411 Interviews Paul Kyriazi About Death Machines, Ninja Busters & More
The B-Movie Interview: Paul Kyriazi
(image courtesy of david j. moore)
Paul Kyriazi is a movie director and producer who specialized in low budget genre movies from the 1970’s to the very early 1990’s. He made six movies, starting with Death Machines in 1976 and ending, for now, in 1990 with Omega Cop. Death Machines was recently released as a Blu-ray/DVD combo by the fine folks at Vinegar Syndrome, and Kyriazi’s “lost” movie, the action-comedy Ninja Busters, is finally got a release via Garagehouse Pictures (it’s currently on Blu-ray). Kyriazi was kind enough to take time out of his busy schedule to participate in an interview with this writer where he discusses Death Machines and Ninja Busters, his career in general, his successful audio-book project, and more.
Bryan Kristopowitz: How did you get involved in the movie business? Did you always want to be a director?
Paul Kyriazi: When I was 8 years old I saw The Making of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea on Disneyland TV. It showed the story boards of the fight with the giant squid and had Kirk Douglas and Peter Lorre talking. Right then I decided that’s what I wanted to do. Soon I was making 8mm action movies that ran about 20 minutes. Then 16mm in college and finally financed my first feature in 35mm Techniscope. It was a progression because of my love of movies.
BK: How did you get involved with Death Machines?
PK: When my first feature film failed to sell (The Tournament – bonus feature on Death Machines‘s Blu-ray), I kept searching for movie financing to have another shot at directing a feature. I was in the martial arts and met many martial artists, some who wanted to make movies. Through those contacts I met karate tournament fighter Ron Marchini. He had just finished starring in a movie in the Philippines and owned the US rights to it. He had me re-edit it and sell it to a Hollywood distributor. After I got it sold, Ron asked me if I thought we could make a karate movie starring him in Stockton, CA. I said yes and he told me the budget and we got to work.
BK: How long did it take to make Death Machines?
PK: It took a month of planning, six weeks filming and two months editing. Ron and I showed the first cut of the movie to Crown International and they wanted it and took over the music and sound effects.
BK: Was the ethnic makeup of the three Death Machines something that was originally in the script or is that something that you came up with?
PK: Yes, that came up first by Ron Marchini and myself. My first movie wasn’t commercial at all, so I vowed if I ever got another chance to make a feature, I would make it very commercial. At that time, Chinese Kung Fu movies were being released to mainstream theaters and Bruce Lee had just made Enter the Dragon so that meant we should have an Asian Death Machine for the market. Black Exploitation movies were popular so we got an Afro-American. Ron Marchini was to be the lead so that’s how the three races came into being. And that was decided on right away, even before the script was written.
BK: Where did you find the three performers who portrayed the three Death Machines?
PK: As I said, Ron was part of the deal and a good part because he had a following amongst martial arts fans and action movie fans in the Philippines. The Asian Death Machine was going to be Eric Lee, but just before filming he had a chance to be in Sam Peckinpah’s Killer Elite, so I gave him the smaller part of the gung-fu teacher. Ron showed me Michael Chong’s photo on the cover of Kung Fu magazine, so we got a hold of him where he lived in nearby San Francisco and he agreed to do the part. The black Death Machine, Joshua Johnson, was, and still is, a close friend of mine who I met in the motion picture section of the Air Force. He played a part in my first feature and was in the martial arts, so I cast him in the part. Joshua also had a large part in my next movie Weapons of Death.
BK: Is Death Machines meant to be an action movie or an art movie or is it both? To me, it can play as both.
PK: That’s a good question, Bryan, what with the cult popularity that the movie has achieved. But right from the start Death Machines was meant to be nothing but an action movie. As big an action movie as we could make on the budget we had. The laughs, such as the hitman landing on his own car, in front of a meter maid, that he parked in a red zone were intentional, but action and a strange story were what we were shooting for.
BK: What was the hardest part of making Death Machines?
PK: The movie was fun to make. The cast and crew were all excited in the fact that we were actually making a feature film in 35mm Techniscope and Technicolor. The only thing I remember as being hard was constantly switching from day filming to night filming. So we all had to be sure to get as much sleep as we could.
BK: How did Ninja Busters become a “lost” film?
PK: The producer gave Ninja Busters to a small distributor who ended up in prison for 8 years for stealing the money from six of the movies he was supposed to be distributing. The one print of the movie got lost. It turned up 30 years later in a storehouse in the Mojave Desert lying next to 200 other movies, many of which had rusted right through their film cans. It was found by Harry Guerro of Garage House Pictures. He drove it to the East Coast and showed it at a three day film festival. It was the hit of the festival, so Guerro decided to make a Blu-ray of it.
BK: Sid Campbell is fabulous in Ninja Busters, both as a martial artist and as an actor. He has a goofy charm that’s infectious. He co-wrote the screenplay. Was he involved from the very beginning or did he become involved later?
PK: Sid wrote the original screenplay by himself. He intended it to be what you saw; him and Eric Lee as two funny guys who join a karate school to meet girls. Later, I expanded the script with writer William Martell with Sid always around adding bits into the story. As we filmed, Sid was constantly coming up with funny bits and action ideas.
BK: Was Ninja Busters always intended to be an action comedy or did that tone sort of develop as you made the movie?
PK: A mix of both action and comedy was always intended. The comedy idea came first and then later we upped the action by adding the gangsters and the militant group.
BK: Could Ninja Busters have been a franchise if it had received an actual release back in the 1980’s?
PK: If it had a proper release, I think it would have had a good chance of making a sequel out of it. I think there would have been a small, but loyal following that would have supported a sequel if we kept the budget low and still kept our creativity going. All of us sure had the energy and excitement for the project when we finished it.
BK: What was it like working with Gerald Okamura? He seems like a pretty intense guy.
PK: I’m still close friends with Gerald and I have to say that the first thing that comes to mind of Gerald on the set is professionalism. He always carries his script with him in a binder with all the scenes tagged and his dialogue highlighted. When that camera turns on, Gerald turns on and is indeed intense, whether it’s a dialogue scene or an action scene. When the camera is not on him he’s just as relaxed and funny as everyone else. I still remember jokes he told on the set. I met Gerald through Eric Lee when I was casting Weapons of Death. After that came Death Machines and he did some voices for one of my audio-books.
BK: How did your audio book projects come about?
PK: When the action and drive-in theaters started closing down, so did demand for low budget action movies. Though I tried and had many near successes, I never managed to break into mainstream Hollywood. I had two good scripts that I was promoting, but couldn’t get them sold. Then I saw Pulp Fiction and realized that it would have made just as a unique novel as well as the movie because most of the plants and payoff were dialogue not action. Also, the structure of Pulp Fiction was unique. Right after seeing Pulp Fiction twice I decided to turn my two scripts into novels. From there I decided to do them as audio-books. But of course, being a film-maker that wasn’t good enough, so I turned them into full-cast audios with film-quality sound effects and movies. An audio-movie, if you will.
The exciting thing about that was that I could hire the movie heroes that I loved as a boy such as Rod Taylor and Alan Young from The Time Machine. And Robert Culp (I Spy) as well as David Hedison (The Fly and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea). I also reunited Russ Tamblyn and George Chakiris from West Side Story. So it was a dream come true for me. They were in their early 70’s at the time, but could still be leading men in audio.
BK: How many audio books have you completed and how many more are in the pipeline?
PK: I completed one with Rod Taylor narrating plus cast called Rock Star Rising. McKnight’s Memory with Frank Sinatra Jr. narrating starring Robert Culp and Nancy Kwan and cast. And was a great thrill to be asked to direct Ed ‘Kookie’ Byrnes’ audio My Casino Caper about the time he was staked for his three million dollar Las Vegas win. You might know Ed from Grease where he played Vince Fontaine or reruns of 77 Sunset Strip.
BK: Who are your movie making heroes?
PK: My first movie hero was Buster Crabbe in Flash Gordon who I saw on TV. Then Kirk Douglas from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Then Kerwin Mathews from The 7th Voyage of Sinbad. By the way, it’s Kerwin’s voice you hear in the opening narration of Ninja Busters. He became a friend of mine. After that, most action heroes like: Burt Reynolds, Jim Brown, Bruce Lee, Toshiro Mifune and on and on, became heroes of mine.
BK: Will you ever direct again?
PK: Well, after the features, I did direct a 90 minute travel video for a Japanese company and of course the audio-books. I almost got to direct my novel McKnight’s Memory because Frank Sinatra Jr. loved it, which is why he narrated the audio. We were close to making it, then he got busy with his band and then got ill. The important thing for me is that I’m still making stories. This year I produced my novella Wicked Players as a full-cast audio book and have another one, Forbidden Power, that I’m preparing to produce. So my story telling continues.
BK: How has the movie business changed since you started?
PK: The big change, of course, is the technical, the video which makes it easier for anyone to make a feature film. Of course, more completion comes with it. And then on the plus side of that is that there are so many cable TV channels that need product, so there’s more outlets for features. I also like the fact that you can now edit faster with video. Less time spent splicing and diving in the trim bin looking for lost frames of film, and more time making creative decisions.
BK: You provide on-camera intros to both Death Machines and Ninja Busters from somewhere in Japan. How did that come about?
PK: Remember the evil Ninja Boss in Ninja Busters? The Japanese woman in the kimono at the beginning of the movie? We got married and with my love of martial arts and samurai movies we lived in both the US and Japan and then finally decided to be full time in Japan. But I get to the US twice a year for two months at a time to do my projects and see friends.
BK: Do you think the Death Machines are still out there somewhere?
PK: I know the Death Machines I call my friends are out there. If there are any real Death Machines out there, I hope they stick to killing only bad guys as they mostly did in the movie. And I hope they have the strange sense of humor that the three in our movie had.
(image courtesy of Paul Kyriazi)
Again, I want to thank Paul Kyriazi for participating in this interview and david j. moore for setting it up.
You can buy Death Machines here.
You can buy Ninja Busters here