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Chasing The Dragon
  • June 24, 2013 : 07:06
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THE ONLY COLOR HOLLYWOOD SEES IS GREEN

When Lee was still struggling in Los Angeles, Fred Weintraub, a producer at Warner Bros., tried to cast him in the lead role of the countercultural hit TV series Kung Fu, about a Shaolin monk who protects Chinese railroad workers from their racist cowboy bosses. Lee was rejected for the part of Kwai Chang Caine because he was too Chinese, and it was given instead to the very white David Carradine. Before Lee left for Hong Kong, Weintraub asked him for a piece of film that would show Hollywood how much he had improved since The Green Hornet. When Lee sent him a copy of The Big Boss, Weintraub knew he had a winner. More than Lee’s electric performance, it was the numbers. Made for only $100,000, The Big Boss became a blockbuster in East Asia. Weintraub was certain he could cover Warner’s costs by pre-selling the Asian foreign markets (Hong Kong, Singapore and Taiwan) while producing a film of sufficient quality to attract a Western audience. After some intense wrangling, Warner finally approved a still paltry budget of $250,000 to make Enter the Dragon.

Weintraub, co-producer Paul Heller and screenwriter Michael Allin banged out a 17-page story treatment about three heroes (one white, one black and one Asian) who enter evil Han’s martial arts tournament and end his drug-dealing, slave-trading ways. While Heller and Allin worked on the screenplay, Weintraub flew to Hong Kong to reach a deal with Chow, now operating as Lee’s business partner. According to Heller, the inspiration for the script came from a favorite comic strip of his youth, Terry and the Pirates. “It was about China and the Orient and the mystery and dragon ladies.” According to Allin, who knew nothing about kung fu or Hong Kong, the inspiration was a little more obvious: “I stole from James Bond. If you get caught, you just claim it’s an homage.” The slim, 85-page script was cranked out in three weeks, in large part because they skipped all the action sequences, writing in those empty spaces, “This will be choreographed by Mr. Bruce Lee.”


Director of photography Gil Hubbs and an unidentified assistant stand by as Lee talks with director Bob Clouse between takes.

In Hong Kong, Weintraub was having less success. As he maneuvered toward a signed deal, the elusive Chow, nicknamed the Smiling Tiger, politely deflected him at every turn. After a week, an exhausted Weintraub finally concluded that Chow was bargaining in bad faith, afraid that if the movie was made, Hollywood would steal Lee, his cash cow. On his final night in Hong Kong, Weintraub met Chow and Lee for dinner at a Japanese restaurant. Word got out that Lee was in the establishment, and thousands of fans appeared. “I saw the opportunity to play one final card,” Weintraub recounts in Bruce Lee, Woodstock and Me. “‘Bruce, I’m leaving tomorrow because we couldn’t strike a deal. It’s too bad Raymond doesn’t want you to be an international star.’ Raymond—dropping the facade of cordiality—stared at me with sudden, all-consuming hatred. In that instant he knew he had lost. Bruce said, ‘Sign the contract, Raymond.’”

Today in Hong Kong the still sprightly and charming 84-year-old Chow insists his reluctance was purely tactical. “Both Bruce and I had already talked about the whole thing. All we wanted was a fair deal. It’s very difficult for an independent producer to get a really fair deal with a major studio.”

Budget constraints largely dictated the American hiring process. Allin, as screenwriter, was promised a trip to Hong Kong as a bonus to his minimal compensation. Bob Clouse, who had made only two feature-length movies, was selected as the director because, according to Weintraub, “we could get him for a ridiculously low price.” Lee’s old martial arts buddy Bob Wall agreed to the role of Han’s evil bodyguard Oharra as a favor. Newcomer Jim Kelly was a last-second replacement for the Shaft-inspired character Williams after Rockne Tarkington pulled out over money. The only person to receive an almost competitive salary ($40,000) was John Saxon. Weintraub needed a name actor, and Bruce Lee was still an unknown in the West. Even that amount was barely enough. Saxon’s agent predicted that the movie would be “a little crappy thing with a Chinese actor that nobody will ever see.” Saxon was persuaded to get on the plane only after Weintraub promised him he would be the real star of the movie.

Casting on the Chinese side was significantly less fraught. What seemed a paltry amount in Hollywood was untold riches in Hong Kong, where movie actors were paid, and treated, like factory workers. It was also a chance to work on the first Hollywood co­production with Lee, the biggest star in Hong Kong. Angela Mao Ying, star of the hit Lady Kung Fu, happily agreed to play Su Lin, the sister of Bruce’s character (Lee), who chooses to commit suicide rather than be violated by Oharra and his men. Bolo Yeung (Bolo) was a Mr. Hong Kong bodybuilder looking to move into acting. Shih Kien, who was famous for playing the villain in a series of movies about Hong Kong’s most popular hero, Wong Fei Hung, was Lee’s choice to play the one-handed, cat-stroking Mr. Han. The choice was deliberate: Lee wanted to signal to his Chinese audience that he was the inheritor of Wong Fei Hung’s mantle.

KING GORILLA

Lee’s younger brother Robert claimed that in high school Bruce was “recognized as the king gorilla—boss of the whole school.” After years of groveling and rejection in Hollywood, Lee wasted little time establishing his dominance over the production of Enter the Dragon. On Saxon’s first day in Hong Kong, in January 1973, Lee brought him to his house and asked to see his side kick. “Then he said, ‘Let me show you mine,’” Saxon remembers. “He gave me a padded shield to hold. Bruce did a hop, skip and a jump and blasted into the shield. I went flying back on my heels and landed in a chair, which shattered. I was in shock for a few moments, and then Bruce ran over with a concerned look on his face. I said, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not hurt.’ He said, ‘I’m not worried about you. You broke my favorite chair.’”

“Did you believe you were going to be the star of the film?” I ask Saxon.

“Certainly not after that first morning.”

Yet Lee refused to show up on set for the first day of shooting, then the second, then the third. His wife, Linda, yin to his yang, ran interference, telling the producers he was working on the fight choreography. Initially, the Americans thought it was a power play, but word filtered back that the gorilla king was terrified. Bob Wall says, “Bruce was so fucking uptight. He couldn’t shoot. He wouldn’t even go on set.” Weintraub sent Bob Clouse out to shoot random footage of Hong Kong. Lee’s anxiety attack lasted two weeks and nearly scuttled the entire movie. When he finally came on set, all Clouse could film was a simple exchange of dialogue between Lee and actress Betty Chung, playing undercover operative Mei Ling, because Lee was suffering from a nervous facial tic. Twenty-seven takes later and Enter the Dragon had begun.

LOST IN TRANSLATION

While Lee fought with his nerves, the American and Chinese crews were fighting with each other. During the filming of the tedious praying mantis fight scene Clouse realized he needed an English-speaking cameraman and sent for cinematographer Gil Hubbs. “I made three-by-five cards with half a dozen Chinese words for lighting cues, like ‘spot’ and ‘flood it,’?” says Hubbs. “The Chinese thought I was hilarious. I think they gave me the wrong words. I think I was saying ‘Tickle my feet.’”

The most important translator on set was Andre Morgan, a recent University of Kansas Oriental studies graduate who had been working for six months as Chow’s assistant. According to Morgan, part of the problem was the Americans didn’t realize how much English the Chinese crew actually understood. “One day we were shooting the scene where Bruce Lee, John Saxon and Jim Kelly transfer from the little sampans to the big boat,” says Morgan. “We didn’t have walkie-talkies. We were using megaphones to cue. Hubbs yelled, ‘Cut.’ Out on the sampan, they didn’t hear and kept going. Bob Clouse goes, ‘Fucking Chinese.’ The continuity guy, who’s this little old man, says in Chinese, ‘That’s the last insult I’m going to take from these fucking foreigners.’ With that, he takes his clipboard and he’s coming over to hit Clouse from behind. We had to grab him and pull him off the roof.”


Lee faces off against Bob Wall, an actor and ninth-degree black belt, who played Oharra. During the taping of one scene the force of Lee's kick sent Wall into a crowd, breaking a stuntman's arm.

The Americans’ frustrations focused on the archaic equipment and the Chinese tendency to say yes even when they meant no. The Chinese disliked the Americans’ arrogant attitude and tendency to yell at underlings. But despite their differences, a mutual respect between the two groups eventually grew. “We admired how systematic the Americans were,” says assistant director Chaplin Chang. “In Hong Kong, everything was either make it or get by with it.”

The Americans grew to appreciate the Chinese resourcefulness, hard work and courage. One sequence called for henchmen to chase Ying, playing Lee’s sister, along the edge of a canal until she kicks one of them into the water. Weintraub and Clouse decided to shoot the stunt from the top of a two-story building across from the canal. They took five of the stuntmen to the top of the building to map out the shot. After they explained what they wanted through an interpreter, each of the stuntmen backed away from the building’s edge, shaking their heads. “We were surprised by their trepidation,” says Weintraub. “It was a short, four-foot drop, a pretty standard stunt.” Finally, one of the men stepped forward and said, “Okay, I’ll do it, but it’s going to be hard to reach the water from here on this roof.” Weintraub says, “I was dumbfounded. Not only because they all thought we were crazy enough to ask them to take such a hazardous fall but also because one of them was actually crazy enough to do it.”

Realizing how valuable the stunt crew was to the success of the movie, Lee was exceedingly loyal and solicitous, eating a box lunch with them every day instead of dining in the hotel restaurant with the Americans. It was a kindness remembered by one of the dozens of stunt boys who worked on the movie, someone so insignificant to the production that no one remembered him until much later: Jackie Chan. “He was very good to us, the little people,” Chan writes in his memoir, I Am Jackie Chan. “He didn’t care about impressing the big bosses, but he took care of us.” Watch closely during the battle scene in Mr. Han’s underground compound and you can spot Lee whipping a young Jackie Chan around by his mop of black hair and snapping his neck. During the first take, he accidentally cracked Chan in the face with his nunchakus. “You can’t believe how much it hurt,” Chan remembered. “As soon as the cameras were off, Bruce threw away his weapon, ran over to me and said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry!’ and picked me up. Of all the things Bruce did, I admire him most for his kindness that day.”

Accidents are inevitable on a kung fu movie set. The most legendary one occurred between Lee and Bob Wall in their climactic fight. The scene called for Wall to break two glass bottles and jab one at Lee, who would kick the bottle out of Wall’s hand and follow up with a punch to the face. After several rehearsals Lee’s kick missed and his fist slammed into the bottle’s jagged edge. “Bruce was very angry with Bob Wall,” says Chaplin Chang, who drove Lee to the hospital. “He said, ‘I want to kill him.’ But I don’t think he meant it. My wife often says she wants to kill me, but she never does it.” Morgan says, “Was Bruce pissed off? Yes. But he knew it was an accident. He was mostly angry because we were going to lose two days of shooting.”

The rumor that Wall purposely injured Lee and Lee intended to murder Wall was fed to the Hong Kong press to hype the movie. By the time Lee came back to the set, his ever-loyal Chinese stunt crew expected their champion to exact revenge. Although he came up with a face-saving excuse—“I can’t kill Bob, because the director needs him for the rest of the movie”—Chinese honor required some form of payback. The scene called for Lee to side-kick Wall hard enough in the chest to send him flying into a crowd of Han’s men. Lee didn’t hold back. “They put a pad on Bob,” recalls stuntman Zebra Pan in Bey Logan’s Hong Kong Action Cinema, “but he took off like he’d been shot when Bruce kicked him! And Bruce insisted on 12 takes!” The force of Lee’s kick was so great that Wall flew into the crowd, breaking a stuntman’s arm. “We’re talking complex break—bone through skin,” says Wall. “That’s when everybody went, ‘Holy shit.’ I don’t think they realized how hard Bruce was hitting me until then.”

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read more: entertainment, Celebrities, movies, actor, issue july 2013

7 comments

  • Cuthberto Waterford
    Cuthberto Waterford
    Kipper boo boo. Hunter boo boo. Go fo r the boo boo boo bo booo
  • gamoonbat
    gamoonbat
    This story relies a bit too much on Fred Weintraub's memory, I think. Bruce Lee had a bigger stake in the TV show "Kung Fu" than is described, for one thing.
  • Matthew Polly
    Matthew Polly
    Linda Lee said the same thing to me. So you're in good company. I've been looking into Bruce's role in "Kung Fu." I believe that has been overstated in previous Bruce biographies.
  • Matthew Polly
    Matthew Polly
    Thank you. Glad you enjoyed it.
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