Jean-Claude Van Damme

Part 3: Beef and Oyster Sauce

Blake Harris: So we know how Sheldon entered the picture, but how does Jean-Claude Van Damme become involved with Bloodsport?

Frank Dux: Oh, Jean-Claude tells this crazy story. Two, actually. He tells one where he says he met Menahem Golan [a producer on Bloodsport] at a restaurant and [Van Damme] threw out his legs and blah blah blah. And then there’s another story where he met Menahem and did it another way in Monaco. The truth of the matter is that Jean-Claude had done a film called No Retreat, No Surrender. And he was brought to our attention through Sheldon. That this guy looks just like me and we should suggest it to Mark DiSalle. And we did.

Blake Harris: Did Mark and the other producers spark to the idea of Jean-Claude?

Michael Dudikoff

Frank Dux: They wanted to use Michael Dudikoff at first. But Michael Dudikoff is like 6’2,” and the problem was they wanted to film in Asia. How are you going to get enough guys to fight against Michael who are even going to match his size? Do you see what I’m saying? The other thing is that Jean-Claude, like I said, he had this uncanny way he looked. And he did the helicopter kick in No Retreat, No Surrender and I was well known for my flying kicks and finishing guys off with my spinning flying kicks. And so, you know, it was just a nice fit. Mark was against it first, but I said, “Look, I can do a lot with this guy. He’s got a lot of abilities. Give me a shot with him.” Okay, try him out. And for three months prior to filming, Jean-Claude would come to my studio after I finished classes, he would show up at like 9 o’clock and I would train him in movie fighting.

Blake Harris: How skilled was he? Jean-Claude?

Frank Dux: When we started? He was very stiff. He had a karate background. But, I mean, he couldn’t do a forward roll when I first got him. He frickin’ landed on his head, in front of all my students. Are you kidding me? I mean, he couldn’t do a throw. You try to get him to do a judo throw and he couldn’t throw anybody. He was good at boxing. He was good at stiff karate moves, but that was it. But when I got done with him he was doing front flips, he was doing great.

Blake Harris: And what about his personality? What was he like?

Frank Dux: He was wonderful. The Jean-Claude I knew was a person who you wanted to see win. You wanted to help him be successful. He was pure, he didn’t do drugs. He was totally against any kind of steroids. He took pride in the fact that he was all natural. And he was just a different person. And then Hollywood got to him and he started showing signs of manic depression, you know?

Blake Harris: In what way?

Lionheart

Frank Dux: I’ll never forget. We were on the set of Lionheart. Actually, I should back up. I need to tell you about something that happened first. On Bloodsport, we got into it during one of the fight scenes. And I said, “Jean-Claude, that’s bullshit. Fights don’t go down like that.” Then he said, “It’s my movie too and I want what’s best for the film! I’ll show you a fighter and I’ll fight you on the roof of the hotel!” And we did. He actually challenged me to a fight. And I said, “Okay, after dailies, I’ll meet you up there.” So he met me on the roof of the Victoria hotel. We’re 60 stories in the air, I’m not kidding you. And I walked out on the ledge and I was waiting for him because I knew he wasn’t going to come alone. And I was right: He came with [Bloodsport actor] Michel Qissi and two other guys. And he showed up and said, “I see he didn’t show up.” And I said, “Hey, asshole, I’m right over here.” When he saw he had to walk [across] an I-beam to me, and I threw a jumping spin heel kick on the ledge of the building there, he goes: Holy shit.” I said, “Real Kumite fighters, we fight here. You want to fight, let’s fight?” And he just started laughing and he says, “Frank, you’re crazy. You’re craaaaaaazy.” He says, “I love you. Okay, okay, you made your point. We do it your way. I buy you dinner tonight.” And he did. He was the one who actually introduced me to beef and oyster sauce. I was afraid to taste it, because I’m allergic to shellfish. And so we had a great time. I walked over there and he threw a playful kick at my head. And we never had a fight from that point on. And we loved each other at that point.

Blake Harris: So you guys were really close…

Frank Dux: Yeah, this’ll show you how close we were and tie back to what I was saying right before. So on Lionheart, I went up where [Jean-Claude] was standing on the ledge of the building, doing what I had done that he was afraid to do in Hong Kong. And he turns to me and he says: “You know, Frankie, I signed a five-picture deal. I met Gladys, the woman of my dreams, I had a baby, and I’m miserable. And I just want to end it right now.” This is the kind of bond we had. And I could see he was really contemplating it. And I had to find a way for him to kind of come back in and get his mind out of it. And I’ll never forget…and I’m terrified of heights, by the way. But I learned to conquer it, okay? So I climbed up on the ledge with him. And I’m talking a six-inch ledge. I’m not talking our toes are over the edge. In downtown L.A. And I go: Well, just do me a favor. And he says, “What?” And I said, “If you’re gonna go, just don’t pull me with you.” I said, “But I can see your view from here and how the world could look bleak.” I made a joke and it just took him out of it, snapped him out of it.

Blake Harris: Laughter is the best medicine, right?

Frank Dux: I took him out of it. And then he said, “What the hell are we doing out here?” I said, “You’re trying to prove to yourself that you could do it. Because you didn’t do it in Hong Kong.” And he just laughed and said, “Come on, let me show you this house. It’s incredible.” And so we climbed back over the wall and onto the set. And we ran around like kids, just like kids, and he was showing me this beautiful art deco penthouse apartment in downtown L.A.

Blake Harris: That’s a great image. But I’m curious, getting back to what you were saying earlier—and what to ultimately led to that story you described—at what point was the producer Mark DiSalle convinced that Jean-Claude would work? At what point along the way were his fears diminished?

Frank Dux: Well it was diminished when they were going to get rid of him—Jean-Claude doesn’t realize how close he was to never having a career—and I took Mark off to the side and I said, “Look, I’m betting it all, Mark.” And then they had me give up my net points on the film.

Blake Harris: Really?

Frank Dux: Yeah, for Jean-Claude to have his career, I gave up my net points. And we made money on that film. It was a no-budget. Jeez. The official budget’s $1.2 million but I was told that we did that film—below the line—for under half a million bucks. I remember paying for the uniforms. I had my then-fiancé back in the United States get all the uniforms for them. They didn’t have any proper uniforms. The uniform they had for Jean-Claude was silk pajamas, these Chinese silk pajamas. I’m not kidding you. It was ridiculous what they had. I actually sent for and had custom uniforms made. The red one, the blue one, the black one. Those were my uniforms. I had them cut down so it would fit him because I’m a bigger guy. So we had no budget on that movie and we did a great job.

Lionheart

Part 4: Authenticity

Blake Harris: You had mentioned earlier on that Bloodsport sat on the shelf for two years…

Frank Dux: Yeah, for two years it sat on the shelf. During that time, I gave Jean-Claude some odd jobs. Occasionally he’d come by the studio. He wanted to teach for me full time, but he ended up driving a limousine.

Blake Harris: And then why, after two years, was he allowed to start tinkering?

Frank Dux: I don’t know, I couldn’t tell you on that. I wasn’t there. I think it was Jean-Claude finally convinced them to allow him to do it. And I gotta give him credit there. He went in and redid it. He remembered that there were different shots. A lot of those shots came from the camera angles I had been directing. They always gave me one camera to kind of use and shoot it the way I’d like to see shot. And a lot of those worked well when Jean-Claude recut it.

Blake Harris: I suspect that part of the reason they worked is because you, based on your experiences, were able to bring a certain authenticity to it.

Frank Dux: I think so too. I think that’s why people really love it. There’s an authenticity to it.

Blake Harris: Speaking of authenticity, I was wondering how much of the movie is accurate to your own life experiences?

Frank Dux: Well the fighting scenes were very accurate. As far as, like, the choreography for how fights go and stuff. But I didn’t sleep with a reporter beforehand and I certainly didn’t break into my instructor’s house and steal a sword. I also was never AWOL. So those are the three elements. And it’s kind of funny because those are superfluous elements to the film. I think what happened in reality was more interesting, but you have a limited amount of time to tell a story and it has to resonate with the audience, you know? It took me years to understand the producer’s point, but I do now. His point was that they just wanted to show it was a kid in trouble who could have gone down a different path, but martial arts puts him on the right path. And in that way it works, I can see that.

With any film that’s based on a true story, there are always questions and curiosities about authenticity. How much of the story really happened? How much of the character’s personality is true to the individual who lived those events? Sometimes we get answers to questions like these, and other times we do not. Either way, it’s fair to say that filmgoers are a pretty forgiving lot. We expect embellishment, we condone narrative condensation and we celebrate character-driven points of view. 

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Yet with Bloodsport, this was not the case. On May 1, 1988, just over two months after Bloodsport hit theaters, John Johnson of the L.A. Times published this editorial:

NINJA: Hero or Master Fake?

Others Kick Holes in Fabled Past of Woodland Hills Martial Arts Teacher

As the title suggests, the piece isn’t too kind to Dux. Early on, Johnson describes him as “a bright but undistinguished young man who, using cleverness and chutzpah, recreated himself as a super-hero a decade ago, painstakingly authenticating his new persona with military medals, trophies and newspaper clippings of questionable origins.”

Below are some of the key points and accusations made in the piece:

  • Dux’s trophy from the Bahamas event was at least partially made in the San Fernando Valley.
  • “We have no recollection of such a tournament,” said Kenneth Wilson, a spokesman for the Ministry of Sports in the Bahamas. Told that the tournament was a secret, he said: “We would know. No, never. It can’t happen.”
  • It chronicles his training by a Japanese master warrior named Tiger [Tanaka]…Shoto Tanemura, a Japanese who is one of a select group of recognized Ninja masters in the world, said in an interview in Los Angeles last week that he had never heard of Dux or Tanaka. “There is not Mr. Tanaka in Japanese history” of the Ninja families, Tanemura said.
  • That is not to say that the Tanaka name has no meaning. Millions of Americans were first introduced to Tiger Tanaka in the Ian Fleming novel You Only Live Twice, in which Agent 007 befriends a Japanese agent by that name.
  • Dux said the military ordered his record sabotaged to discredit him. The government did not know how much he knew about other covert operations, he said, so they placed information in his file to destroy his credibility.

Frank Dux: By the way, the L.A. Times won’t even defend the article anymore. But they still run it. At one point it was the second most profitable article they’d ever written.

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