Sheldon Lettich is a man who needs no introduction on this site; director of Lionheart, Double Impact, Only the Strong and The Order he has also written the upcoming action drama Max, produced many classic action movies and worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme on multiple projects.
While in Los Angeles a few weeks ago I got to finally meet Sheldon in person which has led to the following interview; we discuss Double Impact, Lionheart, Only the Strong, working with Charlton Heston and Sheldon’s new film Max.
There was talk a while back of a Double Impact 2 and in 2012 JCVD mentioned that he co-wrote a script with you but then it ended up not happening. Are you able to provide any details on it?
A sequel to “Double Impact” is something that Jean-Claude and I have been talking about for many years now. We worked out a story and I wrote a treatment, which was followed by about 25 pages of screenplay. We were going the flip around the story of the first film, and have Alex coming to Los Angeles to help Chad and himself extricate themselves from a nasty situation with some California-based Triad gangsters.
Do you think it will ever happen?
There were a lot of logistical problems, mostly issues with who owned the rights. It turned out that MGM owned most of those rights, which led to negotiations with them about getting those rights so that we could move forward with the screenplay and with getting money raised to shoot the movie. Acquiring the rights from MGM was not going to be cheap, and the studio had to be included as a co-partner with any producing entity.
This made the process even more difficult and complicated, because they also had to be included on the back-end if and when the movie ever saw any profit — although they themselves were not willing to put any money in. You can see how this would have sounded like a lousy deal to any financiers who might have been thinking about getting involved. On top of all that, the story was quite ambitious and it would have been an expensive movie to make.
Only the Strong was a great showcase for the Brazilian martial art capoeira; when putting the script together what made you want to focus on that particular style?
The story that Luis Esteban and I originally came up with focused on Karate as the martial art that would be taught to the students. Then French producer Sammy Hadida came to me with a notion about making a movie that focused specifically on Capoeira. So Luis and I simply substituted Capoeira for Karate, moved our location from New York City to Miami, and we had our movie.
You got to work with the late Geoffrey Lewis on Only the Strong and Double Impact; can you tell us about your relationship with him and what made you work so well together?
I just found Geoffrey very easy to work with. And he was a total pro, always prepared and always nailed it on the first take.
I really enjoyed Perfect Target with Daniel Bernhardt who would also go on to work on the Bloodsport sequels; did you ever want to do a movie with JCVD and Daniel? A Bloodsport sequel with the two of them could have been fantastic…
A “Bloodsport” sequel with the two of them is exactly what we had in the works for a while, although Daniel would not have played a major role as an actor. He was going to be a producer and the 2nd Unit Director, and he probably would have had an on-screen cameo.
I wish I could have made that 25th anniversary screening of Lionheart in Germany; one of our fans Kristijan Škrobo was there. What was it like to watch it on the big screen again and what was your favourite moment from the evening?
I actually had a chance to see it projected in 35mm just a few weeks earlier, at the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas. It was the first time in over 20 years that I had seen the film – properly formatted and with the original 5.1 stereo mix – up on a big screen. That was a great thrill, because I’d almost forgotten just how good the movie looked and sounded! And then I got to see it on another movie theater screen a short time later, in Kassel, Germany. The screening in Germany was directly off the Blu-ray, so I was able to see and hear first-hand just how good the new digital version of the movie looked and sounded.
My favorite moment – from both screenings – was towards the end of the final fight, when Lyon is on the floor, bruised and bloodied, and the spectators begin clapping for him to get up and keep fighting. The audience at both screenings began clapping along, just like they used to do when the film was first playing in movie theaters 25 years ago!
That would have been a lot of fun to experience; what do you consider the definitive version of the film?
Well, not only have I seen the re-mastered Blu-ray, but I was able to view it in a movie theater, on a big screen. It looked almost as good as the 35mm version that I had seen just a few weeks earlier, so it definitely passed the test! The version that was projected that night was the German-language dub, but also I’ve listened to the English-language original version that’s on the new Blu-ray set, and it sounds just as good. Thus far, this is the most definitive version of the movie that currently exists.
My personal preference is “Lionheart,” and it always has been.
It has several names including AWOL: Absent without Leave, Lionheart, Lyon, End of the Line, Wrong Bet and Full Contact (that we know of). What do you call it personally?
“End Of The Line” is a new one for me. What country was that released in? My personal preference is “Lionheart,” and it always has been.
It was on a poster in the UK shortly after the film came out, if I remember correctly; I only ever saw it on that poster though, never on a DVD/Blu-ray release. I had the poster on my wall after watching the film for the first time and have been hunting for it ever since…
I always thought it was Van Damme’s Rocky; it had real heart as well as great action. Were there ever any plans to return to the character of Lyon?
Sunil Shah wanted to do a sequel, and spoke to me about it. But they couldn’t get Van Damme, which meant it would have been like a sequel to the first “Rocky” but without Stallone. So it probably would have ended up like those “Kickboxer” and “Bloodsport” sequels, pale imitations of the original. I really wasn’t all that interested, and then Sunil’s company went bankrupt, which effectively killed it for good.
You co-wrote the script for Rambo III; how different was the final version from the draft you did?
The basic story was pretty much the same, and all of the major story beats were intact. A lot of the dialogue (what little there was) was re-worked or added by Stallone. For example, the entire conversation between Rambo and Trautman at the Thai monastery (the “full circle” speech) was written by Stallone without any input from me. The helicopter vs. tank action sequence towards the end was also conceived and written by Stallone.
The Order had a team up we never thought we’d see: Jean-Claude Van Damme and Charlton Heston. How did he get involved with the project?
Very simply, JC and Heston had the same agent. And Avi Lerner wanted at least one more recognizable name in the cast. I have to say, it was a big thrill for me and for JC (and probably for Avi, too) to be filming a movie on the ancient streets of Jerusalem with the actor who had portrayed both Moses and Ben Hur.
I’m not going to lie, that trailer to Max had me tearing up a little; is it inspired by a particular true story or events?
It was inspired by a number of different stories about MWD’s (Military Working Dogs) being adopted by American families after their service in Iraq/Afghanistan. There were a few other true stories – which had nothing to do with dogs – that were also woven into the overall fabric that became “Max,” but if I talked about them now I’d be giving away some spoilers.
How did the story come together?
Boaz Yakin and I had been wanting to do a kick-ass dog movie for a while – something in the vein of “Rin Tin Tin” or “Old Yeller” – but we didn’t have a plot or a hook to hang it on. Then we started noticing that the US military was now allowing families to adopt MWD’s after their service, which was not the case during the Vietnam War; all of those MWD’s were left behind in Vietnam, and oftentimes euthanized because of a fear that they would return to the States with some exotic and incurable canine diseases.
What kind of research did you do before putting the script together?
We made a couple of trips to the K-9 unit at the Marine Corps Base at Camp Pendleton, California, where we had the unique opportunity to interview veteran dog handlers and spend time with them and their MWD’s. Normally a couple of Hollywood screenwriters would not have been given that sort of access, not unless they had already written a script and had gotten the project set up. But the Marines made an exception for me because I’m a former Marine myself, and because many of them are fans of my movies, especially of “Bloodsport” and “Rambo III.”
Also, I’ve owned big dogs most of my life, so in that way I’ve been “researching” this project for decades. Around 15 years ago I got two puppies – brother and sister – from the local animal shelter. I thought they were German Shepherds, and the pound even had their breed listed as such. But after a few months I started realizing that there was something different about them; the “black masks” around their faces and their smaller, trimmer size.
I finally came to the realization that they were a different breed of dog altogether: Belgian Malinois. I started doing some research, and came to find out that this breed was actually taking the place of German Shepherds for police and military work. Which led to more research about military dogs, which led to the stories about American families adopting these dogs when they “retired,” which led to Boaz and myself eventually formulating the story that became “Max.”
You worked with six Belgian Malinois dogs on the picture; did things ever get out of control during the shoot?
You’d have to ask Boaz about that. I only visited the set for a week while they were filming in the mountains of North Carolina, and everything seemed to be functioning very smoothly, dogs included. The production hired Mark Forbes as the leading dog trainer, and he’s probably the best in the business, having handled similar responsibilities on “Marley & Me” and many other canine-centric movies. He didn’t just train those six Belgian Malinois; there were also four Rottweiler’s (playing the bad guys’ dogs), Chihuahuas, and various other breeds. It’s a dog lovers’ movie, but with lots of action as well. It’s only natural that if I write a movie about a dog, there’s gonna be a dogfight (or two!), even if the movie’s rated “PG.”
What else do you have coming up?
I’m presently developing a historical action/drama which takes place during the American Revolutionary War, and which follows the story of a real but very obscure military hero. And I’d still like to get my “other dog movie” – titled “Metro Dog” – off the ground. I came close with that one a couple years ago, actually doing two months of pre-production in Belgrade, Serbia. A lot is dependent on how well “Max” does at the box office.
Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with The Action Elite and all the best with Max.
Max hits theatres on June 26th, 2015.