Albert Pyun on a Career of Trying Something New Leading Up to “Tales of an Ancient Empire”

In honor of the passing of the late, great Albert Pyun, we are sharing this interview originally published on on June 22, 2010.

In the independent filmmaking world, Albert Pyun is a little more independent than most. Having made his directorial debut with “The Sword and the Sorcerer” in 1982 after serving an apprenticeship under Akira Kurosawa, Pyun carved out a unique niche as a director of low-budget, high-concept genre films starring casts slightly past their prime.

Some will think that’s a charitable description for Pyun, who has been derided as “the new Ed Wood,” but consider that his pairings of rap stars and action stars (beginning with the 1997 Ice-T/Christopher Lambert team-up “Mean Guns”) begat the trend Joel Silver popularized in the early naughts, and he was once just two weeks shy of directing “Spider-Man” (which he’ll explain below).

These days, Pyun’s movies rarely see the inside of a theater, but that’s made him a pioneer in another arena: streaming video-on-demand. With “Tales of an Ancient Empire,” a spiritual “not for children” sequel to “Sword and the Sorcerer” starring the aforementioned Lambert and fellow titans of the fantasy genre Kevin Sorbo, Pyun’s latest film will be kicking off with a live webcast of the film’s premiere on the eve of Comic-Con in San Diego where fans will be able to interact with Pyun and some of the cast during a post-screening Q & A via Twitter and Facebook. In the mean time, I had some questions of my own for the filmmaker about his long, unusual career.

More and more filmmakers are having to get used to the fact that their film will likely not have a theatrical release, but you haven’t had one in a while. Has that made it easier for you to embrace VOD?

When I started making films, there were only [maybe] 300 films released in the world in the entire year, so to be one of those 300, you had to jump through the hoops of making sure that the film was viable. Nowadays, with all the different platforms that are available and how easy it is for everybody to make a movie, people still need some type of a vetting process for their film and their ideas to make sure that it’s viable in the market.

I learned early on that once those other markets came online, like home video and cable, they were all viable outlets that got the film out to a much bigger audience than theatrical ever would. Theatrical is not something that filmmakers should think about initially. They should think about how to connect to their audience and then figure out what the best platform will be to connect to that audience. Theatrical is a little vanity-oriented. [Filmmakers] see it as validation it’s a real movie, and I’ve never seen that.

With “Sword and the Sorcerer” in the ’80s and “Sorcerers” in the ’90s and now this film, you seem to return to the fantasy genre every once a decade. What keeps you coming back?

I enjoy the fact that it allows you to put your imagination on the screen unbridled and I enjoy creating worlds — over half my films are about creating an entire universe that came out of my or our writers’ imagination. Last year, the film I enjoyed most was “District 9” — I like movies that transport you to a different setting and the way the stories can play out there in more imaginative ways than contemporary ones.

But you also went through a period in the ’90s where you were making some pretty gritty films usually featuring rap stars.

There weren’t many rap movies being made — I think “Mean Guns” was the first pairing of a traditional action hero, in that case Christopher Lambert, with a rapper, which was Ice-T. There were a lot of those movies after that, but I think my place in the industry has been to stay ahead of the curve in the concepts. In the late ’80s, visually, rap was pretty interesting and I liked what the music was saying, so I tried to bring that to the movies. Also, those were the first movies I tried to do digitally.

Air France lost half of the three movies that I did with Snoop Dogg and Big Pun and Fat Joe, so they had to be made from just the remnants — just half of shot movies. There was a little bit of a problem.

You mentioned the pairing of Ice T and Christopher Lambert, who I know is in this film as well. How do you go about casting?

First, I find a story that I want, and then look around for what would be the most [interesting] on a limited budget because I’m always on a limited budget. Generally, it’s pretty risky because they’re not things that people normally would imagine. I did a film called “Brainsmasher,” where I had Teri Hatcher and Andrew Dice Clay — that was a weird sort of mix. [laughs]. I try not think too much about the commercial side of things, just who would make the most interesting casting combination. That’s why a lot of the casts for my movies have been pretty weird, pretty interesting.

I was surprised to notice San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom’s wife Jennifer Siebel was cast in “Tales of the Ancient Empire.”

Yeah, when we cast her, I didn’t even realize she had just married Gavin. She plays the Queen and the authority figure in the movie. It was unintentional.

It actually reminded me of when you cast Matt Salinger as Captain America, who was JD Salinger’s son.

With Matt, we had to go through a difficult approval process with Marvel. The suggestions that they’d made were… I just couldn’t see the movie working. They were typical, non-actor, big buff guy-types, and I didn’t really see that it was going to work with bodybuilders. The thing I liked about Matt was he was a little off, a little different. That could be his upbringing, but he struck me as someone who didn’t seem to be from any world I was familiar with. I thought that quality might work well for Steve Rogers. Once I realized his father was JD Salinger, I used that point to get him approved by Marvel.

How do you feel about the upcoming Captain America movie?

I think it’s great. It’s a difficult challenge they have to make it work, because of all the baggage that that character comes with. It was really difficult for us. We ended up having a severe budget problem. Financing dropped out while we were shooting. We almost did “Spider-Man” too. We had built the sets and got within two weeks of shooting in North Carolina in ’88.

By the time I went to “Captain America,” I was familiar with the challenges ahead of working with Marvel, but also in bringing to life a comic book hero on a very limited budget. Obviously they’re going to put a lot of money and resources into “Captain America,” I’d be curious to see if they solve some of those problems.

Are you surprised by how popular comic book-inspired movies are these days?

No, because growing up, I loved comic books. I’m more surprised by what a challenge it’s been for comic books to be done well. When I was doing them, nobody seemed willing to put any money in them. Our budgets were always below a million dollars. “Spider-Man” was the biggest budget I would’ve had, and that was only $2 million.
There are some actors you’ve worked with again and again since the ’80s — do you ever step back and reflect on how all of your careers have gone?

[laughs] What’s interesting is the path we all went on from the ’80s to today. I did a film called “Knights” with Kris Kristofferson and Kris [was] reflecting back to the time he was doing “A Star is Born” with Streisand and he was the number one box office male in the world. He was talking about how things could be here today and gone tomorrow really fast, and how you needed to find sort of an even keel.

If I were to work with Jean-Claude [Van Damme] or Steven Seagal or some of those other actors again, it’d be really interesting to do a project that brings all the baggage of these 20 years, and have that movie reflect the bumps and the bruises of the decades of being in this business.

Did you see Van Damme’s “JCVD”? It was a similar idea, but with someone who didn’t have your history with him.

That was a good choice for him — he needs to look forward towards more that type of character and less of the iconic characters that he did in the ’80s and early ’90s. One of the reasons I continue to do weird and interesting films is that I’ve been able to evolve creatively over time. I didn’t try to look back and repeat anything I’ve done in the past. Seagal and Jean-Claude, they need to do the same thing, to try to find new challenges.

You’ve made over 50 films in less than three decades, usually shooting films back-to-back — do you keep up that pace nowadays?

Not nowadays, but in the past, I would be shooting one movie and then making one on weekends or that night, after the shoot day. You have to make a choice when you have a limited budget — less production value over a longer period of time, or do you shoot a shorter period, take that money and try to give yourself more resources? I made the decision in the early ’90s to shoot fewer days. Actually, I did a film in 2005 called “Infection,” which Lionsgate released as “Invasion,” shot all in one night, in, like, ten hours. The entire film was just one shot. Most of my films I shoot in eight to ten days.

After shooting a feature in a single night, are there any cinematic challenges left that you want to conquer?

I’d like to do something interesting in 3D, which I’m toying with now. “Invasion” screened at a lot of festivals. Even though they didn’t like it, I’d bring my own sound and projection system in. I’d control my own temperature in the theater.

I was able to give the audience a real experience in that one shot, to the point where people would hallucinate through the movie. It created a lot of different psychological effects and taught me that digital technology today really does allow a filmmaker to interact with an audience in a way that you just never could back when film was 35mm.

What’s taking so long to finish “Tales of an Ancient Empire” is that we want to try and present it using VOD in a way that’s not like anybody’s experienced before, where it feels like a live experience. It’s going to be a really different approach.

Last question, you were able to work with the late Dennis Hopper on “Ticker,” though only for a day. Do you have any recollections of him?

I first met Dennis on that shoot day because he was the last person we cast. He was in his trailer, just looking at the number of pages he was going to do. [laughs]

He told me he was flummoxed about it, but in good humor. Because he was a filmmaker, he approached his work not just as an actor, but as a collaborator and contributor to the overall whole. He understood the challenges of the day of shooting.

We shot 16 pages and nine scenes, which is a lot for anybody. At the end of the day, he was totally exhausted. We were sitting there and he kept going through the script, saying “Did you shoot this scene?” And I would say, “Yeah, remember, we shot that before lunch.” And he’d go, “Oh wow, man, that’s so trippy. I can’t believe we got that.” He had a neat childlike quality. I just feel honored and privileged I had the chance to work with him.

“Tales of an Ancient Empire” is available to stream for free on Vudu.

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