Samuel Fuller’s Life Was as Explosive as His Movies

Samantha Fuller makes an unconventional documentary about her fantastically talented dad

Samuel Fuller directed some of the grittiest, most dynamic American movies of the 20th century, but the twists and turns of his life were just as cinematic. Starting his career at age twelve as a newspaper copy boy in the 1920s, he became a New York City crime reporter at seventeen. After writing screenplays (often uncredited) and publishing pulp novels, he joined the U.S. Army and fought in World War II with the 1st Infantry Division. Returning from Europe, he landed in Hollywood, where he became a writer and director known for his visceral black-and-white imagery and his unflinching examination of social issues. Fuller died at age 85 in 1997 but his filmography, which includes pulp classics about war (The Steel Helmet), espionage (Pickup on South Street), prostitution (The Naked Kiss), and racism (White Dog), is still revered by critics and movie buffs.

A Fuller Life, an unconventional yet affectionate documentary made by his daughter Samantha Fuller, features performers such as James Franco, Mark Hamill, and William Friedkin reciting passages from Fuller’s memoir A Third Face, Life. The film opens Friday, October 24 at the Laemmle NoHo7 in North Hollywood, where Samantha Fuller will be joined by guests like Hamill and director Joe Dante after some screenings. (Check the theater’s website.) We spoke to Samantha about her father’s legacy.

Aside from the fact that Sam Fuller was your father, what motivated you to make A Fuller Life?
It’s very personal. Every year when my father’s birthday came around, I wanted to have a big party, and he’d say, “You know we’ll celebrate, but let’s keep the big party for my hundredth birthday.” He died at the age of 85. As 2012 was approaching and his centennial was coming near, I thought, “Gee, this would be the big party we always spoke about.” I wanted to do something special, so what better birthday gift than a film? It’s really a centennial gift for my father because I feel like he’s still alive.

A lot of people who are in the documentary actually knew him.
Almost everybody. There’s a very subtle casting that may not come across to the audience. For example, why is James Franco in there? He didn’t know my father personally. However I met him when he was very young, and he knew all the Fuller films. That’s very uncommon for a young Hollywood actor. But with every passage, there’s a casting in there where I felt, “This passage would really suit this reader.”

Some of the actors didn’t necessarily sound like your father, but you could tell that they were imitating his cadence when they were reciting passages.
To some degree. I was specific in asking them, please do not mimic him. We’re here to channel him; I don’t want it to turn into an SNL skit. But the one who did it the most and I just had to let him just go with it was Bill Duke. I really enjoyed his performance.

In the documentary, there’s mention of your father’s unproduced screenplays. Have you ever considered staging public readings of those?
Absolutely. It’s quite a legacy he left. I’ve spent the past two years archiving and sorting through a lot of material, reading the screenplays that were never made, retyping them on Final Draft, and re-registering them with the Writers Guild. The next step is to shop them around. I still feel like they could be made, in one way or another.

Is it fair to say that your dad was prolific in a superhuman kind of way?
Seriously, he blows my mind. I’ve never met a human being who was so productive, so energetic. He lived off of four hours sleep and a small catnap in the afternoon. I would never not hear his typewriter. So the sound of the typewriter for me is the most comforting thing. He was tireless.

If you were to program a slate of movies to accompany your documentary, which of your father’s films would you pick?
I would select Park Row, which is his ode to journalism. He really wanted to write his own newspaper. That was his dream. He just wound up in Hollywood. The second one would be Shock Corridor. It may not come across as an autobiographical film, but if you look into it, the main character, Johnny Barrett, is actually my father. He commits himself to an insane asylum to cover a crime story and he doesn’t come out of it. I can relate that to my father enlisting himself in World War II to cover the biggest crime story of the century. He never came out of it the same man. [He] suffered from years of PTSD; it wasn’t known as PTSD at the time, but he definitely had it. The third would be The Big Red One, since it’s about his experience in World War II. 

What other projects are you working on?
The first documentary is called Organized Insanity. It’s made with the remaining war footage that I recovered that my father shot. I digitized over a hundred reels of film, which produced three hours of footage. I’m editing it down and I’m going to overlay it with my father’s war correspondence. I’m working on this because 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

I’d also like to start making features, so I’m raising money right now for my first film, which is based on a play written by my mother, Christa Fuller. Hopefully that’ll be done by next year. Then, I’ll tackle my dad’s work, whether I direct it or not.

I appreciated how A Fuller Life ended on an inspirational note.
[My father] lived many lifetimes. He saw the dark side of humanity from hanging out at the morgue [as a New York City crime reporter] and witnessing executions, then going to the infantry. Yet he kept such a positive attitude. He was an optimist and had a great sense of humor. Despite the hardships we all go through, it’s important to keep moving ahead. That’s the feeling I wanted to give people watching the film.