Luke Owen looks back at the death of Brandon Lee on the set of The Crow…
On March 30th 1993, Brandon Lee walked onto the set of The Crow in Wilmington, North Carolina. Less than 24 hours later, he was dead.
Based on the comic of the same name, The Crow was to be Lee’s big break. He had gained a cult following Showdown in Little Tokyo and Rapid Fire, but he wanted to move into something different and not be “remembered as the son of Bruce Lee” as he once put it. The Crow, written by James O’Barr and released in 1989, was very gothic and macabre, inspired by his love of The Cure and Joy Division and follows rock star Eric who is resurrected by a crow after he and his fiancée are killed in the streets by thugs. With Tim Burton’s Batman scoring it big at the box office the same year as the comic’s release, The Crow was picked up by producer Edward R. Pressman who hired music video director Alex Proyas to helm the project. Four drafts of the film were written by cyberpunk author John Shirley, with each one drifting further and further away from the source material. “When the film people were giving him suggestions, it tended to drift very far from the original concept,” O’Barr says. “At one point, someone even suggested doing it as a musical with Michael Jackson.” Eventually, screenwriter David Schow penned a draft that was accepted by the studio.
O’Barr wrote the comic in the wake of his girlfriend being killed by a drunk driver, and was reportedly concerned about the casting of Lee because he didn’t want The Crow to be ‘just another kung fu movie’. Although Christian Slater was “hot for the role”, as one person put it, he demanded too much money and O’Barr’s suggestion of Johnny Depp was also turned down. It wasn’t until O’Barr met with Lee that he changed his mind. “The level of physicality and charisma he brought to the role was amazing to witness,” he recalls. “Not a lot of people realize just how hard he worked – he did all of his own fight choreography and nearly all of his own stunts, the only thing he didn’t do was falling off buildings because they wouldn’t let him. That’s without even talking about his performance – he brought the right mix of humor, pain and menace to the role.”
Made for the low budget of $15 million, The Crow was an arduous production that was plagued with issues from the first day. A carpenter suffered severe burns when a crane hit power lines, a disgruntled crew member drove their car into the back of the studio lot, and there was the infamous ‘storm of the century’ that swept through North Carolina on March 13th that destroyed the exterior sets. Filming all of Lee’s scenes as the resurrected Draven first, the actor spent six days a week wearing very little and acting in the pouring rain. And if the real rain wasn’t enough, machines were brought in to simulate and pour down on the shivering Lee. “And on the seventh day”, he reportedly once said, “I drank”. But while the crew complained about the harsh working environments, Lee was in high spirits and his enthusiasm carried the difficult side of the production through. After all, once these scenes were filmed, Lee only had a few more days of shooting to do – all of which were in doors in regular clothes – and a week after the film wrapped he would be married to Eliza Hutton. There were other reports, however, that say the constant night shoots had ravaged his body, waking himself up at 4pm and collapsing into his bed the following morning. “He lost 20 pounds after getting the role, and he didn’t have a lot to lose,” says O’Barr. “I could lift him up with one arm, he was so thin. There was absolutely no fat on him whatever. He was just completely streamlined.” Lee’s manager, Jan McCormack, called the production to complain about the “subhuman” conditions as she put it before prophetically adding, “You guys are killing Brandon down there.”
Earlier in the shoot, a prop guy went down to their local prop shop to buy items for the production, during which he also purchased a set of live bullets which he took back to the set of The Crow. As live rounds should never be kept on a film set, the film’s prop master removed them and stored them in the trunk of his own car. As live bullets are never used in films, guns are loaded with blanks which are bullet cases filled with primer – a form of gunpowder – that creates the firing effect. Unlike a real bullet however, blanks have a cardboard tip on the end rather than a lead one, so that any impact the bullet would have once fired from a gun would be minimal, if any. During a scene in which a victim looks down the barrel of a gun being loaded, it was discovered that there were no blanks on set. In an effort to save time, the prop guys took the live bullets from the car and modified them into blanks, also creating dummy rounds – which didn’t have gunpowder but kept the lead tip – to be used for close-ups. Unbeknownst to anyone on set, when the dummy round was loaded into the gun for that shot, the lead tip got lodged in the barrel.
Two weeks later, on March 30th, that same gun was used for the scene where Brandon Lee was to be shot by Michael Massee’s character Funboy. The scene called for Lee to walk into his apartment, and then activate a squib – a packet of blood that would simulate the gunshot wound – once Massee fired the gun and fall to the ground. Everything went as planned. The gun went off, the squib went off, and Lee fell down. It wasn’t until after Proyas called cut that anyone realised Lee wasn’t moving. In fact, he was losing a tonne of blood from a silver dime sized bullet wound. Unfortunately, when the gun with the blank was fired it also propelled the lead tip that had been lodged there two weeks earlier, hitting Lee in his abdomen just above his naval.
Lee was rushed to New Hanover Regional Medical Center and operated on for six hours before being pronounced dead at 1:04am on March 31st, 1993. A two-month investigation followed, and the shooting was ruled an accident so no criminal charges were filed. Lee’s mother, Linda Cadwell, did file a civil suit against the studio which was settled out of court.
Two months following Lee’s death, Pressman secured a further $8 million to re-write the script and finish the production of The Crow, using stunt men Chad Stahelski and Jeff Cadiente to fill in for the remaining shots of Eric Draven with Lee’s face imposed over their own in post-production for close-ups. “There was never a question about the technical ability to finish the movie,” Pressman says. “But there was a serious question psychologically, and it really revolved around Proyas. Alex at first did not want to go on with the film. He was destroyed by the accident and so devastated he had no heart to continue. It was only because Eliza [Lee’s fiancée], and later the whole cast and crew, appealed to him that he started to consider it.” O’Barr, like a third of the movie’s original crew, did not return to set. “They asked me to come back,” he recalls. “I told them no, that I couldn’t imagine myself back there without him.”
In a sad coincidence, Brandon Lee’s death was just as accidental as his father’s under similar circumstances.
Bruce Lee had passed away on July 20th 1973 during the production of Game of Death (which he was also directing), which he had stopped filming to star in Enter the Dragon, the first kung fu movie to be made by a Hollywood studio. Two months earlier, Lee had collapsed during an ADR session and was diagnosed with a cerebral edema, which is an accumulation of fluid in his brain. In July, Lee complained of a headache following meetings with George Lazenby and Golden Harvest producer Raymond Chow while staying at his Enter the Dragon co-star Betty Ting Pei’s apartment, and she gave him a painkiller made up of asprin and tranquilizer meprobamate. He went to lie down for a nap and never woke up. His passing was ruled as “death by misadventure”, and the autopsies showed that his brain has swollen 13% in size. Chow would later comment that Lee’s death was from an allergic reaction to the tranquilizer meprobamate. Like The Crow, production on Game of Death recommenced though it was several years later. Enter the Dragon director Robert Clouse helmed this new version which was co-written by Chow under a pseudonym, and was a completely different story but used archive footage of Bruce Lee from the original Game of Death.
Although the official ruling was “death by misadventure”, conspiracy theorists believe that Lee’s death was orchestrated by the Chinese mafia, who wanted him out of the movie industry because he was doing too well and was killing other studios. Many point out that both Chow and Pei lied about Bruce Lee dying in her apartment, especially when it was heavily reported that Lee and Pei were having an affair. It was also reported that Lee had a drug problem, and he was found with cannabis in his stomach on both the day he collapsed, and the day of his death. Others believe that he was given the dim-mak death touch by a gongfu master he offended.
Several conspiracy theorist, the same who believe there is more to Bruce Lee’s death than meets the eye, also pose questions about Brandon Lee’s death on the set of The Crow. Usually when an actor is being shot on the set of a movie – even when using blanks – they are required to wear a bullet-proof vest. A weapons expert is also required to be on set, who would have instructed Massee to aim to the side of Lee rather than right at him. Some say that it wasn’t an accident or a display or gross negligence, and instead again orchestrated by the Chinese mafia. There are even those who claim ninjas were in the set rafters on the day he died. And, of course, those who believe the Lee family is cursed claim this was all fate.
In reality, it was simply an accident.
“It absolutely wasn’t supposed to happen,” Massee told Extra in 2005 when he finally opened up about Lee’s death. “I wasn’t even supposed to be handling the gun until we started shooting the scene and the director changed it.” He added: “I just took a year off and I went back to New York and didn’t do anything. I didn’t work. What happened to Brandon was a tragic accident… I don’t think you ever get over something like that.”
Though The Crow spawned many, many sequels, a reboot began development in 2008 and since then, many directors – including Stephen Norrington (Blade), Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later), Francisco Javier Gutiérrez (Before the Fall) and Corin Hardy (The Hallow) – have come and gone along with Bradley Cooper, Mark Wahlberg, Channing Tatum, Ryan Gosling, James McAvoy, Tom Hiddleston and Alexander Skarsgård all rumoured to take on the role of Eric. Luke Evans (Beauty and the Beast) had been cast but dropped out, as had Jack Huston (Ben-Hur) and Jason Momoa (Aquaman). The project remains in development at Sony Pictures.