John Carpenter described Big Trouble in Little China, the 11th film he directed, as an "action adventure comedy kung fu ghost story monster movie." We'll add that the 1986 feature starred Kurt Russell, Dennis Dun, Kim Cattrall, and James Hong, with Russell playing Jack Burton, a man whose attempts to be John Wayne are constantly undermined by his overall ineptitude and lack of understanding of what's going on around him. Dun portrayed Wang Chi, Burton's friend and the real action star of the duo. Wang's fiancée gets kidnapped by David Lo Pan (James Hong), who needs a woman with green eyes to end a curse. Though the film was a flop upon its release, it has since gained cult classic status.
1. IT WAS ORIGINALLY WRITTEN AS AN 1890s WESTERN.
Gary Goldman and David D. Weinstein penned a script together about a cowboy in Chinatown in 1899. The Jack Burton in Goldman and Weinstein's version was an amazing gunman who could shoot the eyes out of a kite in the sky but couldn't hit anybody in a fight. Veteran "script doctor" W.D. Richter (producer/director of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension) came in for a rewrite, changing it to modern times and using Rosemary's Baby as a guide. "I believed if, like in Rosemary's Baby, you presented the foreground story in a familiar context—rather than San Francisco at the turn-of-the-century, which distances the audience immediately—and just have one simple remove, the world underground, you have a much better chance of making direct contact with the audience," Richter explained. Richter wrote his version in 10 weeks.
2. PRODUCTION WAS RUSHED TO BEAT EDDIE MURPHY'S THE GOLDEN CHILD INTO THEATERS.
"The films have a similar theme in that they both explore Chinese legend and magic," Carpenter said of the similarities between the scripts, "but they develop in different ways. Golden Child is a very fine script. It has its problems, but it also has one big plus—Eddie Murphy. It will be hard to pull off that script. But if they do, it could be a wonderful movie!"
Carpenter limited his prep to 12 weeks, so that Trouble could open in July, five months before Murphy's movie. "If Big Trouble were released at the same time as Golden Child, we would be killed at the box office because audiences love Eddie Murphy."
Both movies were critically panned at the time of their release, but The Golden Child made $79.8 million while Big Trouble drummed up just $11.1 million. Today, Big Trouble is the more highly regarded film.
3. CARPENTER HAD A RARE MOMENT WHEN HE LOST HIS COOL.
got yelled at by Carpenter after one of the squibs on the wall went off much sooner than expected. Russell, who had worked with Carpenter before in Elvis (1979), Escape From New York (1981), and The Thing (1982), said it was one of the few times he ever saw Carpenter get upset on set.
4. KIM CATTRALL WAS BURNING THE CANDLE AT BOTH ENDS.
Kim Cattrall left the set at 4:30 p.m. each day, then performed in a production of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters. Cattrall remembers having to explain to studio bosses who Chekhov was. "My film career subsidized my theater career," she said. "If I only did theater I would have had to waitress and I didn’t want to waitress."
5. NOT ALL THE ACTORS FELT SAFE.
When Jack and Wang are almost run over by the Lords of Death, Carpenter shot the scene backwards, with the actors performing in reverse. This was done not to confuse the actors, but for safety reasons. "That whole set with the mouth, coming down the steps of the escalator, it was very dangerous," Hong revealed. "It was a very narrow escalator, and I was on lifts, 12-inch lifts. All of a sudden, John said, 'We don’t have time, we've got to do it right away.' I said, 'Can’t you get a stunt man, get George Cheung, he’s my stunt man.' He said, 'No, no, you just got to step in.' So, with that long robe, I tried to put it over the lifts, and when I stepped on just the part before you go down, the real escalator, I said, 'Oh my God, this is going to be my last scene.' ... It looked like I was fierce, but I was trembling. That’s the way it was, everything had to be real."
6. IT WAS A DREAM COME TRUE FOR PETER KWONG TO GET TO HAVE LONG HAIR.
Peter Kwong cited his character's long hair as one of the best parts of making Big Trouble In Little China, even though, according to the actor, "I had to sit in three hours of makeup everyday just to get in and out of the $3000 wig."
7. THE STUDIO DEMANDED THAT THE BEGINNING OF THE FILM BE CHANGED.
Barry Diller felt that Jack Burton wasn't heroic enough, so after production wrapped, Carpenter went back and shot an introductory scene where Egg Shen (Victor Wong) says Jack is a courageous man. Had Diller not said anything, the film would have begun with Jack driving. Carpenter didn't necessarily want Burton to be seen as the hero; he wanted both leads to be considered the film's heroes.
8. CARPENTER AND HIS BAND SANG THE TITLE SONG.
Carpenter and his USC film school friends, Tommy Lee Wallace and Nick Castle, performed the film's title song as the Coupe De Villes.
9. KURT RUSSELL WAS LED TO BELIEVE IT WOULD BE THE BIGGEST MOVIE OF 1986.
Russell had never, before or since, been asked by so many members of the press what it was like to be in the biggest movie of the year than when he was promoting Big Trouble in Little China. After the test screenings went really well, Russell said he "kept waiting to see ads and things that just didn’t happen."
10. THE ROCK WANTS TO REMAKE IT, WITH CARPENTER.
Carpenter said he's "ambivalent" about the idea. New movie or not, there's been a comic book series that picks up from where the movie ended. And if you can find it, there was a Big Trouble in Little China video game released in 1986. A secret screen on the DVD contains images from it.