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Stories From The Trenches
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Stories from the Trenches

 

Directing Low Budget Features in the 80’s

 

When the 80’s arrived I was at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, a graduate student in the film department working towards a Masters degree. In March of 1980 I turned 30, so I was the oldest of all the students, and the most experienced as well. In addition to a B.A. in film,  I also had five years of experience working in the movies as an assistant director. I had made five shorts, one of which was half an hour long.

 

While at Loyola I directed my first full length feature film. It started as a 25 minute student project and grew to become “One More Chance” starring Kirstie Alley and John LaMotta. I wrote the script for the writing class first as a short, then expanded it into a full length feature. It is a social drama about an ex con just released from prison, trying to mend the broken relationship with his son whom he has not seen for six years. The producer was David Womark, a fellow student, and the entire crew consisted of inexperienced students caught up in the fever of my enthusiasm. They showed up every weekend for the year and a half it took to shoot the movie.

 

There was of course no digital video in those days; we used 16mm film and edited on a flat bed. After 1 years most of the script was shot, but not all of it. We ran out of money. We had used every penny we had, all the grant, loans, and private funds had run out. We couldn’t buy any more film and we owed the lab several thousand dollars. We came to a dead end.

 

Armed with about an hour of edited work print and a trailer, David and I started shopping around Hollywood’s production and distribution companies seeking completion funds. We needed money to  pay the lab, to shoot another week, and for post production, editing, sound, music and so forth. Every place we went we encountered a brick wall – no one was interested in a small project with not even one recognizable name actor and a straight drama, with no action, no horror, and no sex. We faced the business side of movie making, a reality I was not familiar with. It was harsh and bleak, and the future of “One More Chance” was not promising.

 

 The turning point came when we walked into a meeting with Menahem Golan in the offices of Cannon Films. Earlier that year Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had purchased the New York based ailing production company with its considerable library of sexploitation movies. They moved the operation to Hollywood and started producing low budget horror flicks. I had known the two heads of the company as I had worked for them as an office runner and assistant director before they purchased Cannon. By then, used to rejections from everywhere, we were surprised and elated when we learned that upon viewing the material, Golan and Globus expressed a willingness to finance completion of the production and thereafter to take it for distribution.

 

With the financial burden lifted we set off to produce the remaining third of the movie and start editing. The operation moved from the university to the Cannon offices on Sunset Boulevard in the heart of old Hollywood. The production was upgraded from student film to semi-professional, with a budget, schedule, and more. We had money to rent needed police cars, pay for locations, feed the cast and crew, and even get a huge crane. A professional editor started cutting the material and after nearly two years it was shaping up to look like a movie. There was one more hurdle we had to overcome before reaching the end, and it caught us by surprise. Upon viewing the first rough cut of “One More Chance” Golan and Globus lost faith in our movie and decided to pull the plug which meant no more salary for the editor and her assistant, and no more rented editing machine. I was not ready to give up at that point when we were so close to finishing. After some begging, it was agreed that we could keep the office and editing machine if the editor would agree to stay on and recut the movie without pay, which she did. A few weeks later, after reshaping the film at a new screening, Golan saw a potential in the new cut. We were sent to the MGM lot in Culver City to prepare the sound while a young composer, looking for his break, wrote and recorded the score and three songs. The film was mixed and color corrected at the MGM studio, and in its film lab it was blown up from 16mm to 35mm. Everything was falling into place; after all the hopes and hardships we were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I was finally privileged to view the final print. This in itself was a happy ending and quite an achievement for a novice young director, and to top it off, I was working in a legitimate Hollywood major studio lot, MGM.

 

In the meantime the Cannon publicity department got working on the artwork and publicity materials. The people involved believed that they had a sleeper in their hands and that is how they conceived and presented it. It was 1981, and the heads of Cannon decided to premier the movie at the Cannes Film Festival. They agreed to take the producer and me with them to help promote it in France. I found myself in Cannes that year doing screenings and interviews and then invited to bring the movie to the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. The most exciting festival I attended was the Chicago International Film Festival, where “One More Chance” won the silver plaque. Cannon sold it for distribution to ten countries around the world but in the US it never opened theatrically and home video was not a player at that time. So, since we did not win any critical acclaim, the movie quietly slipped into oblivion and did not become the sleeper as predicted. It would take some time before Kirstie Alley would become a famous star and before I established a reputation as an action director. Thus came the end of the first chapter of my directorial career. At that point I did not even imagine the direction the career would take me.

 

Completely unexpectedly my next movie was to be the hard core action flick “Revenge of the Ninja,” a twist of fate that shaped my future career. But before we go there, let me offer a few words about the Cannon Film company, and its principals, Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. I met Menahem when I was 22 years old and a film student at Columbia College in Los Angeles. By then Golan was the most famous and most prominent filmmaker in Israel, a household name. Like every other Israeli, I had heard his name and saw his Hebrew speaking movies, but I had never met him before. He had just arrived in Hollywood with his partner and cousin Globus, to produce and direct his first American movie, “Lepke” with Tony Curtis under the banner of AmeriEuro Pictures. At a new years eve party I suddenly found myself in the room with him, and during the party I learned that he was about to embark on that production. I expressed my desire to be part of it, or more exactly, just to be around. Learning that I was willing to work even without a salary, I was invited to join the production the next day. For the next few years I worked for Golan and Globus off and on as general “go for” office runner, second assistant director, and finally my first AD job. AmeriEuro Pictures did not last long and they moved back to Israel, but later in the 80’s, after purchasing Cannon, Golan and Globus became the most successful, most famous independent producers in Hollywood, defying the studio system. My career in the 80’s was connected to the development of Cannon and its chief creative director, Menahem Golan.

 

While I was busy editing “One More Chance” Golan got involved as a producer and director of the first of a new breed of action movies. It was “Enter the Ninja” the first martial arts movie to introduce the Ninja phenomena to western viewers. The idea to make a western style Ninja movie was presented to Golan by Mike Stone, a prominent American karate champion and formerly Elvis Presley’s personal trainer. Golan got excited and committed to produce the movie in the Philippines. Mike was the choreographer of the fight sequences and Franco Nero the star, with newcomer Japanese champion Sho Kosugi as the bad ninja.

 

The completed movie enjoyed a moderate success in the international and US markets so Golan decided to produce a sequel entitled “Revenge of the Ninja” this time with the impressive fighter Sho Kosugi as the star. Just at this time I had finished “One More Chance,” and I was done with the festivals and with school. I received the Masters degree in film and did not know what would happen next. The movie did not get a theatrical release nor TV sale, and back then these were the only two venues for showing a movie – home video and cable TV had not yet arrived. I did not have the slightest idea how Hollywood operates nor how one gets a directorial assignment, nor did I know what should my next move be. I decided to invest my time in writing another script, “The Bus Ride” hoping that once it was written I would be able to convince someone to produce it and let me direct it. It was 1981 and after a few months of writing with no clear view of the future I got a phone call to come and see Golan. At the same time Golan had commissioned writer James R. Silke to write a script for “Revenge of the Ninja.” The script was ready and Golan decided not to direct it himself but rather, to hire someone else to direct, and the someone else would be me. Golan was willing to take a chance on me. He knew I could put a movie together; I had proven that I could construct a scene, shoot, and edit logically. The big question was whether I could handle action, could I tackle a fight sequence or a chase. Clearly I did not have experience in these areas, but when he asked if I could do it, with utmost confidence I gave a positive yes. I knew I was not going to let this once in a lifetime opportunity slip away. Apparently my self confidence assured them so the next question was what kind of salary I would demand. I told Golan to pay me whatever he saw fit and so the deal was made and I was given the script and asked to start pre-production immediately, with David Womark as line producer.

 

I was ecstatic, after all the years of school and working as an AD, I finally had a real directing job in a full fledged Hollywood production. A long time dream had come true. Not only was I going to do what I love, someone was going to pay me to do it.

 

So here I was, ready to tackle the challenge of my first big action flick. I was handed the script and introduced to Sho Kosugi, the tallest Japanese person I had ever met. Sho was the spirit behind the project, an accomplished martial arts fighter and Ninjitsu expert who had come a few years earlier to Los Angeles with Hollywood on his mind. Although I was familiar with Japanese samurai movies (I love the films of Akira Kurusawa,) I knew very little of the Hong Kong Kung Fu genre and nothing about Ninjitsu. Sho introduced me to both martial arts and Ninjitsu. We bought a few books and together watched many Chinese movies, without subtitles in theaters full of Chinese speaking audience members. Trying to digest all the information as fast as I could, I started to work on the script and construct a story board. Sho was working with the writer, Jim Silke, and me. He was the Ninjitsu advisor and in this capacity he made sure that every known Ninja weapon and every Ninja fighting trick, method, custom, ceremony, and accessories, would be included in the script. It was exciting and I understood it was important to the success of the movie, but my first decision right away was not to follow in the steps of the Hong Kong flicks, but rather to approach the movie as a straight Hollywood action movie with a martial arts slant, and the Ninjitsu mysticism the icing on the cake. As the script was evolving, I realized that the major part of my work would be devoted to filming action sequences, major martial arts fights, non martial arts fights, smaller action and physical scenes, acrobatics, pyrotechnics, foot chases, vehicle chases, stunts, and special effects. Aside from starring in the movie, Sho was also the fight choreographer. He was already busy creating the major fight sequences with his students and rehearsing them. I needed a stunt coordinator, a stuntman to stage and execute both simple and sophisticated stunts. I met Steve Lambert, a young stuntman looking for a chance to coordinate his first action feature. It turned out to be a very fruitful pairing with Steve, since we went on to make not only this but many more movies in the later years. I asked him to read the script and come back to me with more ideas, to enhance the action.

 

The story of “Enter the Ninja” took place in the Philippines – this time around Golan wanted a story that takes place in America. The script was urban American, taking place in a city revolving in large part in between two tall buildings. I urged the producers not to send us to the Philippines since we would never be able to create a credible and believable American environment out there. They were convinced, and we started location scouting in Los Angeles. Besides the two tall buildings we also needed a Japanese temple and a few other typical urban sites. We soon found out that Los Angeles came with a price. City permits, mandatory police officers, fire marshals, location fees, parking, and a long list of other expenses grew. At the same time, the Utah Film Commission was trying to get Cannon Films to bring some productions to their state. A representative promised that there would be no permits necessary, no location fees, and no unions to deal with. The local crew works for lower salaries, and the state film commission help to smooth out all production wrinkles, Cannon was eager to try it out. So Sho, David, and me were sent to Salt Lake City to find locations.

 

The capital of the Mormons seemed like a very conservative and puritan place for us to bring our R rated script full of nudity and violence. We were sure that after reading the script the state film commission would reject the project but to our surprise they not only asked us to bring it, they also assured us that as long as we were not filming porno, we could do whatever we wanted. The city had all the locations we needed, including two adjacent tall buildings and a Japanese temple. We went to Utah with skepticism  but the trip was a success. The two tall buildings had just finished construction and were not yet occupied, a location manager’s dream. We would not have to deal with issues of tenants, noise restrictions, working hours, electric wires, and so on. We agreed that if the city could deliver permission to use the buildings for free, we would bring the production to Salt Lake City. They came through and we moved it, using mostly local talent aside from some key positions and key cast members. Virgil Frye was cast to play the police chief, Arthur Roberts to play the bad ninja and Mario Gallo as the head of the local Mafia. The storyboard was advancing with great ideas contributed by Steve and Sho, and we all moved to Utah. The two buildings were secured and we found an empty supermarket in the center of downtown that the art department turned into our warehouse and shooting stage. We started the task of filling cast and crew positions with local artists and technicians, as well as scouting for all the locations. The cinematographer, David Gurfinkle, came on board, along with special effects make-up artist Moni Monsano and stunt coordinator Steve Lambert. We hired an expert weapons maker, who specialized in martial arts tools, to make duplicate weapons out of plastic, wood and aluminum for the fight scenes. The rest of the crew came from the local pool of technicians and production people. For several years there had been a television show, “Grizzly Adams” that had been produced in Utah – a few months before our production arrived the show was discontinued, so the local crew that had been working on that show was available and we were fortunate to have an experienced and talented group to work with.

 

Meantime, casting was also going on. The co-star of Grizzly Adams, Don Shank, happened to also be an accomplished stunt man so he was cast as one of the thugs as well as help out as stunt coordinator assistant and stunt double. Only one glitch occurred during that period. The actress cast to play the lead was not able to come from Los Angeles to Utah and we were forced to cast the part locally. Unfortunately the pool of actresses in Utah is considerably smaller than the choices in Los Angeles, and our top choice was a local model, Ashley Ferrari. I called Golan to inform him of our decision and to let him know that her acting abilities left a lot to be desired. “Never mind her acting,” he replied, “how is her body?” As a model she was clearly well built, although, as I told him, “Her breasts are clearly inflated with foreign substances.” All he wanted to know was whether she would be considered sexy on the screen, and when I said that I thought she probably would, he replied “Then she is hired.” So Ashley was cast, and eventually did a pretty good job with the part.

 

The first day of shooting was a street scene. A thug arrives in a limousine to a city square, to get information from a local informer. The first shot was of the limo arriving, stopping by the curb, and the actor getting out. I was determined to impress and surprise the crew, so after setting up the shot, which involved a complex dolly move on a mounted crane, I took the cinematographer aside and asked him to cooperate with me and get the shot in the first take. It is standard practice to shoot a few takes of a complex shot just in case something goes wrong with any of the takes. But we rehearsed the limo, dolly, and crane movements a few times, and then started. Without anyone knowing my intention, we rolled sound, turned on the camera, and I shouted “Action!” The driver got the signal and started toward the curb. I hoped he would not miss the mark and he came through, hitting the spot right on. The door opened, the actor emerged, the dolly grip pulled back, the crane operator lifted the camera, and the focus puller followed the actor as he moved to the fountain the in square to meet the informer, just as we had rehearsed. I shouted “Cut!” and looked over at David the cinematographer, who gave me an approving wink, meaning it came out perfectly. So keeping the act going, I didn’t ask him if the shot was right, and instead very confidently turned to the script supervisor and said “Print.” This means that she circles the take in her camera report to be printed; to save money, only good takes are printed. Then, with further confidence, I declared “Next” which means we would be moving to the next set up. I moved to the next place in the square without even looking back. The cast and crew were indeed shocked. They turned to one another with puzzled looks, probably thinking I was crazy. They later learned that this was well planned, and that I am actually very conservative and cautious when it comes to coverage and takes.

 

Because of the vast number of action sequences, and because I believe in lavish coverage which means shooting the action from various angles to give the editor variety to create fast and visually exciting sequences, I developed the following method of shooting. The production had three cameras with three camera teams at all times. The main unit had the cinematographer with a full crew; the second unit team had a second cinematographer with a minimal basic crew; and the third camera had an operator with an assistant. Every time we started a new action sequence all three camera crews would be standing together. While I was staging the scene with the fight choreographer (Sho Kosugi), the stunt coordinator (Steve Lambert), and the special effects coordinator (Joe Quinleven), the three units were watching us. By the time we were ready to shoot the sequence segments I would have a comprehensive shot list ready, consisting of all the individual shots needed in my view to transform the action performed on the set to the screen. The individual shots are the elements or building blocks used in the editing process to create the illusion of continuous, flowing action. In consultation with the cinematographer I placed the three cameras in key positions to capture the action in three unique ways. In certain cases, when the action was very involved and included dangerous and costly pyrotechnics, or when the action could only be executed once (like a major crash or explosion that destroys a structure) we used up to five cameras. Once we successfully shot the segment I would cross the shots we had achieved off my list. Typically, we covered the wide shots first, and once those were completed were then covered the lead actors with medium shots and close ups. As we go through my list, I delete or add shots that I think will be needed to enhance the segment. Once a particular segment is complete, we move on to the next segment and do the same thing until we finish the entire sequence or scene. This could take between one and three days, depending on the length and complexity of the scene.

 

Once the whole sequence is complete, I would move on with the main unit to the next set to shoot a non-action scene while the second and third unit cameras stay behind with the stunt coordinator, fight choreographer, stunt doubles, and special effects, to finish the rest of my shot list. Usually these would consist of “tight’ shots of individual pieces of action without the lead actors. If the two sets were not far from each other I would hop to the second set whenever I had a spare moment to check on their progress and if needed, direct certain shots so that they would fit perfectly in the editing process with the scene they belonged to. Every night after work I would watch dailies. This was all the material that had been shot the day before and developed in the lab. I checked every shot from the first and second unit against my list, crossing off the ones that were done and adding to the list of what was yet to be shot or had to be shot again.

 

After the main unit had shot a few dramatic scenes and the second unit finished my shot list for the action sequence, we would all meet again to start the process all over again on a new action scene. This process continued in cycles until we finished shooting the entire script. Usually, after all the actors had finished their work, I would stay on location a few more days with a small unit to clean up the list of left over shots – we would supplement inserts, drive bys, establishing shots, etc.

 

On “Revenge of the Ninja” we shot for eight weeks (48 days). Some of the action sequences were very involved and demanded many days to complete. It took two weeks, with all three units, to execute the final fight scene between Sho Kosugi and the “bad” ninja on the rooftop of one of the towers. The scene contains many effects, pyrotechnics, and mechanical rigging. There were many safety considerations to cover the sword fighting choreography, elaborate camera positioning, including hanging 20 stories high outside the building, and even shots from a helicopter, to create the excitement and tension that resulted in the final shot of the movie.