A few months ago I wrote an article for Mondo Exploito about the 1994 Mark “Jacko” Jackson buddy-cop outing Bullet Down Under (known in Australia as Signal One). I was amazed that this film existed. I was even more amazed I couldn’t find a great deal about it on the internet – what is wrong with you people? It should be in everyone’s collection. So I decided to track down the Bullet Down Under screenwriter, Karl Schiffman, and ask him a few questions about the film and the script he wrote for the Roddy Piper/Billy Blanks kick-flick Back in Action. I also wanted to discuss Billy Blanks’ chest.
No film school, and no doubt it’s obvious from those deathless classics of mine you’ve chosen to review here. I was always involved in theatre and photography at the University of Melbourne and then went off to Toronto to do a PhD. But as soon as I got those precious three letters, I left academia to shoot documentaries in weird places around the world.
The doco biz got a bit scary so I wrote a screenplay that was optioned by Warner Bros for a few years. A nice ego deal but it never went into production. I wrote a few more spec screenplays that also enjoyed a bit of foreplay in the studio development mill so I moved to Los Angeles where I met Neal Gechtman. He had the beginnings of an idea for an Aussie/US buddy-cop movie and hired me to write Bullet Down Under. When Jacko came on board it only made sense to re-write it for him to chew up the scenery with his larrikin charm.
I haven’t seen a DVD of Bullet Down Under. That obligation wasn’t in the contract. I’m not sure I could take such a close encounter with my crimes. My fondest take-aways are the various posters for the Japanese and Brazilian releases of Bullet Down Under. They were so cheesy and unvarnished.
You went on to write other genre films like the Eric Roberts cop thriller Dead End and Back in Action, which starred Roddy Piper and Billy Blanks. Was Back in Action written before Bullet Down Under? Can you tell me how Back in Action came about?
Back in Action came after Bullet Down Under. The film was based on a casting decision. The distributors called me in for a meeting which added up to something like, “We’ve got redneck Roddy Piper and a black karate guy with a chest that could make Mike Tyson ovulate… Okay, that’s it… So now that you know the story, go write us a movie!” The LA earthquake had just left a crack in my pool, so I was on it in a flash. I wrote it in 15 days but to convey a greater sense of craftsmanship, I didn’t give it to them for another week.
Back in Action is credited with two directors. Do you know the story behind that?
Back in Action was shot in Toronto but the rather talented, rad kid who started in the director’s chair had a blowout with the Shapiro/Glickenhaus distribution machine and got himself fired. The associate producer, George Flak, was a buddy of mine. We were once at the American Film Market in LA when some breathless Eastern European distributor cornered George and gushed endlessly (and eruditely) about Back in Action being the best action film since Battleship Potemkin, or something. George kept looking around for the hidden cameras. He was convinced I’d set him up and paid the guy for the scene.
I was later hired to write an outline for a sequel. Back in Action 2 has been a squeak away from production a couple of times. So, who knows what foolishness the future holds.
Do you have any advice for budding screenwriters?
Advice…? Gawd, no. Screenwriting is a great game if you write easily and have bulletproof self-esteem based on having at least a couple of other worthwhile qualities.
What are you working on at the moment? Any screenplays you would like to see get made?
Of course I have screenplays on my shelf that any producer could see is set to out-gross the Bourne trilogy. But the right rainmaker hasn’t seen them yet. Every film which goes into production is a statistical miracle. It’s like tossing a dozen coins in the air and knowing they’ve all got to come up heads. In the meantime there are more scripts in the works. And I’m having fun writing rather more experimental work for the theatre.
I would like to thank Karl for letting me badger him about Bullet Down Under and Back in Action, and for making a screenwriting-nerd happy. Thanks Karl.