Posted on Tuesday, April 5th, 2016 by Blake Harris
Part 2: The Baddest Motherfuckers in the World
Blake Harris: What was the scripting process like for Rambo III, working with Stallone?
Sheldon Lettich: He and I were pretty much on the same wavelength for that. Because my idea for Rambo III was: well, there’s only one place Rambo could go…Afghanistan. And Stallone felt the same way. I showed him pictures of this ancient fortress on a hilltop that the Russians had converted, so that became the basis for it. One of the only places where we initially differed was with the entry point. Stallone’s original idea was that [Colonel Sam] Trautman comes to Rambo and says something like: hey, I got a mission for you in Afghanistan. And Rambo says [putting on a thick Stallone impression]: let me just go get my gear. “But Sly,” I said, “it really wouldn’t work that way because one thing that’s been established with Rambo is that he’s the baddest motherfucker in the world, but he doesn’t want to fight. He wants to find a more peaceful path. So I suggested a version where Rambo tells Trautman, “Sorry, Colonel, I fought my war. It’s not something that I’m interested in, but good luck.” And then Troutman gets captured by the Russians and Rambo’s feeling guilt because he let his buddy down. So he goes there on his own to rescue Troutman, and that pretty much became the movie.
Blake Harris: That’s a good point. Rambo was always a reluctant badass.
Sheldon Lettich: Yeah, you’ve really gotta push him to fight. You’ve gotta kidnap his friend. You’ve gotta [in a dramatic macho voice] PUSH…HIM…TOO…FAR. [laughing] Those old 80s trailers, that’s what they’d say over and over again. “He was a peaceful accountant…until he was PUSHED…TOO…FAR!” Pushed too far—and generally all three words would appear on screen—that was big in the 80s. And that’s one of the things that were attractive about Rambo so that’s what we did with that script.
Blake Harris: And what was it like working with Rambo himself?
Sheldon Lettich: I was just so honored. Look, Stallone was the biggest star in the world at the time and to even have a meeting with him was, to me, a huge honor. I don’t think Stallone has ever been given his due by movie critics. I don’t know if the word “genius” is maybe taking it too high, but this is a very smart creative guy who is very much underappreciated. Plus the guy was just an idol of mine. And he was an idol of Jean-Claude’s too.
Blake Harris: Yeah? Jean-Claude was a big Stallone fan?
Sheldon Lettich: Still is. You know, Jean-Claude was totally overwhelmed when he got to work with Stallone on Expendables 2. Because for years he would turn down roles if his character had to be defeated at the end. If he had to be the bad guy and killed by the protagonist. Like, very famously, he turned down Demolition Man. It was offered to him and Seagal. And the two of them, they didn’t talk about it, but they’d basically bicker through their agents because neither one wanted to be the criminal who gets killed at the end. Both of them wanted to be the cop.
Blake Harris: That’s so funny (though it makes sense).
Sheldon Lettich: It just couldn’t be worked out so the project fell by the wayside until they got Stallone and Wesley Snipes to be in it. But the point I was leading up to was that Jean-Claude just wouldn’t be the villain who gets killed at the end of a movie. But the only guy in the world who could kill Jean-Claude with his permission is Sylvester Stallone. If it’s Stallone: no problem, he can kill me on screen at the end.
Blake Harris: The ultimate compliment…
Sheldon Lettich: Ha, yes.
Blake Harris: Speaking of Jean-Claude, I imagine that you first met him around this time. How did that happen? Or actually, a better question: how did Bloodsport first come together?
Sheldon Lettich: [producer] Mark DiSalle invited me to lunch. He said, “Movies often come in cycles and there hasn’t been a martial arts film in a while; I think that cycle is going to come back soon.” So he pitched me the story for Kickboxer and I said, “Well, if you’re looking for a martial arts film, I’ve got one of my own that I think you might like…Bloodsport.” And the story there, which I’ve told many times, came from Frank telling me about his exploits. He used to tell everybody he was a ninja; I think he still maintains he was a ninja and took his training from this guy named Tanaka. But he was telling me about this tournament that he participated in where all the best fighters in the world showed up. And it was no-holds-barred, it’d very brutal and bloody, so it was called “Bloodsport.” When I heard that name, it was like bells started ringing. Wow. Bloodsport. I said to Frank, “That’s a great title for a movie.” Everything you’ve just been telling me about this Kumite, that’s a great idea for a movie. And, at that lunch, Mark agreed and hired me to write the script for Bloodsport.
Blake Harris: Frank mentioned he already had a script? Enter the Ninja?
Sheldon Lettich: No, there was no script prior to the “Bloodsport” script. Frank and I did write a couple of scripts together, and he received credit on both of them. Neither of them was about a martial arts tournament, and neither of them was ever produced. We even made a movie together, my 16mm short Firefight, which I gave him a major role in. All of this was prior to Bloodsport. Now, Frank did contribute a number of ideas to the Bloodsport script, but he claimed these were “life events” that actually happened to him, not fiction. His contract was not for writing, it was for use of his name and a portion of his “real-life story.” Only the part relating to the Kumite because he was going to hang on to the rest of his rights for the rest of his “exploits” for other movies. But Mark had permission to use his name and to basically say that this was a real story. And, look, in the mid-80’s, something like that sounded real intriguing. A secret martial arts contest? Oh yeah! Nowadays it’s all kind of cliché. But back then it sounded really cool.
Blake Harris: Well you started that cliché!
Sheldon Lettich: [laughter] Back then, to say “based on a true story” was something that intrigued, and I think it particularly intrigued Menahem Golan. I wrote the script, got paid a small fee and I can’t remember how much time passed—probably less than a year—and via another guy named Lou Horwitz—a financer who, I believe, did gap-financing at the time—Lou took it to Cannon. They liked the idea, liked the script, and decided to go ahead and do it as a low-budget movie. All that was missing was an actor to play Frank Dux. A number of ideas were thrown out. I don’t know if they ever approached Chuck Norris, but Chuck didn’t seem right. He was a little too old at the time. I don’t know if they ever approached Michael Dudikoff, but basically the producers were in a quandary as to who to cast. And then there was the famous meeting between Jean-Claude and Menahem on La Cienega Boulevard. I believe that story is 100% true, because Michel Qissi was with him and he told me the same story. And they’ve never wavered from that.
Blake Harris: The kick?
Sheldon Lettich: Yeah. Jean-Claude saw Menahem on the street, did a U-Turn and said, “Hey Menahem, remember me? Jean-Claude Van Damme.” And then he did a kick that missed his face by like two inches. Well, Menahem just happened to be searching for an actor to play the lead in Bloodsport so he told Jean-Claude to come by his office the following morning and gave him a copy of the script.
Blake Harris: Right, right.
Sheldon Lettich: But the point we’re getting towards is my first meeting with Jean-Claude. And I remember Mark telling us, “Menahem is thinking of casting this guy… Gene Claude Van Damme. And he’s in this movie called No Retreat, No Surrender. Why don’t you go check it out?” So Frank and I go to a theater and we were both blown away by Jean-Claude. We thought he was fucking great. We gave our enthusiastic thumbs up and the next thing I know they’re in pre-production and off to Hong Kong. I still had not yet met Jean-Claude at this time. But they called me from Hong Kong—Frank and Jean-Claude—lamenting the fact that “Mark DiSalle was messing up the script.” They didn’t know what to do, but they thought they’d give me a call. So Frank put me on the phone with Jean-Claude and that was the first time I ever spoke to him. We had a nice conversation and promised each other to meet up when he was back in LA. Let’s meet face to face. And as soon as he was back in LA, he gave me a call and came over to my apartment in Park La Brea. Brought his wife with him and we just hit it off, right from the getgo. We just became friends almost immediately. And his wife and my wife became even closer friends. They were both pregnant at the same time. So these kids kind of grew up together. And I was writing for Stallone at the time and I actually asked Jean-Claude for some help with some of the dialogue for a script I was working on.
Blake Harris: I imagine that this was during that time—about two years or so—when Bloodsport just kind of sat there on the shelves. Why was that the case?
Sheldon Lettich: Because Menahem thought it was terrible. Oh man, he fucking hated that movie.