INTERVIEW: Cult Filmmaker Paul Kyriazi (NINJA BUSTERS, DEATH MACHINES) part 1

In Interviews, Movies by Corey3 Comments

Paul Kyriazi has had such an interesting career. He spent the early years making exploitation action films like WEAPONS OF DEATH, OMEGA COP, and DEATH MACHINES. He also directed a film called NINJA BUSTERS which was only screened a couple of times before it was lost for thirty years. As the movie game changed, Paul had to adapt and began to spend time creating full cast audio books. I spent a really long time chatting with Paul about his career. He has some really fun stories to tell so I decided to split this article into two parts. The first will focus on his film career while the second will focus on his foray into audio books. We spoke over the phone and listening to all the years of hard work and wisdom he had to share was a real treat. You can read it for yourselves.

Corey Danna: Can you tell me a bit about what first interested you in film and the path you took to completing your first feature?

Paul Kyriazi: Walt Disney made 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA and on Disneyland Television and every week on Wednesday night they would show these specials and one was the making of that film before it even came out. They showed storyboards, stuff with Kurt Douglas, making the tentacles, and I knew right then I wanted to make movies. My dad took me to see it twice, at a matinee then again at night two days later. I still love that movie and I still watch it and that’s when I knew I wanted to make movies. As I grew older, I bought an 8mm camera and would make action movies in my back field and yard. My dad worked for Dow Chemical and the guy who worked in the film department told him that if I was really interested in making films I would have to get into 16mm. We didn’t have a lot of money but right then my dad went into San Francisco and bought me a used Bolex and tripod for $200 and I shot my first 30min action/martial arts film and it won the Berkley Film Festival. I shot five 16mm movies including two of my friends. My second movie won the Berkley Film Festival as well and then I went to film school at San Francisco State.

CD: When you decided to make DEATH MACHINES, what was your starting point and how did you go after financing?

PK: The first movie I did, I shot in color Techniscope and ran out of money. So a year later I came back and decided to shoot in black and white Techniscope and it’s the only one ever made. It was about three samurai going to England and it was too short, I didn’t realize it was only an hour long. Because of that, I couldn’t sell the film, not in black and white anyways. I had a guy from the Philippines tell me he would have bought it if I had shot it in color. So I decided that if I ever had the chance to make a feature, I would make one so exploitative and commercial. I did have another chance when I met martial artist Ron Marchini (OMEGA COP). He had appeared in a couple of films shot in the Philippines and wanted to make his own in the United States. He saw my films and wanted to make one with me. So we came up with this story and I knew I could sell this. We had three killers, one caucasian, one Asian-American, and one Afro-American. The black exploitation movies were big at that time and I had cops, gangsters, a lady Yakuza, a bar fight, and you saw it so you know everything we did. We even blow up an airplane. So when I took it to Crown International, the president of the company took it right away. The funny thing is, ROLLERBALL and DEATH RACE 2000 were big at the time so instead of putting topless girls or bikers, or anything we had in the film on the poster they used that pyramid thing. It looked like it was science fiction. They had to shoot that scene at the beginning just to tie it in. I did my police station fight before Stallone did the one in FIRST BLOOD. Even though I was making a commercial film, I was still being true to myself because I love action and martial arts. When it opened, it was on fifteen screens in Los Angeles, expanded to thirty screens when it hit San Francisco, then it hit New York. There were semi-colored ads in the New York Times and I felt as if I was on my way.

CD: I was going to ask you about the police station fight. It was my favorite scene in the film and one of Ron’s best action scenes as well. Can you tell me a bit planning and executing that sequence?

PK: That was in a real police station and that particular floor was set up but no one was using it yet. We really lucked out on timing so I had three days maximum, maybe two, to do all the dialogue and the fight. We had a guy, Dick Albain doing special effects. He was $300 a day and we extended our budget to include him for ten throughout the six week shoot. We had him doing squibs, bullet holes, etc. but he had also worked on BONNIE AND CLYDE. He had just finished work on the Karen Black television movie with the little doll chasing her around with the knife.

CD: TRILOGY OF TERROR.

PK: That’s the one! He was our effects guy and we had Ron’s karate guys playing the cops. We used a lot of stock and playhouse people and they were doing their own stunts. You saw it right there! Everyone just pitched in and wanted to help. We took it shot by shot, step by step, and we did as much as we could until it was eight at night. Ron had to do all the fighting with the handcuffs hanging from his arm and everything was safe and no one was injured. There was the last shot when Ron comes running out, he wasn’t even doing a stunt, the handcuffs swung up and chipped his tooth. Everyone was laughing but he couldn’t get out of his handcuffs. He had fake blood on him, wearing nothing but a tank top, and he had to go down to the front desk to ask about getting out of the handcuffs. Everyone downstairs took a step back because they thought he was a real criminal. They had to check it all out first before they would take it off. Other than that everything went really well and I tried to get as much in a single shot as I could. It was tricky but everyone thought it turned out great and we did so much with a single take.

CD: What was the most difficult aspect of shooting that film?

PK: Night shoots! The second day we were out there at night filming the ambulance taking the hero out of the Karate school raid. We had not shot the actual raid but we were doing the ambulance scene. It was freezing out there and the belt on the camera broke. We have guys trying to fix it and a whole bunch of people, free extras, waiting around until they fix it. We had like a hundred people there and some eventually became fed up so we ended up with like twenty people. I remember Ron was pacing up and down for like thirty minutes, the ambulance was waiting, and we did it all in one shot. Once we had every set up and the dolly track in place, I remember the producer saying, “All this time for a twenty second shot?” That was a rough time and the night shoot inside Madame Lee’s Mansion too. We needed permission to shoot in this guys house and we were supposed to be out of there but six at night. Ten o’clock rolls around and this guy is giving us the eye and he wants us out of there. I had to get the shot and it was just tense in there. I was barely getting any sleep. There was a night when I didn’t finish up until two in the morning then we were shooting with the bikers at eight in the morning. Going from a night shoot to a early morning shoot, I just needed to sleep by then. When they were setting up shots, I would sneak into the backseat of some ones car and nap for an hour. Aside from those night shoots, we shot in a friendly town, everyone was happy to be working, and all the playhouse people were just happy to be in a film.

CD: Was the film an instant success or did it take time to build momentum?

PK: When it was released on fifty screens in L.A., they had the poster that made it look like it was science fiction. It made money, it was ranked number fourteen that week. It premiered at The Egyptian Theater and made like $2000. What happened was, because of the poster, the science fiction fans went and were disappointed because it was a Karate movie. The Karate fans didn’t go because of the poster and the theaters complained. The posters were already made and Crown, that very week, fixed the poster for print ads. It had a shot of all three killers to at least show it was an action movie. As it moved across America, it did make money and, of course, it eventually went foreign. I talked with a sub-distributor who showed me the books and it made money everywhere it went. It opened in Times Square and I was still surprised we had a semi-color quarter page ad in the New York Times. It wasn’t a big hit but they wanted to do a sequel, that’s why we were given money to go back and film that opening scene. That was done maybe a month after we had wrapped. We never showed the shadow man’s face so we could cast whoever we want for the sequel. It made money but just not enough to warrant a sequel.

CD: NINJA BUSTERS has had a bizarre and unique history, could you shed a little light on it for me?

PK: Once again, we got too big. We had an office space in Berkley, we had investors, but the story was just too big. Just like on my film THE TOURNAMENT, investors pulled out and I just kept trying to raise money. I had my assistant director direct a few things and we ended up with about fifteen minutes of usable footage. We didn’t have any money so we had to shut down production. Three years later, Carlos Navarro would put money in, he was in it and so was his son Frank. He asked me how much it would take in order to be able to finish the film. We figured out a twelve day shoot, I re-wrote the whole thing since we lost two of our lead actresses. When we went back to shoot, they were unavailable so I added two new girlfriends into the script. When I was putting all the pieces together, Carlos wanted a bigger part which wasn’t a problem. I expanded his son’s role, put all the pieces together, and we finished it in twelve days. Ron Marchini had learned how to get the rights to his films then sell them at the American Film Market instead of waiting for a distributor to pay. I wanted Carlos to give the movie to Ron and have him sell it but when I returned from Japan he told me he wanted to go with a distributor. I don’t know what he did, he took the one print, and it showed on Mexican television. Then I found out the distributor went to prison for like eight years for stealing money from NINJA BUSTERS and six other movies. The print disappeared, I moved on to other projects, and that was that. Then thirty years later, Harry Guerro of Garage House Pictures found NINJA BUSTERS in a store room on the edge of the Mohave Dessert with two other prints of lost movies. Many of those prints had rotted through quarter inch steel cases but NINJA BUSTERS was still intact. He picked up some of those movies, drove them across America, through two ice storms, the worst he had ever seen. He was like Indiana Jones in a truck, INDIANA JONES AND THE RAIDERS OF THE LOST MOVIES, I call him Indiana Harry. He had a three day film festival of exploitation movies and NINJA BUSTERS was the hit. Everyone was talking about it, people were finding me on the internet to tell me they laughed so hard their stomachs hurt. Harry wanted to put out a Blu-Ray, it was his first one. He protected the film, made the disc, I recorded a commentary, and he filmed fans reacting and talking about it. There was an introduction I did here in Japan and when it was released, Harry made his money back. We just had a screening in San Francisco at the same theater they used to show all of the old Shaw Brothers films. The cast and crew showed up and it was wonderful. What are the odds of the one lone print of a film being lost only to become a hit thirty years later? I’m very grateful for how this turned out. Sometimes having good luck is the best plan (laughs).

CD: That has to be an amazing feeling. Thinking something you work so hard on was gone forever then having some stranger come along and say, “Hey, guess what I found?”

PK: I actually think it plays better now as an 80’s throwback action/comedy. It doesn’t look dated to me and people seem to have affection towards it. People were laughing and screaming when we first finished too. But we only had a couple of screenings.

CD: I thought it was great to see Eric Lee and Gerald Okamura in lead roles. Predominantly in their career they’ve always been bit part players or second fiddle, so it was nice to have them in the spotlight.

PK: You’re right, Corey. I wrote it with a lot of philosophy in there. The comedy is there but with my natural personality, I didn’t realize there was philosophy in it. The guy who hates peanut butter sandwiches but makes peanut butter sandwiches is the same this as I hate my life but I make my own life. I never realized but I was teaching lessons, Eric Lee wanted to steal from the gangsters but his sensei taught him that if he stole, he would be no better than the gangsters. We taught patience, kindness, and I just never realized how much of it was in there. I also never realized that those two guys are goofy nerds and make mistakes but they learn their lessons, turn their lives around. They can still get the girl and be the hero, even if they still make fools of themselves in the end. People can relate to it especially movie fans. In the special features, a guy comes out of the film and says that NINJA BUSTERS changed his life. How? It’s the deep-rooted philosophy hidden within. With all of the different races in the film, in the end, everyone gets along, and they are friends. All this came out accidently.

CD: You did OMEGA COP in 1990 and that was the last feature film you did. Why did you stop?

PK: I never stopped, I kept trying but things started to change. In 1983, the independent action houses started to close down. When JAWS came out, it was one of the first films where they made a thousand prints and released it all over America. They didn’t have to open city by city like they used to. The action houses started to dry up but now they had the blockbuster releases. By the way, my film WEAPONS OF DEATH broke a house record in New York for most tickets sold that particular week. I could just never quite break into the Hollywood game, I was always out raising money. I always came close but I could just never get my projects off the ground. Another thing, I gave WEAPONS OF DEATH to a distributor and they never paid the investors. They have 50/50 deals where the producer gets half and the distributor gets half. The distributor can deduct expenses from the producer’s half and they don’t end up with much of anything. The money just dried up after we had paid back our investors. Then years later I saw PULP FICTION and I thought the movie was great. It had chapters like a novel and I thought it was so creative because the payoff wasn’t the action, it was verbal. I thought it would be just as good if it had been a novel. So I turned my script MCKNIGHT’S MEMORY into my first novel. I did the same thing with ROCKSTAR RISING which led me to turning into an audio book. It had Rod Taylor, Kevin McCarthy, Robert Culp, Russ Tamblyn and I turned it into a four hour audio book.

Check back next week to read part two….

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