Written by Shira Gotshalk
Robert Mark Kamen was working as a script assassin for Warner Brothers in 1993 when he was introduced to Luc Besson, a meeting that completely reshaped his professional life. After working together on The Professional and The Fifth Element, Besson invited Kamen to join him in his quest of building a mini-studio in Europe, creating “movies that would travel, international movies, you know, action movies,” but instead of spending 100 million Hollywood bucks, Besson planned to shell out $18-25 million out of his own pocket. Frustrated with the studio system, Kamen replied, “Sure.”
That afternoon, they flew to Los Angeles to pitch a movie to Jet Li. “I said, ‘What movie?’ He said, ‘We’ll make it up on the plane.’ And for five hours, we sat on the plane, and we made up Kiss of the Dragon,” he remembers. He and Li hit it off immediately. “I’ve been doing martial arts since I was 17, and he’s a big hero of mine, and he revered The Karate Kid as being the one true martial arts movie, blah, blah, blah. And that’s how we started.”
February marks 30 years of writing screenplays, ranging from Karate Kid to The Transporter series to the new Liam Neeson vehicle, Taken. Kamen lives in New York, owns a vineyard in Sonoma, and commutes to work in Paris at Besson’s headquarters. Eight movies later, theirs is a happy partnership. “I don’t have to deal with studio executives, who are the most frustrating people in the whole world because they can only say no,” Kamen beams, “and I’ve lived happily-ever-after to this day.”
In a recent conversation with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site, Kamen discussed how to write fight scenes, kung fu monks, and the secret to keeping sequels fresh.
It seems like Taken is a bit more of a crime thriller than you’ve worked on before...
Yeah, it’s an action/thriller as opposed to just an action/action.
Was that a specific direction you wanted to head in?
No. Here’s how this works. Luc and I write scripts together. We conceptualize them together, then I write them, and then he does his Luc Besson things to them, then he goes off, and he produces them. So how Taken came about was Luc came to me and said, “I met this cop, and he told me this amazing story about an auction of women in a chateau outside of Paris; that they broke up this ring. I think this is amazing, so let’s make up a story.” And then we made up the story of Taken.
Beyond the Karate Kid movies, how has the practice of martial arts informed you as a writer?
Photo: © 2009 20th Century Fox
Maggie Grace in Taken.
Well, I can write great action scenes. Action scenes are written like little movies. They’re in three acts, almost, and you have to fill up each act. And since I know a lot about fighting, I can be specific about it. But what I find is, you don’t have to when you have great choreographers like Cory Yuen or Woo-ping Yuen, who did Unleashed. You just sort of inform the scene by making it in three acts and let them put in all the technical stuff.
When you’re working on sequels, how do you keep the story fresh while maintaining the legend of the characters?
Pure fear. See, you just start with the character, and the character is not gonna change. If it’s a sequel, these people are already popularized for your audience. What you do is, you take the rules that you established in the first one, and then you either try to amp it up, or you try to put the character into a more crucial situation. And you just sort of crucial it up and crucial it up until you can’t crucial it up anymore. Then it’s time to get out.
Do you enjoy writing as a team or do you feel a sense of personal compromise?
No, Luc is one of my best friends. I mean, we -- as much as a totally self-absorbed, French, mogul, producer, director, totally rich person can love another person, he -- we never fight. We never not get along. We both have our established roles in these things. When we have differences of opinion, we talk them out. He usually wins; sometimes I win. He trusts my instincts about stuff he knows nothing about.
I will never, ever question his visual, cinematic instincts. I always say to him, “You know, you’re like a camera on legs.” I’ll write a script, and we’ll sit down -- we’re gonna do it tomorrow, he’s coming in tonight -- and I will read the script out loud to him, what I’ve written. He will sit there with pen and paper, and he’ll just make little notes, little notes, little notes. And then after I’m finished reading, we’ll start at page one, and he will say, “Okay, this is what happens: The camera looks here, and it comes here, and then we’re gonna move here, and we’re gonna make the camera move here, and the girl is sitting at the table, and she’s doing this. And then the guy is gonna come up, and they’re gonna shoot this way. And the door is gonna open this way. And then when she runs, we’re going to close on her feet, Robert, and we’re gonna go into one room, another room, into the bathroom. You’re gonna go close on her foot. She’s gonna put left foot on the toilet, right foot on the ledge. She’s gonna tumble herself out the window…
And the way we write the scenes is we do that, and then he will literally storyboard these things with the angles and with all his cinematic vision, and he’ll take a director, usually he finds these young directors, like Louis Leterrier or Pierre Morel, and he says, “Look, this is how this is. This is the cinematic language we’re gonna use, dah, dah, dah.” And then he turns them loose, and it cuts out so much stuff. You go right from point A to point Z. They’re not masterpieces, but they’re really cool movies and very popular.
What is your fantasy writing project now?
I have three. I have one that I wrote about eight or nine years ago for Fox called Brittle Innings. It’s the story of Frankenstein playing baseball in 1943 on a semipro team in a small town in Georgia. It’s a wonderful script. I mean, it’s really great. I love it, and it will never get made. It’s a little movie, and I don’t have that kind of power.
And the other one is a movie for Chuck Roven. I wrote a script for him literally almost on spec, for nothing. He got the rights to a movie called Oasis, a Korean movie, and I wrote the American version. It is my passion. Anne Hathaway is attached to it. It’s a love story between a girl with cerebral palsy and a boy who’s just gotten out of prison, who’s a little slow. It’s great. Not what I usually write.
And then the other one is something I just heard last night that actually might happen. I wrote it for Jet Li called A Monk in New York about a Tibetan monk who’s been living in a cave in Tibet for 10 years, and he comes to New York. He wins a contest from Coca-Cola. It’s a very funny setup.
Is it a non-kung fu movie or martial arts?
It’s a non-kung fu movie. The monk, he fights. When I first wrote the script, Jet said to me, the monk doesn’t fight. Jet and I went to a monastery for three weeks in Tibet, and we sat in this monastery in the middle of nowhere. I mean, it was five hours to a telephone. And he kept saying to me, “Robert, the monk doesn’t fight.” And I kept saying, “Jet, there’s nobody who is going to go see a Jet Li movie where the monk doesn’t fight.” He said, “No, no, the message of Buddhism” -- because he’s a very devout Buddhist -- “is that a monk doesn’t fight.” And then Jet went to see a very revered Tibetan rinpoche, and he said to him, “I’m not gonna do movies anymore.” And the guy said, “Are you crazy? You must do movies. This way, you can get the message of Buddhism to people. We do not preach to people who already are non-violent. You want to preach to the violent people, and they won’t come see a movie where Jet Li doesn’t fight. So you must fight.”
And then out of nowhere he called me up and said, “Robert, the monk can fight.” I said, but I just constructed a whole script where he doesn’t.” He said, “So what, go reconstruct.” So I reconstructed this whole script where the monk fights, but doesn’t fight. Never raises a hand to anybody until the very end. And the bad guy learns his lesson, and the city learns their lesson. And everybody he touches turns good.
So those are my three wishes, and I think at least one of them will come true. But, you know, selling people on a movie where Anne Hathaway spends most of it drooling and gurgling is not so easy.
Do you have any advice for writers who may be struggling or trying to persevere at the beginning of their careers?
Oh, the way I look at it, they are all my direct competition, so I mostly tell all of them to go find another job and become lawyers. No, writing screenplays is so different from other writing, and if you really love it -- a lot of screenwriters write because they want to direct, and they find screenwriting really painful, and they want to get out of it as soon as possible. And if that’s the case, I have nothing to say to them. That’s their path towards what they really want to do.
But if you want to be pure screenwriter, it’s much harder than when I broke in. Everyday there’s somebody at the studio that’s the flavor of the month. Completely ignore everything about the business, is my advice to anybody writing movies. Because if you pay attention to the business, it will kill you. You have to focus if you just want to be a pure screenwriter. And there aren’t a lot of us. There are a lot of guys and girls who want to be directors, who want to be producers, they want to expand. Don’t read Variety. Don’t listen to gossip. Don’t live in L.A., and write.
I write original screenplays every year besides the movies I get made, and I just put them away. Write what makes you excited, and if it makes you excited, and you’re any good, it will excite somebody else. And if it doesn’t excite them to buy it, it will excite them to let you write something that they have. Focus on what makes you happy every day, because you have to sit down every day and look at that blank page. And what’s gonna get you off? What’s gonna make you happy that day besides finishing the day, is that you write something that makes you have that particular feeling.