Screenwriting Adventures of Nebraska Native Jon Bokenkamp, Author of the Scripts ‘Perfect Stranger’ and ‘Taking Lives’
If you’re a follower of this blog, then you know I like writing about Nebraskans working in the film industry. If you’re a newbie here, consider yourself warned. The subject of the story that follows, Jon Bokenkamp, is a feature screenwriter with some major cerdits behind him. He’s also directed one feature. Lately, Bokenkamp’s taken a step back from his Hollwyood merry-go-round to return to his hometown, Kearney, Neb., where he is active in restoring the World Theatre. Alexander Payne is probably the biggest name from the state doing his thing in film and you’ll find no shortage of stories by me about the filmmaker on this site. I’ve written extensively about Payne and his work and will continue doing so. But you’ll also find many stories I’ve done about lesser known but no less interesting figures from this place doing noteworthy things in cinema and television, including: Nik Fackler, Joan Micklin Silver, Yolonda Ross, Gabrielle Union, John Beasley, Gail Levin, Charles Fairbanks, Nicholas D’Agosto, Monty Ross, Vince Alston, Swoosie Kurtz. Then there are individuals like Lew Hunter who worked as a producer and writer in Hollywood before becoming a screenwriting guru through his UCLA course and book. Screenwriting 434, and workshops. There’s Click Westin, who churned out scripts for many a forgotten early TV dramatic series and doctored several feature scripts and whose lone produced feature screenplay, Nashville Rebel, starred Waylon Jennings in the itle role. There’s Oscar-winning cinematographer Mauro Fiore, who’s a transplant here. Let’s not forget Oscar-winning editor Mike Hill, the subject of a profile soon to be added here. Future posts will also profile Peter Fonda and Jane Fonda. I would love to get around one day to interviewing-profiling Nick Nolte. The man profiled in this post, Jon Bokenkamp, is not a household name but you’ve likely seen some of his handiwork on screen (Taking Lives or Perfect Stranger).
Screenwriting Adventures of Nebraska Native Jon Bokenkamp , Author of the Scripts ‘Perfect Stranger’ and ‘Taking Lives’
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com)
As screenwriter of the Angelina Jolie-Ethan Hawke thriller Taking Lives and with a story-by credit on the new Halle Berry-Bruce Willis suspenser Perfect Stranger, Nebraskan Jon Bokenkamp has defied the odds in Tinsletown.
Besides penning scripts that stars attach themselves to, as both Berry and Diane Lane did with his screenplay Need, a project now going forward with Nicole Kidman and Naomi Watts, he’s directed one feature, Bad Seed, from his own original script Preston Tylk. He’s also directed a feature length documentary (After Sunset) on that faded American movie tradition, the drive-in.
Opening this weekend, Stranger is based on an original story by Bokenkamp. The plot centers on Roe (Berry), a crusading investigative reporter who enters the cyber world of hookups to try and ID the killer of her best friend. A man she develops ambiguous feelings for, Harrison (Willis), may be the killer.
Bokenkamp’s story originally captured the interest of Julia Roberts before she passed, perhaps he speculates because the material was “too dark for America’s Sweetheart.” Then, producers strayed from his version to, as he put it, “shop around” for writers to take it in “a new direction.”
Two new scribes took a stab at it before Todd Komarnicki, who has screenplay credit, finished the final version, including a new ending that reveals an entirely different killer. Berry signed on as the lead and James Foley as director.
The new ending was only added once shooting began. Such changes are par for the course in Hollywood. “These things just evolve so many times,” Bokenkamp said. “It’s only two pages,” he said, “but my God they change the whole color of everything that happened before.” He settled for story-by credit. As the original author, he had a case to “arbitrate” for a screenplay-by credit from the Writer’s Guild, but opted not to make waves.
Besides, he said, “it’s really a muddy way the credits are decided. It’s a really strange process.” So he swallowed his pride. “This was real simple. There was no hollering, which is unusual,” he said.
Another reason he didn’t fight is he felt ambivalent about the film, whose shooting script he’s read. “It’s a good twist, but I don’t feel like it reflects the story I wanted to tell. It ends up becoming a different movie.” The twist, he said, “is not what it’s about.” Despite it all, he said, “I believe in the movie.”
Bokenkamp’s odyssey reprised what happened with Taking Lives and an old project he worked on years ago called WW3.COM (World War III.com), which “has finally risen from the ashes,” he said, “and evolved into Live Free or Die Hard, which is basically Die Hard 4.” His work on it is uncredited.
“It’s funny, I’m finding I’m the guy that generates the idea — I’m not the closer,” he said. “I’m not the guy who can come in with the punch lines and the big-movie-trailer, see-you-in-hell moments. But I’m the guy who gets the bones of it there.”
He may or may not see to fruition his new script, Night and Day, You Are the One, what he calls “kind of a Jacob’s Ladder love story.” He’s developing it for writer-producer Ehren Kruger (The Ring) at Universal and writer-director Mark Pellington (Mothman Prophecies). It’s proof he’s still in the game.
Not so long ago Bokenkamp was just another wannabe leaving behind a stolid life in his hometown of Kearney, Neb. to try his luck in loopy L.A. He was 20 and cheeky enough to be an aspiring director despite only a few Super VHS shorts and two undistinguished years at then-Kearney State College on his resume.
Without knowing a soul, he arrived out West in 1993. This was before Alexander Payne hit it big. Bokenkamp attended USC film school, a feeder for the industry.
He paid his dues in classic starving-Hollywood-hopeful-makes-good fashion. He wrote by day while he parked cars on the Universal lot and waited tables at night. He didn’t have a car for a time. He felt the frustration of being right outside the golden gates, yet no nearer to getting inside them than when back in Kearney.
Adrift in a sun-drenched town that turns a cold shoulder to anyone not remotely a Player, he reached out to the few made-Nebraskans he could find, including Lew Hunter, the UCLA screenwriting guru from Superior, Neb.
His radar next led him to Dan Mirvish, the mercurial filmmaker who finagled an editing suite at Paramount to cut his Omaha, the movie. Bokenkamp did an assistant editor internship on it, working on vintage upright moviolas. It was his first time on a lot other than as a valet.
When Bokenkamp realized Hollywood revolves around the desperate, Byzantine hunt for bankable material, he began writing. He entered a Fade In magazine contest for thriller scripts. Long story short, he won. He got an agent and lawyer and a job doing rewrites for William Friedkin (The French Connection, The Exorcist).
“I’ll never forget showing up to his office at Paramount,” Bokenkamp said. “His assistant had candles burning and the lights were all turned down like there was some kind of seance going on. There were dried flowers hanging everywhere, old pictures on the walls. The place was like a cave. I was really young and Friedkin is a daunting guy. I mean, he won the fucking Oscar…
“We originally met because he was interested in directing my script Preston Tylk. But as the budget got smaller and smaller I started to think to myself — ‘Why am I not directing this?” So I took the script back and eventually made the movie myself, but Friedkin liked my writing and hired me to rewrite Blood Acre…a really smart horror film…I remember we had one awful notes session where he just screamed and screamed about how terrible the script was. I did the two passes…in my contract and they never asked me back. I bumped into him a few years later and I’m not sure he even remembered me, but it was a real lesson in Hollywood.
“Since then, I’ve sort of compared ‘assignment writing’ to being a plumber, meaning, I might get hired to fix the toilet, but if I don’t do my job quickly and really well, they’re going to tell me to get out of the bathroom because they’ve called another plumber. Maybe that guy screws up and they have to call me back. That’s happened. But at the end of the day it’s a job.”
His first feature directing gig, Bad Seed, is a 2000 guy-on-the-run-hires-over-the-hill-private-eye flick starring Luke Wilson and Dennis Farina. The straight-to-video pic didn’t set the world on fire, but it did gain him a rep for thrillers, and you’re nothing in Hollywood if they can’t label you.
“From Bad Seed my niche kind of became small, dark thrillers, told from a single point of view, later from a female perspective,” he said. “I love detective movies. Klute is a favorite of mine. So you kind of build a niche as one thing that can make you a commodity. But I also think before that you have to have something you want to say, which sounds really cliche, but you really have to…
“I also think there’s really something to be said for being collaborative and easy to work with and just not being a prick,” he said. “There’s all these egos in the business and I think one of the things that’s helped me is I really feel I’m pretty easy to get along with. If you want me to try an idea, I’ll try it.”
Not surprisingly, the first-time director was frustrated by the “compromises” Warner Bros. forced on him. “It was a better script than a movie simply because of my inexperience as a director,” he said, “but I learned more those 30 days directing than I did in two years at USC.”
Even if he could direct on his own terms, he’s not sure it’s a good fit. “I would like to direct again,” he said, “but the lifestyle of it doesn’t match the lifestyle I like. I like the lifestyle of writing. It suits my family as well.” He’s married to his high school sweetheart, Kathy. They have two children. The couple gets back often to Nebraska to visit family and friends, staying summers at a cabin they keep near Johnson Lake. “I like sitting in a room writing, going and getting my Subway sandwich and coming back and getting it right on the page as opposed to being up 24 hours a day going crazy, pulling your hair out, wondering, ‘Why isn’t it raining?”
Bad Seed was to have reeked with a rain-soaked film noir ambience but Mother Nature didn’t cooperate and Warners couldn’t wait, so he scrapped the mood to make his days. Such are the concessions first-time directors make.
Since Bad Seed his scripts have mostly focused on kick-ass women.
“The strong female-driven element is something I gravitate to,” he said. “Female-driven movies feel smarter to me and it’s just a way to be different. You get a little more latitude with a female because she’s forced to stand up against the woman-in-the-boys-club type thing. It immediately puts us on her side…in her shoes.”
He said the input of his wife Kathy, a former school teacher, influences his interest in crafting formidable women characters.
“My wife can take a lot of credit for it. I don’t have a writing partner, so at the end of the day when I’m laying in bed staring at the ceiling, still writing, my wife is the one I talk to about it.”
He said Kathy’s been “completely supportive of his career,” even when he struggled those early years and even now when he freaks out between jobs.
“I always feel like I’m going from job to job,” he said. “That’s what’s exciting about it — going from one story to another, learning about something new. That’s the insecurity of it, too. You’re never quite sure where the next paycheck is coming from. And there’s not a 401K plan. The only difference (now) is that the paychecks have become a little bigger and my car is paid for.”
He said making it as a writer requires “an under appreciated scrapper kind of mentality.” He admits he’s not immune to fits of envy or pity. “At times I go, ‘Why am I not the guy writing Jurassic Park IV?’ But that kind of keeping-up-with-the-Jones mentality is something that terrifies me. I can’t put myself there. I just want to do stories that are close to my gut…I want to do the movies that are going to be remembered. I’m not saying any of mine are, but you gotta strive for that or otherwise I think you’re done.”
“One thing that scares me is if it stops. If suddenly people don’t want to work with me for some reason. I don’t know what I would do. I have a hard time imagining anything else. And I’m sure I always will write, whether I’m getting paid for it or not. Believe me, it’s not about the money, because there are a lot easier ways to go make lots more money. It’s just something I kind of have to do….I love to do.”
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