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Weekly Alibi Ghost Writing

An Interview With David Koepp

By Devin D. O'Leary

SEPTEMBER 13, 1999:  The Summer of 1999 may well be remembered as the Summer of Horror. First, a shallow remake of The Haunting scared up $33 million its opening weekend. Then, a little student film called The Blair Witch Project went on to grab more than $150 million in ticket sales. To top things off, a quiet little sleeper called The Sixth Sense spent five weeks in the number one spot at the box office. People, it seems, were in the mood to be frightened out of their wits this summer. Action, romance, comedy -- sure, they did OK, but it was good, old-fashioned ghost stories that were breaking the records this season.

The summer movie season officially ended with last weekend's Labor Day whimper, but tiny Artisan films (who made a penny or two off that no-budget gamble Blair Witch) is betting that audiences are still hungry for fear. This weekend, Stir of Echoes will materialize in theaters. This low-key creeper concerns a working-class Chicagoan named Tom Witzky (Kevin Bacon) who begins a dark supernatural journey after being hypnotized at a neighborhood party. That little bout of mental tinkering opens certain doorways in Tom's mind, and the earthy skeptic quickly finds his life invaded by the impatient spirit of a ghostly gal who haunts his humble brownstone.

Stir of Echoes is based on a novel by Richard Matheson (screenwriter of The Incredible Shrinking Man, author of I Am Legend and pioneering scribe for "The Twilight Zone") and is the second directing effort by David Koepp (The Trigger Effect). Koepp first discovered Matheson's 1958 novel while digging through a used bookstore.

"I was looking for pleasure reading, but also looking for a scary story. I've been wanting to do a horror movie for a long time, and so I was always looking for ideas. I found Stir of Echoes, which I'd never heard of."

Koepp was familiar with Matheson's other works -- particularly I Am Legend (which was turned into the film Omega Man) and Duel (which became director Steven Spielberg's first film). Something in Matheson's narrative struck Koepp. He decided that Stir of Echoes was just the scary story he had been searching for.

Adapting a novel to the screen is nothing new to Koepp. Koepp is best known in Hollywood circles as a screenwriter, having penned such box-office hits as Carlito's Way, Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible and The Lost World. In 1996, Koepp tried his hand at directing with The Trigger Effect, a "Twilight Zone"-ish thriller about the chaos that results from a mysterious nationwide blackout. Koepp claims to be a "Twilight Zone" fan from "way back" and fully acknowledges the show's contribution to his first film. The Trigger Effect owes a great deal of its moral tone to a classic "TZ" episode called "The Monsters Have Landed on Maple Street" -- in which a confused small-town neighborhood degenerates into violence following a perceived "alien landing."

"My uncle Claude Akins was in that one," says Koepp proudly.

Considering Koepp's familial connection with "Twilight Zone," perhaps it was only natural that the writer/director should stumble across the work of one of that show's founding fathers. Although Matheson's novel was written back in the 1950s, Koepp wound up changing very little from the original story.

"I changed the setting. [In the novel] it was 1950s California, a tract housing development." Writing not long after the advent of Levittown, the first "suburban" community in New Jersey, Matheson's novel was surely a timely piece of literature. But that environment, says Koepp, is a long-forgotten part of American history. Koepp's script update moved the setting for temporal as well as personal reasons.

"I also didn't want to shoot a movie in southern California," admits the Midwesterner. "I took it to an area I was a little bit more familiar with -- working-class Chicago. ... I also changed the reason the ghost became a ghost. I thought it was a little too tied into his setting."

The result is a chilling little film that is part ghost story, part mystery, part Alice's Adventures Through the Looking Glass.

"With a ghost story, you've always got lots of backstory," says Koepp. "You've got what's going on now, plus you've got, you know, the mystery of how the ghost became a ghost."

So how did Koepp know Stir of Echoes was the ghost story for him?

"You just have to go with your gut. With what scares you."

Koepp took his own advice to heart by incorporating one of his own recurring nightmares into the film. As a confused Kevin Bacon stares into the bathroom mirror late one night, he reaches up and pulls out one his own front teeth -- a scene that is both uncomfortably icky and a clue to his haunting mystery.

"That scene in front of the mirror, that comes from this dream I have all the time where my teeth are rotting out," confesses Koepp. "I thought, I gotta use this somewhere."

Though the film is a ghost story, Matheson relied on very few special effects, instead operating with a minimal budget and utilizing largely in-camera special effects. Since Stir deals with a psychological horror rather than a physical one, Koepp decided he needed a disturbing ghost rather than one slathered in blood. Koepp and director of photography Fred Murphy chose to shoot actress Jenny Morrison, who portrays the impatient spirit in Stir at six frames per second rather than the typical 24 frames per second. The slow frame rate causes the actress to move in a quick, decidedly alien fashion.

Despite his work on effects-laden films like The Lost World (on which Koepp also functioned as a second unit director), the writer/director admits, "Special effects bore me." Compared to the films he's written, the films he's chosen to direct seem downright modest.

"Modest in budget maybe," concedes Koepp, "not in scope."

Despite having written for the likes of Steven Spielberg, Brian DePalma, Ron Howard and Robert Zemeckis, Koepp admires more independent films.

"Titanic and Blair Witch are very similar to me. They changed all the rules. ... Titanic: It's too long, the boat sinks, the guy dies. Biggest movie of all time. Blair Witch: It looks like crappy home video. $140 million. Those two films changed a lot of minds in Hollywood about what you can and can't do."

So does Koepp ever see himself directing a summer blockbuster like Mission: Impossible?

"Maybe not that film. ... But who knows?"

In the meantime, Koepp will continue juggling his writing and directing careers. Next up on the word processor?

"Writing Spider-Man. ... That one I won't be directing."

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