The Brief Life and Unnecessary Death of Brandon Lee

July 11, 2014



EUE/Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, NC

[Hollywod East]



Actor Brandon Lee, the 28-year-old son of the late kung fu star Bruce Lee, was killed Wednesday after a small explosive charge used to simulate gunfire went off inside a grocery bag during filming on a movie set in Wilmington, N.C.

Lee, who many believed was on the threshold of stardom similar to that attained by his father two decades earlier, had been working on the $14-million movie “The Crow,” produced by Edward Pressman and Jeff Most. Lee played a rock star brought back from the grave who adopts the persona of a night bird to avenge his own and his girlfriend’s untimely deaths.

via – TIMES

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On the last night of his life, Brandon Lee decided to stop off at Wilmington’s Fitness Today health club for a quick workout before heading to Carolco Studios for what promised to be an arduous evening of filming. Lee looked exhausted; in the three months since the 28-year-old actor had arrived in North Carolina to star in The Crow, his punishing schedule had taken a toll. The movie, a bleak, dark action melodrama about a rock musician who returns from the dead to avenge his and his girlfriend’s murders, had been a brutal shoot even for an actor in Lee’s superb physical condition. Almost all of the filming took place at night, with Lee outdoors and sometimes shirtless and barefoot in subfreezing temperatures. The script called for so much rain that when the skies didn’t cooperate, stagehands would turn mechanical rainmakers on the shivering actors. On top of that, the $14 million production had been plagued by a series of freakish incidents that ranged from the near electrocution of a carpenter to a storm that inflicted costly damage on the sets.

The stress of making The Crow had thrown Lee’s body clock into havoc; he would wake up at four in the afternoon, work all night, and collapse into bed at 9 a.m., six days a week, ”and on the seventh day,” he joked, ”I drink.” His workouts — half an hour or so on the StairMaster, then some light barbells — kept him relaxed without turning him into the kind of muscle-bound action-film actor he detested.



Lewis E. Davis Jr., the health club’s owner, walked over to greet the young man. 
”You look tired,” he said. ”How you doing?” 
”Great,” said Lee. 
”I thought you’d be gone by now.” 
”No,” said Lee, ”I’ve got until April 8.”

Lee and Davis chatted a while longer, mostly about the actor’s upcoming marriage to Eliza Hutton, a onetime story editor for Kiefer Sutherland’s Stillwater Productions, who had been shuttling between L.A. and Wilmington so that the couple could spend time together. Their wedding was to take place April 17 in Mexico, a week after The Crowwrapped. In just a few more days, Lee’s work would be done, and the coming week looked to be blessedly easy. Most of the scenes left were flashbacks to happier times for the character Lee was playing — meaning no rain, no freezing outdoors in the middle of the night, and less of the heavy black-and-white death-mask makeup he had to wear for much of the movie. But the shoot awaiting Lee on the night of March 30 promised something more difficult — a scene in which his character was to be gunned down by Funboy, one of The Crow’s villains.

After finishing his workout, Lee left Fitness Today and headed to Carolco’s soundstage 4. Less than 24 hours later, he was dead. Coroners in Wilmington removed what appeared to be a .44-caliber bullet that had lodged against his spine, then released the body to his family.

Earlier in the making of The Crow, one of Lee’s friends had quizzed him about the film’s plethora of complex action sequences.

”No, man,” Lee reassured him. ”Nobody ever gets hurt doin’ that stuff. They’ve worked it out.”

In the week since Brandon Lee’s certainty about his own safety was proven tragically wrong, speculation about exactly how he came to be fatally wounded while filming a major motion picture has encompassed everything from a vendetta by the Chinese Mafia to a curse on his late father, the martial-arts star Bruce Lee. But in all likelihood, the cause of Brandon Lee’s death is simpler, and so perhaps more horrifying: Somebody made a mistake.

At about 12:30 in the morning on March 31, cameras began to roll on a scene in which Lee’s character, Eric, carrying a grocery bag, comes through a door and is shot several times. Alex Proyas, an Australian music-video director making his first American feature, had cameras capturing two different angles on the scene, as well as a video camera recording the action for quick playback. Actor Michael Massee, who played Funboy, was supposed to fire his .44-caliber revolver at Lee from a distance of about 15 feet, at which point Lee would detonate a ”squib” (a small explosive charge) planted in the grocery bag to simulate the rip-and-shred effect of the bullet. As risky as that may sound, it was nothing compared with a scene that had been filmed just a week earlier in which Lee had been shot — and ”squibbed” — about 50 times per take. The Crow’s special-effects man, J.B. Jones, had years of experience dealing with weapons on the TV series Miami Vice, and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada was also on the soundstage and had attended rehearsals of the scene, offering advice. However, since all the work involving semi-automatic weapons on The Crow had been finished days earlier, the film’s weapons specialist had already left the set.

As a crew of between 75 and 100 people looked on, Massee fired the gun, the squib in the grocery bag detonated on cue, and Lee fell to the ground. Not until the scene ended and Lee failed to get up did anyone realize he had been shot. ”It didn’t really appear to the people on the set like anything was wrong,” said one eyewitness.

What the cast and crew of The Crow saw soon enough was that Lee was bleeding profusely from the right side of his abdomen. An ambulance was called, and emergency medical technicians raced the unconscious actor to Wilmington’s New Hanover Regional Medical Center. When he was brought in shortly after 1 a.m., doctors discovered a silver-dollar-size entry wound in his stomach, stabilized him ”as best as possible,” and rushed him into an operating room. During the five hours Lee was on the table, surgeons tried to repair extensive vascular and intestinal damage and stem bleeding that was so severe that Lee was eventually transfused with 60 pints of blood — the equivalent of a full supply for five grown men.

Lee’s fiancee had flown to Wilmington as soon as she heard of the shooting. By the time she reached the hospital, Lee had been moved to the Trauma-Neuro Intensive Care Unit. He never awakened. With Hutton at his side, Lee died at 1:04 p.m. According to a source, the cause of death was disseminated intravascular coagulopathy — put more simply, unstoppable internal hemorrhaging caused by the blood’s failure to clot.

Within hours of Lee’s shooting, an astonishing array of rumors — many of which had lain dormant since Bruce Lee’s mysterious death from a brain edema in 1973 — were breathlessly revived and circulated. Brandon Lee, it was said, was murdered by the Triads, a group of organized criminals with ties to the entertainment industry in Hong Kong and Taiwan, who were angry that Lee wouldn’t work in their films. Others pointed to an almost uncanny similarity between Lee’s killing and a scene in his father’s final film, The Game of Death, in which Bruce Lee’s character, shooting a movie-within-the-movie, gets hit by a real bullet while pretending to die of gunshot wounds. A two-decade-old tabloid favorite, the idea that the Chinese Mafia had killed Bruce Lee as punishment for his exposure of ancient martial-arts secrets on film, was dusted off and attached to his son.

On the set of The Crow, meanwhile, speculation took a more practical turn. From the scene of the shooting, Wilmington police confiscated film and video, the revolver, and two empty shell casings, one from a blank and one from a ”dummy” bullet — film-industry terminology for a cartridge that has no gunpowder and is intended for use when a filmmaker requires close-ups of realistic-looking bullets. Within days, a detailed theory about what might have gone wrong emerged: While preparing a gun for use in a close-up, second-unit crew members on The Crow may have altered a dummy bullet that didn’t fit the revolver by cutting off its end and placing its lead tip in the chamber. When the close-up was finished, the gun may have been handed off to a prop man who put it on a truck, then refilled it with blanks, inadvertently leaving the lead tip deep in one chamber. When Massee eventually fired the gun, the lead tip would have flown out, propelled by the blank with some, though not all, of the impact of a loaded .44.

But even assuming that that accidental scenario is correct, some troubling issues remain to be resolved. In Entertainment Weekly’s interviews with Secret Service agents as well as special-effects, props, and firearms experts within the film industry, the following questions were raised:

· Why wasn’t Lee given a protective vest, the standard industry practice whenever an actor is within 20 feet of a firearm aimed toward him?

· Why was the bullet able to hit Lee when almost all weapons and effects experts advise actors to aim away, knowing that film directors can then ”cheat” the shot to make the actor’s aim appear dead-on?

· Was J.B. Jones, The Crow’s special-effects man, shortcutting industry practice by doubling as a weapons supervisor on the night of the shooting?

· Was the fact that much of The Crow’s crew was nonunion and working, by some accounts, exceptionally long and late hours a contributing factor?

· Why, given the potential danger to Lee from both the gun and the grocery-bag squib, was no weapons specialist — the final arbiter of a gun’s safety-present on the set? Was it because the film’s producers were trying to save money by reducing the number of days the specialist was paid?

A chain of coincidence as elaborate as those questions suggest is one reason that some in the Wilmington Police Department have left open the possibility of foul play. But if, in fact, Brandon Lee was killed by accident, a more wrenching question lingers: Was the actor’s life lost simply because somebody, heedless of risk in the most dangerous of on-set situations, cut one corner too many?

Brandon Lee’s death brought to a grimly abrupt conclusion the production of a film that had already seen more than its share of disasters. ”Pictures have personalities, and there are some that don’t want to get made,” The Crow’s executive producer, Robert L. Rosen, said last month. ”I would certainly put this one into that category.” Indeed, ”the curse of The Crow,” as some of the film’s crew members labeled it, had cast a pall over the set since Feb. 1, the first day of principal photography, when Jim Martishius, a 27-year-old carpenter, was severely burned by a live power line that hit his crane. That same evening, the production’s grip truck, parked on the Carolco backlot, caught fire. ”After that,” says the film’s unit publicist, Jason Scott, ”people started keeping track of everything that happened.”

The list of bizarre incidents quickly grew. A construction worker accidentally put a screwdriver through his hand; a disgruntled set sculptor rammed into The Crow’s plaster-sculpture studio with his car; a drive-by shooting occurred just blocks from aCrow location. Soon after, some crewmen on The Hudsucker Proxy, a dark comedy starring Tim Robbins and Paul Newman that was sharing studio space with The Crow, began keeping tabs on all of the catastrophes that were emanating from the set next door. (”It was kind of a hobby here for a while,” says one Hudsucker crew member.) On occasion, the Crow crew even joined in the smiling-through-chaos spirit. ”I told them our unit photographer had broken a tooth on a craft service bagel,” says production coordinator Jennifer Roth.



Just when the man-made accidents seemed to abate, natural disasters joined in to make the remainder of the shoot as difficult as possible — notably a March 13 storm that destroyed the set. ”My next movie,” joked producer Rosen after that, ”is gonna be two people in a phone booth.”

But none of the rigors of shooting The Crow fazed its energetic star in the least. ”I’m really enjoying it,” said Brandon Lee in one of his final interviews. ”It’s an opportunity for me a plum role. It’s got a haunted quality that I really like.” Ten years after dropping out of high school, Lee was on the verge of realizing his dream — a chance to star in a movie in which his role did not depend on the martial artistry he had been learning since he was 2 years old. By last summer, Lee had become so determined to build a reputation on his own that he turned down a chance to play his father in Universal’s biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (the film opens in May with Jason Scott Lee — no relation — in the title role).

The Crow promised Lee something different — a brooding, mood-heavy adaptation of a cult comic book that would rest more heavily on his acting skills than on his athletic prowess. Lee, who had been working hard on scenes from David Rabe’s play Hurlyburlyin his acting class, longed to portray what he described as ”a character driven to the edge of his capabilities who has so much to deal with (that) he can’t respond rationally anymore.” Among those under consideration for the role had been River Phoenix, Christian Slater, and singer-guitarist Charlie Sexton. But Lee’s affinity for the part was so evident that executive producer Edward R. Pressman began to think of The Crow as the potential opener to a whole series of films starring the darkly handsome actor.

Standing 6 feet tall and weighing a lean, tautly muscled 160 pounds, Lee had a physical resemblance to the agile, dark-browed comic-book character that was astonishing. Beyond that, he had a bent for a kind of brashly morbid wit that suited The Crowperfectly. Lee used the 1986 earnings from his first film, the Cantonese film Legacy of Rage, to buy himself a 1959 Cadillac hearse. His attitude, however, was jaunty rather than doomstruck: When a reporter asked him where he’d like to end up, his reply came casually: ”Oh, in a little urn about this big.”

Arriving in Wilmington in January, Lee first rented a house on Figure Eight Island and then moved to Carolina Beach, which was closer to the set and enabled him to travel without a chauffeur. As filming began, he did his best to accommodate himself to the long nights and sound-asleep days of The Crow’s schedule. ”In the past few months, I’ve been realizing that I’d like to see the sun for once,” he complained late in the shooting, adding wistfully, ”I haven’t done anything here except make the movie.”

When Lee did have free time, he would sometimes drop by The Mint Julep, a downtown hangout favored by the film’s crew and extras, who would often show up still in costume as menacing motorcycle thugs; there, he would shoot a game or two of pool, keeping to himself. Lee also spent a good deal of time at the health club, where he would indulge his delight in macabre humor for a small but impressed audience. ”He came in one morning,” says owner Davis, ”with a bloodstain on him, and he said, ‘Oh, look, I’ve been shot!’ He held up his shirt and said, ‘I can’t get this stuff off my stomach!’ They’d put dye on it or something.” On another day, Lee came in still wearing the latex scars that The Crow’s makeup men had glued to his torso and arms. ”He worked out all that night,” says Davis, ”and all the stuff fell off onto my floor. To help him, we had to pick up his scars.”

Lee also spent time with J.K. Loftin, a local musician and teacher who helped the actor prepare for a couple of scenes in which he had to play the guitar. ”He was always wearing black jeans and a black T-shirt, and he had this guitar — actually kind of a cheap guitar — that they got him,” says Loftin. ”I gave him three months’ worth of lessons in two weeks, and he sucked it up. He was just so sharp. He was very aware of where he came from — how could you not be? — but he was really a regular guy.”

Loftin and his wife, Cathy, became friendly with Lee and Hutton, who told them of their plans for a large and festive wedding in Ensenada, Mexico: They wanted to charter a bus, take 45 of their friends over the border, and marry on a walkway to the beach. ”They’d rented an entire hotel in Baja California,” says Loftin. ”They were very sweet together. But she was handling most of the day-to-day preparations so he could work.”

In fact, Lee was devoting most of his energy to the role he felt would be his professional breakthrough, and was evidently touched by The Crow’s themes of loss and resurrection. ”It’s a great part,” he said a few weeks before his death. ”My girlfriend keeps telling me that (my character) Eric is the symbol of a man who can come back and get justice for all the people who never got it. I don’t know — that sounds a little heavy to me — but in a way I guess it’s true. Eric and (his girlfriend) Shelly were engaged, and at a crucial moment, it was taken away. There are wonderful people everywhere who have awful things happen to them, who are never given a chance to do anything about it.”

Two days after Brandon Lee died, director Proyas and producers Rosen and Pressman met with the crew of The Crow and told them that any decision on whether the film could or should be completed would take at least a month. Some actors had already left Wilmington, and Massee, who fired the pistol, was said to be devastated and in seclusion. ”We’ve had nothing but support from the insurance company and the completion-bond people (who serve as on-set monitors of a film’s expenditures and budget),” Rosen told the assembled group. ”It is our hope that if the film can be completed,” said Pressman, ”it is done in a way that Brandon would be proud (of).”

But according to some reports, within days of Lee’s death, there were already plans afoot to refashion The Crow’s remaining scenes so that Lee’s role could be shot around or cast with a double. That apparent urgency testifies to a long history of bottom-line decisions about the completion of movies whose stars die suddenly; when at all possible, the movie is finished by any means necessary. (The most recent major example, MGM’s 1983 thriller Brainstorm, was extensively restructured after one of its stars, Natalie Wood, drowned three weeks before the end of shooting.) The Crow, however, may face another hurdle; Paramount, which planned to release the film on Aug. 20, has an out clause that allows it to reject the movie if it is not completed to the studio’s standards, a tactic some Paramount sources say the studio may use to avoid the appearance of ghoulishness or eagerness to capitalize on a tragedy.

On April 3, as screenwriters reportedly began work retooling The Crow, Brandon Lee was buried next to his father in Seattle. The next day, 200 relatives, friends, and colleagues gathered at the Los Angeles home of actress Polly Bergen for a memorial. Among those in attendance were Lee’s mother; his sister, Shannon; Eliza Hutton; Kiefer Sutherland; Lou Diamond Phillips; David Hasselhoff; and Steven Seagal. The nondenominational service lasted a little over an hour. As the guests left, each one carried a glossy photograph of Lee. According to the limousine driver who escorted Hutton to the service, she was””kind of like somewhere else — she’s not here. She’s lost. She doesn’t believe it yet.”

Most of The Crow’s cast and crew have left Wilmington after a harsh and embittering spring. Before she returned to Los Angeles, though, Eliza Hutton took the time to telephone Loftin and offer him the guitar he had taught Lee to play. Loftin decided to accept the memento, but not before wrestling with his emotions. ”At first I thought that’d be really great to have. But then, I didn’t know if I wanted something like that around to remind me of this. Something that should have been,” he says, ”and never will be.” — With additional reporting by Tim Appelo, Rebecca Ascher-Walsh, Steve Chagollan, Dimitri Ehrlich, Mary A. Fischer, Juliann Garey, Lisa Karlin, Marty Katz, Anne Layton, Tim Purtell, Frank Spotnitz, and Anne Thompson


via – EW