Behind-the-Scenes of NEW YORK NINJA: An Exclusive Q&A with Kurtis & Brad of Vinegar Syndrome
Updated: Nov 3, 2021
Written by Eddie Gurrola, Cinematic Void Marketing Manager
Photos courtesy of Kurtis Spieler and Vinegar Syndrome
As a completed film, NEW YORK NINJA (out now on Blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome) is one wild ride. But the story behind what you’re watching might be even crazier. Originally intended to be the directorial debut of martial arts star John Liu, the film was shot in 1984 in New York City, but was never completed.
35 years later, the good folks at Vinegar Syndrome came across reels of footage from the abandoned project. Unfortunately, there was no sound, and no script to run off of. So they decided to finish the movie themselves, writing a script from scratch, and enlisting the voice talents of Don "The Dragon" Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Michael Berryman, Linnea Quigley, and Leon Issac Kennedy to complete the film. The result is a unique, off-the-wall, and kick-ass film experience that serves as one of the most genuine and painstakingly-crafted love letters to 80s cinema that we’ve ever seen.
We sat down with the (re)director and writer of NEW YORK NINJA, Kurtis Spieler, and producer Brad Henderson, to get the whole story on how the film came together from start to finish. We hope you enjoy.
John Liu in NEW YORK NINJA
Cinematic Void: For those that might not have heard of the project before, can you give us some background on how you got your hands on NEW YORK NINJA and what you had to work with initially…
Kurtis Spieler: NEW YORK NINJA was originally shot in 1984, and due to production and budgetary issues, the movie was never finished and eventually abandoned. About 35 years later, Vinegar Syndrome acquired a group of films from a company called 21st Century Distribution that went defunct in the 80s. In that group of films were all of the original unedited camera rolls for NEW YORK NINJA. Unfortunately, all of the sound elements were missing, so all we had was silent, unedited picture. I then took that footage and edited the most coherent film that I could, and wrote new dialogue to match the edit.
When you (re)wrote the script, it must have been a one-of-a-kind process that you went through - shaping a story from something where you’d been able to see every piece you had to work with, visually, ahead of time. Can you tell us what you ended up settling on as far as how to tackle this practically?
Kurtis: The writing process was both fun and challenging. I spent a lot of time going through the footage during the editing process, so I was able to build the story as I went along. I took notes on each scene as to what I thought was happening and then worked to make the edit as smooth as possible first. Then, I wrote the dialogue to match the new cut. As I started building the story more and more, I would go back and forth between the edit and the writing, smoothing each one out.
Brad Henderson: Kurtis was the mastermind behind this whole process. At first, it’s difficult to imagine because when you’re seeing this odd movie and reading the script - you think to yourself, "Is this going to work?" However, once the actors came in and the sound design was happening, it all made sense and fell into place.
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The final product felt very authentic, and very much in line with some of the under-the-radar 80s films that Vinegar Syndrome has released, even down to the dialogue we all love so much from films of that era. What were some of the tactics you guys used to create this style of dialogue for the film?
Kurtis: I didn't use any particular films for inspiration when it came to the dialogue. If I could read the lips, I would try and use those lines as much as possible to match what they were saying. I would then write new dialogue before and after those lines trying to match the syllables and mouth movements the best I could. The timing of the mouth movements and emotion of the character dictated most of what was being said. I predominantly focused on the main characters, and where specific dialogue was needed to tell the story. Many of the background characters were voiced by voiceover actors at a company called 3Beep, and many of them improvised their lines when you couldn't see the character's mouth movements.
Brad: Again, Kurtis wrote the script, but I was a big proponent of making this film as authentic as possible. When the project first started, it was discussed on how we would approach all of this. Kurtis and I were always on the same page with making this as authentic as possible and [to] be honest and sincere with the project. We never wanted to make it hokey or poke fun at the film. We kept saying, “Let’s make this as if we were in 1984.” All these films we know and love that we laugh and have a good time with, [they] were all made in a serious manner. I can’t imagine any of these filmmakers set out to make a “bad” movie. They approached these projects with a serious tone and that’s exactly what we did.
Don "The Dragon" Wilson vs. Michael Berryman (as voice actors)
When I was watching the film, there were only a few moments where I could tell something looked obviously “dubbed over.” Did you guys do research on mouth movements and what not as part of this process?
Brad: There are some moments like that, but it was never meant to looked dubbed. However, we liked that because it added to the authenticity of the film.
Kurtis: I did watch many dubbed films to try and learn what I could from them. I particularly watched a lot of Italian genre films, because they are known for being dubbed in many different languages, therefore there was a mix of dubbing. Sometimes you would have one character speaking English and being dubbed in English while the character they are talking to is speaking Italian but is also dubbed in English. I used these films as inspiration to try and better understand the dubbing process.
Brad, we’ve heard that you tracked down everyone that was initially part of this project, including John Liu, and they had varying degrees of enthusiasm when they heard that the project was actually going to see the light of day. Can you share some anecdotes from what you experienced?
Brad: John Liu was difficult to track down and it took months and months to get the answer that we did. As far as some of the other actors, they sadly passed away. Not many fun stories here. However, Adrienne [Meltzer, the actress who plays Randi] was kinda funny. Imagine filming a movie in the 80s, never hearing about it again and then getting a call 30-plus years later about what this team is doing. [She] was definitely caught off guard and really didn’t know what we were doing. It took many, many, many phone calls with her to have her understand that we were being serious and genuine with the whole thing.
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I’m curious to know what you observed about Liu’s demeanor during the shoot in the raw footage you had to comb through. Did this seem like a passion project for him? Was this something that seemed like “his baby” in a certain sense?
Kurtis: When it comes to John Liu, I can't speak to his demeanor as there is almost no behind-the-scenes footage. The film was pretty much abandoned by all those involved, so if I had to speculate, I don't think anyone was really happy with the result. I spent a lot of time going through the footage, and any time they turned the camera around on the crew to capture b-roll of the production, I cut it out and put it aside. One of the many special features on the disc is all the b-roll and outtakes that I could find.
35 years from now, what do you guys want NEW YORK NINJA to be remembered as?
Kurtis: I hope that New York Ninja will gain a cult status over the years. We all went into this project with the intention of paying respect to these types of films and trying to stay as close as possible to what we thought the original version was intended to be. With that said, I guess the greatest compliment would be to have someone watch the film, not knowing what went into the restoration, and just simply thinking that it was actually a completed film from the 80s. There's a famous line in a FUTURAMA episode that goes, "When you do things right, people won't be sure that you did anything at all." As much as I want people to appreciate all the hard work that went into restoring and reviving this lost film, if people can watch it and appreciate it without knowing what went into it, then I guess I did my job.
Brad: I love that people understand what we did. It feels good when people get it and fully get into what we accomplished. However, I will be elated when this thing is out there and people will just think they uncovered this odd movie from 1984 and wouldn’t believe the story behind it. They would just think it was completed back in the day and that’s that. To me, that would be the highest form of flattery because that was what we were trying to accomplish all along.
Final question: As we get our lists ready for the annual Vinegar Syndrome Black Friday sale, what are some films from the catalog that we might be sleeping on and should pick up this year?
Kurtis: There are a lot of VS movies that I think go under the radar, but if I had to pick one right now, I would say DEATH PROMISE. The reason being is that DEATH PROMISE is probably the closest thing in our catalog to NEW YORK NINJA. DEATH PROMISE plays out more seriously than NYN, but it has a similar vibe and, in fact, some of the people involved in that production were also involved in NYN.
Brad: I can never name one, but SHALLOW GRAVE, SUDDEN FURY, and THROUGH THE FIRE would be a few.
Thanks to Brad and Kurtis for working on this feature with us.
NEW YORK NINJA is available now from Vinegar Syndrome. Please pick it up!