Screenwriter Robert Mark Kamen On “Angel has Fallen”
The Angel Has Fallen onto our cinema screens to end the summer with an nail-biting, high-octane action movie. It’s the third in the series of actioners, following Olympus Has Fallen (2013) and London has Fallen (2016). Each film tracks the exploits of Secret Service Agent Mike Banning to battle the forces of evil while not getting himself killed. The original Mike Banning character was created by Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, who also wrote the story for Angel Has Fallen. The screenplay was penned by Robert Mark Kamen and Matt Cook & Ric Roman Waugh (director). Kamen spoke with Creative Screenwriting Magazine about how this writing collaboration came together.
The screenwriter didn’t get his start in the film industry in the big action genre. “If you look at the first four or five films I wrote, they were more dramas like Taps and Split Image,” said Kamen. “I first started writing action when I went to work for Warner Bros. in the late eighties as a ‘script assassin’ – my term for the guy/gal who comes in and gets a script into shape ready for filmin.” We all remember those big eighties action films – all braun, little brain. Kamen found his work as an action script assassin was fun. “My credo has always been “follow the fun. It will occasionally get you in trouble, but mostly it will lead to good food, good friends, good films, and… great wine.”
The screenwriter hadn’t initially planned on writing Angel Has Fallen. “I was hired to fix a script that wasn’t working for Gerry [Butler] or the studio. I just approached it as “what film in the series would I like to see next. The answer was the one where Mike gets totally screwed over and has to fight his way back,” he added.
“I basically threw out the original script that was all about Air Force One and wrote a brand new take on the material. One that was more character driven, less about the boom and blow up, and less about the grand plot.”
The story and writing team didn’t actually work together simultaneously. It was more consecutive. Kamen got in touch with Rothenberger and Benedikt after he wrote his screenplay. “He told the that Olympus Has Fallen had a great premise which worked because the character they created in Mike found the perfect actor. Gerry is the perfect Mike. He’s a lovely human being in person. And even though he goes all tough as nails in the movies, the basic deceny of who he is in real life comes through whether he is conscious of it or not.”
Doing a page one rewrite can ruffle a few feathers. Kamen considered how to tackle the screenplay by balancing the original heart of the franchise with his personal take to allow a consistent flow across the movies. “Always keep in mind that there is a basic truth to what the creators created, and try not to stray too far from that, just improve on it where I can. There is truth to the old saw ‘leave well enough alone,’” he mused.
Matt Cook and director Ric Roman Waugh are the other credited screenwriters of Angel Has Fallen. “I [Kamen] never met either one of them. I was long gone and onto something else by the time Ric came onto the project. I assume he brought Matt along to execute his ideas.”
The action film genre has often been dismissed as style over substance. While this maxim holds true to a degree, attention must be given to the character development. “Mike has a clear sense of right and wrong. And an overdeveloped sense of loyalty. If he was in the movie business, he wouldn’t last a week,” joked Kamen.
Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) does not significantly deviate from the typical action hero mold. “They’re all good guys with a moral dilemma that gets solved through extreme violence and a heroic sense of right and wrong,” summarized Kamen. It’s this simplicity that makes Mike so relatable as the everyman.
Mike Banning is the dutiful stalwart who prefers to stay out of the spotlight. His everyday authenticity and down-to-earth humor stands out against today’s line-up of ostentatious, fantastical superheroes. We witness his humanity within his superior combat skills. Like all solid heroes. he has his flaws. He won’t admit he can’t survive a day without painkillers. He’s estranged from his father, and he wants to make amends among the craziness surrounding him. Life is a struggle as Banning battles adrenaline toxicity. And he needs to rescue the president in the process.
“Banning keeps trying to resign from a job he knows is grinding him to a nub. He’s emotionally depleted. He wants to reclaim some of his life and live a normal existence before there is nothing left of him. But that loyalty thing, that right and wrong thing, keeps messing him up,” continued Kamen. There are lessons to be learned and tough decisions to be made.
We can’t forget that Angel Has Fallen is an action film. And the genre demands… well… spectacular action sequences. The movie does not disappoint. But too many vacuous chases and explosions can leave the audience emotionally empty. Kamen realizes the need to balance visually stunning action sequences with more tender character moments. The screenwriter consulted Larry Gordon’s Whammo Chart to achieve this balance. “Every ten pages WHAMMO! And in the between pages try to explain who this person is. And why he does what he does.”
Then there was the achingly relevant Russian subplot in the film which references today’s political climate. “I think Ric [Roman Waugh] and Matt [Cook] developed the Russian connection storyline later. My sub plot, the reason for the assassination attempt on the POTUS, and the set up of Mike [Banning] had more to do with the craven motives of a giant hedge fund guy who was about to be put out of business when the POTUS (Morgan) signed legislation making his beneficial tax loop holes go away.”
“He owned lots of companies and one of them was the his friend’s (Wade) weekend warrior/mercenary training facility. The legislation was going to wipe out Wade’s entire investment and leave him with nothing but his army pension, which he had pledged as collateral to buy the place in the first place. The VP was the one looking to kill the legislation, surreptitiously.”
“The whole Russian storyline was much grander in ambition, but a bit ambigious. The hedge fund plot came about because I read about this huge guy who owned just such a facility along with a Blackwater type contractor company, who spread money around to get government contracts, and to keep legislation from shutting down his tax loopholes. My idea was to tie the craven pursuit of money to the fact that one of these guys (like Erik Prince… or this other guy) would go to any lengths to make a buck… including killing the POTUS.”
Kamen was asked how modern action films compare to the ones of previous decades. “More blow up, more CGI. More More More. I really think things like the car chases in Bullitt and The French Connection were more connected to the characters and so you went with them totally. Now you watch insane stunts and CGId action that is done by computer generated imaging, and it is hard to stay connected. You are just overwhelmed. Gimme John Wick and those geniuses of gritty reality based over the top gonzo action like David and Chad any day.”
His advice for action screenwriters is simple. “Get characters you care deeply about and then put them in increasingly impossible situations… and call David and Chad. Try and care more about your characters and the truth of the story you are trying to tell. Anyone can write an action scene. It’s the people doing the action that are hard to write.“
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