Sheldon Lettich: Talking Tough Guy Movies with the Man Behind Van Damme

The action filmmaker discusses the new book on his career!

In a time before comic book characters dominated local multiplexes, action heroes ruled the movie landscape. Actors with big personalities, and muscles to match, were the stars of the day. These living embodiments of masculine excess partook in cinematic adventures that relied solely on their own athletic attributes and old-school movie magic to wow audiences. The CGI-drench spectacle, which is so common in today’s films, was still far away on the horizon. For many fans of the genre, it was a golden period.

One of the men behind these glory days of practical action on-screen is Sheldon Lettich. The Vietnam War veteran turned filmmaker wrote and directed numerous films in the genre, including the martial arts cult classic Only The Strong, and has worked with titans of the scene like Dolph Lundgren and Sylvester Stallone. He is most fondly remembered, however, for his frequent collaborations with martial artist Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Sheldon Lettich not only crafted the story for the seminal tournament fighting film Bloodsport, he also helmed two of the most beloved entries in the Belgian actor’s lengthy filmography, Lionheart and Double Impact. That ass-kicking trifecta cemented Van Damme as one of the icons of the era. Lettich, most recently, has been the subject of a new book, titled Sheldon Lettich: From Vietnam to Van Damme, that covers his career film by film and is filled with personal insights and anecdotes from the man himself. It provides a fascinatingly in-depth look into this bygone era of action filmmaking and is a “must read” for any diehard action enthusiast.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Sheldon Lettich for a lengthy discussion about the origins of the book and his notable career making what he astutely called “tough guy” films.

How did the subject of a book on your career come about? It’s quite an accomplishment.

A lot of friends and acquaintances, when I talked about my career and people I’ve worked with, would say, “Why don’t you put all this down in a book? You’ve got some great stories to tell here. You had a lot of experiences in the industry, and this should all be put down somewhere.’

My wife started encouraging me to do the same. So, I was already thinking about it. And then, a journalist named Corey Danna got in touch with me via the internet, and wanted to do an interview about my film, Lionheart. It turned out really well. I thought he did a terrific job compressing it and putting it together, and it was very accurate. So, I said, “Hey, Corey, how would you like to write a whole book about me?” And he jumped at the chance to do that.

Sheldon Lettich on the set of Perfect Target.

He’d ask questions, and I’d write out some long, long answers. He would rework my answers, and, basically, turn it all into prose. He interviewed a number of my friends, like [producer] Boaz Yakin and Brian Thompson, and got their opinions in there also. I wanted to keep the book brief. I didn’t want to bore readers with, “well, this is my first dog and this is my first girlfriend,” stuff like that. I tried to stick to movie-related stuff — movies that I saw when I was growing up, movies that influenced me, and how I eventually got into this business. I wanted to keep it what fans would be interested in. I didn’t want people to be daunted by the length of it. The book’s about 300 pages long, which I think is pretty much long enough for movie fans to read through and not get bored.

I talked about all of my movies. I talked about my experiences in the Marine Corps, my experiences in Vietnam where I spent a year, and all of that is important because it had a bearing on the kinds of material that I was working on when I first started working as a writer in the business. I wrote a lot of military-related screenplays, one of which was Rambo III.

Tell me about your time working with Sylvester Stallone on that film.

I applaud Stallone for choosing me to be his co-writer, because I was an actual Vietnam vet. So, he wasn’t just making shit up, basically, talking to somebody who was really there. And I [also] knew a lot of Vietnam vets. I started writing a lot of screenplays. And the screenplays that I got a little bit of mileage out of were military-based and based on my experiences in Vietnam. I wrote a screenplay called Firebase, which is a huge war movie, structured kind of like a movie called Zulu, which was about the British in South Africa.

A young Sheldon Lettich working as a radio operator in Vietnam.

So, I basically took Zulu and put it in Vietnam, and it’s [about] a small group of Americans on a hilltop firebase and they’re attacked by huge numbers of North Vietnamese and Viet Cong. So, it’s this massive war movie. Never got made, but a lot of people loved it, including Stallone. Sam Raimi was a big fan of it. Lots of people who read it really liked it. But that’s what pretty much led to me writing Rambo III. Stallone read that script and called me in. I’m not great with dialogue. I generally work with co-writers, with collaborators, and they end up helping me a lot with the dialogue. Stallone wrote most of that dialogue. He’s really good with that aspect. I came up with a lot of the actual action stuff. We came up with the structure of the film together. We both agreed Afghanistan’s where Rambo’s got to go. He went to Vietnam for the second one. Now, we’ve got Soviets in Afghanistan.

And it seems like, if anything, since the Soviets were the enemy in the second Rambo [film] also, let’s stick with that. They’re our go-to villains. And they were in Afghanistan and pretty much subjugating it at the time. So, that makes sense. All right, so we’re going to send Rambo to Afghanistan.

Then, the vehicle for getting him into Afghanistan, of course, was his old mentor, Colonel Trautman, [he] comes to [Rambo] and says, “Hey Johnny, we need some help in Afghanistan. Can I get you to go over there?” Now, the way that Stallone was looking at the character was that Trautman goes to Rambo and says, “Hey Johnny, we need some help”. “No problem, Sam. Let me just get my gear”. And I told Sly, “I don’t think that’s how it would work with a guy like Rambo,” who’s basically… He’s the baddest motherfucker in the world. Okay. He’s a super soldier. But he doesn’t want to be one. It’s not something he’s all that proud of, he’s had enough of war, enough of killing. And no, he really doesn’t want to go to Afghanistan.

This is basically where I was bringing some of my experiences and my conversations with other Vietnam veterans into play. Most of them… You come to them and say, “Hey, can you go to Afghanistan and help us with some rebels that are fighting the Soviets?” Most of them are going to say, “No, I’ve done enough of this shit. I don’t want to do this again”. And that’s what I told Sly, I said, “Rambo is not going to want to do that”.

So, Trautman ends up going to Afghanistan on his own and gets captured. Now, we’re really Goosing Rambo here, or really forcing him to go. Basically… In fact, nobody’s forcing him. This is his best friend in the world. So now, Rambo, he’s feeling some guilt, and he’s feeling that he needs to go rescue his friend. That propels him to Afghanistan. That was one crucial part of the plot because Rambo’s not going to go to Afghanistan for a vacation. You’ve really got to push this guy. Like with a lot of these ’80s and ’90s action films, “he was peaceful … until he got pushed too far.”

You also directed a military-style film with Dolph Lundgren, The Last Warrior (aka The Last Patrol).

Now, that was a script that I didn’t write. It was not a good script. I had written another screenplay called Hell on Wheels, which is about these military dune buggies that were used in the first Gulf War. It got optioned by Largo Entertainment, and Largo got me in touch with a producer named Jacob Kotzky, who was Israeli. Israel was the perfect place to shoot this movie, because they had a lot of captured Soviet equipment. And Saddam Hussein was using Soviet equipment. Basically, this is during the Cold War. So, the Soviets were supplying Saddam Hussein with military equipment. The Soviets were supplying the Syrians, the Jordanians, and the Egyptians with Soviet-made hardware. And once the Americans got into the game, they were supplying the Israelis with American-made stuff. So, they had a few horrendous wars over there, and the Israelis ended up capturing a lot of this Soviet equipment. They had a bunch of [this old equipment available].

They had all the goodies, all the Soviet tanks — all of that stuff. So, we were going to do [Hell on Wheels] over there. It would’ve been a perfect place to shoot the movie because it was desert, it looks just like Iraq. [But] Jacob could not raise a sufficient budget to shoot it. It was a big movie with big battle scenes. He did have some money raised and he still wanted to make a film. He had made a movie [earlier] with Dolph Lundgren in Israel called Cover Up. [So,] he got in touch with Dolph, and Dolph was interested. Jacob found a script called The Last Patrol, which was written by a couple of people who basically had only written soap operas before. These were not action writers.

I just didn’t think the script was good, but I liked the idea of shooting a movie in Israel and working with Dolph Lundgren. That all sounded good to me, so I signed up for that. And same with Dolph, Dolph wanted to work with me. Neither one of us liked the script, but I told him I would fix up the script, and I certainly had the credentials for fixing up an action movie.

Sheldon Lettich and Dolph Lundgren on the set of The Last Patrol.

And so, that was the plan. But then, when I got over there, the writers were also producers on the movie, and they said, “Oh no, you’re not touching a word of our precious [script]. Okay. You’ve got to shoot this script the way it is”. They also threatened to fire me. They said, “If you change anything, we’re going to fire you. We’re going to get somebody else to do this”. Because they thought their script was brilliant. Well, it wasn’t. Dolph pretty much felt the same way. Well, look, we’re in Israel already, let’s just shoot this damn thing and make the best of it.

[To be fair,] these two writers were actually pretty good when it came to dialogue. There was a lot of dialogue in the movie. One thing I found about Dolph was that he could memorize dialogue. We did a few scenes that were two pages long, so, we’re talking about two minutes of screen time. And I shot these scenes without a cut. I did get some coverage in case I wanted to cut in, but I didn’t need to. Dolph could pretty much play an entire scene, an entire two-minute scene, and not miss a beat and get every word perfect. And even though he was born in Sweden, he worked on his accent, and he sounded like an American. You see the movie, you wouldn’t know that he was from a foreign country. I was pretty damn impressed with Dolph Lundgren, and he was very easy to work with. We did our best with that one.

Sometimes that’s all you can do. You do the best you can with what you’re given.

I brought my family over there, to Israel. So, I wasn’t about to say, “Okay, I’m pulling the plug on everything. You’ve all got to go home. All right. Forget about being in Israel.” I liked being there, too, and I had some relatives that were living there. We made the best of it, and I must say I had a really good time working on that movie. But just because I had a good time working on it, doesn’t mean the movie itself turned out good.

I had some pretty rough times making Double Impact, for example. That was a really long, tough shoot. You can get all the details in the book — a lot of personalities that weren’t getting along with one another, and logistical problems. We were supposed to shoot the entire movie in Hong Kong, and because there was so much bickering between the various producers, we decided to move the entire production back to the US. During the Christmas and New Year’s break, we basically packed up and moved back to LA, and shot a good portion of the movie in Los Angeles, which you certainly can’t tell, if you watch the movie, it looks like the whole thing was shot in Hong Kong.

Sheldon Lettich on the set of Double Impact.

We had a terrific production designer who designed and built some sets [to create that illusion]. There’s a scene where Chad and Frank first arrive in Hong Kong and they’re driving down the streets in the Mong Kok district, and then, they get out of their van, and they go inside this bar where Frank knows that they’re going to find Alex. They’re in the street, and they go inside, and then, we cut. And now, we’re inside a mahjong parlor. Well, that mahjong parlor was in LA, that was a set — just a perfect transition.

Movie magic.

You would never know. The look of the set was just perfect. Since it was LA, we had no problem finding extras who were Chinese, who spoke Cantonese, and who knew how to play mahjong. All of those people were recruited in downtown LA, in Chinatown.

Speaking of Double Impact, I have to ask about your work in martial arts films.

War movies pretty much propelled me into the business. And then, I segued into martial arts from there, simply by knowing Van Damme. Also, before that, I met a guy named Frank Dux, who had a martial arts dojo and who purported to be a ninja [and been] trained by ninjas in Japan, which turned out to be bullshit.

I ended up writing [Bloodsport] about this guy based on his fantasies. He had all these fantasies about being a soldier, a CIA agent, and going on secret missions that he couldn’t talk about. Although, he certainly had no problem talking about them as long as somebody was going to write them up in a magazine article, or make a movie about them.

Sheldon Lettich and the star of Bloodsport Jean-Claude Van Damme

So, I ended up writing about his fantasy life, which was that he participated in this secret martial arts competition called the Kumite. And how he moved up the ranks in the Kumite, defeated every other fighter, and ended up winning the Kumite, being the first non-Asian person to win the Kumite, all of which was bullshit, but it certainly was a good story. That basically segued me into writing martial arts movies. So now, I started writing martial arts movies too, because Bloodsport was this… It wasn’t a huge hit at the time, but it was the precursor to a lot of other martial arts movies. It kind of redefined martial arts movies, because prior to Bloodsport there were none of these “tournament movies.” There was a tournament in Enter the Dragon, but it was basically all about Bruce Lee.

Right, the tournament itself wasn’t the focus.

I made “Bloodsport” into something different. I structured it so that it was just about the tournament. Basically, the movie starts, you got all these fighters. Where are they going? They’re going to the Kumite. They’re talking about the Kumite. And then, we’re at the Kumite, and then, we go through all the various fights at the Kumite. Then Van Damme’s character wins, and then, after he wins, he gets on a plane and goes home. That’s the whole movie. It’s all about the Kumite. There really was not a movie like that before.

Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sheldon Lettich promoting Bloodsport in France.

It had a profound impact not just on martial arts movies but on popular culture, in general.

I feel kind of proud about that. Bloodsport led to the Ultimate Fighting Championships and mixed martial arts. There was nothing like that known to the general public before that movie. It got the ball rolling. And there were a lot of imitators- Bloodfist, Bloodmatch, and even Mortal Kombat harkens back to Bloodsport.

Video games owe a lot to Bloodsport.

[The video game] Street Fighter comes right out of Lionheart. I did that one after. Van Damme became a minor movie star based on Bloodsport. Bloodsport did well when it first opened, and like you said it was a real trendsetter, but it was a low-budget movie made by Cannon Films. Nobody in the industry paid much attention to it, but its influence has just grown over the years.

There were a few small companies, like Imperial Entertainment, that wanted to do more action movies with Van Damme. And so, he and I ended up making Lionheart. [The concept] about illegal, underground street fights [was] kind of based on a Charles Bronson movie called Hard Times. We made it bigger, more exaggerated. Just like with Bloodsport, it pretty much became about the fights. Although we had a good story in Lionheart, too. We had some good characters and dialogue. It cemented my position — I was writing martial arts movies now along with the military stuff — just “tough guy” movies.

We were able to show Lionheart to a Universal executive who liked the movie. He then showed it to all the bigwigs at Universal. It got picked up by them and ended up being Jean-Claude Van Damme’s first major studio release. Because prior to that, it was just places like Cannon Films, Kings Road, and Imperial Entertainment. Now though, we had made “Lionheart” into this big release. I pretty much did the same thing with Only the Strong, because it was basically a martial arts B-movie, but we got 20th Century Fox to come in for half the budget, and release it. So, that was a step up for those kinds of films.

Theatrical Poster for Only The Strong

I love Only The Strong.

The story for it came from, my co-writer on [the project], Luis Esteban. He was an actual martial artist in New York City, and he actually got hired to teach martial arts to some delinquent kids at a local high school. It wasn’t Capoeira, it was just Karate, but this is something that he actually did, and we were talking about it, and I said, “Hey, Lu, that’s a really good idea for a martial arts movie”.

So, we ended up just playing around with it, and it was going to be a Karate-based [story], it was going to be set in New York City. And then, [producer] Sammy Hadida comes to me and asks, “Hey, can you come up with a Capoeira movie?” He really wanted to make a martial arts movie about Capoeira. It had just been featured in a small way in a couple of other movies at that point. So I told Lu, “Well, you know what? Let’s make the martial art Capoeira rather than Karate. And let’s set it in a different city. Let’s set it in Miami,” which has a substantial Brazilian population. We got hired by Sammy and a couple of his partners. We wrote the script, and before you know it, we’re in Miami making this movie. That’s how that one came together.

That film was a lot of action fans’ introduction to Mark Dacascos.

It was Mark’s first leading role. It pretty much made a star out of him following the same formula as what I was doing with Van Damme. He was great with martial arts and all that stuff. He could do a lot of things that Van Damme could not do, like fight with weapons. I remember I told him, “Okay, Mark. You’re going to have to hit the gym and build your body up.” Because, basically, that was the paradigm at the time. Those kinds of movies were very popular in the ’80s and ’90s, and it was a whole subgenre when you think about it. It wasn’t just Van Damme, the Sylvester Stallones, and Arnold Schwarzeneggers — there were a bunch of movies like that with the lead actor generally having their shirt off with rippling muscles. Luis and I made Mark’s character a former Green Beret, so that we would be able to explain how he single-handedly goes into these bad neighborhoods and kicks ass on a bunch of gang bangers.

Mark Dacascos in Only The Strong.

It’s a movie that has developed a real cult following because the action is very unique. I think people also really respond to its Lean on Me-esque plot. It’s very positive for a film with so much fighting.

It’s surprising to me that it has really endured. If anything, it’s become more popular over the years. As of right now, it’s not available on streaming, and there’s no Blu-ray, but I think that’s going to change pretty soon, because one of the producers of the movie was this French company, Metropolitan Filmexport. They [were a part of] a number of other Mark Dacascos movies after Only The Strong, like Brotherhood of the Wolf and Crying Freeman. They’ve got [the rights to] a number of those movies. So, they’re going to be putting out Only The Strong as a special edition [disc] sometime in the near future. What they’re talking about doing now is doing a 4K version from the original negative. That’s going to help spread the word about the movie. It was not in theaters very long. At the moment, the best you can do is order a DVD off of Amazon, which is not great quality. A lot of people are actually seeing it for the first time on YouTube.

It’s frustrating that these films don’t get the push for preservation like a lot of the more “prestigious” ones do.

Right. We were having the same problem with Bloodsport. Bloodsport is an enormously popular movie, and for years you might be able to stream it sometimes. But they [just announced] a 4K version of it. In fact, I don’t think it’s actually available right now at this moment, but I think in the spring, it’s going to be. They’ve already advertised it. It’s a German company that’s coming out with it. They’ve got new covers, they’ve got special features. They interviewed me and other people who were involved with it. For years, it just seemed hopeless for Bloodsport to get any kind of love like that. There were problems with the rights, like who’s got the rights to it, but they finally figured all that out. At least, it’s coming out in Germany. I’m sure it’s going to do extremely well. And then, it’ll come out in the US.

One of the covers for the upcoming German 4k Blu-Ray release of Bloodsport

It’s definitely something that fans, including myself, are really looking forward to. As we wrap up, I wanted to ask you something that I have personally wondered about for a long time. During the end credits of the vampire movie From Dusk Till Dawn, you are listed under the “Special Thanks”- Why is that?

I didn’t even realize I had official thanks on that one. I appreciate you informing me. Well, I hardly had anything to do with that one. But I did introduce Lawrence Bender to Quentin Tarantino, which is covered in the book. Scott Spiegel was involved with that one too, right?

Scott was also listed under “Special Thanks.”

I was friends with Scott Spiegel for a number of years. I met Scotty through Josh Becker who made a movie with us called Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except, which is kind of a template for Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, actually. There’s an actual Tarantino connection here. When I was doing pre-production on Lionheart, they had this young guy named Quentin Tarantino working at the company. They were a “straight to video” company, and they had Quentin calling video stores all over the country, trying to unload Imperial Entertainment videos on them.

I guess because Quentin worked in a video store for a number of years, he pretty much knew every video that was out there and had seen them all. So, Quentin comes rushing up to me, one day, like gushing and saying, “Wow, you’re Sheldon Lettich. You co-wrote Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except.” You see, the connection to Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except and Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, is that both deal with the Manson family. The third act of both is the Manson family just gets blown away. Quentin was able to just go all out, his take had a flame thrower, which, of course, we would’ve used had we been able to get a flame thrower.

Theatrical poster for Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except

Anyway, so Quentin starts rattling off all of these trivia items to me. He knew me because of that movie, and I said, “Quentin, I got a friend who is as up on trivia as you are, and you should really meet this guy. His name’s Scott Spiegel.” And Quentin just explodes like, “Whoa, Scott Spiegel! Scott Spiegel co-wrote Evil Dead 2!” Quentin’s head was exploding, “Like the Scott Spiegel? I can meet Scott Spiegel?!”

I introduced him to Scotty, who had just made Intruder with Lawrence Bender. So, that’s how Quentin met Lawrence Bender. And of course, that led to Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction and a number of other movies. Lawrence was Quentin’s producer for a number of films.

Scott Spiegel also went on to direct From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money. It’s an underrated movie. Fun stuff.

Scott’s a really good director. He ended up being really good buddies with Quentin. I guess that’s why they thanked me — because I was somehow instrumental in hooking everybody up.

That’s a great story! I sincerely appreciate you sharing all this with me. I’m certain it barely scratches the surface of what the book contains.

We’d be on the phone for hours! People should pick it up to get all the details. I appreciate you promoting the book!

Sheldon Lettich: From Vietnam to Van Damme is available now from Bear Manor Media and other book retailers.

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