Interview with Samantha Fuller: Samuel Fuller’s daughter directs documentary about her father

The daughter of legendary filmmaker Samuel Fuller is currently working on a documentary called A Fuller Life. To maintain the project’s artistic control, she decided to raise funds independently, following Sam’s footsteps. Until now, Samantha has filmed James Franco, Wim Wenders, Tim Roth, Mark Hamill, James Toback, Bill Duke and Robert Carradine, among others. The documentary will also reveal Sam Fuller’s unseen footage, on a storyline that becomes intermingled with XX century History. Samantha Fuller talked exclusively to Wand’rin’ Star about her work, her father’s memories, and the way she wants to keep the legacy alive, presenting it to new generations.

Samuel Fuller and Samantha Fuller.
Samuel Fuller and Samantha Fuller.

The first time I “saw” Samantha Fuller was in the small role she played on White Dog, as the racist’s grandchild, a man who trained his dog to kill black people. The tribulations of that movie, which I already described here, led to Samuel Fuller’s self-imposed exile in Paris. Samantha grew there; studied at the Sorbonne, and after her father’s death, in 1997, returned to the USA, where she lives today.

A Fuller Life is a work in progress; Samantha wants to raise funds publicly, so that her father’s centennial can be celebrated with a documentary directed by her, to be released in 2013. That’s what she explains in her Kickstarter page. She wants the film to be shown in festivals, obtaining the widest release possible. Or, at least, enough for a DVD release. The director’s daughter is also digitally restoring several reels shot by Fuller, which were recently found and portray American and also XX century History, since the images bring us back to World War II or Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Much of the material has already been shot, and, like her father and mother, actress Christa Lang-Fuller, Samantha intends to succeed in the movie business with caution, keeping artistic control, although she knows much has changed since the times when her father directed movie after movie, almost without concessions, obtaining great success.

samantha fuller interview (10)This can be an important project, historically speaking – it’s almost a piece of cinema History in the making. Samantha Fuller kindly answered my questions about the project, his father and the impact he had in her life and in cinema itself.

There are some interesting documentaries about Samuel Fuller, like The Typewriter, the Rifle & the Movie Camera or the TCM special, among DVD extras and shorts. What will A Fuller Life show his admirers (and also to people who don’t know his work)?

My father and I often discussed doing something special for his 100th birthday, it was his way of keeping my hopes up that he would be alive to celebrate together.

samantha fuller interview (7)He was 63 when I was born, and I am his only child. We knew that predictably he wouldn’t be around for many more decades and talking about his triple digit birthday was always a soothing way to speculate that he could possibly still be alive for this event. Although he’s been gone for quite some time now, I feel like his presence has never left, and that I should honor my word by planning a centennial celebration.

For this occasion my mother and I decided to invite some friends to come read selected passages from my father’s autobiography A Third Face, I think that he’d be pleased to see his fellow-filmmakers bring his story to life. His life was full of great stories interwoven in historical, educational contexts.

He witnessed important chapters of American history, from reporting on the Great Depression era, infiltrating himself into KKK meetings, to risking his life while fighting four years in WWII as a dogface infantryman. I came across one hundred reels of 16mm film that my father shot with his Bell & Howell camera and have never been shown to the public. A carefully selected batch has recently been converted to digital format and will be incorporated into this film. This selection includes my father’s WWII footage, N.Y. in the 50’s, Hollywood in the Golden Age and fun snippets of home movies.

Christa, Samantha and Samuel Fuller.
Christa, Samantha and Samuel Fuller.

Samuel Fuller’s work stood the test of time. Do you think (or hope) your documentary will help in exposing his legacy to a new generation of film fans?

His story puts us into situations we can relate to in our present society. Economic hardships, racism and wars being major battles, always current in some part of the world. His perseverance, determination, and good sense of humor are inspiring to me and I hope also to others.

Over half a century he wrote, directed and produced numerous film projects, many of them based on his own experiences. He collected a plethora of memorabilia connected to his life. His office, a place he likes to call “the shack” has been left untouched since the day he died on October 30th, 1997. I’ve kept it intact for personal reasons, it is a magical place, a sort of time-warp. I feel like the time has come for me to share this great setting with an audience who I believe will sense the spirit of Sam celebrating his centennial along with us.

Samuel Fuller's office:
Samuel Fuller’s office: “The Shack”.

The readers bring Sam back to life by telling his stories in his words. They all speak from the heart and deliver amazing performances. I believe that actors like James Franco who opens up the readings will generate interest in a younger audience. Other guests who include Wim Wenders, Tim Roth and Mark Hamill among others, have a following who will discover my father’s story via this tribute. This is a timeless piece of American history combined with a timeless piece in film History.

In the Kickstarter page, you mention the preservation of material your father shot. What do you intend to do to preserve his legacy?

My father left over 100 reels of unseen footage he shot with his 16mm Bell & Howell camera spanning over three decades. I am doing my best to get those reels transferred to digital quality. Some of which I will be using in A Fuller Life.

samantha fuller interview

Films like China Gate have not been released on DVD. Do you or Christa Fuller have control over these editions?

No. But I’m sure the DVD will be out eventually.

You played a small part in White Dog as the racist’s grandchild. Do have any recollections of that shoot or the shelving of the film, that shameful episode which caused your family to go live in Paris?

Yes, I have quite a shocking line in that film: “Where’s my dog?” spoken from the mouth of a sweet little Caucasian girl looking for her racist killer dog… my recollection of the White Dog shoot mostly consists of me playing with the cast of white dogs used in different scenes. I was about six at the time, so I wasn’t involved in the political aspect of the film. When I look back, I can only imagine my father’s frustration and disappointment seen how the movie was or wasn’t released properly. A controversial situation emerged from this controversial film, leading us to a new path in our lives. The movie wasn’t released in the U.S. until many years later, but it was a success in France. Reflecting on this now, I can say that White Dog changed my life in the sense that we would have probably not moved to France if things had gone differently.

Samantha Fuller in White Dog. The subtitle reads,
Samantha Fuller in White Dog. The subtitle reads, “where is my dog?”

How was it to be educated in France, then going to the US?

I was born in Los Angeles and moved to Paris at the age of seven. The transition from the lush green Hollywood Hills to historically rich Parisian streets was quite drastic and I quickly adapted to a new life style. I loved the social aspect of being in a more condensed environment, interacting with people and easily making new friends. My passport remained American, but my heart became Parisian. I spent 15 years there, and then, the time came for a new switch.

My parents had already moved back to Los Angeles a few years before, and I missed them. After my father died in 1997, I decided to join my mother in California so we could be closer. The shift back to America was difficult, the readjustment took a while, but I managed to settle into a new lifestyle.

Samantha and Samuel Fuller.
Samantha and Samuel Fuller.

Now, it’s been 15 years since I’ve been here, I love both places equally all though I sometimes get the “Paris Blues” and wish I could just hop over to my childhood neighborhood and spend some time at the corner cafe…

You also played a small part in Street of No Return, filmed in Portugal (Sintra). Being on the set, which memories do you have of your father directing? (Or an impression of Portugal, if any? He wrote that he loved the dreamlike atmosphere of Sintra.)

I cherish fond memories of those times. Portugal was indeed dreamlike, and the scenes my father crated were also straight out of a dream. The naked lady riding a horse in the night and the crazy street riots were fun to watch. I liked being directed by my father, and I like the fact that he didn’t give me any special treatment on the set besides a discrete wink here and there.

Reading about Samuel Fuller’s start as a director, he said he was nervous, didn’t know how to make a film. Yet, in I Shot Jesse James, we already see an accomplished director in control, with personal style and unique ideas. How did he manage to do this, without any formal and previous training on directing?

samantha fuller interview (13)I’m glad that you ask that question, because it happens that I just viewed some footage of my father directing his first movie. This was among the reels of film recently discovered and have been transferring to digital. If he was nervous, well he sure didn’t show it. He is smiling and laughing on the set of Jesse James. I will be showing that in A Fuller Life.

Independent filmmaking seems to run in the family. You are working on A Fuller Life in the tradition of your father. Do you have any plans to direct a movie of your own, with a script written by you? (Besides this one?)

Yes, yes and yes.

John Cassavetes, whom Samuel Fuller knew and admired, is considered (in his own right) the “father of independent cinema”. Samuel Fuller came before and was always and independent filmmaker working in the studio system. How did he manage to make such personal and intense films in the context of that system?

There were barely any creative barriers in Sam’s way, all though he did have to compromise in certain situations. I believe it is because he was so close to his characters, he was able to persuade studio heads to accept them if they were to accept Sam.

I find it a paradox: When the studio system collapsed, in the mid-sixties, Mr. Fuller had trouble finding producers. Only in 1969, with Caine, did he manage to direct again. He blamed The Naked Kiss for this gap, but didn’t quite understand why people stopped knocking at his door. Were there other factors involved, do you think?

It is a complex and quite long response that comes to mind, I would be glad to elaborate on that some other time.

Your father said that big budgets would ruin the movie business. The industry is now producing remake after remake, and big budget pictures without much content. (With exceptions and including the mavericks.) How do you look at the movie making business today?

I believe the shift is due to the way people are viewing movies in our times. Less people go to the theater because first of all it is quite an investment to go out for a movie night with an average family income especially with the current economy, and second of all, many of these average income movie goers now have managed to obtain a big screen TV to watch movies from home.

The way a non-big budget film is to be successfully released is a bit of a blur to me as I do not yet have much experience in that domain. It seems that even many big budget movies don’t make as much profit as expected. We are in the midst of a conversion. As for big budget pointless remakes, they will always exist, and personally, I don’t always dislike them as long as I know that the creators of the original don’t get too hurt. My father and I may have different opinions when it comes to this.

samantha fuller interview (2)

Some people still consider your father a B movie director because he often worked with tight budgets. These are two different things. Don’t you think this is a misconception?

In my father’s words, “I like to make A movies on a B Budget”.

Shark! was cut by the producers and the DVD is quite bad. I found it quite compelling, but ruined by this. Is there a chance of restoring Mr. Fuller’s original cut?

Not that I know of.

Your father wrote that he wanted “her little girl to be proud of him”. You obviously are. What was the most important lesson you learned from him?

“Stay as sweet as you are, don’t let the world change you.” quoted from his buddy Nat King Cole’s song.

I’m sure you watched your father’s films. Which ones do you prefer, and what do you specifically like most about his work?

I love the range of his work. I also love the way he projects himself into the characters whether it’s snippets of himself or people who left a mark on him. His dialogue is always to the point, he didn’t beat around the bush… and despised what he called “gibble gabble”.

A Fuller Life has an impressive list of guests. Can you unveil a name or two, among the ones who will participate?

I will tell you who we shot so far and what parts of Sam’s life they are reading.
James Franco reading about Sam’s early days in the 1920’s N.Y streets as a copyboy.
Bill Duke reading about Sam’s Freelance reporting days in the 1930’s crossing the U.S. during the depression days.
James Toback reading about Sam’s first encounter with Hollywood and screenwriting.
A Big Red One reunion with Kelly Ward, Perry Lang, Robert Carradine and Mark Hamill reading about Sam’s enlistment in the Big Red One U.S. infantry and his first experiences in battle.
Tim Roth reading about the bloody beaches on DDay.
Wim Wenders reading about Sam’s double encounter with Marlene Dietrich.
Monte Hellman describing the horrors of the Nazi camps. 
Buck Henry reading about Sam’s emersion back to Hollywood after fighting four years in WWII.
More to come…

David Furtado

Special thanks to Christa Fuller

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