Jim Kouf Interview

Best known for his action films, 1987's Stakeout, 1997's Gang Related and 1998's Rush Hour, Jim Kouf also wrote two teen sex comedies, 1983's Class and 1985's Secret Admirer. I spoke with Jim by phone November 2, 2001.

Jim was born in Hollywood on July 24, 1951.

"I grew up in Burbank. My neighbors were a make-up man and sound people and camera operators. I never paid much attention to it growing up but when I was in college, I found that I could write."

An English major at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, Jim received good grades for his classes in writing drama.

"I've always loved film and I made films in high school, never thinking that you could make a living at it. Once I realized I had talent, I wondered if I could make a living at it. Hollywood was closer than New York."

Luke: "How did you bust your way in?"

Jim: "Just like everybody else. I got a copy of a script, because I had no idea what a film script looked like, and that was how I learned to write. I didn't take any film classes because they didn't have any. Now everybody's got a film school.

"I have a knack for telling stories. My brain works in a movie way."

Jim wrote the 1983 TV movie White Water Rebels, collecting his first paycheck for a script.

Luke: "Which of your films has had the most meaning for you?"

Long pause.

Jim: "The most meaning? Umm. God, I don't know. They're all special in some way when you start them. Then they either become these beasts that you never want to see again or you embrace them and they go with you whereever you go. They all mean something, either painfully or joyfully. Obviously the films that were the most successful meant the most for my career like Rush Hour and Stakeout.

"I used the psuedonym Bob Hunt for the 1994 film The Hidden. I like it more now than when they first made it. It was one where they didn't have quite enough money to do the monster correctly so I was horrified when I saw it. But in retrospect, it's won some awards. It's not so bad.

"There were movies like The Alien made earlier which had incredible monsters in it and I looked at this one and went, 'Oh God, this is going to sink my career.' It's not that I didn't like the film. It's that I didn't like the big bug in the film."

Luke: "You specialize in action films?"

Jim: "I've tried many different genres. The action ones are easier to get made. Some of my best scripts haven't been made - a more dramatic piece or more unusual in their story-telling technique. You either take a lot of chances and they make it because you've taken a lot of chances or you take a lot of chances and they don't make it because you've taken a lot of chances."

Luke: "How did you meet your wife Lynn Bigelow?"

Jim: "We met at Paramount. My old writing partner (David Greenwald) and I were writing Airplane 3 and she was working on Airplane 2."

Jim directed the 1997 film Gang Related, which was rapper Tupac Shakur's last hurrah before he was murdered.

"He was a talented guy and knew what he was doing on set. I heard a lot of nightmare stories about him going on but I never had any problems with him. He was more worried about somebody shooting him than anything else. I remember being on the set with him one day when he got mad at his bodyguard and said, 'You're not watching my back.' And I remember we all looked around and started watching our own backs. He brought a heightened reality to what we were doing.

"The shoot was a good experience. It lasted 30 days and we shot it all in downtown LA. Considering we shot a feature film in 30 days, things went smoothly."

Luke: "Did it scare you casting someone like Tupac?"

Jim: "No. The only thing that would scare me is if he couldn't act. If he can act, I'm all for it."

Luke: "Is it possible for someone to have too shady a past for you to cast them?"

Jim: "Like Saddam Hussein? Yeah, I don't think I'd cast Saddam in a movie. Unless he could really act."

Luke: "Maybe I'm just a wimpy Jewish boy, but it'd scare me casting Tupac?"

Jim: "No, no. When you meet him, he's just a genuine guy."

Luke: "But didn't he sing about killing cops."

Jim: "Yeah, but he didn't go out and kill them. He was singing ghetto stuff. That was part of the world he grew up in."

Luke: "Do people at school make comments to your kids about your films?"

Jim: "No. What I get mostly is, 'I saw Rush Hour last night. It was really great.' You've got to be really interested in film to talk to a screenwriter or a director. We're so removed from what they know about films. Most people when they go see a movie think those people (the actors) are doing the movie. That's the magic of movies. You forget they're acting and get into the story. Most people want to talk to John Travolta and Tupac."

Luke: "You wrote for the TV series Angel?"

Jim: "Yes, with my old writing partner David Greenwalt. I wanted to get into television for a couple of seasons to see what it was like. The part I didn't like about television was that it sucks away your life. TV happens every week and every eight days, you're shooting and writing something new. I much prefer the slower pace of features. The good part of TV is that it happens. Every Tuesday night at 8PM, there it is. The problem with features is, well, if we don't make it this year, we'll make it next year.

"You can do a lot of serious material with television that you can't do with features anymore. They'll say with features, well, we're looking for an action comedy. Television is a great opportunity if you want to give up your life."

Luke: "Tell me about 1997's Con Air?"

Jim: "My wife and I were the original producers on that. We took the original material, which was based on a Los Angeles Times article, and fashioned a story. I wrote much of the original draft but I did not fight for a credit. The Writer's Guild determines all credits. I was directing Gang Related at the same time and I had no time to write a dissertation on why I thought I deserved credit on it.

"We couldn't deliver Tony Scott, the director that Disney wanted. Jerry Bruckheimer wanted to produce the film so Disney took it away from us and gave it to Jerry."

Luke: "And they threw you an executive producer credit?"

Jim: "That's right. The whole structure of the film is ours. My original version had the Con taking their jet aircraft, a 737, and heading for the White House over the rush hour traffic of the freeway system so it couldn't be shot down. That was taken out because nobody thought that was possible."

Luke: "What was your role with 1993's Kalifornia?"

Jim: "We found the script, found the studio, helped cast it, and worked with the writer and director. It was a real cantankerous relationship between the writer Tim Metcalf and the director Dominic Sena. They wound up accusing each other of various dastardly deeds."

Luke: "And you were the calming force?"

Jim: "I tried to be. It was like trying to bring the Palestinians and Israelis together."

Luke: "In the typical battle between a writer and a director, wouldn't the director almost always win?"

Jim: "Yeah. Essentially, once you start making a movie, the director is in control and there's nothing a write can do."

Luke: "Tell me about the 1993 film Another Stakeout."

Jim: "It was not as good an experience on set as the 1987 Stakeout. I don't think the film we finally released was the best film we shot. I felt that the film we released was too silly. We had a much better version that was more in keeping with the original Stakeout, which was an edgier picture. We did shoot that. But sometimes, what happens when everybody decides they're making a comedy, they try to be funnier. And sometimes the comedy falls flat on its face.

"When you do those test screenings, and you get one laugh, you think, we should go for that other laugh. People forget that you sometimes have to go with your gut feelings about things. You can't let these recruited audiences dictate the final cut."

Luke: "What was it like working with director John Badham?"

Jim: "John and I have had our ups and downs. I've done three films with John. We have our times when it works wonderfully well and times when it is difficult. That's typical of any relationship in film because everybody has a different opinion about what is going on."

Luke: "He seems like a meticulous filmmaker?"

Jim: "John loves to be on the floor. He loves to shoot."

Luke: "The 1987 Stakeout film?"

Jim: "That went well. John was really in tune with the material and did a good job. It's a miracle when a movie comes out the way you imagined it because of all the elements that have to come together to make the movie work. Movies are magic and when they work, it's almost out of your control. Audiences will pick up on things that you don't see and don't think about."

Luke: "Class and Secret Admirer."

Jim: "It's amazing how many comments I get from men in their 30s who say, I grew up with that movie. These were coming of age movies. And we thought we were just writing a comedy."

Luke: "Do you think movies affect people significantly?"

Jim: "I think movies have the power to affect people in great ways."

Luke: "If movies can have a significant affect on people, then surely that can also be an affect for evil? Do you have a responsibility to society for your work?"

Jim laughs: "I don't think I've ever written anything too evil. Unless people really hate my comedies. There's nothing worse than a bad comedy. I have a responsibility to myself. I don't think along those lines [of responsibility to society]. I try to write entertaining movies.

"I try to write movies that I would want to go see or that I would want to take my kids to go see. I'm not interested in gruesome movies. Kalifornia was as grim as I get. Even my oldest daughter, who's 13, has not seen Class or Secret Admirer. When she's 16, I'll say, 'Here's a stack of what dad did 20 years ago.'"

Jim's lived in Montana since 1985, appreciating its "wide open spaces." He has four kids.