For many readers of Fangoria in the 1990’s, the magazine’s provocative and insightful column “Raving & Drooling” (appearing from 1992 to 1996) written by American author David J. Schow was cause in and of it itself to pick up an issue (and for those who missed it, those forty-one installments were collected into the award-winning 2000 book release Wild Hairs). For devotees of the literary subgenre of “splatterpunk” (a term Schow himself coined in the 1980’s, populated by the likes of fellow writers John Skipp, Clive Barker, Poppy Z. Bright and the late Jack Ketchum) Schow’s also well revered, from his 1988 novel The Kill Rift to his latest, 2012’s Upgunned. And for fans of horror cinema, his name will undoubtedly spark recognition as the subversive screenwriter of 1990’s Leatherface: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre III and director Dave Parker’s 2009 film The Hills Run Red, among others.
Late last year I sat down with Schow to discuss the film he’s most known for however, New Line Cinema’s cult classic The Crow, a feature which much like the oversized French poster of the same mounted upon the writer’s Hollywood Hills’ living room wall, will forever loom large in his life.
For Part 1 of this article, click here.
Based on James O’Barr’s 1989 comic of the same name, which tells the story of slain musician Eric Draven who returns from the grave (accompanied by a crow as his guide) to avenge the rape and murder of his fiancée on the eve of their impending nuptials, the stylized dark fantasy film opened on May 11, 1994 and was a sleeper hit at the box office, garnering critical praise, grossing more than twice its budget and arguably providing the then burgeoning goth movement a celluloid alter at which to collectively worship. A series of flagging sequels soon followed, as did an ill-conceived television series, and in October of next year an impending reboot titled The Crow Reborn, starring Jason Momoa, of which fans vocal of the original seem at present less than interested. Perhaps unsurprising really, for the tragic death of lead Brandon Lee on March 31st, 1993, son of martial arts and screen legend Bruce Lee, during the indigenous production has rendered the film a veritable cinematic headstone.
Of that tragedy, which involved Brandon being struck by a bullet fired from an improperly loaded prop gun on the Wilmington, North Carolina set, Schow rued, “For anyone that still wants to know about it, that shit is abundantly available on the internet. I don’t know why people to this day are so confused about it. It’s very sad in a different way, too – if The Crow is mentioned, or if you mention to anyone that you were involved with The Crow in particular, there’s always that person in the room that comes up to you sideways, and they always look at you and say the same thing, which is: ‘So what really happened on that?’ Like you can’t read two dozen accounts of what happened. And I have to repeatedly remind people that I’m not trying to minimize the tragedy of the film; all I’m trying to say is that had the tragedy not happened, there would still be a number of good points about the film, that I think would make it just as lasting, maybe ninety-five percent so, without the tragedy attached to it. With the tragedy added, what you now get with this film is the status of what is called a ‘Modern Classic,’ which you may not want, or you may not have invited, but now you’ve got it … and you’ve got to deal with it.”
Schow paused, and referring to that stigma, which can also be applied to Lee’s loss at the tender age of nine of his own famous father Bruce, who perished from a cerebral edema on July 20th, 1973 (and whose death has long been a topic for conspiracy theorists), “And that was one thing that Brandon knew well.”
Of Schow’s personal relationship with the actor, which began prior to principal photography of The Crow during the development phase, “We had spent a lot of time together when we trying to figure out what the movie was about before anyone even went near Wilmington,” recalled the screenwriter.
“We shot a lot of pool. I remember showing him two things – things he had never seen, one in our production office and one in the trailer, and those were Ren & Stimpy cartoons and Nine Inch Nails (music) videos. When did that banned ‘Happiness in Slavery’ video come out? I think that was one of the NIN videos we showed in the production office, and everyone thought something was deeply wrong with (both of) us,” Schow smiled mischievously.
“He and I were driving together one night in one of the production rental cars (in North Carolina),” continued Schow, his demeanor growing wistful. ”We had all of these Hondas, and it was just pissing down rain, the kind that comes directly at your windshield, and the wipers were going and our headlights were our own worst enemy, that kind of thing. And Brandon and I were zipping down the road, coming from playing pool – there was this bowling alley attached to the pool hall (that we frequented) called Break Time that stayed open late for us during production, and so we were blazing home (from it) in this rental car, and Brandon looks at me and says, ‘You want to see something really cool?’ And he pulls the emergency brake and spins the car like three times. And I looked at him and said, ‘Do that again.’ And he did, and he was good at it, too!”
“So yeah, Brandon risked our lives and limbs on a regular basis,” Schow offered, “but he took his role and the film very seriously, physically and otherwise. I remember once that he asked me if I wanted to go to the gym with him when I had the flu. I didn’t (go). I definitely would have croaked under the bench press. And besides, who wants to go to the gym with Brandon Lee? I mean come on, that would have been embarrassing! But yeah, he could be very silly, and he was a good guy. We became friends as a result of this movie, and we were in each other’s orbits so much that it was difficult to be anything other than buddies.”
Schow paused, recollecting.
”Of the very rare down-time periods during production, where we would sort of disrupt the lives of people that were kind enough to keep their businesses open for us – like Break Time – so that we could recreate in the middle of the night when we weren’t working, Brandon got really intent on walking up to total strangers and asking, ‘If you had an opportunity to come back from the dead, would you? Would you potentially upset your loved ones by having one more chance to talk to them, or would you leave them in whatever peace they’d found through grief?’”
“It was like he was taking a poll,” mused Schow. “And almost uniformly, everyone said, ‘I would come back.’ Which I thought was kind of interesting. But yeah, Brandon did his own death poll, with anybody and everybody that we went with, or anyone that would walk past the pool table to absorb what was going on, and after a while, people left us alone.”
Lee’s death took place eight days before principal photography was slated to wrap on The Crow, and seventeen days prior to his planned marriage in Ensenada, Mexico, to his fiancée Eliza Hutton.
“I was certainly there when the accident happened,” said Schow of the tragedy, which took place during the filming of the scene in which Brandon’s Draven enters his apartment, bag of groceries in hand, and is shot by actor Michael Massee’s character of Funboy. “I was standing ten feet away. And then after (his death), it was a very confusing period of time that was in many ways similar to the evacuation of Saigon, as news people tried to trespass onto the lot, and as people tried to figure out what to do.”
Amidst the media’s bombardment and nearly instantaneous conspiratorial speculation (one theory was that Brandon had been murdered by the Asian crime syndicate The Triads, as had his father, another that it had been at the hands of the Chinese mafia) and the production’s own profoundly personal and real loss,“ (The Crow producer Edward R.) Pressman flew in and he wanted to address the entire crew, and production was shut down, basically,” Schow recalled. “But it took nearly three days after the accident to completely shut down. And I remember flying back from Wilmington with production designer Alex McDowell and camera operator Ken Arlidge, and we were sitting on the plane, and this was one of those flights that had a big screen for the movie that they would show everybody, and what comes on the screen but the trailer for (the May, 1993 film) Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, and the whole plane comes alive around us in total confusion, asking, ‘Isn’t that the guy that just got killed?’ And I was thinking, ‘No,’ but I’m not going to correct anybody on the plane. I’m not going to open that shitbox. We just sank down in our seats, and it was one of the bleakest days of my life.”
“It was very, very depressing,” said Schow, “and it took six weeks or thereabouts for several things to happen, including the decision to complete the movie. A lot of us were sitting in Los Angeles, feeling that the film was unfinished business. Imagine yourself that you are waiting for six weeks for the phone to ring, and it doesn’t for most of that time. We felt doomed and over already, because (director) Alex (Proyas) had said, ‘To hell with this. We can’t finish this.’ And then two of the actors – I’ve heard a story that suggests that one of them was David Patrick Kelly – went to him and changed his mind.”
“Once the idea of completing the movie as Brandon’s legacy came up, that seemed to make a great deal of sense,” Schow continued, “and a great deal of the crew came back for very little or no extra pay, and there was about a quarter of the crew that was new because we had lost some people, but everybody went back to Wilmington for like an entire month. I mean, we had eight days left to shoot, and to collect and repair those eight days, it took over a month.”
On returning to Carolco Studios, Schow recalled, “When we had first started shooting the film, it was freezing there. It was in the grip of early February. But when we went back, it was a horrible summer heat wave in the middle of June, and humid – as far opposite as we could get. But one thing that had not happened, was that people frankly needed to go back to Wilmington just to grieve, because we hadn’t had an opportunity to do that. We certainly hadn’t been able to around anybody who didn’t understand what we were going through, and granted there was Brandon’s mom, and there was Eliza, and there were people going through a lot worse shit than we were. And, this isn’t closure, because closure suggests the end of something. This was different. This was an experience with a large contingent of the crew that had kind of bonded by working together, and had become super bonded by the tragedy in our midst, and it was very nourishing to be around those people as we finished this project and got it out.”
Of the decision to finish the film, Schow said, “It’s always bittersweet to look at anything that refers to the movie, because you are reminded that the process of making this movie killed your friend. But I think if the argument boils down to, ‘Well, we are going to put Brandon and the movie in the ground,’ versus, ‘We can’t save Brandon but maybe we can save the movie,’ I think you could predict most people would say, ‘Let’s take a shot at salvaging the movie,’ and that’s kind of what happened. Ultimately, you can apologize all day, you can try to compensate all day, but what I take away from this experience is this. It is up to the fans I think to decide whether we did rightly or wrongly by finishing this project, and I think the vote has been mainly that we should have finished the movie, and I’ll swim with that.”
Schow concluded, “For anyone who has a friend at this level, or of this caliber, and you get a person like that – and I’m not talking about ‘celebrity,’ I’m just talking about their qualities as a human being – if you have them yanked out of your life, suddenly and unexpectedly in that way, they leave a hole. As time goes by you lose someone else and there is another hole, and then another, and pretty soon you are kind of Swiss cheese. Here’s the difference between the public figures that you are sorry to see go, and the people that meant more to you personally: I think boils down to, ‘Who are the people that since they left, or were taken, died, passed on, shuffled off the coil, which of those will you think about every day for the rest of your life?’ And Brandon is one of those people.”
Note: this interview is an excerpt from the forthcoming book “Unearthed: A Look Behind the Terror,” currently being written by Sean James Decker and edited by Steve Barton of Dread Central. For more, follow Decker on Twitter @seanjdecker and on Instagram @seanjdecker.