The name Steven E. De Souza should be as synonymous with 80s action films as the likes of Schwarzenegger, Stallone and Willis. He is one of a hand-full of script writers whose films have earned over $2 billion at the global box office, including the likes of 48 Hrs (1982), Commando (1985), The Running Man (1987), Judge Dredd (1995) and Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life (2003). He also wrote Die Hard and its sequel Die Hard 2: Die Harder!
That’s right, we spoke to the man who wrote Die Hard!
In this first part of our in-depth interview, we asked Steven how he ended up directing the film, its troubled production and working with Jean-Claude Van Damme.
In the second part, we cover the rest of his career, as well as what the plot for Commando 2 would have been about!
Steven was so gracious, he even sent us a video with him recording all his answers for us which you can watch at the bottom of the article.
Before Street Fighter, you had a carved out a pretty amazing career as a Hollywood scriptwriter, writing some massive hits (Die Hard, 48 Hours, Commando etc) – what made you suddenly want to direct and what made you choose Street Fighter as your first feature film?
I had directed before I came to Hollywood – it’s a film, that can be found on the fringes of the Internet. It was a festival winner and an early stoner movie called Arnold’s Wrecking Company, which pre-ceded Cheech and Chong even.
So I bought that to Hollywood as kind of a calling card and later on I directed an episode of Tales of the Crypt, which is a fan favourite called ‘Carrion Death’ with Kyle MacLachlan. As far back as Knight Rider, where I was a producer, I had in my contract that I could direct two episodes of the season.
But what would happen is that we’d get busy getting all the scripts organised and as a responsible producer, I couldn’t really recuse myself from six or seven weeks of production on 22 episodes in order to direct two. So although, I had a contract to direct television episodes on almost every show I worked on, I would fall on my sword, saying: “We’re too far behind, there’s too many scripts to do, I can’t get out of the screenwriting loop to direct.”
So when it came around to Street Fighter, (producer) Edward R. Pressman was already someone that I knew and he came to me and said, “Look, I know this is really short notice, but I’ve got a meeting with these people from Capcom – they’re meeting with everybody in town – looking for someone to produce the movie of this video game. You’ve had experience in this ‘video game kind-of-things, can you come up with a story for this?”
So, I said: “Sure, I’m very familiar with the game – in fact, every weekend I’m down at the arcade with my kids, dropping quarters in the machine – when do you need this?”
He said: “I need it tomorrow…”
So I literally stayed up all night coming up with a pitch for the movie and one the things that helped, was all the materials sent to me by Capcom. At that point, Capcom had a long term vision where M. Bison would be a Bond-like villain, and sent me blueprints for his underground lair, which was underneath the temple seen in the movie. So trying to find some variation from a tournament game, which I felt was something we’d seen played out before, I followed their plans of going in a Bond direction, which was what they hoped to do, so I was right on target when I came in with my plans for that.
So I said to Pressman, “Ok, I’ll do an all-nighter, but if this happens and Capcom sign on, I want to direct the movie.” And he agreed.
There’s a story I read that Capcom wanted the film to include all the game’s characters, but you talked them out of it by seeing how many executives could name all seven dwarves…
That’s true – that is how I convinced them that there should only be seven main characters, by asking “Can you name the Seven Wonders? Can you name the Seven Dwarves?”
There’s a reason all these things are ‘seven’, because it’s the number that most people can keep in their heads. No-one could name all seven by the way, they could only get up to six. The dwarf everyone forgets is Bashful!
Anyway, that worked for a while, but as the movie went on they kept asking, “Can you add another character? And another” and as late as the last month of filming, they added another character! There was the Bruce Lee-like character (Fei Long) that had just been added to the game.
So in the end, I think the picture was really over-populated – it’s an 100 minute movie, there’s about 15 characters – do the arithmetic! It would have been much better with fewer characters…
There isn’t really any story to the Street Fighter game, so you ended up pitching it as a ‘Star Wars/James Bond/war movie’. Were Capcom initially reluctant about that or did they respect your action credentials?
Interestingly enough, among the materials that Capcom gave me at the time was a long-range plan to make a line of toys, which were very similar to the G.I Joe line of toys. So they were already on the road to a G.I. Joe-type direction, so subsequently I’ve spoken to people who’ve said: “Street Fighter is the first G.I. Joe movie.”
What was the biggest challenge working with Capcom, who by all accounts, demanded approval over every aspect of the production?
The biggest challenge, I recall, was them having a sort of provincialism they had as a Japanese company. As we were casting the movie, we were having all of our Asian-American actors shot down one-by-one, until someone said to me that Japan can be very provincial.
I think in their minds they thought that only someone of Japanese descent could play a Japanese character. So when we looked at the next round of Asian-American actors, we dropped their surnames from their photographs.
The Japanese are used to ‘Madonna’ and people with one name, so all of a sudden, our actors started getting auditions because we’d dropped their surnames.
Later on when we were casting, they were startled, saying “This actress isn’t of Japanese descent – she’s of Chinese descent! This actor is of Korean descent!” But by this time, they’d already committed to these actors being the best performers!
I remember one line that one Capcom executive said about one actor: “Well, he’s not of Japanese descent, but he’s handsome enough to be Japanese, so you can use him!
How did you go about assembling the cast? There are stories that Capcom wanted Jean-Claude Van Damme from the off, and that you cast Kylie Minogue because she was on the cover of People Magazine that you were reading en route to Bangkok…
Capcom did want Jean-Claude Van Damme from the get-go, I guess because he resembled the Guile character. We were resistant to that idea saying that the audience would expect an R-rated movie if we had Jean-Claude in it, also he has an accent! But of course, the accent was completely unknown to Capcom, because when they see Jean-Claude’s movies in Japan, he’s dubbed, so that didn’t mean anything to them – they figured he had an American accent.
However, they were adamant about having some star power which is why we got Jean-Claude, even though it creates the expectation of an R-rated movie, and Raul Julia – they were thrilled to get an actor of that caliber.
At the 11th hour, we still did not have our Cammy, and I was on a plane to Australia, where we started pre-production and on board was an Australian version of People Magazine, and Kylie was on the cover.
I remember she was upside down posing with a giant beach ball and I said, “Who is this?” because she didn’t have the reputation in America that she had worldwide at that time. So that was fortuitous and she did a terrific job and we were very impressed with her and Jean-Claude was apparently the most impressed with her as he’s subsequently told us…
Raul Julia reportedly took the role at the behest of his children and even though he was terminally ill at the time, he lights up the screen every time he’s on camera. How was he during production?
Raul was a delight to work with. He reinforced my impression that actors who come out of a stage background are the best people to work with. Denzel Washington, Timothy Dalton, Raul Julia – these are all people that bring a stage background to their interpretation of their role and also a view of how they fit in to the big picture. They don’t just count lines or focus on what they’re doing.
For example, I did a film with Timothy Dalton and he came to me and said: “I don’t think I need any dialogue in this scene at all!” I don’t think you’d get that from a lot of actors who’d done that amount of stage work.
One thing that was a surprise with Raul was that we didn’t know he’d recently had surgery. So when he came to us, he was really thin and we were astonished and surprised. He explained he’d had surgery recently, that he now had a clean bill of health – that’s what he told us – so we juggled the schedule at the last minute to push his work back as far as possible.
He was drinking these weight-gaining milkshakes, working out with our trainer Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez – so with one exception, the scene where we first meet Dhalsim, which we had to film early on and he looks very gaunt in that, we were able to push his work back three weeks into the schedule and he got more and more robust looking at the film went on.
Tragically, he died within a month of wrapping production.
With such a rushed production schedule and a script where you were juggling so many characters, was sleep a complete impossibility?
The schedule was challenging and became close to impossible early on. We did our pre-production in Australia in preparation for shooting location work in Thailand, and then we were going to come back to Australia. But we discovered in the worst possible way, when we got to Thailand, that the production facilities there were just not going to work for us.
For example, they had a big warehouse that they said would work for our sound studio, but it was the rainy season and it had a tin roof. So all the sound in that building was almost useless. We had another scene where we had to do some night-time interiors, and we wanted to pretend it was night, although it was really day, but there were so many holes in the side of this building that it was laser beams from Mission: Impossible 3!
So, after two weeks filming in Thailand, we were nine days behind schedule, so we had to do a last minute adjustment and take a lot of material that was meant to be shot in Thailand, roll it into the Australian shoot and then left for Australia three days early!
But we were never able to get that time back because the movie had a hard release date for Christmas. So somehow, we had to squeeze those nine days into the remaining schedule and it was very, very tough.
Jean Claude Van Damme was at the height of his box office dominance, but was also dealing with several personal issues at the time. His salary also took a large chunk of the film’s budget – what was it like dealing with him, considering you’d previously worked with the likes of Bruce Willis and Arnie?
One of the things that I did with Arnold, when I worked with him on Commando and The Running Man, was that I bought to bear a lesson that I learned in television.
One of my producers at the time had an Italian guest star and he suggested that I take him to lunch and run lines with him as I may have inadvertently given him a tongue-twister. So when I worked with Arnold for the first time, I said: “If it’s ok with you, I’d like to work with you on your lines because I may have inadvertently given you a tongue-twister.”
And he leapt on this and said: “That’s a great idea Steven, because people don’t realise some words are hard for me to say.”
So I went to his house and I ran through the whole Commando script with him, and if we got to a difficult line, we’d replace it. This worked so well on Commando and The Running Man that the next picture Arnold did – Raw Deal – the scriptwriter did not do this with Arnold. I remember one review said: “Something strange is going on with Arnold Schwarzenegger – his english was getting better and better over the past two pictures, and now it’s worse!”
Anyway, I suggested I do this with Jean-Claude and he said: “No, I did the lines with my wife last night. It’s perfect. It’s all fine.”
So I never got him to do it with me, but we got on set and he would stumble over lines! One particular line I remember was “See you later.”
So he’s acting and he says “I’ll see you later” and I say, “Cut! That’s fine” and he says, “No, Steven – can we do it again? I did not say ‘later’, I said ‘ladder’!”
I told him he hadn’t, but he was convinced he had and didn’t want to be embarrassed by accidentally saying ‘ladder’. So I play the tape back and he had said ‘later’, so he says, “My bad – let’s do it again!”
I say: “Go!”
He says: “I’ll see you ladder…”
So it was an on-going thing. Also, Jean-Claude has since confessed he was having substance abuse problems at the time. In fact, the insurance company for the film made us hire a wrangler, who was meant to keep Jean-Claude out of trouble, but it ended up going the other way around and Jean-Claude got the wrangler in trouble!
There were also many mornings where Jean-Claude would call in sick. Subsequently, he’s confessed he wasn’t sick, he was on his back after a wild night of partying. So there were a number of times when we were ready to film and there was no Jean-Claude and I had to make up stuff, literally on the spot, for the other characters to do, which tilted the entire balance of the movie away from him and on to the other numerous characters.
Capcom also wanted a PG-13 movie. Did you envision something more violent or did you shoot with that in mind? Was it a case of simply editing all the violence out in post?
Capcom was clear they wanted a PG-13 movie, which is why we raised the flag early on that Jean-Claude signaled an R-rated movie. They prevailed and we spent a quarter of our budget on Jean-Claude’s salary.
Although I’d built my reputation on R-rated movies, I started out in television writing and producing Knight Rider, which handles violence in a simple way, so I was pretty confident about directing a PG-13 movie and that’s what I did.
Unfortunately, the week the film went to the Motion Picture Association of America for its rating, and as you may know from the documentary film This Movie Is Not Yet Rated, the board could be made up of Catholic priests, retired librarians, school teachers and a girl scout leader – no one really knows who they are! Anyway, that week the film went to them, there was a school shooting in America. So with this in their minds and knowing the film was aimed at kids, my PG-13 cut went over their heads and they rated it R.
So now we had to re-cut the movie and they never gave us any specific notes, just “It’s too violent, it’s too bloody or it’s too scary”, so you’re working in the dark.
We cut away all the shots with blood, we cut any violent blows to the head or the neck, we turned it in again – they still rated it R!
So now we’re panicking because the movie’s coming out in a couple of weeks. So we’re re-cutting, taking out more of the fight scenes, people falling, people getting squashed, we turn it in again – they give us a PG rating.
And that was it, we didn’t have time to re-cut it, but now we had a real problem because a PG-rating is a kiss of death. So in an act of desperation before we lock the negative, I had Jean-Claude come back in and loop a line where Guile is swinging down through the air vent into Bison’s headquarters, he says: “I’m getting too old for this shit.”
And by saying that four-letter word, we got a PG-13 rating instead of a G. So we got the rating we wanted, but the film is much softer than we wanted it to be.
If you look at other PG-13 movies like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom or the recent G.I. Joe film, this film is pretty wussy and it’s much wussier than what we shot. It was just bad timing for us when we got it to the ratings board.
How do you feel about how the film was received 20 years on? By all accounts, Capcom loved it. Where do you feel it went right and/or went wrong?
I think what went right was that it was an entertaining picture for kids, because Capcom knew at this time they were aiming for pre-teens.
The film was always meant to be funny, I know people query whether it’s meant to be, but the comedy is deliberate. Estimation for our film has also increased since the ‘other’ Street Fighter film came out, which tried to be so serious, deep and meaningful.
So I think it hindsight it holds up pretty well, if you know it was meant to be like a G.I. Joe action film than a tournament fighting movie.