreading exponentially, and bursting heads worldwide. It's a science-based thriller in the vein of The Andromeda Strain and The Hot Zone, but it's much funnier -- especially the body-horror scenes.

Koepp recently talked to Thrillist about writing novels versus screenplays and adapting his own work for the screen, and he also shared some of his adventures in the business. He also revealed story ideas that never made it to the screen, such as his plan for killing off Tom Cruise -- which, who knows, might still happen.

Thrillist: How did your son help come up with the concept?
David Koepp:
I was starting to write, and I knew something would be stored in one of these former government storage facilities, but I hadn't focused yet on what it would be. I knew it was something microbial. And Henry, who is 12, was fascinated by Ophiocordyceps and started telling me about it. There are hundreds of species of Ophiocordyceps. People fixate on the ant one because it's sort of the showiest means of spreading. I started thinking, "Well, if there are hundreds of them, why can't there be an extra one? Why wouldn't it like mammals? We're warm. We're highly mobile. We might be just the ticket." The animal kingdom is relentlessly and ruthlessly adaptive, and we do carry viruses and bacteria and fungi. The preface that opens the book, about the honey fungus Armillaria solidipes, it's horrifying, because it's been around for millions of years and it's going to be around for millions more. Given long enough, it could cover the earth. As if we don't have enough to worry about! Fortunately, that timeline is slow. The one in the rest of the story is fast.

Fortunately for you, more people now know about the zombie ant fungus going into this thanks to Our Planet.
Oh, really? Oh, what episode? 

I haven't seen all of it, because it is so depressing. It's a hard show to watch. It seems so perfect for children, but it's not -- it's terrifying. My 8-year-old daughter, Grace, who declared herself to be vegetarian at the age of 3, she started sobbing after the first episode. She said, "How can we do this to them? What gives us the right?" And that's a really good point.

In the past, you've consulted with government agencies when writing, like the C.I.A. for Mission: Impossible. What kind of scientific research did you do for this book?
That's a good example. We had former agents who were advising us on that movie, and when we were researching the action sequence at Langley, we asked them, "What are your security systems like?" And they described them, to the extent that they could, and it was so boring. It was exactly what you'd imagine -- a room full of cameras, and a guy watching the cameras. It was literally putting us to sleep, because Brian [De Palma] was on a couch and I was on a recliner. And then we thought, "What if we dump all the research and just make stuff up?" Brian said, "He'll lower down from the top," and I was like, "Yeah! And there will be temperature sensors, and the pressure-sensitive floor that will light up if stuff drops on it, like in that Michael Jackson video." And then it got really fun. So you do need to find out the real story, but you can also invent.

With this book, I just made things up. I wanted to serve the story first. And when I finished the first draft, I contacted a microbiologist and said, "Okay, read this. Have a good laugh. And then will you sit down and go through it with me?" And he read it, and he said, "Well, the science isn't terrible. But there's a lot that is way off. If I'm going to help you, there's one thing you have to promise me you'll never do." "Okay," I said. "What is it?" "You must stop confusing fungus and benzene. They are not the same thing at all. And you can't turn one into the other, any more than you could turn a city into a pair of socks." And I was like, "First of all, that's a great sentence. But yes, I promise I will stop doing that. Tell me the difference." And then he very methodically gave me notes, and we got it to the point where I think a biologist could read it and not throw the book against the wall.

What was it like taking notes from him, versus taking notes from producers or studio execs?
I rarely discarded what he said. I mean, I would bend it, you know? I would adapt it. The big difference was, he wasn't working toward an outcome. He just wanted it to be truthful and accurate. A studio often has motives that aren't true to the story, they're true to what they think a successful movie should be, and those two things can be very much at odds. I also noticed a big difference between notes from studio execs and notes from book editors. [My editor] Zack Wagman is really smart, and his notes were really good, and he also had a way of presenting them that didn't make me rebel against them.

I've always felt like the best work comes from the least number of people in the room. One reason I've enjoyed working for [Steven] Spielberg so many times is because it's just his opinion, it's just him and you, and you do the best you can. But when you get a lot of different competing agendas, it's deafening. You become more of a personality manager and you're working towards compromise. So I liked writing this book a lot. It was just so much more personal. The ease with which I could toss in little things that were important to me, but might not be to anybody else -- that's just not something I've found very easy to do in a script.

Although you have done it in some films. In Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, one of your favorite movies, Sorry, Wrong Number, is playing in the movie theater where Ryan has a clandestine meeting. Then Keira Knightley's character finds the ticket stub, and then later, as a test, asks him to go see the movie with her at Film Forum. It probably could have been any movie, but you got to slip in the one that meant something to you, right?
You can get a lot of personal stuff through in a movie, but a lot of it gets changed. I've always felt that some directors, producers, and studios have a built-in idiosyncrasy detector, and they'll find the one little thing that you love, and that will be their first note: "Oh, you gotta cut that thing where she cuts her own hair. That's crazy." They'll want you to get rid of it because it's extraneous to the story. Which it is, but it's also when that character comes alive. With the book, I was delighted by having the ability to digress.

There is a secondary character we never meet called Gordon Gray, and Gordon's dead now. And Roberto's dealing with people dying in his life. There's a little detail about Gordon that Roberto remembers, that they were in Vegas once, but Gordon wouldn't cross a casino picket line. And Roberto was like, "You're in Las Vegas. Why exactly are you making a moral stand here?" That was based on a little moment I had with a friend of mine who died young. And it's about that very scary notion that when they die, and when you die, it's as if those moments never happened.

What's it like adapting your own work?
It's awful! [Laughs] It's much harder to be ruthless, because you like it and you see why you did it. When it's somebody else's book, you callously toss aside 75 pages that you don't need. It helps that I've done screenwriting for so long that while I was writing the novel, I couldn't help but think, "In the movie, it'll just go from here to here." What was really tough about this book, though, is the science. Not since the Michael Crichton Jurassic Park books have I had a challenge like this. 

One thing that made Jurassic Park easier was that there were characters who were versed in science and can talk about it, and in Jeff Goldblum's case, really amusingly. Jeff was brilliant. In my first conceptions of the script, I was about to write out his character, and Steven said, "I don't know. Why don't you try it with him?" and I'm really glad I did. But the whole point of Cold Storage is that none of them are scientists, except for Hero. She's the only one who really knows what she's talking about, and she leaves the story early, so I've had to come up with techniques that are uniquely filmic for how to get a lot of information on the screen.

I don't want to give away everything, but for instance, the voice of the narrator is a key part of it. In the book, he provides a lot of key information like, "What she didn't know is…" so you can get that dramatic irony. So I have little screens that show up, because in a science movie, things can come up from the bottom or the side and tell you what the chemical composition of something is, if the temperature is rising or falling, and what's happening. You can also hear people's voices in their heads.

One of the things you did in Jurassic Park was the animated video that they watch. 
With the DNA stuff, Steven said, "It's a theme park. They could have an intro video." And then we kind of got into the absurdity of it that there was an animated character. We were remembering Hemo the Magnificent, the video you'd see about blood in seventh grade health class. And he had an accent for some reason. And it was the highlight of health class. So we ran with that, and even though we're just stopping for three or four minutes and having them look straight at this, it makes sense, because that's the world that you're in. It's so much easier. But it was very hard to digest that book in a way that was not going to be exhausting or didactic … or referencing other Steven Spielberg movies...

I had gone with a scene in the book as my opening in which we're in a hospital in Costa Rica, and they bring somebody in who has weird bite marks. They say it's a construction accident, and the doctor says, "This was not a construction accident." And Steven was like, "Um, there's a scene like that in Jaws." "Oh, right!" [Laughs]

One thing that's helpful for humor's sake in Cold Storage is that they aren't a bunch of scientists sitting around and talking exposition to one another, which is not funny. They're real people, with real lives, and they can be irreverent. One of the characters, Teacake, is loquacious, and has an interesting way of talking. And there are characters who are dumb and mean, so you can make fun of them. You'd never make fun of somebody who's dumb and good-hearted, but dumb and mean, for sure, you can go after them. But there are some turns of phrase that crack you up that just aren't going to make it.

There seems to be a recurring theme throughout your work about compressed time and space. Cold Storage, with the story mostly taking place in one night, and the storage facility. By chance, are you claustrophobic? Panic Room seems to have been inspired by you getting trapped in an elevator, at least...
I think it's based more on a storytelling predilection than an actual fear. The problem is always how to contain the story. If I could write Lawrence of Arabia, I would, but I don't do so well with space, because I can't get my head around it. Who can? It takes a rare talent. But things that are contained within a bubble, I can tell a story. The Paper, we knew we wanted to do a newspaper story, but then we asked ourselves, "What's the frame?" It's 24 hours, minute to minute. Panic Room is the most extreme example. I wanted as much of it to be in this one house, and as much of it that could be in this tiny room, the better. We were renovating a townhouse, and I got stuck in this elevator. I hated that elevator! It was very old, money was flying out the window, and I decided to transfer my feelings of resentment and confinement into the script.

With Cold Storage, the storage facility served a similar purpose, even right down to the individual unit that they get trapped in. But at this point, I wouldn't know how to tell that story as a global infection. It's too big, and it feels too familiar, even if Contagion is one of my favorite movies. So once the thing hits groundwater and spreads out, it's a different story.

Also I think containing the story, restricting certain elements, out of those constraints come great inventions. The same thing happens when you're shooting a movie. When you don't have money for something, you almost always end up having a better idea than when you have unlimited resources.

Such as?
I wrote and directed a 2008 movie called Ghost Town, a sweet little comedy with Ricky Gervais. I had a scene near the beginning where he runs down into a subway station, across the tracks, up and out the other side, all in one shot. You don't see across the tracks, but I could cover the cut digitally. It was a beautiful shot, all worked out on 57th and Fifth, and it was going to cost $200,000. And I just did not have the money, so I cut it. Instead, he runs down and through a tunnel in Central Park, and you hear a classical piece providing the chase music. We just sort of dolly to the side, and you see someone playing the violin, and Ricky's character is hiding next to her as they run by. It's so simple and elegant and small, and it's a better idea.

Claude Akins, the character actor best known for playing Sheriff Lobo on B.J. and the Bear, was your uncle. Did he ever encourage your early work? Or invite you on set to see how film and television were made? You have kind of a nod to him in your directorial debut, The Trigger Effect...
Koepp: He was such a good actor, and he was really lovely and supportive. He was in one of my student films at UCLA. There was a part in The Trigger Effect that I would have loved for him to play -- one of the paranoid neighbors -- but he passed away in 1994, unfortunately. He was in The Twilight Zone episode "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," so I put a reference to that in The Trigger Effect. I wouldn't say it's based on that episode, but I do think it recalls that era of 1950s paranoia. It's a lot of, Who do you let in your bomb shelter? So in The Trigger Effect, they live on the corner of Maple and Willoughby, which is a reference to another the Twilight Zone episode.

He and my dad were fraternity brothers at Northwestern. And my uncle Bill, who went to school with them, said, "Hey, you guys, I got a lot of sisters. You should come over and have dinner at my house." So my dad went home with Bill, and he and Claude ended up marrying two of the sisters. Not that day! After a sensible period of time. So Claude was my uncle by marriage. We'd visited them in California, and I visited him on set for The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo, which was a spinoff of B.J. and the Bear. I remember seeing Dean Martin, who was a guest star, and he was drunk and couldn't remember any of his lines, and I was like, "Wow, this is crazy!" I wandered off on the lot and ended up on the stage for The Rockford Files, which was the coolest thing in the world. I remember James Garner had a cold, and there was a lot of sneezing and cutting. Those were my first experiences on a studio lot, the NBC/Universal lot. And that was where I worked later on. I did a couple of independent movies to start out, and then I got a job as a contract writer at Universal for five years.

Bad Influence, in 1990, was one of those indies, your big screenwriting break. And you apparently convinced Rob Lowe to play the villain Alex, when he wanted to play good-guy Michael?
Yeah! It's one of the few cases where the writer was able to influence the casting! [Laughs] I think it was prior to us having a director, and we went to lunch one day, and I said, "You know..." Because he had played so many lovable parts. He was always the romantic lead. I was thinking of Once Upon a Time in the West, where Henry Fonda, who previously had always been America's dad, played someone who was absolutely horrible, and he was great at it. You can tell when an actor suddenly feels released. He's had a fascinating career, hasn't he?

Yeah. It's weird, though. If the scandal that happened to him back then happened now, I'm not so sure his career would survive it. I think it would be over.
Well, maybe not. He wasn't accused of impropriety, was he?

One of his sex tape partners was an underage girl. A 16-year-old girl.
Oh, yeah. That would be bad. I thought it was just that the sex was on tape. And the scandal wasn't helpful, as far as the movie was concerned. We were accused of exploiting the situation, and it was like, "No! I wrote it two years before..."

That was your first solo screenplay?
First produced one, yeah. I had written a few, but that was the first one that got made.

Yeah, it's just hard sometimes to determine who did what when it's a shared credit. For instance, the iconic exchange in the 1990 Dolph Lundgren movie I Come in Peace that goes "I come in peace." "And you go in pieces, asshole." -- was that yours?
Yes, John Kamps and I. We were very happy with that, except they ruined it, a little! They added "asshole." I don't remember that being there. You don't need it. It's a great line without it: "I come in peace." "And you go in pieces." [Laughs] It's fine. John Kamps and I were in post-production on Apartment Zero and we ran out of money, and I took a couple of jobs just to pay for some Apartment Zero bills. One of them was Dark Angel, which became I Come in Peace. We wanted to take a pseudonym because we didn't feel it represented what we'd do on our own. Then we couldn't think of a pseudonym. The phone rang, and someone said, "Is Leonard Maas Jr. there?" And I said, "No, but that's a fantastic name. How do you spell that?"

Maybe not quite as iconic, but there is a line in Jurassic Park that was inspired by something said during the Death Becomes Her reshoots?
[Laughs] Yes. Yes, it's true. So we were reshooting the Death Becomes Her ending. Originally, we liked the idea of Bruce Willis' character falling in love with his bartender, Tracey Ullman, if you think alcoholism is funny. But it didn't work. And there was a lot of pressure, because it was my first studio movie. We were at dailies for the reshoots, and as they were starting, [director] Bob Zemeckis said, "All right, hold on to your butts." And I went back to my office afterwards and wrote it down. I was like, "That's a great line!"

How often do you have franchise potential in mind when you're writing a script? You've kicked off quite a few...
With Mission: Impossible, we had an ending where he would take another mission, but that was because it was based on an episodic TV show. With the first Spider-Man, I had planned out the first three films, so I knew where it was going, but that didn't all work out. There were a lot of different opinions about where it should go, and who's going to lose that argument? The writer. And certainly, they were fine without me afterwards. So you can try to plan it, but boy, you better focus on making that first one good.

At least you gave them one of the most iconic images -- the upside-down kiss.
I put it in the script, but it's an image in a comic book, with both Black Cat and Spider-Man kissing upside down, and I had the good sense to take that image. Apparently, it is actually very uncomfortable to hang upside down, though. You can't do it for longer for 20 seconds. This is what I've been told. [Laughs]

You also had James Cameron's treatment for Spider-Man... 
Yeah. He had the idea for the organic web-shooters. Cameron was what I think made people start taking comic-book movies more seriously. The fact that he even wanted to do it made it a big deal, and made the studios go, "Maybe these can be kind of cool..." The first one that kind of changed things was X-Men, the year before us. It was all terribly risky. And the Marvel universe as we know now it didn't really start until Iron Man in 2008.

What's it like when you've been hired as a writer for a project based on someone else's vision, when they might let you go and have someone completely rewrite what you've done? Or when someone has done that to you? Is it weird working out all the credits?
It's very messy. There were a couple movies where I was hired and fired multiple times, on the same movie. And that's the way it goes with some movies, big expensive movies where there are powerful people involved. They have a script, they don't like, they want to start over. Steve Zaillian wrote a treatment for Mission: Impossible with Brian De Palma, and then Steve had another commitment that he had to go to, so he couldn't write the script. My suspicion is that he got a whiff of what it was going to be like, and ran! [Laughs

Tom Cruise was producing it, and it was his first time producing his own stuff. Brian's an auteur, and Tom's an auteur, so there was bound to be a lot of conflict. I came on, and I wrote several drafts, and things were going great. Then Paramount said, "We don't have any notes. We want to shoot it," which is the worst thing to say to Tom, because he is a perfectionist, and he never wants to stop tinkering. And if somebody says they want to stop, that sounds like they don't care, to him. So at that point, Tom wanted [Robert] Towne to come in and work on some stuff, so Towne came in. And apparently, it wasn't going so well. The scripts had fallen into disarray, and they were supposed to start shooting. So they hired me to come back. In the most comedic period of this, they had me in one hotel in London, writing primarily for Brian, and they had Towne at another hotel, writing primarily for Tom. And then Brian and Tom would fax pages at each other and argue about what to shoot. From that chaotic process, nothing good should have emerged. But Brian's brilliant, and Tom will work until he's face-down in the dirt. He'll never quit.

I think they should make a Mission: Impossible where he's clinging to the outside of a rocket, he's shot up in the air, and it falls. He's got no parachute, he's on the way down, and he's holding up little pieces of origami, trying to slow his fall. He's falling and falling, and the ground is coming closer and closer. And then he hits the ground and he dies. This time, he doesn't get up. And the movie's only like 45 minutes long. That's how you end it! Because it's got to end! [Laughs]

Apparently you had more of a love triangle in the story at one point? Between Jim, Ethan, and Claire?
Koepp: Oh, in one draft. I don't think it survived, did it? It should have. That's a great idea.
It's your idea!
[Laughs] See? Think how much better the franchise would have done had they just gone my way. God. Unreal. [Laughs]

Another idea discarded, this time for 1998's Snake Eyes... You were going to have the casino underwater?
Yes. That was strictly financial, but that would have been a nice opening to see. It started with this great image of the blackjack tables and the chips and cards floating in super-slow motion, and then you go, How do they come to this point? You catch up to that in the climax of the movie. But it was just too hard to do. It was at the dawn of CG, and it would have had to been CG to make it work, and it was just too massive.
Your overriding principle in writing/directing 2012's Premium Rush was for it to be CGI-free.
Absolutely. I wanted all of it to be practical -- real stunts, real people. There are maybe a couple of CG shots in the whole movie, background shots. Everything else, of everybody riding bikes, they really did ride that bike, jump off a bike, or slide under a truck. There are some amazing physical accomplishments in that movie. People got hurt a lot, because bike riding is dangerous, and we were putting people on bikes at high speeds and sending them into traffic, which is crazy and dangerous. We had a stretch for nine days where somebody had to go the emergency room every day. 
Joseph Gordon-Levitt's injury, which you show in the end credits, was caused by a diplomat?
Yeah! This asshole... We had a couple lanes on Sixth Avenue. New York will let you have the weekends in August, because the city empties out. So we had two lanes closed and coned-off, and two lanes open. And everybody around Joe's bike was a stunt driver. We had very clear rules. Stunt drivers weren't allowed to change lanes, they couldn't increase or decrease speed without reason, so the rider knows nobody is going to cut him off. Somebody going uptown felt that our lanes of traffic were moving better than his, some diplomat in a SUV, and he drove over the cones and into our lanes. Like smashing them under his car! And Joe was going to hit him. He had a moment to decide, "Should I hit him, or should I go left and hope for the best?" So he veered away, and unfortunately, the stunt driver in the taxi cab, when he saw the other car, he braked. He had no choice, really. So Joe fell into the taxi cab window. I was in the van driving ahead, watching on the monitors, and Joe disappeared from the monitor. You could hear some bouncing, some horrible screeching and smashing sounds, and then the mic went dead. So in the 30 seconds between, "Stop the van!" and going back and finding him, I thought, "Oh no! I killed him! I killed him!"
Technically, the diplomat would be to blame, not you...
Yeah, but if I didn't have this stupid bike messenger movie… 
And with diplomatic immunity, he wouldn't even be charged...
Yeah. He didn't even get a ticket. Isn't that terrible? That's outrageous. 
Was it freeing to not have to worry about the cost of CG or the possibility of injuries in coming up with ideas for the novel? The only limit is your imagination?
That was one of the first things Steven Spielberg told me on Jurassic Park -- the only limit is your imagination. So I just wrote freely. In the book, I could write the point of view of a fungus. I could go on a three-page digression about a cockroach. That was the most fun of all. You're going to come away with some useless tidbits of information, like what the recoil on a machine pistol could do, if you have a bad back. Better file that away! [Laughs]
Are you planning to direct your own adaptation of Cold Storage?
No. I think writing the book and screenplay is plenty of creative involvement! [Laughs] Somebody else can figure it out from here.

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Jennifer Vineyard is a contributor to Thrillist.