”As an actor, Brandon wanted to be Mel Gibson.” -Edward R. Pressman, coproducer of The Crow
The night Brandon Lee was rushed hemorrhaging to the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, N.C., The Crow‘s stunned cast and crew gathered at the hospital to wait. They waited for Brandon’s fiancee, Eliza Hutton, and his mother, Linda Lee Cadwell, who were flying in from Los Angeles. They waited for news about Brandon. They waited to hear what to do next.
The Crow had been shooting mainly at Carolco Studios in North Carolina for three months, usually at night, and frequently in a downpour jetted by rain machines. The surreal thriller, based on James O’Barr’s comic book about a rock musician who comes back from the dead to avenge his and his fiancee’s murders, offered Lee the starring role he had dreamed of-a part that would finally make him a leading man and distinguish him from his late father, martial-arts legend Bruce Lee.
In the early afternoon of March 31, 1993, about 12 hours after being hit by a bullet from an improperly loaded stunt gun, Lee died. The producers, who had scheduled three more days of filming with him, temporarily halted production and within hours began to face an agonizing choice: Should they finish the film or shelve it?
While they were coming to a decision, a traumatized Sofia Shinas, who played Brandon’s fiancee, Shelly, fled to her L.A. home. ”I was on the soundstage when it happened, and my agent wanted me out,” she says. ”I was an emotional wreck.” The rest of the cast and crew-with the exception of costar Ernie Hudson, who had returned to California days earlier when his brother-in- law died unexpectedly-stayed in Wilmington, dodging journalists and replaying Lee’s death in their minds. Two days later, coproducer Ed Pressman called them together on an empty soundstage at Carolco.
Pressman told the group that the filmmakers intended to continue the movie- a decision that would add $8 million to the $15 million budget. ”It was never technically (questioned) if we could complete it-it was always evident that Brandon’s role was basically done,” he says. ”The issue was psychological.” Recalls coproducer Jeff Most, ”It was only through Eliza’s great dedication to Brandon that we pushed on…. She knew how important this was to him, and that it would have been his wish to complete it.” (”All she did was agree to have them complete the film,” says a source close to Hutton, who has declined to speak to the press. ”Instinctively, she would have preferred not to deal with it at all.”)
Alex Proyas, 33, an Australian music-video director making his U.S. feature debut with The Crow, was perhaps the hardest to persuade. ”He was extremely close to Brandon,” Most says, ”and the nightmare was weighing on him. (He wanted) a psychological rest of however long he needed.” Within a day, Proyas agreed to Pressman’s proposal of an indefinite period of bereavement. And despite the crew’s mixed feelings, ”they said, ‘You tell us a date and a time, and we’ll be here,”’ Most recalls.
”Before we went to Wilmington, Brandon was so pleased. I remember him saying, ‘You know, whatever happens with this project, nothing is as important to me as the fact that I am playing Eric Draven. This is my finest character.”’ -Jeff Most
One month later, Proyas flew from Australia, where he’d gone just after Lee’s death, to L.A., where with Pressman’s help he began rewriting David Schow and John Shirley’s script. (Of the decision not to bring in the original writers, Most says, “We sought to bring another viewpoint to the project.”) In the revised script, Proyas would have to make up for Lee’s unshot scenes, most of which were intended to show Eric and Shelly’s passion for each other and more fully explain the motive for Eric’s back-from-the-dead revenge.
Six weeks after Lee’s death, Pressman placed calls to the cast and crew members, telling them to meet in Wilmington on May 26 to begin the work of completing the film.
The Crow‘s cast and crew had spent their time off bracing themselves for the return to North Carolina. “I didn’t want to go back and finish it,” says Hudson, who plays a policeman who comes to the ghostly Eric’s aid. “There was a part of me that said, ‘Yeah, right, this is for Brandon.’ No, it’s because you’ve got so much money put into this thing, and you need to make some money out of it. But then I got a call from Lance (Anderson, who did Lee’s makeup), and he felt we should do it for Brandon, because Brandon had worked very hard.”
“I was very close to Brandon, and I felt completing the film would be closing the loop,” Anderson, 55, says. “I have a son exactly his age (Lee was 28 when he died), and I related to him like a father. So the time at home made me feel even stronger about going back to finish.” Shinas returned only because she was contractually obliged. “What happened on that stage truly gives new meaning to the word tragedy. I really didn’t want to go back,” she says, her voice shaking.
“(While doing Brandon’s makeup) I had to keep low-key, because if I started talking, it would set Brandon off on a story, and we would be in for an extra half hour of makeup. He loved Game Boy-he was addicted to it. I’d be painting these delicate lines on his face, and he’d hit a point on the game, and it would be time for a cleanup job.” -Lance Anderson
When the cast and crew reconvened in Wilmington, Proyas presented them with an emotionally softened, reworked script. Many of Lee’s half-completed scenes were reconceived as silent montages. The relationship between Hudson’s character and Sarah, Draven’s young friend, played by Rochelle Davis, was deepened by adding exchanges between the two. Finally, the Skull Cowboy, a dark character who taunts Draven with the rules of the dead, was replaced by Sarah’s tender narration. Her words at the start of the film echo the filmmakers’ emotions about finishing the project: “Sometimes, something so bad happens,” she says of the creature that guides the dead through the land of the living, “that the Crow can bring that soul back to put the wrong things right.”
But rewrites alone couldn’t put the movie on track. For several unfilmed scenes in which Lee’s character was essential, stunt coordinator Jeff Imada, 38, brought in stuntman Chad Stahelski as Lee’s body double. Stahelski had trained with Lee at L.A.’s Inosanto Academy, a martial-arts school run by Dan Inosanto, who once worked as Bruce Lee’s sparring partner. “Chad knew how Brandon moved,” Imada says. Stahelski shared duties with Jeff Cadiente, who had been Lee’s stunt double throughout the film, and replaced him for scenes that required someone who looked more like Lee.
Originally, Stahelski and Cadiente were to have worn foam-rubber life masks cast from Lee’s face before the film started production, but “no one felt good about it,” says Anderson. Instead, almost all the scenes using doubles were designed as long shots: “You can’t see stuntmen’s faces from a distance, anyway.” For example, one sequence early in the completed film shows Draven having flashbacks as he walks through his apartment; Stahelski was actually used for some of these shots.
“He had a boyish enthusiasm, but he was very focused. He would always go the extra mile. We could be at the end of a long day, with a lot of rain machines going, and everyone would be happy with the shot. He could have gone (home) and chilled out, but Brandon would cock his head and call out to Alex, ‘What if we did it this way?’” -Robert Zuckerman, The Crow‘s still photographer
“In a way, the film became about something different,” says a source close to the production. “It became about how you deal with grief. What happens when someone you love is taken from you? How do you incorporate that into your life?”
The cast and crew pondered the same questions during the two-week final shoot. “There was no rushing or hurrying,” Anderson recalls. “There was a calmness on the set that hadn’t been there before (and) plenty of time to get everything done correctly.” Pressman agrees: “There was a feeling after the accident that became heightened-a sense of purpose, a common feeling of shared grief, a responsibility.”
While a grief counselor was made available to cast and crew, it took fierce determination to get them through the most difficult task: returning to the soundstage where the accident had occurred, to film Draven and Shelly’s murder scene. “It was strange,” says Anderson. “After we finished the scene, we all got kind of drunk. We had tried to pretend it didn’t matter, and it didn’t affect us. Then we let our hair down and hugged each other.” Hudson, who was battling rage over the fact that “it just should never have happened,” says, “The funny thing is, sometimes out of tragedy, you get an appreciation of each other.”
“He was one of the nicest people. The only thing I didn’t like about him was he didn’t like dogs. He hated them because he said they always bit him. Me and my mom told him we were going to get him a dog for his wedding, and he said he’d wok it.” -Rochelle Davis, 13, who plays Sarah
The Crow finished production June 28 and found itself without a distributor after Paramount decided not to pick it up. “Viacom and QVC had announced that they were seeking control of Paramount,” says Most, “and Paramount felt that at a time when the stock price moving up or down a point could be damaging, it was touchy to be dealing with a film so mired in difficult press coverage.” When the filmmakers told Paramount The Crow would be two months late, says Most, “that opened the door for them to walk away.” After shopping the film to different studios, they found a distributor in Miramax, who bought U.S. rights in March. It opens in New York and L.A. on May 11; two days later it will open on 1,000 screens, the company’s widest release ever. While the studio is wholeheartedly promoting the film, those involved with its making are more ambivalent. There have been no cast screenings; Shinas, for one, has no plans to see the film. “It would be too difficult,” she says.
As The Crow‘s opening approaches, the involvement of Lee’s survivors with its release is somewhat in dispute. (Last October, Lee’s mother agreed to an out-of-court settlement of a negligence suit she filed against Edward R. Pressman Film Corp. and 13 other defendants.) While Pressman claims Hutton is “very proud” of the film, a source close to her says she “never said she was pleased. Basically, she (told Pressman) she was unable to look at the film objectively.” And although Pressman submitted much of the film’s advertising and marketing material to her, “she was never consulted in the sense of collaboration,” says the source.
And while both parties want part of the film’s revenues to go to a charity in Lee’s name, the recipient is undecided: The producers favor a fund for inner-city children, while Hutton would prefer a safety-related cause. Donations will also come from a catalog designed to sell more than 35 items of Crow memorabilia. The catalog can be ordered through a 900 number, which will automatically enroll callers in The Crow Club, guaranteeing them future Crow- related mailings. (The filmmakers are already discussing a sequel, based on O’Barr’s next Crow installment, which he will begin in the fall.)
“When he filmed the sequence coming out of the grave, (it) was 5 degrees. They had to put alcohol in the rain machines to keep the liquid from freezing, and ( all Brandon had on were his pants. But he did the scene over and over until he got it exactly as he wanted it. He was a hell of a trouper.” -James O’Barr, creator of The Crow comic book
So far, cast and crew members who have seen the film believe that completing it was the right decision. With the movie’s release, a soundtrack featuring Nine Inch Nails and the Cure, and a book containing unit photographer Zuckerman’s work and essays by Proyas and O’Barr, they are focused on the result of their-and Lee’s-efforts. “I think Brandon would have been very, very proud of the movie. He is so good in this,” says Hudson. “All of the (qualities) he had as a person come through.”
Ironically, The Crow may be a better movie for the suffering those who completed it endured. In fact, many of them feel that the movie being released is more balanced and gentler than the one they set out to make (despite no fewer than 30 bloody murders in the film). Before Brandon’s death, says Hudson, “I thought the movie was sort of dark. It turned out to be a really nice, beautiful love story.”
It is also a haunting memorial to its star. Pressman hopes that ultimately Lee’s death will become “less interesting than the movie itself. The point is not to remind people of the tragedy.” That seems unlikely: Any audience will have trouble separating Lee’s fate from that of his character. But lest anyone forget what was lost, there is a final, unmistakable reminder in the simple dedication at the movie’s end: “For Brandon and Eliza.”