Filmmaker and writer Paul Kyriazi has been making the rounds as of late with the recent blu ray release (from Garage House Releasing) of his early ’80s gonzo martial arts action film Ninja Busters, and he’s been attending screenings throughout the United States, promoting the hell out of it. With this past month’s brand-new blu ray release of Kyriazi’s ’70s grindhouse action hit Death Machines (out now from Vinegar Syndrome), Kyriazi’s work is having a resurgence in interest, and rightfully so. With other fun action/martial arts credits to his name with titles like Weapons of Death, One Way Out, and the post-apocalyptic kung fu film Omega Cop, starring Ron Marchini, his oeuvre is tailor made for hardcore fans of action and martial arts motion pictures firmly grounded in the incredible, the extreme, and the completely wild. While he’s not directed a feature in many years, he continues to be very busy and creative with a growing list of audiobooks that he’s written and directed, starring some big names from the cult film circuit. In this exclusive interview with The Action Elite, Kyriazi took time to discuss his days directing action films and the very welcome return of two of his signature pictures Ninja Busters and Death Machines.
Paul, it’s great to see that a couple of your films have gotten recent Blu-ray releases. For many people these are like “brand new” movies. Your movie Ninja Busters in particular was virtually lost for several decades. Talk a little bit about how Ninja Busters was finally able to see the light of day. Why did it sit on a shelf undiscovered for so long?
It’s a 30-year story, David. When I got Ninja Busters to the final print back in 1984, I told the producer that it would be best for him to sell it country by country at the American Film Market, so he would get his money back. He, instead, gave the one print of the movie to a small distributor who sold it a few places, never paid the producer and ended up in prison for stealing money from many other movies including Ninja Busters. In 2012, film collector Harry Guerro, of Exhumed Films and Garage House Pictures, was informed of a possible film storage room in California, on the edge of the Mojave desert, where there might be some trashed movies. In a “hell-hole of a room” as Harry calls it, there were 200 movies in rusty film cans. Many of the prints had turned to rust and rusted right out of the metal cans they were in. However, the print of Ninja Busters was amongst them and in good shape. So Harry loaded up the 200 prints into a rental truck and drove across America to New Jersey. He showed Ninja Busters along with many other ‘exploitation movies’ at his Ex-Fest Marathon, a three-day film festival. People continued talking about the movie throughout the festival, so Harry figured that Ninja Busters was worth a Blu-ray release. Harry contacted me about supporting the project and doing an introduction and director’s commentary track.
Ninja Busters is a really fun film, and I think it shows that you and your cast had a good time making it. Talk a little bit about working with Gerald Okamura and Eric Lee, both of whom became mainstays in the action and martial arts genre after making that film. You guys also made Weapons of Death, which deserves to be discovered in its own right.
Thanks for saying that, David. In fact, just recently Harry Guerro and I have been searching for a print of Weapons of Death to make a Blu-ray out of it. There were at least 20 prints made of that, but in the last three months we couldn’t find any, but the search goes on. I just saw Eric Lee at a recent Ninja Busters screening at the Great Star Theater in San Francisco and I’m in constant contact with Gerald Okamura, who Eric initially introduced me to when I was casting Weapons of Death. They are both “cover boys” on many times on various martial arts magazines. I met Eric Lee when casting Death Machines. Eric was supposed to play one of the three main killers in that, but he had an opportunity to work on Sam Peckinpah’s Killer Elite movie that was filming at the same time as ours, so I told Eric he has to do Sam’s movie and Eric could play the smaller part of the karate instructor that took only two days to film. The way I handled that situation made Eric and I close friends and he told me, “I’ll work on any movie you want, big part or small part.” I’ve done three movies with Eric as well as martial arts events and Eric is always professional and fun. Gerald Okamura is always very professional. I worked with him on those two movies as well as an audiobook and he always arrives with the script in a binder with his scenes tagged and his dialogue highlighted. When I’ve needed to check the script for something, he’s got his script handy to show me saving me time. Both Gerald and Eric choreograph their own fight scenes. I just tell them where I want them to movie to or fall and they do the rest as they did when they fought each other in that four-minute fight scene in Weapons of Death.
Your film Death Machines with action star Ron Marchini has been in circulation for a long time on DVD, but now it’s out on blu ray, courtesy of Vinegar Syndrome. Why do you think this movie in particular has had such staying power on the home video market?
It’s strange, David, that there are some great movies with big stars that can’t be found, yet both Death Machines and Ninja Busters got first class treatment as Blu-rays. I’m very grateful for that. Even Omega Cop that I made with Ron is still available and recently had a theatrical showing in Oregon with Ron in attendance.
Many reviews of both of those movies say things like, “you can tell the makers are trying hard” or “they’re really having fun”. And my favorite comment about Ninja Busters was “a great film but what the hell was that?” So I think, to answer your question, is that all three of those movies are a little offbeat, have a humorous slant to them and are technically pretty well made compared to other smaller budget movies. Thusly, serious movie fans appreciate them.
Action and martial arts was the genre you really dug your heels into when you were directing films. Talk a little bit about the genre itself and the era in which you were making these films. Do you think you had more to say as a filmmaker in this genre? What would have been your dream project following Omega Cop?
Because I was training in karate in college, my first 16mm movies were karate action dramas. Two of them won the Berkeley film festival. This was a couple of years before the TV show Kung Fu premiered, so people thought my ‘one man fighting many’ was unique. Also at that time, Akira Kurasawa movies were being discovered, years after they were made, but mostly at art houses. After that came, Billy Jack who fought many guys and once and that introduced the karate fighter to regular film audiences. And then came Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon that really put martial arts on the map. Two weeks before I started filming Death Machines the Robert Mitchum movie The Yakaza come out which further helped martial arts movies to be accepted as a serious genre because of the star cast with Sydney Pollack directing. I had always like the sword-fighting movies of Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power and studied those action scenes a lot. I watch a lot of Chinese sword fight films made by the Shaw Brothers as well. Then I incorporated those techniques, physical, camera and editorial into my martial arts sequences.
I’m a huge fan of your film Omega Cop with Ron Marchini. I love the post-apocalyptic genre, and that movie is the perfect blend of post-apocalyptic and martial arts action. Have you seen a resurgence of interest in that film in the last decade with the fairly recent resurgence of VHS?
I still get fan mail from people that discover Omega Cop, and it’s recently been popping up on people’s blogs, so maybe someday they’ll be enough fans to warrant a Blu-ray release. And I want to thank you, David, for putting Omega Cop in your book World Gone Wild amongst the 800 other end-of-the-world movies. I didn’t know there were so many of those type movies.
What happened after you made Omega Cop? That’s the last film you are credited as directing, and that was close to 30 years ago. Are you looking to break back into the movie business? We’re ready for Ninja Busters 2!
Wow, yeah. Ninja Busters 2 would definitely be fun to do. As for “being out of the business” I’ve been doing travel videos, post-production on features and many full-cast audio-books with other stars I loved when I was a kid, such as Rod Taylor from The Time Machine, speaking of end-of-the-world movies. But you’re right, they’re not feature films, but still trying to get the next one produced. As you know, David, if a person is a true artist he or she is compelled to produce something, so for me, when the low-budget action market dried up with the loss of many drive-ins and action theaters, I turned to novels and audio-books which I hope will circle back to features, but until then I’m excited about my upcoming novella and audio production of a thriller called “Forbidden Power” and that could be a feature as well as I turn all my novels into screenplays to have them ready when the opportunity presents itself. Following Omega Cop, I wrote a mystery-thriller called “McKnight’s Memory” and tried hard to get it financed. When I couldn’t after a couple of years, I turned it into a novel and then into a four hour audio-book narrated by Frank Sinatra Jr. and performed by Robert Culp, Nancy Kwan and David Hedison, along with seven other name stars. I did all that to use it to promote the script. Frank Sinatra Jr. loved the story and tried to get it financed with him producer and me directing. He also wanted me to direct a movie about his life. You know, the kidnapping and all. But then he got busy with his band and then got ill. “McKnight’s Memory” will be available on Audible at Amazon in a few weeks and is already a download on the Kindle version, so there’s still a chance that it will be found and I’m still plugging away at trying to get it made. And doing that audiobook with those eleven stars was a great thing in my life. The actors loved it too because even though they were in their early 70’s, they could play lead parts again.
Another film of yours that not many people talk about or bring up is the Ivan Rogers actioner One Way Out / Crazed Cop. Talk a little bit about this film and working with Rogers.
It was Eric Lee that introduced me to Ivan Rogers. Ivan wanted to film that cop movie One Way Out in Indiana on a shoestring budget. I took a cameraman and soundman there and we filmed it all in three weeks. Ivan was serious about getting the movie done and breaking into the film business. We all worked hard, but had a lot of fun. Ivan rounded up a great crew of volunteer and we all got along well. He called in a long of favors from people he knew to get free locations. He could do that because he was popular in town. Ivan had won the ‘tough man’ contest where guys get into a ring and fight each other off, so he was the real thing. He wanted to do his fight as real as possible so with one big guy who could take a punch they actually made contact with each other. We put special small blood packs on his face and covered them with make up so that they would bleed when Ivan hit him. I decided to do that fight in one continuous shot so that the audience could feel the reality of it. It went off perfectly in one take. After I called ‘cut’, I went over to Ivan and shook his hand saying ‘that’s the wildest scene I’ve ever shot’.
You’ve been involved in a unique form of entertainment as of late: Writing and directing full cast audio productions. Tell me a little bit about how you got into this untapped field, and talk about some of the specific productions you’ve done.
As I said, the full-cast audiobooks started off as a tool to sell my movie scripts or to get them into production with myself directing. But also it was to work with the stars of the ‘60s that I grew up watching on the screen. It was a big thrill to work with Kevin McCarthy who starred in Invasion of the Body Snatchers as well as James Darren from The Time Tunnel. I was hired by Edd ‘Kookie’ Byrnes who stared in 77 Sunset Strip as well as played Vince Fontaine in Grease, to record his true story of being stalked for his 3 million dollar Vegas win back in 1977. That audio had Henry Silva who karate fought Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate as well as Alan Young from The Time Machine, David Hedison from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and Michael Callen from Mysterious Island. So working with those guys satisfied my science fiction hunger as well because I could talk to them a lot about those movies during breaks. The name of Edd’s book and audio is “My Casino Caper.”
Paul, do you have any advice for future screenwriters or directors?
See a lot of movies, of course. And instead of thinking of making a lot of movies, or writing a lot of books, think of doing your ‘ultimate project’. A project that you just have to do. Have a completed screenplay or book that’s ready to be made or published or sold. I emphasize ‘completed’ because many people talk about writing a book or screenplay, or quit when it’s half-done. And then, if it’s for a movie, have a budget, location and cast list ready. After that, you have to go about making as many contacts as you can, asking as many as you can about making the project. And of course, that takes rising time and money. I ounce heard a studio head answer the question ‘How can I get my movie made’. I’ll never forget his answer: “You have to stand on top of a mountain along and yell the name of your project into the wind. And when you yell long enough, you’ll get your project made.” I guess you know that, David, seeing those 800 movies you personally watched and reviewed in your giant 400 page book. I imagine you spent a lot money getting those movies and time writing that book. And then, after completing it, you had to market it, so you know the drill.