Movies

Legendary ‘Karate Kid’ Screenwriter Robert Kamen On ‘The Fifth Element,’ ‘Taken,’ And ‘Creating’ Jason Statham

It was initially a random question about Mr. Miyagi that led me to Robert Kamen, the writer of The Karate Kid. While The Karate Kid has become a cottage industry unto itself, and made fine careers out of originally small parts for half the cast (a few of whom I’ve interviewed myself), the man who created “wax on, wax off” and “sweep the leg” has stayed well out of the spotlight. This despite the movie being, at least partly, a riff on his own life story. After getting beaten up by bullies on the way to the 1964 World’s Fair, Kamen took up karate, being taught first by a bellicose Marine captain and later immersing himself in Goju-ryu, founded by Okinawan karateka Chojun Miyagi.

There would seem to be an obvious reason for Kamen avoiding the limelight: he doesn’t need it. After The Karate Kid, Kamen went on to write The Fifth Element with Luc Besson, became a prolific “script assassin” on movies like Lethal Weapon 3, Under Siege, and The Fugitive, and collaborating with Besson, created both the Taken and Transporter franchises. The latter was inspired, Kamen says, by how big a pain in the ass Bruce Willis was on the set of The Fifth Element. Besson’s resulting epiphany, according to Kamen: “We have to create our own movie stars.”

It sounds self-aggrandizing on the face of it, but if you look at Jason Statham’s filmography it seems to bear out. Before The Transporter, he was a semi-obscure English indie actor. In virtually every role after that, Jason Statham played Jason Statham from The Transporter. Liam Neeson’s post-Taken arc is much the same.

Who knew that was all because of the same guy? How many movie roads lead back to Robert Kamen? How many times had I written about Robert Kamen without even really knowing I was writing about Robert Kamen? (See Statham voice posts, lists of Taken ripoffs, and love letters to The Fifth Element for evidence of this).

Along the way to the writing the world’s most famous martial arts movie, Kamen traveled to Afghanistan, wrote a novel about it, turned the novel into a screenplay that he sold for $135,000 in 1979, and used the money to buy a vineyard in Sonoma. That vineyard, which Kamen says he bought for $1,000 an acre and speculates is probably worth $500,000 an acre now, became Kamen Wines, which does brisk business. It’s hard not to conclude that he’s led a charmed existence.

This, I figured, was a man who had some stories. From getting his black belt in a Long Island parking lot after a drunken bar fight to ballbusting Liam Neeson, I was not wrong.

I realize I’ve written about a lot of your movies not knowing that they were all you.

That happens with somebody who steers clear of all publicity.

I don’t blame you. I’ve interviewed Billy Zabka and Martin Kove within the last year, just randomly.

I tell you, it’s all very interesting. Here you’ve got Billy, who basically was in, I don’t know, five scenes of the original Karate Kid, and Marty, who was in four scenes, and they made a career out of who they were. They would go around doing autographs at conventions. And then this thing comes up, and now here’s Marty doing Intuit commercials on television, and Billy is like a houseplant that was dead, and he was watered, and he has just flourished. Even the Cobra Kai kids, most of them had no lines, and yet they have dined out on being the Cobra Kai for many, many years.

Martin’s my favorite kind of actor to interview, who just will talk and talk and talk forever and tell you a story about every person in Hollywood.

Yeah, I love Marty, but the problem with Marty is that also when I see his number on the phone, I send it right to voicemail. He’ll just go on and on. Actually, when he would call the Cobra Kai guys to ask them questions, they would refer him to me. And I said, “Dudes, I have nothing to do with your fucking project except I collect residuals. Do not do this to me.” He’ll just talk and talk and talk.

So the reason I reached out initially was that story about this other Miyagi. I have a hard time believing that there was a completely different Miyagi who has the same name, is also a karate champion, had a Hawaiian wife and saved a bunch of people from a cave. Does that seem like an insane coincidence to you?

I have no idea what that’s all about. You have no idea the kind of stuff that has come out of this. Miyagi is a common Okinawan name. It’s not a very common Japanese name, but whatever. You have no idea how many people have claimed that they were the Karate Kid or that they had something to do with The Karate Kid. Mr. Miyagi’s first name has been changed four different times by people who don’t bother to pay attention to the script.

So yours was based on the founder of your karate style then.

Right. Of the Okinawan Goju karate style, Chojun Miyagi. He was the guy. But he wasn’t kind and gentle, as my teacher was not kind and gentle. He was kind, but not gentle. Karate in Okinawa takes on a different significance than it does in, say, Japan or Korea or someplace else. Karate is part of their culture. When I was in Okinawa, the thing that struck me the most was they don’t say, “Ah, that guy is a great fighter.” What they say is, “He trains hard.”

The movie came directly out of you learning karate?

Yeah, it came directly out of me knowing about this stuff. Jerry Weintraub, the late, great Jerry Weintraub, had bought an article about a nine-year-old kid who got a black belt. Frank Price, who was the chairman of Columbia, bought the article and called me up and said, “What do you think about this?” I said, “Well, considering it took me five years to get my first degree of black belt, I think this nine-year-old kid stuff is very Americanized.” And he said, “Well, what do you know about it?” And I said, “Well, I know this is a lot of nonsense, but I have a story.” And I told him my story, and he bought it, and it had nothing to do with the article. It didn’t hurt that he was my mentor. I started it the day my oldest daughter, Allie, was born, and I finished it September 15th. 13 months later, we were shooting.

That wasn’t your first script that had been produced at that point, right?

No. It was my third. I had this golden, blessed career. I thought this was the way that all screenwriting careers went. I sold a script. Three weeks after I sold my first script, I bought my vineyard with the proceeds from that. And then I was hired to do Taps at 20th Century Fox. Six months later they were shooting the movie. And six months after that, they were shooting another movie called Split Image that I rewrote. And I’m like, “Whoa, this is great!”

Then I did The Karate Kid and, of course, life became much easier. Because I didn’t live in LA., I start meeting screenwriters and hear about guys who have been writing for years, never getting anything made. My friend, Richard LaGravenese, my friend, Tony Gilroy, all these people were working for years before they got anything done. And I’m like, “Oh yeah, la-di-da.” Of course, as the years went on I started seeing how hard it was. I’ve been blessed.

I read that you got into screenwriting because you’d gone to Afghanistan as a grad student and then you wrote a novel afterwards. What was that like?

It was like sometimes you were on a camel, sometimes you were on a donkey. Sometimes you were walking. It was a bunch of nomads. I was with a bunch of Kochi nomads. They went from north to south. They followed the season with their flocks and their kids and their wives and their very vicious dogs, and I was with them. It was great — when you’re 22. It’s not so great if you’re 73. But I just said to my wife the other night, I said, “It was the best 11 months of my life.”

Do you have that one project that didn’t get made that you are most annoyed by it never getting made?

Yeah, I do. We all do. It’s called Oasis, and it’s a love story between a girl with cerebral palsy and a boy who is one slice short of a loaf that takes place in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in the Italian-American neighborhoods. I call it my cerebral palsy love story. And we have a cast. We have a girl who has muscular dystrophy who is a great actress, Madison Ferris, who co-starred with Sally Fields on Broadway, and she is confined to a wheelchair. We have John Magaro, who just costarred in First Cow as the boy. And we have Adam Salky to direct it, and all we need is 3 million bucks. It’s easier to get $50 million to do one of my action movies than it is to get $3 million bucks to do a disability love story. It’s 15 years now, and we’re still trying to get it made.

I read that you were working on doing a Karate Kid Broadway musical.

Oh, I am. It was going full-steam until the hoax of a pandemic happened, and then Broadway shut it down. But now we’re gearing up again because Broadway will be reopened. We got our first view of the choreography this week. We have all the lyrics written. We have the book written. We have the production designer who was nominated for two Tonys in the same season — Derek McLane. The greatest living theater director in Japan is directing it. We’re ready to go, but the theaters are closed.

[You can call me a terrible journalist here, but I couldn’t tell if “hoax of a pandemic” was a joke or not. And I had so much that I wanted to ask that I didn’t want to derail the whole thing by getting off on some conspiratorial tangent. Later in the interview he mentions hating Trump, so who knows. Ultimately I thought his views on COVID, whatever they may be, are probably the least interesting thing about him.]

I read another story about you getting your black belt in a parking lot in, what was it, Long Island?

Oh my God. Yeah, I got my first black belt. I wasn’t studying Okinawan Goju at the time, I was studying Uechi-ryu karate, which is another Okinawan style, kind of a hybridized style, with a guy named Ed McGrath, who was a great fighter. He didn’t really have a lot of time for the art, but he was a great fighter. He taught me how to be a really tough guy, and for being a short, skinny Jewish guy from the Bronx, learning how to fight was a great thing. He took me to a bar one night in Northport, Long Island, and we went with my friend, Dennis and him. Dennis was my training mate, and he insulted some construction worker by hitting on his girlfriend. And then he just turned to me and said, “Mr. Kamen, dispatch this man.” The next thing I knew, we were in a bar fight, and we were punching and kicking. He had an alcohol problem, Ed McGrath did. He was a drunk, and he was a big guy. Finally, we leave the bar, and he took me to the trunk of his car, had me kneel down in the parking lot and gave me my black belt.

So I guess that influenced your negative mentor character [John Kreese]?

Very charming guy, Ed. Very tough, but he was very charming. There was another guy who taught at a dojo in Queens who was a very hard-ass guy. This other guy wasn’t very charming, and he encouraged people to hurt people. Ed McGrath didn’t encourage people to hurt people, but the art was secondary to the fighting. And Kreese is just an over-the-top lunatic.

Did that or any of your later lessons make it into things that Mr. Miyagi did in the movie?

You mean wax on, wax off?

Sure, stuff like that.

Well, wax on, wax off is actually a real block. Paint the fence is actually a blocking system. Sand the floor is actually a blocking system. But I just made that shit up. I am in the make-shit-up business. That’s what I do.

I’m impressed with how well the movie holds up. When you watch it now, are there things that you find yourself regretting or wishing you’d done differently at all?

No. Not one thing. There are a couple of lines in there I could have done without, but we needed filler lines. And no, everything about the experience, everything about writing the first two films, I don’t regret anything at all. The genius of the Cobra Kai guys is that they shamelessly stole and mined these movies to fit in with what they wanted to do, which, watching season three and how they got the girl who Daniel saved in the watchtower during the typhoon to be the regional head of whatever the auto dealership was, I just thought that was brilliant. I didn’t even remember that sequence. We needed something to lead up to saving Sato and Miyagi’s relationship and needed something for Daniel to do that was heroic. I just made that stuff up. And when we did it, I looked at it, and I turned to John and said, “This is never going to fly.” And he said, “No, this is great.”

On that note, were any specific creative battles that you remember winning or losing during the process?

The big creative battle was to keep the scene with Mr. Miyagi drunk and talking about his ex-wife, which is going to play a very significant part in the stage play. Columbia wanted to cut it out of the movie. And despite what he said later, Jerry Weintraub was all ready to cut it. “I don’t care. It slows the story down, blah, blah, blah.” And I said, “This is the heart of the movie.” John Avildsen and I felt that way. I went right to Frank and I played my mentor card. I said, “Frank, please, I’m begging you. Test it with this. If it doesn’t work, you can take it out.” He did, and it worked. It pissed everybody off. I didn’t go through channels.

I think that’s a big part of the social commentary of the movie that holds up, and that scene is anchoring it.

The reason they wanted to cut it is that it made the running time of the movie so that you could only have one less show a day for the exhibitors. Of course, that’s not what they said. What they said was, “Well, it’s slowing down the story,” and this and that. But I do think The Karate Kid holds up because it’s genuine and the emotional beats are universal. And also because Pat Morita and Ralph Macchio were magic, especially Pat. I can’t see Toshiro Mifune and Ralph Macchio having chemistry.

Also, Morita’s story is more like Miyagi’s than Mifune’s would have been too, right? Having been in internment.

Yeah. They just did a documentary on Pat called More than Miyagi, and he had a sad life even though he was a funny guy. He was the sweetest guy but had a sad life. He was an alcoholic.

So The Fifth Element. It didn’t occur to me that those were both your projects.

A lot of people don’t make that connection. But The Fifth Element is the genius of Luc Besson, who is a fucking genius.

What was getting involved with that like?

I was working for Warner Brothers at the time as their script assassin. I would doctor scripts they were putting into production. Bill Gerber, who produced Gran Torino, who was the executive vice-president or whatever at Warners, 1993, called me in. He said, “We have this script. We can’t make heads nor tails of it, but we think this guy is a visionary.” He sent me the script, and it made no sense. But I watched La Femme Nikita, and I saw a cinematic genius.

And I said, “I’ll come in and meet him.” He said, “Great.” So I come in and meet the guy, and I tell him everything that’s wrong with his script. He doesn’t get all of it because his English wasn’t that great. And he sits there, and I could see that he was getting more and more pissed off. He’s a French auteur, I’m just this fucking Hollywood screenwriter. And at the end of the meeting, Billy called me up, he said, “Dude, you just ruined that relationship.” Because all I had done was I just kept saying what a huge piece of shit this script was.

A week later, my phone rings, and it’s Luc. And he said, “I thought about what you said, and will you work with me on the script?” And I said, “Oh my God, yeah, sure. I’d be honored to work with you.” And he said, “Good. Come to Paris.” I said, “When?” He said, “What are you doing tomorrow?” I should have known right then and there what I was getting myself into because the guy wasn’t going to say no. I went to Paris, and I was supposed to stay for three days. I stayed for three weeks. He takes me directly from the airport on a Sunday, to this studio with no heat in it. It used to be an old foundry, and it was freezing. And he opens up the back of this warehouse, and there’s everything for The Fifth Element — the costumes, the creature, everything. But he doesn’t have a coherent story. So we sat down, and for three weeks we worked, and at the end of three weeks, we had a coherent story. Then it took another four years to get the movie made because he had to get together $90 million.

I read that his original draft of The Fifth Element was 300 pages or something, and it was like a novel.

It was actually 180 pages, and then he added a second part to it, which made no sense either. We were going to do it as a sequel, but it made no sense, and The Fifth Element wasn’t big enough here. It was huge in the rest of the world, and it’s a classic, but it only did $75 million here or $80 million. It was way ahead of its time. So we never did the sequel, and the sequel would have been taking the other 180-page thing he had and working it into a script. He and I worked for a long time, we’ve since done 15 or 16 films together.

He used to say, “I don’t see that. I don’t see that.” And at first I don’t know what the fuck he was talking about. He didn’t see it because he’s a camera on legs. He’s a visualist. Once I understood that, he was easier to work with. He’s a genius. And Leeloo, he made up a whole language, and he and Milla used to speak the language to each other! It was bizarre. And then he married her. Then he went off and married her.

Bruce Willis now has a reputation as being a pain in the ass.

He was very difficult, and Luc worked around it. But Luc wasn’t used to it. After he did that, he came to me and said, “We have to create our own movie stars.” And that’s what we did with The Transporter. We created Jason.

And then what was Taken? How did that come about?

Luc told me a story about this guy who was auctioning off women in a chateau in Belgium or something. And then we read an article in the paper about a bunch of Albanians who, instead of doing what all the other thugs were doing, which was going to small towns in eastern Europe when the iron curtain fell and recruiting women, these guys were just kidnapping women, backpackers. But they were so stupid they didn’t realize that backpackers have families, and it didn’t last very long. So we took the two things. We mixed them together, and Taken came about.

It seems like there have been at least 20 movies that tried to do exactly what Taken did.

Liam Neeson has made a fortune doing Taken 1, 2, 3. I always kid him about it. I say, “Oh, where are you?” “I’m in Australia.” “Are you doing Taken 12?” He figured out that he’s a great actor, but he wanted to make money. This is a money machine for him. Liam picks up a gun, and they pay him a lot of money.

Are you proud that you created something that’s become such an industry of its own?

No. I’m not getting paid for it. What do I care?

Do you have lines that you’re particularly proud of that you feel like people don’t remember?

No, I don’t. Once something is gone from me, it’s gone from me. In Karate Kid 2, I had a sweatshirt that said it, “A lie becomes truth only if you want to believe it.” And that is more telling today than ever with this creature we just got rid of in the White House. He lied so often and so much that people started believing the lies. I loved that line, and nobody else loved it. But it is. A lie becomes truth only if you want to believe it. Then it’s the truth, even though it’s a lie.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.

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