Samantha Fuller Speaks to the Life and Legacy of Her Father, Director Sam Fuller
A Fuller Life is a special tribute to maverick filmmaker Samuel Fuller, directed by his daughter Samantha. Fuller was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood. His raw and unbridled stories favored the underdog and dared to question and highlight the grim reality of war, racism and manipulation from experiences that he had lived first hand. Starting as a crime reporter, he enrolled himself in the infantry during World War II, exposed the horrors of concentration camps, and was awarded the Purple Heart for his bravery. His persona was bigger than life. He was known for smoking a large cigar and calling action by firing a Colt .45 into the air. From The Big Red One to Shock Corridor and White Dog, his indelible mark influenced countless directors. Scorsese once said of him, “If you don’t like the films of Samuel Fuller, then you just don’t like cinema. Or at least you don’t understand it.”
Focusing on the director’s character, the film is an artful mix of movie clips and never before seen footage from Fuller’s “shack,” while celebrities bring his memoirs to life against the backdrop of his retreat for creative inspiration.
CYNTHIA BIRET: Your father had an exceptional life; he never shied away from adventure and risk, physically and intellectually.
SAMANTHA FULLER: Absolutely true, and this is the reason that I chose not to go in depth into his film career, but to keep it very personal instead. There have been other films made about him, such as The Typewriter, The Rifle and The Movie Camera, with Tim Robbins, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and Martin Scorsese, where he also talks about himself; The Men Who Made The Movies, by Richard Schickel, focuses on my father’s film career and just brushes over the fact that he was a journalist and that he was in the infantry before working in Hollywood. What I find interesting about his life is how the early years of journalism and the years spent during the war formed the films that he made.
BIRET: How did you format the storyline?
FULLER: The concept was to honor my father Centennial Anniversary. My father was born on August 12th, 1912, that’s why I decided to create twelve chapters to represent the different chapters of his life. I started filming in 2011, and gave myself one year to get the film ready.
BIRET: Making a movie with people reading from his memoirs is not a small feat.
FULLER: Oh yes, and with talking heads! I made a film to honor him and followed his advice: “The audience can love it or hate it, but never bore them.”
BIRET: How did you decide which actor to cast for this film?
FULLER: I wanted to reach out to people who could relate to different sections of his life, and since most of the people my father worked with are no longer around, like Lee Marvin for example, I had to work with those who are still alive.
BIRET: What was the determining factor in casting James Franco?
FULLER: Although Franco had never met my father, I felt it was important to have a little bit of a younger actor involved in the film to speak to a younger generation, to help them discover Sam Fuller through him. He ended up working out very well because he’s a renaissance man like my father and approaches many different fields fearlessly. One of his first acting roles was playing James Dean, and my father had given James Dean his first big-screen role in Fixed Bayonets.
BIRET: Did you choose different sections in relation to the other actor’s lives?
FULLER: Every reader was chosen so that they could relate to the passage they’re reading about my father’s life. For instance for the German section, I chose Wim Wenders to read about my father’s encounter with Marlena Dietrich. I ended up directing 15 readers, because at one point we had several readers sharing “The Big Red One” chapter.
BIRET: Bill Duke was interpreting a scene while the majority of actors were reading as themselves. Was there a determining factor in choosing which actors would read as your father?
FULLER: Bill Duke was the first guest in the film. They made a film together called Street of No Return, and Bill knew my father very well; he also could imitate him quite well actually! I asked him to read with my dad’s spirit, and he did it so powerfully that I thought that if every reader gave his version of my father, the film was going to turn into an SNL skit. The other one actually who read like him was Bobby Carradine.
BIRET: So did Win Wenders
FULLER: Yeah, but he didn’t growl as much, and he still kept his tone. For these actors, I wanted people to just imagine that it was my father speaking, with the right intonations; my dad was a fun guy to imitate, by the way.
BIRET: What pulled me into the film is the story of a man who had a lot of integrity and had strong values. These qualities are remarkable for anyone working the film industry, then and now.
FULLER: Absolutely! He was a real Mensch.
BIRET: And he was able to make deals on a handshake.
FULLER: Yes, a handshake and a firm look in the eyes! He had just come back from the war after giving close to four years of his life on the front line, and he was a man who called for respect. The morality he radiated was contagious and I think that it does sip on to you and you want to be respectful to that kind of man you know. He did actually get screwed over down the line in the industry, and didn’t get always the fairest deal but honestly that never affected him morally, because bottom line, he wanted to make a good movie. Sam always came under budget and under time. How efficient is that?
BIRET: Did he talk about writing his memoirs while you were growing up? At what point did he start taking notes?
FULLER: A Fuller Life is based on his autobiography, A Third face. It all started when the publisher, Knopf, contacted my parents because they were working on a biography on Barbara Stanwyck and wanted his input, but he had already had a stroke. This was in 1995, and they asked if Sam had ever thought about writing his memoir. It then dawned on my father that it would be interesting to start writing them down not only because it’s a great story but it was also a healing process for him to recall his early days, because memory gets damaged with stroke. Even though my father has lost his speech, he hadn’t lost his sense of storytelling, and my mother helped him writing it down.
BIRET: Were you involved in this process?
FULLER: They worked on it together for about two years, and at the time he passed away they were about 2,000 pages. My mom then hired a good friend, Jerry Rudes, to distill the essence to 600 pages. What’s funny is when they were working through this condensation process; I would hear them read out loud the passages that they were working on because they wanted to make sure they kept my father’s tone. Subconsciously this idea was butting in my mind that this would be such a great book to be heard because he had such a great voice, but I was a young mother at the time and I kept that idea tucked away for many years. That’s why I think everything came together so seamlessly because it had been brewing for so long.
BIRET: Did your father try to shield you from Hollywood?
FULLER: My father did not shield me from anything actually. Since he had me so much later in life, his workflow had really slowed down by the time I was born, which could have not been better timing because that allowed us for a lot of private time together and in fact one of the reasons I was shying away from the film business is because I felt some form of rivalry against it, because it took my father away from me. He was such a great father, and I just got greedy and wanted him full time, we had a very particular kind of relationship, and of course it made it much harder after he’s gone. I first chose to be a glass artist so I could be flexible with my time in order to raise my daughter, but I missed being on the set, and then I realized that it was really part of my foundation to be around people in the film business and how much I missed it actually.
BIRET: You filmed inside the shack where your father did much of his writing. Was it his personal retreat?
FULLER: The shack was born the same year as me because you need to be isolated in order to keep your focus when you’re writing, and with a baby in the house he thought it would be a good idea to convert his garage into an office space. It was his man cave, and he put all of his research, movie props, and war memorabilia in one space. He would go in there and it was hard to get up to get him out for food sometimes you know, so as a little girl I would often wander into the shack and curl up with a blanket at his feet and keep him company and rock myself to sleep with a sound of a keys of a typewriter.
BIRET: In the shack you also found new footage that you incorporated into the film.
FULLER: My father enlisted into the Army because he was a patriot. Of course, he was a Jew who wanted to conquer Hitler, but the main reason that he spoke about was that World War II was the biggest crime of the century, and he wanted to witness it first hand and write about it. So he went, and along the way he wrote to his mother that she should send him a camera. This was important to him because as a reporter he had infiltrated himself into a KKK meeting and had witnessed a woman nursing her baby under the white robe, and when he wrote about it, his editor at the time would not publish be article because he said it was too far-fetched and no one would believe the story; and he told my dad why didn’t you take a picture? My father’s response was that he was a reporter, not a photographer, but he remembered that episode when he went to war, and that’s why he got his camera. There were other directors in the front lines, but they were war correspondents: George Stevens, John Ford. But my father was an actual infantryman fighting on the front lines, not a war correspondent. While he was in combat there is no way he’s going to be filming because he shooting a gun, not his camera, so most of the footage that he brought back was really unique because it’s looking at soldiers at rest and how they were interacting with locals in villages. There are over a hundred reels of film showing people in Belgium, Germany and Czechoslovakia, but at the time, it wasn’t that interesting to show that type of film, except for the liberation of Falkenau, a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. People mostly knew about Auschwitz, Dachau, and the bigger camps, but they did not realize that they were hundreds of other camps all across Europe. Years later, he went back with director Emil Weiss, and they made a documentary together called Falkenau, the Impossible, with scenes of my father sitting in a chair smoking his cigar while doing a live commentary of his films of the camp. And little did I know that he had left behind at home all the other footage he had shot because there was no combat and no camps.
BIRET: How did you end up finding these rolls of films?
FULLER: When we started shooting with Bill Duke, he was sitting at my father’s desk and they were boxes and files that had been shoved underneath the desk, and that’s where I wanted to put my sound person with a boom. When we pulled everything out, I discovered a box filled with reels of film. These are very small reels, they only last three minutes each, but the box was full of them, and when I started opening them and held them up to the light I saw that this was new war footage that I had not seen before, and these rusty cans from World War II had been sitting in a room that’s not climate control and some of the film had turned to vinegar, so I immediately took them down to the academy for proper storage. When I started looking through them on a light box, it was very touching to see all these women and children on film and it felt like I could interpret it, like my father saying, “If you’re going to make a shame about me, make sure that you include everything”.
BIRET: It would have been amazing to have a “behind-the-scenes” of your documentary
FULLER: Honestly every time we had a reader come, we would do a couple takes and do the text but most of the time spent would be having drinks and talking about that time, and that would have been a great behind the scenes
BIRET: I see your father as a warrior from day one, from his crime reporting to his time as a soldier and then as a director, he fought physically and intellectually for what he believed.
FULLER: (Laughing) You know life is a battlefield…
BIRET: In his cameo appearance in Pierrot Le Fou, by Jean Luc Godard, he actually compares movies to a battlefield, with “action, violence, death, in one word, emotions.” Is there a facet of your father’s personality that you would like people to discover?
FULLER: My father was a very transparent man and he didn’t play games; pretty much what-you-see-is-what-you-get, and people misinterpreted him as a tough guy because he was so straightforward that they considered that could be a form of toughness; but actually he had the biggest heart of gold and was the kindest and most sentimental person, and he would be the first to shed a tear when we were reading a book. There is a lot of depth in that directness.
BIRET: And a lot of risk as well, but your father was not afraid of controversy. White Dog was a very dark film dealing with racism. Is that something your father discussed with you growing up?
FULLER: Let me tell you, it is an obvious label of course, it’s about the race, and it was based on Roman Gary’s novel and my father had witnessed a lot of racism himself. Don’t forget, he was a Jewish immigrant as a boy in New York during the Great Depression and you know he was raised in Chinatown, and he was raised with Asians who are also discriminated against, so he knew about racism, and of course that affected him; but I think the real traction with White Dog for him was about the human condition of brainwashing because he had been brainwashed as a soldier going into the war to kill another man, and how do you come back from that? This dog was taught how to hate black people as a puppy, so how do you reverse that psychology?
I think I can tie that into conditioning of a soldier going to the front and being trained to kill the enemy. So you go to kill the enemy and then when the war is over; same for this dog when he is found by white women saying: it’s okay now, you can stop hating; but can he really stop hating after all, because it’s been implemented in his brain.
BIRET: It becomes part of a personality, that’s what is scary about it.
FULLER: It goes back to the philosophical point you know, Tabula Rasa: Are we all born the same or are we born with his pre-existing concept? Are we all born equal, and then how do these ideas become implemented, and is there a way to reverse it?
BIRET: Do you feel it’s important to identify with the movies a director is making, and how did this affect your father?
FULLER: He is all the characters in the films that he made, even though it’s not directly him. It’s important to actually to let yourself be so vulnerable because that makes a big difference. In White Dog I would say he is the dog, but he is also the dog trainer. He’s a dog because he wasn’t racist but he was trying to kill during the war; he was brainwashed like the dog, and he was brainwashed like the character in Shock Corridor, which is about a journalist who wants to uncover a murder and enlists himself as a mental patient in an institution; of course he uncovers a letter related to the crime, gets his story, and almost wins the Pulitzer Prize; but he never comes out of the mental institution.
BIRET: When I first met you, you mentioned that you had a second film about Sam Fuller in the plans.
FULLER: I have hundreds of letters that he wrote to his mother, his brother and his literary agent during the war with cartoons and illustrations. That led to this follow up idea of pretty much using the same format as A Fuller Life by focusing on him as a warrior and having present-day veterans reading his World War II letters, with part of the remaining war footage I found under his desk.
BIRET: Talk to me about the other films you are working on right now.
FULLER: I just came back from traveling around the world with A Fuller Life after it opened in Venice, and I have a next-door neighbor, a very interesting woman who had recently become a widow in her 90s. She was married for 60 years to the same man and was terribly heartbroken after her spouse had passed away, and she’s a neighbor that I hadn’t been very close to but I went over and paid her a visit. Her name is Harumi Taniguchi, and I was just very inspired by her story. It led me to pull out a camera and start making a film out of her life, because a good story is a good story and you don’t have to be famous to have a movie made about you. It’s about the way you tell the story.
BIRET: You are keeping your eyes open to what’s going on around you regardless of race, upbringing, or background, very much like your father did.
FULLER: Yes, and it worked out so instinctively in that sense because not only does it tell an exciting story, but also the most heartwarming part about it, is that Harumi was a total recluse and was heartbroken and depressed and just couldn’t wait to die so she could see her husband again. She was so down when I met her and this film brought her to life and she wound up spending the past last few years of her life relishing and all the art she had produced and meeting people, basically coming out of her shell. I took her to the Pacific Design Center and I had people coming to her house and introduced her to Agnes Varda, and it was so fun to kind of bring her out of her comfort zone and to see her revival like that last blossom you know before the flower completely dies, that last beautiful moment.
From Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor
BIRET: That’s a full cycle. What is the title and at what stage are you at right now?
FULLER: The working title is “Harumi’s Hidden World,” and I’m in post-production right now while preparing a crowd funding campaign for the summer. I applied for a couple grants. It’s a low budget, around $50,000, and I can handle all the post. It needs a lot of sound design because we filmed it sporadically over the course of a few years. It was during the shoot that she crashed her Camaro; she was driving a 1970s muscle car, believe it or not, which I was urging her to stop driving, but she’s so stubborn and such an independent woman that she took it anyway. When she was at the hospital they found out that she was actually suffering from a terminal cancer. All that happened during the shoot, so progressively as we see her in her final bloom we also see her fading away, and it’s a beautiful experience to live through that with somebody. I was with her until her last breath. It’s about Harumi, but as it turns out it’s also as much about me in that sense of how her life affected me directly.
BIRET: What would you like to see in the landscape of cinema?
FULLER: No matter what platform you choose to do it on it will always be the essence of a story. I mean, you could be writing about 10 movies a day now.
BIRET: But many films stay in a comfortable zone
FULLER: This Japanese film that you are going to see, the film about Hurami, is structured in a very odd way, so I don’t know how it’s going to fly with an audience because they’re not just in the habit of seeing things presented to them this way.
Then I am going to start this other documentary called Organized Insanity; it’s already in the ground-works, and I also have a feature film I’ve been plotting here to be done in Austria. It’s a piece about the rise of Hitler and focuses on nationalism. I’m eager to get this movie out just for the feedback, because it’s a film where you have compassion for everybody, even for the villains. It’s called Hate Never Sleeps, and it’s named after a play that my mother wrote called The Crack. So I have two titles for it right now: The Crack slash Hate Never Sleeps.
BIRET: How far along are you with this film?
FULLER: We’re casting it right now. It’s about working everyone logistics in, and we’re just waiting for the numbers to align and I’m on pins and needles waiting. We want to shoot it in 2019 so I’m very excited it will be my first feature and I’m working with a good script. It’s already a very emotional experience to create a film, but it has even more depth when it’s exactly related to you. Hate Never Sleeps is very close to me because both my parents were very strongly affected by World War II and when Hitler came into power it really stuck with them and formed who they were, from what they experienced during that kind of history.
BIRET: Are you keeping up the tradition of cigar smoking?
FULLER: Yes! I was the biggest cigar box collector that I know of. You know, the little wrapper that you put around the cigars, I had them on every finger! I mean, Montecristo, Romeo and Juliet, Camacho, you name it. I have a big love for cigars too, though sadly I don’t smoke them, even after my father tried to get me to smoke one! I love the boxes, of course, and I decorate the boxes with all kind of things and stickers to bring them back to life. I still light-up just to it burn on its own because it brings back my childhood memories.
A Fuller Life is available at chrisamfilms.com