FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE: 40th Anniversary Exclusive Interview
Furious Cinema’s Josiah Howard talks to Fight For Your Life Director Robert A. Endelson
“It’s not like these types of films had grand premiers,” remembers Director Robert A. Endelson about Fight For Your Life’s controversial splash in movie houses. “There were no klieg lights, bleachers, or parade of stars. It just showed up on the marquee of the local theater that week and, via word of mouth, kept on playing.”
This year marks the 40th anniversary of Fight For Your Life’s theatrical release. An incendiary tale of home invasion, degradation and ultimate revenge, over the years Fight has become one of the most discussed films in the exploitation film genre. It’s not just the jarring on-screen racial epitaphs and violence, it’s the film’s unapologetic approach to depicting the tragic effects of ignorance, class division and racism.
Fight For Your Life’s story—inspired as it is by 1955’s Desperate Hours—is straightforward and unencumbered. On a sunny afternoon in New York City, three convicts escape from prison and take refuge in the upstate suburban home of the Turners, a Middle class African American Minister and his family. While occupying the Turners’ residence, the convicts—one white, one Hispanic, one Asian, subject the family to an excruciating round of torture, humiliation and insults. The on-screen suffering is relentless: murder, rape, beatings, sacrilege and an unending barrage of insults—“tar baby,” “darkie,” “spade,” “jungle-bunny,” “wool-head”—challenge the senses. So does an attempted lynching, a bludgeoning with a rock, and a loathsome round of forced “entertainment” whose main event is one character being forced to dance a jig for his captors. “I made the film for audiences, not for critics,” observes Endelson. “I wanted the audience to have a visceral reaction.” They did.
One reason exploitation films like Fight were, at the time of their release, derided in the press is the fact that critics of the day—for the most part elderly white men whose careers had peaked a decade before, did not understand or appreciate the new era’s frankness. They also were unwilling to recognize lucrative non-Hollywood niche markets. While A-list movie studios were struggling to fill theaters the exploitation films were flourishing: capturing the imagination of younger audiences and packing them in at downtown movie houses and Drive-Ins.
“Hollywood thought that everyone who was making films wanted to win an Oscar,” says Endelson. “That was a foolish assumption and it wasn’t true. There were many filmmakers, myself included, who wanted to make films to satisfy the audience that went to see them. I had respect for my audience: I wanted to give them what they wanted to see. And if receipts and extended theatrical runs are any indication, I was very successful.”
Completed in just ten days under the working title Fightin’ Family, Fight For Your Life was banned outright in Britain but re-titled and remarketed as needed throughout America.
For 1977’s disco denizens Fight aligned itself with the Saturday Night Fever and was titled Staying Alive—the Bee Gees’ No. 1 Pop song. For the Grindhouse horror/gore crowd Fight was Bloodbath at 1313 Fury Road. For the Southern states Fight flickered across screens as I Hate Your Guts and Fury Road. And African American audiences experienced Fight as Getting Even, Held Hostage and The Hostage’s Bloody Revenge.
Following is a rare Q & A interview with Fight For Your Life’s director/producer/editor Robert A. Endelson. Throughout the years Mr. Endelson—who honed his skills as an adult film editor and cinematographer before writing and directing 1973’s The Filthiest Show in Town—has been reluctant to talk about Fight. “It’s not that I’m ashamed of it,” he assures, “it’s just that I think it’s the job of other people to talk about it.”
Thankfully time has allowed Mr. Endelson the space to reconsider the films enormous impact and enduring legacy. In this interview he reflects on Fight’s merits, genesis and theatrical run. He also takes the opportunity to put to rest the rumors that have surrounded his surprising lack of participation in 2004’s long-awaited Fight For Your Life DVD release.
On its fortieth anniversary Fight For Your Life holds its place as a seminal work. There still really isn’t anything else like it. Looking back, has your opinion about the film changed?
No, not really. It’s hard for me to say. It was so long ago; a different time in my life. I’ve always maintained that my opinion about the film is totally irrelevant. Also, I know what I think about the film. I’ve always been more interested in what other people think.
The politics in the film seem to mirror today’s difficult race relations. Were you attempting to make a political statement?
I’d like to say that that is true, but it isn’t! I made Fight as an economic endeavor in collaboration with (producer) William Mishkin. It was my job to present a story that I thought would sell: that I could make money from and that would make money for the investors. I made the film, I turned it over to the distributor, and my job was done. Like everyone else, when the job ended I went on to others. It’s true that I wanted to make a film that was compelling and balanced, but it’s also true that my main focus was giving the audience what they wanted to see—regardless of making any particular statement.
The budget was small and the shooting schedule brief. Was there more that you wanted to do but couldn’t? When did you know that you were done?
I knew I was done when I ran out of Scotch tape to do more editing! At some point you realize that that’s all the material you have: you’ve done the music and the last sound effect and you’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. If you work on it anymore you won’t improve it in any way. Looking back, of course, I see many things that I could have done better or done differently. It’s like when I send a fax and get a copy of it: once you press “send” what you wanted to say and what you wanted to do doesn’t matter anymore does it? It’s out of your hands and irretrievable.
You’ve spoken about how Desperate Hours impacted you. Can Fight be considered in the same category?
I don’t think so. It’s a totally different film made at a totally different time. The alignment with Desperate Hours was a good selling point for the people who were considering backing the project. What was attractive to them was the economy of making a picture in a single location. We would have all the actors together and we could keep them together until we were finished filming. I basically kidnapped the cast for the ten days! I got a good deal with a hotel and restaurant in upstate NY and we all traveled to the location and stayed until we were done. I don’t think the film would have been made if I didn’t present the case that it was a completely manageable situation.
What’s your opinion of Blue Underground’s Fight DVD?
I think it’s well done from a technical standpoint but, again, it’s an audience film. Yes, two or three people around a TV set can watch the DVD and enjoy it, but it’s better experienced when there’s an audience. Did you ever see the film “Hitchcock”? There’s a scene where Alfred Hitchcock is standing in the lobby of a theater where Psycho is playing. He’s so pleased when the audience reacts exactly how and where he planned. That’s a joy I know something about. I’ve been in the theater when Fight was playing and I’ve heard the same sort of visceral reaction. It made clear to me that what I did was effective: it was a job well done.
What will new audiences come away from Fight feeling?
I really have no idea. There are many reviews on the internet written by self-proclaimed critics that have fly-by-night debatable influence, so I don’t know how that will affect new audience’s experience of seeing it. I personally have never heard anybody discuss what I believe is one of the most important elements of a successful film: the in-theater audience reaction. I know that Quentin Tarantino owns a print of Fight and he’s screened it. I wasn’t there but I would love to have seen the audience reaction.
Where in Los Angles was it screened?
I’m not really sure, but LA crowds would obviously experience it differently than audiences in Baltimore or Detroit.
You once said that making a film is a privilege. What did you mean?
Back then film cost money, I mean literally film: celluloid. It wasn’t all digital like it is now. Now you can get an HDV camera for $2,000 and you can edit it yourself and you have a theater-ready picture. When we made Fight you counted the pennies and dollars; every minute was more money spent. You couldn’t do 27 takes because it was digital and it didn’t matter. You were contracted to make a film by using an agreed upon budget. If you didn’t deliver the film using the agreed upon budget you were personally responsible for the extra costs. It would be deducted from your fee. That’s a privilege.
So how exactly did you bring it in on budget?
It was an advantageous confluence of events: talented behind the scenes people being available and wanting to participate and an easy to manage available location. Also, I was blessed with a very special cast. The cast believed that Fight was an important film. The proof is that they all did it for a pittance; much less than they deserved.
And what about the essential skills that you brought to the project?
Any director has skills, especially if he’s made it to the point of securing an account with a producer or film company. It’s true that I was the driving force behind Fight, but that was my approach to everything I did—inside and outside of the film industry.
Who owns the out and out rights to Fight?
The rights, like with so many films from that time, are in flux. Over the years there have been so many changes—people passing away or just not following up on paperwork. Also, the original producers, the Mishkins, are no longer active. That and the fact that the company that released it is no longer in business, makes it a complicated situation.
Do you think Fight could be re-made today?
It can’t be remade in the same way; what would be the purpose? That said, there has been some talk about a remake. I said to Straw (screenwriter Straw Weisman), who joined me in the remake discussions, that if we went ahead and remade it, it would have to be a much higher concept film. I would totally switch things around. For instance I might make the Southern racists women—show everything from a different point of view. Of course, if it were remade today it would have to be geared toward China. That’s where the real money is made. All the films now have to include at least one Kung Fu fight and have the characters wearing sunglasses!
Did Fight break even during its original run?
Yes. It made money, not a lot, but it was a financial success.
And the DVD?
The DVD release generated a few dollars for the original investors but that’s about it.
It must make you feel good to know that Fight remains popular with both fans and some of Hollywood’s major players.
That’s true. Quentin Tarantino commenting on the film and screening it makes me feel good: he’s a big fan. So is John Waters—he mentioned it in one of his books. Recognition is a good thing!
Why didn’t you participate in the DVD release?
I was going to record an audio track: that was my intention. The distributor was going to pay for me to go to California, sit down during a screening and do the voice track. But it didn’t work out that way. After many years of flying, I understand that I can’t fly coach: it’s just too uncomfortable. So I requested a Business Class ticket: they refused. That was the deal breaker.
That sounds like poor business practice to me. I mean, you are the original source.
I just wasn’t going to fly coach from NY to LA for one day on the cheapest flight that they could book and then turn around and take the red-eye back home. I was willing to record the audio track for nothing and they weren’t willing to purchase a Business Class ticket. It was as simple as that. I didn’t even ask for First class!
The story is that you were embarrassed by the film.
There are writers who’ve written that I don’t like Fight, that I want to distance myself from it. That’s a crock: I’m proud of it! I’m not embarrassed and I’m not ashamed. The only reason I didn’t do the DVD voice track is because Bill Lustig (CEO of Blue Underground) had no desire to treat me fairly. Obviously his company makes money re-mastering and re-releasing old films, and, for the record, I have to say they did a great job: I appreciate their interest and hard work. But my absence from the DVD was purely do to an economic decision on their part. I would have enjoyed doing the audio track and fans would have had a new and unique perspective.
It’s really hard to believe! I mean Lustig was himself an exploitation filmmaker (best known for Maniac). How did he make the case that he couldn’t buy a Business Class ticket for you?
He made no case, he just made an offer and I declined. Looking back, what I think he thought was that they weren’t going to sell any extra DVDs because I was involved. I didn’t matter to their bottom line. Maybe sometime afterwards they regretted that decision—especially as now I am talking about it, but it’s done now. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t be surprised if (Blue Underground) promoted the story that I didn’t want to participate. It would serve their purposes and absolve them from what I believe was a miscalculation.
Your career in film was decidedly brief. How will Robert A. Endelson be remembered?
No one is going to remember me but my wonderful daughters. That’s just the truth of it—and that’s just the end of it!
We would like to give special thanks to Josiah Howard and Robert A. Endelson for their time.