What’s the old expression — fanboys never forget? Marvel Studios might like audiences to think their shiny new “Captain America: The First Avenger” film hitting theaters this Friday marks the big-screen, feature-film debut of the beloved comic book character (a 15-chapter serial was produced in 1944), but back in the late ’80s, director Albert Pyun crafted his own take with Matt Salinger starring as the iconic hero, dealing with his eternal (and apparently, internal) struggle against the evils of the world. To say it wasn’t well-received would be an understatement. After sitting on a shelf, the project got the direct-to-video treatment in the early ’90s and has been a source of much ridicule ever since.
However, at this summer’s 15th installment of Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, Pyun is bringing a newly restored director’s cut (and a bonus feature film!) to audiences in the hopes of proving once and for all that he had something worthwhile to say about superheroes. Comic Book Resources spoke with Pyun about working with what he still believes was a strong “Captain America” screenplay, and why his film was marred by budget woes and studio meddling.
CBR News: How did you come to direct a Captain America feature film back in 1989?
Albert Pyun: I can’t remember how exactly I came to be attached, but it must have revolved around my ability to stretch meager funding. I was known at Cannon Films for being a fast and efficient filmmaker with a bit of artistic flair. I think Cannon’s option was about to run out, so they had to get it into production before they lost the rights entirely. I was trying to get two other projects made at that time: 1) A remake of “Johnny Guitar” with John Travolta, and 2) The precursor to “Nemesis” called “Alex Rain.” Kelly Lynch was eyed for the starring role, which later became “Nemesis” with Megan Ward as Alex, and then still later it became “Nemesis” with Olivier Gruner as Alex. So I asked [producer] Menahem [Golan] to keep “Captain America” and bring it to his new start-up, 21st Century Films. Then, once I read Steve Tolkien’s script, I made a proposal on getting it made to Menahem. He greenlit it quickly.
Were you especially well-versed on the character or his comic book?
I really liked Stephen Tolkien’s screenplay. That was a big key, as I grew up a fan of the comic book. I thought the screenplay got to the essence of what I liked about Captain America as a child — a story about a regular guy in a sense, Steve Rogers.
It’s been said that your shooting budget was drastically slashed during the course of the production. What sorts of challenges did you face in trying to complete the picture, and how did you manage to do it?
Just the normal challenges of funding not appearing while in production. I gave away a film to 21st Century called “Deceit” so they could raise funds! There was a day when we ran out of film and couldn’t buy any more! That’s pretty dire.
Was Stephen Tolkien’s original script very different from what ended up being shot?
Well, we were already on location when the bottom fell out and had little choice by that point. Plus, we were told the funding was coming so we pressed ahead. The action was severely cut down or deleted entirely.
Captain America was slated to hit theatres in 1990, but ended up getting direct-to-video treatment instead in 1992. Was it frustrating for you to see the movie swept under the rug, or did you see it coming?
No. I knew what we were up against. I was only disappointed that the released version tried to make the material into a “super hero” movie, which ran counter to what the film was about. We almost put “Imagine” by John Lennon in the film. We actually screened my cut for the representatives of the Lennon estate; they agreed to let us use it, but the licensing was too expensive.
I was already off making another film, so it never entered my consciousness. I was not aware of it and felt nothing about it, except I knew I had my own copy of the film. I also never had the need to be theatrical. I think my main regret is that it wasn’t my version of the film that was released.
The film has become rather infamous for its unintentionally funny and bizarre twists, including Captain America faking an upset stomach to steal cars from friends at two different points in the movie, and Red Skull apparently being responsible for all the evils in the world, including the deaths of Martin Luther King and JFK. Do you shake your head at how the film ultimately turned out, or feel embarrassed over certain scenes?
Only of the released cut.
What prompted you to want to revisit this film and create a new “Director’s Cut” to screen at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival?
It seemed there might be interest after 22 years for people to see my cut and see the movie I made.
We’ve heard that the additional footage will be more character-based. How so?
It’s mainly scenes that deal with Steve Roger’s confusion about his place in the modern world and whether the concept of America — right or wrong — was proper in the world today. Scenes that show his idea of heroism is sort of outdated. That the real heroes were individuals like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. He struggles with the idea that he’s just a symbol with no real weight. He understands that the idea of superheroes is outdated, and the whole rah-rah aspect to heroism is misguided. He better understands the values that make one American, and it’s not defeating supervillains or ridiculous evil plots.
What I really liked about Stephen’s screenplay was how it showed false heroism for what it is…a commercial brand of propaganda. That battling supervillains is about as stupid and shallow a purpose as there is. Real heroes combat prejudice and other conditions which impose misery on humankind, like pollution, oil, commercialism. That’s why in the film, the Red Skull goes after the real heroes — Kennedy, King, etc. Great men. Real heroes.
This new cut of the film was originally supposed to hit Blu-ray back in May. Why didn’t that come to pass?
It took longer to try to reconstruct the cut. The 35mm footage was brittle and crumbling. Salvaging the soundtrack for conversion to 5.1 sound also took longer. Technical issues galore.
How can people purchase a copy of this new cut?
We’ve been shipping both DVD and Blu-ray the past three weeks. So it’s available at firstname.lastname@example.org
You’ve called your latest picture, “Tales of an Ancient Empire” starring Kevin Sorbo, your greatest work yet. What would you say you’ve learned since your experience on “Captain America”?
Well, I learned to make my movie and have control over the final cut! “Tales” is as perfect a Pyun film as I could make. Lots of fun, and not the run-of-the-mill heroic fantasy. It expands boundaries, I think.
Do you plan on seeing the new “Captain America: The First Avenger” film, and are you prepared for audiences to make comparisons between the two?
I hope they do compare them! Yes, bring on the comparisons!
For your chance to chat with Albert Pyun, check out Fantasia’s screening of the original “Captain America” along with “Tales of an Ancient Empire” on August 6. For more details on the festival, visit www.festivalfantasia.com.