*Exclusive Interview* – Sheldon Lettich talks Van Damme, Kumite & More

Thank you for your time, Sheldon, to kick start, how did you first get started in the industry?

I just started writing scripts, and eventually I met a few folks (like Leon Isaac Kennedy and Sam Raimi) who began paying me small amounts of money to write scripts for them.  I wrote “Bloodsport” for producer Mark DiSalle for a grand total of $2,500.  

You have many credits, writer, director, producer, you’re clearly very talented. Which of these tasks is your most favoured and why?

When I’m writing I’ll wish I were on a set, directing, and when I’m directing, getting bombarded with questions, I’ll wish I were back in my quiet little office, working on my computer.

You were also in the military, do you use your time spent in service to influence some of the movies you make?

Absolutely, I’ve worked on many projects with military themes or characters.  Examples: “Rambo III,” “Legionnaire,” “The Hard Corps,” “Max.” 

Your first big collaboration with, Jean Claude Van Damme, was in Bloodsport, which you wrote, how did this story done to life? Did you get to meet the real Frank Dux?

I met “the real Frank Dux” well before the project was even conceived.  Frank claimed that the story was real, and even showed me an article about himself and the Kumite that was published in “Black Belt Magazine.”  I pitched this story and showed the magazine article to producer Mark DiSalle, who hired me to write the screenplay, and then he got the movie produced.

I’ve heard many rumours all his claims are fake, what’s your thoughts on that?  Did he win a kumite?

Nearly every claim Frank Dux has ever made is either a fabrication or a gross exaggeration.  He did not win, or even participate in a kumite event.  He has never participated in any martial arts competition, period.  He has posted footage online of a karate competition that he purportedly participated in, and has even claimed that it was “secretly recorded” footage of an actual kumite event.  But it was not even him in that video footage.  It was a French fighter named Phillippe Cadoret, who somewhat resembled a younger version of Frank.  Cadoret’s son got wind of this, and threatened to sue Frank if he continued misrepresenting that footage of his father.  

Frank was not in the CIA, as he claimed in his book, “The Secret Man.”  He was in the Marine Corps Reserves for a short period of time, but was never deployed overseas.  He never received any medals for valor in combat, because he never saw any combat.  He used to claim that he had served in Vietnam.  He made that claim to me, to my face, numerous times.  On a pamphlet he used to hand out at this schools he claimed that he was one of the “most highly decorated veterans of the Southeast Asian conflict.”  Complete bullshit.  The closest Frank ever got to Southeast Asia was when he worked on the set of ‘Bloodsport” in Hong Kong, fifteen years after the Vietnam War ended.

Is it true that in Bloodsport, Van Damme knew more and was better at martial arts than Dux?

Yes, it’s true.  Van Damme studied Shotokan Karate under Claude Goetz in Brussels, Belgium, and competed in many local competitions.  There is no verified record of Frank Dux ever studying any martial art, or competing in any competition.  But he read a lot of books and magazines about Ninjitsu and martial arts.  He got the idea for “Dim Mak” from ads that a disreputable martial artist named Count Dante used to place in comic books.

Upon meeting JCVD, what were your initial thoughts? Could you see he would become a bug action star?

Jean-Claude radiated an enormous amount of charisma, and I had a hunch he was going to be successful in his pursuit to be a movie star.

Not long after Bloodsport, you did an uncredited edit of Cyborg, how did you end up on this project?

I sat in on an audience test screening, which went horribly bad; only one person out of 100 liked the movie.  I volunteered to help Jean-Claude fix the movie.

You wrote and directed the hit Lionheart, did you start writing it with JCVD, in mind for the lead role?

Yes, it was mostly Jean-Claude’s original idea, and we wrote it with him in mind.

You went on to then produce my personal favourite Van Damme movie Double Impact, was it a hard process having Van Damme play dual roles? We don’t have the technology we have today, I imagine it being a very long process?

It was a long process, mostly because Jean-Claude would have to change his hair, makeup, and wardrobe when switching between Chad and Alex.  More advanced technology would not have helped us; the hair, makeup, and wardrobe would still physically need to be changed between takes.

There was a brief hiatus between you and JCVD, from 1991-1996, what lead for this power coupling taking separate roads? 

It was all about Jean-Claude’s agents trying to take more control over his life, as well as his career, which entailed pushing long-time friends like me into the background.

Jean Claude made his directorial debut with The Quest in 1996, you were uncredited with polishing the script, what did you add or take away from the script? 

I’m the one who came up with the idea of setting it in the past, so that it wouldn’t so closely resemble “Bloodsport,” which it was obviously trying to emulate.

You wrote Legionnaire which starred Van Damme, had this been a specific script you wrote for JCVD at the time?

Yes, it was specifically written for Jean-Claude.

It was also directed by Rambo 3 director, Peter Macdonald, had you and Peter formed a good relationship during the filming of Rambo 3? 

I never met Peter at all during the pre-production of “Rambo III.”  I was working with the original director, who was Russell Mulcahy.

In 2001, Van Damme starred in The Order, which he has a writing credit for, did he approach you to direct this movie? 

Producer Avi Lerner is the one who approached me about directing the movie.

Other than JCVD, you were reunited with Brian Thompson and Peter Molata, what was it like working with these guys again? 

I’ve cast Brian in four of my movies, and I’ve always enjoyed working with him.

2006, saw you once again take an uncredited script polishing role for the movie Second In Command, are you the guy for making the action a little more Van Damme-esque?

I actually worked more with the dialogue, to make it more suitable for Jean-Claude.

2006 was also the year you had action fans fist pumping the air as you wrote and directed another Van Damme movie, The Hard Corps, which I must add, I rank high in my Van Damme movies. What inspired the script?

I initially got the idea for a bodyguard movie when Jean-Claude and I were touring Europe to promote “Lionheart.”  We had a couple of European bodyguards with us, and I thought that would be a great character for Jean-Claude to play.

By this stage, Van Damme had left the kind of action movies we all knew him for and was opting for more character-driven roles, did he ever express to you he wanted away from these action heavy roles?

He did, but that was much earlier in his career, when we worked on the script for “Lionheart,” which was very much character-driven.

Was The Hard Corps ever considered to be a franchise or get a sequel?

That was my hope for it.  But we needed a stronger cast for the movie to get an initial theatrical release.  The producers and I had discussed the possibility of either Cuba Gooding or Wesley Snipes playing the boxer, which would have made a huge difference in the film’s perception, and would have gotten it into theaters.  But the producers decided they didn’t want to spend the extra money to get another star name added to the cast.

I always found you got the best out of Van Damme, why do you think that is? 

Simply because I’ve always believed in him and his many talents.

Van Damme has stated he wants to do a Lionheart 2 or a Double Impact 2, can you tell us if there is any truth and if the projects are still alive? 

If it was just up to me and Jean-Claude, these movies would have happened a long time ago.  But we don’t own the rights, so we’re dependent on other people to move these projects forward.

A fun movie you directed was Perfect Target starring Daniel Bernhardt, what was it like working with Daniel?

I had a fun time working with Daniel.  He brought on his friend, Chad Stahelski, to be the Fight Choreographer.  Chad has moved on to directing the “John Wick” movies. 

It looked like Daniel did the majority of his own stunts, am I right? 

The more dangerous stunts were handled by a stunt double, named Tim Rigby.  But Daniel did all of the fight work himself.

You also worked with action legend Dolph Lundgren, I have heard he is such a great person. What was it like filming the Last Patrol? 

Dolph was an absolute dream to work with.  He’d come to the set every day with all of his dialogue memorized ahead of time.

Is it true you and Dolph only agreed to do this movie if the script was re-written? 

Yes, but the two writers of the script were also producers on the movie, and they refused to allow me to alter a word of their precious screenplay.

Sheldon, you have directed some of the greatest action movies, I am sure every action fan has one of your movies in their top list! How do you get the best out of the cast you’re working with? 

I always treat the actors with respect, not like props or chess pieces to be shuffled around at the director’s whim.  

Can we expect another collaboration between you and Van Damme in the future?

I hope Jean-Claude and I can find another opportunity to work together.

You are attached to a movie called ‘ Fight Pride’. Can you talk about it? 

The tone of the script is very similar to “Lionheart.”

Thank you so much for your time Sheldon, it was an absolute honour!