Albert Pyun’s 54th feature film, doubles down on his need to express himself with his latest science fiction epic Interstellar Civil War! With a vast and varied filmography made up of genre fodder like The Sword and the Sorcerer, Cyborg, Captain America, Nemesis, Mean Guns, Ticker, Pyun is back with his most personal work yet. The 64-year old filmmaker from Hawaii has been called a visual stylist and a genre auteur. Whereas most of his contemporaries have chosen to make exploitation films more or less to fit a video box, Pyun audaciously shot most of his films in wide screen cinema scope. He also spent the better portion of his career taking on subgenres and mashed them together in ways that frightened the studios financing his films. Throughout his career, Pyun always presented glimmers of artistic skill and oddball points of view (called Pyuniverse by his fans).
Pyun has always felt his films were released after the studios recut his director’s version of his pictures, or at times he was removed altogether from the editing of his films before getting his director’s cut. Now in his fourth decade of professional filmmaking (he began as an editor and assistant cameraman in the early 70’s), his production pace has slowed, as the cost of his reputation for being a wayward filmmaker caught up with his needing to fabricate a film he has in his mind’s eye.
Before he made his latest film Interstellar Civil War he was diagnosed with early onset dementia. Pyun being Pyun saw it as a chance to create a unique film experience as he made the film his way (it was shot in 7 days over a two year time span). He’s very proud of his ersatz sci-fi epic. The film began as a celebration of David Lynch’s Dune and the surreal styling’s of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Terrence Malick. What he has created is one of his longest and most complicated films, steeped heavily in ideas. “The film and screenplay was heavily filtered by what dementia was doing to my brain,” Pyun says. “The treatments and general disruption of my brain shaped what the movie is and what the movie means.” Amazingly, Pyun edited the film himself, with his Producer/Cinematographer, Michael Su’s help. Pyun had to learn editing software and was limited to working only 6 hours a day. “My brain would get exhausted and then came the seizures” Pyun admits. “My wife, Cynthia, would find me unconscious in bed with the laptop falling to my side.”
Yet even with the disease affecting his health, Pyun preserved. Instead of resisting the disease’s effects on him, he tried to use it to fashion a very distinct point of view. “People always wondered, what in the world was I thinking when I made my movies.” he reflects. “Well, now they’ll know.” The disease even affected him on set as he was shooting the film. “I would essentially have a seizure during some of the takes. And sometimes I forgot where I was and who all these actors and crew members were.” The cast and crew of Interstellar Civil War knew of Pyun’s condition and he credits them for their patience and skill for the quality of the film. “Michael Su was not only the DP but also the Producer and my close friend and more of a collaborator and ghost director. He was the glue that held it all together.”
As to the subject matter and genre of the film, Pyun discusses: “I was always curious about the behind the scenes aspect of the power of a space opera. My idea was to make a Sci-Fi Galactic version of Lion in Winter or A Man for All Seasons. To explore the human perspective behind all the war and mayhem in a futuristic galactic Empire sounded fascinating. I was influenced by some of the great historical films of the 60’s, 70’s, and 90’s, particularly Ridley Scott’s director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven. I thought that a rebellion and crisis that erupts in the all-powerful Imperial Galaxy was an excellent basis to study the underlying politics in a real way and the terrible cost of a conflict, any conflict, actually. I wanted the movie to explore how a ruling system of government – no matter how stable and noble – and how a rebellion springing from an avoidable tragedy and cultural and religious zeal, is so willing to use their populations as simply cannon fodder to advance each side’s political and religious views through war and killing.”
As to how he chose to tell the story, Pyun comments: “I knew I wanted to make a movie that bucks against the audience’s expectations of what a sci-fi space opera is usually like in movies. I wanted it to be a movie of ideas and I really wanted to make you think about what you were watching. Where the characters used intellect and words as their weapons of choice.” Pyun wrote the screenplay with his wife and collaborator, Cynthia Curnan, who was well suited to crafting the film’s screenplay with a PhD and career as a therapist. Curnan has also written most of Pyun’s films since 2005, beginning with his horror movie, the award winning, “Invasion” (2005), which was filmed in a single take.
Mostly, after seeing his film Road To Hell, a nightmarish, surreal journey of a man searching for cantharis and redemption, one begins to understand the journey Pyun is on. He is someone who feels that he was a prisoner to genre fodder for more than 20 years. While not denigrating of the 48 films he made during his early career, he feels like Dementia has given him a clarity. “It’s been liberating and, in a way, exhilarating.” he says. “I’ve always been a firm believer that one’s brain becomes acclimated by the environment they live in. And that was true of me in the 80’s and 90’s, when I made as many as 5 films in a year. I believed I had to make movies to explore ideas I had, and I thought I had a lot of ideas, but it was corrupted, in a sense, by real world pressures of providing work for my co-workers. So I’d get an idea and then thought up a movie around that idea and went off to make that. Slowly, I was dying as an artist. I just got onto the hamster wheel and kept running. But since my experience was so horrible on Ticker and the next 4 films after that, I found I had lost the ability to even have the ideas. I took a year off and then in that year I got an idea and expanded that into a whole movie. Not generically like I had been doing, but organically. This began a rejuvenating process for me. A healing. And the dementia came about at the right time; I was open to its altered state. I really got clarity by prioritizing things in my life. I can feel the disease taking me away slowly, and I know there will come a day when I will not recognize the reflection when I look in the mirror.”