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Filmmaker Interview: Albert Pyun
September 08, 2008 by Nicanor Loreti
Filmmaker Interview: Albert Pyun
I remember liking Albert Pyun's films before I even knew he directed them. When I was really young during the 90's, I used to watch HBO all day long, and they would run his movies one after the other. Hell, it was almost the only thing they'd run. Those and NEAR DARK!

I watched lots of them: BRAIN SMASHER, a demented action comedy starring Andrew "Dice" Clay and Teri Hatcher, MEAN GUNS, an action extravaganza starring Christopher Lambert, the post apocalyptic martial arts-horror-action movie CYBORG, and, especially, the cyberpunk adventure NEMESIS.

I liked those not only because they were strange but also because they were imaginatively directed. I remember discussing his movies with a friend back then and saying: "The good thing about Pyun's movies is that the guy has an eye for directing. He creates cool shots." In the B-movie world, his films were different. Pyun is an extremely talented filmmaker, and he could have gone A-list during the 90's. I don't really know why he didn't... Maybe he liked the freedom of making B-films... Or maybe it just wasn't meant to happen.

Years passed and we ended up working together on a horror western called LEFT FOR DEAD down here in my country, Argentina. It was an extremely low budget movie, and we completed principal photography in eleven and a half days. It was then that I learned something about this guy: he's not only completely mad, but he can also finish a film in the most absurd and demanding circumstances. He's an unstoppable force of nature, and if he cannot finish something, then NO ONE can. You can say whatever you want about his films, you might not like a lot of them believe me, he doesn't either- but, while watching CAPTAIN AMERICA, you cannot stop thinking: "How the hell did they even get to finish this?" Well, Albert Pyun was directing. Anyone else would have quit after one week!

I heard you started working for Akira Kurosawa... How did this happen and what was your experience like working with him?

When I was 18, I was invited to Japan by the great Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune. At the time, Mifune was working with Kurosawa on the prep for what became DERSU UZALA. My experience was limited to a few weeks of that prep. Instead, Mifune opted not to do the film and instead continued on a TV series his company was producing. I became part of Takao Saito's camera crew. Saito was Kurosawa's DP having shot Red Beard, etc. The strongest influences on me came from Saito and his professional approach and artistic sensitivity. Saito taught me to SEE.

What was it like working with Richard Lynch in THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER?

It was wonderful and inspiring. Richard was intensely creative. He literally spilled over with ideas everyday. He worked hard to make each scene the best it could be. Richard remains one of the most focused and professional actors I have ever worked with. A very gifted and courageous artist. THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER was actually a quite difficult shoot and I was tempted to quit or was threatened with being fired throughout. Richard and Lee Horsely were instrumental in supporting me.

In seven of your movies - for example DOLLMAN - there's a character named Brick Bardo. Why?

Brick Bardo was the stage name of a cameraman named Joe Bardo. Joe was instrumental in my early career and it's as homage to Joe that I used the name. Plus, I just loved the sound of the name: Brick Bardo. It has the late 50's, early 60's ring like Tab Hunter or Rock Hudson. As a character, Brick Bardo made his first appearance as a 50's greaser in RADIOACTIVE DREAMS, a film I made in 1984.

BLADE RUNNER a big influence in your career?

Hmmm. Good question. Not sure. It wasn't a conscious decision. I think the attraction was it enabled me to explore the question of 'what is human?' within the context of a commercial action film. It probably created some degree of conflict in that it made the action film a little too offbeat and muddled. As an exploration of the human condition, the questions were lost in the demands of an action film. I always tried to give the cyborgs some longing to discover who they were, why they existed and what meaning their existence had as they fought, burned and kick-boxed.

NEMESIS is my favorite film of yours. Did you storyboard the action scenes? Those were amazing. How do you usually work?

No storyboards. Ever. I worked pretty organically. I just go were my impulses lead and mostly where the budget and time limitations dictate! I have always called my style of filmmaking "evolutionary filmmaking." I take the limits of budget and time and try to stretch both to fit my vision. I don't try to fight the limitations. Instead I flow with them. The only film where I feel my style met with utter failure is TICKER. I just couldn't overcome the funding for the production budget (less than $600,000) and the schedule (11 shoot days).

I've done films on shorter schedules and lesser production budgets, but the companies and personalities involved really beat me up. For instance, POST MORTEM with Charlie Sheen was shot in nine days and DECEIT was shot in three days, and I was satisfied with the creative outcome of each. Charlie really made POST MORTEM the success it was with his talent and heroism. He worked only six days and had to do 18-20 pages and 15-16 scenes per day! Wow!

With regards to NEMESIS, it was originally conceived with a female lead and I had discussions with Megan Ward (ARCADE) to play "Alex." I even did a photo shoot with Megan made-up as the character. Those stills convinced Ash Shah at Imperial Entertainment that NEMESIS could be a success. But Imperial had a French kick-boxer under contract that they were trying to develop into the next Van Damme. So in exchange for the financing, Alex became a male and, because of the French kick-boxer's limited command of English, the script under went an extreme rewrite. The story suffered, but I had a great stunt man in Bob Brown and a daring DP in George Mooradian. Those two added punch via the action.
I did NEMESIS 2 with a female lead, but I was never able to capture what the original could've been.

In 1998, I did begin work on a 2.0 upgrade of the original film where we used digital effects to remake the original shots to a greater production level. My company, Filmwerks Digital, got as far as 20 minutes completed before Imperial Entertainment and their principal backer, Scanbox, went bankrupt. By the way, did you notice Thomas Jane in NEMESIS? I think it was his first, or close to first, film role. Even then it was evident he was going to be a great actor and star.

You?ve worked on several times with Tim Thomerson and Nicholas Guest. Is it easier to work with actors you?ve used before?

Yes, especially on the tight schedules and budgets I am usually given. You get much more in the way of performance and quality of a scene working with actors you have a history with. Both Tim and Nick are wonderfully imaginative and bring so much to every role they do. I've worked a lot with very experienced and gifted stage actors as well, such as Norbert Weisser, Scott Paulin and the late Brion James. I've really been very lucky with the actors I've been fortunate to work with. From Teri Hatcher (BRAINSMASHER) to Rutger Hauer and Christopher Lambert. Each has been a wonderful creative collaborator, and all have been supportive despite the limitations of budget and time. For instance, on KNIGHTS, Kris Kristofferson worked as a grip in helping the small crew in difficult locations and drove the actors' van to and from location. An amazing man and artist.

Which one of your movies is your favorite and why?

Probably my most perfectly realized pictures have been MEAN GUNS, DECEIT, BRAINSMASHER and DOWN TWISTED. I love those four because I was able to get so close to my vision of how I wanted to tell those stories. The difficulty I've had is generally my ambition for the films far exceeded the budget and schedule. But on those four films I had proper funding and the creative freedom to do my best work. I owe a lot to Steve Friedman, the head of King's Road who passed away in 1986; and Ash Shah, my friend and fellow anarchist. Steve produced THE LAST PICTURE SHOW and THE BIG EASY amongst many great pictures. I learned a lot from Steve. With Ash it was like I had found a kindred soul. Ash ran production for Imperial Entertainment and now heads Silver Nitrate Entertainment. I hope everyone who judges my body of work is able to view those four films. My best and proudest work.

By the way, DECEIT was shot while I was doing reshoot pickups for CYBORG. The film I had turned in was a heavy metal headbangers adventure film. Very dark. Very pessimistic. The Cannon execs and Van Damme (via his crony Sheldon Lettich) decided the film should go in another direction. A reshoot was mandated. I was so unhappy about what was occurring I conceived the idea of doing a small film. I used the reshoot to mount this small picture. I selected the CYBORG shoot locations to match what I needed to shoot for DECEIT. Then I arranged with the crew to pre-rig and pre-light the CYBORG shots so they could later be used for DECEIT. The crew kept mum as did the equipment companies. There were times when Van Damme and his crony Lettich wondered about the strange choice of shooting location and rigging. Luckily, no one guessed we were prepping and shooting another entire film. The night after we wrapped the CYBORG shoot (conveniently on a Thursday), we began shooting DECEIT over the weekend. The camera, lights, etc. were wrapped and returned on Monday and no one was the wiser. The film cost $22,000. It was shot with only one take for each shot because I had less than 13,000 feet of film and the final film was 10,000 feet long. No margin for error and the actors were perfect. I later sold DECEIT to Menahem Golan and I have found it in video stores from Switzerland to Hong Kong.

About DOLLMAN, was it complicated to shoot it considering the main character was small and you had to keep in mind the FX at all times?

What was difficult was the lack of budget. Charlie Band did everything on a shoestring back then. So, most of the effects and "cheats" took real ingenuity and preparation. We really needed to have the film properly funded to actualize the concept in a real way. Charlie's a very nice man, but the severe budget challenges were too much, even for a 12 day shoot schedule. For instance, once the crew hadn't been paid and in order to keep it going, cash showed up on set at lunch. It was that tight. A very tense shoot. Great cast though with Seth Green, Peter Billingsly, John DeLancie and Don being real pleasures. Another difficult matter was that Charlie and I had some creative differences on the project which I shot back to back with "Arcade". I think the budget for both was less than $700,000. Charlie originally imagined DOLLMAN as a shrunken scientist fighting insects like the Disney film staring Rick Moranis. I had a different take. A grittier noir comedy built on a shrunken tough cop. It was my tagline that sold Charlie: "Thirteen inches with an attitude".

It must have been a trip working with Steven Seagal and Dennis Hopper together in TICKER Please, tell me about that experience.

Well, there's a book there! To take personalities like Seagal, Tom Sizemore, Hopper, Nas, Chilli and Jaime Pressely and then try to do an action film in 10 days with only $600,000. Wow. Now that was an insane decision. One of my worst films. I have to say that the actors, including Seagal, did try hard. It was just doomed from the start by bickering between the US distributor and the foreign distributor. Hopper was great on the one day he worked. Sizemore was a total pro as well. Seagal worked six days of the ten day shoot. And he was in that transition period from being a theatrical star to falling to the video bins. A tough drop for any actor, but more so to someone like Steven who has been dogged by insecurities, I think.

On top of everything else, I caught a bad case of flu at the start of the shoot and it hampered me as much as the severe time and budget limitations. By the way, Seagal actually helped me recover by giving me herbs and medicine. In a lot of ways, Steven is a kind and caring man. But he has a self-destructive streak. I guess many of us do.
The film was a financial success. The second most profitable film after THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT for Artisan, and winner of the 2002 VSDA Independent Direct to Video Film of the Year Award.

Steven and I almost did a film called OVERKILLERS for Sony in 2001. It was set in 15th century China and Steven had even met with Zhang Zi Yi about doing the picture. But it basically fell apart after EXIT WOUNDS came out and Steven believed he was once again a "studio theatrical star."

CYBORG was shot using sets from the unfinished MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE 2. Where you ever attached to that project? What do you remember about shooting CYBORG and working with Van Damme?

CYBORG was a product of what could have been a career-shifting period of my life. I knew that Cannon had the rights to SPIDER-MAN and sequel rights to MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE. I also knew that the SPIDER-MAN rights were about to expire. I proposed to Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus that I make both pictures back to back in North Carolina (at De Laurentiis' studio in Wilmington. Cannon agreed. And I cast both pictures. I can't remember who we cast for Peter Parker, but big wave surfer Laird Hamilton was cast as He-Man (replacing Dolph Lundgren).

Brooklyn sets for SPIDER-MAN were built on the Wilmington stages and I had a number of creative discussions with Stan Lee and Joe Calamari of Marvel. I had wanted to use the Black Spidey costume, but this was vetoed. The script was based on the original story only. The budget was my largest at $6 million. MASTERS OF THE UNIVERSE 2 was based on my story. Sets and costumes were built. The film was fully cast. Mattel Toys had a great many approvals and it was a trying process getting everything Okayed by the corporate giant. It had a budget of $4.5 million.

The concept was to shoot 2 weeks of SPIDER-MAN first. The section of Peter Parker's story before he was bitten. Then we would shoot 6 weeks of MASTERS 2. The actor cast to play Parker would undergo an 8 week workout regimen supervised by a fitness professor at UCLA, Dr. Eric Sternlicht, to build size and muscle mass. After shooting Masters 2 we would resume shooting SPIDER-MAN.

Two weeks away from shooting, it was discovered that Cannon had bounced the rights check to Marvel, canceling the deal, and it was discovered that Mattel was owed a large rights payment as well. With Cannon in deep financial straits, the negotiations with Marvel and Mattel fell apart! Remember this was 1988 and the junk bond market which had fueled Cannon's rise had collapsed.

Having spent well over $2 million on sets, costumes, and prep, Cannon was desperate to find away to recoup their spend. I suggested we do a film that could utilize as much of what had been built and prepped and that would cost very little in addition. I wrote a first draft of what became CYBORG over a weekend and brought in a young actor - who wanted to be a screenwriter - to do polishes. His name was Don Michael Paul and he has gone on to write and direct HALF PAST DEAD and HARLEY DAVIDSON AND THE MARLBORO MAN.
I was interested in Chuck Norris to star as he was under contract to Cannon. Instead Menahem suggested a Belgian kick-boxer they had just starred in BLOODSPORT. That's how Van Damme became the lead. His accent was so thick that we had to change the character from an over-the-hill ex-Army Ranger to what the Gibson character became. It pretty much gutted the character arc.

What I remember most from the film was exhaustion. The turnabout from prepping to shoot SPIDER-MAN and MASTERS 2 to writing and shooting CYBORG was punishing. We had to figure out ways to use what had been built and created for two different films in a short period of time. As I recall, the budget on CYBORG was less than $500,000, including Van Damme's salary. It was shot in 24 days of principal.
All in all, my expectations were quite low for the film's success given the mad circumstances.

What was it like working for Cannon?

Fun, exciting... A wild ride with the go-go boys, as they were called. Got to interact with an eclectic mix of directors like Andrei Konchalansky and Tobe Hooper.

And what about Full Moon? You did ARCADE and DOLLMAN for them.

I like Charlie Band. But his financial model and cookie cutter approach was a little trying. A very difficult environment and I did not enjoy my time there.

You made several movies in High Def. Do you think it?s the future of filmmaking? What are the pros and cons of working with those cameras?

I think the format is great. Its only limitation is shooting in daylight (tricky) and shooting action. Great care must be taken. But it's a very liberating format that looks great if you can afford time to refine the look during the Digital Intermediary process. Both COOL AIR and ONFECTION were shot using the Sony HD process. It allowed more coverage and faster set ups.

MEAN GUNS had amazing action sequences and also a lot of humor. The same could be said about BRIANSMASHERS. Do you think it?s important for an action movie to also be funny?

Yes. I've always tried to include humor. How can you not? Based on the crazy scenarios I was putting on film! My sensibilities are to see the humor and irony of many of the situations in my films.

RADIOACTIVE DREAMS is my second favorite of yours. What attracted you to the project? Do you think a film like that could be made today?

No, RADIOACTIVE DREAMS wouldn't get made today. It's way too eccentric and weird. Even in 1984 it was tough to get made. I raised the budget myself from a single investor. He was a real estate developer in San Bernadino, California. I think he did it because he finally gave in to my dogged persistence for over a year. He said "no" many times, but I kept hearing "yes." I'm an optimist, I guess. I believed in the film and knew it would be a unique picture to follow up THE SWORD AND THE SORCERER. Anyway halfway through production the funding disappeared.

It was the first of many films where funding would be shaky. As I generally raised the budgets for my pictures myself, it became a constant that independent funding was unreliable at best.

I was never available as a "work for hire" director and turned down most offers. So I knew what I was getting into with the independent financing world. I just wish they hadn't impacted the quality of the pictures so severely.
I had over 200 cast members and crew on location in Hawaii when the funding vanished. I had no way of getting the cast and crew back to LA, nor of finishing the film. How it did get finished is a wild story.

What was great about the experience is the actors I auditioned (Judge Reinhold, Clancy Brown, Eric Stolz) and that it began a relationship with John Stockwell, whom I hired to write his first screenplay (DANGEROUSLY CLOSE). John's a very successful director now (BLUE CRUSH).
There was a lot I enjoyed on RADIOACTIVE DREAMS. I love the music and music montages best of all.

CAPTAIN AMERICA was made on a low budget. What do you think of that project nowadays? I saw it in theaters here, by the way.

CAPTAIN AMERICA was made on NO budget. It was a wreck right from the start. The money that was supposed to fund the picture never materialized. We were dogged by unpaid bills and crew the whole way. It had a great cast though. Great actors trying their best under difficult and limited circumstances. The picture was the first of Menahem Golan's new company, 21st Century. This was after his split from Cannon and his partner of many years, Yoram Globus. Menahem was a very optimistic man and believed investors and bankers who told him they would fund the picture. But they conned him. There was never sufficient funding.

We had enough to shoot the opening of the picture (the scene in Italy where the boy is kidnapped) in a proper fashion. The rest of the picture was hit-and-miss as there was literally no reliable cash flow.

The producer, Tom Karnowski, would travel to countries like Bulgaria and Hungary in search of funds that we were told would be there. Sometimes he would be given $5,000. But usually there was nothing. Somehow we finished, but it was very difficult and sadly, it ended up butchering the screenplay and production value.

It was supremely disappointing after what occurred with SPIDER-MAN. The original script was excellent. I know Stan and Marvel were excited as well. It's too bad we could never get it onto the screen. It's sad it has developed such a bad reputation. I tried to acquire the rights to re-do and re-release a digitally enhanced version in 2001, but MGM turned me down. I think I could really improve the film and bring it closer to what we imagined back in 1989.
 
 
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