Jim Kouf [Interview]

Today we have another appearance of an absolute LEGEND here today for you fine readers! We have some pretty amazing words from the brilliant writer, director, and producer Jim Kouf. Jim has had a career spanning 40 years that has brought us so much joy in so many different ways. No matter what you would consider to be your preferred form of art and/or entertainment, Jim has been there throughout the years to help bring it to the world.

Whether it is writing blockbuster films you know and love like Rush Hour, National Treasure, Stakeout & it’s subsequent sequel Another Stakeout, or producing one of the most popular television series of recent years, the incredible Grimm, this man has a creative mind that the world has been so fortunate to have had even the slightest insight to over the years. And as we are so happy to regularly find out amongst our interview subjects…he’s a hell of a nice guy! Jim was kind enough to tell us how he started in the world of show business, and help us dissect some of his greatest successes in the world of film and television.

In this wonderful interview, we will speak with Jim about everything from chemistry, to fairytales, to his work with the legendary hip hop artist and poet Tupac Shakur, and just so much more. So, without further rambling, please allow me to introduce the brilliant Jim Kouf!

When did you first realize that you wanted to join the world of filmmaking and storytelling? Was it a passion you have always had? Or did you just find yourself in this business one day?

I had a camera in my hand from about the time I was six or seven.  I always loved taking photographs.  I transitioned to bigger and better cameras over the years.  Then to an 8mm camera.  Then started making films in High School.  My first film was for my chemistry class.   I convinced my teacher to let me do a term film instead of a term paper.  I think he was tired of reading term papers so he agreed.  My film was about the day in the life of three brothers and all the chemistry they encountered  which included hunting (which was my girlfriend dressed as a big dog), surfing and going to a party where the drug of choice was a large quantity of lettuce juice, which I discovered through some research, was a mild narcotic.  This was 1968.  The film included live action and animation.  I didn’t know how to do animation, but I figured it out well enough to animate a few sequences; like the chemical reactions of a bullet coming out of a rifle barrel when the gunfire ignites, wax and water on a surfboard while surfing, and the strange chemical composition of lettuce juice.  The soundtrack had to be created on a reel to reel tape, then lined up with the film so both the projector and tape player could be turned on at the same time for the sound to sync.  It always seemed to be off by about a half a second, like a badly dubbed foreign film.  Anyway, the film received great acclaim (because not many students were making films in high school back in the sixties) and I showed it to all the chemistry classes, then all the English classes.

And this was at Burbank High School, in Burbank, CA where Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal Studios are all located.  But did any of my high school councilors suggest that I go into the movie business?  No.  Never mentioned.  I think the only film schools at the time were at USC, UCLA and NYU.  So I didn’t even realize you could get a degree in film making.

But the film making idea really hit me when I was a senior in high school.  I took a date to see The Wild Bunch.  The film was almost sold out so we had to sit in the front row.  And it was not like any movie I’d ever seen.  It was mind-blowing at the time because of the violence.  It was 1969 if I remember correctly.   And I was jolted.  I remember leaving the theater and saying to myself, “That’s what I want to do for a living.”

But I had no idea how to go about doing that that or what it even meant to be a film maker.  So I tried my hand at another 8mm film, then a 16mm.  But I never wrote anything down.  The stories were all in my head.  I didn’t know that films were scripted.  I had never seen a script.

Anyway, I headed north to Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and I got an English degree with a minor in History.  Actually that was probably a better choice for becoming a writer.  As part of my English major, I had a playwriting class and discovered that I loved it and pretty much got straight A’s for the plays I wrote.  They were not great plays, but they were good enough for college.  And it gave me the idea that I could possibly be a writer.  So after graduation, I headed back to Burbank with the intention of breaking into the film business.  I really had no idea what I was doing or how I was going to do it.  I was just determined that I would.  And I guess I figured it out.  I was making a living at it within about two years.

In 1997 you wrote, directed, and got an absolutely amazing performance out of the late hip hop icon Tupac Shakur with the film Gang Related. This film has been a staple to me in the world of cop dramas, and is one I can always go back to no matter how much time may go by. Where did this story come from? What inspired you to tell this very dark story?

Before I answer this I’d like to say Tupac was great to work with.  He really wanted acting to be his way out of the music world, which was controlling his life at the time.  He was also going to score the movie, but was killed 10 days after we finished shooting.  He was a great guy.  We had a lot of fun on set.  And Gang Related had one of the best casts I’ve ever worked with.

I had done a few cop movies, like Stakeout and The Hidden.  And the cops were the good guys.  I was toying with the idea of reality and memory and how they can be manipulated.  And crime is where reality and memory are always tested.  I think of Gang Related as grim farce.  It’s about a couple cops who think they have a handle on how to clean up the streets by taking down drug dealers, making a little profit on the side, and blaming it on a “gang related” murder.  At the time “gang related” was the explanation for a lot of killing on the streets.  No one ever expects a gang related murder to be solved.  After all, it’s just gangbangers killing gangbangers.  And everyone seemed to accept that as an unsolvable explanation of murder on the streets.

So anyway, when they kill a DEA undercover cop instead of a drug dealer their world is turned upside down.  Now they need a “real” killer, someone to take the fall for their killing because the DEA is all over it.  So they grab a drunk and start to recreate the killing in the mind of an innocent.  This is where I wanted to explore how memory could be manipulated.  Given enough information, photographs and recreated participation, the memory will log everything as reality. And the innocent guy believes he actually did the crime and he confesses.  Which surprises everyone.  No one expected someone to plead guilty.  And this eventually leads to his salvation.


In more recent years, you have managed to put out one of the most original and captivating television series of modern times, with the incredible series Grimm. Hailing from the Northwest, just about every actor and filmmaker I know in the Portland area has had some involvement with this program. With that being said, I am curious to know what exactly was the decision point behind making the City of Roses the location to tell these modern Grimm tales? Is there any significance to choosing Portland as a setting?

The Grimm series is based on fairy tales.  And the Grimm fairy tales are dark and brooding and scary and violent.  And a lot of them take place in dark, dank forests.  And for the Grimm Brothers that forest would have been the Black Forest of Germany.  So I knew the area around Portland and realized it would be the perfect place to set the series.  It had a city, mountains, rivers, and forests.  And rain.  We loved the rain.  We actually set the pilot script in Portland.  And they had a tax credit so NBC was all in from the beginning.

Your range has a writer is incredibly impressive. Whether it’s an action/adventure blockbuster like National Treasure, or the more family friendly films like Snow Dogs and Operation Dumbo Drop, to an action comedy like Rush Hour, your knack for storytelling is absolutely phenomenal. In your obvious professional opinion, what are some similar traits amongst the stories that you like to tell? While they are obviously different in context, is there anything you find to be true in and out of each project you work on?

I approach every story through the characters, what they want, how they get it, what happens when they do and how it changes their lives.  To me, whether it’s comedy, drama, action, science fiction or horror, it’s still about character.  I really don’t think in terms of genre.  It’s just a different set of rules for the reality of that particular story.    But you have to make sure you know what the rules are and stick to them.   And all the characters have to be grounded in a reality they believe in.  And I always try to have some comedy in even the darkest stories.  Comedy helps connect an audience to a character.

On the set of Disorganized Crime (1989)


And when it comes to your own enjoyment, what genre of a story do you find the most interesting to tell? If so compelled to pick only one, what would you consider to be your favorite genre to write for?

It’s all about the characters.  And the world they have to survive in.  And I don’t want to bore anybody.  So I try to keep things moving.  I like writing motivated people, good or bad.  And I like pressure cooker plots.  They’re fun to write.

When you look back on your incredibly successful career thus far, what would you say you the most proud of as an artist?

I was able to survive for forty years as a writer.   And I got to produce and direct as well.  And I met my wife and Producing partner, Lynn, and we had a bunch of great kids.  And we had a lot of fun along the way.  It’s been a great adventure.

What does the future hold for you? Anything you would like to plug to our readers?

I’m still working on a bunch of projects.  Either as writer or Producer or both.

What was the last thing that made you smile?

You asking me to do this.

As avid readers know sometimes are guests are so kind to provide in wonderful inside access to behind the scenes photographs from their amazing career. Jim was kind enough to be one of these folks. He provided the photos from Disorganized Crime and Gang Related which are above, and as well as these gems from the set of Grimm set in our beloved Pacific Northwest below. Enjoy!



About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

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