In 1999, actor Kevin Bacon and Writer/Director David Koepp collaborated on the horror film Stir of Echoes. Over 20 years later, they would reunite for the Blumhouse horror film You Should Have Left (2020). Koepp adapted both of these supernatural stories from novels. In both cases, the stories focused on a man, his wife, and their very young child. These films also serve as pretty straight forward genre films about men struggling with their identities.
I previously wrote about You Should Have Left in another article, but this article has little to do with that one. Instead, this article will explore the adaptations of both books and how budget plays into filmmaking.
Bacon began his career by appearing in Animal House (1978). For the next couple of years, Bacon would star in small roles and ensemble movies such as Friday the 13th (1980) and Diner (1983). Diner probably gives Bacon the most to do, as he gets to play a drunk yet intelligent college graduate.
Over the next decade, Bacon would build a career as a leading man, starting with Footloose (1984). Throughout the era and into the early 90s, he starred in many light dramas and comedies, often playing a confused young man dealing with unexpected life experiences.
By the early 1990s, Bacon had switched over to playing character roles. In the audio commentary for Stir of Echoes, Koepp says that Bacon excels at inhabiting odd characters fully, even though studios often looked to him as leading men.
In an interview with Rob Feld, Koepp admitted to loving genre storytelling and not seeing a need to elevate it. That same interview has Koepp talking about his career through War of The Worlds (2005), which contains this interview in the back of the script.
Koepp began his career interning for a sales agent of foreign distributors. There, he met Argentine Screenwriter-director Martin Donovan, who he collaborated with as co-writer and producer on Apartment Zero (1988). When they did not have enough money to complete Apartment Zero, Koepp took various writing jobs to help finish the project. Koepp would collaborate with Donovan again on the screenplay for Death Becomes Her (1992), which Robert Zemeckis eventually directed.
Over the next decade, Koepp would work with several high profile directors. Most fruitfully, he collaborated multiple times with Brian De Palma (Carlito’s Way (1993), Mission Impossible (1996), Snake Eyes (1998)). For Steven Spielberg, he co-wrote Jurassic Park (1993). When Spielberg directed Jurassic Park: The Lost World (1997), Koepp wrote the film and directed the second unit. In between these films, he directed The Trigger Effect (1996).
Even his less talked about films had strong directors attached. He wrote Toy Soldiers for John Schlesinger, the director of Midnight Cowboy (1969). Daniel Petrie Jr. ended up rewriting and directing the project. Ron Howard directed The Paper (1994), which Koepp co-wrote with brother Stephen Koepp.
Many of Koepp’s experiences and collaborators would inspire how he chose to direct Stir of Echoes.
‘Stir of Echoes’
After his sister-in-law (Illeana Douglas) hypnotizes him, Tom Witzky (Bacon) experiences telepathic visions of a ghost in his house. Now he must face horrifying truths about the house and its history while learning about the telepathic ability he and his son Jake (Zachary David Cope) share.
As a film, Stir of Echoes truly comes from a bygone time period. The production company that produced it, Artisan Entertainment, has not existed since 2004. It is now part of Lion’s Gate Entertainment.
With a budget of 12 million dollars (now about 19.4 million dollars), Stir of Echoes focuses on a larger subject: how a tragedy affects a community. They shot the film over 39 days. This included many night shoots.
The larger budget also changes the production. The film includes many scenes of the leading actors surrounded by extras. The actual location of the house takes place in multiple locations, all made to look like one house on one street. For example, in order to trick the audience into thinking that Kevin Bacon was sitting across the street from his house, they built a fake porch for him to sit on. The audience gets to see Kevin Bacon actually working as a lineman on a crane above the city of Chicago. With the larger budget, Koepp gets the freedom to explore many more locations and character relationships.
In the behind the scenes featurette, Illeanna Douglas brings up Don’t Look Now (1973) as an inspiration. In that film, multiple visual details build up to the film’s climax. This includes a girl in a red coat. Koepp borrows this motif for his film.
Throughout the DVD commentary, Koepp talks about how his successful collaborators advised him throughout the filmmaking process. Brian De Palma suggested multiple shots in the movie, such as a shot where the camera pushes in. De Palma also suggested that characters going to a football game should not get out of a tunnel and go to the game.
Koepp borrows from Snake Eyes, his previous collaboration with De Palma. In that film, De Palma takes off the roof of a hotel room, allowing the audience to see in the room better. Koepp takes a wall out of the Witzky house. Kevin Dunn appears in both.
Filmmakers also advised Koepp on how he worked. Spielberg advised him on working with kids by advising him to allow the kids to say the lines the way they would say them. During the production, Koepp learned that he had to be very patient with the young cast.
In both of these adaptations, Koepp keeps the basic concept and events, but drastically alters the setting and characters. The book also tells its story entirely from Tom’s perspective, while the movie puts the audience principly in the perspective of Tom, his spouse, and his son.
Richard Matheson’s original book takes place in California, but Koepp moves the action to a Polish Catholic neighborhood in Chicago (he changes the protagonist’s surname from Wallace to Witzky). Throughout the movie, the audience sees many trains and churches common to the area. In the book, the person who hypnotizes Tom is a man named Phil. Koepp changes it to a woman named Lisa and implies she is a lesbian.
Part of the change comes from the time period. The original book came out in 1958 and has many names and details that reflect that time period. His wife and son change from Anne and Richard to Maggie and Jake. Koepp also changes the secret that drives the mystery at the center of the story.
In a making of featurette, Koepp says that his process is to read the book and create an enormous structure, then go have a drink because it is all too big. When he comes back, he reads the book again and figures out how to whittle it down that way.
A lineman, Tom Witzky comes from a working class background. Koepp saw the story as being about Tom’s midlife crisis. At the start of the story, Tom has given up a lot to be the patriarch of this family. The news of the baby has caused him to give up more, such as playing in a band he loves.
Over the course of the story, Tom will slowly go crazy as he tries to unravel the mystery of the house. However, at the end of the story, Tom will grow closer to his family as they move on to a new life.
Framing of Protagonist
Stir of Echoes tells a story about the dangers of male entitlement. In a scene where characters go to a Football game, a male character brags about his son’s burgeoning Football career, while the female characters talk about penises. At one point, a female character comments about how a fight breaks out between male characters. The event that starts the story happens because male characters – both old and young – refuse to take responsibility for their actions. However, the film also works as a straightforward horror film.
Tom is not necessarily a leading man part. Throughout the story, he does many things that many audience members would find unlikable. He often pawns off many of his responsibilities onto women in his life. In the commentary, Koepp says that he finds it unrelatable how Tom makes his wife carry his child in a scene. According to Koepp, he chose Bacon for the role because he wanted to see him play the role as a character actor.
Although he acts in a less than noble way, Tom also has a clear human antagonist he and his wife have to fight at the end of the story. This makes the story a very external story rather than an internal one.
Maggie (Kathryn Erbe) is Tom’s wife. At the beginning of the story, Maggie has just learned that she is pregnant with their second child. In the book, she is already pregnant. The movie’s version of the character experiences more than what her husband’s perspective sees.
In one of the major departures from the book, Maggie gets more to do. Throughout the story, Maggie serves as an investigator because Tom does not want to talk or interact with anybody about his condition. She learns about Tom’s ability as a telepathic receiver from a telepathic cop, Neil (Eddie Bo Smith Jr.). She discovers him when she takes their son Jake to a cemetery. She also carries a knife that serves a purpose in the climax of the story.
Similarly, Maggie also gets a scare sequence where she has to go down in the basement and light a fire.
At the beginning of the story, the Witzky’s son Jake also has telepathic abilities, but they do not know about it yet. The film starts with Jake talking to somebody, but he is talking directly to the camera. The audience does not know that it is a ghost until Jake asks it what it feels like to be dead.
As a father of two at the time, Koepp chose consciously to keep the child character out of danger. Besides a kidnapping sequence, almost every action scene does not involve him. Even in that sequence, he is not in that much danger because the character ultimately proves to be largely harmless.
Both these stories center around a secret. In this case, Tom does not know that his house is the final resting place for a dead teeanger, Samantha (Jennifer Morrison). The perpetrators of the crime are the Football star sons of his landlord Harry (Conor O’Farrell) and neighbor Frank (Kevin Dunn).
Koepp films the assault largely from the perspective of Samantha rather than the two boys. This choice puts the audience in her head for the horrifying incident. This includes having her sink away in consciousness. Koepp accomplished this effect by having the two actors stand on risers and pulling back from them.
In his artistic choices, Koepp also creates a specific world for the flashback. In contrast with the warmer world that the film normally has, Koepp chooses to shoot this part of the story in a ghostly blue. Koepp also connects this event to The Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black” (Koepp filmed the scene with The Doors’ “People Are Strange,” but could not get the rights to it).
In the climax, Harry and his son Kurt (Steve Rifkin) try to kill Tom after realizing that he knows, but Frank and Maggie help him vanquish them. Maggie stabs Harry in the foot with the knife she carries.
After the climax, the characters move away. The final scene has their son looking out the window and hearing all the voices coming from the houses. Koepp came up with this idea from looking at the architecture of these houses.
The original ending had Maggie deliver the couple’s child, only to have her have telepathic abilities too. Matheson book has a similar ending. Tom comes into the delivery ending after his wife has delivered and guesses that it is a girl. The Matheson ending feels closer to Alfred Hitchcock, who would often end his movies on a light joke that eased the audience out of the tension they had just witnessed.
Where The Scares Come From
The scary material tends to come from an impending sense of dread that builds from the beginning of the story.
In many interviews and the audio commentary, Koepp says that he will get the audience with normal suspense sequences, but also loves cheap scares. These include a scene where a ladder falls down in front of Maggie. Similarly, Tom experiences a jump scare when he realizes Samantha is sitting on the couch next to him. Koepp also enjoys putting in a sequence where a character goes into a dark secluded location. In his commentary, Koepp talks about these scare scenes lovingly. After one of the scares, he says that “he might grow up one day.”
Koepp shot the ghost in the film in a specific way. He would film actress Jennifer Morrison at 6 frames per second and have her move at a quarter speed to give her movement an unnatural feel. Since Morrison had a ballet background, such movement came more naturally to her. Due to the technical nature of this process, Koepp filmed most of her scenes against a green screen and then inserted her into the movie.
‘You Should Have Left’
Stressed over a difficult trial involving the death of his first wife, suspicious banker Theo Conroy (Bacon) packs up his family and takes them to Wales. However, the modern house they stay in turns out to bring out the more qualities in Theo.
A much smaller production (4 million dollars), You Should Have Left takes place in a much more internal world. The film’s settings consist mainly of large lonely houses. The film has one or two scenes with some extras and the audience mainly sees them in the background. With the restrictions provided, Koepp creates a much different world than the one in Stir of Echoes.
According to Koepp, the Blumhouse model works this way: when they like your script and have agreed on the budget, they will let you make your movie. However, they also ask that the production and director leave some money aside for reshoots because they like to look at the movie and talk about the next iteration of it. They shot 26 days, then did a rough cut of the movie, which they used to decide on what to film for an additional 4 days. Usually, this process would be financially burdensome unless the filmmaker planned ahead to do it.
Since this film came out during the Pandemic, Blumhouse and Universal decided to release it through streaming at home instead of into theaters. Koepp and Jason Blum agreed upon this due to the story being built around isolation instead of a house. When promoting the film, Koepp described it as “the ideal situation for this movie.”
A big reason Koepp liked the idea had to do with the studio system. Studios like films with high budgets (Superhero movies) or low budgets (Horror movies). Koepp felt that if he wrote a horror movie, he could sneak in a marital drama that would intrigue the audience. During an interview with the New York Times staff writer John Williams, he references Get Out (2017) multiple times as a film that did this successfully, but with racial comedy instead of marital drama. Koepp sees this filmmaking style as nothing new, but something that has become popular once again in the last 10 years due to economic reasons.
Over the course of the story, Koepp drains the color out of the images. After the nightmarish cold open, the audience sees a sun-dappled LA house. Inside it, the audience sees orange lamps and furniture. Even Wales looks bright and sunny when the family first gets there. However, over the course of the story, the colors change from yellows and reds to blues and greys. Oftentimes, Koepp uses orange light to contrast these colder backgrounds and suggest where the danger is in the house.
Daniel Kehlmann’s original 2017 German 111 page novella takes place largely from the unnamed narrator’s perspective. A diary, the story begins with the narrator arriving at the house in the Alps. Koepp changes the location to the Welsh Countryside and compresses the timeline a tiny bit. However, Koepp also expanded it considerably.
Kehlmann became inspired to write it after finding his Newborn’s baby monitor scary. When describing the style, he described it as a Found Footage novella. He also came up with an unfaithful spouse and an ultramodern house that did not obey the rules of geometry and time.
On top of all this, Kehlmann found the idea of being alone in a house with a child terrifying because you have to constantly pretend that everything is alright for the sake of the child. Koepp retains many of these story ideas in some form for the movie.
According to Bacon, the idea of doing the film came from his wife Kyra Sedgewick, who suggested doing a horror film about marriage. Koepp and Bacon kicked around ideas for a low budget horror movie for a while. When Bacon heard about the book from a review by the New York Times’ John Williams, he suggested that Koepp should read it after reading it himself. Koepp resented the book until he read it. In his interview with Williams, Koepp said that one should get involved with the book because it causes your head to swim with ideas.
With that, Koepp and Bacon called Kehlmann to ask for the rights. Kehlmann had gotten previous offers to make the book into a slow art film that would be more beautiful than scary, but liked Koepp and Bacon’s version because he thought it would actually be a scary movie.
Once again, the major changes come in terms of the characters. Since the book takes place in a more abstract world, a narrative film has to make the book’s images more literal and grounded. Kehlmann admits to not imagining any specific character as the lead since the book is a diary.
In the book, the relationship is described based on feelings, but not given any history. The film gives them a more precise relationship (a much older man married to a much younger woman). While many of the events do happen in the book, the movie gives these events a different context.
The original story focuses on a romantic comedy screenwriter. Chapters alternate between ideas for the character’s screenplay and the main storyline until the main storyline overtakes it. Since the original story takes place in the German culture, the comedy screenplay seems largely alien to an American audience. For example, a major character in the screenplay is a tax official, which does not exist in the same way in the United States. Koepp changes him into a banker and gives the character a backstory of a wife who died under suspicious circumstances.
Koepp also chooses to rename the narrator’s daughter Ella after one of the characters from the narrator’s book. The book originally named her Esther.
Unlike many protagonists, Theo Conroy’s troubles come from having it too good. As a “rich banker,” he feels that not having to struggle in life turned him into a person that he did not like.
Throughout the story, people suspect that Theo killed his wife, who drowned mysteriously in the bathtub after taking too many sleeping pills. Theo became the star of an O.J. Simpson type trial. Most of this backstory gets described through exposition rather than shown. Koepp specifically said that he wrote the role with this ambiguity to fit the complexity that Bacon brings to his many hero and villain roles.
Bacon in the Movie
Besides starring in the movie, Bacon also produced it. As director, Koepp told Bacon that he would need to speak to him as an actor, as a producer, and as a friend when he is freaking out. Bacon told him calmly that they would figure it out together.
In an interview for the film, Bacon says that he has chosen films based on interesting characters rather than genre (the exception being Friday The 13th, which Bacon said he did for money). Besides Conroy, Bacon also gets to play Stetler, the ominous and creepy caretaker of the house. This role seems like another big incentive for Bacon to do the movie as it gives Bacon another character to play. When Theo beats Stetler up, he sees the disturbing figure turn into him. In an interview, Bacon said that playing a character who literally has to talk to himself presented a new challenge to him. Unlike Stir of Echoes, the story’s monstrous figure eventually reveals himself as the protagonist.
Theo’s much younger wife Susanna (Amanda Seyfried) works as a movie actress. In an interview, Koepp describes all the problems of their relationship coming from the fact that she is too young for him (something that rarely happens in a story with this age gap). Koepp became intrigued with the tension in this couple that should not be together.
The film also gives her character more to do than the book, but does not make her a co-lead like in Stir of Echoes. The film presents her character as somebody that Theo cannot quite trust. The only person the audience ever sees her have sex with is Theo. Early on, Theo sees her laugh at a text he is not privy to and sees her filming a sex scene that makes him feel uncomfortable. Over the course of the story, he discovers that she has two phones and that a man named Max is contacting her. The film, however, does not give a strong read on whether or not she acted unfaithfully towards her husband.
Besides these suspicious circumstances, she often dresses in darker colors, such as blacks and dark blues. This makes her character seem more villainous than Theo or his daughter, who the film dresses in lighter colors most of the time. Such decisions make her seem less trustworthy based on the color palette of the story.
In a promotional interview, Bacon sold Seyfriend playing a difficult role because she had to play a sweet loving mom and somebody who could possibly be nefarious. Seyfried said that she discussed the character with Bacon and Koepp almost immediately after meeting them. Seyfried found the duplicity of the character interesting.
Like Stir of Echoes, the story opens on the protagonist’s child. In this case, Ella (Avery Essex) wakes up to a scary man in her room. The man affects her breathing and tells her to worry about her Daddy. This turns out to be a nightmare that Theo is having.
In this story, Theo sees Ella as the one thing that grounds and saves him. The film never presents her as anything but good. The film dresses her in yellows and purples. In the end, he must give his family up in order to keep them safe.
In this story, the secret has to do with Theo’s antipathy towards his spouse. People thought that he killed her, when he really let her drown in the bathtub. The film ends with Theo admitting this to Susanna.
The movie has a metaphysical aspect with the house, but also a mystery aspect with the backstory. The main thing that Koepp connects to the wife’s death is the bathtub. At one point, Theo also meets his naked dead wife at one point. She vomits up water on him.
Unlike Stir of Echoes, Koepp films the drowning scene largely through coverage that favors Theo’s perspective. A lot of the coverage is closeups rather than wide shots, so the audience does not get as much sense of the location. The audience sees his wife sink into the tub and drown as he describes it to his current wife.
The film ends with Theo disappearing into the house. He watches as his former self takes his daughter into the woods before disappearing for good. The film then cuts to a hallway with many polaroids and a picture of the house on the wall.
The film does not have a song connected to it, but KT Tunstall’s mournful cover of The Clash’s “Should I stay or Should I go” plays over the end credits.
Where The Scares Come From
In this film, the scares and tension comes from the characters not being able to trust their own reality. Hallways lead nowhere. Spouses have become unfaithful. Even time does not quite match up in this house.
Many of the scares come in dream sequences. The film opens with a double dream sequence of Statler coming into Ella’s room. Koepp designed this intro with multiple purposes. The first was to set up a scare that would grab the audience’s attention and keep them invested for 45 minutes of marital drama. The sequence ends with Theo awakening and going to his bathroom. He looks at himself in the mirror and says, “fucking nightmares.” Koepp included the mirror to make sure the audience understood that a lot of this is in Theo’s head.
There are also a few jump scares. Characters walk across the screen. The audience sees shadows on the walls.
Both films focus on protagonists who do not believe in their childhood religion anymore. In each case, the supernatural will make them confront the ugly parts of themselves and others. Along with Koepp’s interests, what changed over time was the business and filmmaking process of the studio he worked in.
In Koepp’s adaptations, he includes a lot of his own background. While prominent in Stir of Echoes, Catholicism and Chicago come up in dialogue in You Should Have Left. Both comments relate to the protagonist’s past. In his interview with Williams, Koepp says that, in an ideal situation, your input should be additive to the story.