By Chad Greene
With a population of 2,567, the Village of Wales, Wis., doesn’t qualify as a ghost town. But it was there, at Kettle Moraine High School, that the writing partnership that eventually produced the script for Ghost Town began with the meeting of David Koepp (Class of 1981) and John Kamps (Class of 1983).
“It’s true,” confirms Koepp, who—like Kamps—has since been inducted into the KMHS Hall of Fame. “I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin named Pewaukee. And, actually, John is from Genesee Depot. But we went to the same high school—Kettle Moraine. You want a spelling on that, or are you up on your glacial terms?”
(Let the record show that the interviewer, who learned all about the role of glaciers in shaping Wisconsin’s geography while attending grade school in his own small town in the Badger State, does indeed remember how to spell “Kettle Moraine.”)
“And then we also went to the University of Wisconsin together for a year, and that’s probably where we became better friends,” adds Kamps. “But then [Koepp] transferred to UCLA for film school. But we kept in touch—you know, showed different pieces of work to each other. And after I graduated college, he said, ‘Why don’t you come out to L.A. and try screenwriting?’ And that sounded a little more fun than law school, so I came out—and never left.”
Out in Hollywood, Koepp and Kamps’ first professional screenwriting collaborations came on a couple of rewrites credited to a single pseudonym. “But after we did those initial jobs, we didn’t write together for a long time,” Kamps says.
In fact, it wasn’t until 15 years later that another script the two wrote together was produced—an adaptation of Chris Van Allsburg’s Zathura. In-between, each had added considerable credits to his name: Kamps’ included family-friendly fare such as The Borrowers and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie ; Koepp’s included popcorn pictures such as Jurassic Park, Mission: Impossible and Spider-Man. Throughout it all, though, Koepp and Kamps continued to read—and offer notes on—each other’s scripts.
“It’s a friendship first and a writing relationship second,” Koepp says. “But I just really like [Kamps’] writing. He’s got a gift for character, and anytime I feel like a script calls for funny—you know how people say that funny is really hard? Funny is actually easy—all you have to do is call Kamps.
“He’s just one of the funniest people I know, and he manages to have humor that grows out of character, which is really, really, the whole ball game. They’re not just jokes, they’re jokes because of who the people are,” Koepp says. “And I think that’s what makes him so good.”
And that character-driven approach to comedy was what ultimately attracted Ricky Gervais to Ghost Town. But it was Koepp, not Kamps, who came up with the concept for the rom-com about a dentist who suddenly starts seeing more ghosts than patients.
“I was finishing directing Secret Window,” says Koepp, referring to the 2004 horror/thriller starring Johnny Depp. “Usually, I write. And I enjoy the writer’s lifestyle; I like the isolation of writing. So when I direct, it’s kind of shocking because there are so many people to deal with. And writers are writers because we kind of like the quiet.
“And so I was at the very end of this long shoot, and everybody was driving me crazy, so I went for a walk—over lunch on a shooting day—and I was walking around in the Village, and I saw a big tooth-shaped sign hanging outside somebody’s dental office, and I thought, ‘What a great profession that must be, because the people you work with have cotton shoved in their mouth, and they can’t talk to you.’ It was a bad day,” Koepp recalls with a laugh. “So that character just sort of leapt to mind, and I thought, ‘What would be the worst thing that could happen to that guy? If everyone had unfettered access to him.’ And so the ghost premise came in.”
Koepp ran the idea past Kamps, who thought it was terrific. “And we sat down, roughed out an outline and sold it as a treatment to DreamWorks,” Kamps says. “And, many drafts later, Ghost Town was born.”
He found another idea—that of having his trusted writing partner Koepp direct their script—terrific, as well.
“It was just a dream experience for me because Dave kept me involved every step of the way,” Kamps says. “I live in California, and Dave lives in New York, and I have two small children so I couldn’t be on the set the whole time, but I came out for the read-through at the beginning of shooting. We did a small rewrite at the beginning, but when it went into production there weren’t a lot radical changes. They would call occasionally for a line or because something had changed because the location didn’t suit the scene, but really the script we finished right before they started shooting is what appeared on screen—except for editing, of course.”
And neither Kamps nor Koepp had any reservations about putting their material into the hands of Gervais, an actor who’s also highly regarded as a writer.
“You’re crazy if you don’t take good suggestions,” Koepp says. “And a guy like Ricky not only knows how to write well for others—and he’s won lots of awards for it and done brilliant work—but he also knows how to write well for himself. And particularly with a comedian, they know what’s going to work for them. So after he said he would do it, we went over to London and read through the script a few times with him and did some rewriting, and of course on the set, he’s also a very gifted improvisational comedian, so some stuff came up in that setting. When it’s all said and done, though, I’d say about 90 percent of what he says in this movie was scripted. Because you try lots of other stuff, but it usually comes back to what was already written.
“The character [of Bertram Pincus] was very specific on the page—he was one of the stronger characters I think John and I have ever written, and certainly compared to the ones I’ve written on my own,” Koepp says. “But then what’s funny is once Ricky was cast, it was impossible to imagine anyone else playing him. I really think it is a uniquely good meeting of performer and material.”
And if Ghost Town scares up big business at the box office, Koepp and Kamps may one day remember that meeting as one of the most important in the course of their collaboration since the first one back at Kettle Moraine High School.
This article appears in the September 2008 issue of B OXOFFICE .