Samantha Fuller | Filmmaker | A Fuller Life (2014)

May 15th, 2015
Author: Meredith Taylor

A FULLER LIFE, is Samantha Fuller’s tribute to her father, the iconoclastic film director Sam Fuller (1912-1997. Matthew Turner met her to discuss her debut film, which she also wrote and produced.

Samantha Fuller: Well it’s a very personal project. My father had me at the age of sixty three and I’m his first born child, and he always led me on to believe he’d live until he was a hundred and we’d have a big party for his centennial. Well he died at the age of eighty five and in 2012, which was the year he was born in 1912, it was the centennial and I thought, ‘Oh this is the year we’d be having the big party he was talking about and I’m going to have one. Well I’m not just going to have friends over for a drink, I’m not going to do a YouTube video. I want to do something really special.’ So, somehow I thought, ‘Oh, I have this wonderful autobiography he left us with’ and I left his beautiful office intact since the day he had passed. Everything is left in place, which makes for a great set and so the idea came to kind of tell his life story along with friends and acquaintances who knew him and to tell his story within his office, since he wouldn’t be present. The closest thing I could get to having him present was to be having his words spoken and film it in his office, and so that’s really how the idea came about.

So it was always going to be that way? You never considered doing a documentary where you interview journalists and film historians as well?

Samantha Fuller: No, but what I did do with the actors is after they did their reading and we had our last take, I kept the camera rolling and asked them to tell me a personal story about my father, which will be on the special features for the DVD. So there’s like a half-hour bonus doc with stories about Sam. But what I did not want to do is do a ‘Sam Praise’ documentary, where everyone’s just talking about their wonderful experience with him and ‘Sam, Sam, Sam’. I really wanted to tell his story – my father was a great story-teller, but I thought this story just as great as the stories he would tell, and he was pretty modest to not want to tell his life himself. Actually, we had to push him to write this autobiography towards the end of his life – he was reluctant to do so because he was always interested in other people’s stories and in doing research, you know, he came from a journalistic background, so he really loved to, like explore other other stories. And his own didn’t really matter to him as much. But to me, it mattered a lot, because after what he had lived through and such a life-span and such a full life, in the sense that many people don’t have these three careers that he had – there’s the journalism and the military and in the film industry – he had such a full life and he had such a positive soul and positive energy, I really wanted to pass that message along. That was my mission, is to kind of share that essence with an audience and to leave it on a very positive tone.

How long was the process of sorting through the archive?

Samantha Fuller: That was really what my mother had warned me when I told her I was going to make this film and I was going to invite our friends to read and keep their narrative, just cut back to them a few times and use all the archive material. She said, ‘You know it’s a lot more complicated than you may imagine but I’m always up for a challenge and I thought, ‘Now’s the time to do it – if I don’t use his archive now, when would it be used?’ I mean, he left me with a tremendous room – what a legacy. It’s so rich, it’s so fun to explore. And I know it won’t be around forever. I’ve been selfishly hanging on to it. The Academy and universities have asked me to donate this material, which I’ll happily do eventually, but for now it’s been, in a way, a shrine for me, to go in that office with the cigar in the tray. It still smells like my father in there and you just feel his spirit alive, that I could not bear to imagine that room empty. Besides, it’s a wonderful hobby to just snoop around in there and pick up a book and, you know… But I never thought of doing this professionally and, yeah, scanning and fact checking to make sure everything’s right. Yeah, it is very time consuming. It took about a year to do and it’s so strange how things happen because during the shoot I was making room for the sound man under the desk and I came across a box that I’d never opened before and in that box were 103 reels of 16mm film that were unlabelled and I brought them down to the Academy and manually wound through them. And what I found on them was just mind blowing, it’s almost like my father said, ‘Oh, so you want to do this now? You’d better be using this material’, because it was the footage he shot during World War Two, it was him on location scouts for films in the ’50s and it was just the perfect, perfect material, fitting to this project. So things just happened like this, and again, it was amazing.

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Was there a point when you called your Mum and you were like, ‘Yeah, you were right, this is taking forever…’>

Samantha Fuller: Actually, I was like, ‘You were right, but I’m loving it and I want to do more’, and actually, at the end of the documentary my mother said, ‘So, when are you doing one about me? [laughs]

You said that the cast were all friends and acquaintances – obviously, they all had connections to Sam – so were they easy to approach then, in that case? Did everybody want to be involved?

Samantha Fuller: Absolutely. Everyone was easy to approach – I mean there were only two that I hadn’t been close to, really – it was the first and the last reader, which is James Franco and Willy Friedkin. But, you know, we have connections to them. They’re both very familiar with my father’s work and they were both very suited to read those certain parts. There was a very subtle casting to it – I can kind of go through a few highlights, which is so, you know, the early years of my father’s life where he’s ready to explore everything and he has such an appetite for life and art in all forms, and that reminded me a lot of James Franco and I knew that James Franco had been up to our house right at the beginning of his career. We had a friend staying with us who had auditioned him to be in a film and he came up to our home and he was very impressed by being at Sam Fuller’s home and he knew all about his life, and knew all about his films and I thought he’d also attract a younger audience appeal, because I do want this message to get through to the younger generation as well. So I thought he was very fitting for the opening part, a young Sam. And then skip through, I mean everyone has a reason. Jennifer Beals, even though she’s a woman, she played a journalist and my father played her editor in a French film called The Madonna and the Dragon, and so I thought she would be great to read the crime reporter dealing with her editor. And everybody could relate to the part that I gave them to read.

I spotted, obviously, the war connection stuff –

Samantha Fuller: With The Big Red One boys reading The Big Red One experience. Tim Roth, he reads D-Day, he departs from England, but also his grandfather was in World War Two, so he had that personal connection. Joe Dante, he’s Italian so he read the Sicilian part [laughs]. You know, it’s very subtle, but it’s there, they could relate to it. Monte Hellman, he had been to the camps, we went to the Czech Republic and visited the camps that my father had been to – Falkenau. We were together in Czech Republic and we visited the camps, so he could really relate to that segment. Obviously, Wim Wenders, for being German, I thought it would be fun for him to read the Marlene Dietrich part. You know, it’s a very subtle casting, nothing straightforward, but it’s there and it made for the readers to enjoy the thing they were reading a lot more.

So how did James Franco and Billy Friedkin get involved, then? Did you approach them?q

Samantha Fuller: Yeah, absolutely. It was Nicholas Ray’s widow, Susan Ray, who put me in touch with James Franco and Billy Friedkin, somehow we had his email. With my mother. And he had just finished writing his autobiography, which is fabulous. The Friedkin Connection is really great and so he could relate to us wanting to do a project based on my father’s autobiography. Plus, he’s such a diverse filmmaker, just like my father in that sense, that he has the best words, I think, to finish off, which is, ‘Let yourselves be heard’. And he has been such a mentor and such an inspiration to filmmakers, like my father, I thought that would be the perfect part for him to read.

Everybody I’ve spoken to that’s seen the film has said the same thing, ‘I must go out and find that book. So everybody’s trawling second-hand bookshops, as we speak.’

Samantha Fuller: Oh yeah, well it’s on Amazon. And I’m really hoping, it’s a project, I would like to do a mini-series, based on his life, because now cable and Netflix, they do these kind of one season series and my father had such an amazing historical background in his life, throughout the Great Depression, prohibition era and World War Two, France in the ’60s, I mean, it’s just a beautiful historical piece.

Has there been any thought to doing a biopic?

Samantha Fuller: No, but I would love to do that. I think it would be a little short to condense it all in a movie. That’s why I think a mini-series would be great, a mini-series would be fantastic. So, yeah, why not? It all starts – you get the man, the book, the doc and then you can do the mini-series. It’s leading there, you know?

Do you have a favourite of your father’s films?

Samantha Fuller: Well, you know, I always, when I get asked that question I can never answer because I feel it would be like discriminating towards a sibling, you know, I always feel like they’re his other children and I love some more on some days and some more on other days. But there are a certain ones that I religiously watch. Of course, The Big Red One is huge in our lives, because it’s directly his autobiography and it’s a way I get to see what he had lived through. I was a child when he made that film and I saw him re-live his war experience and it was very cathartic, but at the same time it was it was very traumatic to re-live through that and, you know, to be raised by a veteran who had to kill in order to live is just very difficult – I really have a strong sensibility towards that film. And by the way, we kept all his weapons – we have his helmet, his M1, and I have his binoculars, I have everything and I can feel it, I can put his pack on and hold his M1 and just to think what he had lived through, it was always mind boggling. And the music, I love everything about The Big Red One. We stayed very close friends with all the actors, we had Big Red One reunions, I mean it’s like that, it’s really close to my heart. But also White Dog is very close to my heart, because, once again, there too, I was part of that production as a child, it changed – it impacted our lives directly…

Are you in it?

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Samantha Fuller: Yes, I’m in it, I have the one line, actually, which is pretty strong. It’s, ‘Where’s my dog?’ The little girl comes knocking, looking for her dog with her grandpa, and this killer four-legged time bomb belongs to this sweet little girl. And I loved being on that set – we shot it right in our neighborhood and there were a lot of dogs, there were five dogs playing this one dog, so I got to play with all the dogs and I got to go to the shoot every day. It was a great experience, you know? It was really my first strong memories of being on a set – great, great, lovely cast and crew, it was just really a lot of fun and it – you know, the film was very misunderstood – it was not released at the time – you know the story – and it really affected our lives personally because it led us to move to France where my father went on to making several other films and we never came back to the States till the end of his life, so that film literally impacted our family life, in the sense that we just wound up in an apartment in Paris a year later. That was very unexpected. And he was planning to stay in Hollywood after the Big Red One and White Dog and keep making pictures – there’s plenty of scripts piled up in his office. I have a lifetime of work ahead of me, because I’m very blessed – both of my parents are fabulous writers and I have great material and a lot of it has not been made. So I’m on a mission to get them made now.

Oh, fantastic. That was one of the questions I was going to ask. It’s mentioned in the film that there are these piles of unproduced scripts [that he planned to make]. So are you going to make them yourself or are you going to sell them to other directors?

Samantha Fuller: I’m still – I haven’t read them all. You know, I’m not that possessive of them, I just think it’s such a shame to leave them on the shelf, because they’re all wonderful, and their historical contents, they’re all very educational. The dialogue’s tight, they’re very well written and they’re timeless. My father had this notion of making timeless films somehow, that even though they relate to a certain period of history, it’s something that you can make any time. So, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s a matter of just finding the right circuit to get them into.

Is there a particular that you’re thinking of, that you would start with?

Samantha Fuller: Yeah. I’m actually onto one right now, it’s called Snug Harbor. It was the first pick of the litter. For some reason, I was compelled to that one. I’m calling it – my pitch is that ‘It’s The Godfather of C.S.I.’ – it’s the beginning of the forensic in the homicide department in New York in the ’40s.

That would be great! Done as a period thriller, that would be brilliant…

Samantha Fuller: It is, it is. It’s kind of to revive the film noir spirit. It’s very layered. There’s a lot going on in the film and a huge, really fun cast in there and the dialogue is so clever and so tight, I wouldn’t change a period in there. And it’s ready to shoot – when he wrote several of his scripts, he already had the vision and I know it’s not done usually, but you have over-the-shoulder shots, pans, close ups, medium shots – he writes it all in there!

He writes shooting scripts!

Samantha Fuller: So it’s already directed, so I would love to get this one done. It’s really right, it’s really ready to go.

Well, I hope that works – I hope you pull that off.

Samantha Fuller: Yeah. Yeah. And there’s plenty more. There’s two – we have historical pieces, just coming out – he was fascinated by history, so he loved to set his stories in a Civil War context or any kind of historical context, so it’s semi-educational too.

Did you cut anything out that you were sorry to see go?

Samantha Fuller: Yeah, I did. There was a longer version. There are some stories that I had to leave out because then some readers would have been longer than others and I wanted to keep it kind of at an even pace. And it’s done in twelve segments – even though there’s fifteen actors, the four guys from The Big Red One they’re reading one segment and twelve is our lucky number. You know, he was born in 1912, on August 12th, twelve’s nice and even – I don’t know, it felt like I I didn’t want to mess with that number, so I stuck with that. But yeah, I could have made a three hour doc easily, easily. The reason I kept it at 80 minutes is I wanted it to be tight and I wanted to leave people wanting more, I wanted to leave them with wanting to go get that book and read – it’s a six hundred page book – and watch his movies.

Is there a particular thing you did cut out?

Samantha Fuller: Oh yeah. Yeah. It did hurt. One of my favorite parts is in the Bill Duke segment, actually, that ran a little long. He talked about how my father met Al Capone and Cicero and how they had a very close encounter. But I think I’ll put that on the special features on the DVD. And also when we finished reading each segment, we kept the camera rolling and I improvised, I asked every reader to give me a personal story about my father, so that will be another bonus feature on the DVD. and some of them are very funny stories. So it’s really fun, it’s about half an hour.

I really loved the cartoons – I didn’t know he was a cartoonist.

Samantha Fuller: The cartoons, I have a box full of cartoons and all the war correspondence, I mean I have a lifelong mission here to get this cleaned up right. You know, my father did not have a secretary. So the organization is done in his own way – he was organized, but I really want to get this all figured out and it’s really fascinating, I’m enjoying the process. I’m a glass artist by trade, I’ve been doing it for fifteen years, but you know, honestly it’s physically exhausting being a glass artist and I feel carpal tunnel setting in and I think it’s time to do more cerebral job anyways, as I’m getting older! And, you know, being on a set and making films just gives you so much energy and adrenaline, so I feel like it’s the right thing to do.

Do you have a favourite anecdote about your father that’s not in the film, as in you didn’t capture it on film, but it’s something you’ve heard through the years?

Samantha Fuller: An anecdote. There are so many. Which one would I choose? He just has a bunch of great stories, but let me tell you one thing about my dad is that he’d be smoking a big fat cigar right here, like everywhere we went. He managed to finagle a way to light that Stogie and work his way through it. And that was always a challenge. I was just in Finland in the Midnight Sun Festival and they said he was the only one allowed to smoke in the theatres, so I asked if it was a family credit we had. I said, ‘I guess I’ll light one too – this is fun!’ I don’t know how he got away with that. That was always fun. You’ll hear the anecdotes, a lot of the readers tell their personal anecdotes that are really fun.

I met your father in 1991, very briefly, when he came to Sussex University to introduce one of his films. But I also met Budd Boetticher in Madrid and he told me a Sam Fuller story. He said that the two of them – they were friends and they were more or less the same age and they were both making low-budget independent films and they weren’t kind of in the studio system. So they were friends but they were also sort of jealous of each other all the time and he said they used to call each other regularly and scream obscenities at each other. He used to call Sam up and shout, “Fuck The Big Red One!” and slam the phone down.

Samantha Fuller: Oh, that one? Him and John Ford would do that too! On D-Day! June 6th, phone rings. The Fuck The Big Red One Story, yeah. I mean, without the Big Red One, Omaha wouldn’t be what it was. I mean, they did it, they fought through it. I’m actually going to meet a young man in Paris next week, he started the Big Red One Museum. I mean, I was raised with The Big Red One, I feel like I was part of The Big Red One. I think it’s in my DNA, it’s passed on genetically.

The Big Red Two?

Samantha Fuller: Yeah, he had some other great war yarns that I don’t feel like I could relate to so much, because he said, ‘Unless you lived through it, to shoot a good war movie, you’d have to shoot the people in the audience’. That’s a little harsh. But I kind of fought my own war in a sense – when I was a kid, I was very ill and I had to fight my way for my life. And it was my own little war I had to go through, so I feel like I can relate in the sense that I’m a survivor too. Another war, an out of control war, another form of insanity.

What are the release plans so far?

Samantha Fuller: Nothing really, yet. That’s the hard reality of making a film, is the distribution part. The fun part is making the film, it gets pretty ugly when it comes down to the business side and everyone’s in to see what kind of money can be made off of this, and of course it’s not a big audience magnet. You know it’s hard even to get people to see regular feature films these days, unless it’s a blockbuster film. But I’ve been calling theatres up myself, actually [laughs] and I’m working deals out, theatre by theatre and it will have a small theatrical release and I know most of it will be seen on Video On Demand and on DVD. And that’s fine. You know, once again I mean this for personal reasons, but now that it’s out, I do want to show it, you know, I want the world to enjoy it and it’s really about his legacy and keeping his spirit alive. And keeping that message, that positive message that he had – he was such a mentor and such an inspiration to so many filmmakers and even though he’s not around now, I hope the younger generations will still look up and be able to homage him, as other filmmakers did.

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