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Action scenes should tell us something about character, says screenwriter Simon Kinberg, who has four action films coming out one after the other in Australia, starting with xXx 2: The Next Level, again Samuel L. Jackson, this time with Ice Cube as the special agent. Andrew L. Urban spoke to him from New York.

The dinner conversation at young Simon Kinberg’s home usually revolved around classic Hollywood movies or European new wave films of the 50s and 60s, “all of which I loved but I didn’t identify with,” he recalls on a buzzing line from a New York hotel. “So I found refuge in the very exciting and very different world of the Lethal Weapon and Die Hard movies…” Having grown up on and absorbed the action thriller genre, Kinberg is now spewing it back out with scripts for films like Mr & Mrs Smith, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, X-Men 3, Fantastic Four (all coming to Australia soon) – and xXx 2: The Next Level, opening in Australia on April 28, in which Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) and his new agent Darius Stone (Ice Cube) must track a dangerous military splinter group, led by George Deckert (Willem Dafoe), that is conspiring to overthrow the U.S. Government with a coup in Washington.

"the skew to the classical side of cinema"

Growing up in New York, and before moving to Los Angeles, Kinberg had the advantage of an American father who was film professor and an English mother who taught English literature and history. Hence the skew to the classical side of cinema. But Kinberg soon found his own metier; the London-born screenwriter graduated from Brown University and Columbia University, where his senior thesis was the screenplay for Mr & Mrs Smith, about a couple of assassins who discover they are each other’s targets. After jumping considerable hurdles, the film has finally got made.

And now he’s back in New York briefly, staying in a hotel while teaching at the very university he studied: Columbia. He is teaching students in three hour classes “how to re-write for actors and give everyone what they want, but stay true to the script.” One of the practical aspects of his course is how to re-write an action scene in 24 hours, after some calamity has forced changes on the production, “like losing $5 million from the budget.”

The secret is to make sure that action isn’t just action for the sake of it, “but that it tells us something about the characters.” A great deal of the discussion between Kinberg and director Lee Tamahori about the screenplay – both before and during production – concerned what was happening in the action sequences. “When Lee asked me that question it wasn’t about how far is the car going or how does the boat fly under the bridge. He had his ADs and stunt co-ordinators for that. What he was talking to me about was the characters. 

“For example, one of the arcs in the film concerns taking better advantage of Samuel Jackson because I didn’t think he had enough to do in the first movie. So I created this backstory for Ice Cube’s Darius Stone and Sam’s Augustus Gibbons characters, that they had issues together. Darius was a protégé of Gibbons years ago but they had a bad break and he doesn’t trust Gibbons anymore. So if you look at their interaction in each sequence, you’ll see that in the first one they don’t trust each other much, or Darius is working entirely on his own; in the second sequence, he is still suspicious but at least he’s doing something that Gibbons is asking him to do and their interaction is different; and in the third sequence they are actually fighting side by side assisting each other. And all the character sequences in between are obviously building so that we earn those moments, so the action sequence becomes the sort of punctuation mark, or final expression of their character arcs.”

"makes the audience feel more emotionally connected"

Kinberg believes that this approach makes the audience feel more emotionally connected to the movie, “because you feel, yeah, they’re finally fighting together.” Kinberg says he thinks about action movies in the way he thinks of the structure of musicals, “how the characters are so emotional they can't talk anymore, they have to sing - and to me the action sequences are … instead of saying something, the characters do something physical and action oriented. So in xXx 2, a lot of the action sequences are about character; Darius is angry, Darius is scared, Darius is confused, Darius is learning something about himself …. The action is the means to do that.”

(Ice Cube plays the new xXx agent, and he recalls he was in producer Neal Moritz's office “discussing another project when I saw the trailer for the first film. I remember thinking to myself, 'Damn, I should be playing xXx…”)

Kinberg, “a huge fan of Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors – and his undervalued The Edge as well as the last Bond movie which was very sexy,” found working with the New Zealand director a real professional joy. “He came on after the first couple of drafts and my experience with Lee is genuinely as good an experience as a writer can have with a director. He’s a rare director who is very respectful of writers; he doesn’t see us as interchangeable parts, he doesn’t see us as disposable, he sees us as essential. He has a record of keeping the same writer on the film for the entirety of the movie. He never replaced me; I was the first and only writer on the film. He trusted me to keep coming up with what the movie needed and really involved me at every stage. I was sitting next to him looking at the video split wheh we were shooting the movie. He was a real collaborator as opposed to being somebody’s boss…”

Tamahori says he was intrigued by the new film's premise and the producers' decision to set it in the US during the current political climate, which, for him, made the storyline all the more plausible. "I was attracted by the idea of keeping Sam Jackson's character while changing the agent he has to deal with," he muses. "I thought this was a wonderfully original and intriguing approach to continuing the xXx franchise. I also like the fact that the action arena was also very different from the original. Here was a real homegrown American story with the villains housed within the corridors of power.”

"the Hollywood virus that chews up writers and spits them out"

Kinberg is wary of the Hollywood virus that chews up writers and spits them out, even though he hasn’t had the worst of it. Yet on The Fantastic Four, he was sent the script and even though he told the producers he thought it was pretty good, “they still wanted more work done on it. That happens on a lot of movies. So far I haven’t been bitten by it, but some day I will. It’s the good news and bad news syndrome for writers,” he says. “The bad news is you’re going to be fired, the good news is there’s always going to be work….”

Published April 28, 2005

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