‘John Wick 3’ director Chad Stahelski opens up about Brandon Lee’s tragic death on 'The Crow'
If you’re a film fan, chances are you’ve seen The Crow, one of the very best movies of the 90s. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ll know the tragic story of the making of the film.
Brandon Lee, son of martial arts icon Bruce Lee and future superstar in his own right, was accidentally shot on set after a blank round combined with a dummy bullet accidentally left in the barrel. Lee, 28, died the next day, and an industry was changed forever.
The Crow was completed, thanks to the dedication of director Alex Proyas, with the help of a young stunt double who was able to stand in for Lee. That stunt double, Chad Stahelski, went on to direct his own series of films about grief and revenge, beginning with John Wick.
It was during the press tour for John Wick 3, the best in the series, that Yahoo Movies UK sat down to talk to Stahelski about the film, hoping to also gain insight into what it was like to help finish The Crow.
Stahelski was so open about his experiences, and went so in-depth on the subject, we didn’t want to cut his answers down, so here’s the full transcript, which contains fresh information about that fateful day.
Yahoo Movies UK: You were friends with Brandon Lee, long before you made The Crow together. How did what happened to Brandon affect how you approach your films?
Chad Stahelski: It’s more about how you approach life, I guess.
Look, you can talk about safety and laws [on a film set], but you might as well talk about military work, or police actions, you can talk about construction, you can talk about any kind of factory work, there’s safety factors in all of those industries.
Brandon’s accident was a lot of little dumb things that got by, but it’s groupthink. All the people involved were very, very smart. You just get tired, you make one little mistake, it compounds…
You know why car accidents happen? Car accidents happen to lawyers, they happen to f**king rocket scientists; you do one little stupid thing like spill a drink, comb your hair, check the mirror, f**king text, and you’re dead. Granted, it was a safety standard that definitely changed the industry with firearms.
Read more: John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum: Featurette – Continental Hotel
You know where that leads to? John Wick is 90% guns, firearms. A lot of the safety or the methodology we use, it came about because of that accident.
It’s retroactive, which sucks, it’s like most f***ing things in life. No one wants to change anything until something bad happens. But I know a great deal about that story, and there’s no one thing that you could point a finger at, it was a lot of little dumb mistakes that shouldn’t have happened.
Brandon was quite the guy, very charismatic. We met through martial arts at a place called Inosanto Martial Arts Academy, which is really famous for martial arts stunt men and all that kind of stuff. It was founded off his father, obviously, that’s how we all met. Great guy.
People always associate him so much with his father, and that’s a hard thing. Brandon really didn’t really get into martial arts until much later in life. He wanted to be an actor. He had other interests in life, he was a musician, he did a lot of stuff. And when he decided he really loved action, he didn’t just go into it as a business, he actually appreciated it, that’s what he was a fan of.
He came in later in life and worked his ass off, he had an incredible work ethic, he didn’t ride on his father’s name at all.
Great guy, super charismatic, loved everybody, loved the process of filmmaking. So when you work with guys like that, like Keanu Reeves, Hugh Jackman, Matt Damon, Brad Pitt, all these people that we’ve worked with, they had incredible work ethics.
From a young age, working with Brandon onwards, I’ve tried to associate myself with those people, it makes the day go by better.
It feels like the John Wick series takes some influence from The Crow. They’re both action films about grief; how important is that element to the franchise, do you think in terms of how people connect to it?
Okay, here’s my question back at you. Let’s say we put anybody else in the movie, that wasn’t Keanu Reeves. Same movie?
Well, that’s really interesting. I’m a huge Brandon Lee fan, I’m a huge Keanu fan, and for me they’re kind of similar, very soulful…
They’re close. They carry a natural empathy.
So the answer is, ‘Yeah it would be a different movie.’
Not the action, but the empathy, the emotion, the brooding, the deep character, the soul of John Wick is Keanu Reeves. That’s not acting, that’s how Keanu carries himself, that’s the way he feels. And, not to go too deep into it but I think a lot of Keanu’s personal emotion goes into that character, from life. That’s very important. So I can only answer in terms of what I feel.
If you like the mise en scène of John Wick, if you like the tone, if you like the vibe, that’s not me trying to do a commercially successful film, or something that lands right.
I have – whatever you want to call it – grief, I’ve made a mistake… Whatever the emotion is that makes up our emotional scars, that’s what makes me direct the way I do.
I believe this with most directors, the first project they do, you’re probably getting the most in-depth and clearest look into who they are. Let’s just try to believe that axiom is true, so if you want to know who I am, and what I love about cinema, the emotions, the themes in it, you’re seeing the clearest version of what I am.
Read more: John Wick 3’s Keanu Reeves and Chad Stahelski on The Matrix, John Wick 4 ideas
And Keanu. It’s our labour of love, it’s our baby, it’s got the least obstruction from outside forces – studio, financial, investors – you’re looking at the real deal of what we love. So if it’s on screen, that’s me. To be brutally honest, 99% of every decision made on all three John Wicks, from the edit, to the colour, to the wardrobe, it’s me.
It’s either me or a combination of Keanu and I, so if you like it, great, you like me. You like what I like. If you don’t like it, I have to take full responsibility, I can’t blame the studio, and say it’s their cut.
So if the thematics are about grief and consequence, what do you think are important to me?
How were you able to work through your grief in order to double for Brandon? Because if you hadn’t have done that, that film might not exist. And it’s such an amazing memoriam.
I knew Brandon for five years before the accident, we were good friends inside the gym. It was very professional. We worked out at weekends, and there was a small group of us that were always interested in that. So we were good friends. We were within a clique.
I remember at the time, The Crow was one of my favourite novels. And it’s something Brandon and I had discussed a lot.
I was unaware he was going for it, and then when he got the job he came in with a copy signed by James O’Barr. And I was like ‘What the f**k? Where did you get that?’ He’s f**ing with me. He said, ‘Actually, I’m going to be The Crow, I’m going to be Eric Draven.’
I was like ‘You’re s***ting me!’ You know, he was keeping it low-key, because at the time it was his biggest career bump ever. He came into the gym and he was just beaming, and I was like, ‘Motherf***er!’ It was so awesome, I couldn’t been happier for him.
Cut to two months later, I was still competing at the time, I was on the UFC wrestling team – a predecessor of the UFC. I was going to do a bout in Japan with my teammates, and I was getting ready for a fight.
We got the call, it was a weekday morning. There had been an accident that evening, and Brandon was in the hospital. We start working out, ‘Ah, this f***ing sucks, is he okay?’ ‘Ah, it’s all right, he’s gonna be okay.’ We didn’t know the depth of it.
And then we kept training, we do a three hour workout. About half an hour later, Brandon’s in a coma, it’s not good. ‘F***. Okay, f*** it, we’re just going to keep training, and just push through.’
We’d just finished the workout when we got a call that he had passed away. It hits you. You’re like ‘f***, dude, he was 28.’ Two years older than me at the time. It f***ing rocks your world, it hits you.
And then you deal with it. We do stunts, we had lost people before. I was a professional fighter at the time so we had all lost friends at a very early age. Death was something that was, at least in my world, had already happened. You deal with it.
Then it wasn’t until three or four months later that I got the call. Jeff Imada, the stunt coordinator, called. He said ‘Look we know you’re really tight with Brandon, we’ve seen your reel, your move, your walk, you look like him, would you be interested?’
Read more: John Wick 3 trailer contains amazing Matrix reference
I get that there are people who would have said ‘I don’t want to do that.’ I just knew how happy Brandon was to do it. I was never in that private family world. I just knew Brandon professionally, in the gym.
So I got out there and I met Alex Proyas who, to this day, I think is a great director. I literally sat in a basement of the studio in North Carolina, and he wanted me to watch all the footage of Brandon. To Alex’s credit, he took me down there, and he was destroyed over it. He seemed noticeably destroyed.
I’d never met the man before but he was very emotional, and very open. He goes, ‘Okay, look, I’ve struggled with this for months, I didn’t know if I wanted to finish, but here’s the deal. I love Brandon. We had a great working relationship. I firmly believe 100% that he would want me to finish this film, if you’re on board with that, I’d like to work with you.’
For the next two days, it was just him and I in a room, teaching me how to walk and talk, showing me the footage and saying ‘This is what I need from you.’
I’m not an actor, I was a performer, but not a professionally trained actor in any way. So he decided to see if I could do the physicality needed to move and act like Brandon.
At the end of the weekend he must have had the conversation with the studio. They came back and asked me ‘Is this something that you’re okay with emotionally? I said, ‘Absolutely.’
The first day, I put the makeup on, and I walked onto the set where the accident happened and, yeah, you get hit. But you’re young, you have these ideas, you talk yourself into, ‘This is what he would have wanted.’
And who knows, right? But, to this day, I still believe that Brandon would have wanted the thing done, and done well, and today it’s still a cult classic, it’s still one of my favourite films.
To be honest, I didn’t know how I’d feel about it. I was a little emotional at the premiere when I was invited to see it. But, years later, I still watch it. I have that reserve, but I have good feelings. I’m proud of the work. That situation, obviously, it’s unchangeable, so at least it came out the way it did. It was a good testament to who he was.
John Wick 3 is in UK cinemas on 17 May. Watch a trailer below.