Frequent JCVD collaborator and action film legend with a variety of your favorite action flicks in his writing and directing credits, Sheldon Lettich just dropped his long lost Vietnam short film after 40 years in obscurity. Lucky for us, he also took a few minutes out to talk about the film, his upcoming project, and working with Brian Thompson on his first film ever.
An action legend with several classics under your belt, you probably don’t need a big introduction, but let’s still start there, with the logical first question. Who is Sheldon Lettich?
A former Marine, and a professional photographer, who transitioned to being a writer/director.
Your new project that we’re talking about here is actually not new at all. In fact, it’s 40 years old. How did this new release of Firefight come about and how would you describe the film?
I found a reasonable (inexpensive) opportunity to make a digital copy of the film in 2K resolution. Previously it was only available in either a 35mm print, or a shitty VHS copy. Also, my biography was slated for release, which would give people some crucial background information on how the film came about.
In the press release for Firefight, you state:
“Back in 1983, I made a short, twenty-minute Vietnam War movie titled “Firefight.” Forty years later, it still remains a watchable movie, but more importantly it’s a crucial relic from the beginnings of an era, which had the involvement of a few key personalities who were pivotal in the creation of some of the most well-loved and well-regarded action movies of the 1980’s.”
Of course, I recognized a few faces and names, but I wanted to give you the chance to be the one to highlight them and tell me how they got involved with the project.
Frank Dux and I were friends back then. This was well before Bloodsport, and any of our interactions with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Frank had some notions back then that he had the potential to become a movie star, and became interested when I proposed making this short movie, and putting him in one of the leading roles. For Frank, this would be an opportunity to have proof on film that he had the potential to become the next Tom Selleck.
You worked with several of the film’s stars and crew on other projects, what are some of those that people may remember most and what led you to keep working with them?
It was Brian Thompson’s very first movie role. He went on to have quite a successful career as an actor afterwards. Brian and I hit it off as friends, and I subsequently cast him in four other movies. I also worked with Philip Rhee and Simon Rhee on the movie, both of whom were introduced to me by Frank Dux.
In addition to these great action stars of the 80s and 90s, you have a variety of JCVD projects in your filmography, what is it like working with him?
Like any movie star, he has his good days and his bad days. Overall, however, we were a good team. People have labeled us the “De Niro and Scorsese of action movies,” which I believe is an apt title in many ways.
The MVD rerelease of Lionheart on Blu-ray brought that gem to a whole new generation of genre film collectors and fans. It happens to be one of my favorite JCVD properties. Do you have any specific memories of that film or stories you could share?
I’ve got almost 300 pages of stories and memories in my biography, which is titled Sheldon Lettich; From Vietnam To Van Damme.
Including ones we’ve discussed and the ones we haven’t, do you have a favorite project you did over the years and what was it that set that experience apart from others?
Oddly, the ones I enjoyed working on the most were not my most successful films. For example, I had a great time working on “The Last Patrol” with Dolph Lungren in Israel. Similarly, I had a lot of fun working on “Perfect Target” in Puerto Vallarta, a resort town in Mexico. Neither of those movies did veery well, business-wise.
I saw you actually have a new project on the horizon with Michael Pare, can you talk a little more about that one?
It’s titled Fight Pride, and it’ll be starring a new action star, a Norwegian named Daniel Stisen, who’s currently starring in a recently released action film titled The Siege. The story of Fight Pride revolves around illegal underground MMA fights, and is closer in plot and tone to Lionheart than any of my other movies.
As I begin to wind down, I want to come back to the reason we’re talking today, Firefight. There’s a realism to the short that seems informed by actual war. Do you have experience in the military and, if not, where did you go to consult to ensure the realistic sense or war and being in the forces?
I spent nearly four years in the Marine Corps, and spent one of those years with an Infantry battalion in Vietnam. So that’s where much of the realism derives from. I also co-authored a play about Vietnam titled Tracers, and worked on developing that with a small group of other Vietnam Vets. The origin of the story in Firefight was a scene I developed for that theatrical piece, but which the director rightfully decided was too grand and unwieldy to present on a stage in a small theater.
In addition to that sense of realism, there’s also really great cinematography and framing. Who did you work with as a DOP for that project? Where did you film the short to give it that look?
Quite honestly, the framing of the shots came from me. I was a Cinematography Fellow at the American Film Institute, and had originally planned on pursuing a career path to become a Director of Photography. We filmed Firefight at the Marine Corps Base at Camp Pendleton, California, in an area that I felt replicated the mountainous terrain of “I” Corps in Vietnam.
The film is available free on YouTube from Viking Samurai. We discussed earlier just a little about how the release came to be, how did you hook up with Viking Samurai and what was it like working with him to release the film for everyone to see?
I was introduced to David Kurzhal (aka the “Viking Samurai”) by a friend of mine named Justin Hawkins. I did a few interviews with David via Zoom, and eventually became comfortable enough with him to give him the opportunity to host a YouTube premiere of Firefight.