'Crystal Skull' scribe directing Gervais in debut

David Koepp is remarkably calm for someone who penned the biggest movie of the summer and just performed triage on the highest-profile movie in production. He even remains unruffled as he awaits word on the release date of his upcoming directorial effort, “Ghost Town,” his first outing behind the camera in four years.

Sitting in his tidy Manhattan high-rise office, the uberwriter/sometime director seems as far removed as one can get from the world of Hollywood blockbusters.

But that’s exactly the universe that Koepp — one of the industry’s highest paid and most in-demand scribes — inhabits as he cranks out screenplays for some of the highest-earning franchises in film history, while simultaneously pursuing his smaller-scope directing ambitions. From his Gotham perch, the one-time UCLA film student has become Hollywood’s go-to guy, answering Steven Spielberg’s call to revive a beloved franchise 19 years after its last showing (“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”) or Sony’s plea to fix a problematic script (“Da Vinci Code” prequel “Angels & Demons”).

With a nearly $5 million per script quote and the ability to attract choice talent to his modestly-budgeted helming projects, Koepp enjoys the best of both worlds.

He may be the man who penned such box office behemoths as “Spider-Man,” but in conversation it’s hard to differentiate him from any other middle-aged urban dad. Oozing an aw-shucks Midwest sensibility and devoid of any of the usual writer neuroses, Koepp, 45, seems more comfortable talking about his three young sons’ camp exploits than his enviable salary as a scribe.

“I was raised a nice Catholic boy in Wisconsin — I learned you don’t talk about money,” the Green Bay Packers fanatic parries when asked about his per-screenplay asking price. Instead, he gladly shows off his 30-odd drafts of “Crystal Skull” neatly stacked on a shelf in his Upper West Side workspace that lacks the fancy art or typical trappings of success. Instead, a framed Kurt Vonnegut quote serves as decoration.

Frequent collaborator Spielberg concurs that Koepp — with whom he also teamed on “War of the Worlds” and two “Jurassic Park” films — doesn’t focus on the financial rewards of the business.

“I’ve never had a money conversation with David,” says Spielberg, who cites “War of the Worlds” as his favorite Koepp collaboration. “I’ve never had a tough negotiation with David (or) with his representatives. David isn’t about money. He’s about the story, the idea, the possibilities. He just happens to have been involved in some of the biggest franchises in history, from ‘Jurassic Park’ to ‘Spider-Man’ to his uncredited work on ‘Men in Black.’ David has been touched by great success, but his natural inclination is to tell small stories.”

Koepp adhered to that basic instinct with “Ghost Town,” a quirky dark comedy about a dentist who has a near-death experience during routine surgery and gains the ability to communicate with the dead — with nary a dinosaur, flying saucer or archeological expedition in sight. Ricky Gervais, Greg Kinnear and Tea Leoni star in the $19 million film, which Koepp co-wrote and directed for Spielberg’s DreamWorks.

“Ghost Town” proved to be a stark contrast to “Crystal Skull,” which Koepp diplomatically notes “had three guys with very strong opinions” in regards to Spielberg, George Lucas and Harrison Ford. In fact, Spielberg says the whole “Crystal Skull” process was more daunting than the pair’s previous collaborations.

“We both felt the pressure of that,” he recalls. “We were a little more constrained by a story that we were not going to wander too far afield from. So, it was a little more structured. David and I found a lot of room to invent things that were never in the original story. That was fun for us. Any time you can invent things that aren’t handed to us on a silver platter, that’s when the creative relationship becomes much more of a popcorn relationship for the two of us. You can smell the popcorn coming out of David’s computer when David’s coming up with original concepts.”

As “Ghost Town” is readied for release, Spielberg now finds himself in an awkward position: If “Ghost Town” soars, the scribe might not be available to pen Spielberg’s next tentpole.

“I want him to succeed so much that I’m willing to sacrifice the working relationship between a writer and a director to be able to capitalize on the new working relationship between DreamWorks and David as a director,” Spielberg says. “I’m perfectly willing to give up David writing for me if he starts to consistently succeed as a director.”

Spielberg and other franchise-makers need not fear. Koepp — whose previous helming credits include the Johnny Depp starrer “The Secret Window” and the supernatural thriller “Stir of Echoes” — insists that he is capable of directing only one film every three or four years.

“Directing is terrible for your personal life,” he says, citing Spielberg and Ron Howard as the only two people he knows who manage to helm without major home-life upheavals. “Right now, the thought of directing is abhorrent to me. (The urge) will come back in a few years.”

In the meantime, there are other blockbusters to tackle. Following his eleventh-hour draft of “Angels & Demons,” Koepp vowed to take the summer off. After that, he will be available to lend his writing talents to the next studio in need, a contemporary Ernest Lehman, as William Goldman noted. (Lehman is the writer behind such cinematic classics as “West Side Story,” “North by Northwest” and “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.”)

Just don’t ask Koepp to leave his New York digs to work on location.

“I don’t spend time on set,” he says. “I spent a few days on ‘Indy’ because it was so iconic. I wanted to see the set. But being on set can be an ugly process. No one wants a word cop.”

But fortunately for Koepp, every studio needs an able wordsmith.

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