Q & A with Sheldon Lettich By Marco A. S. Freitas (Guest Post)
Born in the Big Apple in january of 1951, Sheldon Lettich moved with his family to the West Coast at a young age. After finishing High School, he joined the Marine Corps, serving his country for four years, one of them as a Radio Operator in Vietnam.
Partially based upon his experiences in Southeast Asia, he co-authored TRACERS, a play seen in the Los Angeles, New York City, Chicago and London stages, to great acclaim; It subsequently won the prestigious DRAMA DESK and L.A. DRAMA CRITICS AWARDS.
The writing of screenplays seemed like a natural progression and his writing eventually began attracting the attention of many Hollywood producers.
Since then, Lettich has become known as expert in testosterone-driven action extravaganzas, many of the films starring some of the silver screen´s best-loved slugfest protagonists: Sylvester Stallone (Sheldon shared screenwriting credit with Sly in the third cinematic episode of the RAMBO series, a film that at the time of its release-1988- was among the five most expensive ever made), Jean-Claude Van Damme (still one of the filmmaker´s closest friends in the business after working with Sheldon in BLOODSPORT, LIONHEART, DOUBLE IMPACT, LEGIONNAIRE and THE HARD CORPS in the 80s and 90s), Bolo Yeung, a.k.a. ´The Beast From The East´ (the well-known bodybuilder from China, played ruthless thugs in BLOODSPORT and DOUBLE IMPACT), the ultra-likeable Mark Dacascos (ONLY THE STRONG, a movie that starts as a ´variation` on school-set culture clash classics like BLACKBOARD JUNGLE and TO SIR, WITH LOVE -´altruistic teacher-meets-tough students` themes-, and it culminates as an all-out actionfest, released in 1993…ONLY…was filmed in Florida, doubling sometimes for remote parts of Brazil); Swiss-born former international model and Tae Kwon Do enthusiast, Daniel Bernhardt, in PERFECT TARGET (filmed in Mexico´s most visited tourist locales around 1996); towering Swedish Karate master-and Chemical Engineer- Dolph Lundgren (THE LAST PATROL, a ´post-nuclear holocaust` pic shot in desertic areas of Israel in the end of the 1990s)
Currently in preproduction in Eastern Europe for a family-friendly picture about an Eastern European dog who gets lost from his human family and joins a bunch of ´homeless mutts´ that ride the Russian subways in search of food, Mr. Lettich recently chatted with Marco A. S. Freitas about his ouvré:
How did your experiences in the Vietnam War help you become a director completely at home with action films?
-I wrote an action screenplay about Vietnam, titled FIREBASE, which was based partially on my Vietnam experiences but mostly on the experiences of other vets I knew. This screenplay got me a lot of traction in Hollywood. First I was approached by director Walter Hill (interviewer´s note: one of the true ´American poets of Cinematic violence` still making movies, some of Hill´s films are THE WARRIORS, 48 HOURS and EXTREME PREJUDICE) and Producer Joel Silver (interviewer´s note: Hollywood Producer responsible for THE MATRIX trilogy, LETHAL WEAPON quadrilogy, COMMANDO, etc) , who wanted to turn it into a feature film. Then I was approached by Stallone, who hired me to co-write RAMBO 3 with him after he´d read my screenplay.
Tell us a bit about your beginning as one of the writers and as a Second unit Director in the no-budget scarefest THOU SHALL NOT KILL…EXCEPT (interviewer´s note: also known by some film collectors as STRYKER´S WAR it has generated a strong cult following from the 80s onwards) and your association with then-struggling filmmakers Sam Raimi, Josh Becker, Bruce Campbell and Scott Spiegel (the four friends worked together again in the better-known EVIL DEAD 2 years later), as the picture´s Second Unit Director.
-I met Josh Becker, the writer/director of THOU SHALL NOT KILL…EXCEPT) when he was living in Los Angeles back in the mid 1970s. Josh eventually introduced me to some of his old movie-making friends from Detroit: Sam Raimi, Rob Tapert (interviewer´s note: Rob became a Producer, with features like the Raimi-directed EVIL DEAD saga, CRIMEWAVE and DARKMAN), Bruce Campbell (interviewer´s note: star of , among other titles, the EVIL DEAD saga, the first two MANIAC COP flicks and WAXWORK 2), and Scott Spiegel. Josh and I co-wrote a horror screenplay called BLOODBATH which became the basis for his 16mm film, STRYKER´S WAR, which later became the feature length version re-titled THOU SHALL NOT KILL…EXCEPT.
I was not really the Second Unit Director on that movie. I had shot a short 16mm Vietnam film titled FIREFIGHT which had a lot of action footage shot at the Marine Corps Base at Camp Pendleton, California in 1983…it featured explosions, helicopters, and soldiers in action. I let Josh use some of that footage in his film, and we couldn´t think of a more appropriate credit for him to give me in exchange for that other than Second Unit Director. So, technically, I didn´t really work on the film with Josh and the other guys.
In the pre-Glasnost/pre-perestroika 80s, the Russians were the ´boogey men` to many people in the western world. It was during that time you coauthored the sweet-natured RUSSKIES, a movie that had a russian as the lead good guy character, something surprisingly fresh for its time, as well as a possible no-no in terms of such politically conservative times. In your view, . How did the final product differ from your original screenplay?
-The original screenplay was a lot bigger, a lot more fun, and a lot more like a typical Spielberg movie of that era. It had a vibe that was more similar in tone to movies like GOONIES and E.T.. It was actually similar to the recent SUPER 8 in some respects, in that it was about a group of kids discovering an important secret that becomes too big for them to handle.
Much is said about Frank Dux (note: Dux claims he had a past as both an undefeated no rules, no holds-barred underground tournament fighter with more than 300 victories under his belt); many question the veracity of his prowess, doubt he´s ever fought in the tournament, called The Kunite,…some even doubt this tournament ever existed. As one of the writers of the succesful BLOODSPORT, the picture that put Van Damme on the map as an action hero, what can you tell us about it? What kind of research did you do?
-I had known Frank Dux for a number of months before I came up with the idea for BLOODSPORT. Frank told me a lot of tall tales, most of which turned out to be bullshit. But his stories about participating in this so-called “Kumite” event sounded like a great idea for a movie. There was one guy who he introduced me to, named Richard Bender, who claimed to have actually been at the Kumite event and who swore everything Frank told me was true. A few years later this guy had a falling-out with Frank, and confessed to me that everything he told me about the Kumite was a lie; Frank had coached him in what to say
Frank also used to tell me, and just about everyone he spoke to, that he had participated in secret missions for the C.I.A. and the U.S. military, and that he had won the Medal Of Honor for his heroism. He even showed me the Medal, which he had supposedly been awarded by the President. Years afterwards, when numerous people began questioning his stories, he stopped claiming that he won the Medal, and then began claiming that he’d never told anyone he won it. He even tried to convince me that he’d never told me he won the Medal, or that he’d even shown it to me, but by then his entire house of cards had collapsed and nearly everyone knew he was just a delusional day-dreamer and a big bullshitter.
Tell us about your work with Sly Stallone in RAMBO 3.
-Basically I wrote an outline after working out a story with Stallone, and then I wrote a first draft screenplay. Sly re-wrote my screenplay a couple of times, and then he asked me to come back and re-write over his version. The final version has a lot of stuff that was written by Sly while they were filming in Israel and Arizona.
How did you get to go from writer to debuting as helmer of LIONHEART?
-Jean-Claude and I met when he returned to Los Angeles after filming BLOODSPORT in Hong Kong. We became close friends almost immediately after that. He saw the short film I directed, FIREFIGHT, and felt suitably impressed that I could direct a feature film. But mainly he knew that I believed in him, that I believed he could be so much more than just a “Karate Star” doing nothing more than low-budget martial arts movies for the rest of his career. That’s why he persuaded Sunil R. Shah (interviewer´s note: Sunil and his brothers, Ash and Sundip, created IMPERIAL ENTERTAINMENT GROUP in the early 80s, and through this company the duo produced movies like PRAY FOR DEATH, BLACK EAGLE-both vehicles for ´the King of Ninja Movies of The 80s`, Japanese tough guy Sho Kosugi-, and the very enjoyable ´Karate Kid variation`, SHOWDOWN) to give me a chance on LIONHEART.
One of my favorite Cinematographers is Richard H. Kline (interviewer´s note: a few of the motion pictures Kline has photographed are the gorgeous-looking STAR TREK:THE MOTION PICTURE-the production with the highest budget spent on Special Effects at the time-, THE classic ANDROMEDA STRAIN and the steamy Richard Gere-Valérie Kaprisky pairing BREATHLESS). How was your partnership with him in DOUBLE IMPACT?
-Richard H. Kline is one of my idols; I especially loved his work on CAMELOT. I felt unbelievably fortunate when I was told that he would be our Director of Photography on DOUBLE IMPACT. One of the things I liked about working with Richard was that he would follow through on ideas that he and I discussed beforehand. During pre-production we had talked about working with mixed light sources, and with putting colored gels over the lights to get some dramatic effects with opposing color temperatures. You´ll notice there is a lot of that throughout the film.
How was to work with the superb musician Pino Donaggio (interviewer’s note: Venetian-born Giuseppe Donaggio, was also a popular romantic singer in the 60s— his romantic classic IO CHE NON VIVO remains one of most iconic romantic songs in Italian Discography—, and throughout the years has done the scoring for many aclaimed features, from CARRIE-Brian De Palma after that experience hired Pino five more times!-, to three of David Schmoeller´s small-budgeted gems, TOURIST TRAP and CATACOMBS, among them, to name only a few of the 100+ works the Italian has done in movies) in THE ORDER?
SL: Unfortunately I didn’t get the opportunity to work with Donaggio nearly as close as I would have liked. After our initial spotting session he returned to his home-studio in Europe to compose the score and to record some of his ideas with temp tracks that were created on a synthesizer. I was supposed to go to his studio to hear these tracks and to work with him on refining them, but the producers of the film refused to pay for my plane ticket to fly to Italy. In retrospect I should have simply paid for the ticket out of my own pocket. the score ended up okay but he theme piece he wrote was one of the best pieces ever written for any of his films.
You’ve directed character actors Geoffrey Lewis (interviewer’s note: the very busy character actor’s seen in classic Westerns like MY NAME IS NOBODY, SILVER SADDLE- starring heartthrob Giuliano Gemma-known as ´Montgomery Wood´ in some US markets-, – and THE RETURN OF A MAN CALLED HORSE), the striking-looking Brian Thompson (interviewer’s note: some of the thespian’s most famed performaces are in the Stallone “ode to Dirty Harry” COBRA, where Brian played the evil antagonist, Bud Cort’s directing debut TED&VENUS and the fantasy epic DRAGONHEART), more than once: Lewis in DOUBLE IMPACT and ONLY THE STRONG and Thompson in LIONHEART, PERFECT TARGET and THE ORDER. Their acting is among the best in their careers. Please describe us your directing process with the two.
SL: There was very little “directing” to do with either of these two pros. What was important was discussing their characters with them beforehand, doing some rehearsing with them and the other actors, and then just letting them go once the cameras started rolling. Once we’re on the set and the crew is standing around waiting, there’s very little time for lengthy discussions about character motivations and all that business. With pros like Brian and Geoffrey I generally have one of four notes that I might give them after a take: faster, slower, louder, or softer. If we’ve done our homework it’s really that simple.
Talk a bit about about your ´introduction´ to Capoeira (interviewer’s note: a blend of dance and fighting style developed in the 1800s in Brazil by African slaves working in the sugarcane plantations), and the genesis behind making the first English-language movie with that art at its core.
-The first time I saw or heard of Capoeira was at an event called “Budo-Fest” in Paris, which I attended with Van Damme. Producer Samuel Hadida, was there also. He had distributed LIONHEART and DOUBLE IMPACT in France, and hired me the following year to develop an action movie based around Capoeira (note: , the film´s star, Mark Dacascos, got rave reviews from many top critics for his charismatic performance ONLY…, a feat that is pretty uncommon when it comes to reviewing martial arts movies and the like).
How was directing the late movie icon Charlton Heston in THE ORDER?
-Heston was a total pro He would show up for a weekend rehearsal wearing a suit and a tie, with his script in his hand and his dialogue highlighted, just like an actor who was doing his first big movie and wanted to impress the director and the other cast members. Well, I was impressed with him. Filming a movie in Israel with the star of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and BEN HUR has got to be one of the highest high-points of my movie career.
About Marco A.S Freitas
Graduated from Columbia College with a B.A. in Film and finnished The UCLA Extension Program in Screenwriting.
A native of Piauí, in the northeast of Brazil, Marco has been a fan of Cinema as far as he can remember and one of his earliest memories of the impact films can have on a person´s mind is seeing stills of a bloody Udo Kier from ANDY WARHOL´S DRACULA hanging on the wall of a Brazilian movie theatre and being unable to sleep by himself at night, having to share the bed with his older sister, Betina.
*Photographer : Dan Stewart