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Jon Bokenkamp is Talking about TAKING LIVES

Jon Bokenkamp is Talking about TAKING LIVES

Interview by Daniel Robert Epstein


When Jon Bokenkamp enters the room you can't help but think that he can't possibly be the guy who wrote the new thriller Taking Lives, starring Angelina Jolie and Ethan Hawke. It's frankly a disturbing film at times with some of the most gruesome images seen since 1995's Se7en. Bokenkamp is a very young looking, clean-cut guy with a swooping haircut reminiscent of Conan O'Brien. But right now he is the go to guy for filmmakers who want a dark and edgy screenplay. Currently, he is working with Marcus Nispel, the director of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre remake, on a project called Need, which not surprisingly deals with a killer psychologist.

Taking Lives is about a "life-jacking" serial killer, Martin Asher, who kills his victims then establishes himself in their lives. He has killed over 19 people in Montreal, and Illeana Scott (Jolie) is an expert FBI profiler who is brought in to catch him.

How much time did you spend with the original novel Taking Lives?

I had spent nine months pitching different takes on the movie. In fact when I first went in to pitch for it, the woman who later hired me said, "This isn't what we want." So I went back and came up with what eventually became the movie. Then I spent three years writing various drafts.

How many times did you read the book?

I read it twice. The very opening of the movie is the first scene of the book. I was flipping through the book and saw the great description, Technicolor sky. So I used that, but it felt weird to flip through the book taking stuff out. Finally, I departed from that.

What will the people who read the book Taking Lives think of the movie?

I hate to say it, but I think it's one of those movies where if you like the book you'll hate the movie and vice versa. But that character of Martin Asher is the core.

What do you think of the casting?

The casting is great. There are only a handful of female leads who can play this part. I didn't realize when I was writing it that the main character was so limited. I didn't even think it was a problem. Who do you get to play this? Angelina is the obvious choice. I did think about her when I was writing it because believe it or not I went to film school with her brother. I thought Ethan was a very interesting choice. I went to the set and saw him working. That's where it became amazing to see. Watching him bring it to life was fascinating because each take would be different. I never knew what that meant like, "Each time they try something new." That actually gives you options. He's scared in this one; then he's angry in another. He did a great job.

Taking Lives producer Mark Canton has said that Angelina's character is more of the Steve McQueen type role of traditional thrillers and Ethan Hawke has the woman's role as the traditional victim. Was that conscious?

I think what was intentional is that I'm intrigued by a strong female character, someone who has sophistication, vulnerability and strength. It wasn't intentional that those roles are flipped, but I see that in my own life. It almost seems like the audience expects the man to be the tough. He has to fight his way out of the situations and say the cool things. I'm not that guy. I wouldn't know how to kick somebody in the forehead and do the karate chop and all that stuff. I might be the guy who might have a glass of wine, then sit in the bathtub and cry about it. I connect with that more. In that sense I think you're allowed into the mind of the lead character. That you wouldn't be given if he was a guy because he's a wimp. I hate that that is the way it is, but it's true.

Taking Lives isn't exactly a groundbreaking thriller, so when the producers told you what kind of a script they wanted, you might think, "Gee, that sounds a lot like a few other movies." What do you do to try to elevate the material?

It sounds cliche, but I think you try to find truth in what they are saying and who they are. The thing that I thought was interesting and different about this is the character of Martin Asher and how he goes from identity to identity, literally taking lives. But it's not about the people he's killed but more about those he hasn't killed and whose lives he's changed. Trying to find something that's real is part of it and trying to find twists that surprise the audience and me while I am writing. It's a long day sitting in a room. I'm not the guy with the music and all the stuff. If something sparks with me on the page, then I hold onto that and try like hell to make that work.

How do you relate to Martin Asher?

I think it would be fascinating to try to do what he does. The murder thing is going a little far, but I think it would be really interesting to charm somebody into gaining their trust then going off and trying to live their life. Identity theft is obviously a very real and spooky thing. Knowing there is a reality where that could happen - that is how I connect to him. In a different life I would have loved to have been a Jim Morrison type, this totally weird crazy guy, but I have a very dorky existence. I live in Burbank with a wife and a kid, and I'm originally from Nebraska, so it's kind of like an alter ego thing. I go to the movies to be that guy for a while, or when I'm writing, it's to be in the character's skin for a couple of months.

What did your wife think of the scene where Angelina is stabbed in her pregnant stomach?

That came about much later. My wife will close her eyes when stuff like that happens. She's very squeamish. We were joking about one time when we drove by Warner Bros.' billboard for the movie. I said, "If I hadn't written this, would you have gone to see this movie?" She said, "Absolutely not." She hates these kinds of movies. She walked out of Scream within the first five minutes. It's kind of odd, but it's a tough notion that happens in Taking Lives. My wife being someone who just had a baby, she probably wouldn't think it was very cute.

Did you have any reservations about putting that scene in?

My original ending was that she has the baby, and the end scene is Angelina walking on the beach with a three year old. You kind of learn that these killers aren't born but made. It was actually (Producer) Bernie Goldmann who came up with the idea for a fake belly very early on. I resisted it at first, but after Hilary Sykes came on to do rewrites, they revisited that. I wasn't driving the boat at that point (laughs).

When writing this movie did you expect it to be so gruesome once it was filmed?

When I showed up on the set and saw all the garrote wires and the blood in the bags, I thought "Oh my god." In your head it's one thing, but when you see it, it's another. But I was just so excited to see it being made, so I was just thrilled.

Did you look at other screenplays for structure?

No, I didn't. I looked at other movies for character stuff like Silence of the Lambs. That's a movie that has a strong female character who's going up against a sicko. I looked at that for tone and what I want to feel like when I walk out of the movie. There wasn't one I looked at for structure.

How about reading screenplays in general?

The movies that I tend to like are 70's movies because I think they used to take bigger risks. Klute, Three Days of the Condor, Marathon Man and The Parallax View. In The Parallax View, he dies at the end. With the '70s movies there was a paranoia that really turns me on. Se7en was another film I thought was wonderfully dark.

How much time did you spend on the set of Taking Lives?

I was only there four days. I was out of place, so people didn't know who I was. It was a generous offer on Warner Bros.' part to let me go up (to Canada). But I wasn't there writing pages or anything like that.

Would you like to spend more time on the set?

I would like, from a directing standpoint, to see how things are coming to life and playing out. I'm a movie buff, so from that standpoint, I would also. But it makes me nervous to see big changes to the script being made at the last minute. To me the script is the blueprint, so leave it alone. But I don't think I would like the challenge of last minute rewrites. It'd feel like I was working in a newsroom, and 5 p.m. is coming, and the story isn't written. That would freak me out. I like the silence and the easygoing life of the writer.

How is it working with Marcus Nispel on Need?

It's going great. It's at Paramount right now, and Marcus had a hit with the remake of Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It's a story of this woman psychologist who finds out her patient is having an affair with her husband. Its kind of, what do you do when you have the keys to someone's psychological closet? She starts gaslighting this woman to get her out of her life. It's a great little story. Chloe King wrote the original story. It's based on a Lawrence David novel, and I've been doing rewrites on it for two years now. The problem with getting Need going is that the studio people keep asking, who are we rooting for in the movie? I say, we don't know. The one woman is the hero, but she's trying to kill another woman.

Is there more directing in your future?

Potentially, but I like the control you get from writing. When I directed (the film Preston Tylk in 2000), what I learned is that it's about compromise - what you would have done or wish you had time for. It taught me to be a better writer because it makes you figure out what you really need to make it work. I'd like to return to directing, but I have a lot more fun writing and not being away from home.

But screenwriting is a lot of compromise. What about being a playwright where the writer is king?

Theater spooks me because I would just feel ignorant, and I'd make a fool of myself because I'm not very educated in theater. I would like to try a novel. Taking Lives was more inspired by that, based on the original book, so in a way I feel it's an original. I've written only one other original script, and that was the one I directed. I would love to get back to that. I'm working on another script that also involves a pregnant lady. - DRE

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