Big Trouble in Little China oral history
A look back on John Carpenter's cult favorite with Kurt Russell, 30 years after its release
A hapless trucker drives a cargo of pigs into San Francisco and is drawn into a supernatural fight with an ancient sorcerer. It’s not the most obvious premise for a potential summer blockbuster, but that’s precisely how 1986’s Big Trouble in Little China was pitched to veteran filmmaker John Carpenter — as a big-budget adventure that could become the next Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Halloween director was just coming off of Starman, the acclaimed sci-fi love story that earned Jeff Bridges an Oscar nomination, and he was attracted to Big Trouble’s oddball mix of martial arts, monsters, and mysticism. Problem was, audiences weren’t, and the film flopped. Spectacularly.
Some members of the Chinese community were upset by what they regarded as the stereotypical depictions in a “white man’s product” and by the fact that hardly any nonwhite female characters talk in the film. Other viewers were confounded by the off-kilter plot and a leading man — Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton — who was more bumbling comic relief than conventional hero. Yet, like James Hong’s villainous sorcerer David Lo Pan, Big Trouble has amassed an army of followers who delight in its sheer, nonsensical weirdness. Among their ranks? Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, now set to star in a planned Fox remake. “When people come up [to me] and they say, ‘Big Trouble,’ they have a look in their eye,” Russell says. “It’s like, ‘I know what kind of person you are!’ You know, when something is a cult classic, it’s a cult classic for a reason.”
The script was penned by Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein and subsequently adapted by W.D. Richter, director of another bomb–turned–cult classic, 1984’s The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension. Set in — and under — San Francisco’s Chinatown district, the Big Trouble screenplay found Jack Burton teaming with a local restaurant owner to rescue the latter’s fiancée from the evil David Lo Pan.
JOHN CARPENTER (Director): I saw my first kung fu movie in 1973. It was — what the hell was the name of that thing? — Five Fingers of Death! It was truly an astonishing film. There was an innocence to these movies and a joyousness that I loved. I wanted to bring all that to Big Trouble. It had been a Western, originally, but then it was rewritten to be a modern-day movie.
GARY GOLDMAN (Writer): Ours was about a cowboy in Chinatown in 1899. Instead of a truck driver, he worked providing meat to feed the Chinese workers who were building the railroad. Twentieth Century Fox tried to make it as a Western. They sent to Walter Hill [director of The Long Riders and 48 HRS]. He declined to do it. W.D. Richter came up, I presume, with the idea of making it contemporary. I wasn’t privy to that process.
W.D. RICHTER (Screenplay adapter): Buckaroo Banzai mystified people. Nobody was pounding on my door to direct the next thing. I got the Big Trouble script through my agent. It struck me that it might be more vibrant if it were a contemporary movie. That was my pitch.
GOLDMAN: The idea that we would be rewritten was not so unthinkable. Although, in this case, the idea that you would have something so original and not speak to the writers about it did strike us as being bizarre and unfair.
RICHTER: I [understood] Jack Burton from the beginning — kind of a lovable loudmouth. He didn’t talk that away at all [in the original screenplay]. I was thinking the other day that he’s maybe a likable Donald Trump. You know, if Donald Trump weren’t reprehensible, and if he didn’t happen to become a billionaire because of his father, he might be a f—ing truck driver, driving pigs into San Francisco. It’s not beyond my imagination. And he’d be unqualified for every challenge thrown in front of him, but he wouldn’t get that, and he might persevere out of sheer ignorance and sense of “I-can-do-anything.”
CARPENTER: Jack Burton is a guy who is a sidekick but doesn’t know it. He’s an idiot-blowhard. He’s an American fool in a world that he doesn’t understand.
RICHTER: John gave me notes and then he went to Kurt and Kurt said, “Yes,” because he likes to work with John anyway.
Kurt Russell had worked with Carpenter on Escape From New York and The Thing. The director cast Dennis Dun (Year of the Dragon) as restaurateur Wang Chi and model Suzee Pai as his fiancée, Miao Yin. Blade Runner actor James Hong portrayed the wizened Lo Pan — as well as a less ancient, incorporeal version of the character. A young Kim Cattrall landed the role of plucky lawyer (and Jack Burton’s love interest) Gracie Law, while future Scandal star Kate Burton played Gracie’s journalist friend, Margo. Other good guys were played by Donald Li and the late Victor Wong.
KURT RUSSELL (Jack Burton): I thought John cast the movie right. The people fit their roles and they knew what to do. Kim Cattrall was terrific. Kate Burton…
KATE BURTON (Margo): Kurt Russell, and Kim Cattrall, and I were [virtually] the only non-Asian actors in the movie. I was aware at the time that it was pretty extraordinary.
CARPENTER: Dennis Dun was one of the actors from San Francisco, the Bay Area. He and Victor Wong were actors up there.
RUSSELL: The real lead was Wang.
DENNIS DUN (Wang Chi): It was only my second film. I was very nervous taking a part like this. John Carpenter always said, “Don’t worry, you’re fine, just be a hero, don’t worry about it.” [Laughs]
CARPENTER: James Hong was a character actor who we had all seen but hadn’t really thought of too much. He came in and read for me and he was just brilliant.
JAMES HONG (David Lo Pan): Sixty-three years I’ve been in the industry. For the first 50 years, I was averaging 10 feature or TV appearances every year. That schooled me for roles like Lo Pan, where I play multi-characters — the old man Lo Pan, the tall Mandarin with the headgear, and the young Lo Pan.
STEVE JOHNSON (Creature creator): James Hong was such a joy, and here was my opportunity to do an amazing old age makeup… My first thought was, this script is loaded with all kinds of animatronics and makeup effects and a smorgasbord of everything that we people, you know, get erections over.
HONG: When Steve Johnson worked on me, he took the upmost care with every hair, because nothing was digitalized in those days. The first day of work, I think it took him nine or ten hours to put that makeup on.
JOHNSON: His character is just so funny. You know that scene where he’s in his electric wheelchair and he comes bursting into the study? “Shut up, Mr Burton!” Every time he would do that, his performance was so silly that I erupted in laughter and ruined the take. John would be like, “Cut! Cut! Cut!” The third time, John literally threw me off-set because I was ruining all these takes [Laughs].
As Jack and Wang search for Miao Yin, they’re forced to battle foes ranging from wild monsters to Lo Pan’s goons, the Storms (Carter Wong, Peter Kwong, and James Pax) — but the action sequences presented certain challenges. Dun could claim only limited martial-arts experience; Russell had none. Burton and Cattrall got to join in the “fun” when they shot scenes set in the waterlogged channels beneath Chinatown. The movie was filmed largely on the Fox lot in Los Angeles on sets designed by the late John J. Lloyd, with whom Carpenter had worked on The Thing.
JOHNSON: Probably the most complicated [thing we did on the film] — and I think it may have been one of the most complicated things ever at that time — was the flying eye. The general idea is that it’s this mythological Chinese creature that is Lo Pan’s way of seeing remotely. So, this flying eye will go out and get information and bring it back to Lo Pan. It was just a huge, surrealistic ball of eyes. The challenge was, How do you make a ball of eyes look realistic and be able to emote? The only way to do it was with a huge animatronic puppet. But imagine how many motors had to go inside of it. The eyes all had to have upper and lower blinks, some of the eyeballs were actually on stalks which could retract into it and poke out, and then of course, he had a face, he had a mouth, he had a tongue. We had so many motors in that.
CARPENTER: I just remember all of it being fun. Fond memories. The John Lloyd sets were incredible.
HONG: I told Carpenter, he should get an Academy Award for the sets. He said, “How ‘bout you? Your acting?” So, I was very flattered by that.
CARPENTER: Dennis could fake martial arts really well.
DUN: I had dabbled in it since I was a kid. [Actor and stuntman] Jeff [Imada], he said, “Well you have to work on some things.”So, the stunt guys would teach me things, and I’d practice between takes. I learned how to use the tachi sword, which is what I use in the film. Even though I didn’t shoot a lot of that stuff until near the end [of production], I worked out every day…. I knew I had to make it seem like I was an expert!
CARPENTER: Rather than try to make it look like our American Caucasian lead knew what he was doing with martial arts, we just went ahead and made him an idiot.
RUSSELL: I couldn’t do the chop-sockey. I had to come up with ways to not be involved. So, I said to John, “How about if we come in here, and I’m all excited, and hit the machine gun, and rocks fall on my face, and I’m out? Jack’s out for the first two minutes of the fight that’s 10 minutes long, whatever. And then he gets into the fray, and sure enough he stabs this big guy, but the guy falls in a way that’s crushing Jack, and he can’t move.” I was just constantly finding things like that… I did learn how to drive an 18-wheeler. I forgot about that. It was pretty easy.
BURTON: We spent a lot of time swimming underground. I spent most of the movie soaking wet. I think I was dry, like, two scenes in the movie. Every day, I would come into work and go into hair and makeup and look absolutely stunning. Then the next thing that would happen is that someone would throw a bucket of water on my head.
RUSSELL: It’s wet — you get wet. That’s what it’s like getting in water. You should try it sometime! [Laughs]
DUN: That’s a Kurt Russell answer… I know some people got sick. There’s water, bacteria, people running through, something came out of their sock. I was so healthy from working out all the time, I didn’t get sick.
RUSSELL: One time, Kim and I kissed…. Then I noticed that the crew was smirking. I had lipstick all over my face. I said, “You know, I’ve always wondered about that. [In kissing scenes] how come that big red lipstick is always magically not there when the guy pulls back?” I looked at John, and I started laughing…. I said, “[Let’s leave the lipstick on] at least for a couple of scenes!” And he said, “All right.” I always admired John for that, because the audience is going to go, “What the f—?”
HONG: The director did not really know exactly how we should portray the battle scene between [Victor] and I. But Victor and I had seen all these old Chinese films, where the two opponents would fight each other with this hand magic, where things would come out of their hands. That’s an old Chinese fable-type of magic-fighting. So, Victor decided to throw balls at me of fire, and I invented that I would cross my little fingers and little rays would come out. And Carpenter put that in the film.
CARPENTER: The soundtrack was a lot of fun to do. And also, my little group at the time, the Coup de Villes, we sang the title song. [Laughs]. Then we did a music video! Unbelievable! It was all unbelievable times.
Despite the casting of Dun, Hong, and Wong in prominent roles, the film became a point of controversy for Asian-American activists concerned the movie was trafficking in racist stereotypes. At one point during production, 25 protesters arrived at one of the movie’s locations to distribute leaflets complaining that film concerned “a macho, smart-aleck truckdriver and his Chinese ‘yes’ man.”
CARPENTER: It was a San Francisco guy who said, “Now, this is a movie for white people.” It was really unpleasant. What are you going to do? You’re right, I am Caucasian! You’re right! And then we were picketed. It was unbelievable. What a world!
DUN: They were already writing letters to Carpenter with concerns about some things in the script even before we started. I knew I had a responsibility, being an Asian-American actor. I talked with John Carpenter, and you could tell that he didn’t want a disparaging image of Asians. I’ve been on sets where you go there and you feel like you’re a second class citizen sometimes. But on that set you felt like you were part of the team.
Big Trouble in Little China received mixed reviews, with Roger Ebert complaining that the characters “often seem to exist only to fill up the foregrounds.” Released on July 2, 1986, the film earned $11.1 million, one eighth of the gross of James Cameron’s Aliens, which opened later that month.
RUSSELL: A lot of the people on the junket said, “How does it feel to be in a movie that you know is going to be a massive hit?” And I would be falsely humble and say, “Well, hey, you never know, you’ve just got to see how it does.” But inside I was going, “Yeah! I’m so happy!” And then it came out.
HONG: The critics didn’t like it. They slashed it to pieces.
RUSSELL: Without opening up old wounds, that picture really suffered a strange [marketing plan]. It was all on Jack Burton. It was all based on trying to theoretically get the audience interested in “Who is this guy?” And the answer was, “I’ve got no f—ing idea!”
GOLDMAN: I have a different view of what happened. We gave them something like Raiders of the Lost Ark and Romancing the Stone and they made the decision to turn it into something like Buckaroo Banzai. Buckaroo Banzai was a really interesting movie and I like it a lot. But it was a bomb.
DUN: I thought it was my big chance — I’m in this big film, and maybe it’ll take off, and my goals will keep expanding, and I’ll keep getting more interesting roles that are beyond the stereotypes of Asians. But it didn’t happen.
RICHTER: Was I disappointed? [With deep sarcasm] No, I always love to have things tank. It’s so satisfying! Who wants to entertain hundreds of millions of people?
CARPENTER: What do you think?
RUSSELL: Fortunately for us, tapes and DVDs were just beginning to come out and Big Trouble in Little China found its life anyway. That one really grabbed a hold of the audience.
Like Carpenter’s The Thing — now regarded as among the greatest horror movies ever made — Big Trouble slowly began to find fans via home video. By 2012 it was a full-fledged cult phenomenon. A “Gangnam Style” parody video called “Lo Pan Style” went viral. In 2015 the company Funko released a line of Big Trouble vinyl figures, and later this year BOOM! Studios will publish two books about the film, The Official Making of “Big Trouble in Little China” and The Official Art of “Big Trouble in Little China.”
BURTON: I teach a lot and I do a lot of masterclasses at my two universities, Brown and Yale. I’m always inundated by kids who go, “Oh my god, you were in Big Trouble in Little China!”
JOHNSON: I think audiences have gotten a little bit more sophisticated since the movie was put out. I think it was difficult for people to categorize it back then. What the hell is this thing? But it’s incredibly unique. Aside from certain Korean or Chinese films, I can’t think of another American film that comes close to touching the unique quality of that film.
HONG: I’ve been to autograph conventions, and this film — let’s just say it this way: The production stills from this film have sold more than all the other ones combined, including Blade Runner, Seinfeld, and Balls of Fury, all those other ones. I just hope they don’t ruin it with this sequel, or prequel, or whatever they’re doing.
CARPENTER: Oh god help us, I don’t know. We’ll see!
RUSSELL: Dwayne Johnson as Jack Burton? Hey, I’m sure he’ll come up with a good take on it. I’ve got no problem with that. Movies are movies. You throw the dice and see what happens… At the end of the day, all that ever matters is you make a movie that holds up. And John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China holds up.