Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Cine M.I.A. #7: NINJA BUSTERS (1984)

Director Paul Kyriazi may not be a household name for the average American, but here at Video Junkie we have a special place reserved for the man on the distinguished “Video Aisle of Awesome.”  Kyriazi may only have a handful of action films to his credit, but they are all entertaining endeavors that deliver on their promise of non-stop martial arts action.  Even better, Kyriazi is admirable for having worked outside of the Hollywood system, working hard to make his pictures with the most limited of resources and funds.  One such picture is the M.I.A. 1980s action flick NINJA BUSTERS.

Born and raised in California, Kyriazi knew from an early age that he wanted to be a film director.  Infused by equal parts James Bond and martial arts, he began making movies as a teen and eventually parlayed that into an education at San Francisco State University, graduation with a BA in Film.  While in the Air Force, Kyriazi began working on his debut feature, the Japanese influenced DRAWN SWORDS (aka THE TOURNAMENT).  Not wanting to let lack of funds define his production, he shot the
film in widescreen 35 mm.  While the film was never released commercially to the general public, Kyriazi did get the pleasure of seeing his debut feature on the big screen on a double feature with THE POSEIDEN ADVENTURE (1972) in Lompoc, California while stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base (“They put a announcement card before the movie saying 'Directed by Vandenberg Air Force Sergeant Paul Kyriazi’, so people would know why the low budget black and white movie was being shown,” he recalls).

After his time of service, Kyriazi returns to San Francisco with the film bug in full effect. Realizing the limitations and financial burden of his debut feature, he opts to make a follow up that will appeal specifically to the demands of the market, which is being flooded with kung fu mania due to the emergence (and subsequent death) of Bruce Lee.  While at a karate tournament, Kyriazi meets martial artist Ron Marchini who gets him to help on editing his Philippines-lensed acting debut MURDER IN THE ORIENT (1974). The duo formed a friendship and soon Kyriazi is behind the camera on the film that would define his career, DEATH MACHINES (1976). The story of three mentally-programmed assassins, the film lives up to Kyriazi’s promise to himself to make something that unleashes fists of fury upon the audience.  It is picked up by Crown International domestically and released worldwide.

Following the success of DEATH MACHINES, Kyriazi spent a period of time developing a vigilante-type picture in the DEATH WISH (1974) mold titled DEATH WARRANT.  (Damn, that is a whole lot of “death” in that sentence.)  When that didn’t pan out, he put all of his energy on raising the funds for his next feature. With the help of a venture capitalist, he eventually raised $180,000 for what would eventually become THE WEAPONS OF DEATH (1982).  Sensing this picture might be his last Kyriazi filled the film with martial artist friends – including Eric Lee (who had been in DEATH MACHINES) and Sid Campbell – and went to town in creating a non-stop action flick. “'WEAPONS OF DEATH broke a house record in one New York theater,” Kyriazi reveals, “and was a hit as the 15 prints circulated America.  But then it went to Chicago into the worst snow storm in the history of Chicago and the small distributor lost all his money.  It still came to San Francisco and then sold to video.”

WEAPONS OF DEATH screening notice
(keep in mind the Latino connection)

It was while working on WEAPONS that Kyriazi began thinking of his third theatrical feature.  Having done two serious action pictures, Kyriazi and stars Lee and Campbell opted to do something completely outside the box – a kung fu comedy (keep in mind, this was even before Jackie Chan started infusing comedy into his work).  The end result was NINJA BUSTERS.

The film tells the story of Chic (Sid Campbell) and Bernie (Eric Lee), two goofballs oblivious to the dangers around them at their warehouse jobs at Dragon Import.  Seems their boss Santos is dealing in illicit merchandise and (as the opening narration supplied by Kerwin Mathews tells us) has hired a group of ninjas to protect his “business” interests. Meanwhile, our two heroes have joined a karate school (run by Gerald Okamura) in the hopes of meeting chicks.  When they get wrapped up in the nefarious business, they have to finally screw their heads on straight and bust some ninjas.

Video Junkie: What was the original inspiration for the film?

Paul Kyriazi: The original script came from karate teacher Sid Campbell, who played Chic in the movie. It was about two easy-going, fun loving guys that enter a karate studio to pick up girls. It seemed funny at the time because he meant for himself and Kung Fu expert Eric Lee to co-star in it. Both of them were very famous amongst American karate people. Eric had won many tournaments with his kung fu routines called Kata. He won so many trophies that he was called “The Little King of Kata.” And he was on the cover of many issues of Kung Fu magazine and others.

PK cont: Sid Campbell was named “Teacher of the Year” by Kung Fu magazine and had a karate school in Oakland, California. [The school] was very picturesque with two training rooms and a courtyard with a hot tub as you can see in the movie. That helped to make the movie easier to produce. It was like a movie studio with standing sets ready to go.

VJ: When was the script written?

PK: The first draft of the script was written in 1979, but the structure of it was too loose and didn't have enough action scenes to it. So I worked with Sid to add more action and comedy. Then I had a screenplay writer William Martell take our notes, add his ideas and type it up. William added so much that he should have received screen credit, but I regret to say that I didn't ask Sid if it was okay for William to get screen credit. (VJ: He is credited on the IMDb.) He got an additional dialogue credit, and worked as continuity as well. As it was his first feature film and credit, he was happy with it, but it would have been a better boast to his career if he had the co-witting credit. He's gone on to write 20 movies in Hollywood and we've remained special friends.

VJ: After two hard hitting action flicks, why did you decide to go for comedy?

PK: Sid Campbell had the comedy script, the karate school location, the extras, and money contacts and it seemed like an easy movie to get done fast, so I went with it. Also, the movie ROCKY III (1982) had just come out – which I loved – so I was excited about doing two training montage sequences in it. During the fight between Eric Lee and the other student, I had Eric's girlfriend yell out "Bernie" in fear, but at the test screening the audience yelled back 'Rocky', so I deleted it.

I enjoyed the comedy of it the movie while making it. Then after lots of time in production due to slow investor input, the jokes didn't seem so funny by the time we got to editing. But when we had the San Francisco premiere I was surprised that the audience was laughing so hard at every joke. It just seemed that they love the two guys, the way they were dressed, their way of talking and striking out when they were trying to pick up girls. That endeared them to the audience, so they got the laughs. We got the same big laughs at the Los Angeles premiere as well. That was a pleasant surprise.

VJ: It appears that the film was made before GHOSTBUSTERS, was the title changed to NINJA BUSTERS by you?

PK: Sid's original title was BUSHWACKERS, but since it wasn't a cowboy movie, it sounded like an adult movie.  So I changed it to SHADOW FIGHT because in one Japanese movie, ninjas were referred to as “shadows.” We actually had a title sequence with that title at first, but I thought it wasn't strong enough so I changed it. There was a samurai movie that loosely translated to DOJO-BUSTERS and of course there is the expression “gangbusters” or “he came on like gangbusters,” so it came to mind to use NINJA BUSTERS.

VJ: How did you get backing for the film?

PK: Because of the excitement of getting a distributor for my third feature film WEAPONS OF DEATH (1982) and it playing in a San Francisco theater, some of Sid Campbell's karate students had money to invest. It was done under a limited partnership where, at that time, you could have up to 30 investors. We all worked for cheap or free, so we could spend the money to film in Panavsion. The budget was planned at about $100,000, but because of being rained out and other delays ended up being $130,000. It sounds low, but it came in slow and we had to stop and start a couple of times, with months between filming. But we got it done.

VJ: Where was the film shot?

PK: It was filmed mostly in Oakland, California around and in Sid Campbell's karate studio. The junkyard ninja fight was filmed in San Jose, the Latin nightclub was filmed in an abandoned Chinese restaurant in Oakland. The woman's fitness center fight was filmed in another karate school in San Francisco owned by the Latin karate teacher in the movie name Carlos Navarro. It was Carlos who helped a lot to get the movie competed. His real life son, Frankie, plays the friend of Chic and Bernie.

VJ: What happened with the distribution? I know you mention it was released in Mexico. Did it come out anywhere else?

PK: I didn't want to lose control of the movie to a film distributor because on small independent movies they have a deal that is 50/50 split with the producer responsible for the distribution expenses. So from the profits the distributor takes 50% of the movie and then charges the producer with bills equaling the other 50% and takes that too, with the producer receiving nothing. So we were looking for an outright sale or sales to countries one by one. At one point Carlos Navarro said he would like to sell it one country at a time and, as he was a large investor of it, we all agreed. Carlos did a great job as producer and we were all friends so he took care of that when I started spending a lot of time in Japan doing movie translations and voice work. Carlos got it sold to Mexican TV and I think some theatrical because of the large number of Mexican-American leads in the movie. That was a lucky break, so Carlos could recoup most of the production costs.

VJ: Any reaction from U.S. Distributors that you screened it for?

PK: A couple of the distributors said, this is what we need for double bills, which were still going on at that time, but starting to be phased out.  We didn't take their 50/50 offers.

VJ: Ultimately, what kept it from being released in the U.S.?

PK: Independent movie distribution was starting to be phased out by 1982 and since we had no stars except for the well know karate actors, it was difficult to sell outright.

Alexander Beck offering the film in May 1986:

Howard Goldfarb offering the film in May 1988 
(Goldfarb got in legal trouble for stealing $550,000 from a deal involving 
to prison for 6 and a half years in 1993; you can't make this up!):

VJ: Have you considered releasing it nowadays?

PK: Once the main investors got their money back, I moved onto other productions such as ONE WAY OUT (1986) and OMEGA COP (1990), so I lost track of Carlos and what he was doing with the movie. I'm still work with Eric Lee and Gerald Okamura in my full cast audio-novel productions and stayed in touch with Sid Campbell, who made a new career with his samurai artwork. (VJ: Campbell passed away in August 2008.)

VJ: Why a Cuban nightclub? Were all the locations/stores you shot in supportive?

PK: We had a Cuban nightclub because Carlos had contacts with a Latin band and had access to many Mexican-American friends and karate students to be dancers in it. So with that kind of production value we wrote it into the script.

All the locations and stores were very supportive. No problems at all with them since Sid Campbell was well connected in and around his neighborhood as well as Carlos Navarro in his neighborhood.

VJ: Were the bouncer Mateo’s lines scripted? He seemed like he may have been partaking of the mojitos.

PK: Mateo used a relaxed type of acting that was soft spoken. I had to push him to speak up many times. It was his first movie and I think he was, as they say “afraid to be bad,” which is actors talk for not wanted to be too loud or active incase he wasn't good. However, half way up he gain confidence and spoke up. It's just that with filming out of order his performance goes back and forth from loud to soft.

VJ: How was working with Gerald Okamura?

PK: This was my second movie with Gerald and he is always prepared with his script in a binder and marked with tabs. Many times I borrowed his binder to see what scenes were coming up. He is also very confident with what he does as you saw in that hot tub scene where he pours water on himself to prepare for battle. He's done lots of Hollywood work so he's totally confident in everything he does.

VJ: Any funny anecdotes from the shoot?

PK: I always remember the scene where the karate instructor Carlos Navarro is balling out Sid and Eric for being screw-ups in the karate school. He yells at them, is frustrated and then walks off. When I said cut, the cameraman fell off the dolly, rolled on the floor with laughter and couldn't get up for a few minutes. See it close-up in the camera really got to him. He had to hold his breath and control himself to get the shot before letting loose with that laugh.

Eric Lee's love interest was the very pretty yet sensitive Loni Lee. She was also in WEAPONS OF DEATH billed as Nancy Lee. She played the kidnapped girl and was chased and grabbed by every bad guy in the story. She had no problem with that. But for NINJA BUSTERS she had to kiss Eric in a love scene and during the kiss have water dumped on her by Gerald Okamura to break them up as there is no kissing in a karate school. She was more nervous about the kiss than the water and keep breaking up at her line, “I hope they don't call you 'fast Bernie' for everything,” meaning not fast at love-making. I think she did it also to delay the kiss and the water. Finally after five takes she made it though, the kiss, the water was dumped on them both, they turned to look in the director of Gerald holding the bucket with a sheepish, guilty expression, I called cut and she fell rolled on the wet floor with hysterical laughter for 30 seconds. And then the whole crew and I joined in the laughter. More of a relief the kissing was over than the humor of it. It was a great time making the film because of those fun incidents.

1 Reactions:

  1. OK now I gotta see this!! Maybe Code Red could work with Kyriazi on getting this out.


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