Tuesday, March 4, 2014

A FULLER LIFE: Sam Fuller's wife and daughter Christa and Samantha Fuller talk about Fuller's autobiographical war film THE BIG RED ONE (1980)

TV STORE ONLINE talks with the great filmmaker Sam Fuller's wife and daughter Christa and Samantha Fuller about his 1980 autobiographical World War II masterwork THE BIG RED ONE.   

Fuller's film was heavily cut for its initial release in 1980.  In 2004, the film was reconstructed by Richard Schickel and released onto DVD.

A FULLER LIFE; a documentary by Samantha Fuller
TV STORE ONLINE:   THE BIG RED ONE reconstruction has been out on DVD and Blu-Ray for some time now, but I was wondering if you could talk a bit about how the reconstruction of the film got off the ground?

CHRISTA FULLER:  It took me twenty-four years to get it done!   When THE BIG RED ONE played at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980 the jury there had wanted to split the Palm d'Or between Akira Kurosawa and Sam.   But Sam was very unhappy because when he made THE BIG RED ONE -- It was the film of his life, and he had only been given four million dollars to shoot it.   He was really lucky on THE BIG RED ONE to have [Director Of Photography] Adam Greenberg because they took that four million and made a film that looked like it was shot for twelve million dollars.   

TV STORE ONLINE:   It seems like Adam Greenberg had some background in working as a cameraman on films made in Israel...

Sam Fuller working on THE BIG RED ONE
CHRISTA FULLER:  Right.  He did, and they shot THE BIG RED ONE in Israel.    Adam would go on to shoot THE TERMINATOR (1984) and have a very big career in Hollywood.   He once said, "I've worked with one hundred and fifty directors and not one of them worked like Sam Fuller."  He loved Sam.   Sam had a lot of pressure on him while he was shooting THE BIG RED ONE.  He had to disappoint a few of his friends to make that film.   Stanley Cortez, Sam's Director Of Photography on SHOCK CORRIDOR (1963) and THE NAKED KISS (1964) had hoped to shoot THE BIG RED ONE with Sam, but because the budget was so tight, he couldn't do it.     THE BIG RED ONE was produced by Gene Corman, and while he's a great producer, he really should have gotten more money for Sam to make the film.   Corman had hired a sound cutter to edit the film and he didn't have the proper experience, so when it came time to edit the film all of the cans of film were messed up because the sound cutter hadn't numbered the cans of film for editing and Sam had shot over four hours of film on THE BIG RED ONE.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Is there any truth to the rumor/mention that Peter Bogdanovich had tried to get Sam more money via his relationship at Paramount Studios?

Actor Lee Marvin in THE BIG RED ONE
CHRISTA FULLER:  Yes, that is true.  And Martin Scorsese was supposed to play "Private Vinci".  Paramount offered Sam one million dollars to make the film and Sam told them to forget about it.   Sam turned down opportunities to direct big war movies.   Sam had been offered THE DESERT RATS (1953) and PATTON (1970).  He actually turned down the opportunity to direct something on Patton twice!   In 1968, a producer for 20th Century Fox Frank McCarthy, offered PATTON (1970) to Sam but he turned it down.   In the late '50s Patton's son came to see Sam at his office at Fox and said, "I hear you hated my Father."  Sam said to him, "That's right."  Yet, Patton's son offered Sam the rights to his story for nothing because he was sure that Sam would make a truthful and realistic film of Patton's life, but Sam turned that down because he felt that he was just too close to the story having fought in the war and he didn't think that he had a sense of irony regarding Patton, so he turned it down.   

Sam Fuller with "Griff" actor Mark Hamill
Darryl Zanuck at Fox also offered Sam the job to direct THE LONGEST DAY (1962) but he turned that down.   He had so much love for his war outfit, The Big Red One.  I can't tell you how close all of those men were to each other in that division.   Sam's beloved General Terry De La Mesa Allen was the polar opposite of Patton.  He slept on the ground with his soldiers and all of his soldiers loved him.  He didn't ask anything of his soldiers that he wouldn't do himself.   After the war he was on the cover of Time Magazine.  Whereas Patton, not many soldiers admired him. In fact, Patton once pissed on soldiers down in the trenches during the war.  Allen wasn't always clean shaven.  His uniform was always wrinkled and he prayed before every battle.   Sam loved him.

TV STORE ONLINE:   In Sam's autobiography, A Third Face, and more specifically in the chapter on THE BIG RED ONE, it's written that the film was originally four hours and twenty minutes long....So is there even more footage out there that didn't make it into the reconstruction of the film?

Fuller with daughter Samantha
SAMANTHA FULLER:  Well, on the Special Features for the DVD there are about thirty minutes of scenes that they were unable to put back into the film.

TV STORE ONLINE:  And that includes the scene with you when you were just a little girl...

  That's right.    I was cut out.  But my mother's scene was put back in...

  Yeah, that scene with the German Countess is incredible...

  The German Countess badmouths Hitler. I was happy to see that scene restored in the reconstruction.   The film was shot in Israel as I mentioned but that particular scene was shot in Ireland.   We shot a bunch of scenes in a castle there that the Director John Boorman lived in.  He had a horse that he called "The Big Red One" while we were there.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Sam was your husband....But what was the experience like in that scene working with Sam Fuller the director?

Christa Fuller in THE BIG RED ONE
CHRISTA FULLER:  You better know your lines, because he shoots fast...laughing     There was another part of that scene that wasn't in the film too.   The German Countess was wearing a pearl necklace and when she is shot the pearl necklace comes apart and the pearls start to fall off one by one to the floor. 

TV STORE ONLINE:    How did Sam cast "The Four Horsemen" roles in the film?  Did he have an idea about certain actors that he thought he might want for those roles or did all of those actors just come through an audition process?

  Well, Sam had a clear idea that Lee Marvin would be playing the role that he plays in the film.    When Sam tried to get THE BIG RED ONE off the ground in the late '50s the studio had wanted John Wayne to play the role of the Sargent.    John Wayne loved Sam.   They had a friend in common by the name of Ray Kellogg.    In fact, it was Ray who gave Sam the footage that he used in VERBOTEN! (1959) of the Nuremberg trials.

I gave him the idea to cast Mark Hamill because STAR WARS (1977) had been so big and he had seen Robert Carradine in Hal Ashby's COMING HOME (1978).    Sam had worked with Lee Marvin before on a episode of The Virginian (1962-71).   They got along very well and they never really had to talk much to each other, because they had both been in the war.  Lee had been a marine just like Director John Ford.    Lee called up Sam after he finished reading the script to THE BIG RED ONE and said, "This is your Sargent talking..."  

John Ford and Sam were great friends too, and Sam thought John Ford was the greatest director.  Every year on the anniversary of D-Day, John Ford would call Sam and say, "Fuck The Big Red One" and he'd hang up...laughing   It went on for years between them.    John Ford adored Sam and he always wanted Sam to write a script for him but it never happened.

TV STORE ONLINE:  You mentioned moments ago that Sam turned down the opportunity to direct many war films....Do you think he did that because he wanted to work in other genres of film?    I would have loved to see what Sam could've done within the confines of a comedy...

The Four Horsemen and Sargent
CHRISTA FULLER:  Sam wrote a comedy!   It was optioned even.  It's my favorite script that he ever wrote.  It was called "The Lusty Days".

TV STORE ONLINE:  Did Sam ever mention where some of the characters in THE BIG RED ONE came from?   Where do you think "Zab" came from for example?

:  I see a lot of Sam in Zab actually.   I see a three letter name.   I think Sam is a bit of every character in THE BIG RED ONE.   Plus Zab is a writer in the film, and he's a cigar chomping writer at that.   I think Zab is the closest Sam came to physically portraying himself in any of his films.

TV STORE ONLINE:  In the documentary on THE BIG RED ONE DVD you suggest that there is a bit of Sam Fuller in the Lee Marvin character in the film as well...I was wondering if you could talk about that a bit more?

SAMANTHA FULLER:  I do think that Sam shared elements of himself between all those characters.  You see Sam's history as a cartoonist in "Griff" and you see the sensitive side of Sam in that character too.  You see the rascal in Sam in the "Vinci" character.   In the film you see Lee Marvin, a man who had fought in World War I and then World War II.    In fact, he even kills a man in combat not aware that the war has been stopped.  I think that the Lee Marvin character really struggles to come to terms with the fact that he has killed all of these men, and I think that was a struggle that my father dealt with inside of himself as well.

Actor Robert Carradine as "Zab" in THE BIG RED ONE
TV STORE ONLINE:  One of my favorite aspects in relation to THE BIG RED ONE and this is something that's mentioned in Sam's autobiography A Third Face...Is how Sam was offered several chances to walk away from serving in the infantry on the ground in WW II to become a war journalist but never took it.

  Exactly.    It's because he believed that he was fighting for a cause.   And this was the war that was supposed to end all wars.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Sam started working on THE BIG RED ONE back in the mid/late '50s...Why didn't he just move forward on his own on it instead of making other films?

CHRISTA FULLER:  He wanted to.   He even went to scout for shooting locations.   He went out with his wife at the time and a friend of his, Ray Harvey, who was a four star Colonel and had served as an adviser on FIXED BAYONETS (1951).    He finished the script for THE BIG RED ONE in 1958 and in 1959 his mother died and it was a complete shock to him.  Also, that was the year that he divorced his wife too, because his mother and his wife had not gotten along.

Fuller during World War II
Fuller served in infantry in The Big Red One unit

SAMANTHA FULLER:  Also, I think the fact that the studio had wanted John Wayne to star in the film...That didn't suit Sam.   While they were friends, Sam didn't see John Wayne in that role that Lee Marvin would eventually play.   I think that turned him off of the project for a while possibly.

So when THE BIG RED ONE comes out in 1980.. It's an edited version of Sam's original vision for the film, it's not the film that we have on DVD and Blu-Ray today...It got decent reviews by film critics, it had been nominated at the Cannes Film Festival. but it didn't do great at the box office....

CHRISTA FULLER:    Right, but the investors made their money back and then some right away...ABC Pictures had put in two million dollars for the budget for the film and Lorimar had put in the other two million.   It made eight million dollars with its foreign distribution alone and at the time of its release World War II wasn't a popular war at the box office.   I think we owe Steven Spielberg something for creating a renewed interest in World War II.   Had he not made SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) or his mini-series Band Of Brothers (2001) the reconstruction of THE BIG RED ONE might not ever have gotten underway.

TV STORE ONLINE:   Because there was a team working on the reconstruction of THE BIG RED ONE....As his family, how comfortable are you with the claim that Warner Brothers has made in support of the reconstruction's release to DVD and Blu-Ray that what we now have is Sam Fuller's definitive vision of the story that is THE BIG RED ONE?

CHRISTA FULLER:   I'd say it's pretty close.  I think Warner Brothers did a wonderful job on it.

TV STORE ONLINE:  To speculate and fantasize a bit....You have to wonder if this version of THE BIG RED ONE, this reconstructed film, had it been released in 1980...You have to wonder if it wouldn't have been nominated by the Academy for Best Picture that year.

Fuller and daughter Samantha in support of her
new documentary  A FULLER LIFE
CHRISTA FULLER:  Well, Sam didn't really think that way...I once introduced Sam to the writer Henry Miller who was friend of mine.   What Henry Miller said to me really shocked me afterward.   He said, "Your husband is an innocent. "   I didn't understand what he meant until years later.   I think Sam just liked to play everything as this rough and tough kind of guy.  I think that he put on this face because he needed it in order to endure through the horrors that he had seen while he was fighting in World War II himself.    He needed it to keep his innocence.   We all do that, and we all have an innocence that we don't want to lose inside of ourselves.   I think writers and artists have to maintain that innocence or idealism in order to create.   Sam listened to Beethoven every day.  He would play Beethoven as he sat with a cigar in his mouth at his typewriter.  

I don't think it matters.   Regardless of whether the Academy saw the edited version of the film or the reconstruction, it doesn't matter because at the end of the day he made the film.  He made his story his way.

Samantha's documentary A FULLER LIFE features actors James Franco, Robert Carradine, Mark Hamill and Tim Roth.   It also features directors Wim Wenders and Joe Dante.   To find out more about the documentary please visit the film's official website HERE and follow its progress on Facebook HERE
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung