Script Apart: 'Mission Impossible' Screenwriter David Koepp Shares Keys to Success
What does Spider-Man have in common with the velociraptors of Jurassic Park, IMF super-spy Ethan Hunt, and the world’s most famous fedora-wearing archeologist, Indiana Jones? The answer is David Koepp, the screenwriting legend who has penned tales for each of the above, across a career spanning 35 years and billions in box office receipts.
David recently came on my podcast Script Apart (sponsored by ScreenCraft) to revisit his 1996 espionage classic Mission: Impossible and reveal a bit about his creative process. Here are some of the major lessons I learned about screenwriting from our chat – listen to the full episode below for more…
Sometimes, Prose is the Place to Start
When you have a new idea for a story, sometimes you want your creativity to flow uninterrupted, without the distraction of things like formatting and page counts. This is why David often starts his screenplays in Word doc form, writing as if he were writing a novel rather than a blockbuster.
“I have what I think might be a movie idea, and start writing prose to try to understand my character,” he explains. “That’s just the quickest way to get things down initially.” Occasionally, he’ll continue in prose format – which is how his most recent page-turner Aurora was born. Other times, he’ll allow his early ideas for character and plot to marinate and bloom in novelistic paragraph after paragraph, before transposing into screenplay format at a later date.
Write Fast and Get to the End
Momentum is important when writing. David believes you shouldn’t stop to worry about what’s working and instead endeavor to get to the end of your draft as swiftly as possible. “I move through each draft pretty quickly because I feel like you get into this state of concentration,” reveals the 59-year-old, who insists that the best way to see what is and isn’t firing in your screenplay is to power through to the end and evaluate it in the context of a finished draft.
“You want to just execute it and have it done, so you can then go back and read it to see what's lacking. Some days you'll write seven or eight pages that you just cut the next day because you're finding the story. It’s part of the process.”
Don’t Be Scared If Your Middle Act is Murder
“The second act is always awful,” laughs David Koepp. “Anyone who's writing a screenplay can tell you: it's terrible. There's nothing worse than pages 48-60. Who doesn't like the beginning of the story? When you can set up that there’s this guy and all his friends are killed. That’s exciting. People are leaning forward already. You know that you like good to prevail and evil to be punished so you may already have an ending in your head – a way to resolve.
But the middle — keeping the flow right, stopping it from becoming boring or repetitive — that's all very difficult.” If you’re struggling with your middle act, you’re not alone – write the nuts and bolts of what needs to happen to connect your beginning and end, then patiently work at this section in draft after draft till you have a version that feels right.
Have a great action script? Enter it into the ScreenCraft Action & Adventure Screenplay Competition!
Al Horner is a London-based journalist, screenwriter and presenter. His work has appeared in The Guardian, Empire Magazine, GQ, BBC, Little White Lies, TIME Magazine and more.