The highest concept movie of the summer is the one you probably haven’t heard of. Premium Rush is about a bike messenger (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who must deliver a package in 90 minutes. It’s not based on a comic book, it’s not a remake but it’s pure action. Michael Shannon also plays a mega villain after the same package. Writer/Director David Koepp spoke with us on the phone this week as he geared up for opening weekend. He’s written major films like Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible, and Spider-Man and directed Secret Window, Stir of Echoes and Ghost Town.
CraveOnline: In a summer full of sequels and remakes as usual, how does it feel to have an original?
David Koepp: It feels good as long as people go. Sequels and remakes, they tend to go because they’ve heard of it so getting them to go to an original can be a little trickier, but it’s definitely more fun because you get to throw yourself into a new idea that hasn’t been done or hasn’t been done for a long time. That’s what we liked about it.
It has a very playful tone. Was that tone important to making an action movie about bike messengers?
I think so. It’s a movie that you can’t get too ominous about. It’s guys on bikes chasing each other through the city. It should be fun and also, we wanted to make something, this sounds kind of fatuous, but it was an important goal: we wanted to make something that was short and fast because that’s what it called for. He didn’t have much time to get there and he had to get there quickly so the movie should have the same goals.
Are action movies getting too serious these days?
Sometimes, yeah. It all depends on the subject matter. Everything should flow from the idea. If the idea is a serious idea, if a great number of lives are at stake then the movie should take it seriously. In our case, while it’s an important goal to Nima, it’s not the fate of the world that hangs in the balance. So the movie’s tone should match that.
Well, there were a lot of lives at stake in Die Hard but it was still fun.
I wonder what it says about the audience that to get people to go to an action movie, they have to make sure it’s ultra-serious like the Bourne movies.
Well, you want the movie to take itself seriously. You don’t want too jokey, well unless you do. I don't know. I think the tone of the Bourne movies is right for those movies. I think it just depends on the story.
You have those great what if scenarios where you get to explore something more outrageous and violent than ends up happening in the film.
Yeah, that was fun. We called it Bike-o-Vision in the script and prep stage. The idea was to find a way, since this is a movie, to make cinematic the process of decision-making. I guess sort of like the first Terminator movie when his options would come up in his view-screen of what he could say to people. It seemed like a cool visual way to show those split second decisions that you make when you’re in a situation like that. Then, since it was fantasy world, we were able to play out those scenarios in increasingly horrible ways and have some fun with it.
Cell phones can be the bane of screenwriters. Did cell phones actually help you with Premium Rush?
Yeah, they helped in the sense that we decided to make any kind of scene that would usually be two people in a room talking, we decided to make it two people moving in different areas of the city through traffic. Which sounds simple enough but made it all into a nightmare, because it just makes everything so much harder to shoot, but it looks good. Also because those people would have those conversations while moving through different parts of the city, so we wanted to take advantage of that. But you’re right, cell phones kind of ruin everything in terms of writing. People used to show up, they’d have something important to say so they would go see someone at work or surprise them at home and you’d have a great scene. Now they text them and there’s just absolutely nothing cinematic about a text.
In an age where CGI is used so often, how did you manage an old school controlled traffic vehicle stunt movie?
It was a nightmare, man. It was really hard. We got a huge level of cooperation from the city which was great. Cops [were] incredibly cooperative but still it was such a mess because New York City is this giant organism that just doesn’t respond to people trying to control it. There’s just a level of chaos here that is the way it goes and there’s nothing anybody can do to change it. So even though we’d have situations where we’d have both sides of Broadway for 10 blocks closed in both directions for four hours, which is an incredible amount of control, but it starts to erode. We’d start at 6AM on a Sunday morning, nobody’s out, it’s great, everything’s going your way. By eight o’clock, the chorus of horns and angry people at the edges of the lockout has grown to a kind of alarming level. Then by 9, they’re ready to kill you. They’re ready to kill you. We had one outraged pedestrian head butt one of our PAs and break his nose, sent him to the hospital because the guy couldn’t cross the street when he wanted to because he would’ve gotten hit by our cars, which to me seems a disproportionate reaction. I know we’re in your way, but if someone was building a building on a corner and asked you to please cross the street so you don’t get hit by a crane, you wouldn’t be angry with them. You would cross the street. So it was intensely difficult, but like a difficult actor, New York looks great on film and does a great job. So you hate it while you’re working with it, and then when you see it in the editing room, you say, “Oh wow, yeah. That actor or that city, they’re great.”
How many cars would you have driving in a scene where Wilee has to weave through traffic?
It depends on the scene but I think at most times we’d have 25 or 30 cars of our own and then outside our group of cars is the city, so they’ve given you free extras. Our thing was our cars were stunt cars driven by stunt drivers at all times, and the rule was they couldn’t change lanes. They could go faster or slower but they couldn’t change lanes. Only the guy on the bike can change lanes, so he would have a measure of control in that he would know the white SUV is going to go faster or slower but I can cut around him and not worry about getting cut off so then that lets the actor know that they can create their own weave pattern and be okay.
You’re PG-13, so you decided to give your one F word to the villain?
We did. Yeah, you really pick and choose. [Laughs] Sometimes you can get away with two F-words but not in an action movie. They might let you have two in a comedy. You think long and hard about where does it sound best, where is it going to have the most impact. “I’m the guy you don’t f*** with” seemed to perfectly sum up his character.
Could you have reigned in Michael Shannon had you wanted to?
Sure. Yeah, he’s a talented actor with enormous numbers of levels at which he can play this stuff. I found the level he went at great. We would do stuff that was more controlled or less controlled, but I was thrilled with the level he went at. I mean, he’ll come back after a take and say, “That was like a 4. You want a 6?” He’s minutely controlled.
So did he come to you with the level of let’s just make this guy totally outrageous?
Well, it’s in the script. His behavior is really excessive. The guy’s out of control. He’s obviously got a gambling problem that he can’t control. He’s got a violent temper that he can’t control. He has impulse control issues so a certain amount of bigness is required.
Was the name Forrest J. Ackerman an intentional homage?
Yes. Absolutely. We also liked the notion that he kept changing Forrest J. Ackerman’s profession. We thought that was funny.
If guns bother people right now, is this an action movie with no shooting for them?
You know, you set these arbitrary rules for yourself sometimes when you’re working on a story. One of ours was it’s only going to take place over 90 minutes. It’s going to go from A to B and the other one was we get one shot. Let’s try to do an action film where there is one gunshot. So it’s at the end and it’s hopefully understated and yet has devastating effect, the way gunshots do.
I wanted to ask you as the writer of the original Spider-Man movie, what did you think of The Amazing Spider-Man?
I loved it. I thought they did a great job. I was really impressed. It’s hard. I mean, I wouldn’t want to go back and try to make something new off of material that people have seen recently and liked. So the degree of difficulty was really high but I thought they found a look and a feel for it that was completely its own. I mean, I thought the relationship with Andrew and Emma was great and lively and full of sparks. I thought it was terrific.
For a movie that claimed to be the untold story, were you impressed how much they kept from your version?
I don't know if I was impressed. I feel like they’re getting to the untold story. I feel like they’ve certainly implied heavily a bunch of stuff that I’m eager to see in the next one where that comes out. I thought they found an interesting way of doing the origin story without doing the exact same thing.
I was going to ask you for a scoop on the Snow White and the Huntsman sequel but now I have to ask you are you still writing it?
No, I’m not. I’m not involved in that one anymore.
Was there no option for you to rewrite it as the Huntsman spinoff they decided to do?
Yeah, I just felt like I didn’t have that one in me. I had some pretty clear ideas about how to do it a certain way and we worked through those ideas, and then they decided they wanted to go in a different direction with it and I didn’t feel the same sort of creative energy about that. If you don’t have great ideas, you should probably take your pen and go home.
Did that all happen in the last week when we heard about it?
Over the last couple weeks.
Are you still working on the Jack Ryan movie?
Yes, I was just in London for a week on that. We start shooting in less than two weeks, like a week and a half. Oh my God, no. Nine days.
You said “We start shooting,” are you going to be involved on the set too?
Well, I feel like we’re all part of a big Jack Ryan family.
Were you writing for Chris Pine in mind, or would you have written for Jack Ryan, whoever they might’ve cast?
I think Jack Ryan, because he’s a well established character who’s been the basis of several novels and movies, I knew Chris was going to play him so I was certainly talking to Chris and he had a great deal of input into the script, some really great ideas. But you’re trying to be true to a character that’s already been created and successful.
Was there any Tom Clancy book you were basing on?
No, this one is not based on a Clancy book. We made it up.
How hard is that to make up a Tom Clancy story, because he’s so specific and technical?
It’s hard. It’s very hard. This stuff is really difficult and it’s a very particular talent. A writer named Adam Cozad had come up with a very good idea for an international thriller which formed the basis of what this movie became. Then I continued to work with that.
What are your favorite movies?
Rosemary’s Baby is my favorite movie. Then the usual, nothing really surprising, the Godfather movies, Tootsie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
All three Godfathers?
I think I’d lean more toward the first two.
Action movie-wise, you said Raiders.
Also Duel which was an inspiration for this movie in terms of an action movie, those were both big.
You wrote one of my favorite Die Hard in a Someplace Else movie, Toy Soldiers. Do you miss the Die Hard in a _____ genre?
I think they are coming back with it. Aren’t there a couple Die Hards in the White House coming? It was a fun easy way to pitch for about 20 years. Think how good that initial premise was. You can also do it with “in space.” Just add that, pick a classic for example. Pick any classic.
No, I mean a novel.
Gone with the Wind?
Okay, that’s a tough one. What about Moby Dick.
Okay, let’s do Moby Dick.
In space. You add in space, it’s immediately pitchable. Die Hard in Space, holy sh*t, look what you’ve just done. Oh no, that’s actually Alien. Oh well.
I hope you like this for Premium Rush. It’s Speed on a bike.
I like that, yeah. I’ll take that.
It’s a little bit meta because the original one-liner for Speed was “Die Hard on a bus.” So now by the transitive property, it’s Die Hard on a Bus on a Bike, but it’s not quite Die Hard so I thought it was more Speed.
That’s good, and it’s also the first time I’ve heard transitive property used in an interview.