Albert Pyun is an independent filmmaker with a very strong cult following among cinephiles from all over the world. His movies, often dealing with fantastic themes, set in faraway lands where androids live next to humans (not in a very friendly way), dystopic planets or urban dramas where guns and high kicks speak louder than words are revered by extreme film buffs while despised by lots of film critics. He started making homemovies before reaching puberty, shooting small adventures on a borrowed 8mm camera and in the sixties, was invited by famous Japanese actor Toshirô Mifune to spend some time in the Land of The Rising Sun to learn filmmaking. His casts are a veritable who’s who in genre and non-genre filmmaking: Kris Kristofferson, Lance Henriksen, Lee Horsley, Richard Lynch, Christopher Lambert, Ice-T, Rob Lowe, Burt Reynolds, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Michael Nouri, Bill Mumy, Michael Paré, Kevin Sorbo, Teri Hatcher, Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay and many others.
A recent interview with Mr. Pyun, conducted by Marco Freitas…
Oh yes. I would try to see everything especially foreign films and a lot of Asian cinema which was popular in Hawaii.
2-Let us know some of your earliest cinematic childhood memories…
I remember a Japanese studio called Toho built a spectacular cinema that was designed to look and feel like a temple. It was always magical to see films there. And I remember seeing Dr. No (1962) and From Russia With Love (1963) as a double bill really had an impact on me as a child. When I was older, 2001:A Space Odyssey (1968) and A Fistful of Dollars (1964) had strong impressions on me for their visuals an original creative sensibilities. I think my filmmaking style is greatly influenced by seeing Godard, Buñuel, Leone and Bergman growing up. I loved their films. Each time it was so exciting to see how they would push the edges of cinema.
3-Can you tell what were the most important lessons you’ve got from Akira Kurosawa?
Preparation and total focus. The artistry I learned from his cinematographer Takao Saito, who did Ran (1985), Dodes’ka-den (1970), Dreams (1990) amongst many others. He taught about using composition and color to tell a story, and reveal characters.
4-How did you become a protegé of legendary star Toshirô Mifune?
He saw a short film I had done and knew it was difficult for an Asian in Hollywood at that time. So he really supported my dream to become a feature filmmaker.
I was not influenced at all by the sword and sandal films. I really didn’t care for them or the Sinbad type fantasy that was being made. It was really Richard Lester‘s The Three Musketeers (1973) and John Milius‘ The Wind and the Lion (1975) that were my biggest influences for The Sword and the Sorcerer.
6-The two lead characters in Radioactive Dreams (1985) act like they don’t belong in the futurist era they live. Your films are mostly set in different ages and/or civilizations… Is there a parallel there with your own person?
I guess there is, yes. I’ve always felt out of step and time with the film world but never more than now! The film world has changed so much since I started making films. So I do feel a bit out of place now. A bit of a relic. The reason I select different ages or civilizations is because I’m drawn to creating an entire world from my imagination. Always have been. Not the world as it is but as it might be.
7-Your movies have a very distinctive visual sense and atmosphere. A great cinematographer (George Mooradian) was your DP in many projects. Can you tell us about your working partnership and creating the look for some of your movies?
The collaboration with George Mooradian was certainly very productive and exciting. George and I see the world with the same eyes. We both share the same belief that storytelling in film is visual. He is an absolutely fearless and aggressive cinematographer. He actually came in and shot a few days on Tales of an Ancient Empire (2010). He and I are dangerous together! When creating a look, I look in the script for underlying meaning and themes that I can bring out visually.
8-Raven Hawk (1996), Cyborg (1989), Omega Doom (1996), Knights (1993) and parts of the Nemesis movies look like ‘Spaghetti Westerns not set in the Old West’. Please tell us your western cinema influences.
Yes those were all influenced by Sergio Leone‘s operatic and theatrical stylization. One of my recent films, Left For Dead (2007), is particularly that style of grand theater.
9-Mean Guns (1997) has a very ‘Chinese Action Movie’ feel, with all the kinetic camerawork and intense shootout scenes. Bloodmatch (1991), Kickboxer 2: The Road Back (1991) and Kickboxer 4: The Aggressor (1994) are martial arts features. What Hong Kong filmmakers do you emulate the most?
I think King Hu was a big influence as was Tsui Hark. I love their films. And Raymond Chow‘s ideas.
10-There are many tales of tampering from producers/distributors – in other words: the money men – in your movies and Ticker (2001) is supposed to have been heavily cut. What is the real scoop there?
At the last minute our budget was cut by 50%. Not the budget for the stars but the budget for the movie shoot. So we had to cut the schedule and lost most of the larger action scenes. I heard our budget was cut with the idea that I would falter, so Nu Image could come in take over and throw in a bunch of shots from their other movies. It was a very bitter experience.
11-Since you came close to directing a movie of Spider-Man (in the 80s, to be financed by Israeli cousins, Golan-Globus), did you like the films made by Sam Raimi?
Yes, I do. particularly The Quick and the Dead (1995).
12-Film director John Stockwell got his first chance working behind-the-scenes writing Dangerously Close (1986), helmed by you. How was your experience working with him back in then?
Well, John‘s a very smart and talented artist. I enjoyed working with him because he’s very aggressive with creative ideas and really courageous in what he’ll try. He’s also dedicated and an extremely hard worker, which I admire.
13-Norbert Weisser, Thom Mathews, Nicholas Guest, Scott Paulin and Vince Klyn are some of the actors that have worked with you in various occasions. Tell us about working with your ‘Stock Company’.
First, what I love is the talent and presence they bring to any role they undertake. I like Norbert (15 movies with Pyun) for his honesty and fearlessness, Scott (6 movies) for his intellect and creative point of view, Thom (11 movies) for his humor and flexibility, Nicholas (9 movies) for his professionalism and wry humor, Vince (11) for his raw physicality. My films have to be shot so fast I rely on their own ability to prepare themselves.
14-How could you describe in a few words your experience in the ’80s working with Cannon, while producing films like Cyborg (1989), Alien From L.A. (1988), Journey to the Center of the Earth (1989), Captain America (1990), Down Twisted (1987)?
Well, it was wild. My first experience in a sort of ‘studio’ situation. So it was exciting because they had to fill a big pipeline with movie after movie. Once the financial problems hit, it wasn’t fun but incredibly sad.
15-Streets of Fire (1984) and The Sword and the Sorcerer (1982) are films with fans scathered all over the planet. You’ve just made two semi-sequels to both, Road to Hell (2008) and Abelar: Tales of an Ancient Empire (2010). Considering the years that have passed since both the originals were first released, do you think audiences of today could still be interested in seeing them?
I hope so! There was a magic to those films in the ’80s that today’s audience isn’t all that aware of. So the experiences will be fresh and fun.