When I started this website several months ago my first mission was to score a Q&A with legendary filmmaker, Albert Pyun. His films have been a staple part of my life and their style & aesthetic are what I model much of my own writing after. Needless to say I was overwhelmed when he agreed to participate. I have never come across a harder working and more generous director than Albert. His work ethos is a testament to his longevity and his passion for cinema becomes more apparent with each film of his you watch. It's fair to say that he receives a decent amount of criticism from detractors, however, the more I've come to know Albert the more admiration I have for his steely acceptance of blows and his ability to focus his energies on work. As much as I have loved his films over the years, my own appreciation has grown substantially... with even some of his lesser work, his passion is clearly stamped all over.
The one thing that has struck me most about Albert over the past few years is his interaction with his fans. Despite his heavy working schedule he makes the time to keep his audience informed. A day rarely passes without updates on production, sneak-peeks at special FX designs and personal communication with fans... he is outstanding.
In organising this article my correspondence with Albert has involved a fair amount of exchanging information via email and he often referred me to Cynthia at Curnan Pictures. After several emails I realised that her name was familiar... and then it dawned upon me. Of course I knew her name because she is regularly credited as writer and/or producer on Albert's films. It became obvious that for almost 20 years Cynthia Curnan has played an integral part in his career and so I thought some recognition was deserved and I invited 'Cyn' to particulate in the article. She accepted and it is my pleasure to include her in this publication.
Albert Pyun and Cynthia Curnan are two of the hardest working names in the film industry. Working outside of the studio system they fight for independent cinema and are never without a project in the works... often several. For them to give me their time is very humbling and bolsters my admiration of them.
What's the earliest memory you have of watching movies? Albert Earliest was watching Japanese fantasy and adventure films in the late 50's in Japan. What was your favourite movie as a kid? Albert My all time favorite was Dr. No and Bye Bye Birdie - I know those are strange combo.
When did you realise that film was a career worth pursuing? Albert I'm not sure if I ever saw filmmaking as a career. I still don't actually. I just love making movies. All types. Its just something I've had to do since i was ten years old.
How did you break into the film industry? Cynthia I think it was a consequence of violating the "Never say never" rule. I was a psychotherapist in a Los Angeles private-practice with clients largely in the industry on both sides of the camera. I heard stories that made me vow to never step into the business myself. Mean/ruthless/inhuman...for starters.
Fast forward to meeting Albert Pyun (1997) and beginning by assisting him in small ways that grew and grew, essentially out-of-control. Eventually, I was writing and producing and experiencing the misery first hand. That said, when I am in the creative periods of filmmaking nothing compares in terms of invigoration and exhilaration. Who are some of your biggest influences? Albert The two biggest were Sergio Leone and Stanley Kubrick because I saw their films when I was a kid and was just so amazed what movies could be. I loved that both were daring and risk takers.
You hit the ground running with your first feature, The Sword And The Sorcerer, being a success. Can you tell us a bit more about your career prior to making this movie? Albert I spent four years doing nothing else but trying to get TSATS made, carrying a large clay serpent on my back, surely the laughing stock of Sunset Blvd. Every day I was out pitching. It was great training for the future. It taught me to be fearless and know that every "No" really means "Maybe". And every "maybe" is a firm "yes". I learned that I had a strong resolve and that no matter what you want to achieve in this world, if you apply yourself and never take a day off or let your confidence waiver, you can reach your goals.
Before that period, I had been working as an commercial film editor in Hawaii. I also did shooting, sound recording, negative cutting and even processing 16 mm film. Frankly, I would do any film work just to be able to stay near film any way I could 24 hours a day 7 days a week and to have it as large a part of my daily life as possible. I wanted to learn as many different jobs as I could in film, from advertising pitches to negative cutting to optical printing to every position on a film set. I also tried to launch a couple feature films each of which got me a step closer to TSATS as I learned what I needed to learn to be ready for the opportunity.
At the end of The Sword and the Sorcerer a title card appears on the screen which reads "Watch for Talon's next adventure TALES OF THE ANCIENT EMPIRE coming soon". You didn't make this sequel until almost 30 years later. What took you so long to return to this material? Albert I think I felt I had nothing new to say and it felt like something I've already done. For my next film I did Radioactive Dreams, which takes place in an entirely different universe than TSATS. That's pretty much how I've always gone forward, following my own need to do something new and to take on and explore new worlds, stories, styles and characters
It's known amongst fanboys that your film Cyborg starring Jean-Claude Van Damme was made out of the ashes of an abandoned Masters of the Universe sequel. Can you elaborate on this story? Albert We had been prepping both Masters of the Universe 2 and Spider-Man productions and when we were 2 weeks away from start of shooting, we got word that Cannon had lost the rights to both. I couldn't stand that all the prep work would be lost, so I quickly pitched an idea for a Sci-Fi film to Cannon as a way for them to recoup their prep costs. They went for it.
You released an alternative cut of Cyborg in 2011. How did this come about and where can people find it? Albert My composer and longtime collaborator, Tony Riparetti, was cleaning out his storage room and found a VHS tape of the last telecine of my workprint cut (actually called "Slinger"). Once I saw it I realized I could let people see what I really had in mind before I got removed from the editing. It's available at Curnan Pictures. Its really a collector's item not meant for wide release because the picture is rough, from an editorial work-print and the sound was a very sparse rushed temp mix. It contains Tony's original score, aggressive rock score. True Cyborg fans should see both versions and make up their minds which movie is better.
You also made the 1990 version of Captain America which ultimately ended up as a direct-to-video release. Was the DTV release disappointing for you at the time? Albert No, not disappointing at all except for the fact that it wasn't my version of the film. I had emotionally detached from the film when it was recut. Back in the early 90's I was making so many films that once I lost control of a film, I moved on to the next without a glance back. I wasn't in the country when it came out on VHS so, it had no effect on me except I knew it wasn't my version. More pain revolved around my inability to make the movie I had intended due to the budget constraints.
I love your Captain American. Has it found a new appreciation with the popularity of the newer Marvel adaptations? Albert I think it has, as a curiosity item. But what's been really rewarding to me, is the new Marvel version has allowed me to get invitations to screen my Director's Cuts in theaters that were sold out. And the audiences really enjoyed it and could finally see what I was trying to make. That's been a real plus of the new Marvel version.
A couple of years later you made Kickboxer 2, which I think is the best in the series. How confident were you in the project without Jean-Claude returning? Albert Once I read the script by David Goyer, I knew we would be fine. David wrote a grittier piece that I thought was different for the genre. I was relieved we didn't get Van Damme so we could take the series off into a different tone and setting and I was really thrilled to cast Sasha Mitchell who I thought brought qualities not seen before in a martial arts movie. I actually think if they brought JCVD back now for a follow up to the first Kickboxer, it would be more interesting because Jean-Claude has matured as an actor and person. He can convey more depth now.
Cynthia, I think it's safe to say that you have written some very "macho" films. Have you always had a love of this type of genre? Cynthia Yes, I have always loved B-movies, revenge or defense violence (not violence just cuz), post apocalypse, sci-fi/ mind-bending themes with comic relief, because they remind me of my childhood growing up in San Francisco with my brilliant but crazy alcoholic, unpredictably violent, psychic, paranoid, funny mother. She blew through a series of husbands that defy description. Common foes brought us closer together as we conquered harrowing events and grew to require adrenalin packed situations. Writing is how I continue to overcome my childhood predicaments.
Where do your influences and inspirations come from when starting a new script? Cynthia See above. Add to that Albert Pyun movies and Albert Pyun's always twisted mind. Add to that that he sticks me with pointy bamboo shoots until I get his scripts the way he wants them.
Do you have a particular process when it comes to writing? Cynthia First step is the same thing most writers do. Make time and protect it. Enter the Angst.
Are you ever nervous of what Albert will think of your scripts? Cynthia Terrified and masochistic is more like it. It seems to me that he almost never likes anything I write but eventually, we get there. I don't take his criticism as personally when I am writing something for him as when I am writing something for myself. I don't let him read the stuff I write for myself anymore. I have other writer friends for that.
With so many titles to your name and a large cult following, what are 3 of your films you would recommend people start with if they've never seen any? Albert I guess, The Sword and the Sorcerer, Brainsmasher...A Love Story and Mean Guns. Those three show my sensibilities as a filmmaker vividly. And maybe Postmortem to show my more mainstream filmmaking. And Nemesis and Cyborg which show my "gonzo" insane side - lol. Only the Director's cuts though! My personal favorites include - Down Twisted, Kickboxer 2, Bulletface and Left For Dead. Very happy with those films.
How do you guys find and raise funds for your films? Cynthia Albert used to invent the next fund raising formulas. He was always ahead of the curve. I wish I could say we have a formula now but they continually change to keep going. One rule is to keep the budgets as low as possible in an unstable economy. Albert finds most of the investors and I find some of them too. Generally, the investors are successful entrepreneurs in other industries that we have known for a long time.
Your newest film is Cyborg Nemesis. The title might suggest a connection between two of your most popular movies. Is this a crossover movie? Albert Yeah, it has elements of type of story and action from both though set really in outer space. I have a new action star that I'm very high on - JOEI FULCO. You should interview her. She's only 16 but already more dangerous and skilled than many I've worked with. If she can stay dedicated and focus, she could be a big star.
Screen grab of ZED VFX shot for Cyborg Nemesis: The Dark Rift
Tell us a bit about Cyborg Nemesis. Albert It has my favorite sort of Sci-Fi...where there's a mystery at its heart. An advanced government on Earth, gets a distress signal from one of their research stations (The Dark Rift) in deep space. A team of military Marines and investigators are sent to the Dark Rift to find out what's happened. The distress signal had a message within the warned that the scientists on the Dark Rift had created something terrible and dangerous...a new Pearl Prophet Cyborg (JOEI FULCO). So its a cat-and-mouse hunt as the Marines and investigators try to find and capture Pearl Prophet. I quickly becomes a deadly hunt. And in the end Pearl allows herself to be captured and taken to Earth. Once there we learn why she was created.
You work almost exclusively in genre filmmaking Why are genre films important to you? Albert I guess I grew up on them and they generally offer more freedom to express. And I love building the worlds in my own vision. And I find it allows me to make films that are more allegorical and surreal.
What's your favourite film of all time? Albert All time? Wow...that's tough. Best movie experience ever was going to see 2001:A Space Odyssey in Cinerama. That blew my 14 year old mind. I have favorites for different stages of my filmmaking life...Fistful of Dollars, Bye Bye Birdie and Dr. No when I was catching the moviemaking bug. Clockwork Orange, O' Lucky Man, Day For Night and Brewster McCloud for when I was seeing movies as art & literature for the first time. Finally, El Topo, The Passenger, Head and Taxi Driver, Streets of Fire for the possibilities of exploring ideas and narrative via stylization.
Do you have a guilty pleasure movie you'd be willing to admit you love? Albert My favorite guilty pleasures are "Jesus Christ Superstar" and "Grease". Love them, saw each a dozen times in a row when they came out. Have you been disappointed with any of your films? Albert I've been disappointed with each film that was butchered and released in that form. No disappointment with a film that I made that went out without changes.
What's been your high point? Cynthia One high point felt like the highest because it followed one of the lowest points. Our production went bust in Hawaii on 9/11 but we kept at it for a couple more years and lost everything. Back in the mainland, in California, we sat in a Caprice Classic - same model used in NYPD Blue as an unmarked police car. The car was parked in Sycamore Canyon Park on the Pacific Coast Highway, near Malibu. We needed a fast, cheap movie idea with tremendous hook.
As I gazed through the windshield at the gorgeous sycamore trees, Albert envisioned an end-of-world scenario unfolding in front of a police car dash-cam mounted inside the car. Albert told me and I went to stay with my girlfriend in Topanga Canyon to write the script.
I drew on an earlier experience from Topanga Canyon. Storms caused both sides of the canyon to close to traffic coming in or out. The cell service was out and I had to sleep in the car. Little did I know at the time that my all-too-real nightmares of wild animals and aliens would serve the story I would write for Albert.
We shot the movie in one night on an isolated mountain road. Since it was police car footage, the film could not have any cuts. It took us 5 takes to get the whole movie. If we missed it on that 5th take, we had to clear out with our money spent and no movie. The 5th take worked, the name of the movie was INFECTION aka INVASION. I think it was the lowest budget movie Lionsgate ever released. This is my high point because no matter how low we go, we can always come back.
Which film are you most proud of? Albert Again, I'm proud of different films for different reasons. The Sword and the Sorcerer because it vindicated my vision of the genre could be commercially successful. Down Twisted for being able to take on a different genre and get a lot of nice cinema on screen for very little money, Captain America for proving I could finish a film no matter that the budget vanished, Deceit to prove to myself I could design and shoot a film in 3 days, Invasion aka Infection to prove i could shoot an entire film in one unedited shot. So each has a place in my heart because they represented different expressions of my creativity (such that it is).
You have directed a lot of big time actors. Do you find them more difficult to work with than unknowns? Albert It varies. I find there's not much difference because unknowns can be just as much trouble as big time actors. I try to only work with actors now that I feel are willing to commit and dedicate themselves. As an example, when you work with big time actors, they tend to know they have to get into shape and care for their skin and hair to look fit and good onscreen. Most unknowns don't understand that aspect of prep especially with my films. They tend to be lazier about it. Most big time actors have no issues cutting or coloring their hair but unknowns sometime balk at doing it. Big Time actors want to look good and to help the director make the best film possible so they assist in little ways throughout. Unknowns tend to be focus on their work only. Which makes sense since they don't have the experience yet to know how to help.
Cynthia & Sasha Mitchell
Who has been your favourite actor to work with? Albert My favorite? I've enjoyed all of them I think. Each is unique and like i said, I'm careful in casting to make sure the actor's personality matches the shoot. I have actors I'm looking forward to working with at some point but haven't been able to yet - Yancy Butler I like a lot, Dolph Lundgren - maybe, Patsy Kensit I thought was remarkable, Dina Meyer - we almost did something together. i admire these actors a lot and respect their talent.
Being based in Australia, I ask most of my guests if they have a favourite Australian film. Do you? Cynthia I love Australian movies: "Walkabout", "Mad Max" (all of them), "My Brilliant Career", "Galipoli", "Picnic at Hanging Rock", "Breaker Morant", "The Last Wave", "The Year of Living Dangerously" and "Quiet Earth" starring Bruno Lawrence (Albert tried to get him for one of his films but he was sick. He died way too young). Those are just the old movies.
Australia offers some great tax breaks and loads of independent American films are made here. Have you guys ever considered making a film down this way? Cynthia Yes, we have long wanted to shoot there. We need a support person on the ground to help us. We cannot get those things going from here. Once we get there, we hit the ground running. At our budget levels, we cannot take time to meet and learn. That has to be all done before we arrive. If you know anyone, hook us up.
What's one piece of advice you could give to wannabe directors? Albert Be tough and resilient. Work hard everyday, all the time, don't slack off ever. Go into it knowing you have to enjoy the journey as much as the destination. Be fearless. Make the movies you want to make.
What's next for you? Albert I'm finishing up CYBORG NEMESIS: The DARK RIFT, right now, then I'm going to make three films in a row - THE KICKBOXER with Sasha Mitchell, Michael Dudikoff and Joei Fulco; then BLOOD SUCKING DEVIL, both in South Africa. Then i'll finish the year (and maybe my career) with Anomaly with Kevin Sorbo and Clare Kramer.
I have ROAD TO HELL coming out this summer with Michael Pare' and Clare Kramer. Reaction to it has been one of the best of my career. After that, I may teach.
Albert & Cynthia, thank you for your time and making my childhood so damn awesome! I hope to host a few Pyun/Curnan screenings in the near future to spread the love! Cynthia We hope you do too! If you have contacts with Australian genre fests, ask them to bring Albert and his films. We must get to Australia!