Thursday, February 12, 2015

Ask Me a Question: Lionheart w/ Sheldon Lettich

Driving in Texas is rough. Only a two lane highway, lots of construction, accidents and cars on the side of the road. After a quick jaunt through the University of Texas campus glimpsing the huge stadium and Lyndon B. Johnson library, we arrived at our hotel in downtown. Only steps away from the bustling 6th street scene and the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz, we imbibed a few dranks before grabbing snacks at the Iron Cactus next door with some special guests. It was beautiful outside, warm and sunny but not too hot. Not too many people out but hey, it was an early Sunday evening. Tough Guy Cinema was taking over one of the two screens at the Ritz with Lionheart and Only the Strong while new releases Foxcatcher and Inherent Vice played on the other side. I've never been to an Alamo so it was a cool experience with Only the Strong and Lionheart posters on the wall, arcade games in the lobby and artwork everywhere. The seats are all behind a long table/counter where you jot down your order and a server whisks by and then drops off. We opted for liquid dinners and their whiskey gingers were delicious.

Tough Guy Cinema mastermind Greg took the stage and told us how as a youth, he and his brother would scarf down pizza and watch Jean-Claude Van Damme movies on Friday nights. After I met him in Los Angeles and made the introduction to Sheldon Lettich, the duo made it happen and we were about to watch Lionheart on the big screen. While Universal doesn't have a print, the Academy Archives does. Sheldon took the stage for a quick introduction and said he hadn't seen the film on the big screen in decades. Home video releases were all in the wrong format and he's off to Germany next month for a special edition blu-ray release event with co-star Harrison Page. In a nice touch, trailers for Bloodsport and Hard Target played before the feature.

Lionheart tells the tale of Lyon (Jean-Claude Van Damme), a French Foreign Legionnaire stationed in Djibouti, North Africa who goes  A.W.O.L. when he finds out his little brother has been set on fire in a drug deal gone wrong in Los Angeles. Hopping a steamer, Lyon ends up in New York with no money or contacts. Chancing upon a street fight organized by the street savvy and hilarious Joshua (Page), Lyon wins a bout and ends up with a wad of cash to help him get to L.A. Needing a little more scratch, Joshua takes him to meet Cynthia aka The Lady (Deborah Rennard) a rich chick who puts on street fights in the parking garage of her swank office building for shits and giggles. Now dubbed Lionheart, Lyon puts Cynthia's designated hitter away with a punch to the nuts and grabs an extra $5 grand. Landing in Los Angeles, Lyon is too late as his brother has died and left a poor widow and child to fend for themselves. Not seeing any other way to help his family, Lyon reluctantly agrees to hit the fighting circuit where he battles kilt wearing Scots in a garage, a mountain of muscle in a racquetball court and a high kicking dude with long hair in a half empty pool. With Legionnaire investigators hot on his trail, Lyon gets set for a big fight against a killer named Attila who's already bagged 8 bodies. High waist white washed jeans, 80's rock, butt shots, roundhouse kicks and Kentucky Fried Chicken awesomeness ensues.

The print looked great and the film still holds up as one of JCVD's more solid efforts. It has Van Damme's trademark martial arts action and buff but not too developed body along with a surprising amount of heart and emotion, an early sign of the Muscles from Brussels being more than just a high kicking brute. Harrison Page steals nearly every scene as the broken down fighter turned promoter looking out for Lyon while you can really see the effort on young Van Damme's part.

After the film, Sheldon and Greg took the stage for Q&A:

- The butt shot was Van Damme's idea after doing several clothed takes. Greg's mom would forever take him to see JCVD movies because of it.
- Original story came from JCVD, he and Sheldon would meet up at a coffee shop on Sunset to discuss. After an altercation between Van Damme and the head waiter, a Sheriff showed up to tell them to leave.
- Sheldon's first feature so didn't attempt any crazy shots or tricks. Producers would have vetoed anything too extravagant to save money anyhow.
- Harrison Page is Sheldon's neighbor and long time friend. Most of the dialog was on the page but Harrison would take it and run with it, making it his own.
- Film picked up by Jim Jacks and Universal who didn't like Cynthia's scenes and trimmed them down. One was after Lyon asks to leave hotel to live like a fighter and she has a fit while another is her visiting Lyon at the hospital, knowing he's injured and setting up the final fight.
- Original title was Wrong Bet, Van Damme's idea. Sheldon didn't love it but had a hard time coming up with a better name. Released worldwide as A.W.O.L., Full Contact and Wrong Bet. Lyonheart became Lionheart at Universal.
- The film was a hit in America and abroad. Sheldon and co-star Michel Qissi were in France where Lion opened up against a Seagal picture. On the first night, Lion was in the small house while Seagal was in the big room. By the next evening, the films swapped as demand for Lionheart was much higher than Seagal's film and could have been the roots of Seagal's dislike for Van Damme.
- Mentions of the proposed Demolition Man pairing of Seagal as the cop and Van Damme as the villain. Neither would lose to the other so they both dropped out and were replaced by Sylvester Stallone and Wesley Snipes who didn't mind losing to Rocky.
- Producers wanted to use synthesizers for the score to save money but upon seeing the film, put more cash in and used the Salt Lake City orchestra to give composer John Scott's work gravitas.
- Really tried to make it different than Van Damme's previous films which explains the lack of splits and a tournament or revenge plot. Making it more dramatic helped differentiate the film and is why it stands the test of time today. But their next film, Double Impact, went balls out with all the cliches.
- Costume Designer Joseph Porro went crazy with Cynthia's wardrobe with big hats, rhinestone jackets, etc since everyone else would be in drab sweats, jeans and suits. Went on to work on classics Double Impact, Universal Soldier, Tombstone, Independence Day and many more.
- Film shot for 39 days, mainly in Los Angeles and Las Vegas for the desert scenes.
- Lots of friends in the film, Lawrence Bender, Scott Spiegel, Kamel Krifa...

It was a great start to the evening with Greg's passion for the film shining through but still affording solid moderating and great stories from Sheldon. The lobby was hopping with fans and friends before Only the Strong as we popped out to roam the streets for a quick minute...

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