Max Interview: Sheldon Lettich on Tom Sawyer, Rin Tin Tin, Van Damme and Stallone

This weekend’s family movie Max stars Josh Wiggins as the brother of a Marine who adopts the military dog his late brother commanded. Boaz Yakin directed Max and cowrote the film with Sheldon Lettich. If the writer’s name sounds familiar, you probably saw it blasted up on screen during the opening of many Jean-Claude Van Damme movies in the ‘80s and ‘90s like I did.

Lettich wrote Bloodsport, Lionheart andDouble Impact, and directed the latter two. He also wrote the screenplay to Rambo III and kept up with Van Damme in Legionnaire, The Order and The Hard Corps. So interviewing Lettich for Max was a chance for me to ask all my Van Damme questions. Max is in theaters now.

MAX-FP-008Nerd Report: Boaz told us Max started off as a boy and his dog adventure film, and it was your idea to add the military angle.

Sheldon Lettich: Well, it just started as some kind of a hero dog idea. It was a notion really to do a hero dog movie. We didn’t have a story for it actually until I did some research and then found out about the dogs being allowed to go with the families of the deceased dog handlers.

Nerd Report: So that’s somewhat common that the families are able to adopt the dogs?

Sheldon Lettich: This is something new that they’ve just instituted over the last few years. During the Vietnam War, the dogs were not allowed to come home at all. They actually left them in Vietnam and euthanized a lot of them because they were afraid that they were going to bring some kind of an exotic disease back or something.

Nerd Report: That’s terrible.

MAX-FP-014Sheldon Lettich: I started doing some research about dogs because I got a couple of dogs about 15 years ago. I went to the pound to replace a dog that had passed away. My wife and I were looking for a German Shepard or German Shepard mix. There were four puppies that looked kind of like German Shepards and the sign on the cage even said that they were German Shepard puppies. So we got two of them and within a couple months we started realizing they don’t quite look like German Shepards, do they? Once they started growing up. I saw an article in the L.A. Times about bomb sniffing dogs at the airport and there was a dog that looked exactly like my dogs. The captain said it was a Belgian Malinois. I’d never heard of this breed before. As part of this research, I saw that they had changed their policy and were bringing the dogs back to the U.S. Once they were “retired” dogs, they would allow people to adopt them, the former handlers or just people who wanted to adopt a former military dog. Then they started allowing families of dog handlers who’d died in combat to adopt those dogs. That struck me as a really good idea for the basis of a dog movie.

Nerd Report: Did the military also inform the mystery that Max has to solve?

Sheldon Lettich: Well, that was from other articles I read. I saw there were a few instances, and some people in the military are trying to say it’s impossible for that to happen, but it did happen. There were a couple of marines that were smuggling weapons from Afghanistan to Camp Lejeune. They’re in jail now. That’s how I knew about it. I read about it online. There was a Navy SEAL busted doing the same thing. They would somehow find a way to get the weapons shipped back there. In every case I read about, they were selling them to Mexican drug cartels. It seemed to me that was a really good, organic idea for our bad guys.

Nerd Report: It shows hints of corruption. Was it important to challenge the authority of military, and local police as well?

Sheldon Lettich: To show that they’re not perfect, they’re not all boy scouts. I was in the Marine Corps for three and a half years. There’s bad apples there. After I came back from Vietnam, I was still in the Marine Corps for another couple of years. There were ways to purchase military weapons on the base from unscrupulous Marines. I don’t know how they got their hands on the stuff. Of course we all had access to it. You had to sign it in, sign it out and they kept a pretty close eye on this stuff but even so, people were able to steal weapons and sell them. This was happening back then. The fact that there’s some guys doing pretty long prison terms for doing exactly the same thing in this era shows that that hasn’t stopped. We wanted to present a balanced picture. I’ve got real warm feelings about the Marines. When they gave me permission to go down to the canine unit, one thing I told them was, “Look, I was in the Marine Corps for a number of years. I’m not going to say anything bad about the Marine Corps.” And we don’t, but we’ve got our bad guy who is basically one of those bad apples. He’s somebody that falls in the Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Whitman category of people that were in the Marine Corps and took a wrong turn afterwards.

Nerd Report: I called it a canine American Sniper. Do you like that comparison?

MAX-11523rSheldon Lettich: Actually, when the ads first came out for it, some blogger on the internet called it American Sniffer which I thought was kind of cute but that’s not really the movie. I would love to see a movie that really is American Sniper with a dog. I’d love to see an action movie that takes place in Afghanistan and pretty much follows a dog and his handler in Afghanistan. I believe Jerry Bruckheimer has been developing something like that. One of the studios we took the script to, this was a spec script Boaz and I wrote, one of the studios, I guess it was Disney, had a deal with Bruckheimer and they said, “We’re not interested because Jerry Bruckheimer’s been developing a dog in Afghanistan story.” So I’d love to see that but that’s not this movie. This movie really is a boy and his dog. It really is Tom Sawyer and Rin Tin Tin. It’s a family movie.

Nerd Report: Were the dogs able to perform everything you described in the script?

Sheldon Lettich: We had the guy who’s probably the best animal trainer in the business right now, Mark Forbes. He just did a great job with those dogs. Yeah, there was nothing that we had in the script that was not accomplished on screen. It’s all pretty much there.

Nerd Report: I’m excited to go down memory lane a little bit with you. After you did Double Impact with Van Damme, were you pleased and gratified that he made a few more movies where he played twins or double characters?

Sheldon Lettich: I guess I could use the adjective pleased and gratified. He does the splits and he plays twins. And by the way, just as a bit of trivia, Boaz actually did a dialogue polish on Double Impact. Boaz and I have known each other for about 25 years now. We were both working for Sylvester Stallone. I was working on Rambo III and on a French Foreign Legion movie and Boaz was writing this tough priest movie for Sly. It was going to be a tough priest on the lower east side teaching kids how to box. So I actually got him on to do a dialogue polish and he and his brother came to Hong Kong for a month. Boaz came up with a few of the really classic lines in Double Impact. Boaz also did a rewrite on another Van Damme movie called Legionnaire.

Nerd Report: Did you have any idea you were starting a trend for Van Damme?

Sheldon Lettich: No, I was hoping after the movie became a success that we would do a sequel to it but there were some obstacles to that every step of the way. I didn’t think I was starting any kind of trend with that. I just thought it was a great idea to play these two very opposite brothers.

Nerd Report: Rambo III, a movie I like, is kind of a conundrum now. It’s dedicated to the people of Afghanistan. Did you have an “oh no” moment with that?

Sheldon Lettich: No, not all because the chieftain that Rambo hooks up with in the movie, and I did my research at the time, the guy he hooks up with is named Masoud. Masoud was the leader of the Northern Alliance while the Taliban controlled much of Afghanistan after the Russians departed. The Northern Alliance was the group that was still allied with the U.s. and Masoud is the guy who was assassinated by Bin Laden’s agents, I believe it was two or three days before 9/11. So that’s the guy Rambo hooks up with. He didn’t hook up with Osama Bin Laden or any of those guys. So I’ve never had any misgivings about that. He basically hooked up with the guys wearing the white hats in Afghanistan.

Nerd Report: Did you intentionally name him after the real Masoud?

Sheldon Lettich: Yes. Masoud was around at the time and I read about him. I did a lot of research at the time. I hadn’t heard about Bin Laden at that time but there were others that were working with the CIA to fight the Soviets. I was able to pick and choose and Masoud seemed like the guy that was going to stay loyal to the Americans. That was a very conscious choice to name him Masoud.

Nerd Report: Rambo was a jungle warrior. Was it a challenge to adapt him to the desert?

Sheldon Lettich: No, not at all because special forces, the military is trained to do all kinds of missions, special forces especially. Rambo is supposed to be a former Green Beret. When you go through this training, you’ve got various phases of training. There’s jungle training, there’s desert training, there’s mountain training. There’s cold weather training so they’re trained for a lot of different contingencies. Just because Rambo was sent to fight in the jungle in Vietnam doesn’t mean that he can’t handle dry, mountainous desert terrain.

Nerd Report: I think all Stallone movies are about the sensitivity of masculininty. That’s why I think they’ve lasted more than just basic action movies.

Sheldon Lettich: Van Damme and I were really big fans of Stallone and we still are because of his fearlessness as far as having his characters be vulnerable. His characters get their asses kicked. They come back and they rally at the end and they get retribution, but Rocky gets his ass kicked, Rambo gets his ass kicked, tortured, humiliated. We like that. In Double Impact, we very specifically have Bolo beating the sh*t out of Chad early on in a really humiliating way. That’s not the kind of thing that Arnold was doing at the time. You’ve never seen Steven Seagal be defeated and humiliated like that but Sly reveled in it. He welcomed it and so did Van Damme. That makes your character stronger because he’s vulnerable. You know he’s not Superman and then when he comes back at the end and gets revenge for that, the audience goes bonkers.

Nerd Report: Do you have anything to do with the Bloodsport remake?

Sheldon Lettich: I was actually developing the Bloodsport reboot a few years ago. In fact, the person who’s been developing that, this Italian guy named Alberto Lenzi, bought the rights to the name. That was one of the poor business choices I made when I was younger. I didn’t hold onto any kind of ownership of that title. It ended up being sold to Alan Mehrez. He did a series of Bloodsport sequels with Daniel Bernhardt. Then he sold the rights to this guy Alberto Lenzi. Alberto was going to do a whole reboot of Bloodsport. He hired me to write the script and said he didn’t want to make the movie unless it could go theatrical. I told him, “Well, the only way it’s going to go theatrical is if you have Van Damme in it.” I didn’t think Van Damme wanted to do a sequel to Bloodsport and told him what I was doing. He said, “Hell yes, I’d love to be in a reboot of Bloodsport.” So I hooked him up with Alberto and for a while, things were moving along smoothly. Then various things happened to derail that project. I was going to direct it, Jean-Claude was going to star in it. It really was going to be a genuine sequel because it was going to be the same character but we were going to move the story about 20 years after the first one. Didn’t happen and then Alberto hooked up with Ed Pressman and they, I guess, developed a completely different storyline that took place in Brazil. They got Robert Mark Kamen who wrote the Taken movies.

Nerd Report: And it’s not even going to be Frank Dux.

Sheldon Lettich: Correct, they basically just reconceptualized everything. For a while it looked like that was happening. They had a couple of directors that were listed on IMDB but right now it seems to be kind of dead in the water.

Nerd Report: I kept up with the later Van Damme movies, some of which you did. I’m sure everyone would love to play in big theaters, but is it nice that you can make a movie straight to DVD and it’s still a Van Damme movie?

Sheldon Lettich: He’s been getting away from what used to be your standard Van Damme movie. He’s been trying to do stuff that’s darker and more emotional for him to explore. He was just at my house, he’s been by here a few times, because he’s back here in L.A. now. The one thing I told him that I felt that the current movies were missing is that they’re not fun. A movie like Double Impact is fun. You can watch Double Impact over and over again. You’re going to have a good time. You can watch Universal Soldier over and over again. These movies have got their dark moments, but even when things are not going well for the Van Damme character, you’re still having fun with those movies. That’s one thing that I felt has been lacking recently. I told him I think he needs to get that back.

Nerd Report: Isn’t that more of a reflection on where the genre went. Everyone decided they had to take it really seriously, and forgot that being serious and dramatic doesn’t mean you can’t have fun.

Sheldon Lettich: Right, doesn’t mean the character can’t have a single smile on his face the entire movie. I did one with him in 2000 called The Order which we shot in Israel and Bulgaria. We had all kinds of fun things happening in that movie. It’s not a perfect movie by any means and it was made for the same folks that made The Expendables movies, Avi Lerner and his whole group there. But we did this whole thing where Jean-Claude’s being chased by the police in Israel. I don’t know how I did this, Fred, but I got him to disguise himself as a Hassidic Jew in Jerusalem. We’ve got this crazy chase through Jerusalem where he’s being chased by the Israeli police. He’s in the Jewish quarter, then he’s in the Arab corner. The Arabs are after him and then the cops catch up to him. It was really a Keystone Cops kind of a chase. It’s really a blast, but he doesn’t do stuff like that, not lately anyways. Although I must say, the opening of JCVD, that long action scene in JCVD, that was fun. That was one of the best things he’s done in a long, long time.

Nerd Report: I think that’s a macro problem. It’s nothing to be ashamed of to have fun in an action movie. I think the Bourne movies had a lot to do with that. Now everything has to be serious and dramatic with internal conflict. 

Sheldon Lettich: Those Bourne movies, I think they’re fun to watch. I like the Mission: Impossible movies. There’s an example with a big action movie, lots of action. Bad things happen. It’s not what I would call lighthearted but it’s fun. That last Mission: Impossible was a blast and because of that, you can watch it over and over again.