Sheldon Lettich made his directorial debut with Jean-Claude Van Damme’s street fighter movie, Lionheart and went on to direct the actor again in Double Impact, The Order, and The Hard Corps. So if you’re going to talk JCVD with someone, this is the guy. Luckily, I had an opportunity to do just that.
And by the way, those of you lucky enough to live in or near Austin will have a similar opportunity when Lettich attends a double feature of both Lionheart and Only the Strong this Sunday at the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz. Tickets are on sale here and here.
I’ve met a lot of people who consider Lionheart one of Van Damme’s best most defining films. Why do you think that might be? What is it about Lionheart that inspires such fan devotion?
People love the characters. They're particularly fond of Lyon's motor-mouthed, self-appointed "manager," Joshua. Van Damme's female fans seem especially enamored of this film because it was the first (and possibly the best) to showcase JCVD's softer, more compassionate side. In Lionheart he's not fighting for revenge or to "honor his Sensei," or any of the usual motivations that are typical for these sorts of movies; he's fighting for his family. He's getting himself bruised and bloodied in these brutal street fights so that his little niece can get a new bicycle.
Lionheart was a defining film for Van Damme because I did not shy away from giving him considerable amounts of dialogue and character development throughout the film. I trusted him to pull this off, whereas before nobody else believed he could do much more than just deliver some fancy kicks and simple one-liners. Lionheart was the first movie to demonstrate that Van Damme was more than just a flash-in-the-pan "Karate Guy" who would never rise above simplistic low-budget karate movies.
I wanted to hear a bit about The Order, which I think was really the last of the happy-go-lucky JCVD era. It has such a bright and fun feel to it. How did you guys approach the film on a tonal level?
Tonally we wanted to make a movie that was in the vein of "fun" action-adventure movies like the Indiana Jones films and Hitchcock movies like North By Northwest. One big mistake that we made with The Order was taking the tone in a more serious direction in the third act. Had we maintained the light-heartedness all the way to the end, I believe the film would have been far more successful. For me the highlight of that movie is the chase through the Old City of Jerusalem, with Van Damme disguised as a Hasidic Jew, running from and fighting with the Israeli police. It was utterly wacky and outrageous, and to this day I'm still amazed that I convinced Jean-Claude to do it.
Having directed Double Impact, do you have any insight as to why Van Damme seems so open to playing twin characters in his films?
Double Impact was the first time he portrayed twins in a movie. The concept was so successful that other producers wanted him to repeat it. Even though it meant a lot more work for Jean-Claude, changing costumes, hair, and makeup numerous times over the course of a shooting day, he enjoyed the challenge of playing two distinctly different characters, showcasing a dark side and a more light-hearted side in the same movie.
You’ve worked with Van Damme a number of times, but you also directed Dolph Lundgren in The Last Patrol (also known as The Last Warrior). Can you compare how the two actors approach their work?
Dolph was a lot more methodical, showing up on the set with all his lines memorized and ready to go. With Dolph there was rarely any deviation from the script. With Van Damme there was usually a lot more discussion between ourselves before we shot the scenes, and many times there were further discussions and changes in the midst of filming a scene.
Many people complain about the way action is shot and edited in modern blockbusters. That being the case, why do you think those same viewers are hesitant to embrace lower budget, DTV action films, many of which don’t have that problem?
The way that action is filmed and edited in many of these big studio movies nowadays allows for a lot more trickery and sleight-of-hand. When the editing is quick and the shots are tight it's easier to work in stunt-doubles, and to use wires and CGI to enhance the action. But I think audiences are somewhat overloaded on some of this trickery because much of it doesn't look real, so it doesn't look dangerous. It doesn't look like risks have been taken, which diminishes the "wow" factor. In some of these movies everything looks like a cartoon, whereas in movies like Lionheart you see Van Damme clearly making all the impressive moves himself, with no wires or CGI enhancement, and taking his lumps when he gets slammed onto floors or against walls or smashes his hand through a glass window.
Wrapping this up, do you have any great JCVD stories to share?
While we were filming the scene in Lionheart where he takes a shower in Cynthia's apartment, he asked me if he might casually "drop his towel" and show off his butt for a brief moment. My reply was "Sure, if you're willing, why not? We can always use a different take later if we decide it's not a good idea." So we did one take where he casually lets the towel drop away, and then we later decided to go ahead and put that shot in the movie. Well, that became a very memorable moment for the ladies in the audience, and for the gay guys as well. Showing off his butt (clothed or unclothed) almost became a signature trademark of his after that.