Eric: Just a heads up, this episode will feature some adult language, so if there’s kids in earshot, you probably should put on headphones.
Tova: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Tova Laiter moderator and director of the New York Film Academy Guest Lecture series. In this episode, we will take an in-depth look at one of my great guests and hear about his experience in the entertainment industry. And now Eric Conner will take you through the highlights of this Q&A.
Eric: Hi, I’m Eric Conner, senior instructor at New York Film Academy, and in this episode, we bring you a screenwriter that well, if you haven’t quoted, someone has quoted to you. Fifth Element, Jet Li’s Kiss of the Dragon, the Taken series and of course, the still expanding world of The Karate Kid. Our guest has created them all. We are talking about screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen. I’m not sure how many writers can make this claim, but Mr. Kamen’s Hollywood career started when he sold the first draft of the first screenplay he ever wrote.
Robert Mark Kamen: I’d never been out here before. It’s the first screenplay I ever wrote. It was one draft and I sold the screenplay. I was – I just finished my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and I was basically just f***ing off and teaching two classes a week. And I sell a screenplay and I come out here and they drag me out here and I walk into the executive office and I’m going to meet with the head of production who was Ted Ashley at the time, and the late Mark Rosenberg, who is a vice president, and Tova was creative executive. And I go to walk in this room and I really this I’ve never had anything to do with the film business at all. And before I walk in, she comes up to me and she says, hello, my name is Tova Laiter and I’m the head of whatever. And I just want you to tell you your script is great and don’t listen to anything they say. And so I figured, OK, I won’t listen to anything they say. So I went in and they are sitting there and they all have things to say. But this woman told me not to listen to anything they say. So I left the meeting and the guy I was with, the producer, he said, So what do you think? What do you think about what they said? I said, Well, I was talking to somebody and they said not to listen to anything they said. So I don’t know because I didn’t listen. And that’s how I met Tova. About a decade later, Warner Brothers hired me to be their script assassin. So I came back on the lot to really basically make an enemy out of every person that ever wrote a script for them, because I would get the scripts before production and I’d just change them. The advice I used to give to any writer I would meet who was going into the room, I said, listen, the best advice I ever got. I said, you’re going in there. Just nod your head. Don’t listen to anything they say. And that’s how I met Tova. Thirty, thirty two years or thirty three years ago on this lot.
Eric: Besides having the good fortune of meeting our Q&A’s moderator Tova Laiter. Mr. Kamen found himself in the unusual position of selling scripts before he really knew what the industry expected in screenplays.
Robert Mark Kamen: For the first year I wrote screenplays I didn’t know there were three acts in a screenplay. Jeffrey Katzenberg had to tell me there were three acts. I thought, I was like Shakespeare, five acts. OK, I’ll do that. I once took a course with Robert McKee. Gee, McKee, whatever his name is. Is anybody he related to Robert McKee? This guy is so full of s***. He takes the entire creative out of the process. There is no such thing as a formula. I mean, they’re all formula, it’s all formulaic. You know, films are all formulaic and stuff, but there is no such thing as a formula. You know, everybody who says, oh, on page forty five, this should happen on page forty five. No, this is all supposed to come from you, you’re supposed to see a film. You’re supposed to tell a story, you’re supposed to be a storyteller. And if you can’t tell a story that’s going to engage people by making it go up and down and up and down and up and down, go to law school.
Eric: Mr. Kamen’s point is clear. Screenwriters should not be led by page counts, but rather by their own instincts.
Robert Mark Kamen: Writing is having the ability to sit still, sit down, and sooner or later something’s going to happen. I organize myself, when I have an idea for a film, it’s just kind of a general feeling and idea. And I write an outline and the outlines just kind of start growing and growing. I just handed in an outline that was twenty four pages long. It’s kind of like add water and you have a script and I write an outline and the more I write the outline, I write it over and over and over and over. And the more I write it, the clearer the film becomes and I write it in screenplay form. First I write notes and then I write it in screenplay form. Interior, exterior, and I just describe in narrative what is going on in the scene. And then I’ll write the outline again and maybe there will be a bit of dialog in it. And then I’ll write the outline again until I have a beginning, middle and end. And you can read it. You can actually see the film. You see the film. You can read the screenplay and see the film. And then it’s just writing. And sometimes it changes in the writing, sometimes it doesn’t change in the writing, but then you just sort of fill it out. And that’s how I get a feel for things. And if the outlines don’t work, the scripts usually don’t work.
Eric: Mr. Kamen stressed that despite his many successes, the process of writing doesn’t guarantee him a home run every time he’s at bat. If today’s work doesn’t go well…
Robert Mark Kamen: Tomorrow’s another day. Here’s how I plan my day. I wake up and I plan what’s for dinner and I don’t think anything beyond that. And if I have a successful dinner, I’ve had a successful day. Seriously, once I know what I’m drinking and I’m eating, I’m good to go. As a writer, you’re going to have days that are s*** that just nothing is working. But then there’s tomorrow. And then if it’s not working, put it aside. Write something else. And you have to deal with, if you’re in this business, with rejection. And that’s the thing you have to really learn how to absorb because the whole business is all about rejection. And if you don’t learn how to deal with rejection, you’re going to have a short, unhappy career because you’ll either kill the executives and be famous for that or you won’t be able to bear it.
Eric: Mr. Kamen explained that a big part of succeeding in this industry is facing failure, either externally from others saying no or internally when you read your own pages and think this sucks. In both cases, you have to work like heck to get past it.
Robert Mark Kamen: You have to keep constantly going back. All writing is rewriting. You probably heard this before. All writing is rewriting. You have to go back and back and back every night after I come home from my wonderful dinner, every night that I’ve planned since breakfast, I sit down and I reread what I wrote that day and sometimes I’ll change it, sometimes I won’t. But when you’re writing, it’s always with you. I mean, you can’t – it’s so hard to divorce the inner voice from the outer voice. There’s always a program running and the program running, whether it’s conscious or not, is that script you’re writing, that thing you’re writing, the voice you’re hearing. And so you’re constantly going back to it, you don’t have a choice. And as you go back to it, you’re rewriting and you’re perfecting and you’re refining it until you can’t do it anymore and then you have to give it to somebody to read to tell you it’s a piece of s*** or not, or I really like it. But you have to find somebody who is critical and harsh and and everything else. The problem with that is that if you find somebody like me, I’m too busy to read your piece of s***. I’m busy with my own piece of s***. So you really have to find somebody who you respect and whose opinion you respect, not like give it to your mom. You know, it’s like, hey, mom, what do you think? Oh, god, you’re a genius. But you have to find somebody when you lose perspective to talk to. This is why more and more people have writing teams so they can bounce things off each other.
Eric: Though Mr. Kamen understands the importance of having people to run ideas by, he still views himself as more of a solo warrior when it comes to writing. One who prefers to not even be on the sets of his own movies.
Robert Mark Kamen: I don’t like being on set. I’m happiest when I’m being left alone and I’m writing. And when you’re on set, you’re mostly hanging around and you’re at the mercy of a director and you’re at the mercy of the actors. And actors are human impersonators. So what they do is they impersonate your best friend and they look at you like you are the only person in the world. And until you get hip to it, you think they really are when in reality all they want is more dialog. So I try to stay away as much as possible from set. And with screenwriting, you don’t have to talk to anybody. You don’t have to talk to actors. You don’t have to talk to technicians. You don’t talk to cameramen. You don’t to talk to grips. You don’t have to talk to set decorators. And you’ve got to really like talking to people. And I like talking to people for dinner an hour and a half and after an hour and a half, I’m I’m ready to go home and be by myself.
Eric: Just don’t call him antisocial.
Robert Mark Kamen: I’m not antisocial. I’m shortly social. I’m very social, but for short periods of time.
Eric: Speaking of short periods of time, Mr. Kamen’s adamant about how little time a screenwriter has in their stories to hook their audience.
Robert Mark Kamen: The idea of any of these movies is you have to hook your audience into the character in the first 10 minutes. Otherwise, they’re looking at their Blackberries. No, not Blackberries, iPhones. And so if you’ll notice in this film [Taken], nothing happens for the first twenty two minutes of the film. Nothing. You know, he’s not getting along with the daughter. He has a bunch of friends. They’re grilling steaks. He buys her a thing, the stepfather buys her a horse. Nothing happens until she gets taken. And once she gets taken, the movie never stops. But you’re sitting in the movie and the first 10 minutes, you feel bad for this guy. Nothing is working out for him. He lives in a s****y little apartment. He has these friends who drink cheap wine and grill steaks. His daughter lives on a big estate. Her stepfather buys her a horse. Nothing’s going right for this guy until the action starts. But you’re hooked into the guy. I just had this meeting with, what’s his name, Steve Levinson. And we have this project and we’re talking. And they said, well, what’s your idea? I said, my idea is to make you either really like the guy in the first 10 minutes or really not like the guy. And they said, which one is it? And I said, it doesn’t much matter. If you like him, you’re going to root for him and go along. And if you don’t like him, you’re not going to like him and then at the end of the movie, he’s transformed and you end up liking him. I said, so it doesn’t matter. So you pick whichever one you want and they said, you don’t have a point of view? And I said, no, I’m a working writer. I don’t have a point of view. Whoever signs my check, that’s my point of view. I’m being flippant about it. But I’ve been doing this for thirty two years now and you learn that your point of view in movies, it cannot be inflexible because a movie is not like a novel. A movie is a collaborative effort and everybody has an idea. And your job as a writer is to take all these ideas, all these things and make them sort of like everybody has to get on board. So you have to make it so that your vision becomes their vision and their vision becomes your vision until you can give them the script that they can f*** up. But once once you give them the document, it’s their problem. I think it’s why I’ve been able to continue doing this is that reason.
Tova: You have been collaborating with Luc Besson very successfully in the last what, 10 years?
Robert Mark Kamen: 17 years.
Eric: In case you don’t know, Luc Besson is the acclaimed director behind La Femme Nikita, The Professional, a.k.a. Leon, and The Fifth Element, as well as the mega producer of Colombiana, the Taken and Transporter franchises. His collaboration with Robert Kamen has produced one hit after another, but they did not start off on the best foot.
Robert Mark Kamen: Luc and I met on the Warner Brothers lot when I was here being script assassin in Billy Gerber’s office. Bill Gerber, he’s now Bill Gerber because he’s over 50. He was a vice president here and he called me up one day. He said, we have a script. It doesn’t make any sense. But the guy who did it is very talented and we’d like to be in business with him. He’s a French director named Luc Besson. Who knew who Luc Besson was? He did this film called La Femme Nikita. Look at the film and read the script. So I read the script and it did make no sense. And I watched the film and the film was breathtaking. It was amazing. And I said, I want to, I want to be in business with this guy. So Billy said, well, he’s going to be here, come in and talk to him about his script. So I came in and for forty five minutes I told this French auteur everything that was wrong with his script, you know, not meaning to destroy the script, but I’m trying to tell him, you know, how it would work. In the process I had no cultural dissonance whatsoever and completely forgot this is a French auteur. If he has an idea, it’s a great idea because he had the idea and I proceeded to just go on and on and on. At the end of the meeting, I walk out, the phone rings. Five minutes later, it’s Billy. He said, you will never have a relationship with this person and neither will we. He just got up and walked out of the room. I said, OK, well, you know, and won’t be the first time my mouth got me in trouble, it won’t be the last time. A week later, I’m sitting in New York at my desk and my phone rings. Hello, this is Luc. He said, I thought about what you said. I said, Yeah. He said, you’re right. I want you to come work with me on the script. He said, I already cleared it with Billy. There’s a plane ticket waiting for you at the airport for tomorrow night, just like in the movies. I said, where’s it to? He said to Paris.
Eric: As a lover of cuisine and wine, in fact he has his own vineyard, Mr. Kamen could not be more excited about going to France on the studio’s dime. However, he was in for a rude awakening.
Robert Mark Kamen: So I’m going to Paris. I’m going to be with this guy whose film I really love. We’re going to work. I’m going for three days and I’ll go have some great meals with him and it’s going to be great and get on the airplane, I get off in Paris. There’s Luc with two motorcycle helmets. It’s January. You know, I’m used to Warner Brothers. They send the limo. He gives my bag to somebody. I get on the back of a motorcycle. I hate motorcycles and it’s f***ing freezing. And I have on my Armani leather jacket, of course, and he takes me to this place that was his studio. It was a 19th century foundry with beautiful skylights. It was unheated. It’s all made out of metal and glass. So it’s freezing. And he says, first we’ll eat lunch. And I say, fantastic. He takes out two frozen meals. He puts them in a toaster oven. He heats up the most inedible s***. He takes out a hunk of cheese and we eat this. It wasn’t garbage. It was just frozen food. It was like, horrible. So I eat this and I’m saying, OK, whatever. And he says, Now I want to show you something. He takes me upstairs and he opens these two doors and it’s a warehouse, huge warehouse. And in the warehouse is every single thing to make The Fifth Element. Everything, all the monsters, all the creatures, all the Gaultier costumes on racks, all of them made. He has invested over four million dollars in all the stuff for the movie. He had a vision and this is who he is. He had a vision of what the movie is. He just didn’t have a story. He had a story, but it didn’t make any sense. Well, you know, in the spaceship, and the car comes in, then it goes and then we have the tiger and it’s really funny. And then they come in and then they kiss and it’s great. For one hundred sixty pages and it makes no sense. But when I saw all this stuff, I said, well, it makes perfect sense. Now all you need is a script. And he said, yes, that’s why you’re here, let’s go to work. I said, where are we going to work? He takes out a heater, a space heater, and we put it down and we put a pad between us. And we sat that way for five hours. The only heat in the room was that. And we wrote and wrote and wrote. I was supposed to be there for three days. I stayed for three weeks. I can’t tell you how poorly I ate in Paris. I’m in Paris. He doesn’t drink wine. He doesn’t eat oysters, doesn’t smoke cigarets, doesn’t drink coffee. But for three weeks we work. And I mean, I was there with one suitcase of clothes and I was just every night I’m sending out the same pair of jeans to the laundry in the hotel. At the end of three weeks, we finished the script and tonight we’re going to have a meal at Zaman. Zaman was the restaurant of the moment in Paris. Joel Robuchon’s first restaurant. Joel Robuchon was the chef of the moment. I was so excited. Picks me up on the motorcycle. We go to Zaman, we pull up to the front of the restaurant, and then he pulls around to the back and we go in through the back door. And our meal at Zaman consisted of sitting in the kitchen with Robuchon and he would cook something, put it on a plate and give it to us and a big pot of mashed potatoes, which Luc has a softness for because they’re full of butter. And that was how I met this guy. We worked on this script for four years. On and off, on and off. The final draft was done as his second daughter was born. He was – literally the baby was being born here. I’m outside the delivery room and he’s coming in and out and we’re checking pages really, really and truly. And that’s how I met Luc.
Eric: The Fifth Element plays like Blade Runner on speed and 20 years later remains one of the craziest big budget sci fi movies ever made. It also introduced much of the world to the manic comedic energy of Chris Tucker.
Clip [00:18:16] [Clip from The Fifth Element]
Robert Mark Kamen: All those dialogs, those screwy dialogs. Luc, his English is, he can speak well, he can’t write, but his idea would, he’d say something like make him crazy, you know, make him say crazy s***. And so I’d write a bunch of crazy s*** and I’d read it to him and I’d say, no, no, no different crazy s***. And I’d write some different stuff. And it’s a no, not until we get it right. And then he always saw the character. He said he speaks like jazz. So keep that in your mind that he speaks like jazz. That was no help. But if you watch the film, he speaks like jazz. So he’s riffing. He’s always short. Tacky, kind of like that.
Clip [00:19:11] [Clip from The Fifth Element]
Eric: For Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, The Fifth Element was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, though not one without its share of bumps along the way and one massive falling out.
Robert Mark Kamen: The Fifth Element, it was great, was wonderful. In the course of it, what happened was he couldn’t get enough money to make it, so he had to put it off. And I’m sitting in his office one day and I pick up the script and I read it. It’s called Leon and I read this script. And it’s fantastic. It’s just great. It’s just it’s a little off, but it’s great. And I said, Luc, I said I’d work on this. Is this set up? He said, no, nobody will make it. I said, well, if you do this and you do this and you do this and you don’t kill the girl at the end, and the 12 year old doesn’t sleep with a 30 year old guy, the thing could be really good. I’ll work on this for nothing. And I couldn’t work on it officially because I was working for Warners, etc, etc. So I work on it. It becomes The Professional.
Clip [00:20:06] [Trailer for The Professional]
Robert Mark Kamen: Everything, The Professional comes, it’s great. It’s a real cult movie. Everybody loves the professional. The Fifth Element comes out. Fifth Element, of course, is like classic movie now. And as a matter of fact, a film crew came up to my house yesterday up in Sonoma to interview me about The Fifth Element because they’re putting on a series on AMC about directors and these iconic movies and he won’t talk to them, so they came to see me. So all this happens, the fifth element comes out. It’s great. He calls me up and we’re living in a house in Beverly Hills up on the bird streets myself, my wife, my two year old, his two year old. And we lived this way for months. And we’re so, so close. We’re so close. He calls me up. He said, I have our next film. I said, great. And he tells me what it is I said, I don’t want to do it. I said, it doesn’t make any sense. And it just it’s stupid, Luc. I don’t want to do it. And he stops talking to me for a year and a half. He doesn’t return my phone calls. He doesn’t answer the invitation for my fiftieth birthday and nothing for a year after talking every day for four years. And I can’t reach him. You call his assistant, he never returns phone calls.
Eric: Thankfully for the cinematic world and for the future bank accounts of Jason Statham and Liam Neeson, that was not the end of their relationship.
Robert Mark Kamen: About two weeks before 9/11, I think it was, I get a phone call from Luc. I’m coming to New York. I want to have breakfast with you. And I said, oh, great. He’s finally came to his senses. We’re going to make up, this is kiss and make up. It’s great. I go to the house to have breakfast with them. He’s sitting there, same look on his face. And he outlines to me this vision said, I don’t want to work for Hollywood studios. Bruce Willis drove me crazy. I don’t want to work with movie stars. I want to make my own. Here’s what I want to do. I want to build a studio in Paris, soundstages, film school, everything. And here’s what I want to do. I want to have my own production company. I want us to write together. We’re going to write low impact action movies, meaning no CGI. I’m going to finance them. I’ll finance the first two or three with the money I make from them. We’ll make some more with the money I make from that, I’m going to buy libraries with the libraries. I’ll have regular income with regular income, regular flow of income and cash flow. I will take my company onto the stock market. I will go public. I will raise three hundred and thirty five million euro. I will go to the bank. I will get this. I will, I will build a film studio and he’s going on and on and I said, great. He said, and I want you to do this with me. I want you to write these movies. I said, Yeah, except you have to apologize to me. He said, Why? I said, Because you hurt my feelings. And he said, no. I said, no, you won’t apologize. He said, no, you hurt my feelings. I said, you stopped talking to me for a year and a half. And he said, yes, because you hurt my feelings. And I said, So you want me to apologize to you? And he just sat there with this look on his face. I said, Well, that’s crazy, because if I asked you to direct a film and you don’t want to direct a film, my feelings wouldn’t be hurt. And he just looked at me and I said, well, I’m not going to do this unless you apologize. And he looked at me and then he said, OK, I apologize. And I said, So how do you want to do this? He said, We’re leaving for the airport in two hours. We’re taking a flight to L.A.. You’re kidding. He said, yes, come on, we’ll go home, you’ll get a bag and we’ll go to L.A.. What are we doing in L.A.? We’re going to meet with Jet Li. I said for what? He said, well, we’re going to have this film and we’re going to pitch it to him and he’s going to say yes and I’m going to finance it. I said, What’s the film? He said, We’ll make it up on the airplane. And I have learned with Luc that, you know, I’m like beyond that already. So I go home, I put some stuff in the case. We go to the airport, we get on a plane in five hours, we get off the plane and we have the outline for Kiss of the Dragon.
Clip [00:23:59] [Trailer for Kiss of the Dragon]
Robert Mark Kamen: We come to Fox, there’s Jet Li in a room, he speaks no English at the time, like four words and I pitch him the film and he doesn’t understand what I’m saying. And there’s a translator there and he’s translating. And at the end, he says, OK, that’s the end of it. Six months later, we were in production.
Eric: Robert Kamen didn’t even need a cross-country flight to come up with The Transporter. Just an ad on a truck.
Robert Mark Kamen: We’re sitting on a bench in Paris eating ham sandwiches from our favorite ham shop, and we’re sitting there right along the Seine, the Eiffel Tower is very, looks like a Woody Allen movie. And a truck goes by and it says transporter. And we’re trying to think of what, we want to make our own action hero. We don’t want a Hollywood action hero. And it goes by. And I said, oh, there’s the movie. It’s about a guy who transports stuff. He never ask what’s in the package, and he transports stuff in a Mercedes Benz. And Luc says, I don’t like it. I said, Why? He says, well transporter is a moving man. It was a moving van. I said, Yeah, but this guy drives a Mercedes and I don’t like it. And we dropped it and we kept talking. And we’re talking about doing this film, Banditos, and we’re talking about all the stuff. Two weeks later, he calls me up. He says, I have the idea. I said, what’s the idea? He said, there’s a guy and he transports things in the trunk of his BMW and he never opens the – I said, that’s my idea. He said, No, no, you said Mercedes. That’s my relationship with Luc. That’s exactly my relationship with Luc. And it’s been that way for 17 years. And I brought this up with him the other day. I said, you know, it felt you never really meant the apology. And he said because you were the one that should apologize to me. And I said, You’re kidding. Why didn’t you say anything? He said, because I wanted you to write the films. This is 17 years later. And that’s my relationship with him where I adore this guy. He’s one of the geniuses of cinema, right or wrong, he’s always right for him. And he doesn’t care what anybody thinks about his movies. He will make a movie because he wants to, not because he thinks it’s going to be a box office success. He’s made some really weird movies in the last couple of years because he’s personally excited about them and doesn’t care if they’re successful or not. He follows his own. I don’t know what, his own cheese, his own Camembert, I don’t know. But but he is truly a genius and has managed to forge this very unique, iconoclastic career completely out of the system.
Eric: Once they got their apology straightened out, Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, were able to create several movies together on their own terms.
Robert Mark Kamen: We don’t develop. Luc and I do not develop. What we do is we come up with an idea, we write the script or I write the script and then he edits and then he goes and shoots the film. And once he shoots the film, he comes to Hollywood and says, you want this or you don’t want it. He goes to usually goes to Fox every once in a while, goes into the studio and says, here’s the film, take it or leave it. It’s already paid for. All you have to do is buy it and you can have these territories. He never goes to any studio for money so we can do whatever the f*** we want. And if you would have seen the R rated version of Taken, oh, there were needles in people’s arms. There were well, there was stuff, there was lots of stuff.
Eric: And if they produced Taken fully within Hollywood, the audience never would have had Liam Neeson with those particular set of skills.
Clip [00:27:44] [Clip from Taken]
Robert Mark Kamen: Fox didn’t want him, and Fox said, we don’t want this, we won’t support this, we won’t do this. And Luc said, OK, fine. And he went and made the film and they thought that was brilliant. And then they said, OK and brilliant. It gave Liam a giant career. I mean, giant career.
Eric: Robert Mark Kamen also knows how to use his words on the page to inspire some amazing action scenes.
Robert Mark Kamen: If you’ve been doing action scenes as long as I’ve been doing action scenes, you understand that an action set piece is like a little movie in itself. It has three acts, a beginning, a middle and an end. And if you look at it that way, then you can write it and then you think of what kind of things can be done. Well, just about anything can be done. But you write that stuff and then the director will or the action director, the stunt guys, the stunt coordinator, they will make it happen. And if they can’t make that happen, they will do something approximating it. But if you write it in beats where the hero’s winning, now he has a problem. Now it looks like it’s so not bad. You go into the second act. He’s trying to figure out his problem. It looks like he’s going to win. All of a sudden, all the s*** hits the fan. He’s losing, losing, losing. He turns around, he finds out one thing to make a win and then bang. If you do that, they’ll fill in the other stuff, you know, it’s like if you have a screenplay and you know, it’s about the Russian Revolution, you can write the Russian army charges and say, here, get six hundred thousand horses, six hundred thousand Cossacks and swords. But for action scenes, you plot them out like a screenplay in three acts.
Eric: His experience also means he can just as seamlessly jump into other franchises midstream and still capture their voice.
Robert Mark Kamen: I love writing sequelized films, especially if I start the first one I wrote Lethal Weapon two and three. I just didn’t get credit on two because I worked at the Warner Brothers lot at the time and I just fixed stuff up. The line, they f*** you at the drive thru. If you’re writing the second or third part of something, you have to stay true to the voice of the first one, because if they’re making a sequel, that means the first one worked and so you can’t go off and change the character. The Batman movies are a perfect example. The Dark Knight, Chris Nolan threw out the whole notion of what it was before, and he gave his Batman a particular point of view and a particular voice. And it has never changed through any of the Batmans. So if you come in in the middle of something, you have to keep the voice and the idea and the philosophy of that being consistent. Even if you take Batman to Mars, he still has to have the same drives, same insecurities, the same needs, the same flaws. With Mel and Danny, it was really easy because it was Laurel and Hardy.
Eric: Of all of Mr. Kamen’s triumphs, the neatest trick might have been making us all care about a bullied high school kid learning karate from his apartment’s handyman.
Clip [00:30:41] [Clip from The Karate Kid]
Robert Mark Kamen: I started writing The Karate Kid the day my daughter Ally was born, which was June 13th, 1982. And I finished it September 13th, 1982. And it was made in October of 1983. It took me three months to write the script and then I rewrote it and that took me six weeks and that was it. It was kind of very loosely based on my teacher who was an Okinawan guy. He didn’t speak English and he he didn’t make funny jokes, but he taught by example, you know, kind of like if you wanted to know what a punch in the mouth felt like, he’d punch you in the mouth. And I wanted to – it was kind of my homage to my teacher because he turned me in from a 90 pound weakling into ninety five pound weakling.
Eric: A movie that only took a few months to write spawned three sequels, a Saturday morning cartoon, a remake, and now three seasons of Cobra Kai, the meta reimagining from the bully’s POV. So how can newer writers have a hope of creating work with this kind of staying power?
Robert Mark Kamen: Always write what you know, but mostly always write from your heart and then you can’t go wrong. I tell this to everybody. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that is not from people’s hearts and a lot of guys go to film school and do this. But you can’t go wrong if you write something you’re passionate about. And if you try to write something that looks like everything else, it’s going to come out like everything else. But if you want to break in, you have to give them something different and then let them turn it into something that’s like everything else. It’s true, but start with something that’s different. Don’t don’t try to copy anything else. I unfortunately, copy everything else. I just try to make it a little different. But you can do that after you’ve sold a dozen films.
Eric: Which I hope is awaiting all of you. We want to thank this episode’s sensei, Robert Mark Kamen, for sharing his Hollywood story with our students. And thanks to all of you for listening.
This episode was based on the Q&A, moderated and curated by Tova Laiter. To watch the full interview or to see our other Q&A, check out our YouTube channel at YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was written by me, Eric Conner. Edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Produced by Kristian Heydon, Helen Kantilaftis, and myself. Executive produced by the New York Film Academy. A special thanks to all our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs. Check us out at NYFA.edu. Be sure to subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen. See you next time.