Shuki Levy looks back on the ‘Iron Chef’ star who was almost the Red Ranger and creating an empire on a shoe-string budget.
Even with 20/20 hindsight, the fact that Mighty Morphin Power Rangers would spawn a property worth billions of dollars is quite an unlikely story.
By 1993, it had been years since co-creators Haim Saban and Shuki Levy shot a pilot episode that included footage from an incredibly campy Japanese superhero show (Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger) with footage they shot themselves in the United States. No network wanted it, and the pilot sat shelved for years.
When Fox finally bought the property, the Rangers had to be re-cast (the original actors by then too old to be believable as five teens with attitude). Levy, who before Power Rangers was best known as a composer of classic children’s TV show theme songs, is now looking back at that unlikely journey (Overdubbing in English? A discontent cast?) as Lionsgate’s big screen Power Rangers reboot prepares to hit theaters.
How did you decide this strange Japanese show would be such a good opportunity to bring to the U.S.?
The whole idea came from Haim Saban. He came back from one of those conventions. And he pulled out the Power Rangers toys and he said, “There’s something about this, because this show is so successful in Japan and it’s been running their for 10 or 15 years. There’s something incredibly special about it. Let’s do something with it.”
And the original idea was let’s just dub it into English and see what happens. I was against it. I didn’t want to end up with the new What’s Up Tiger Lily. We decided the most exciting part of the show is once they get into their costumes. Once they get into the costume you don’t see who’s in it, so let’s keep that and just shoot the rest.
You became a director thanks to Power Rangers. What are your memories from the early days?
I had never directed anything in my life when it comes to movies or TV, but we took a small crew and we had a lot of fun with it. We shot a pilot that never aired, the very original one. Haim was shopping for years and years and years until we made a deal with Fox. Obviously, by the time we made the deal with Fox, the whole cast was too old to play Power Rangers, so we recast. This original pilot of Power Rangers, which never aired, the Red Ranger was a guy named Mark Dacascos. Mark Dacascos is the Iron Chef America. I just saw him not long ago, it was fun seeing him again after all this time. Super nice guy.
A few of the actors have claimed they were underpaid, considering how big the show became. Did you deal with those salary issues much?
I heard of those issues being raised here and there and sometimes I’d be witnessing those conversations, but I had an incredible relationship with the cast and the crew. They knew I’m only into the creative stuff. I don’t deal with money or anything, so it was mainly either [producer] Ronnie Hadar or Haim Saban. For me it was really nice.
On the other hand, when you start something, and you haven’t done much as an actor yet and you get an opportunity to be on such a hit, I think one should look at the positive side rather than what he’s not getting enough of, and that was my advice to the actors at the time when that was raised. But I didn’t really deal with that.
Does anything come to mind in regard to making your small budget work?
From the very, very original pilot, when I was already in the editing room, there was the scene of space ships, space vehicles that are flying for an attack and attacking the five rangers that are in the desert somewhere and they fly right over head, and I had the actors react to what’s happening above them, but when I was in the editing room something bothered me, because I didn’t see the shadow of the vehicle that flies by on the shot of the kids. At the time with technology it wasn’t anything close to what we had today. You had to make up things so I simply took a yellow pad that was on the desk there and I took a page and I folded it into a plane kind of a shape, like a jet and we stuck it on a black and white camera that was there and we filmed it and then adjusted the color to make it very light shadowy light and we made it fly over their heads and we made the shot look more real.
The show is quite tame violence wise by today’s standards, but in the ’90s there were parents crusades against it. How did you feel about that at the time?
We definitely took it into consideration. We had no intention of projecting or showing anything that has any kind of negative influences on children. Because the whole thing was based on martial arts and the whole philosophy — it’s not about going and looking for fights, there’s a lot of spiritual elements to it and very positive ones. There were never any humans that got hit in any way … so we didn’t feel it was justified, but it was something that we paid attention to.
Will you be watching the 2017 reboot?
I’m sure I’ll see the movie. I’m not connected to the project almost at all. Haim Saban is a good friend of mine. I just saw him recently actually but I’m not involved in the production at all but I’m sure I’ll go and see it. It’ll be fun.
Levy is represented by Raphael Berko of Media Artists Group.