The original Captain America

Movies Blog

With Marvel's Avengers just assembling on Blu-ray, we're all geared up for a second instalment of Chris Evans' First Avenger, super-soldier Captain America. Cast your minds back to 1990 though, and to paraphrase Yoda, there was another.

[Related story: The mad Jurassic Park 4 film that was never made]

Cult director Albert Pyun's 'Captain America' starred Matt Salinger (son of 'Catcher in the Rye' author JD, no less) as the super-heroic Steve Rogers, and Scott Paulin as his nemesis The Red Skull. It wasn't quite like the Marvel films we're getting now…

YAHOO!: How did your version of Captain America first get up and running?

ALBERT PYUN: I knew that [studio] Canon and [producer] Menahem Golan had the rights, and I grew up as a fan of the comic book so I had an interest in it and I'd heard that the script they already had for it was quite good. I read it and I liked it a lot; I particularly appreciated the fact that it was a period piece, set in the1940s. I was looking forward to doing something with that. I went in to Menahem and told him that I was interested in doing it, and that I could do it for a reasonable number. He needed a high-profile film for his new company — he'd just left Canon — and so he green-lit it, but he didn't have the funding all in place yet.

So was it in trouble right from the beginning?

You could say that… It was shot in Yugoslavia, and the funding never really materialised. The budget was supposed to be almost $4m [for context, Tim Burton's Batman, made at around the same time, cost $48m], but the production company was never able to close the bank loan. It was quite a tense situation. We couldn't even afford film stock towards the end. The shoot happened one day with no film: we just pretended we were shooting, because we didn't want to let people know that we'd run out of film and didn't have the money to buy any more! I'm sure [recent 'Captain America' director] Joe Johnston experienced exactly the same thing!

We'll come back to that, but let's stay with the set-up for now: how did you decide to cast (son of JD!) Matt Salinger?

We went through a normal casting process where we were looking at unknown actors, and I just thought Matt had a real old-fashioned quality, as opposed to a lot of the younger actors we were seeing, who felt more contemporary. Matt was tall, which I felt was important, and he was lean enough to be believable in the beginning as a little bit disabled. We saw some really big guys. One of the actors we were pretty serious about was an Oakland Raider football player, Howie Long, who's a PBS commentator now. In terms of the Captain America part of it he was perfect. He had a square jaw and he was all—American, but it would have been tough to make him look skinny. Matt felt a lot more sensitive, and I felt he could bring a lot more depth to it.

And what about your Red Skull, Scott Paulin?

I love Scott Paulin, and it was a difficult part because he always started the day with a really long make-up. I can't really remember why we made him Italian though. A lot of people wonder about that. I think we just liked the Italian fashions. You can actually see in the film where our budget kind of disappeared. The opening scene with the young Red Skull was when we still had money, and from that point on it fell apart more and more.

How involved were Marvel with films of their properties in those days?

The main person we dealt with at Marvel Corporate was Joseph Calamari, and I don't think that he was a fan of Menahem doing the film at all. He wasn't that flexible. We had a real problem with the costume, the red, white and blue, because I just couldn't see how that was going to come off on film effectively. It needed to be adjusted, but Marvel were very strict about how their heroes were represented, so they really shot down a lot of our ideas on making the look of Captain America a lot more palatable. They were very strict about everything. They were looking for a breach at every level. It was very restrictive, particularly when the budget didn't materialise and we needed to make a lot of creative adjustments. They really held us to the strict letter of the agreement. But then Stan Lee was the creative person on the other side, and he was great to deal with and very supportive.

What other problems did you start to encounter as the production started to unravel?

We tried to do some things that I guess would be easier now. We couldn't really do any large-scale action. There were just a whole bunch of tiny pieces that were manageable, as opposed to big set-pieces. So that was really frustrating, because we couldn't really show Cap doing a lot, and what we could show him doing had to be on a very small scale. The studio wanted action and explosions, but it couldn't deliver on that level.

It was eventually released in quite a truncated version: tell us about your Director's Cut.

A couple of years ago I found my original 35mm cut of Captain America, and it's much longer: it's almost 130 minutes long, with a lot more scenes, which nobody had ever really seen it. It's much, much different than the 90-minute version that was eventually released, which skips a lot of the character stuff. The version I did was much more of a character study, of the person that became Captain America, and his feelings about living up to that name. That was all we could really do, and I think that holds up really well. It's quite tragic and sad and he wonders what price he's paid for undertaking his role. By the end he really has empathy for Red Skull. Steve Rogers sees how he could easily have become that. Both he and the Red Skull have essentially had their lives taken away from them. Red Skull was a much more tragic, embittered figure who wanted to return to a time when he was himself.

It was a much more emotional movie, and the action is better because it's more in context. We really focused on the characters and Matt did a really good job with that. The idea was that it wasn't a rah-rah patriotic thing: it was about what any soldier gives up in their life, and the price they pay for upholding their duty.

And Captain America wasn't your only brush with Marvel was it? Didn't you almost make a Spider-Man film?

Growing up I was a huge fan of all the Marvel comics, and 'Spider-Man' was something I really wanted to do. Again, the story was very tragic, and the script was good, but it got changed a lot as the budget shrunk. The plan was to start 'Spider-Man', take a break and make another film on the same sets and let Peter Parker bulk up in the meantime, and then come back two months later and shoot the same guy as Spider-Man. We had a great trainer lined up. It would have been really effective. The other film was going to be 'Masters of the Universe 2'. We hired a surfer from Hawaii named Laird Hamilton to play He-Man. He really was quite good. He worked out pretty hard. We had great sets and great costumes, and the stories were good, and we were ready to go! But first 'Spider-Man' fell apart, and then 'Masters of the Universe', and 'Cyborg' was the bastard child that came out of it. We'd built all the sets and we needed to shoot something on them!

Watch the 1990 'Captain America' trailer below...

The aftermath

'Captain America' was set for theatrical release in the summer of 1990, to tie in with the 50th anniversary of the character. However, possibly because of bad test screenings, it was postponed for two years.

It was eventually released straight-to-VHS in 1992, earning terrible reviews.