Saturday, May 30, 2015

A Very Candid Conversation with James Bruner

In the 1980s, Chuck Norris did a series of films for Cannon Films, an Israeli film company founded  by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus. Some of the films include Missing in Action, Invasion USA, and The Delta Force. The low-budget films were filled with action and became a huge success at the box office. The screenwriter behind the films was James Bruner. James had worked with Norris previously in An Eye for An Eye. While Chuck moved on to TV with Walker, Texas Ranger, and Cannon Films went bankrupt in the late 80s, Bruner’s work with Chuck and Cannon Films has not been forgotten. His films would continue to be watched on video and television. Most recently, James Bruner appeared in two documentaries as himself where the filmmakers interviewed him about his work : Electric Boogaloo, a documentary about Cannon Films, and Chuck Norris vs. Communism, a documentary about the impact Chuck Norris films had in then-Communist Romania.

These days, James stays busy with his wife, Elizabeth Stevens. They have written and produced several features for the Hallmark Channel including Ice Dreams and Looking for Mr. Right. In addition, they have a blog and a Facebook page that is detailed about their current work.

In this candid conversation, James discusses the work he did with Cannon Films and Chuck Norris. He also talks about teaching film school in Jordan, his documentary appearances, and his work for the Hallmark Channel. I want to thank James for taking the time to do this interview.

Jeff Cramer: All right, James. What encouraged you to write movies in the first place?

James Bruner: I grew up in Wisconsin. I had polio when I was a kid, so I couldn’t really do any athletics or sports or anything, and my mom got me into reading. I read a lot. I really loved history and I constantly read. I always liked movies and TV, but back then there was no Internet. It was pre-DVD even, or pre-VHS. I went to school at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and I took some film courses, but it was really just watching old Ingmar Bergman movies like Wild Strawberries and Virgin Spring, and talking about them. We made movies on super 8, but I did that as a side thing. 

I wrote some articles for war-gaming magazines, such as Wargamer’s Digest and Little Wars, and I wrote about different historical battles. I also wrote some articles for Dungeons and Dragons. I never really thought anything about it. I got a degree in history and couldn’t get a job. I applied to like five hundred places all over the world, but got nothing.

So I thought, Oh, man, what am I going to do?  I ended up in Seattle hanging Sheetrock for my cousin-in-law. Even though I grew up in Wisconsin, the rain was too much, so I moved down to Los Angeles near another cousin-in-law, who had an audio/visual business doing presentations for corporations on how to operate machinery, how to sell different products, and so on. My cousin knew I wrote the articles and I liked taking pictures. He wanted to expand his business, so he asked me to come down to LA.

So, I went to LA, worked for a couple months, but we didn’t really get along. I was living in Hermosa Beach and was thinking, Wow, I don’t really want to go back to Wisconsin, back to the snow, and I don’t know what I’m going to do. I was working construction jobs, and I met this girl who said, “You know, you wrote these articles, and I have a cousin who works at Warner Brothers. Why don’t you write a screenplay and I’ll give it to them?”

I thought, Wow, I love movies, but I don’t know how to write a screenplay. I had never even seen a screenplay. Back in the day, there were no books, videos, nothing, so I went back to see my dad in Wisconsin. I found a book in the library at the University of Wisconsin, Madison that was written during World War II on how to write a screenplay. I don’t think anyone had ever taken it out, because when I took it off the shelf, pages fell out of the book. But the format for writing a screenplay back then is still basically the same today. 

JC: So it was the same back then as it is now? 

JB: Yeah. I now knew what a screenplay looked like. I went back to LA. I was working construction during the day and writing at night, and I finally finished the screenplay. But when I finished it, I lost track of this girl, so I didn’t know anybody in the business. I had heard somewhere or I saw on TV that there are people who have agents and agents are in Beverly Hills.

So I drove to Beverly Hills, and I found a phone booth in a parking lot in Beverly Hills that had a Yellow Pages. I looked up agencies. Again, I knew nothing about anything. I just started cold calling, saying, “Hi, I’ve got a screenplay.” I got hung up on, and hung up on.

I made it down to the B’s of the agencies when I finally reached somebody who said they would read my screenplay. I sent it off and went back to the construction work.  I got a nice rejection letter that said I did pretty good for my first time, but it was a Western, and at that time, Westerns were a kiss of death.

The agent said, “Well, write something contemporary.” I had a background in martial arts, and I had an idea for an action movie that combined martial arts. Basically, Chow Yon Fat ended up doing these kind of movies ten or fifteen years later in Hong Kong. But I wrote a script really quick and called it An Eye for an Eye, and it combined martial arts, guns, and everything.

By that time, I had met a couple people who were also trying to break into the business. One guy was a cameraman, and he had a friend who was character actor named Mel Novak, and Mel had actually been in a real movie. So I called Mel up and said, “I wrote this script, and you’ve been in a movie and you’re an actor. Can you read it and tell me what you think?”

Mel read the movie, and he had just done a film with Chuck Norris called A Force of One. He said, “Well, I know Chuck is looking for projects, and if it’s okay with you, I’m going to give him the script.” So he did. This was in January of 1981, and I didn’t hear anything until March.

In March, I got a call from Mel. He said, “Chuck read it, and he liked it, but it’s short.” It was only around seventy-five pages. In the meantime, I had written another twenty-five pages, and so I sent the revised script along. I didn’t hear anything, and it was June. I was still doing the construction. I had $8.43 in the bank.

I got a call on a Sunday night from Mel. He said, “We’ve sent the script to a company called AVCO Embassy, and they’re buying the script. They’re gonna make the movie.” Holy moly.

An Eye for an Eye poster

That was my first sale, and I got a good deal. I was paid to do another rewrite. This was my Hollywood baptism by fire. Once I sent in the rewrite, I called the company one day, and they said, “The rewrite is already done.” They had hired someone else even though they paid me to do it.  [To watch the An Eye for An Eye trailer, click here.]

That’s basically how I got started. Besides it being the first sale, the movie was successful, and one of the best things about it was I somehow ended up meeting some of the stunt men who worked on a movie at the cast and crew screening, and they set me up on a blind date with Elizabeth Stevens, a friend of theirs. They used to mow her lawn and play penny poker and everything. From there, we got married. My wife and I have been together ever since. That was the biggest benefit to come out of that whole thing. That was how I got started writing.

JC: Even though you wouldn’t be called back to rewrite, you did work with Chuck on several projects later.

JB: Yeah. Because the movie was successful, and I knew nothing about Hollywood, I thought, The phone is going to ring. The movie was successful, and people are going to want me to write stuff. I was writing spec scripts too.

So that went on for about two years, and, of course, I ran through the money from An Eye for an Eye. Elizabeth knew Chuck because her daughter, Jennifer, my stepdaughter, was taking karate from one of Chuck’s senior black belts who had a studio in Tarzana, California, and Chuck lived a few blocks away. Elizabeth always saw Chuck at black belt testing or different testing for different belts, and they always chatted.

Elizabeth also knew the director for An Eye for an Eye. He did another movie with Chuck called Lone Wolf McQuade, and the director invited Elizabeth. Elizabeth took her mom to a preview screening of an extended trailer for Lone Wolf. After the screening, Chuck saw Elizabeth and said, “Are you still going out with that guy James Bruner who wrote An Eye for an Eye?” She said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Can I have his phone number? I want him to write something else.”

So, Chuck called me up. He had an idea to do a movie on Americans missing in action from the Vietnam War, because he had lost his brother, Wieland, who had been killed in Vietnam. He wanted to do something to honor his brother, and he gave me a book. This somewhat convoluted, but I think it’s an interesting story. Chuck had read a book called Mission MIA by J.C. Pollock. Elizabeth and I became friends with Jim Pollock later on.

Anyway, I wrote a screenplay, Missing in Action. James Monaghan, who was a Special Forces guy in Vietnam, a Green Beret, and served a number of tours, was kind of my tactical advisor. And with James’s input, I wrote a screenplay, and Chuck wanted to get it produced independently. We took the project around town and tried to get attachments and financing, and it was slow going.

One day, Chuck said, “This producer called me, and he wants to have a meeting. He’s heard about Missing in Action and he’s interested. I don’t have time to meet with him. Can you go out to Malibu and meet with him?” I said, “Yeah, sure, I’ll go to the meeting.”

I went to Malibu and met Lance Hool. Lance had read the script and he loved it, and we had a good meeting. He talked to Chuck after that, and Chuck called me up and said, “This is great. There is a new company called Cannon Films, and they’re interested in doing Missing in Action, and they want to work with me. So Lance and I are going into the meeting, and I’ll call you right after.”

The meeting was at ten in the morning, and I didn’t hear anything until four or five in the afternoon. Chuck finally called, and he was kind of down. He said, “I went in and I sat down and they said we’re going to finance this movie, Missing in Action. And they gave me a script, but it wasn’t the script you wrote. It was another script called Missing in Action. And, you know, I’m going to do the movie.” Then he said, “I got them to buy your script, so at least you’ll get paid something.” I was disappointed. They went off to St. Kitts, down in the Caribbean, to make this movie, Missing in Action. Lance was going to direct the movie, and so on.

JC: This is the movie that became Missing in Action 2: The Beginning.

JB: Well, what happened is that Lance found out before he had the meeting at Cannon with Chuck that there was another Missing in Action script that Cannon wanted to do, but they hadn’t optioned it. They had read it and liked it, because it was well budgeted, and they hadn’t optioned it. So before his meeting with Chuck, Lance optioned the script. He owned it, so he was able to attach himself as the director and producer.

That’s how that movie got started. They were shooting the film, and I got a call one day from Aaron Norris, Chuck’s brother, who was also working on a film, and he was back in Los Angeles for a few days. He said, “The company wants to do a sequel to this movie, and Chuck and the company wants you to write it. You need to go down to St. Kitts tomorrow and start writing material for a trailer. We’re going to shoot a trailer when we’re done shooting Lance’s movie, and use that to promote the new one.”

So I went down to St. Kitts. I basically took the end of my script and wrote it up as a trailer. Someone with a wiser business sense decided it probably wasn’t a good idea to shoot a trailer for a movie that didn’t exist, so we ended up not shooting it. I just reworked my original script for Missing in Action, and they immediately went to the Philippines. Joe Zito was the director, and they made the movie. It wasn’t my original script, but it was pretty close because the budget was really low.

They came back, and I found out later that Cannon had a deal with MGM for theatrical releases of their pictures, and they had given MGM a bunch of movies that bombed at the box office. So MGM ended their deal, but they had a deal with Warner Brothers for Missing in Action. They showed Warner Brothers Lance Hool’s Missing in Action movie (the one that is Missing in Action 2: The Beginning), and Warner Brothers said, “We don’t want to release this.”

Cannon looked at the Joe Zito footage, and they liked it much better. They said, “If we put this out first, then we can put Lance’s movie out as a sequel.” They put the Zito film out first, and it was very successful. That’s kind of how that whole thing happened. Crazy. [To watch the trailer for Missing in Action, click here.]

Missing in Action poster

JC: What is also interesting is that not only did your Missing in Action came out before Lance Hool’s Missing in Action 2: The Beginning, but it also came out before Rambo, which would have a similar plot to Missing in Action.

JB: You have to remember that this was in the eighties and there was no Internet. You know, there’s communication here and there, but it’s not like today where you instantly know everything everyone is doing. At the time, Jim Pollock’s book, Mission MIA, was a huge hit, and there were a lot of screenplays at that time about MIAs. And Cannon was able to jump on it quickly. Luckily, they did the sequel fast so it could come out first.

I didn’t even know about the Rambo movie at the time. I had written the original Missing in Action a few years before that. It took a couple years—Chuck and I were trying to get it made for at least a year before the last full version was out there. It was one of those things that happens in Hollywood—some things in the wind or the atmosphere or something. I saw something recently where there were like six or seven Robin Hood movies in development.

JC: When I thought about interviewing you, I thought about the recent box office success of American Sniper, because Iraq, like Vietnam, didn’t have the happiest ending. It wasn’t an ending like there was in World War II, where it was clean and decisive and we got the bad guys. Nevertheless, American audiences have a deep connection with our veterans. I think our country’s connection with our veterans is what helps make both American Sniper and Missing in Action a box-office success.

JB: Oh, absolutely. At the end of Missing in Action, when at the conference, Vietnamese politicians are denying to American politicians that there are no American soldiers being held hostage and then Chuck bursts into the conference with the MIA.

JC: Right.

JB: People were jumping up and cheering and everything. It was a satisfying conclusion. Vietnam veterans were treated so disgracefully when they came back, and the movie was not a vindication, but more that someone was doing the right thing and helping these guys.

I think the same thing with American Sniper, which was such a huge hit, because it was basically one man’s story, and it was realistically done, like Hurt Locker. I think it is always a satisfying thing for an audience.

Joe Zito was in South Korea in the nineties. Some guy who had been the distributor for Missing in Action in South Korea said, “I want to show you something.” And he drove Joe up to this big mansion and said,  “I bought this house from what I made on Missing in Action.”

JC: Joe directed one of the Friday the 13th movies, and he has shown up on the Friday the 13th documentaries. Curiously enough, he didn’t participate in the Cannon documentary. Do you know why that is?

JB: Joe has been working overseas for quite a while. I know they wanted him to be in it, and he was actually out of the country when they were filming here. He has a lot of good insight from what happened there.

JC: Missing in Action was such a success that Cannon would ask you, Joe, and Chuck to do Invasion U.S.A.

JB: Yeah. That was even crazier. Working for Cannon was my version of going to film school but doing it in real life, because I would get a call for either a rewrite or writing a script, and told, “We’re shooting at eight. We need a script, we don’t have one.” Or, “We shot this movie, it doesn’t make any sense. Can you come in and look at the footage and write whatever additional scenes we need to shoot in order to make it make sense so we can release it?”

I got to do all this hands-on stuff, and Elizabeth was in the background the whole time helping and giving suggestions and coming up with ideas, which was great, so we started collaborating. With Invasion U.S.A., Menahem Golan wanted Chuck to do a movie called American Ninja, and there was no script. It was just a title, and he wanted to Chuck to wear a ninja outfit. Chuck did not want to be a ninja, because he was doing the regular action incorporating martial arts and didn’t want to go back to straight martial arts. So they hired me to write the script, and I said, “I have an idea. Let me run with it. We’ll do this.”

It will still be called American Ninja, and I came up with the story for Invasion U.S.A. The kind of trick in there was that Chuck was a covert CIA operative code-named American Ninja. The first draft is actually titled American Ninja, but it was the Invasion U.S.A. story.

Menahem read it, called us into the office, and said, “I liked the script, but unfortunately we cannot call it American Ninja.” We were all relieved, and I came up with the Invasion U.S.A. title based on the fifties sci-fi movie kind of thing. That’s how American Ninja transformed into Invasion U.S.A.

JC: In the Cannon documentary, you said there was a lot that seemed to be cut from that movie.

JB: Yeah. I finished the script, and Joe Zito and I went on location scout, which was terrific, because during that scout, we found out that this whole neighborhood in Atlanta was going to be bulldozed to extend the runway. It was a really beautiful suburban neighborhood, and we could literally go in and blow up all of these homes and everything—millions and millions of dollars of production value, and the same thing with the shopping mall that was going to be renovated. So I came up with the action sequences. It turned out really terrific to use those locations.

They were off making the movie when I got a call that said, “You have to go to Atlanta tomorrow.” I said, “Why?” They said, “Well, they changed the end of the movie, and now it doesn’t make any sense. You have to fix it.” I was like, “Oh, my gosh, really?”

So Elizabeth and I went to Atlanta and looked at what they had. They only had a short amount of shooting time left, and they couldn’t go to other locations. I actually don’t remember what the original ending was, but it was much better than the one that ended up being shot. But it was really the only thing to come up with the time and the budget, and how they had changed the story. However, that wasn’t the worst part. While we were down there and they were filming, we were on the set, and Melissa Prophet, who was the female lead, was a really nice woman.

JC: In that movie, Melissa seems very angry at everybody, even Chuck.

JB: We watched her do fifteen takes. Her line was, “Hey, Cowboy.” She couldn’t say, “Hey, Cowboy,” and it took fifteen takes.

So in the script, because Chuck is an action guy and not an actor, the story was really told through this female reporter, who is covering the story. When we went to the screening of the rough cut, the whole story was there, but her delivery of her performance was just so off that they ended up cutting it. It’s like a half an hour of the film that really tells the story. It became very disjointed, unfortunately. [To watch the trailer for Invasion U.S.A., click here.]

Invasion USA trailer

The action pieces are great. Before shooting, Chuck called me from New York, and he had just seen a play. There was a woman who was an extra in A Force of One or Good Guys Wear Black, or something had a one-woman show off Broadway, and she had left tickets for him in his hotel room. He didn’t have anything to do, so he went to see the play, and it was terrific. Whoopi Goldberg starred in the play.

Chuck said, “I saw this play and this woman, her name is Whoopi Goldberg.” No one had heard of Whoopi Goldberg at that point. He said, “Wouldn’t she be great to play the reporter?” I thought, Wow, that would be a terrific casting. Cannon and Joe Zito shot that down, which is unfortunate, because it would have really worked in the film. But that’s one of those things that happens.

JC: I remember Norris saying that in a few interviews about Whoopi Goldberg.

JB: Yeah.

JC: Then came the movie Delta Force.

JB: That was originally a pretty terrific project. I had mentioned the technical advisor on the original Missing in Action, James Monaghan, and he helped train the original Delta Force that went into Iran to rescue the hostages. He told me when we were working on the Missing in Action screenplay that the army has this top-secret unit called the Delta Force, and they did this and that, and it was cool stuff.

I pitched it to Menahem at Cannon. I said, “Look, there’s this army unit, the Delta Force, and they do all this great covert stuff, and they have all these cool weapons.” And he was like, “No, no, I don’t care.”

A couple years later, he saw a little, two-paragraph mention of Delta Force in either Time or Newsweek. He called me up and said, “Jimmy, we’re doing the movie The Delta Force. Chuck Norris, Charles Bronson, The Delta Force. You want to write it?” I said, “Yeah, I want to write it. Are you kidding?”

I was really excited because I thought Norris and Bronson together would be fantastic. So I wrote a big action picture. It originally took place in Egypt. I used a completely fictional event. I took some of the declassified stuff my friend Monaghan told me about, the tactics and so on of Delta, were public—not public as far as the general public knew, and I came up with a whole story with these two guys against a bazillion terrorists. You know, tourists held hostage and so on.

It was going ahead, and then for some reason—I don’t know if they couldn’t make a deal with Bronson or something happened. Bronson was out, and before I started the script, the TWA hijacking to Beirut happened. Menahem told us to stop everything and we were going to base the movie on the Beirut hijacking, even though we didn’t know how it was going to end. So I started to change things around, and then Lee Marvin came in, who was terrific. That was one of the best things about working at Cannon was getting to meet Lee and spend some time with him.

I was writing the script, and then Menahem said, “We’re going to make it in Israel. You need to come to Israel and finish the screenplay.” Elizabeth and I went to Israel, and I literally went to his office every day for about twelve hours, sat next to him, and wrote the script. He would rewrite it, I’d rewrite his rewrite. I’d leave at the end of the day thinking, Okay, we’ve got some pretty good pages. I’d come back the next morning, and he’d stayed up most of the night changing it again. So I spent half that day trying to fix the improvements that he’d made. I finally said to him, “You know, why don’t we share the credit on this?”

As we were getting to the end of the script, there was on resolution, and he said, “I want you to go to Beirut, go to the Beirut airport, and find out what’s going on so we can write the final act.” I was like, “I’m an American, I look like an American. I don’t speak Arabic.”. I didn’t think it was a good idea. And luckily, cooler heads prevailed.

But there was some really good moments in the movie that I’m proud of, things that actually happened and so on. Then there was the silly stuff, you know, missiles on the motorcycle. The conclusion was the hostages were released safely, so in real life, that was great. It didn’t help the film, because there was no real life story of the Delta Force coming to rescue the hostages.  That’s kind of the story of how that whole thing happened. James Monaghan was the technical advisor on it, so he had some run-ins with Menahem, trying to say, “Well, the Delta Force would do this and not that,” and we’d get overruled.

One of the things was actually pretty amusing. Menahem and I went to a school that was going to be demolished that ended up being used as the terrorists’ hideout where they were holding the hostages.  The Delta in the movie comes in through the basement, and then they have to get up into the room where the hostages are. So we to the school’s basement, and we looked up at the ceilings, about ten feet high. I had told him how Delta actually does this, but he had forgotten. So he said, “Well, I’m trying to figure out if we should have a trampoline.” There was a little hole in the ceiling. The Delta Force would run, they’d jump on the trampoline, and they would coming flying up into the room where the terrorists are. I said, “Oh, my gosh, this is going to look silly.”

He said, “Or they have a teeter totter, like the circus.” He said, “I can’t figure it out—there’s no one to jump on it, so the last guy is stuck in the basement.” You know, another crazy thing. So Menahem finally does to shoot the scene the way that the Delta Force actually does in real life. So there was some kind of close calls to some pretty silly stuff that he considered.  [To watch The Delta Force trailer, click here.]

The Delta Force movie

JC: After Invasion U.S.A., there were two more movies you would do. One of them was POW, The Escape, which starred David Carradine, and then you did Braddock: Missing in Action III with Norris.

JB: POW was a rewrite. That was a rewrite situation for me, and then I was called in after the finished principal photography to figure out some additional scenes to help the story flow better.

Braddock: Missing in Action III started out, and Joe Zito was originally going to direct that. I was kind of excited about that, and we all thought the original script was the best script of the whole group. Unfortunately, let’s just say Menahem got into a battle with me, and for some reason, Aaron Norris’s deal in Braddock: Missing in Action III was tied to mine for some reason. So whatever I got paid, Aaron’s pay was somehow tied to that, in some escalator or some type of clause.

After I finished doing a number of drafts, the film was ready to go. Menahem called me and said, “I want you to take fifty percent off your contract for this script.” I was like, “What?” And he said, “If I pay you this, I have to pay Aaron Norris that, and I don’t want to pay him that much.” It was very funny. He said, “With all due respect, if you don’t take the less money, you’ll never work at Cannon again.” Well, I guess I’d never work here again, because they never paid that great to begin with.

After that, there were some other rewrites. They went through a lot of different directors, and I read some of the drafts. In one of the drafts, Chuck finds out he has a—

JC: A son.

JB: A son from this Vietnamese girlfriend, and he goes back to rescue him. The boy is an orphan and he’s treated poorly because he’s the son of an American. Yet, the kid lives in a really nice house, and he’s fixing his brand new ten-speed bicycle, and Chuck is supposed to come in and whisk him away from this horrible life, this depravation. And I was like, something doesn’t quite work with having a brand new ten-speed bike and needing to be rescued. Anyway, the movie did not do well at all, and the final version was a disappointment.

JC:  remember from the movie that Chuck’s son and a bunch of other Vietnamese-American children were running across the Vietnamese border at the ending.

JB: The final version was kind of a mishmash of the original script, and then some of the stuff was for budgetary reasons—things were cut. It was really an emotional story about a father and son, with all the action stuff going on, and it ended up being the comic book bad guys, you know?

JC: Of course, then as we all know, Cannon eventually fell apart.

JB: Yeah.

JC: From what you just told me about Braddock: Missing in Action III, it sounds like your time at Cannon was shortly over before it fell apart.

JB: Elizabeth and I were there for the golden year period, where Cannon was doing really well, and they actually had a very smart business plan on doing the pre-sales, making the movies for what they got in pre-sales, and then anything else was just extra. They had plenty of misses, but Chuck’s movies were all successful and they made a lot of money.

They would say really smart things, and then they decided that they also wanted to compete with the majors, and then they started doing these really expensive movies that were less than stellar. They did Over the Top with Stallone, and they were just spending tons and tons of money. They built a headquarters in Beverly Hills. Before, they were in the CNN building and had three floors and funky offices, but it wasn’t not very Hollywood, which was great, because they were spending the money on the pictures. Then things kind of got carried away.

JC: Did you have any contact with Chuck after you were done with Cannon?

JB: Here and there, but I didn’t work on Walker, Texas Ranger. He used to live in Tarzana, California, and he didn’t live too far away, so we’d see each other once in a while. But we haven’t really been in touch since he’s been in Texas. We stay in touch with Eric Norris, one of his sons, who is a top stunt coordinator.

JC: What did you do after you were done with Cannon?

JB: My wife was involved behind the scenes with the different Cannon films. We had run across a story about a husband and wife who’d rescued kidnapped kids, and we started pitching that around town. Dick Clark’s company optioned it, but they couldn’t get it set up. I said to Elizabeth, “Let’s write a screenplay.” And she said, “Oh, I don’t know if I can write it.” I said, “Yeah, you’ve been helping me for years, and you have good story sense.”

We wrote a first draft screenplay. Richard Zanuck (the producer of Jaws and Driving Miss Daisy) read it, and called us in. He said, “I love the writing, but I don’t want to do this film. It’s pretty controversial. I don’t want to do something like this right now, but what else do you have?” We pitched him some other ideas, and he loved a take we had on the Pretty Boy Floyd, the 1930’s outlaw, based on original research that I had done. Since he was active in parts of Wisconsin, where I was growing up, I had been to the places where Pretty Boy Floyd had a showdown with the FBI, so I had done a lot of research based on original sources.

We pitched that to Zanuck. He loved it. He hired Elizabeth and me to write that screenplay for him. And I thought, Wow, this is pretty good. I’m working with her, and I’m going from Chuck Norris number-one movies, Cannon, to Richard Zanuck. That was pretty good. So, we did that. He passed away a couple of years ago, but hopefully it will still get made one of these days.

Elizabeth and I have been working together on different television and film projects. We wrote a movie for the Hallmark Channel, a romantic drama called Ice Dreams.

Ice Dreams poster

We executive produced one for Hallmark last year, called Looking for Mr. Right, a romantic comedy. We just kind of fell into the Hallmark thing. Now, we have a reality show we just sold to a major reality show producer that hopefully will get set up soon. We also have a big historical feature and a new action series that are both kind of in the works right now.

JC:I was looking at your Facebook page and it says that you taught at film school in Jordan.

JB: Yeah, I taught in Jordan. That was really quite an experience. I saw an ad in the Writer’s Guild magazine, and so I sent in an application.  I got a reply that they just hired someone. Then a couple years later, I got an e-mail from the school saying that they remembered me from my original application and if I was still interested in teaching.

I went on an adventure to Jordan for a year. It was quite an excellent school. Unfortunately, due to the war in Syria and just worldwide economic problems, the school went out of business a year ago. But it turned out some really excellent students from all over the area that have won different film competitions and internationally. Almost all of them are working in the film and television business from the Middle East and Europe.

James on a camel in Jordan

JC: It seems the Cannon documentary filmmakers and myself were not the only ones curious about your Chuck Norris writing days. You got a request to do another documentary called Chuck Norris vs. Communism.

JB: Oh, yeah. This was the amazing thing that’s ever happened. A couple of years ago, I received an e-mail from a Romanian woman and she said, “I’m doing this documentary called Chuck Norris vs. Communism. I’d like to interview you on Skype.” I thought it was a joke, but I decided to do the Skype call.

These two Romanian sisters were living in London, and they were deadly serious. So, I did the interview. They said that in the eighties, Chuck’s films, and other American films, were smuggled into Romania, because I guess it was against the law. You’d go to prison for even seeing an American movie.

There was one woman who worked for a Romanian television station, and she was secretly dubbing the movies into Romania. They were passing out VHS copies underground, and people would have viewing parties in their cellar and so on. They’d see Missing in Action and Invasion U.S.A., and a lot of other movies. The information over there was so tightly controlled. People saw what America looked like, and the movies actually helped inspire Romanian people to rise up and overthrow the dictator, Ceausescu.

To this day, they use the poster from Invasion U.S.A. in their protests. They put a different slogan on it, but it’s Chuck with his two Uzis in front of the capitol. It’s a really great image, and it really helped inspire them to get their freedom. That was amazing, to say the least. That was true.

JC: Chuck Norris’s popularity continues to this day. On the Internet, there are all these flattering jokes of Chuck Norris, like his tears cure cancer, or he doesn’t fish, he just stares at the water and the lake drowns the fish he wants. Bibi Netanyahu used him as a campaign ad in his successful reelection in Israel. Having worked with him, what do you think has really caused all this appeal for Chuck Norris that continues to this day?

JB: Well, there are a lot of people who claimed to have martial arts backgrounds that turned out to be false. You know, they’d supposedly been an assassin for the CIA, or they supposedly had done this or that.

Chuck was really a world champion. Bruce Lee, just in the martial arts arena, literally gave Chuck tremendous credibility, and he plays the not-complicated, straightforward kind of guy who’s going to do the right thing. Portraying that has a lot of appeal. I think to this day, John Wayne is still one of the top movie stars in the world, because of that same kind of thing. The thing that kind of amazes me to this day is that Missing in Action and The Delta Force still play all the time on television, and there are not many films from that period or any period that have that kind of longevity.


Joe Armstrong said...

This was an absolutely fantastic interview! I loved Cannon Films, especially their action movies. I was practically raised on them.

Too many of them lack any kind of special features or behind the scenes stories, but this interview helped shed light on some of Chuck Norris' movies.

Again, great work!

Anonymous said...

Great interview. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Nice interview, Jim. I came out from New Jersey to visit some of our old college buddies from Wisconsin (I'm staying with Don P.), and we were talking about old times: Steven P., Jodi & Joel, Errol, your VW Bus, hanging out at the apartment by the arboretum, and so, obviously, your name came up, so I goggled you. Best regards, Rich Uslan

Anonymous said...

make that Don S.

Stone in India said...
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Unknown said...

Wonderful insight. I'm a huge fan of Chuck Norris as well as the action movies you have written/produced. You actually had met my husband when you were shooting photos for Rolling Stone and he was working with his promotion management company, now called Sultry Utopia Management formally One Creative Utopia and he also worked for Budweiser Promotions. He was the Delta Force Lt. & Combat Vet Dale Brashear whom you gave the autographed prints too. In fact we still have them, and I have been trying to find some form of appraisal/authentication for them so he has had that as well. Not many believe how he got them from you personally and it's difficult to find your other works mentioned online as far as with the magazine or other photography work, but references to your writing is prevalent as well it should be. You are very accomplished and talented sir. Great interview!
~~Mrs. Renee Brashear

Unknown said...
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