In the director of the Hollywood film currently being shot in Cyprus, THEO PANAYIDES finds a born fighter whose ultimate battle is with himself, making films for their entertainment value
Halfway through the press conference for Jiu Jitsu, the sci-fi/action film being shot in Cyprus, Dimitri Logothetis – the film’s director, co-producer and co-writer – intervenes. Five of his main actors are lined up on the podium but every single question is being aimed at Nicolas Cage, the biggest name among the five. Dimitri takes over, speaking in his slow steady way, and pointedly introduces the other actors, praising their talents and listing some of their main credits. It doesn’t necessarily transform everything – the reporters still aim most of their questions at Cage – but it’s a nice gesture, and makes everyone feel better. Is that part of what he does, I ask later, that kind of man-management? “Well, I mean, a director is a conductor,” he replies. “So you’re supposed to conduct everyone.”
The director, like an orchestra conductor, is “the person with the vision”. It’s important to exude authority – and Dimitri does. He’s big and beefy, with a voice that’s deep and gravelly. He has curly hair, surprisingly gentle brown eyes, an excellent suntan (whether through living in California or filming in the Cyprus summer for the past few weeks) and a camera-ready smile which he flashes at intervals, showing strong white teeth. It’s no surprise that he did some acting in his youth, even playing a bit role in Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York when he was 21 (he’s now 63) – but most of his career has been on the other side of the camera, including the unglamorous producer’s job of raising money and putting a project together. “I’m a producer by necessity,” he explains. “I’m an artist, director and writer by – uh, birth!”
An artist? Sure, why not – though Dimitri, it must be said, isn’t the precious ‘artistic’ stereotype. He talks plainly, patiently, never going off into flights of fancy. His friends are mostly “regular folks” (i.e. not in the entertainment industry), and his background too is quite ordinary. His dad, who brought them to America from Greece when the boy was six, worked as a mechanic, albeit quite an entrepreneurial mechanic (“He opened up gas stations and garages”). Dimitri’s son is on the Jiu Jitsu crew, having recently graduated from NYU – but he graduated as a Marketing major, nothing film-related. Dimitri himself played football in college and fought competitively as a martial artist in his 20s, with belts in Kenpo karate and Tang Soo Do. He and his wife (actually his second wife) didn’t meet on a film set, but while she was cutting his hair in a hair salon. When I ask for the lowest point in his life, his mind turns reflexively to his lowest financial point – when he lost money in the economic crisis of 2008 – as opposed to some creative impasse.
The films too aren’t especially artistic – though in fact that statement could use some refinement. (Is he bothered when people are snobbish about his work? “I think that’s their problem, don’t you?”) For one thing, some of his movies are indeed quite upmarket. His film-school graduation film, Call Me Kaiser, was adapted from a Woody Allen story and won 12 festival awards. The Closer, from 1990, was based on a play and starred Danny Aiello, who’d just been nominated for an Oscar. Was it intimidating, directing someone at the height of their fame? “Not at all,” he replies at once. (Besides, Aiello “was a regular guy… And he’s Italian and y’know I’m Greek, so it was easy, we both kinda yelled at each other.”)
Not all the films are based on literary sources, of course, nor do they star Oscar-nominated actors; some are indeed rough-and-tumble action flicks, destined for video or pay-per-view (we don’t count Jiu Jitsu, which is based on a comic book – by Dimitri himself – and co-stars an Oscar-winning actor in Mr Cage). Even here, however, his approach is committed, treating every project like it’s “the most amazing project that ever existed” – maybe because he’s also a producer, so he has to live with a movie for years before it comes to fruition. “I’m not the kind of person, in life, who likes to phone it in,” says Dimitri Logothetis firmly. “I prefer being extremely passionate, and I always give it 150 per cent.”
But look here, I say, playing devil’s advocate for a moment. We’re talking here about films like last year’s Kickboxer: Retaliation, where – to quote the synopsis at the Internet Movie Database – a martial-arts fighter “is sedated and taken to a prison in Bangkok, where he’s forced to fight a 6’10” giant for freedom and $1 million”. It’s pulpy action for pulp-fiction fans. How passionate can you get about something like that?
Dimitri doesn’t miss a beat. “Well,” he replies, “the first Kickboxer, that was done with Jean-Claude Van Damme in 1989, has become a cult classic. It’s currently playing on over three billion television sets around the world.” His own third instalment (after franchise-reboot Kickboxer: Vengeance in 2016, which he wrote and produced but didn’t direct) “has a 92 per cent critics’ rating on [review site] Rotten Tomatoes – better than Academy Award-winning pictures – and a 75 per cent audience score. So that’s gonna be a classic as well.” I check the numbers, intrigued – and he’s right, Kickboxer: Retaliation does indeed score 92 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, based on 12 reviews. The slight catch, however, comes in the reviews themselves. “A very dumb, and very satisfying throwback to a simpler time,” goes one; “A hysterically entertaining train wreck,” says another. Both are marked as positive reviews – which is accurate, but it’s fair to say neither critic is touting the film for a Best Picture Oscar.
Even Dimitri admits that his films are something of a guilty pleasure. “I often get guys and gals from around the world,” he recounts amiably, “who say to me: ‘Y’know, we had a barbecue last weekend and we threw on Kickboxer: Retaliation again, for the 10th time!’ I don’t have any illusions about the fact that I’m making entertainment – but why not? Life is so full of so many dreary and difficult things, why not lose yourself for an hour and a half and have some fun?” And of course there’s another thing – a very important thing if you want to keep working in Hollywood, and also important for a solid pragmatic type like himself: “I can tell you one thing. I can tell you for a fact that my movies sell around the world, immediately!”
That money pays for a good life, with a house near the beach in Marina del Rey – down the road from Venice Beach – where he keeps fit (and sane) between projects: “When I’m at home, I go and bike-ride about 12½ miles a day, three days a week. I go to the gym, I run my dog, spend time with my family…” He’s proven the doubters wrong, you might say, starting with his Greek-immigrant dad who pleaded with his only son to become a lawyer or a doctor, anything but the film business. “He was just really worried that I’d have a very, very difficult time”.
That’s usually the case, though, isn’t it?
“It is. It’s a very difficult business. But I’ve been fortunate, with the help of God and a little bit of talent.”
Ruthless too? It’s a pretty cutthroat business.
“No,” he demurs. “No, it’s not my nature.”
So he’s always been a nice guy?
“I don’t know about that. I mean, I do the best I can. I wanna be able to wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and say ‘Yesterday I was – uh, 85 per cent I was a pretty good guy’. Because you have to live with yourself more than you have to live with anybody else.”
Living with oneself is something of a theme in our conversation. “I’m so hard on myself that I’ve never felt the need to compete [with other filmmakers],” he tells me later. It’s an odd thing to say, since he doesn’t seem like a person who’s hard on himself – in fact he seems quite relaxed, with his beefy bulk and unhurried way of speaking – but don’t let the “outside demeanour” fool you, he says with a chuckle. Don’t forget he started out as an athlete, and an athlete’s ultimate battle is always with himself. He wasn’t (yet) bulky when he played football at school, he was actually quite small – “but I had heart!” he explains with feeling. Speaking of the old days, he recalls how “stubborn” he was as a wannabe filmmaker. A pattern emerges of a fighter, even beyond his actual stint as a martial-arts fighter. His films include two documentaries, one on Muhammad Ali (a 1978 film called Champions Forever, which became “the highest-selling video documentary of all time” at that time) and another on Sam Giancana, the Mafia boss who may have had a hand in electing JFK. Dimitri insists there’s no connection, just two random lives he found interesting – but what they have in common is surely a magisterial toughness, two men who rose to the top by being hard, single-minded, but also shrewd and intelligent. No surprise that Dimitri Logothetis’ favourite film is The Godfather.
There’s a touch of the Don Corleone to this burly, deal-making, smooth-talking figure – even in that press conference, coming forward to protect ‘his’ people – or perhaps something more heroic, one of those Greek village chiefs swigging raki from the flask and hiding wanted fugitives from the Nazis. (He’s never lost touch with the motherland, and speaks good conversational Greek; it’s no accident that he brought Jiu Jitsu to Cyprus.) As already mentioned, he exudes authority; even Nicolas Cage – a consummate professional, he says – deferred to him on set, as “the person with the vision”. There’s an interesting detail on Dimitri’s Twitter handle (@dimitrisite), which describes him as a “filmmaker, writer, director, producer, builder, designer, creator [and] fascist”. I already know that last word is a joke – even before he confirms that, like almost everyone in Hollywood, he’s a card-carrying liberal – but why ‘fascist’ exactly?
“Well, because it’s true,” he replies amiably. “When I’m making a movie, for the most part I listen to everyone’s opinion… but, at the end of the day, I have to live with what I do. And so, it’s not a democracy. A story is told by one person. And so – y’know, you have to be a king, a fascist. You have to say ‘This is the way it’s gonna be’.
“Why? Because when a movie’s finished, and it’s wonderful, you’ll have everybody taking credit for it… But when it’s bad, guess what? It’s Dimitri’s fault! So, if I’ve gotta live with it, everybody’s gotta do it the way I wanna do it.”
There it is again, the notion of living with oneself – one’s decisions and, of course, one’s mistakes. You do your best, enjoy success when it comes – and, if things go bad, you “suck it up”, as his old Tang Soo Do mentor used to tell him when he’d been knocked down in the ring. Dimitri Logothetis has spent 30 years (and counting) making movies, not a job for shrinking violets or democrats, a job, like an orchestra conductor – or a football coach, another of his favourite analogies – for a person with a vision. Is self-belief ever a problem for him? “No,” he replies unequivocally.
Well then, what would he go back and change, if he could?
“Nothing,” he replies, shaking his head. “Nothing. I don’t think it’s worth it, reflecting on your life. I think it’s a waste of time. I think it has to go forward. I think it’s best to be grateful that you are what you are. I think it’s best to be grateful that you’re healthy. And I think it’s best to be grateful that you have an opportunity to make another movie.” He gets up, politely but firmly, gives me another toothy smile, then goes back to making this one.