With that in mind, I knew I could never become good at playing cards, where you’re supposed to know how to count, and fast.
Well, Richard Munchkin is the one I envy – not only because he’s a professional blackjack player (he’s also in the BlackJack Hall of Fame!), but also because aside from being a professional gambler, he also brought us some of the best of the 90s action movies.
Munchkin is responsible for bringing the genre fans such films as “Ring of Fire”, “Deadly Bet”, “Fists of Iron”, “Guardian Angel” – these three action/martial arts films had nearly all of the 90s biggest stars, such as Don Dragon Wilson, Jeff Wincott, Gary Daniels, Matthias Hues, Cynthia Rothrock, and so on.
Since watching a film, and knowing the production details are two different things, in this exclusive interview to BZFilm, Richard Munchkin recalls his work on these cult movies, and also talks a little about his other side – of a professional gambler.
Judging by the information online, Richard Munchkin has two passions in life, one is gambling and the other is movies. How does one combine the two? Which one is more important to you?
Because of the ups and downs of the film business I have always needed a reliable income like gambling. I went through college playing backgammon and poker, and then moved to Las Vegas and became a professional blackjack player. Originally I wanted to be an actor, (my degree was in theater) but I was unwilling to come to LA and wash dishes at night to pursue it.
Once I got to LA and did a little acting in film, it was nothing like acting on stage which is what I was used to. The final straw was when I went to an audition and the casting director sat in the back of the room on a phone call during the entire audition. I was fortunate that I could make the transition to working behind the camera. The great thing about gambling is I completely control my own destiny. I work when I want, for as long as I want, as long as the casinos don’t throw me out.
You made your first film in 1987 – “Dance or Die”, then you for the next several years switched to martial arts movies, first of which was “Ring of Fire” with Don Dragon Wilson. How did the “Ring of Fire” got off the ground?
This is a crazy story. I met with Joseph Merhi (co-owner of PM Ent.) in mid December of 1990. He said they wanted to do a kickboxing movie in February, and would I be interested in directing. I said absolutely, can I see a script? He said, “Sure, as soon as you write it”.
I was headed to Chicago for Christmas, so I called my brother and told him to rent every kick boxing movie he could find, and that we had 2 weeks to write a script. We had so little time I said we should steal from the best, Shakespeare. We’ll do Romeo and Juliet with kick boxing. We started writing in December, started shooting in February, and screened the film in June.
IMDB says the budget for the “Ring of Fire 2” was $2 million. How big was the budget for the first film?
Producers always lie about the cost of their movies. I think the budget was $350,000.
Your next film “Deadly Bet” was done for PM Entertainment. Any good memories of working on that film with Jeff Wincott?
I have a lot of great memories on that film. Also some not so great. With low budget film making conditions are not always the best, so all the ring fight were shot in a warehouse in Van Nuys, in July. So it was over 100 degrees outside, and then you were in a big metal box with a huge hot ring light above the ring, it was over 120 degrees in there with no air conditioning. It was brutal for me so I can’t imagine how hard it was on the fighters.
Then we moved to Vegas for the 2nd half of the shoot, and I love Vegas. Plus it is so easy to film there because the town would welcome film crews with open arms. Crazy thing was I was handed a script of “Deadly Bet” that was 47 pages long, while normal script is 90-110 pages long. The last 40 minutes of that film was 1 line in the script – “He goes to a big tournament, and wins”. That was it.
One funny story, I remember Steven Vincent Leigh had a personal trainer that had been Mr. Spain or something like that. He had Steven on a special diet and work out (and maybe a few special supplements) and Steven was getting ripped. Jeff didn’t want to be outdone so he hired the same guy, and you can see in the film how much their bodies change in just a couple weeks. It was amazing how ripped they got in such a short period of time.
Something else happened on that film that really had an effect on me. I went down to breakfast one morning with Charlene Tilton. The waitress came up and said, “Charlene, how are you?”
They started talking and the waitress was talking to her about the new school Charlene’s daughter was in and the hospital Charlene’s mother was in, and on and on. Finally I said we needed to order because we had to get to the set. When the waitress left I asked Charlene, “How do you know that woman?” Charlene said, “I’ve never seen her before in my life.” This woman knew everything about Charlene’s personal life! Where her daughter was in school, her mother, everything. I realized if that is what fame is I wanted no part of it. It was scary.
As a person born in a former Soviet Union, I must say that among all your films, “Fists Of Iron” was the one that everyone knew about in the age of “VHS”. Please tell how you worked on this particular film… Michael Worth in his interview to BZFilm used to say the film got shot in only 3 weeks or so, and despite that it turned out very good…
This was the first film I produced. I formed a company with a partner Aron Schifman, and this was our first project. I am very proud of this film, as I thought it turned out very well given the time and money we had. I have previously worked with Michael, Sam, Eric and Marshall, all except for Matthias. He was a very nice guy. I think Michael Worth may have been involved in bringing him in.
When you have very little time to work you really need actors that are not going to present problems and delay things. When I find good actors you see I use them as much as I can. Sam Jones and Marshall Teague are the kinds of guys who will be trying to help the crew carry equipment when we are in a hurry.
I rarely had problems with any actors, especially martial artists because they were used to discipline and it carried over to them as actors. Usually if there was a problem it was with an actress. Women tend to obsess more about their makeup and hair. Also, when you are shooting low budget you have to move very quickly which is why when you get good actors that understand this I hire them over and over again. That is why you see Marshall Teague, Michael DeLano, Sam Jones in many of my films.
We sold “Fists of Iron” to Live Entertainment who later went bankrupt. I don’t know what ever happened to the rights, but I wish this would show up in syndication or late night cable. Actually I’m surprised that a lot of my films never show up on cable anymore.
For the most part you’ve been working as a director on martial arts related films. Why this particular sub-genre? Are you in any way involved in martial arts yourself?
This was really an accident. I had no martial arts experience, but I did Ring of Fire, and it was a big hit for PM Ent so I became the “kick boxing guy”. At that time it was “kick boxing”. I’m sure today it would be all MMA stuff. I was happy working with martial artists though. They were very disciplined, and worked hard. No primadonna antics.
Since I am sure people in the film industry knew about you being a professional gambler (blackjack player, as I read), didn’t the “gambling” fact made it difficult for you to start new film projects?
Not at all. In fact when I started Century Film Partners many of the investors were professional gamblers.
Gambling has ruined a countless number of lives, however there are still lots of tournaments and championships being held all over the world, where experts participate. Some even compare gambling to an addiction that’s worse than drugs. As an expert, what is your opinion on this?
When I was young and single I often found it hard to meet women who understood that professional gambling is a business. They would ask me, “Isn’t this like you are an alcoholic?” My answer is, “No, this is like I own a brewery. Every bottle that goes down the conveyor belt I make a profit on. The more bottles the more money. The more hands of blackjack I play the more money I make at the end of the year”.
I know it is hard for most people to understand because all they see is negative portrayals of addicts, but it is really just math. And as I tell my kids, “Math is where the money is.”
What is Richard Munchkin up to now? You haven’t been active in the film industry for some time, according to online sources.
I wrote a book called “Gambling Wizards” which I hoped would bring me back into the biz. For 25 years I have tried to get various film or television projects about gambling off the ground. If I had a choice I’d like to be directing series television right now. In the mean time I am traveling to casinos around the worlds playing my trade.
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