Shooting Star Brandon Lee by Samantha Malagre
March 31, 2013 will mark the 20 happened that fatal night, and how did this event shape the cast and crew of this now cult film?
It was 50 of a 58 day shoot, and the crew was ready for murder.
It was 12:30am on March 31, 1993 when Australian director, Alex Proyas yelled CUT! on the set of The Crow in Wilmington, North Carolina. For a moment, the film’s leading man, 28 year-old Brandon Lee was thought to be playing a practical joke, but his motionless body told another story – something was wrong, very, very wrong.
“Brandon, are you okay?,” asked on-set medic Clyde Baisey.
But Brandon didn’t respond.
Only minutes earlier, Lee had been in good spirits as he looked forward to the very last night of the action sequences in the film. The scene promised to be easy enough; they were filming the flashback death scene of the main character Eric Draven, played by Lee, and that of his girlfriend. Out of the nine sequences on the schedule that evening, this death scene was the shortest.
The set for the night’s events was a large loft, equipped with industrial-style support beams, and hard wooden floors. Standing at the entrance of the set door, Lee looked the part; dressed in black leather jacket, tight corduroys, black boots which were tapped down tight against his legs to give him a sleeker look, and a white T-shirt with the name of his character’s fictional band “HANGMAN’S JOKE” in block letters.
While waiting for the rehearsal, Lee chatted with his friend and The Crow’s wardrobe designer, Arianne Phillips. Lee’s thoughts were not on the evening’s shooting, but on his wedding due to take place in less than two weeks to Eliza Hutton, his long-term girlfriend to whom he was due to marry the following month.
“He was so excited. I remember him telling me how we were getting to Mexico and saying that we would start the party on the bus,” recalls Arianne Phillips, who had fitted Lee for his Armani wedding tuxedo only days earlier.
The Crow was to be Brandon Lee’s breakthrough film; the story of man who comes back from the dead to avenge his and his true love’s death. The role, based on a comic book of the same name, the role of Eric appealed to the romantic in Lee. The role was not Hamlet, but it was the closest thing to a dramatic role that the young actor had the opportunity to do on film.
As the only son of Kung Fu legend Bruce Lee, who died in 1973 of a brain edema when Brandon Lee was eight, his path to Hollywood stardom was not paved with gold. After studying theatre at Emerson College in Boston, Lee maintained his study with weekly acting classes as he struggled to be accepted as a dramatic actor on his own terms. Bit parts in low budget action films eventually graduated into a martial arts film career, something Lee never wanted.
“I wanted to do Mean Streets, not Enter The Dragon,” Lee told Empire Magazine in 1992.
For years, Lee had a reputation for being arrogant, angry and somewhat reckless – later he described these traits masked the “hopeless unhappiness”, he felt trying to be his own man, whilst living in the shadow of his famous father. After a few moderately successful action films, he was signed to a number of studios including, 20 Century Fox and Carolco for three-picture deals.
Brandon Lee seemed on his way to achieving his acting dream.
By 1992, Lee was being billed as a star in the making, and he was represented by the best people in the business. With his good Eurasian looks, chiseled jaw lines and his friendly disposition, he was the package that the producers of The Crow were looking for – at a fraction of the cost.
After reading the script for The Crow, Lee enthusiastically coveted the role of Eric Draven, telling his manager, Jan McCormack, “you have to get me this part”. It was supposed to be the start of bigger things for Brandon Lee, not the end.
The Crow started principle filming on February 1, 1993, Brandon’s 28th birthday,and it wasn’t long before the penning pinching oversights on the $14 million production started to be plagued by mishaps; a stuntman accidentally fell through a roof breaking several ribs, a carpenter was electrocuted, and an unexplained fire almost destroyed one of the backlots.
Despite the problems on the set, Brandon Lee forged ahead giving his all to the role he felt would help define his career. A daily routine of three hours of make-up transformed Lee into the brooding and menacing avenger. Some scenes on The Crow called for Lee to be barefoot in almost freezing temperature, all which he did without complaint, impressing even the most veteran of actors with his positive attitude and professionalism.
“When I think back, I can remember how Brandon worked so incredibly hard. He worked his butt off in the freezing cold and rain,” says Lee’s co-star Ernie Hudson.
The grueling schedule on The Crow started taking its toll on Lee; there were days when he worked 19 hours straight, and fatigue and insomnia had set in. While Brandon Lee was naturally optimistic and friendly, the lack of sleep and depressing conditions on set forced him to take a closer look at the “sub-human” conditions that people were being forced to work.
On Saturday March 28, 1993, four days before he died, Lee lodged a formal complaint to his agent, Mike Simpson and manager, Jan McCormack, which was sent to producer, Bob Rosen. Rosen’s response was less than comforting. McCormack’s last words to Rosen became prophetic, “you guys are killing Brandon down there.”
Working extra hours on film sets is not unusual, says Mike Simpson, Lee’s then-agent at the influential William Morris Agency, but even he found this excessive when he visited the set several weeks into production.
“Actors are meant to get a certain amount of downtime between rapping one scene and starting the next. There are provisions for violating that, you pay a fine, which is called a force call payment. But there can also be a limit on how many forced calls per week you can have and they were violating it, cutting corners,” explains Mike Simpson.
What Brandon Lee didn’t know that night was that the weapon actor Michael Massee was usinghad been loaded with a lethal charge. Two weeks earlier, Prop Master, Daniel Kuttner, needed some dummy bullets for the 2nd unit crew to film a close up of the gun cylinder, but realizing there was no money in the budget for new dummy bullets, he decided to make his own using live ammunition.
Kuttner, Stunt Coordinator, Jeff Imada and Special Effects man, Bruce Merlin,removed the gun powder, crimped together the bullets. But the men had failed to fire off all the primers (which is the charge of a bullet) when they used the rounds for filming. One primer hadnot discharged properly leaving a piece of the lead tip of the bullet with a primer in the barrel of the weapon. When the gun was needed for the fatal scene, it was re-loaded with blanks (which are harmless show bullets without any charge), causing a lethal charge that had the force of a real .44 bullet.
“It’s was actually worse than a real bullet,” says Mike Simpson, who undertook his own investigation into the accident. “It was like two bullets firing at the same time.”
When Brandon Lee was shot he fell backwards not forwards, as he had rehearsed. He landed against a thick wooden door, the only exit door on that set, but due to the force of the fall, he ended up in a sitting up position. Stunt Coordinator Jeff Imada made his way to Brandon initially because he suspected “that’s something catastrophic had happened”, and stayed by Lee’s side assisting media Baisey as best he could. As the set was cleared, crew members were forced to file past the barely conscious actor.
The grocery bag Lee was carrying, which was rigged with squibs(a fake explosive charge), detonated, exploding the milk container and a blood pack, the effect ripped through the brown paper bag leaving a hole. Due to the mess, Baisey found it difficult to know where the injury was coming from. “It wasn’t until his abdomen began to swell that I knew that it must be internal bleeding, “says Baisey.
Brandon Lee was rushed to the New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington, N.C, profusely hemorrhaging. After an X-ray it was determined that some kind of object had lodged itself against his spin, though no one had any idea what that object was. Lee was taken to emergency surgery where doctors attempted to repair the damage to his internal organs. The bullet had severed a major artery, and his blood wouldn’t clot.
The blood loss was substantial. He was pronounced dead at 1:03PM on March 31, 1993 some 12 hours after being shot. It was only after the autopsy that they found the object initially suspected as being a squib was actually a bullet.
Rumors swirled that it was murder, or that Brandon Lee had been killed by Chinese mafia for sharing martial arts secrets of his father. But the ballistic reports released several weeks after Lee’s death confirmed that it had been a modified bullet, rather than a real .44, supporting the police findings.
“Somebody really screwed up. At some point, somebody has to take responsible, even if it’s just in their heart,” says co-star, Ernie Hudson.
Brandon Lee’s death was determined by the Wilmington Police to be an accidental death, though a negligent death and no criminal charges were filed. The North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Administration and found the production company in violation of several safety laws, fining them $84,000, as did the Actor Guild of America who also fined them for allowing Massee to fire directly at Lee.
Brandon’s mother, Linda Cadwell sued the 14 crew members in civil court who were determined to have been negligent in his death, including Jeff Imada, Daniel Kuttner and Bruce Merlin, and settled out of court for an undisclosed amount (rumored to have been $3 Million).
The Crow finished the few remaining scenes with the help of a stuntman and friend of Brandon’s, Chad Stahelski, who Lee trained with at the Inosanto Academy of Martial Arts in Los Angeles. The film was released to critical acclaim on May 11, 1994 grossing $11 Million in its opening weekend.
Almost 20 years has transpired since Lee’s death, but the affection or influence that he still has on many of the people who worked on the film has never dimmed. Those who knew him well still fondly remember the man that ended up giving his life to a film.
Ernie Hudson, Lee’s co-star on The Crow says he now spends much of his year attending comic conventions, where many fans want to talk about his experience on The Crow and about Brandon Lee.
“He was a nice kid and he was so good in The Crow”, Hudson says, who first met Lee in 1988. “ I tell people that he was a talented actor and decent human being.”
James O’Barr who created the comic ‘The Crow’ admits that he had a “sort of survivor’s guilt” for years afterwards. “I wished I had never created the damn thing,” he says. “But after speaking with Eliza (Brandon Lee’s fiancée) she helped me see that what happened to Brandon wasn’t my fault.”
The Crow has become a cult hit among all age groups, and has especially resonated, says O’Barr, with people dealing with their own grief, something he has struggled with since Lee’s death.
“Moving on is part of death and grief too. You can’t stay in that anger and bitter place forever because that’s not healthy,” says O’Barr.
Brandon Lee’s sister, Shannon Lee, who now heads Bruce Lee Enterprises recently tweeted that her “Though I have mixed feelings about the film because of his death, he shined brilliantly and needs to be remembered.”
Jeff Imada says that his own personal loss is not just because of his 15-year friendship that he shared with Lee. “There is hardly a time that goes by where I don’t think of Brandon,” he says. “But for the audiences not to see more of this young man’s talent especially when he was just coming into his own is tragic.”
Brandon Lee’s legacy may just be in the lives he touched, many of whom have never forgotten what was lost that cold night in March. The Crow forever will be Lee’s epitaph, a story of a young man in his prime, that audiences will always wonder about, and what might have been.
“You were making a film with a star who wasn’t yet a star – it was the weirdest thing,” says director, Alex Proyas.