Ghost Town: David Koepp’s Whimsical Supernatural Movie

The whimsically supernatural yet human concept of “Ghost Town” emerged from the mind of director and co-writer David Koepp, one of Hollywood’s most sought-after screenwriters.

Koepp’s writing credits include such popular classic as “Jurassic Park” for Steven Spielberg, “Carlito’s Way” for Brian De Palma and “Panic Room” for David Fincher and, most recently, the summer blockbuster “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” But he has also won acclaim for several films he wrote and directed himself, including the supernatural thriller “Stir of Echoes” and the adaptation of Stephen King’s suspense novel “Secret Window.”

Koepp’s new comedy centers on Dr. Bertram Pincus, DDS, a big-city curmudgeon, a cynical snob and a self-consumed loner who just wants to get away from the teeming masses who surround him in Manhattan. But Pincus is about to have his entire world-view punctured in the wake of a near-death experience. Now that he can see dead people–and literally can’t avoid them no matter where he goes–Pincus has no choice but to interact with these persistent spirits, which opens him up to an even more frightening realization: the only way he’s going to get rid of these pesky poltergeists is to help them.

Passing a Dentist Office

Koepp is highly regarded for his creative handling of the eerie and occult, but he’d never considered taking a ghost story into the realm of comedy until the idea for “Ghost Town” came to him quite suddenly on an ordinary day when he passed a dentist’s office. “I just started thinking about a character who loves being a dentist because he dislikes people and enjoys the fact that they can’t talk to him while he’s working,” Koepp recalls. “I mentioned the idea to my writing partner, John Kamps, and he asked, ‘What’s the worst thing that can happen to a dedicated loner’ And naturally, the answer was that it would be if tons of people suddenly could have access to him anywhere, any time.”

Manhattan as a Ghost Town

From that notion emerged the concept of the city of Manhattan as a “ghost town,” literally teeming with invisible, needy ghosts who normally can’t be seen by the living until, one day, something goes awry. During Pincus’ routine colonoscopy his life is turned upside down in ways he could never have imagined.

Says Kamps: “When Dave floated the concept of a misanthropic dentist besieged by desperate ghosts, I fastened onto it like a badger and quickly dashed off some thoughts about how I thought the story should go. Then it was dropped for a while due to other obligations. A few months later we found ourselves batting around concepts once again and I asked, ‘What about your dentist idea I always loved that one.’ From there we started talking, then outlining, and a thousand Diet Cokes later, ‘Ghost Town’ was born.”

Journey of Anti-Social Man

As Koepp and Kamps continued thinking about Bertram Pincus intermingling with New York’s dearly departed, they realized that his journey was that of a perturbingly anti-social man in serious need of a wake-up call. Says Koepp: “Pincus reminds me of a Warren Zevon song called ‘Splendid Isolation’ in which a man says he wants to live on the Upper East Side and never go down on the street, and he wants to put tin foil on his windows so he never has to hear or to listen to people. Pincus has chosen the path of least contact with other human beings. He’s had some heartbreak in his past and now he just wants to be left alone. At first, his sole motivation in helping the ghost of Frank Herlihy break up the marriage of his widow is simply the promise that if he does so, Frank will make all the ghosts go away.”

Communication Problems

It was Pincus’ personal communication problems that helped shape the story into a fable-like structure, taking it from being just a comic romp through a spirit-filled New York to the tale of a man’s inner transformation through these paranormal encounters. “We wanted to write a comic fable that had some teeth, that would be a bit edgy,” comments Koepp. “There’s a great deal of emotion when you’re talking about the afterlife, grief and loss and we wanted to acknowledge the emotional side of the story as much as its sillier side. You can’t get to one without going through the other, you know It’s not funny if there are no emotions at stake and it’s not as emotional if you don’t get to blow off some steam by laughing.”

Liberated from Physical Laws

Once Koepp and Kamps decided that the ghosts would steer Pincus back into interacting with the world, they found themselves in an exciting realm for writers–liberated from the physical laws of everyday existence and free to come up with their own set of “ghost rules.” “Traditional ghost rules have been established throughout history,” observes Koepp. “Most of us can’t see them. They can walk through things. They follow the laws of physics, but they can’t affect the environment around them. Those are the general things everyone agrees on, but the way you depict that in a movie is open to your own interpretation. So, I decided early on I didn’t want our ghosts to be about effects, but about comedy and humanity. I wanted to keep them fairly simple. Then we threw in our own bits of lore: e.g., if you sneeze inexplicably on the street, you’ve probably just passed through a ghost!”

Along the way, Koepp and Kamps had a rather big and ultimately poignant epiphany about just what it is that ghosts want from Pincus. “We hit on the idea that traditional ghost stories actually have it all backwards,” explains Koepp. “Ghosts don’t stick around because they have unfinished business. They stick around because the living are not done with them yet, because they aren’t ready to let go. Perhaps they died and left someone mystified or confused, and until the living come to terms with whatever that thing is, they are stuck here.” The ghost of Frank Herlihy discovers he isn’t haunting his former wife Gwen rather, she’s holding him in limbo until her heart is ready to let him go.

Visible Ghosts

Another decision Koepp made early on was to keep the ghosts visible to the audience throughout the film, similar to what Warren Beatty had previously done in “Heaven Can Wait.” “There is a pretty standard convention where if one character in a movie sees something like a ghost that other people can’t see, you show them talking to that person and then you cut wide and see that they’re talking to themselves. It’s an old gag but it becomes a motif and I didn’t want that. This movie is squarely from Pincus’ point-of-view and, most of the time, the rule is we see whatever he sees, which is ghosts everywhere.”

When producer Gavin Polone read the screenplay for “Ghost Town” (his relationship with Koepp spans two decades, first as his agent and, later, as a producer on “Stir of Echoes” and “Secret Window”), he wasn’t surprised to see Koepp making another unique departure. “Few people have the kind of range Dave has, but with this sort of comedy, I think he has a chance to show a whole other side of himself,” he says. Adds executive producer Ezra Swerdlow, “David has a unique ability to combine elements of great comedy with slightly twisted subjects and turn them into something very appealing, funny and lovely. He’s a very gifted guy.”

Koepp as Director

Although Koepp has written many screenplays for today’s hottest directors, he always knew he wanted to direct “Ghost Town” himself and had in mind a vision for it before he and Kamps had even completed the screenplay. “I was looking forward to telling this story very simply with the camera and the performances. Unlike some of the films I’ve done in the past which were very elaborately planned, this was going to be about my favorite way of filmmaking: working with the actors and shaping and reshaping the material in the telling of it.”

To accomplish this, Koepp knew he would need to start with a stellar cast for the three central roles.