"It's just an incredible body of work." Christa Fuller.
August 20th 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of one of America's greatest filmmakers, the late Samuel Fuller. Fuller was a man who, outside of his inestimable contribution to cinema, also had an amazing life that encompassed almost the entire 2oth century (1912 - 97). Hailed as one of the great mavericks by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard, Martin Scorsese and Wim Wenders, Fuller managed to pursue his unique vision from within the studio system during the '50s. A Fuller picture, is like the man himself, an intoxicating, vivacious, inspiring experience. I spoke to Fuller's widow, Christa, an accomplished actress, filmmaker and actress herself, about Sam Fuller, the man and filmmaker.
THE LEGACY OF SAM FULLER
Sam was ahead of his time and unafraid to tackle
difficult subjects head-on and in an entertaining way. He was very influential
towards a lot of directors, such as Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and Jim
Jarmusch. You can see the influence of, say, RUN OF THE ARROW (1957) on DANCES WITH
WOLVES (1990). Scorsese admits that he took a whole scene from THE STEEL HELMET
and put it in RAGING BULL (1980). And Spielberg borrowed the name of the young
Korean boy in THE STEEL HELMET, Short Round, for a character in INDIANA JONES
AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984). When Sam put a camera on the girl's body in THE
NAKED KISS he was anticipating the Steadicam. He was a visionary. You can
constantly see homages and feel the influence of Sam's movies in other people's
work. It's also great when you see young people discovering Sam's work at
festivals and so on.
Sam always told the truth about the various problems
inherent in the film business whenever he met young filmmakers, and they
respected him for it. Sam never flaunted his actions, which is courageous. He
was also a very modest man. He never intended to be a cult director, and made
fun of his cult reputation whenever he could.
Nobody makes a film
thinking it's going to make money. Because no-one knows. But everybody wants to
make money, because if your films don't make money, you don't have a future in
the business. Sam never understood it when people differentiated between
commercial directors and non-commercial directors. Every director is commercial
THE CRIMSON KIMONO (1959)
Sam made a film called THE
CRIMSON KIMONO, in the same year Alain Resnais did HIROSHIMA, MON AMOUR, and a
British critic loved it so much he called it 'Los Angeles, Mon Amour'. It's very
interesting that two filmmakers from two different countries were unaware that
they were both obsessed with the same topic at the same time (relationships
between a white woman and a Japanese man) and were making similar films! In
Sam's film, the white girl prefers the Japanese man to the American man. It was
revived here in L.A. recently, and the audience loved it. The world of today and
tomorrow is a world of mixed races. You would think that this would make for a
better, more peaceful world. But it doesn't. It's sad.
He was a true
Democrat. He always made sure he hired cast and crew from diverse backgrounds.
He was a man of the 20th century. Sam was able to throw off the excess baggage
of the past and focus on the issues of the present, the here and now. He always
saw America as a melting pot and he had great respect for other cultures. This
was the way his mother raised him. He always made sure to put anti-racist
messages in his films.
Sam had a reputation for being uncompromising,
but the truth is that he did compromise when he had to, and when he understood
and accepted the reasons. He understood that making films was a 'business'.
"Show business'. In the original script of FORTY GUNS (1957), Barbara Stanwyck
died at the end. But the studio needed to sell the movie on her name and asked
him to change it so she lived. Sam respected that it was the studio that was
putting up the money and that they wanted to make their money back. So he
changed the ending.
What Sam wouldn't compromise was the integrity of
his films. For example, when he was making THE CRIMSON KIMONO he was asked to
make the white guy a bit of a bad guy so the audience, especially in the Bible
Belt, could accept more easily that the girl favoured the Japanese guy. Sam said
Sam liked to provoke. He didn't like indifference, which he
saw as worse than violence. But he was a totally peaceful person who was against
violence. He and Peckinpah were always labelled as being violent directors. But
there's more violence in Douglas Sirk's pictures! And there's certainly more
violence in The Bible, particularly the Old Testament.
TIGRERO! - A FILM
THAT WAS NEVER MADE (1994)
Sam and I always found it stimulating experiencing
other cultures and travelling around the world. We have friends from India,
Persia ... all over the planet. In 1955 Sam spent some time with the Karaja
Indians in the Amazon preparing for a movie that got cancelled, called
'Tigrero!'. I showed Jim Jarmusch and Mika Kaurismaki the rushes of some
research footage Sam had shot, some of which was featured in SHOCK CORRIDOR, and
based on that Mika decided to raise some money to film a documentary. It came
out as TIGRERO! - A FILM THAT WAS NEVER MADE. And so almost forty years later we
went back with Mika, Jim, and his partner Sara Driver and spent more time with
them. The Karaja Indians migrated from Peru to the foot of the Amazon, but they
have a language that resembles the Japanese. No linguists can figure out the
reason for this.
TIGRERO! is now out-of-print, because the company that
put it out in San Francisco (Fantoma) went bankrupt. It won the Berlin Critics'
Award, and is so entertaining. It's a crowd pleaser. And I told Mika we should
get National Geographic to release it because it's invaluable to students of
geography and anthropology.
THE EARLY YEARS
Before he started making
movies he was a crime reporter with John Huston! When Huston left for Hollywood
to work with William Wyler, Sam stayed behind and worked for Huston's mother,who
was a real feminist. Huston used to tease Sam that he spent more time with his
mother than he did. John asked Sam to act in one of his movies, even before the
likes of Godard and Wim Wenders asked him. At that time, Sam never entertained
Sam actually considered himself as a writer, first and
foremost. He sold his first screenplay, the musical HATS OFF (1936), to the
Russian director Boris Petroff when he was 24, and wrote his first book, 'Burn,
Baby, Burn', a year earlier. He later wrote SHOCKPROOF (1949) for Douglas Sirk.
THE STEEL HELMET (1951)
Kubrick was a big fan of the movie. It's one
of the best war movies ever made because Sam's worldview was so vivid and
matter-of-fact, and because Sam was so courageous in how he made it. Can you
imagine how controversial it was in 1951 to see an American black actor playing
a medic? At that time, African-Americans were only playing butlers or maids in
movies. In one scene Sam has the black actor bandage a Korean POW who asks him
"Why are you fighting for a country that doesn't even allow you to sit on a
bus?". The controversy actually helped the film become a hit, but it angered J.
Edgar Hoover at the time. The film is emotionally honest, and as Sam said, he
always made 'emotion pictures'. By the way, Wim Wenders liked that phrase so
much he used it for a book he wrote in 1989. I love all of Sam's movies. I love
the way he films people. Like Bertolucci said about Sam, "Fuller movies are like
jazz. They really live in front of you." He called Sam "the greatest unknown
director in the world".
SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963)
Sam was lucky that
SHOCK CORRIDOR was not changed by the studio at all. He shot it in ten days! It
was something that he urgently had to get out of his system. A studio would
never touch a film like this, so he got it independently financed. I see the
film as Sam's 8 1/2 (1963). Deep down in his heart, I think Sam would have loved
to have had his newspaper so he could express his own vision of the world. Sam
was questioning the nature of 'truth', and if you do that, people try to get you
to drink poison like they did with Socrates. He loved America and he loved its
values. But at the same time he believed that if you love your country, you
should be allowed to criticise it in order to make it better, especially when
the country was becoming un-Democratic. Sam hated the expression "America: love
it or leave it''. It's an important film, and one of Sam's best. He made so many
great movies that it is difficult to say which one is the best.
met Sam after he had made SHOCK CORRIDOR in 1965. I met him through Henri
Langlois at the Cinematheque in Paris indirectly. I was a young actress, and was
part of the French New Wave. I was also doing theatre. I had never really heard
of him, before seeing SHOCK CORRIDOR, which impressed me greatly. When I met
Sam, I thought he was the sweetest man I had ever met.
He had many ups
and downs in his career. If he had been an ass-kisser, perhaps he wouldn't have
had so many difficult times like he was going through when I met him. Sam did
very well in the '50s under the protection of Darryl F. Zanuck, but in the '60s
he had a lot of projects fall by the wayside. For example, he was meant to shoot
a movie in Spain called 'The Eccentrics', which would have been the big comeback
of Jennifer Jones. But a week before filming she tried to commit suicide and we
couldn't find anybody to replace her. When things like this happen you can lose
two or three years of your life. The movie business was changing, but Sam was
still in demand. He was offered FAT CITY (1972), which John Huston eventually
did. Sometimes Sam would turn down projects because he had a personal project he
wanted to make. And when that pet project collapsed, he would be left with no
film at all.
Sam had an amazingly full, rich, exciting life but there
was a lot of pain as well. When he was a crime reporter he saw a lot of
violence. He broke the news of the death of Jeanne Eagels in 1929.
PIGEON ON BEETHOVEN STREET (1972)
It's a tongue-in-cheek comedy. I play a
woman who sets up politicians, the 'dead pigeon' of the title. It's quite timely
now with all the sex scandals. The world has always been about money and sex, in
that order, and I guess it always will be. A DVD version is in the works, but
it's taking time because we are trying to put together the long version of the
THE BIG RED ONE (1980)
When Sam wanted to make THE BIG RED
ONE, WW2 wasn't very fashionable. He was lucky to have gotten the film made at
all. He had been talking about making it since the '50s. When fifteen major
scenes were taken out of the movie, he was heartbroken. This was his
autobiography. He had lived through WW2, and he saw it as 'the war to end all
wars', which is why he enlisted. I knocked on every door for twenty years to try
to get the director's cut put together. I think it was the success of
Spielberg's SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) and the re-evaluation of WW2 that
convinced the studio to restore the mising scenes and put out a new version. It
was very well-received, played at Cannes in 2004 and sold a lot of DVDs. The
Director's Cut is the only version to see. I'm also glad my scene is back in the
movie! I play a German Countess who gets shot.
WHITE DOG (1982)
we were getting ready to release the film in theatres, there was something going
on behind the scenes that I still don't understand. The studio called it
'inappropriate'. This made Sam and I so angry. Sam fought in WW2 to defend
democracy and fight Fascism. He won a Silver Star, and a Purple Heart. He fought
in every major battle in the War. How they could call the film 'inappropriate'
or fear the film would be seen as racist is beyond me. The 'white dog' is a
symbol of racism itself. It's a beautiful piece of work, and Paul Winfield and
Burl Ives did such great jobs.
We moved to France soon after. Sam and I
were still very upset about WHITE DOG being shelved and Sam was offered a little
movie, THIEVES AFTER DARK (1984) over there. The French saw Sam as still being
this epic action director, but this was a small story about unemployed people in
France. We stayed in France longer than we anticipated. One of the reasons it
was such a great place to live was because the French love artists and know how
to recognise talent. They were the first to claim Samuel Beckett and Edgar Allan
Poe as great artists. Cinephilia itself was born in France. The New Wave was
important, with figures like Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol and Rohmer.
THIRD FACE (2002)
Sam's life was a century of history. I wanted the book to
be American history as seen through the eyes of a half-orphan. 'A Third Face' is
the face only you know, or 'the mysteries in your brain' as Sam would say. He
explained it to Tim Robbins in a documentary about Sam called THE TYPEWRITER,
THE RIFLE AND THE MOVIE CAMERA (1996).
It took many years to get the
book written. It came out in a French translation last year and got fantastic
reviews, like it did in the US (it won the L.A. Times Award for Best Non-Fiction
Book). The reason it took a little time to come out in France was that there had
already been a great interview book that two journalists from Cahiers du Cinema
had done with Sam called 'Once Upon a Time in America'. When Sam suffered a
stroke, we moved back to the US. A book editor from New York called and wanted
to speak to Sam as one of her writers was doing a book on Barbara Stanwyck. But
Sam was not able to speak because of the stroke. I answered all the questions
about Sam's relationship with Stanwyck. At the end of the conversation she asked
me if anybody had ever done a book on Sam. I told her about the French book but
she wanted a biography of Sam, not an interview book. So I wrote up some pages
that Sam had approved, and she loved them. Sam lived for another two years, and
although Sam couldn't pronounce the words, we sat in the sun everyday together
writing the book together step by step. Sam was 85, and had so many stories to
tell that we ended up with close to 2, 000 pages. I wrote the book with a dying
I hope that readers will appreciate many things about Sam's story.
His humanity, fiery passion and courage. The importance of fighting for what you
believe in and in never throwing in the towel. The joy of believing in life. And
I hope they appreciate what an extraordinary man Sam was.
A FULLER LIFE (2014)
My daughter Samantha is now shooting a documentary in which
twelve maverick directors read passages from 'A Third Face'. It will feature
people like Wim Wenders, Monte Hellman, Buck Henry and Tim Roth. But the project
is getting more complicated because at the Academy, Samantha found footage that
Sam shot of the liberation of the concentration camp in Falkenau at the
end of WW2, and she wants to somehow insert this footage into the documentary.
The footage is heartbreaking, and Sam could never get the things he had seen out
of his mind - man's inhumanity to his fellow man.
There was a very quiet side to Sam. He would spend days and days writing
in his office with Beethoven playing on the stereo.
Sam has an image of
being a chain-smoker of cigars, but he would actually only smoke one or two a
day, which he could constantly light, put down again and re-light again. When
Sam was a junior crime reporter he latched onto the big reporters like Gene
Fowler and Ring Lardner, and they were big cigar-smokers who would sometimes
give him cigars. Being so young, smoking a cigar made him feel like a man, like
an adult. They were like father figures to him since he had lost his own father.
Sam had a great sense of humour. He could have lived another hundred
years and not repeated the same story twice. Sam had so many wonderful stories
because he had had such an eventful life. Sam was a wonderful storyteller in the
Mark Twain sense. Artists always channel somebody, and I think Sam channelled
Sam was trying to solve the mystery of what
human beings are all about. The Sacred and the Profane. I don't think we'll ever
find out the answer. But I think it's an artist's duty, and our duty as human
beings, to work towards universal peace and to try to understand other cultures
more. We owe it to future generations to leave a better planet than the one we
found too. We're destroying the environment.
Sam would love the fact his
films are being celebrated a hundred years after his birth. It's sad because
always wanted to live a hundred years like Irving Berlin. Berlin wrote Sam a
lovely letter when he wrote PARK ROW (1952). He loved the film. Sam put all his money into that picture.
I spoke to Christa by telephone on 20th April 2012. I would like to thank Christa for the generous use of her time.
'A Third Face - My Tale of Writing, Fighting and Filmmaking' by Sam Fuller, Christa Fuller and Jerome Henry Rudes, is available now. It is an excellent read.
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.
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