The flight to Thailand was long. Stephen de Souza wished it were longer.
Over the previous decade, from 1982 to 1992, de Souza had established himself as a screenwriting wunderkind. Most screenwriters can't land one blockbuster; he had a baker's dozen to his name, including Commando, The Running Man, 48 Hours, Another 48 Hours and Die Hard 1 and 2.
As a bona fide hit-maker, the writer had amassed enough creative capital to do what so many successful screenwriters aspired to before him: become a director. But in Hollywood, nothing comes easy for everybody. And if there's a message to this tale, that's it.
Months before the flight, the snub-nosed and thick-spectacled fortysomething signed his first director's contract. This flight should have been a respite, a punctuation mark to the arduous pre-production work done between then and now, the last nap before the plane landed in Bangkok and production began on a $30 million movie — his $30 million movie. It's just that something was bothering him.
De Souza hadn't cast the female lead.
The role couldn't be played by just any woman. She had to be beautiful, strong and smart, and now that principal shooting was mere hours away, she had to be quick to learn lines, too. Being Australian would help. Production would move to Sydney after a few weeks, and a local star would please the crew, not to mention the local unions and political leaders who'd so graciously welcomed him.
You get one shot at being a big-budget, Hollywood director. No mulligans, no do-overs, no take-backs. It's hard to focus on the tasks at hand when there are so many — too many to count. It's hard to concentrate on anything, let alone everything, all at once, and in a finite amount of time. Even something as obvious as casting the female star of your major motion picture gets pushed to the bottom of the schedule. You'll get to it at the next meeting, the next casting call, at the airport, you'll just find her on the airplane.
De Souza flipped through the airline's gratis magazine and glanced at his watch. Couldn't he push this till later?
Who you know
There's no standard recipe for success in Hollywood, although a few ingredients tend to be consistent, like craft, gusto and a four-inch-thick book of established contacts. There's always some higher-up who reaches down to offer a hand. In de Souza's case, that hand belonged to Edward Pressman, a producer who'd played a formative role in the early careers of the artistically and financially successful directors Wolfgang Peterson and Terrence Malick.
Pressman had heard rumblings in mid-1993 about a Japanese publisher called Capcom that wanted to adapt its popular arcade game Street Fighter into an expensive American action film franchise. Similar game-to-movie adaptations, like Super Mario Bros., The Movie, had successfully attracted serious budgets from top-rank studios. Seeing an opportunity to produce the picture and make scratch, Pressman requested a chance to pitch.
The Capcom executives were in a hurry to have the first film ready by Christmas 1994 — roughly a year away. De Souza, renowned as a screenwriter but untested as a director, was a risk on that turnaround. But he came recommended by Pressman, a real scout for fresh directors. Bonus: De Souza could handle scripting duties. When it came to action, his batting average was unrivaled.
Capcom agreed to give the writer a shot, not at production, not yet, but at a pitch — assuming he could have something within a couple days.
In the early 1990s game-to-movie adaptations hadn't yet earned their spot in the lower slots of the Culture Power Rankings — somewhere between Bret Michaels and the Buffalo Bills. Many rich, smart and well-connected men and women would have plucked out their agents' eyeballs to have a credit appear before the words Street Fighter: The Movie. De Souza, however, was grateful just to land the meeting.
Plus de Souza's kids loved playing Street Fighter 2 in the Los Angeles arcades. The game's special moves — gravity-defying kicks, jaw-crushing punches and flesh-scorching fireballs — echoed the fantastic visuals of his prior work. He had a real shot, he thought.
A day or so after getting the go-ahead to pitch, de Souza received a package of materials from Capcom. Inside were in-game screenshots, artwork, a short narratological catch-me-up and a top-secret set of documents detailing the series' long-term ambitions. The future of the franchise wasn't linear or predetermined; it branched in numerous potential directions.
In one possible future of the Street Fighter mythos, the militaristic final boss called M. Bison would have what de Souza describes as a secret island in the vein of a James Bond villain's, layered with barracks, missile silos and a submarine base. Bison wouldn't merely be a threat to the Street Fighter roster, but to the entire world. De Souza, an action buff, relished the notion of making a Bond-style action film. As it turns out, so did the members of Capcom.
At the pitch meeting, both parties agreed they had no interest in making a tournament movie, the schlocky kung-fu flick structure that would later be used to middling effect by the game-to-movie adaptation of Street Fighter's rival, Mortal Kombat.
Instead, Street Fighter: The Movie would be a mission story with the game's coterie of colorful characters taking sides on a global conflict. The villain would be M. Bison, a totalitarian and vaguely Eastern European general. And the hero would be Guile, a wisecracking G.I. Joe type. It couldn't name an actor match for Bison, but Capcom knew what it wanted for its quintessentially American hero: Jean-Claude Van Damme, the most famous Belgian on Earth.
Capcom wanted to include the game's entire roster, but de Souza knew that doing so — dividing screentime between a dozen-plus characters — would cripple the story. At a stalemate, de Souza asked the room a simple question: How many of the seven dwarves can you name? No one could name all seven.
How many of the seven dwarves can you name? No one could name all seven.
"There's a reason there's seven dwarves," says de Souza, "There's a reason there's seven wonders of the world. There's a reason it's the Magnificent Seven, which is a remake of the Japanese movie The Seven Samurai. Seven is the number of characters an audience can keep in its head at any time." So the writer set seven as a compromise, and Capcom, persuaded by the parlor trick, agreed to the limit.
And that's when it happened. One minute, Stephen de Souza wasn't a Hollywood movie director. The next, he was.
The seven dwarves
Charlie Picerni doesn't have nice things to say about Stephen de Souza. With a loud, crunchy voice, Picerni takes our call on a cell phone outside a spa in Southern California. He's there to pick up his wife. You can hear people passing by, but it doesn't faze Picerni. You get the sense this is someone who gives directions only once.
De Souza admired Picerni's work as a stunt coordinator on Die Hard. Picerni was tough, old school. He got shit done, which made him an obvious candidate for stunt coordinator and second unit director on Street Fighter.
Adapting the game's special moves for film necessitated a considerable amount of wire work — the stunts where an actor is harnessed and flung around a film's set to create the illusion of defying gravity. Wire work was huge in ‘80s and ‘90s action movies and peaked with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, in which the cast so rarely touched the ground that you felt they were playing the most beautiful version of the children's game "The Floor Is Hot Lava."
Picerni agreed to come on board on the condition he and the stunt team had reasonable prep time. Wire work is dangerous. Done poorly, it can result in bruised and broken limbs, and sometimes in very rare cases, death. Stunt coordinators prioritize rehearsal not just for a film's quality, but its actors' safety. "I told [de Souza] to get good actors, physical actors," says Picerni. "To get the cast immediately."
De Souza listened. Raul Julia and Van Damme were the priorities. They were both legit celebs. Julia brought the gravitas of a classically trained actor, while Van Damme brought looks, star power, the attention of gossip rags and, most importantly, the ability to do the splits in midair without tearing his groin. Van Damme also came with baggage: a nasty cocaine habit and some pending legal troubles from his third divorce.
Not much budget remained after signing the stars, so de Souza sought lesser-known specialty actors, like martial artists, comedians and former body builders. And yet, even by going after midlevel talent, production struggled to sign supporting roles.
Shortly into the casting process, Capcom reps informed de Souza that they wanted two more fighters added to the film. De Souza — exhausted by casting, writing and prep — acquiesced. The writer still regrets not standing his ground, because the requests continued: two more; then two more; then two more. Capcom scrapped the initial "seven dwarves" agreement.
In a call with de Souza, the writer runs the math. Ninety minutes divided by 15 characters is about six minutes per character. Upon hearing himself say the results, he lets loose a loud, sharp, almost maniacal laugh.
Adding new roles stalled casting. Each new character meant the film needed to be tweaked, edited or rewritten. Each new draft meant the budget required reevaluation. According to de Souza, the film was weeks away and two key male leads, Ken and Ryu, were still undecided.
Damian Chapa, who'd play Ken, initially turned down the role. Fresh off the gritty crime-drama Blood In, Blood Out, the actor wanted to take more serious roles, like Al Pacino, one of his lifelong inspirations.
Chapa remembers his son's reaction, "‘Pops, are you crazy?,'" says Chapa. "‘Street Fighter? You gotta do it!' He loved the game." Chapa's son played a factor in the decision to take the role, but what really changed the father's mind was learning that Julia would be his co-star. "I was just flabbergasted. He's an actor's actor. If Raul Julia's in it, it must be amazing."
Byron Mann, who played Ryu, wasn't aware the film was based on a video game. "I didn't even know what a video game was back then," Mann admits.
"They went through two or three rounds of matching me with different Kens," says Mann. "Gauging chemistry. We tried lots of known actors. That lasted two and a half months. Then I waited two months. I had heard nothing. I didn't know what was going on."
While Mann waited, Capcom decided that — separate from the film's casting team — the Japanese actor Kenya Sawada would play the role of Ryu. Sawada had already played a Ryu-like character in Japanese commercials.
According to de Souza, Sawada was a safe, familiar choice for Capcom. But de Souza wanted the role of Ryu to have a sense of humor, someone with comic timing, someone with better English skills. The first time director only had one bargaining chip: to add another role.
No Street Fighter characters remained who fit what Capcom wanted, essentially another Ryu. So the game publisher and the beaten-down screenwriter created a new character from whole cloth: Captain Sawada. Because of the actor's poor English-speaking skills, Sawada's would be the only role dubbed in the U.S. release.
From signing the initial contract to submitting the final edit, de Souza possessed a magnetism that attracted executives, union leaders and senior crew members alike, each with a fondness for telling the director what to do. Perhaps they saw in the first-timer a pushover, and in Street Fighter, an opportunity to leave a mark on an action film, to in some small way be a director themselves.
de Souza possessed a magnetism that attracted executives, union leaders and senior crew members alike.
The Australian Actors Guild, for one, wanted de Souza to hire an Australian for a major part. The only role left to cast was Cammy. And that's how de Souza found himself on an airplane to Bangkok, flipping through a foreign magazine, skimming for talent. That's how he found his Cammy. On the cover of Australia's People Magazine smiled the beautiful face of Kylie Minogue.
After reading the article about her, de Souza realized that the Australian pop star was a huge celebrity with past experience learning lines quickly from her days on an Australian soap opera. Once the plane landed, de Souza booked an appointment with her for the next day. She was hired within hours.
De Souza could exhale: He had a cast. He had a crew. He had the gig.
A star on Earth
The cast met for the first time at an al fresco dinner along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok. It clicked, netting that euphoria that often hovers over beautiful, young, freshly rich people.
At some point in the meal, a herd of assistants beckoned a frail man to the table, seating the figure across from Byron Mann and Damian Chapa. Neither young actor recognized the mysterious figure as Raul Julia, the commanding Hispanic actor. "He was like half the size he was in Addams Family," says Mann. "He was unrecognizable from four feet away."
Not long before the shoot, Julia had undergone surgery for stomach cancer; the illness would take his life within the year. Because the production crew hadn't been notified of Julia's condition prior to the star's arrival, their shooting schedule didn't consider the low energy and intense weight loss of its lead. Originally, production would have begun with Julia's dialogue-dense scene work, allowing the stunt team to prep and rehearse action sequences for the latter half of the shoot. De Souza knew he couldn't film Julia up close, not like this.
"He looked ghastly," says de Souza, "We needed him to fatten up."
Julia needed considerable time to regain body mass, so fights and action sequences — those not featuring Julia — were bumped forward, and the schedule was essentially flipped. Action first, drama second. Julia spent the first few weeks of production in recovery. His kids — invited to join their father on the shoot — made the trip into a family vacation, swimming with porpoises, scuba diving and later discovering the Australian outback. The ailing man's spirits lifted and his body gradually took on weight.
"We needed him to fatten up."
Watching the film, you can see Julia's declining health is carefully concealed by makeup and wide shots. The frail and sinewy figure that materialized at that dinner in Bangkok appears only in a laboratory scene from week one of production. This Julia's cheeks are sallow, his eyes floating like moons in space.
"He was extremely underweight," says Chapa, "and they'd put this massive suit on him. When we were rehearsing he was down, but as soon as they said ‘action,' this great actor came to life in this body that wasn't what it used to be. For me, it was beautiful [...] You hear that saying, 'the show must go on' — let me tell you, Raul Julia — to his last breath he was acting."
The cast and crew, respecting the severity of Julia's condition, agreed to the last-minute schedule rehaul.
Arguably most impacted by the changes was Charlie Picerni. The stunt coordinator, who'd requested months prior to rehearse with cast before shooting, was meeting many actors for the first time on set. And now, at de Souza's request, he had to train, choreograph and shoot fight sequences on an immediate turnaround.
"The first day of shooting," says Picerni, "was the two main actors [Chapa and Mann]. They were fighting — about 10 stunt takes. That's a big thing. You have to have rehearsal time. That's the bottom line. You have to have rehearsal time and I didn't have any." Picerni and the fight crew improvised day-of stunt choreography, sometimes moments before de Souza called action.
With each day focused on immediate turnaround, the stunt team couldn't prep actors for upcoming shoots.
"Things weren't ready," says Chapa. "I was in the military for four years. I was prepared, but some of the actors were a bit soft. Charlie whipped everybody together [...] He really saved the production because he put that old style of filmmaking — punch, beat-em-up stuff."
With each day focused on immediate turnaround, the stunt team couldn't prep actors for upcoming shoots. Some cast members tried to pick up technique from anyone with a whiff of expertise.
"If you look in the movie," says Mann, "it's written in the script that I do this incredible kata (a theatrical sword movement) [before I fight Vega in the cage]. At the time, Benny Urquidez — we called him Benny the Jet — was our trainer. Every day, I'd go to Benny and ask if he could teach me this kata. Every day he'd say, let's think about it. Turns out he didn't do swords either. He's a fighter.
"A month later, we're filming in the morning and I hear through the grapevine that my sword kata scene is coming up after lunch. I was literally an hour away from filming this thing. I was shitting bricks. I grabbed a Thai extra. I'd heard he knew sword fighting. He taught me the kata in about an hour."
You see this flourish in the film. The movement stands at the crossroads of martial arts and physical comedy. You might call it controlled flailing.
At points, the only person who kept it together was the one person who had the best excuse to be falling apart.
"Raul Julia was terrific," says Picerni. "He was a great man, a great man. He was very good to work with. He wasn't afraid to do the stuff I had for him, swinging on wires and stuff like that. I had doubles, naturally, at times, but he was willing to do anything.
While the production allotted Julia time to rest — front loading the schedule with fight scenes — a handful of action sequences featuring the ailing actor were shot later in production.
"I remember one time, it was really funny. [Julia] was on a catwalk. I had to swing him across the stage to the next catwalk, to face off with Van Damme. I had to swing him a good 60, 70 feet across. It was a long, long swing. He's up on the catwalk and I'm down below. He's maybe 40 feet up. He's got cables on. I'm waiting for [Julia] to get up on the railing to make this move before we roll the cameras. And I'm saying down below to one of the guys, what is [Julia] waiting for? And I hear [Julia] above say, ‘Charlie, I'm just stalling for time!' It was funny. But he finally got up there and he did it. It was something."
"Every day I'd ask if Julia had taken his meds," says de Souza, "and if Van Damme was off them."
Years later, Jean-Claude Van Damme admitted he had a serious drug problem while filming Street Fighter: The Movie. He also confessed to having an extramarital affair with co-star Kylie Minogue.
From the actor's August 2012 interview with The Guardian:
"Yes," says Van Damme, "Okay. Yes, yes, yes. It happened. I was in Thailand, we had an affair. Sweet kiss, beautiful lovemaking. It would be abnormal not to have had an affair, she's so beautiful and she was there in front of me every day with a beautiful smile, simpatico, so charming, she wasn't acting like a big star. I knew Thailand very well, so I showed her my Thailand. She's a great lady."
Years later, Jean-Claude Van Damme admitted he had a serious drug problem while filming.
According to de Souza, the action star had a guy, an enforcer type, to ensure the actor be on his best behavior. That guy apparently wasn't so hot at his job, often incorporating himself into the nightly tomfoolery.
"So what was happening," says de Souza, "was that frequently Jean-Claude was supposed to show up at 7:00 in the morning, and he wasn't there. He said he's sick. Actually he was wiped, recovering from the night before. I would have to just make up some shit on the spot because I didn't have him. We'd invent some kind of fight involving Ken and Ryu and a security guard. But it was never rehearsed. It was made up on the spot. I was constantly pulling things out of my ass for the supporting players to do while Jean-Claude was playing hooky."
Before production began, de Souza fretted Van Damme wouldn't receive enough screen time, which rapidly divided between the numerous character additions ordered by Capcom. Van Damme's transgressions and absence mutated fret into fear into full-on freak-out.
Things were no less difficult with Van Damme on set. De Souza had previously worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger, another famous action star who spoke English as a second language. As a writer, de Souza ran lines with Schwarzenegger before filming, so that difficult phrases could be rewritten. When de Souza pitched doing the same with Van Damme, the actor claimed to have already run lines with his wife.
De Souza laughs as he recalls one complicated action scene in which Van Damme had to deliver a few lines. The scene, set in a big industrial room, involved a number of extras, guns and blood packs and squibs — which, when combined, spit red goo from an actor's costume to simulate a bullet's impact. For those watching at home, it's the scene where he jumps out of the mutation chamber.
Van Damme is shooting guns, causing all sorts of mayhem, and he shouts to Chun-Li and Balrog: "Go, go, I'll catch you later." Here's what Van Damme said the first time: "Go, go, I'll catch you later — cut, cut, cut!"
It's unusual for an actor to call cut; that's the director's role, but Van Damme was sure he'd said "ladder" instead of "later" and he demanded they do it over. De Souza, stunned, noted the crew would need to rematch the bullet holes, rerig the actors who fell from catwalks back on their wires, clean off the costume and replace the blood packs. But Van Damme ordered another take.
While the crew reset everything, Van Damme listened to the audio and realized he'd had it right. De Souza — vindicated, albeit after losing time and resources — decided to shoot the scene again for backup.
Van Damme got in position. De Souza called action. "Go, go," shouted Van Damme, "I'll catch you ladder!"
Trouble in paradise
Initially, de Souza's production team had planned a nearly two-month shoot, starting with five weeks of on-location and soundstage work in Bangkok and wrapping with a few weeks of major set-pieces and additional stunt coverage on the famed Australian soundstage, the Gold Coast.
De Souza had been assured that, while the Thai soundstage wouldn't compare to its Australian counterpart, it would service the needs of a Hollywood action film.
"The massive on-location sets [in Bangkok] were like out of Ben Hur," says Chapa. They were unlike anything the young actor had seen before, beautiful panoramas that looked, in his words, "like an $80 million film" — twice the film's estimated budget.
Authentic locations were the lure that brought de Souza to Bangkok, and they delivered on camera. In the film, you see walls of lush tropical foliage that the best set designers couldn't have produced in a back lot.
While exteriors astounded the production team, the soundstage described as serviceable was in reality a lemon. De Souza remembers shooting a scene in which the characters watch a video projection in a dark room. When the director turned off the lights in the soundstage, daylight rushed in. "There were so many holes in the walls in the ceilings," says de Souza, "it was like a gun fight had taken place. It was completely useless. We had to release the actors."
According to those interviewed for this piece, mini catastrophes and major hijinks played out like a B-movie parody of Heart of Darkness, albeit an incredibly dark one. A crew member required medical attention for skin irritation caused by contact with the water of the Chao Phraya River. The line producer suffered a heart attack, and never returned to the production. Another producer, the one in charge of the film's completion bond, unaccustomed to driving on the alternate side of the road, turned into oncoming traffic and collided with a bus, sustaining serious injuries. He too never returned. Later in production, an actor was busted at Australian customs for possession of steroids.
Many of the cast and crew struggled to adapt to the nation's scorching temperatures and culinary traditions. "In Thailand," says Byron Mann, "no one knew it would be that hot and humid. We were malnourished and not accustomed to the food. Everyone lost weight." If you watch the movie closely, you'll notice it. In one scene, an actor will sometimes look five or 10 pounds heavier than the next.
Hunger, rapid weight loss, heat exhaustion: none were a match for the enflamed libidos of twentysomething action stars.
Furthermore, the men in the cast — young, physically fit and flush with American cash in Thailand — had taken an interest in the local massage parlors. Hunger, rapid weight loss, heat exhaustion: none were a match for the enflamed libidos of twentysomething action stars.
"I come from poverty," says Chapa, "and here I was making more money than I ever made in my whole life, plus the place was so cheap you could get a massage for $10. We became massage addicts, getting a massage every hour. We were working hard and our bodies were pushed to the extreme."
"Let's just put it this way," says Mann, "there were a lot of hormonal guys on this film running amok in Thailand and Australia, so you do the math. We were like cavemen. We were like Vikings. We went there and conquered."
The troubles in Bangkok culminated in the blowout of a local power station, which wasn't built to handle the energy demands of a major motion picture. It was as if the city itself had an allergic reaction to the film production.
After the first three weeks of filming in Thailand, the production had fallen behind by 15 days. Defeated by the Bangkok soundstage, with a cast rapidly losing weight, the production packed up and moved out, arriving in Australia a week earlier than scheduled.
Down and out Down Under
To make up for lost time, de Souza needed an additional 10 days of production to make up for the 15 he'd already lost. It's not unusual for a big action film to go over budget or request more time. However, Capcom had a hard release date set for December 23, 1994, the coveted holiday release window.
Plus, Capcom had forged a partnership with Hasbro long before production began to warp the G.I. Joe toy line into Street Fighter: The Movie licensed dolls, just in time for Black Friday. "You can look at this movie as the first G.I. Joe movie," says De Souza, "Because G.I. Joe was in a swamp at this time. It was not selling. So Hasbro wanted to reboot the G.I. Joe line by thinly disguising it as Street Fighter."
Hasbro's request would impact the look and feel of the film. In a Hasbro memo from August 1993, plans are made for a tank, driven by Jean-Claude Van Damme in the film, to be designed after a current G.I. Joe vehicle, streamlining the resale process.
Street Fighter: The Movie would be the family-friendly, kid-approved, toy-licensed, synergetic-branded, big-budget spectacle of the season. There was no better slot than two days before Christmas, and everyone on board knew it.
The first-time director didn't get any extra time. Instead, the studio informed de Souza he'd need to squeeze the extra 10 days of work into the current shooting schedule. The film's production team, now composed of newcomers sent to replace the spots vacated by producers injured in Thailand, spotted the impracticality of the studio's request to crunch the schedule. So they asked the second unit team, led by Picerni, whose responsibility was to film stunts and pickups, to film entire scenes featuring the supporting cast.
In Australia, the second unit would operate in Studio B, while the main unit shot scenes featuring the stars and leads in Studio A.
The A Team, led by de Souza, had the support of famed cinematographer William Fraker, who'd captured the breathtaking, demonic look of Rosemary's Baby. Fraker guided de Souza, helping to answer the questions of a newbie director. "De Souza was a wise man," says Chapa. "Things he didn't know how to do he trusted others to do."
Today, in the digital era of filmmaking, directors can view footage on large high-definition screens off set as soon as it's shot, and even as it's shot on mini monitors on set. But in the 1990s, directors were forced to wait a day, sometimes two, to view processed film. De Souza, already unhappy with what he calls the "more provincial egos of the stunt people," discovered too late that the game's special moves weren't being incorporated into the brawls filmed by Picerni.
When the second unit team showed reluctance to include the special moves at de Souza's request — claiming the special moves "weren't real enough" — de Souza decided he would film them himself. And here's where things get muddy, as history changes depending on who's retelling it.
De Souza says he shot the last fight with Van Damme and Raul Julia. Picerni claims otherwise:
"Matter of fact, the last sequence with Raul Julia, they wanted me to direct the whole sequence and him to just sit down and watch. And I said to [the producer] Pressman, I can't do that. [De Souza]'s the director. The director should do it. I can't do it.
"[Pressman] said, 'You have to, we're behind.' So I did it and de Souza sat down and watched. I felt terrible about doing stuff like that. I didn't want to have to do that. I was forced to do it. That was what they wanted, so I did it. De Souza didn't like it too much. He thought I wanted his credit. I didn't want his credit. I just wanted second unit director. That's all. I don't want to be first unit. I just did my job.
"But [de Souza] was very insecure in what he was doing. I don't say that as a matter of fact. That's the first time I ever said that about a director. But he was very insecure. He didn't know what he was doing. And that's why he hasn't ever directed a movie [since then]. That's the thing. That's what happens in this business. You want to be a director and you politick and you write a script that you want to direct, fine. Do it. But know what you're doing. He didn't."
According to Mann, Picerni threatened to leave the production a week before wrap. There was a big fight between him and de Souza. Mann remembers Picerni walking.
At a certain point, Mann says, they had no director on the set. Fraker directed some scenes. "To us, at that point," says Mann, "it was like no problem."
Production wrapped in Australia with 20 pages left to shoot. The actors returned to the United States scratching their heads. "A month later," says Mann, "I got a call saying you're going to Vancouver to finish the movie."
De Souza got three extra days to shoot in Vancouver, where a crew rebuilt the entire set for the Ryu and Vega fight scene that would cap the film, a recreation of the set built for the Thailand shoot. Like much of the early fight work led by Picerni, the original footage from Thailand didn't include any of the game's signature special moves. At the request of Capcom, de Souza reshot the fight to look like Street Fighter.
Editing — great editing, award-winning editing — could save this movie. Maybe. Possibly. Hopefully.
As difficult as the past few months had been, de Souza managed to get the entire film in the can. He could take what he had and make the best of it in the editing bay, where Capcom couldn't add characters, sets couldn't fall apart and stunt coordinators couldn't argue with him about how to do his job.
Editing — great editing, award-winning editing — could save this movie. Maybe. Possibly. Hopefully.
Delivering the final cut
Following the popularity of the Aliens and Robocop franchises, both of which spawned gory toy lines, parent advocacy groups had become sensitive to R-rated toy tie-ins. Hasbro and Capcom agreed in their initial discussion that the film wouldn't have an MPAA rating higher than PG-13.
De Souza was known for writing R-rated movies, but he'd cut his teeth on network television programs, like Knight Rider and The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, the latter of which aired at 7 p.m. (or as de Souza calls it, "wussy pussy time"). He knew how to make a PG-13 movie. He knew what violence to keep and what violence to toss.
In early November 1994, a little more than a month before Street Fighter's theatrical release, de Souza sent a cut of the film to the MPAA for a rating. On November 7, 37-year-old Keith Ledeger walked into his former middle school in Wickliffe, Ohio and shot and killed custodian Pete Christopher. Four others were wounded. De Souza's cut of Street Fighter: The Movie received an R rating, which de Souza still believes came as a reaction to an exceptionally sensitive media environment.
"I shot PG-13 and I had to make it softer," says de Souza. Capcom called for a new edit, and the director peeled away even more action, removing the majority of the blood, which the MPAA had cited as the reason for the initial R rating. Many scenes were botched or dissected in order to remove a bloody nose or bloody lip from frame.
The Vega and Ryu fight, which had been shot at high cost for a second time in Vancouver, had to be neutered. Vega falls on his own claw at the end of the film, but you're forgiven for not noticing. When you watch the film, you can't quite tell what happens. Originally, the claw's lethal strike left a bloody wound. De Souza had to cut around it. Snipping these shots was akin to deleting paragraphs from the final pages of a novel.
Stripping the action also backfired for Capcom: The process removed even more of the game's special moves from the final cut — or in some cases, didn't afford the time for their creation. "We were supposed to have some special effects for Hadoukens," says de Souza, referencing Street Fighter's iconic fireball projectiles, "but we lost so much time [in the editing process]. There was no time to put in the special effects."
"There was no time to put in the special effects."
In the pre-digital era, a film needed to be sent far in advance to a specialty lab along with locked-in frame numbers for the special effects. De Souza couldn't lock the film's edit fast enough.
A far less-violent version was shipped to the MPAA for the second pass at a rating. "The MPAA took it down to a G," says de Souza. "It actually got a G from MPAA after the cuts, so the studio added a curse word in post to get PG-13." You'll notice the addition: When Van Damme's character Guile is crawling in the air ducts he gurgles, "I'm too old for this shit." It's a laugh line, but there's nothing to laugh about.
Street Fighter: The Movie received near-unanimous critical derision. It opened third at the box office on December 23, 1994, behind Dumb and Dumber and The Santa Clause, the latter of which was in its seventh week of release.
The film made $33 million domestically. It has the misfortune of owning an unusual stat: It suffered the second-highest drop in ticket sales between Friday and Saturday of its opening weekend, making $3.1 million on opening day, and dropping 55.35 percent to $1.7 million on Saturday.
And yet, the film rallied abroad for a total worldwide gross of nearly $100 million — nearly three times its budget.
According to de Souza, Capcom liked the movie. It had the characters, some of the special moves and Van Damme. They wanted an American action movie; for better and worse, they got one.
Capcom liked the movie.
Hollywood, on the other hand, is fickle. Even when a film is financially successful, the stench of failure — whether real or perceived — is enough to sully a career.
"Street Fighter was probably the most tumultuous shoot I've ever been involved in," says Mann. The actor never landed another lead role in a big-budget American film, but found consistent work in television. In 2012, Mann voiced a character in Call of Duty: Black Ops 2, fittingly a video game that aspires to be like a movie.
Similar to Mann, Chapa moved into television work after Street Fighter. In the past decade, Chapa has turned to writing and directing low-budget films, like Night Bird, in which a man "witnesses the brutal and devastating murder of his parents and years later grows up to lead a disturbing double life between night and day."
Street Fighter was one of seven movies Picerni worked on in 1994, including Beverly Hills Cop 3 and True Lies. His career continued onward and upward. On IMDB.com, the 79-year-old currently has a staggering 340 stunt credits. Most recently, Picerni did a few days as a stunt driver on the game-to-movie adaptation of Need for Speed. He's still upset about Street Fighter. "I don't think de Souza was a very good director, between you and I," says Picerni, "and I don't care if you quote that. I think he stunk. Because I think Street Fighter could have been a good movie."
After Street Fighter, Van Damme's career went south, tanking with Universal Soldier: The Return. Afterward, the actor didn't appear in a theatrically released film for nine years, between 1999 and 2008, though he did show up in a Bob Sinclair music video. Perhaps Sinclair saw Van Damme's work in the equally surreal music video for Street Fighter: The Movie's theme song, MC Hammer (featuring Deion Sanders)'s "Straight to My Feet."
De Souza's script for Judge Dredd was produced in 1995; after that, big-budget work slowed for the writer. De Souza returned to directing in 2000 with the Showtime movie Possessed in which Timothy Dalton plays a WWII chaplain-turned-exorcist. The film received little critical attention.
Street Fighter wasn't de Souza's final pass at adapting a video game. In 2003, de Souza was credited for the story in Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, starring Angelina Jolie, an adaptation of Eidos' Tomb Raider.
In 2009, Capcom took another stab at Street Fighter as a Hollywood action series. Ironically, the film focused on Chun-Li, one of the many Street Fighter characters de Souza had had to squeeze into his film at Capcom's request. The film also shot in Bangkok.
Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li had a total worldwide gross of $12.7 million. According to BoxOfficeMojo, the film cost an estimated $50 million. No further live-action Street Fighter films have been produced.
Kylie Minogue, of course, became an international pop star, launching her American celebrity status off the Billboard No. 1 hit "Can't Get You Out of My Head."
"I would love to do more movies," Minogue said in a 2009 interview with Billboard magazine. "I really got waylaid and sidetracked. I started out as an actress and I thought that's what I would do."
Every screenwriter wants to be a director; every pop star wants to be an actress; every game wants to be a movie; everybody wants to be somebody else; and nobody wants to be themselves.
Design: Tyson Whiting, Ally Palanzi