Sweet revenge: Hollywood screenwriter writes his own happy ending
In Hollywood, lives are shortened all the time by envy and jealousy, but only screenwriters die of encouragement. People are happy to tell writers how much they adore their scripts, but actually getting them made is a whole other story. You can win an Oscar and still put in years of struggle trying to get your next project going.
But here's one exception: Robert Mark Kamen. And he has the world's greatest writing partner, a crazy French film visionary who has recently made a string of action-thriller hits, is building his own film studio and -- dream of all screenwriter's dreams -- doesn't ever rewrite Kamen's work.
If this were a script, it would be an offbeat buddy picture. At 61, Kamen is the crafty old veteran, with credits going back to 1981's "Taps" (which gave Tom Cruise his first major role) and 1984's "The Karate Kid." His writing partner is Luc Besson, the celebrated French director who burst to prominence with a series of visually striking thrillers, most notably "La Femme Nikita," "The Professional" and "The Fifth Element." Despite his success as a director, it turned out that Besson's real dream was to produce international hits and start his own studio. He's well on his way.
The year's biggest action hit, "Taken," which has grossed $118 million and was still the No. 3 box-office movie this past weekend after five weeks in release, was produced by Besson and co-written by Kamen. The duo have collaborated on a string of action thrillers, beginning with 1997's "The Fifth Element." They also worked on Jet Li's "Kiss of the Dragon" (2001) and "Unleashed" (2005). But most notably, Besson and Kamen are behind the "Transporter" action film franchise. Besson has become the model of an international film producer, making action films -- like "Taken" -- that play just as well in Europe and Asia as in the United States, but cost far less than a movie made by a Hollywood studio. Besson has already broken ground on a Paris-based studio that will feature 10 soundstages, post-production facilities, a cinema craft school, a five-screen multiplex and considerable office space.
But to build this empire, Besson knew he needed an inside man -- an old Hollywood pro who could be, as he put it, his "pet American." He found the perfect partner in Kamen, a wise-cracking New York-based screenwriter whose well-honed ability to construct an action movie not only rests on his credited scripts -- he co-wrote "Lethal Weapon 3" -- but on the time he put in from 1988 through 1992 serving as an uncredited in-house script fixer at Warners, rewriting such films as "The Fugitive," "Under Siege" and "The Devil's Advocate" before they went into production. (Kamen jokingly calls himself "the script assassin.")
Now, having teamed up with Besson, he's on top of the world. "When I was living in L.A., I was like most screenwriters, spending years taking meetings with 25-year-old studio executives and dealing with the nightmare of the studio development process. I'd write a great script and it wouldn't go anywhere. It was frustrating as all hell. Film scripts aren't books that belong on a shelf. They're meant to be made. The thing Luc said when we first met that impressed me the most was that he promised me he'd make everything because he couldn't afford not to."
But how did Kamen hook up with Besson? And why wasn't their partnership love at first sight? Keep reading:
Kamen and Besson's matchmaker was "Gran Torino" producer Bill Gerber, who, in the early 1990s, was a top Warners executive. "Bill called me and said he had this crazy script that he didn't know what to do with," recalls Kamen. "It was an 180-page mess, but I loved it, because you could see that the visuals would be spectacular."
Gerber brought Kamen in to meet Besson when the filmmaker came to town. It didn't go well. "He was this pudgy French guy who was already scowling before I started talking and the more I critiqued the script -- I think I started with, 'Your title sucks' -- the more he scowled," Kamen recalls. "After the meeting was over, Billy looked at me and said sarcastically, 'Well, you really helped a lot.' But a week later, Luc called, asked if I'd work with him and sent me a plane ticket to France."
When Kamen arrived, Besson picked him up at the airport on his motorcycle and said he'd take him to lunch. As someone who appreciated the finer things in life -- Kamen now owns a winery outside of Sonoma -- the screenwriter expected that Besson would take him to a swank Parisian bistro. Instead, they went to Besson's place, where he put some pre-cooked food in the toaster oven. For the next two weeks, they hammered away on the script that eventually became "The Fifth Element," Besson's most commercially successful film.
The collaboration lasted for several years, with Besson learning to rely on Kamen's ability to help broaden the filmmaker's Gallic sensibility. Kamen says he rewrote "The Professional," which as puts it, "was really, really French, in the sense that in Luc's version, the hitman slept with a 13-year-old girl, which Luc thought was totally normal."
The relationship's one hiccup -- to use the Hollywood expression -- came in the late 1990s when Besson called Kamen to work on a project and Kamen declined, saying he was too busy. Besson refused to speak to him for 18 months. Then one day Kamen's phone rang. It was Besson, saying he was coming to New York the next morning and wanted to have breakfast. It was the spring of 2001. At breakfast, Besson explained his wild master plan: He would make a series of $20-million action films. After the pictures became hits, Besson could buy film libraries, generate the cash flow needed to build a business, go public and launch his own studio. Oh, and of course Kamen would write all the movies with him.
The stony 18-month silence was never mentioned. "Of course, I asked Luc to apologize and he refused. I kept after him and finally he gave me this look, that clearly was meant to show his lack of interest in this discussion, and he shrugged and said, 'OK, I apologize. Now can we get back to work?' And that was as close to an apology as I ever got." In Bessonland, everything happens fast. He told Kamen they were flying to L.A. that night. Kamen packed a bag, they constructed an idea for a film on the plane ride, took a taxi to 20th Century Fox, where they met with Jet Li, pitched him the idea and he said yes. Five months later they were in production on "Kiss of the Dragon."
So how do this odd couple collaborate? Kamen explains: "Luc thinks up about eight film ideas every day. Some are great, some are horrible. He sees all these images in his head, so when we sit down, I'll say, 'I like this one' and we lie around the house -- or the hotel room -- and he dreams up these amazing images and I try to bring some structure to the story while we think up the characters and who they are and what they do--their arc, so to speak. Then I go away and write."
Besson often insists that Kamen read him the script aloud. "He's like a big child -- he likes to be read to. But when he sees a movie, he doesn't see the words, he sees the images. When I read him the script, he's be writing down the angles and cuts and camera movements that are all in his head and suddenly he's turned it into a movie."
Sometimes Kamen is simply a translator, fixing a line of dialogue or a joke that wouldn't play in America. But more often, he's finding ways to create a storyline that is linear enough to be understandable here, where audiences expect more narrative logic than European moviegoers.
"Luc is a huge fan of American cinema, but he sees film very much from a European perspective," Kamen explains. "If you watch a film like 'Taken,' it's very much of a hybrid between a French film and an American action movie. Our biggest debates come when Luc feels that everything in the story is implicit and it's not necessary to explain it, while I have the American point of view, which is that sometimes you have to very clearly go from A to B to C."
The two guys really sound like they belong in a buddy picture, since Besson doesn't fit the Hollywood mold and Kamen is a fish out of water in France. (Asked if he speaks French, he responds, "No, Luc always says, 'I only pay you to speak English.' '') They even have nicknames for each other, with Besson calling Kamen "Donkey" (because he chatters all the time) and Kamen calling Besson "Shrek" (because, as Kamen explains, "He's the fat guy").
Kamen clearly relishes being freed from his years of Hollywood screenwriter servitude, where he was doing the bidding of imperious action film titans like Joel Silver. When I asked if Besson would be impressed or insulted by being called the French Joel Silver, Kamen snapped: "Of course, he'd be insulted -- wouldn't anybody? Even my dog would be insulted if you called him the dog version of Joel Silver."
With more action films in the works, including a sequel to "Taken" and an American version of "District 13," a popular 2004 French thriller that Besson produced, Kamen says he's never been happier. "I get to work with the world's greatest filmmaker without ever worrying about being replaced," he says with an exuberance you rarely hear in a screenwriter's voice. "I feel like I died and went to writer's heaven, which is a place where you don't get rewritten and you can always get a three-star meal. It doesn't get any better than that."