Image via WikipediaDirecting Weapons of Death...
I had just come off my recent success of Death Machines being widely distributed. I figured will all the quarter page ads in the papers, the Variety chart having "DM" as the #14 top grosser for the week, and some fairly good reviews, that I could raise the financing for my next film easily.
The script starts out in San Francisco Chinatown, where the daughter of a wealthy business woman is kidnapped by a large Chinatown gang and taken into the Marin County hills and held for ransom. The gang, however, uses another gang of criminals to do the actual kidnapping. The woman sends for her estranged husband, whom she hasn't seen in fifteen years. He comes back and with his two sons and two guys from his son's martial arts school, they head into the hills to get the daughter back.
At one point the kidnapped girl escapes and runs into a group of bikers and is single handedly rescued by a sympathetic criminal. The father and his team run into the Chinese gangs swordswomen and fight them. Finally there is a long running battle between the good guys and the Chinese gang. As there are no guns allowed by the Chinese gang leader, most fighting is done with swords and various martial arts weapons.
Having met and befriended so many martial artists when working on Death Machines, I could write tthe characters for the actors that I knew. Also, as I had always included myself in the cast of my 16mm movies and first feature, I wrote a character for myself. I mostly wanted to do a swordfight scene and a couple of stunts that I saw Douglas Fairbanks do, which I'll describe later.
With the screenplay finished, the search for financing was on. Or was it? Would I, or should I continue with this? I had financed and used investors on my first feature, Drawn Swords. It was a long "drawn out" production, that cause me endless hassles, large debts, many disappointments, and no income from the minor distribution it had.
I had worked six months to pay back most of the debts, but still wasn't completely out of it, even with my Death Machines success. Did I want to go through all that again? Was this another swordfight epic that would get me much deeper into debt and end my dubious film career?
I remember so vividly looking down at the script that was sitting on my sofa. Standing above it I thought about all the risks and hassles that could come with this project. I was still in debt over my first feature. Had no job and no savings. But I finally said to myself, "I don't care. Even if this movie bombs, even if I can't sell it, I will still have the movie. It will be made. And this was my dream movie. The one that I really want to make.
I didn't know it at the time, but I guess I was more of an "artist" than a film businessman, because completing that particular movie was more important to me for self expression than doing someone else's project (which there were none) or working my way up in the Hollywood system (which there were no open doors).
So I said, "What the hell", to myself, picked up the script off of the sofa, sat down at my kitchen table and began preparing a schedule and budget. The original title was The Last Adventure because I figured it would be. Death Machines had been shot in two perforation 35mm Techniscope. If this might be my last movie, I wanted to shoot in full-frame Panavision. This meant twice as much film, and a more expensive camera and lenses.
I planned to make up for this by using less film and camera set ups. To not have a mediocre sound track and music like Death Machines had, I planned to take this movie straight through to the sound mix, giving it full effects and high level pre-recorded music.
I figured to get the scenes properly filmed, it would take six weeks. I would use half the crew that I had used on Death Machines as there would not be as much interior lighting needed.
For the project, I teamed up with Rick Sydell who had done a good job on Death Machines as the production manager. He would handle the accounting and arrange film, lab, and equipment rentals, along with location permits.
Except for the crew that was hired for filming, it was just the two of us on the production team. We did everything ourselves. Sid Campbell, a high level karate dojo owner and teacher opened his unusual looking school to me and the first investments that came in were from some of his students.
When I had enough money in the bank, and money promised from investors to come in within six weeks, I set the date for one month ahead and started to work. Most of the cast I had written for and was available, so that came easy.
For the remaining cast I let the word out, at casting agencies and karate schools, and did open casting at Sid's dojo. There I completed the cast, as well as got all the extras I needed. The thirty swordswomen were made up of Asian models from an agency, mixed in with trained martial arts women.
Eric Lee would star this time, as he was a cover boy for many martial arts magazines and would help our cause for selling the picture. One of the villains of the movie, the one that Eric would end up fighting at the climax was Gerald Okamura, The Martial Arts Magician. He was named that because he was a master at using and making traditional martial arts weapons, as well as hidden ninja type weapons.
I scheduled the filming to begin in October, hoping we wouldn't get into early rain, as most of the filming would be done outdoors. I choose the biggest scene to do first. It was the opening of the movie taking place in the hills. This is where the Chinese gang is assembled. The leader, his two main bodyguards, his twenty swordswomen, and fifty gang members, made to look like there was as a hundred.
They would all have special costumes. Driving up in a van to meet them would be the six criminals. Plus on stand-by to film the final confrontation would be the five heroes. Everything was set to go, when the weather forecast called for possible rain. I watched the clouds form at night. I watched the TV weather forecast at 11pm that said, "Maybe Rain".
When I woke up in the early morning and turned on the TV, I swear the written forecast said, "Go for it." As I drove to the location, I saw the sun starting to break through the clouds. That was the first time I ever paid so much attention to the weather.
A few days before the shoot, I had received a call from a young Asian woman named Cynthia, who wanted to view the filming as she was interested in being a filmmaker. I said, "You're welcome to come. And why don't you be an extra as well and get paid." She said okay, and I told her to introduce herself during the day.
When I drove out to the location, many of the people had arrived and were in costume. I could see the swordwomen with their shiny blue Chinese costumes and the fifty extras all wearing black as I had told them to do. The cameramen were setting up. Make-up was already happening. Actors had flown up from Los Angeles. They were all here 40 miles from San Francisco in my hometown hills that I had used for filming my 16mm action movies when I was in college. "This is fantastic," I thought. "What an opportunity to make something really good."
I came to the instant conclusion to not just shoot a few master scenes. I would use the necessary film to get all the coverage I needed to make a cinematic film. And if I went a little over budget, I would make up the difference by selling part of my percentage in the movie. It would be worth it.
The filming went just as planned, all in beautiful Technicolor, Panavision, and sound. Even with the extra shots I finished up the dialogue scenes early enough to shoot some big actions scenes using all the extras. This was bonus material that I hadn't planned on. Everyone had a great time. The younger guys got to meet Eric Lee, Gerald Okamura, and other established martial artists who were happy to talk with all of them and demonstrate some of their techniques.
The food arrived on time and everything was perfect. Better than could be imagined. During the day Cynthia, the girl that had called me to be an observer, introduced herself and we talked briefly. At the end of the day, she wasn't there, so I called her at night and asked her how she enjoyed the day. Her first words were, "Did you guys ever get it together?" I explained how we got more shots than we had hoped for and how smooth it went. But she didn't sound convinced, so after a short conversation we said good-bye.
I realized that she, like a lot of people, see these "Making of....." shorts on TV and have a pre-conceived idea of how a movie day goes. They don't show you that it takes time to move the camera and set up shots. But even though we did it faster than most, Cynthia thought we were amateurs. Indeed, even the young heroine in our movie, later at the premier said, "If I knew it was going to be this good, I would have tried harder."
From that time on, I've told other future film directors, "Don't let anyone tell you what is professional or not, unless they've made a movie, or at least have been on a movie set.
The second day on the location went just as well continuing with the large action ending of the movie. Being it was a run and fight action scene, resolving all the lead characters, it would take many days and many locations to finish while still doing other scenes as well. In the middle of the day, a young Kung Fu teacher came to me with the five students he brought. He asked to talk to me, so I said okay. Then he comes out with, "We want to kill Eric Lee." "What?" I said. "Yes, our kung fu technique is better than his, so we should kill him in the movie."
I explained that even though their technique is better, that in the script Eric wins. But the teacher threatened to take his men out of the shoot if they weren't allowed to kill Eric on camera. Even though his request sounded ridiculous, I said politely that It couldn't be done. So he took his students and one girl, who was playing a swordswoman and left.
His students were sad because they were having so much fun and getting paid. I suspect one of his reasons was that the girls playing the swordswomen were getting more than the extras, as per my deal with the model agency. I not only paid the models extra, but any girl that was in that group, so the Kung Fu girl was making more than her teacher. That never came up, but maybe that was the problem.
On the climatic fight between Eric Lee and Gerald Okamura, Eric cut his hand by hitting Gerald's metal claw weapon. We quickly wrapped it and soon Eric and I were speeding through the main streets of my home time to the hospital. Eric arrived in costume with his shirt off and make up cuts and blood on his stomach and chest. The nurse started to wrapped them as we waited for the emergency doctor. But we told her it was only his hand. The rest was makeup.
That was the only injury we had on the entire shoot, thank God. Another big scene was when the kidnapped girl ran into thirty bikers. One of the criminals enters their camp in the hills and is forced to fight them with a large sword and kill all of them. Some of them try to hit him with motorcycles and they crash, explode and burn.
It would take four days to get the beginning confrontation dialogue plus the fight. I had real bikers mixed in with actors and stunt men. I was concerned that the bikers might get bored with the shoot, but that wasn't the case. What was their main concern? "Hey Paul, do I die good." "Yeah, you'll die good." I guaranteed many of them who constantly asked. I wanted them to take the shoot serious so I got the idea to have all of them get made up by our make-up girl.
Of course, most of them didn't need it, in this situation. But I made them go, even though some didn't want to. But my idea did the trick. They were treated like actors, so they became actors. One giant-sized biker named Brian, was really worried about if he died good or not, and was constantly asking me and the crew about it. I saved him for the end. He chased the criminal up a hill and the criminal picked up a watermelon sized rock covered in dust, heaved it down on him, hitting him in the face. Brian rolled down the hill and landed next to a burning motercycle amongst the other bodies. He died happy, and most of all "good".
The unique thing about this movie that, except for the high falls, motorcycle stunts, and a fire stunt, everyone did their own stunts. As I mentioned I planned to act in the movie as one of the five good guys. I decided that I would be the only guy to have a gun. Audiences always say in a Kung Fu movie, "Why didn't someone bring a gun?" So one of the bad guys has a gun and my character manages to come up with one pistol on short notice. Audiences cheered as I mowed down the kung fu guys with my six shooter, always showing me reloading after firing my six shots.
I knew that the audience likes to count and I didn't want to say that I had a twelve shot gun like Tom Laughin did in The Master Gunfighter. I was not worried about directing myself as I used one of the crew to stand in for me as I staged the scenes, and then took his place for the shot. Besides I was only in a third of the movie because of all the characters.
I was a little worried that some might think I was not a serious director by also being in the film. But since I figured it might be my last movie, I decided to play out all my dreams. Only my cameraman objected to me being in the movie. Two days before filming started he complained, "What do you want to be, an actor or director." So I decided not to act in it.
However, with two days before the shot and being so busy, I couldn't spend the time to find someone to replace my character, so I was stuck with me. But acting and doing my planned stunts in this movie has been the greatest satisfaction for me.
Years later, it's not so much the fact that I directed it that people mention when they see it, it's the fact that I was in it. So after that, I never listen to anyone who tries to talk me out of my dreams. At the end of the movie I run out of bullets and am forced to fight Gini Lau, a trained martial artists, with a sword. She finally knocks me out.
But the quick fight is an audience pleaser, because when I run out of bullets I throw my pistol at her. In the movies no one is hit with a thrown pistol, but I hit her in the face with it. The audience always screams, as she shakes it off and gets angry. Of course, it was a sponge pistol with a great sound effect added. My two other stunts always gets a cheer from the audience.
One is where I jump off a six foot high cliff, shoot a bad guy while in mid air, land, fall down, while I keep firing and hit more bad guys. The stunt I'm really proud of was jumping on top of a railing of a footbridge that is 12 feet above a rocky stream. The railing was only 4 inches around and I ran it with my leather boots in a wide shot that showed there was no net or mats below, just jagged rocks.
When the audience saw that they screamed and people came to me later saying, "You should have never done that. You could have been really hurt." What I've never told anyone until now is that I used a trick that Douglas Fairbanks used in the silent version of Robin Hood.
In that movie there is a giant curtain that is about three stories high. It is pulled back and tied at the bottom. Fairbanks, who is above it, jumps down on the folded part and with one leg out in the air rides it down to the floor. The trick was that he had a playground type slide hidden inside the curtain, which he just slid down.
So what I did was, on the other side of the thin railing of the bridge, I had a six-inch wide plank made for me and ran with one foot on that and the other foot on the railing. It was a little dangerous, but I made sure if I lost my footing to fall on the bridge and not off of it.
The scenes that were shot in San Francisco's Chinatown had to be done without a permit. It is the one where the kidnappers come to get the girl. Also there was an establishing shot of the girl walking home. As I was filming this first with my cameraman, I turned and saw all seven bad guys in their costumes walking down the street looking the mean bunch of villains they were suppose to be. "Hey guys", I said panicing and looking around to make sure they were no police, get off the street and back into the van.
Anyway, we finally faked the exterior kidnapping and got the hell out of there. We next filmed the title scenes of the van driving across the Golden Gate bridge. This was done with the camera mounted in the back of a pick up truck. I was the driver and really sweated it out going through the toll gate with the camera in the back looking like a mounted machine gun with the cameraman in a hooded jacket. But we weren't stopped and got the shots we needed.
The partial budget that I had raised, got us through to the end of production and the developing and printing of our film. I spent the next eight months happily editing my dream film, that turned out bigger and better than I had hoped, in my apartment. I couldn't afford a flatbed editing machine, nor to rent an editing room, so I edited the whole movie on a pair of rewinds and a viewer.
I vividly remember that I started to edit the first scene in the movie that was a bar room brawl that introduced the lead criminals. I had started it like the opening of Rio Bravo where one of the leads enters drunk looking for a drink. I happened to have my FM radio on at the time, and I swear the that announcer said, "Famed movie director of Rio Bravo Howard Hawks died today.
I was saddened and said, "Thanks for this scene, Howard." Later, for the final editing and tightening of scenes, I used a Kem flatbed with a Panavision picture head. I also screened the film several times and made more cuts until I was satisfied with it. Unlike Death Machines that had skimpy sound effects, Weapons of Death got the full sound treatment, sometimes running as many as thirty-six tracks at the same time, as we did in the biker fight scene.
We had separate tracks for footsteps, yells, explosions, sword swishes, sword cuts, body falls, music, wind, and more. All individually controlled by a professional mixer in a state of the art mixing room at the Saul Zantz Studio in Berkeley, where some of the biggest movies were mixed.
Not wanting to have a big distributor take the movie and charge all their expenses against our 50%, we went with an smaller independent distributor that took several prints to each city, advertised, showed and then moved to the next. We broke a house attendance record in one theater in New York. I called a New York friend there and asked how the movie played, "They were all cheering and yelling," he said.
On every movie I made, my father would say, "I like the movies that shows the actors with their names at the end. " I would always explained that the optical work on that took a lot of money. But on Weapons of Death I showed all the actors at the end one by one. They would be in the middle of the action, then freeze framed and then their name popped on.
It cost three thousand dollars to do just that, but I got it done. I didn't tell my father about it and when it premiered he not only saw the end title sequence, but on the roll up came the credit, "Title design...Gus Kyriazi". He was surprised and happy.
The best part of Weapons of Death was getting to be close friends with Eric Lee, Gerald Okamura, Sid Campbell and others. We went on to do the comedy, NinjaBusters and became lifelong friends. Later, using them to do voice work my audio-books.
They've continued successfully in the martial arts and movie business. Weapons of Death remains my best movie, though I hope to top it with a mystery thriller that I wrote. After watching Quentin Tarrentino's martial arts spectacular, Kill Bill, I told a friend, I'm sure glad that I did my martial arts dream movie. Otherwise I would be sad to see someone else doing his dream version of a martial arts movie, knowing that I had chickened out and not taken the risk to do mine.
I can still see the script for Weapons of Death lying on my sofa, with me standing over it, wondering if I should make it or not. Like Tom Cruise's high school friend in Risky Business says, "Sometimes you have to say 'What the hell.' Saying it gives you freedom. Freedom brings opportunity. And opportunity makes your life. If you can't say it, you can't do it."
So I had the the dream, the script, and no money. What the hell !
Weapons of Death
Paul, I really enjoyed reading this...you shared yourself, your worries and your joys of working...sounds like a James Bond Man...
Don't forget Paul's live chat on September 30th at 12:00 Noon...Facebook Reviewers Roundup Discussion Board...