Posted on Tuesday, April 5th, 2016 by Blake Harris
Part 3: Poison
Sheldon Lettich: In Menahem’s defense, I saw the first cut—we all the saw first cut—and it was really bad. But Menahem had an in-house fixer named Michael J. Duthie, a really good editor, and he basically re-worked the movie. Then Jean-Claude came in and worked with Michael on the fight scenes, re-working those. And Jean-Claude’s got a really good sense of how a fight scene should be edited. He’s a real talent when it comes to that. So he re-cut the fights, Michael restructured the movie and when we saw the next cut (which was quite a while later), the movie really worked. It worked great. In fact, we all went out to celebrate. Jean-Claude, Michel Qissi and we were all predicting how much money the movie was going to make.
Blake Harris: That’s wonderful.
Sheldon Lettich: Yes, but there was still an additional hurdle. Even though we thought the movie was better, Menahem didn’t. Menahem still thought it was a piece of shit.
Blake Harris: How come?
Sheldon Lettich: Well, I think this might answer your question. Around this time, Leon Isaac Kennedy [from The White House All Stars] had been in in a Chuck Norris movie called Lone Wolf McQuade and there was talk about doing a Part Two. Leon hired me to write a script, which Menahem ended up liking. Menahem had also seen the little 16mm movie [Firefight] I directed and was going to give me my first directing deal.
Blake Harris: For you to direct a Lone Wolf McQuade sequel starring Leon Isaac Kennedy and Chuck Norris?
Sheldon Lettich: Yes, except that Chuck didn’t want to do it. So we changed the title to Stryker’s Force and we gave the character’s different names. Then we needed someone different to play the Chuck Norris role. Jean-Claude had a three picture deal with Menahem at Cannon and Leon was very impressed with Jean-Claude; we all thought this was a match made in heaven. So Leon and I go and pitch this to Menahem. Let’s put Jean-Claude in. He owes you two more movies! And Menahem was dead set against it.
Blake Harris: Why?
Sheldon Lettich: [Laughing at the memory] His word for Jean-Claude was “poison.” He kept saying, “Jean-Claude is poison!” Poison! “This guy’s never gonna make it,” Menahem said. “He’s a loser. he’s a terrible actor. I want to make this movie, but I want you to make this movie with a real movie star and that’s Michael Dudikoff.” I remember him saying, “Michael Dudikoff is a movie star! Jean-Claude is poison!!”
Blake Harris: [laughter]
Sheldon Lettich: I tried to make my case. I told Menahem that the new cut of Bloodsport was great and I thought it was going to do really well. But Menahem said, “No, I’m not gonna release it in theaters. That movie’s terrible; I’m putting it straight to video.”
Blake Harris: So what eventually changed Menahem’s mind? Not about Jean-Claude per se, but about releasing Bloodsport in theaters?
Sheldon Lettich: Menahem was persuaded by Samuel Hadida, who had released No Retreat, No Surrender in France (where it was called Karate Tiger) and been a fan of Jean-Claude’s ever since then. So when he heard that there was another movie with Van Damme—and this time Van Damme was starring in it—Sammy was totally enthusiastic. And so he told Menahem, “Sell it to me and I’ll release it theatrically.” This got the people at Cannon re-thinking Bloodsport and they decided to do a test run on the west coast. California, Oregon and Washington. And apparently it did huge business. They were flabbergasted. It made its budget back just the first weekend on the west coast. And Jean-Claude’s phone began ringing off the hook. He had an answering machine at the time that had a limit of, like, 50 messages. I remember us going back to his apartment and the thing was entirely full.
Blake Harris: Did Menahem change his tune about Jean-Claude?
Sheldon Lettich: Well, yes and no. Menahem started to realize what he had with Jean-Claude—and remember, he had two more movies with him—so he called us into his office and said, “We need to find our next movie for Jean-Claude.” I remember there was a stack of scripts lining the wall—titles written on the spine—and I notice one script in particular. The Corsican Brothers. Menahem says, “Oh, Corsican Brothers, that’s perfect for Jean-Claude!”
Blake Harris: That’s great. But I thought you said Menahem still wasn’t fully sold on Jean-Claude.
Sheldon Lettich: He wasn’t. Because this is what happened next…
Part 4: There’s Only One Way a Revenge Film Can End
Sheldon Lettich: So they sent me to Paris and Corsica to do research and I re-wrote The Corsican Brothers, which I was going to direct. But then Menahem decided he didn’t want to make the movie.
Blake Harris: Why?
Sheldon Lettich: In his words, I’m quoting, “Jean-Claude can’t even play one character, how do you expect him to play two?” So he still didn’t’ have a lot of faith in Jean-Claude’s acting abilities and decided not to make it. Anyways, they didn’t pay me for doing my work on The Corsican Brothers and Delta Force 2. And they weren’t returning phone calls. They were just being assholes.
Blake Harris: That seemed to happen a lot at Cannon…
Sheldon Lettich: Now Blake, I have never filed a lawsuit against anyone in this business, but I filed a lawsuit against those guys, against Cannon. And we ended up settling. In exchange for dropping the suit, they offered me the rights to The Corsican Brothers, which I readily agreed to because, by then, Jean-Claude was trying to get a project set up with Moshe Diamant. They were going to do a movie called Night of the Leopard but there were some problems with getting the script so now they needed a new one. I told Jean-Claude I might be getting the rights back to Corsican Brothers so he got Moshe on board. And so the ink was barely dry when I drove right over to Moshe’s house and we signed a deal to do what became Double Impact.
Blake Harris: From a technological standpoint, what were some of the biggest challenges with shooting two Jean-Claudes?
Sheldon Lettich: The biggest challenges were that we were still using old technology. We did not use CGI, that was only just starting to become popular, so we had to do everything optically. We’d shoot one side of the screen with one of the brothers and then Jean-Claude would have to change his hair, make-up, wardrobe and we’d have a double standing in for another brother. It was very time-consuming and it was not easy to match things up with the optical printer, but I thought we did a pretty good job of that. The one thing that we did that made the film work so well is that we would do one “twinning shot” per scene. So there would be one shot where you would see both brothers in the same shot, kind of talking to one another and then all the other shots were either close-ups or over-the-shoulders done with a double. And the one twinning shot would sell it and it worked surprisingly well.
Blake Harris: The next movie you worked on with Jean-Claude was his directorial debut, The Quest , but only in the capacity of script polishing. After directing Jean-Claude in Double Impact  and Lionheart  before that, was there any reason you didn’t want to be involved with writing or directing?
Sheldon Lettich: That was right after another movie I did called Only the Strong  and I seemed to have a lot of other things going on. 20th Century Fox was high on Only the Strong and we all kind of expected that movie to do better than it did. So I thought that it was a good idea to keep my options open. Another thing was that had I co-directed The Quest with Jean-Claude, it might have contributed to a mistaken notion that Jean-Claude co-directed Lionheart and Double Impact with me. People would just assume that this is how it worked on those other two movies.
Blake Harris: That makes sense.
Sheldon Lettich: So I actually suggested to Jean-Claude that he use Frank Dux to write the script. By this time we knew that Frank was full of baloney with a lot of the stuff that he was saying about his life. But he had a great imagination, he had good ideas and he knew the martial arts world pretty well. So I said, “As long as you’re going to have martial arts, why not get Frank?” One contribution I made to that script though was suggesting to Jean-Claude that he set the story in the past. Originally he’d planned for it to take place in present day, but I just thought that if you’ve got all of these fighters coming from all of the world like they did in Bloodsport—and basically he was just trying to do a different version of Bloodsport—that it would make things more interesting if, for example, this took place in the 1920s because then it becomes really difficult for all these fighters from different parts of the world to journey to this contest.
Blake Harris: So Frank was originally hired to write the script for The Quest?
Sheldon Lettich: Frank, and they actually put another writer on with Frank. And the two of them wrote this first draft. I’m not quite sure why they ended up hiring other writers to do a different version of it but they did and then that became a bone of contention later on where Frank ended up suing Jean-Claude and saying Jean-Claude had promised him some big chunk of the profit participation from the movie. Well you know how that ended up. Frank lost that case. But there was a Writer’s Guild arbitration and the Writer’s Guild ended up giving him a co-story credit.
Blake Harris: Tell me a little bit about Legionnaire. How did that come about?
Sheldon Lettich: Well, it’s interesting. Back when I first started working with Stallone, my agent had told me to bring an idea to pitch him for a script. And I had read an article, in this magazine called M, about the French Foreign Legion. I did some research and realized I wanted to do a French Foreign Legion movie. So I go in to pitch my idea and his development executive, she was just flabbergasted when I showed her the magazine cover and told her about the idea. She said, “Wait a minute, I’ll be right back” and then comes in with the same magazine. Apparently, Stallone had read the same article and he was thinking exactly the same thing. Except the version that Stallone had in mind was for a present day French Foreign Legion movie about two American buddies who enlist. So I ended up writing that script for him. In fact, that was the script for Stallone that Jean-Claude gave me some dialogue help with.
Blake Harris: Ah, right after Bloodsport.
Sheldon Lettich: Yeah. So flash forward ten years and I still had this notion of doing a film about the classic era of French Foreign Legion movie. You know, there’s a certain romanticism to that. And were just digging this whole notion of Jean-Claude being a Legionnaire. Jean-Claude was doing movies for Columbia and they wanted him to bring them some ideas for movies and we brought that idea to them. We pitched it to them and they were kind of interested, but at the end of the day they decided not to do it. They wanted to stick with the Van Damme formula. Not go into the past. But then Ed Pressman, who had done Street Fighter, he wanted to do another movie with Jean-Claude. So we pitched him Legionnaire, gave him the treatment and Ed went for it.
Blake Harris: You mentioned that Columbia passed on Legionnaire because it didn’t “stick with the Van Damme formula.” How conscious were you—and I don’t mean with that movie, but in general—about that kind of formula. And was that something that you and Jean-Claude consciously tried to deliver (or to avoid)?
Sheldon Lettich: We tried to do something atypical with Lionheart. In fact, Universal had some problems with what we did there because we did not want it to be a revenge movie. Jean-Claude’s character comes to the US to help out his brother, not with anything like revenge or violence on his mind. Not what’s typically expected, which was: Jean-Claude’s going to find these motherfuckers and beat the shit out of them. We liked the fact that we were able to do something different there. Then for Double Impact we thought: let’s just go for it. Let’s make a kickass, balls-to-the-wall revenge movie. And that’s pretty much what Double Impact is…
Blake Harris: I read online that you might be writing a sequel to Double Impact? Is that true?
Sheldon Lettich: We were working on a sequel, but I just don’t think it’s going to go anywhere, unfortunately. Because there are so many issues with the rights to that project. Double Impact was financed, mostly, through pre-sales and, as it was structured, each of those companies also own a piece of the movie. So you have to get everyone on the same page and agree to make this movie. We have a treatment and we started writing the script. It would have been an expensive movie. We needed at least $20 million to do this thing right and it looked like it might happen, but it didn’t. And at this point in time I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Blake Harris: Ah, too bad. You said “we were working on a sequel.” I assume you’re referring to Jean-Claude. Are you guys still friendly?
Sheldon Lettich: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I was just at his house for New Year’s Eve. He was actually going to come to that Bloodsport screening in North Hollywood [referenced in our conversation with Frank Dux]. It was going to be a surprise appearance. I was going to say something like, “By the way, there’s actually someone here who worked on the movie and he can maybe answer some of your questions” and he was going to come out and everyone would have went fucking crazy. But when we found out Frank Dux was going to be there, we realized that this could go very, very bad, very quickly. And there’d be a bunch of people there with phones to record it, so we don’t want this to happen.
Blake Harris: Speaking of that screening, Frank had mentioned that you were crushed. Nobody clapped or wanted to have their picture taken with you. I should mention that within hours of the piece begin published, we received several unsolicited e-mails from people who had been there and had a significantly different memory of the screening.
Sheldon Lettich: [laughing] I’ll let you readers draw their own conclusions. But here’s a photo from the screening, so I guess at least one person wanted to have their photo taken with me. Do you recognize the guy all the way on the right? The one who’s putting up his “dux?”