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THE BIG PICTURE

Screenwriter Kamen is taken with director Besson

For the veteran American, teaming with the visionary Frenchman is like being in 'writer's heaven.'

March 10, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

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 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 is still the No. 3 box-office movie 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 more 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 wisecracking 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 also 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."

Kamen and Besson were introduced by "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 a 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 bistro. Instead, they went to Besson's place, where he put some pre-cooked food in the toaster oven. For 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."

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