Big Trouble in Little China

It was about this time last year that I began looking over the shelves of the book cases holding my wide assortment of DVDs, most of whose special features had barely been cracked open to say nothing of the commentaries they held. For that first endeavor into this new column now known as Commentary Commentary, we listened to John Carpenter and Kurt Russell wax poetic about the isolation and creepy slimies that went into making The Thing.

Now, for our 1-year anniversary, we’re going back to that same charismatic duo to listen to them talk about another of their many collaborations, Big Trouble in Little China. Unfortunately, Carpenter and Russell didn’t contribute commentaries for all of the films on which they worked together. We are lucky, though, that one of the films which they do speak about together is this masterpiece of ancient magic and sly, cynical wit from its main “hero.”

To listen to Carpenter and Russell speak about Big Trouble in Little China is enough to shake the pillars of heaven. So, as Burton might say, what the hell. Let’s climb aboard the Porkchop Express and find out all the great things we learned from this commentary track. Everyone else can go down to the Hell of Boiling Oil. Chinese have a lot of Hells, you know.

Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Commentators: John Carpenter (director), Kurt Russell (actor), still not enough talk about Captain Ron:

  • It isn’t long before we’re hearing Kurt Russell laugh that iconic, genuine laugh of his. The opening scene wasn’t originally in the film, but, according to Carpenter, 20th Century Fox head Barry Diller felt that, in the time of Rambo, Russell’s character, Jack Burton, wasn’t “heroic enough.” This opening scene was filmed as a late addition to build the Burton character up more than it was. “He didn’t get it,” jokes Carpenter. It was Carpenter’s intention that you could flip-flop the two leads, Burton and Wang Chi, and not know it, but not many people understood this.
  • Carpenter sees Big Trouble in Little China as a “western,” and the film was originally written to be a period piece set in the old west where Burton is a cowboy whose horse, not semi truck, is stolen after he arrives in town. It was screenwriter W.D. Richter who decided to set it in the modern day, because, as Carpenter notes, “Rosemary’s Baby worked because it was modern day. Why wouldn’t this?” Two films have never been more dissimilar in tone.
  • Russell had to learn to drive the semi truck for a few shots in the film. He jokes that he was terrified of hurting someone. Carpenter jokes he was more concerned with the actor breaking the truck.
  • The set used for the opening scenes in Chinatown was created by The Thing production designer John J. Lloyd. Russell and Carpenter both remember the set being used for a Janet Jackson video with Carpenter even remembering seeing Michael Jackson walking around looking at the set while they filmed. Michael Jackson on the set of Big Trouble in Little China. The Hell of Bubbles the Chimpanzee scene was sadly cut.
  • According to Carpenter, it was 20th Century Fox’s company policy to spend $3m on marketing for a film. One particular exec kept telling the director they were going to have “big ads” for the film, but what Carpenter saw didn’t match this description. Russell jokes that he couldn’t even recognize himself in poster image. “Isn’t it great you can talk about this stuff now?” jokes Russell.
  • Carpenter’s favorite Kurt Russell performance is Captain Ron, but Big Trouble in Little China is a close second.
  • This was the first film in which Carpenter worked with actor/stuntman Jeff Imada. To this day, Imada remains Carpenter’s go-to stunt coordination. Russell notes he saw Imada recently – this was some time around 2001 when this commentary was recorded – and that the actor hasn’t changed a bit. “I’m the one who’s getting old,” notes Carpenter.
  • Carpenter doesn’t like to use storyboards, as he feels it locks you into a shot when being able to improvise and think of ideas on the fly are much more beneficial.
  • An issue the studio had with the alleyway fight scene between the two gangs was that you couldn’t tell the good guys from the bad. Carpenter notes this was intentional, since we’re seeing the event through Jack Burton’s eyes. Carpenter lost this fight with the studio, and additional dialogue was added in to differentiate between the two groups. Because good guys dressed in white and bad guys dressed in black wasn’t obvious enough. Those 20th Century Fox execs obviously never saw a little movie called Star Wars.
  • Russell remembers back at the press junket for Big Trouble in Little China, and he recalls how he had never before and not since had an experience where so many press people asked him what it was like to be in the “biggest movie of the year.” He mentions a test screening and how the numbers were huge. “And then I kept waiting to see ads and things that just didn’t happen,” he says. The biggest movie of 1986 was actually Top Gun, which made roughly $160m more than Big Trouble in Little China.
  • Carpenter notes the flack he got while making this film. According to him, the Asian community were upset because he was a white director making a movie about Chinese mythology and culture. “Because Asians shouldn’t have light coming out of their mouths,” jokes Russell. The two do agree in all sincerity that Dennis Dunn who plays Wang is the hero of the movie, and Jack Burton is the buffoon. Once again, not many people saw it this way.
  • Carpenter asks Russell if he still likes doing action movies, particularly at his age – Russell notes he was about to turn 50 at the time this was recorded. The actor says he likes smart action movies and how he needs to be more careful with doing movies that are strictly physical activity. He notes he recently shot Soldier – “the last time I pulled that lottery chain,” as Russell calls it – and got hurt, breaking and ankle and the top of the other foot. “It wasn’t gonna lose that paycheck, so I just kept going,” he jokes. Also Soldier isn’t what one would call a “smart action movie.”
  • This isn’t about Big Trouble in Little China, but the studio originally wanted Charles Bronson to play Snake Plissken in Escape From New York. Carpenter thought he was a good choice but that he was too old for the part. The director saw Plissken as a younger guy, and Russell agrees he’d rather see younger actors in actions movies than older actors.
  • The two begin asking about each other’s family members, Russell asking about Carpenter’s son, Cody. It doesn’t add anything to the Big Trouble in Little China insight, but it’s great hearing two friends like this sharing personal small talk. “See, this is what it’s like when Kurt and I get together,” Carpenter explains to us. “We talk about the stuff that really matters,” says Russell.
  • Russell feels that a lot of insecurities that actors run into while working with directors stems from them not knowing their lines. If an actor doesn’t know their lines, they can’t adjust their performance to fit the scene, because they’re so concerned with remembering the dialogue. The two agree that good casting covers 90% of any problems you might run into. They also agree that filming “Elvis” for TV was great training. Carpenter jokes that he was hired to do “Elvis” because of the music for Halloween.
  • James Hong, who plays David Lo Pan, got his start in show business going to USO shows during World War II and performing as Al Jolson in black face. No jokes about this. None are needed really.
  • Russell was concerned with his own bankability as an actor at the time, since he hadn’t appeared in many moneymakers during the early to mid-80s. He questioned Carpenter as to whether or not he really wanted him in the movie. Carpenter didn’t care about bankability. He just wanted the perfect choice for the role. Russell also feels that home video is why he achieved any success in the business. This opens the two up to talk about Captain Ron again, which is never a bad thing.
  • Russell asks Carpenter if he thinks Big Trouble in Little China has over the years recouped its money. “I have no idea,” says Carpenter. “Where are my checks?”
  • Carpenter mentions he’s seen the set where all the girls are being held captive used in many different films over the years. He even jokes he saw it in a porn recently. “Some of your finest work,” jokes Russell.
  • Carpenter admits to having never seen The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. “That’s like right there with Citizen Kane,” says Russell. Carpenter says he was too busy smoking marijuana, which some would say goes hand-in-hand with watching The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Not me, but some people might.
  • The lipstick coming off of Kim Cattrall and onto Russell wasn’t a planned joke, but something they improvised when they saw the makeup used on the actress came off so easily. Carpenter notes this is just another example of how certain actors won’t let themselves look like a fool and why Russell was such a perfect choice for the Jack Burton role.
  • Russell mentions Escape From New York was the best experience he’s ever had making a film. Carpenter asks him if he’s ever had a horrible experience that resulted in a great film to which Russell replies, “I may have just done that.” We can only surmise he’s talking about Vanilla Sky.
  • Both commentators mention how important a good script is to making a good film. Carpenter mentions he’s had experiences where the script wasn’t finalized or it had to be changed during production that hindered his ability to make a good film from it. “No matter what the script is, if it’s as close to what it should be, you’re in better shape than if you didn’t have it,” says Russell.
  • Russell feels that doing research for a part could possibly hurt the performance or the role if it’s counter-intuitive to what the screenwriter intended for the part. He particularly feels that actors might become so fascinated with something the screenwriter had no intention of including that goes against what the story calls for. The actor does realize that a film is the director’s vision, and, if he and the director don’t see eye-to-eye on what the part calls for, he’ll compromise for the benefit of the film the director wants to make. “There’s got to be a captain of the ship,” he mentions.
  • Carpenter mentions William Goldman’s beliefs that directors today have no vision, that it’s all in the screenplay. Russell says he knows first-hand working with directors like Carpenter and Robert Zemeckis that this is not true at all but that he has worked with directors recently who have little to no vision. “Now there are lots of directors,” says Russell. “Some of them have been successful. More of them are not going to be. They see something, shoot it because it looks good, and it’s just a succession of good looking images that aren’t telling any story. They aren’t making me feel anything.” He guesses this is what Goldman was saying.
  • Both Carpenter and Russell agree that the direction style has changed in recent years with commercials and MTV being heavy influences on younger directors. Carpenter believes that you have to still knows the basics of storytelling. “It’s much like anybody’s craft,” he says. “You have to know your basics.” Russell notes that if the movie doesn’t make you feel something, you won’t get much out of it.
  • Russell doesn’t perform through method acting, but he recognizes it’s just a different way to get to the same place. “Whatever you do as an actor, if you don’t get to a place where you believe it, how is the audience supposed to believe it?” he asks. He mentions a method actor might have brought something different and maybe even better to the Jack Burton role. We just scoff at this.
  • One of the criticisms on Big Trouble in Little China that Russell agrees with is that it’s hard to really care about anything going on. You don’t feel like any of the leads are ever in real danger, and you see that Jack Burton doesn’t really care about his relationship with Cattrall’s character. He also recognizes these were conscious decisions to turn the tropes of the action genre on their ear.
  • Film endings come up in the conversation between the two, Russell mentioning Carpenter has caught some flack over the years for having endings that are too open. The two begin talking about The Thing, and Carpenter mentions the original script had MacReady and Childs being rescued, but both are now aliens. Russell notes that even this ending leaves it open for a sequel and that Carpenter just chooses the best ending for the story at hand. Also, “Why don’t we just wait here for a little while… see what happens…” is one of the greatest ending lines ever.
  • Most of the stunts in the final battle sequence were performed using trampolines instead of the common wire-work used for similar scenes in other movies. Indie film-making 101. When you can’t use wires, just rent a bouncy house.
  • Carpenter mentions times he set out to make a film, wrote a screenplay, and had the film taken away to be directed by someone else. He mentions at that point you have to let it go and realize it’s now this other director’s vision for that story. He mentions The Eyes of Laura Mars specifically, but recognizes his job was to write it out. It was someone else’s job to bring it to life.
  • “You had one great idea once,” says Carpenter when the topic of conversation turns to Russell’s writing. Russell notes they already did it that year with Gladiator. Carpenter also notes Russell had an idea for a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. The actor notes a script he wrote years ago was finally getting some steam behind it, but nothing ended up coming from this.
  • One of the squibs on the wall as Russell runs along it near the end of the film went off much sooner than expected. Russell notes this was one of the only times he ever saw Carpenter lose his cool on set. Apparently a special effects coordinator got his ass chewed that day.
  • “Sorry we haven’t talked more about the movie,” says Carpenter near the end of the film. Russell notes the beer has been good and the cigarettes aren’t stale. We get to hear these two hang out and reminisce about the movie industry, so it’s a win-win for everyone.

Best in Commentary

“In a sense, what people are talking about nowadays is that we were ahead of our time it seems like in any one of the movies we worked on together. People get it later.” -Carpenter

“You can always tell somebody’s sense of humor by if they like this movie or not.” -Russell

“Look at this guy. He hasn’t a clue what’s going on.” -Carpenter on Jack Burton

Final Thoughts

As with the commentary they gave us for The Thing, the Big Trouble in Little China commentary is a thing of both enjoyment and insight. Just listening to Kurt Russell and John Carpenter talk about this film and the industry as a whole pure entertainment. Yes, they diverge from speaking on this movie specifically, but, when you’re getting this much information about so many varied topics, it doesn’t both you as much. Hearing Carpenter talk about the origins of the Kung Fu movie and how they were viewed in China like the Hollywood Westerns were here brings up so many bits of interesting insight.

Even more enjoyable is how open and honest these two are about this film and the way it was handled. Neither hold much back with only hinting here and there of titles of other films they’ve worked on or other actors or directors they’ve had to deal with. We can assume who or what they’re talking about more or less, but the guessing game is part of the fun.

With this commentary as well as the one they provided for The Thing, it’s a shame John Carpenter and Kurt Russell didn’t provide more commentaries for their works. In particular, it would be great to hear them talk about their first collaboration, that “Elvis” TV movie they bring up a few times here. Hell, we’d even like to hear them commentate movies they didn’t work on together. Captain Ron anyone?

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