“People once believed that when someone dies, a crow carries their soul to the land of the dead. But sometimes, something so bad happens that a terrible sadness is carried with it and the soul can’t rest. Then sometimes, just sometimes, the crow can bring that soul back to put the wrong things right.”
Horrific and destructive events take place on October 30th; Devil’s Night. Fires burn across a decaying city as a crow surveys the landscape from atop a spire. This is the modern Hell. A world of decay and corruption; one bereft of love and compassion, where blood is spilled without heed on a regular basis.
On Friday May 13th 1994, The Crow, Alex Proyas’ feature debut, based on the comic books of Detroit native James O’Barr, was released in cinemas across the United States. The first R-Rated adaptation of its kind, it created a template for the Gothic antihero which fit perfectly into the nihilistic pop culture of the era. Brandon Lee, for many, became the epitome of tragic beauty with his portrayal of Eric Draven, a budding musician who is slain the night before his wedding. Shelly Webster, his bride to be is brutally assaulted, raped and left for dead, only to pass shortly afterwards. The solace that a young companion, Sarah, found in the couple has been destroyed forever, casting her back into the uncaring world her mother inhabits; one of drugs, miscreants and squalor.
Before long, Draven rises from the grave and, guided by a crow, seeks out the perpetrators of his demise; systematically exacting revenge in a methodical and bloody manner. A range of unforgettable villains stand in the way of his redemption, as Lee transforms himself into The Crow; an angel, a ghost, a warrior.
This is the story of one of the most resonant and influential comic book movies of all time, told by those who were there, in an exclusive celebration of the twenty-first anniversary of the film that spawned a legacy.
The men responsible for bringing O’Barr’s vision from the page into development were producer Jeff Most and writer John Shirley. The pair had worked together previously on The Specialist; an action movie based on a series of Shirley’s novels, and were developing further material to pitch. One of these projects was a Cyberpunk novel called Black Glass, for which they were seeking a comic book artist to provide illustrations.
“It was 1989 and Batman had just come out,” explains Most, “I thought it would be a great approach to illustrate this potential film, so we could commercially exploit it as a comic, which would make it more appealing to the studio executives.”
Most was paying attention to what Warner Bros were responsive to at the time, and set out looking for an artist. “John and I were both on the hunt and he had a connection at the Detroit Free Press. They had just seen something from a very small publisher called Caliber, which was basically a comic book shop, and said they had just printed the first issue of The Crow and the artist was definitely worth checking out.”
“I had a proposal for a comic called Angry Angel, and submitted it to the indie company who distributed The Crow, which I was unaware of at the time.” continues Shirley, “They wrote back and said, “We’d like to do something with you, but this is too much like a title we have (The Crow).” I was curious, so I went to a comic book store and found a couple of issues. It seemed very cinematic, and I thought, ‘This should be a movie.’”.
“We recognised a great artistic talent in James O’Barr when we read the first issue and thought it was a very exciting backdrop for a film,” adds Most, “so I tried to find him, which I did thanks to Caliber. When I spoke with James, I told him that his world was very evocative of the type that I was familiar with from the Lower East Side, and East Village of New York; where I went to film school. Having lived in that environment, his Del Ray depiction of Detroit in the comic seemed very enticing.”
“The tone of it was something I had an instant affinity for.” says Shirley, “I’m a Goth kinda guy; my favourite superheroes are weird and dark, like Batman and The Creeper. I responded to the rock and roll iconography that was present. There were images of the hero that were very much inspired by photos of Iggy Pop on stage, for example.”
Most and O’Barr discussed several aspects of the proposed feature, as they started to outline a deal. “The violence in the first issue, and other things that the character did were far outside the realm of anything that had been shown in features at that point.” recalls Most, “This was a challenge, but one of the things that James and I strongly felt was the film would have be as dark and true to the comic as he had rendered it on paper, or it would kill the spirit of it.”
This was certainly one of O’Barr’s main concerns. Most assured him, no matter what, they would set out to make the first R Rated comic book adaptation in Hollywood history. O’Barr then received an offer from New Line Cinema, who wanted to purchase the series. “They said they would completely buy him out,” explains Most, “and he would see no more revenue from it. The same discussion we’d been having about tone came up and they said the film would HAVE to be a PG 13 and there was no such thing as an R Rated comic book movie.”
O’Barr completely rejected their offer, leaving Most delighted. He didn’t have the kind of money at his disposal that New Line had, but O’Barr was now on board. “We would remain faithful to his material, but we also offered terms that were much more enticing, which made him more of a partner. This gave him complete ownership of the comics so he could continue reaping the rewards of their success.” notes Most.
Shirley and Most began writing multiple treatments, which were being written at the same time O’Barr was still working on the actual comic book series. This presented its own series of problems. “He had his thought line sketched out, but he hadn’t written it all.” says Most, “We were working it in constant communication. John and I went through three drafts of very detailed treatments, trying to perfect them. We would send them to James to see what he thought and get input. We wrote the first draft together, and then a second, which John wrote on his own. The third draft got John the credit, which I wasn’t allowed. It was a WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) film, and, pre-1995, no producer was permitted to receive a writing credit, but I did a substantial proportion of the work on it, of which I am very proud.”
It took over fifty rejections before Most found a ‘kindred spirit’ in veteran producer Ed Pressman, who found the material very compelling and further development of the script was instigated. Pressman made a deal with Most and O’Barr, with Shirley attached as writer. “I wrote the first four drafts.” Shirley recalls, “Then they brought on Dave Schow, who did a great job with the rest; he worked more closely with Alex Proyas than I did from thereon in.”
Alex Proyas, an Australian director who had gained a reputation in music videos and commercials, was brought on board. His reel became the stuff of legend and his visual flair, Noirish aesthetic and dark sensibilities, made him the perfect choice.
“After John and I delivered the third draft of the script, David Schow joined us, and was responsible for creating some fantastic dialogue.” explains Most, “He added many other aspects, although he did veer off a little to having more than one mystical entity.” Schow’s additions included several characters which Most feels didn’t help the film or the narrative. “Brandon came in and had a very strong viewpoint on this. He felt that the way to make this world accessible and believable was to have only one supernatural element, and that be his character. There was also The Skull Cowboy, and that worked because he was another like The Crow, but one who went off his mission. We had more, such as a Soothsayer; who ended up appearing in City of Angels. Brandon had some very smart thoughts about how this world, and his character, should be perceived, and we were responsive to that.”
A location was now required in which to build the world of The Crow. Most’s partner on The Specialist was Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles director Steve Barron, who was very vocal about how he’d had a wonderful experience shooting the film at (what was then) the Carolco studio in Wilmington, North Carolina. “They’d just had a hurricane there, and were looking to rebuild for a movie.” says Most. “That seemed very attractive to us.” Proyas and Most went through an extensive set of meetings with an array of production designers and finally decided upon Alex McDowell, who had only done one film at that point (Lawnmower Man), but had worked with David Fincher on several of his award winning MTV videos. “McDowell just had an absolute brilliance about him.” continues Most, “We had a first time feature director and usually the rule of thumb is to try and engage much more experienced department heads around a less experienced feature director. We came up with the motto; ‘We’re looking for 30 year olds with 30 years of experience.’ That’s what we found. With The Crow we were able to launch the careers of Proyas, McDowell, who went on to work with Spielberg, and Dariusz Wolski, who went on to do the Pirates of the Caribbean films, among many others.”
Now a solid team was in place for the production elements, the task of finding suitable actors was handed over to legendary casting agent Billy Hopkins. The selection process was long and arduous, with many of the young hopefuls waiting months before they got any kind of confirmation.
Brandon, son of legendary martial arts expert and actor Bruce Lee, was offered the lead role from the offset, but genre stalwarts, stage actors, newcomers and international icons would all flock to join him as part of the superlative cast. Johnny Depp and Christian Slater were discussed at one point for the title role, but were never offered the part.
“When you got a call from Billy Hopkins, you knew you were in for something special.” says Tony Todd, who played Grange, one of the film’s lead villains. It is revealed, however, that this was not the part he originally auditioned for. “I read for the Albrecht role, which Ernie (Hudson) got. He knocked it out of the park, but they offered me Grange. This was great, because it was cool to be part of that terrible trio; that familial thing with myself, Bai Ling and Michael Wincott. We were such an interesting group, visually. I didn’t have a whole lot of lines, but my character had this immense presence.” Todd’s imposing aura certainly added menace and danger to compliment the debonair, Byronesque Top Dollar character, played by Wincott, who ran the city with the help of his sinister sister, Myca (Bai Ling).
“I did not really speak English at the time.” Ling recalls, “I was brought in for the audition and when I went in, everyone had nose rings, or black lips and they all looked so weird to me. They all had really heavy eye makeup and I was wearing jeans and a white t-shirt; I just looked like a student. I thought I had walked into the wrong place!”
“It took me four months to get the part.” says Rochelle Davis, who landed her first starring role Sarah, the streetwise kid taken in by Eric and Shelly. “The film wasn’t explained to me in depth, but in a very superficial manner, because I was a child. I would ask questions about the tone and story, as I was serious about it, but they’d ask me if I could skateboard, or if I was afraid of heights, or had a problem with rain. I had no problem with any of it. This was the very first audition I went to being represented by an actual agent, and I ended up getting it.”
“I had auditioned three times, and it came down to three of us. I met Alex and so on, so by this time I really wanted it, but man it dragged on for an age.” says Michael Masse, whose turn as Funboy remains one of the most iconic in the feature. “Wincott and Hudson got cast, but the role of Funboy hadn’t been. By the beginning of January, I knew that if I stayed at my job waiting tables in New York, I’d never make it as an actor, so I decided to leave town. That Christmas I worked 26 nights in a row. The day that I left, I finished my shift and grabbed a bottle of vodka from behind the bar and took my shirt off and doused it. I lit it up and walked away. I was leaving for LA to start anew, but that weekend, Billy Hopkins called me and said that I should stick around The director of The Crow wanted to meet me on Tuesday. I didn’t know what was happening; it had taken so long that I kind of lost hope, but I got it.”
Ernie Hudson, who landed the role of Sergeant Albrecht, a demoted Police Officer who becomes a confidante of Draven after he passes, had an existing relationship with Brandon Lee. “I met Brandon through Miguel Ferrer,” recalls Hudson, “We were shooting a TV show called Broken Badges in Vancouver, back in ‘87/’88. Miguel had known Brandon for a long time, as they grew up together. Brandon flew into Vancouver and spent about a week hanging out, so we became friends, and I got to know him fairly well.”
Five or six years later, Hudson heard The Crow was being made when his agent sent him Alex Proyas’ reel. “That was extraordinary. I really wanted to work with him. I met with Alex and we talked about the script. He said Brandon wanted me to play Albrecht, which I was very honoured and flattered by. I wasn’t familiar with the comic, but I liked Brandon and I loved Alex’s reel. I thought it was a very dark and interesting project. When I got there, I met James O’Barr and we became friends too, so it was as if it was meant to be from the start.”
“Alex was very meticulous when it came to casting.” adds Todd, “There are very few people like that; Oliver Stone was the same. They know what they want and ego be damned.”
Brandon Lee, by all accounts, became the centrepiece of the whole production, embracing it from the very beginning. “Brandon was the only person we offered the movie to.” confirms Most “When we brought him on board, he was involved with our development for close to a year before we started filming; from around April of 1992, when he had finished Rapid Fire. He was an incredible influence on the script, production and development.”
The production experience was very exciting for Most, with months of creatively fuelled meetings helping to build momentum and enthusiasm for all involved. “We were blessed with the people Alex brought in.” says Most, “Under his creative control, our department, from the earliest stages were given a lot of liberty and freedom to push the envelope and come back with genius ideas. We made everything as organic as possible, so that it all mashed together to create a distinct world that felt like something we could envision in a believable context. Somewhere that was five minutes in the future, but was also a place we could imagine ourselves inhabiting. All of the individuals who came together brought something great, and it was those individual talents which amounted to the beautiful film which came to life on screen. It was risky, but definitely worth it.”
“Alex was a director who possessed real genius with a vision, in terms of how to create all of this.” continues Most, “He had an amazing plan as to how to bring this comic book to life. One of the things that he did during the early stages of production was bring over a friend of his; a very established comic book artist in Australia named Peter Pound. He literally drew every storyboard as if it were a comic book panel. They were drawn to a level of detail which I had never seen, and have never seen since. That was carried through with Andrew Mason, our VFX supervisor, who subsequently worked on the Matrix films.”
This vision created a world so intricate and unique that none of the actors could believe their eyes once they stepped into it. A tribute to the great architecture of the 15th – 19th Century, combined with a very personal vision of a damned city. Weeks of gruelling night shoots lay ahead, but the young and vibrant cast and crew shared a collective energy which kept spirits high.
“It was absolutely otherworldly, and it stayed that way.” says Massee, “The only thing I had seen, that indicated what the film would be like, was Alex’s reel. It highlighted his use of colour and the feel of his work. McDowell’s drawings were shown to me quite early on too, and all of a suddenly you drive up to the studio and there it is; the whole damn thing.”
“I knew that Brandon didn’t want to do the typical martial arts movies, because he was trying to step out of his father’s shadow.” says Hudson, “I think The Crow was really different to what was out there, and that appealed to him. We knew the movie would have a distinct feel.”
“The sets were incredible.” echoes Davis, “It was an aesthetically beautiful film; especially from the standpoint of watching it being made. There were so many things I remember watching after hours.” Davis would sneak out of her dressing room and onto the set to observe the others working. “Alex was fine with having me around, so I got to see a lot of it take place, which was magical. They didn’t make the whole story that obvious to me when I auditioned, but it was great to find out when I was there.” she adds.
“The Crow was different to anything else I’ve worked on, and a lot of it was because we were under constant rain. It was freezing cold,” continues Massee, “but everyone was having a really good time and we worked hard. It’s difficult to know if anyone had any idea of just what a powerful entity we were creating. We were tying in every story about good and evil. It was a mythical tale, in an unbelievable place, which had come to life via a director whose use of colour was just fascinating.”
One of the central villains, Michael Wincott’s Top Dollar, was changed from a scuzzy dope peddler in the comics, to a debonair and flamboyant character in the movie. This deviation came into play during the early writing stages. “We decided to make Top Dollar more interesting, more dimensional.” explains Shirley, “My idea was to have him be an enforcer for a corporate villain behind it all. One of the producers, whom I won’t name, objected to this vilification of corporate 1% types, and put the kibosh on that. I think the best elements of Top Dollar came from Dave Schow.” In earlier drafts, Top Dollar was involved in a gentrification led, real estate land grab, something that was affecting many US cities at that time.
“Wincott really worked out his whole outfit, but they told him that he couldn’t keep the hairpiece as it was going to take too long to take it off every night, then refit the next day.” notes Massee, “He said that it had to stay and if it didn’t, he couldn’t do the role. They let him use it and he got forced calls every night. That’s when you have to get a twelve hour turnaround between shoots, or else they have to pay you extra. That worked out well for him.”
“It was incredible and very surreal. I couldn’t believe it was happening.” Davis adds, “One of the first things I did on set was get fitted for outfits. There was a lot of prepping and I had to cut my hair for the role. I used to shave it up the back before I did the movie, so when they sat me down and tried to figure out what to do with me, I suggested they shave it and they loved that idea. They felt girls never did that at the time. There was a lot of collaborative, creative stuff like that. It was new and strange, but very cool; I was really made to feel at home.”
“It was a dark film and a dark shoot.” says Hudson, “We shot everything at night, which I hated. You do (nights) when you have to, but when you go back to days it’s too hard; especially in a State like North Carolina, where it’s cold as Hell after sundown. It’s difficult to work that way and people get tired. You start at 3 or 4 in the afternoon and you finish up at about 6 or 7 in the morning, so you’re sleep deprived. That’s a challenge. I think a lot of the stories of the on-set weirdness stemmed from that. There were reports of a guy getting electrocuted. He didn’t die, but that happened at the beginning of the shoot. There was a weird energy. They had the crow out there, the actual bird, and it got too cold for it to fly, so they took it away to protect it. Brandon was walking around with no shirt or shoes on. They didn’t even have heaters. I remember telling them that it was freezing and that they’d have to put some up.”
“The thing is that most of the cast came from New York and from some kind of extensive method, or intense acting technique which encouraged you to immerse yourself. That was also a big part of creating the atmosphere and strange feeling to the movie.” suggests Todd, “You had a bunch of New York based actors, who are all studio trained, and most came from a theatre background.”
“It was kind of ironic all of the bad guys came from New York and all the good guys came from LA.” adds Massee with a chuckle.
“I know Ernie and Michael certainly came from theatre.” continues Todd, “Laurence (Mason) and Jon (Polito) did too and they have a tendency to give it their all. We were hungry; that helped. This wasn’t just a bunch of surfer boys putting down their boards and dialling in the lines. People were driven. The stunt team too; I remember the sequence we had with the shoot out around the conference table; we must have had thirty stunt guys there for an entire week. Fully committed, not just doing the normal reaction shot and falling against the floor. Each kill was specifically designed, surgically planned and meticulously choreographed. This gave a new level to the material.”
“When they were shooting the big table scene at the end,” recalls Ling, “there were signs everywhere which said things like ‘Do Not Touch’, or ‘Explosive’ and at that time I still didn’t speak much English and so people were always yelling ‘Bai Ling, get away from that, you’ll get killed!’ I couldn’t read the signs! I was oblivious to everything like that. I was there, but not there at the same time, because my mind couldn’t understand so much of it. I had never been in a situation like this. It was all very alien. Very unique. There was attractiveness to the darkness of it all.”
“We were working at a time when the laws hadn’t been established about working too long, so we worked a series of 17 hour days.” says Todd sternly, “We were working nights a lot. I think because of that, it may have caused some of the fatigue which led to the mistakes being made. But no one was complaining up unto that point. When you follow something like acting, it is so rare to succeed; many want to do it, but so few are chosen. Most of us really appreciated that. It’s not something to take lightly.”
“It was a very unique situation. We were all young, passionate and had a similar frame of cultural reference.” add Most “With The Crow, we found a vehicle that we could use. All that we were seeing in our world of cinema, comics, music and books filtered into the film. We had this incredible guiding material to follow. We delved into that.”
An Antihero for the Ages.
Encapsulating the spirit of the early ‘90s, Eric Draven and The Crow represented a tragic antihero which seemed to not only fit contextually within the era, but also became the perfect framework within which Lee could shape his character. Lee greatly understood, and empathised with the material. In a video interview for the film (courtesy of Miramax), he speaks about how he felt that “It (The Crow) is not for mass consumption.” adding; “It’s not necessarily a pretty subject, but it’s one that I feel is justified. It’s a wonderful role, and it’s one you have to take risks with. I’ve done other films with violence in them, but never have I felt the violence as justified as I do now.”
“He was an antihero.” agrees Shirley, “People were angry (in the early ‘90s) that the bad guys had won. The ‘60s promised revolution, and then MLK and Malcolm X were killed, and rock music was pushed aside, to some degree, by disco in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Then the whole yuppie thing happened, which ushered in the greed of the ‘80s and ‘90s and people reacted. In that milieu, antiheroes appealed. The Crow was another character who made the powerless feel powerful. The Jungian dark side come alive.”
“As we spoke with James O’Barr about what inspired him and how this character was really an extension of himself, several things became apparent.” explains Most, “It was based on folklore from different societies, in which the soul is carried to heaven on the wings of a crow. The fact that this material was borne from a tragedy in James O’Barr’s life speaks to just the depth of emotion behind it. This wasn’t just something that was conceptualised, or dreamt up by a writer. O’Barr suffered a tremendous loss during his youth. He was due to be married, right out of high school. I don’t know if this story is known to people, but he was engaged, and the bride to be’s parents insisted that they both graduated before getting wed. In June of his high school year, during the short period between graduation and the wedding date, the woman that James was supposed to marry was murdered in a hit and run. The driver was never discovered. James sought refuge by joining the Marines. He couldn’t get himself out of bed for months, and was horribly depressed. He was an artist and so this character became his means of cathartically working through the things he’d lost. His tremendous emotional need to, somehow, heroically, be able to put her memory to rest, came by allowing that injustice a means by which to be rectified. From that horrible experience, this deep emotional material was born, and I think that’s why it connects with an audience. It amounted to something that was important within all of our lives. We all sought to bring something to that story as young filmmakers. There wasn’t one of us who wasn’t completely emotionally involved with the plight of the characters of Eric and Shelly. Our understanding of what this meant in terms of life, love, afterlife and loss was our constant motivation.”
Most, who has kept the spirit of the original alive through a number of sequels and different incarnations, has had The Crow become an integral part of his life over the last two decades. “The day I picked up that comic, I really thought that I had found something which would resonate with people.” he says, “I have fans come up to me all the time and tell me that it’s their favourite film, or one of their favourites, and I feel a great pride for having been involved in the picture.”
Brandon Lee was, by all accounts, a huge motivator and source of energy for all who worked with him. From shooting pool at the bar after hours, to assisting people with the development of their roles, every time he is mentioned, fondness and light appear in the voice of the speaker. “Brandon gave me a LOT of guidance; an awful lot.” says Davis, “He would give me great advice on how to do a certain scene, how we would interact or react. The graveyard scene in which he puts his hand up to my face and I lean into him; Brandon and I came up with all of that. We always found ways to make it more interesting.”
“There was something about him. I could tell from the moment I first met him up in Vancouver back in ’88. There are countless people who have the talent and the charisma, but can be a bit wild. You think ‘Here’s a guy that could burn out with all that extreme living’.” says Hudson as he reflects upon his time working with Lee. “Sometimes you get that, but Brandon was a sweet, down to earth person. I’ve seen very talented people who have been on a mission to burn out. You respect it, but you know that it’s going to end soon. You could tell Brandon wasn’t going off the deep end. He took all that energy and shared it. I think everybody in the movie was helped by him. He assisted them in getting the best out of their performances. He’d stand around on set when he could have been back in his dressing room getting warm. He was there to support people because he wanted others to do well. That only made him more amazing.”
“I mostly worked with Michael Wincott and Brandon Lee. Every morning I would sit in the makeup chair for two hours, beside Brandon, who would teach me how to play video games.” recalls Ling, “One day he says ‘I hear you’re Chinese! So am I!’ I was shocked so I replied ‘No you’re not.’, because he looked totally white. He was insistent; ‘No, it’s true, my father is Chinese.’ I asked what his father did and he told me he was an actor named Bruce Lee. I had to admit I’d never heard of him. Brandon just said ‘WHAT?’ He couldn’t believe it! He told me he was very famous and talked about all of these movies, but I still had no clue. I felt a bit bad that I didn’t know, so I called a Chinese friend in New York and asked her who Bruce Lee was. She told me that it was Lǐ Xiǎolóng and then it clicked with me! I never knew who Bruce Lee was, because I didn’t know the English versions, but I sure knew who Lǐ Xiǎolóng was! Brandon really saw the funny side! He was very proud of his father and he worked very hard for this role. One time we were having sushi before the evening’s shoot and he was there dressed in black and he would turn away every time I offered him food. He really wanted some, but he had the discipline to stay thin for the shoot. He was working out all the time, to keep in shape and really do justice to the character.”
A Rock N Roll Team
The ethos of getting 30 year olds with 30 years of experience was one which created a very distinctive energy on set. There was a sense that the kids were being left to their own devices, with very few visits from the suits back at the studio.
“It was definitely out there.” confirms Hudson, “It wasn’t the structured way that I’ve done a lot of movies. The people involved wanted to do something unique and different. It was a strange, dark time, but it was also a very creative one. Everybody was bringing a lot of creativity to the fore; even the actors. That was the first time I worked with Tony Todd and I’ve worked with him a couple of times since. Michael Wincott was amazing. He’s very unique and Bai Ling…all the guys just had something.”
“We had very few people on set who were older.” says Davis, “DP Kelly is the only one who comes to mind, but there was a lot of unique energy. Everyone really loved what they were doing. Brandon was the fuel to the fire. He made everything incredible. He would just bring light into your eyes for no reason.”
Davis recalls the flashback scenes with particular fondness; “This was the first scene that he had done with no makeup on, the whole time we had been there. We were set up to do the scenes and he came running into the loft, where I had been shooting with Sofia. He just whipped me up over his head and spun me around, beaming with happiness. He was just so full of joy and playfulness. It was a real Brandon thing to liven people’s spirits and get them pumped up to work.”
“Brandon was the heart of all this.” agrees Hudson, “Pulsing. He had this enormous capacity to deliver every time he performed. I know a lot of nice things are always said about people when they pass on and make their transition, but Brandon really was special.”
Two days before Brandon Lee died, Hudson’s wife’s brother passed away unexpectedly in Minnesota, and he had to leave the set. “I had to take her to be with her parents.” says Hudson, “We got the word. Brandon took my wife and I out to dinner and he was so kind to her that it really touched me deeply. While we were there we got into conversations (about work) and he was trying to get me to hang in there, because I was getting discouraged at that point. I had been acting for a long time and it had been a while since Ghostbusters. Things weren’t unfolding the way I hoped and wanted them to, so it was a frustrating time. But he was very encouraging and so giving; very supportive. I always appreciated him for that.”
“It was so dark and dank that we had very few studio visitors.” notes Todd, “I have worked on other Hollywood films where you see the suits standing in the background. The Crow had very few of those. Everyone there was committed and the energy that was present was amazing. The film is stigmatised because of the accident, and it has received a lot of the wrong type of press. After the incident happened there were a lot of speculative articles released about the jinxes of The Crow. I wasn’t aware of anything going wrong or anything being out of hand. I was released two days before it happened and I’m very fortunate and thankful for that. It would have left me even more marked. I just know that the time we spent making it, there was very little dissension on the set; it was a tight group of people committed to doing the best work they could do.”
Having worked incredibly closely with Lee throughout the shoot, Hudson’s on screen relationship was one of the most compelling, becoming a precursor to the Batman / Commissioner Gordon dynamic that would appear in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight films. “We did this scene in the house where he comes in; I’m wearing a hat and my underwear.” recalls Hudson, “He told me how much he really loved that moment, for it was just a chance for us to play together with no action, or fighting, shooting or any of that stuff. It’s interesting, because when I was there I was watching how he would interact with all of the other characters. He really took Rochelle under his wing and I know that when the accident happened it was devastating for that little girl. I had my family there, my wife and two kids, so I didn’t hang out much, but after shooting he would go and play pool and hang out with everyone. This made it all the more reason that (what happened) was so shocking. He was someone you wanted to root for. Brandon gave everything and never once complained.”
“It’s incredibly sad that we had such a glorious piece of work come out of such an incredibly tragic loss in Brandon.” says Most, “It’s always been, unfortunately, a very conflictive experience, because although it is something which continues to inspire filmmakers and artists and musicians, it a bittersweet picture, but one I am delighted made it to the screen.”
Conflictive and bittersweet seem to be commonly used terms when discussing The Crow. For years, speculative and sensationalist media articles have sullied the film for many involved, with some choosing to distance themselves from it completely. Brandon Lee was the heart and soul of the project and when he passed away as the result of an accident on set, it threw the production into turmoil. Proyas decided that they would not continue. The insurance company were set to pay out and so no financial losses would be incurred. A distribution deal with Paramount fell through and it looked like it was all going to be shelved. That was, until the cast stepped up, with the support of Lee’s family, and confronted Proyas about it.
“They were going to shelve it and that was something the actors were all completely against.” explains Davis. “We went to the producers and the director and said it wasn’t fair to Brandon. He worked so hard at this, and to just shelve it would have broken his heart. They finally said they were going to send everybody home for a month or so. They needed to figure out what the heck they were going to do to make the movie work.”
“When the accident occurred, it was so unreal to me. I mean, how can that happen?” says Hudson, “When you do everything right, that’s not supposed to happen to you. It’s supposed to happen to the idiot who is out of control. Here was just an amazing man and he had so much to give to the world. I don’t want to go on and on here, but you did get the sense that he had this special quality…either he wasn’t aware of it, or he was aware and would prefer to just turn the conversation around to you, as opposed to himself.”
“There was a point, after the accident and the tragic loss of Brandon, at which we all respected Alex Proyas’ wish not to proceed with this film, and the insurance company was so gracious to say that they would take care of the responsibilities and that it didn’t have to be completed.” elaborates Most, “Whatever the filmmakers wanted to do was up to them. It was thanks to the support of Linda Lee, Brandon’s mother, Janet Lee, his sister and Eliza Hutton his fiancée, who he was to wed shortly after the production was finished, that it continued. Their pleas to Alex recognised the immense joy that Brandon had taken in performing this role, and that this would bring the best satisfaction to his memory. We completed the picture to honour Brandon’s memory and, ultimately, what ended up on screen achieved that.”
“The Crow became Brandon’s movie as we were making it; he took control very early and something switched.” says Massee, “He took it on; more so than Alex, and I don’t mean that as a discredit to Alex, because he held the grand vision of what it would look like but, a few days in, we were all rallying around Brandon. People were doing it for him. He assumed the responsibility of that and was wonderful in a very gentle, smiling way. I remember the night that he took over and it felt like a natural evolution; had he not done that, it would have been a very different film.”
Massee feels that there were many reasons for Lee to stand up as the unofficial head of the project. “This was how Brandon was going to step out of his father’s shadow and you could tell from very early on that this was the role he was born to play.” continues Massee, “He was so agile; he moved like the wind. It was so beautiful to watch. With the birds flying around and his long hair, it was astounding. I’d do scenes with him and hit him; he’d go down on his back and just pop right back up in my face. Sometimes I’d be so shocked I’d stop the scene. I didn’t know how anybody could move that fast, that swiftly or that brilliantly. It was amazing. That was Brandon.”
The Crow was released, with Miramax taking over distribution duties, as well as providing a further $8 million to complete the shoot. For eight days, the cast and crew returned to finish the film; for Brandon. It was released and was a resounding success, if somewhat tarnished by the media, who were constantly striving to take a ghoulish angle on it all. The fact remained that here was a superb, unique film, which achieved so much in terms of breaking new ground. It did, however, take some of the cast and crew a long time to adjust to what had happened. Some, Proyas and Wincott included, remain notoriously tight lipped about the film, which is undoubtedly due to the opportunistic and speculative coverage which inundated all involved following the release.
“It took me about fifteen years to come to terms with it all.” says Davis, “It was definitely a process, because I was so upset and depressed. I got a lot of heat from people. Kids in school were horribly cruel. It put me in a place where I thought that I didn’t want to be a part of it anymore. I didn’t even want people to know I was an actress. I remember when I went to my first convention in 2008 I met so many incredibly wonderful fans. It occurred to me that the only reason that I got picked on was from jealously and things like that. Kids will be kids after all.”
John Shirley was one of the people who stepped away from the franchise (in a cinematic sense) “I’d have liked to (remain a part of it all) and I did a little work on a treatment for the second film, but my heart wasn’t in it, partly because of Brandon’s death.” Shirley states, “I didn’t know the guy, but I still felt that death painfully; partly because I was a bit on the angry young man side. I probably wasn’t socially together enough in those days to work with producers for a long time. The film connected with viewers though; it created a strong emotional bond. It made you feel sympathy for drug addicts and the people who are harmed, collateral-damage-wise, so to speak, in their lives; it made you care deeply about The Crow and his lost love. That connection with people’s feelings, despite the overarching dark revenge thing, was a great accomplishment.”
“I’ve known so many people over the years who have stayed away from seeing the film because of the tragedy that befell Brandon, and the expectations that some people had as to whether it was a horror movie.” says Most, “Unfortunately, more often than not, it’s classified as one. It is at its heart, a love story, essentially. It’s about trying to care for the loss of a loved one and it’s about the archangel opportunity to put things right and I think that’s very resonant material.”
“I didn’t even know people thought of it as a horror movie.” says Massee in surprise, “It’s Romeo & Juliet in a different universe.”
“I’ve been involved with it ever since. I’ve put myself into the sequels, the TV series, the soundtracks and scores.” continues Most, “This is my baby! Not everything I planned for came about. When we set our goals to make a franchise out of this, we signed Brandon Lee for three films to play Eric Draven. It was quite a shock to the system when we lost him, in every respect possible. He was a dear friend, and an incredible colleague. He was a genius and the most wonderful guy who was fun to hang out with. Brandon was a person with passion and everything before him, so when we lost him, our whole plan for the franchise was set aside. I felt that it would be disrespectful at that time to look for someone to fill his shoes. It was because of the love the fans had for the film, and the flood of requests we had for those stories to continue, that we went back to that world a few years afterwards.”
“Because of what happened on The Crow, I never really saw or paid too much attention to what it was doing.” says Massee, “I knew it did well and was popular, but it was very much something that I left alone. The kids today though, they embrace the film as strongly as anyone who was there when it came out. It has passed on through generations and there are not many films which can do that. It’s about The Crow now. The older generation hasn’t forgotten what happened, but they’ve mourned and grieved and moved on. It’s taken many years, especially with the press doing what they did. I think that what Brandon and Alex Proyas set out to do is only now being fully realised. People have been able to leave the accident alone and not drag the film down with it. The journalists refused to let the film speak for itself. They had to lambast it with their bullshit. I think that, not only does the film hold up very well, but you could put it up against anything released today; it’s timeless that way. The story is eternal. As long as there are human beings there will be treachery and love and vengeance.”
“The Crow appeals to teenagers and young adults because, not only does it deal with the themes of life and death, love and hate, but does so in a very black and white way, in the manner of which people of that age see the world; admittedly added to by the fact that the film had a very limited colour palate.” contemplates Most, “I’m certainly hopeful that we make a reimagining of the crow that is as loved as the original. There is an opportunity to bring it to a new generation that isn’t familiar with it. Times have changed a lot and the world of filmmaking is very different, but there are still opportunities to take chances. There are still ways to push the envelope. The great thing about filmmaking is that you are given the opportunities to take liberties and define your own universe.”
“Brandon always had a grin and a smile, with a confidence that was rare.” reflects Todd, “Sometimes you just know. I had the same feeling when I was on Platoon. You just knew that you were on to something special. There’s a reverence to the film and that’s the best way to sum up the project. It’s a great film noir; a love story to rock and roll and a testament to what the spirit rock really stands for.”
“I like to think it was Brandon Lee’s triumph, artistically, as a performer.” adds Shirley, “That it took a very young male state of mind; rage and revenge, and elevated it into something like Goya or Munch. I feel it’s solidly in the stream of noir and the best horror films too; like Nosferatu. It’s also hybridized with films like High Plains Drifter and A Fistful of Dollars. The Crow was a really good synthesis of all that, and showed Proyas’ visionary directing. Brandon’s death is a tragedy, but he lives on in The Crow, because angry people who feel powerless, and who hunger to hold that gun, that sword, and use it for justice; those people everywhere relate to the character Brandon helped create.”
“The first time I saw the movie was in California. They flew me out to a private screening. It was very strange, as it was just me and my dad that watched it together.” recalls Davis, “That was very emotional. It’s pretty incredible that people are still huge fans and that there are new fans emerging constantly. My son just saw the film for the first time; he was ecstatic. At first he went to a convention with me, prior to seeing the film, and a gentleman came up to me and asked if he could get a picture with me, I said, absolutely, and he went on and on about how great The Crow was and when he walked away, my son just said to me ‘Mom, you’re famous!’. So I told him that I was, but ‘just a little’”
“I’ve watched it a number of times and I’m very close to the movie. I’m very proud of it and, despite what happened.” says Ling, “I think he’s still here with us. He would be proud of it, and he’s so beautiful as Eric. It was a fantastic job and we should celebrate his work and his life, and what he contributed to the film. It’s great because of him. The second time we came back to shoot, and I saw him on screen, I was in this dark room and I had goose bumps. My hair was almost standing up. I felt like he was in the room with me. I felt his presence. He didn’t die. He exists in a different format and he’s watching us.”
“It was progressive and that’s the most important thing of all; both in time and space. We had lightning in a bottle.” says Todd, “Depending on the day, James may have pretty different things to say about how he feels about it all, but I’ve looked him in the eye and I know for a fact that he is proud of it.”
“When I returned to the set, Alex took control of that movie in a way he hadn’t up until then. He pushed the studio away, and forced them to back off. He said that they were going to finish the movie and finish it well for Brandon.” concludes Massee, “We all grew up when that happened. It was really wonderful to work with Alex then. Brandon was gone, but Alex picked up the mantle. I stayed in New York for a year or a year and a half after it all and just got better, y’know? I spoke to a lot of Vietnam vets after the accident. They helped me a lot. It takes a long time to mend and to give back. It’s wonderful to see the positivity, and the love that’s out there for the film today though. It’s finally being viewed for what it is; a magnificent piece of art. I’m proud to be a part of it. Every time I see a crow fly over I think of Brandon and wonder where he is.”