Kim Nunley Presents: “And Then I Became a Genius” / A Conversation w/ Robert Mark Kamen
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Kim Nunley Presents: “And Then I Became a Genius” / A Conversation with Robert Mark Kamen
It typically takes screenwriters a number of years and numerous scripts to develop the skill necessary to create a piece of work worthy of the almighty sale, if it even happens at all. But in 1979, Robert Mark Kamen defied the odds and found success with his very first script. Since then he’s chalked out one of the most successful screenwriting careers ever, penning blockbuster hits such as the original THE KARATE KID series and most recently, TAKEN 2, featuring Liam Neeson.
After selling his very first script, the Bronx native celebrated by taking some friends on vacation to California and, with the motivating assistance of marijuana, he and his friends found their way atop a Sonoma hillside; a complete view of the San Francisco Bay before them. Prior to heading home, Kamen dropped his entire first sale earnings on that particular plot of land, which today is blanketed with the vineyards of his own Kamen Estate Wines.
Over twenty years later and Kamen is about to have his twenty-third script produced. He’s established a working partnership with noteworthy producer Luc Besson and the duo have numerous projects in the works. Despite his Hollywood success, Kamen continues to spend his days at his home in Sonoma, somehow simultaneously balancing the challenges of writing prosperous screenplays and the demands of running an established winery.
K: Can you talk a little bit about how you ended up here in Sonoma?
RMK: I had finished my PhD at the University of Pennsylvania. I had written a novel about Afghanistan and had spent a bunch of time in Afghanistan. A cousin of mine knew a film director who read the novel – thought the novel would make a good movie – gave me some scripts. I figured out the form, sort of, and turned the novel into a script. Warner Brothers bought it. I called all my friends and I said, “Drugs and alcohol are on me.” And this guy in Sonoma said, “Come up,” and so I came up here and he took me to this property. From my porch you can see the whole San Francisco Bay and it was beautiful. And I got totally baked and I bought the property. And that’s how I came to Sonoma, and I’ve been here thirty-one years.
K: That was CROSSINGS right? The first script?
RMK: Yes. It was never made, but most screenplays aren’t. My second one was made– that was T.A.P.S. My third one was made– that was SPLIT IMAGE. And my fourth one was made– that was THE KARATE KID. And then I became a genius.
K: THE KARATE KID was definitely a classic.
RMK: Yes, a classic for everybody. It’s like Sara Lee– nobody doesn’t like it. It’s that kind of thing. It spawned three sequels after that one. I wrote two of the three and then got totally sick of hearing Mr. Miyagi’s voice in my head. And then twenty-eight years later, Will Smith comes along and he decides he wants to make his kid a star and that this is the vehicle, so they did another one. And the funny thing is– it was written by a kid I mentored who was the son of my graduate school chairman. It’s the gift that keeps on giving, because I own it.
K: I haven’t seen it yet, but have heard the new one is good.
RMK: It’s the same movie, really without the heart. It has its own heart, but it doesn’t have the original heart. The original movie was a small movie. This thing is blown up big. China. The Great Wall. The Forbidden City. A giant tournament. Thousands of Kung-Fu fans. You know, that kind of shit. The first one was a small little movie. But at the heart of it, it was the boy and the old man. This one is the boy and the old man, but a lot of China. It’s very nice to look at. It did so well that they’re doing a sequel, which I’m very happy about. The gift that keeps on giving. I don’t want anything to do with it, and they don’t want anything to do with me. They figure I’m so jaded at this point, that what will I bring to the table? It works out really good for me, because it would be hard to rewrite. By the time I wrote the third sequel, it was really hard. It was just torturous. And this would be really hard, because I’d have to pretend that it was fresh and it just can’t be fresh. It can’t possibly be fresh and I’ve done it so many times. I’d take a lot of money from them and nobody would be happy.
K: So if Will Smith himself would have called you up– ?
RMK: He did. And they had me in to touch up the script… to do a rewrite. And I wore a t-shirt there that said, “Wax On, Fuck Off.” They got the idea that this was not going to work. I’m too cynical to do it. I mean, I can do this stuff in my sleep. I can make Mr. Miyagi talk in my sleep forever, but you can’t approach a movie like this with cynicism, and I know that my nature would link into it, whereas I can go off and write something new that’s cynical and it’s perfectly fine.
K: So would you say that your style has changed a lot since THE KARATE KID?
RMK: After THE KARATE KID, I learned how to write screenplays better. Now I know how to write screenplays pretty good. I’m still learning. I write differently, but I think at the core of it, there’s always the idea of character. I never thought I’d be an action writer when I started, but somehow I became a guy who writes a lot of action. And I try to write character pieces, but they always come out as character action pieces, (whispers) because that’s why they pay me. It’s my thirty-first year writing screenplays and they’re still paying me, so it’s all great.
K: How did you learn how to run a winery?
RMK: I didn’t. I hired people. I have Mark and Katie and Larry does the books. Jiana I just hired to do marketing and it’s growing and growing and growing. I’m the guardian of the vision. I know what I want. I know that my vision of this is all very romantic. I want to make great wine. I want to make a classic wine. I want to make the best wine that can grow on my estate. I have really great grounds to grow the grapes on and I found the best viticulturist and a really hot shit wine maker and I have a really top assistant wine maker. I’ve been running around the country selling wine until I recently hired Jiana and now she’ll run around the country selling wine. And I’ll write screenplays.
K: Did you love wine before you ended up buying the land?
RMK: Yeah, I loved wine. But, I had no idea I was going to plant a vineyard. I grew up in the Bronx.
K: How do you balance both screenwriting and winemaking? What does your typical day look like?
RMK: I’m very organized. I get up in the morning. I do about an hour of martial arts. I sit down and I write. I get up from writing about 3:30. I ride my bike for about an hour and a half. When I’m [at home], I come into the winery and I say whatever I say to them and they do whatever they’re doing. And then I go back up and I shower. Then I go to dinner and I smoke a joint. And then I come back, smoke a little more joint. And then I read through what I wrote and then I watch a film and then nod out. Wake up and do the same thing, every single day.
K: Do you see similarities between the two activities?
RMK: Making wine is like making a movie. You have to marshal a lot of people. There’s a producer, a director, a screenwriter. The viticulturist is the screenwriter. I’m the producer. The director is the winemaker. And then there’s a marketing person… the sales person. I used to be the sales force and now Jiana’s the sales force. It’s very much like that. You have to deal with diverse personalities. You’ve got to get people in line. You have to get people to do what you want. Somebody has to have the vision. Somebody has to push the vision forward. So it’s really similar… it really is. And the end result is some sort of hedonistic pleasure.
K: So would you say you like that collaborative type of work environment?
RMK: I like being left alone. And then I like being with people. But, I like the being alone part. When I sit in my vineyard and I’m writing alone and I’m alone with my vineyard. I can think about my vineyard. I can think about my writing. And then I come out into the world and I deal with people. And all the physical activity I do, I do by myself. I ride my bike and I do martial arts. It’s kind of my nature, and it’s sort of the nature of a writer. I like doing things by myself. I like being by myself.
K: Do you ever feel like you’re at a disadvantage that you’re not living in Los Angeles?
RMK: No. They don’t need me to be there. They need me to deliver, and so I deliver. And if I don’t deliver, they fire me. But, I haven’t been fired in many years and I haven’t been rewritten in many years. They just want to see the screenplay. They don’t care where I am, as long as I deliver the goods.
K: Which script would be your proudest completed project? Which film?
RMK: THE POWER OF ONE.
K: I would agree. I love that one.
RMK: Oh, you’re the one person who saw it? Very few people saw it. I loved working on it and I wasn’t as crazy as how it came out, but I still really liked it and I thought it was a beautiful movie. It just didn’t get correct distribution.
K: You’ve adapted a few movies.
RMK: A few. I’m doing one called THE LORDS DAY now for Sony, but mostly I like making the shit up. And with Luc, it’s really easy because he comes up with an idea. And says, “Why don’t we make a movie about…” And we sit around and make it up and I love that.
K: What’s your process with Luc when you’re writing something together?
RMK: He throws ten ideas out and I pick one. Then we sit down and we spend three days together and we make up the movie. And then I go and I write it. I give it to him and he puts his notes in and then I rewrite it. Then he goes and makes it. I have the dream job. He’s a great guy and I’m as close to him as anybody. And he’s still unfathomable. He’s a genius. He’s one of those strange genius people. I love and adore him and have a really good working relationship.
K: Is it hard for you to write a script and then hand it off? Have you ever been disappointed with the finished product?
RMK: How many times? When I saw the first cut of TAKEN, I was really disappointed. And then I saw the third cut, and I said, “Wow, that’s pretty good!” Huge difference. And it’s all Luc’s editing. He’s a great editor. THE POWER OF ONE. The movie wasn’t as good as the script. But otherwise, I try not to look at it as that. When I give a script it’s, “Here. You have to do what you’ve got to do.”
K: How much does the movie world know about your wine world?
RMK: A little bit. I’ve tried to keep them a little separate, because Hollywood likes their writers poor. They don’t like to think of you as having diverse interests. It’s okay for a director to have it. It’s okay for a producer to have it. A writer should just live in a box with no windows and write… period. They don’t like the idea of a writer running a three hundred acre wine estate. It makes them feel like you’re not paying attention to the writing. Everybody knows about it. The secret is out. The Parker gave us the high scores and all the wine geeky people in L.A. are of course interested in the score. “Kamen… Kamen…,” and they look at the website that reads Robert Kamen. “Holy Shit!” And then I get all these calls from people [from Los Angeles]. I didn’t have anybody up here for 27 years. Only a couple of my friends had ever come up, but for my 60th birthday, I had everybody up and everybody got to see this place. More people would like to get the wine. I tell them to sign up on the mailing list. “Can we get a break?,” they ask. “Can we get a deal?” No. If you buy my scripts I’ll give you a deal. Buy my script and I’ll throw in a bottle of wine.