“Buildings Burn, People Die, But Real Love Is Forever”

Once again it is that weird time of year for me, the anniversary of the death of Brandon Lee while shooting The Crow. I wrote the below several years ago on Social Media and I thought I would finally commit it to a blog post.

Musings of “that time” from a Studio employee:

In early 1993 I landed a job as a projectionist at what was then known as Carolco Studios in Wilmington, NC. This was a big deal for me as it meant I would be working at an actual film/TV studio. As with all things in the entertainment industry, the job turned out to be not quite as advertised, although in this case that turned out to be a plus. My primary duty would be to run dailies for the various productions that were on the lot. Dailies (also called rushes), for those who don’t know, are the developed film of the previous day’s scenes that have been shot. Productions watch them to see if everything is going OK and to see if any immediate reshoots are necessary. Now that everything is converting to digital, viewing dailies is more or less immediate and there probably isn’t much call for a dailies projectionist any more. In addition to my projectionist duty I also became an apprentice electrician and was based in the lighting warehouse. So, I would also help arrange lighting packages for productions as well as attend to any electrical and/or rewiring work that would be needed. All of that is a long way of saying that I basically was everywhere on the studio lot.

Carolco Studios is known today as EUE/Screen Gems Studios and is the largest production facility outside of California. The studio was originally founded by Dino De Laurentiis in 1984 and was called DEG. De Laurentiis all but abandoned the facilities a few years later and it was purchased by Carolco in 1990. When Carolco went bankrupt, the George Clooney owned EUE/Screen Gems stepped in and purchased the studio in 1996. Since then it has continued to prosper. Recent films such as Iron Man 3 and We’re the Millers were filmed there and the TV series Under the Dome and Sleepy Hollow call the studios home.

Back when I started there were already a few shows in production, primarily the television series Matlock and a film called The Crow. Being a comic book fan, I was immediately drawn to The Crow, of course, and around my third day I got to run some dailies for them. I was early to the viewing theater, but one of the actors was already there, one Mr. Michael Berryman. You probably know Michael from The Hills Have Eyes, Weird Science or the Motley Crue video for “Smokin’ In the Boys Room.” In The Crow. Michael played the Skull Cowboy, sort of a guide to Brandon Lee’s Eric Draven. If you don’t remember the Skull Cowboy being in the film, you have excellent recall. His scenes were filmed, but never added to the final edit. Real life events, which I relate below, changed the story somewhat and, sadly, the Skull Cowboy and Michael’s awesome performance were left out.

For all the creepy, scary and downright nasty characters he plays, Michael Berryman is one of the coolest and most soft-spoken people I have ever met. He introduced himself that first day like he assumed I had no idea who he was. We chatted a bit before the rest of the cast and crew arrived and a little bit afterwards. He was in town filming his scenes for a few more days and he always made sure to hang out and chat when he saw me. Great guy and I hope to run into him again someday and catch up. (If you are ever at a convention or horror show that he is appearing at I highly encourage you to say hello to him. And be sure to ask him if he still surfs off the coast of New York…).

To say that the production of The Crow was a tough one would be an understatement. The show shot very long hours, mostly at night and there were a couple of accidents that had occurred prior to my time at the studio. A carpenter was severely burned and nearly electrocuted; there were a couple of the crew involved in car accidents and a studio worker accidentally stabbed himself in the hand with a screwdriver. That and a couple of other incidents later lead to people calling the film cursed. Here’s the thing, every film and TV production has its share of accidents and mishaps, however the general public rarely hears about them unless it serves to further sensationalize a larger story. I can say that the cast and crew of The Crow were top-notch professionals and behaved as such 100% of the time. They behaved no differently than any other cast and crew and were dedicated to doing their jobs as safely as possible. That just makes what happened to Brandon Lee all the more tragic…

On March 30th I had the good fortune to run into Brandon just outside of the projection room. We had a short conversation, mainly consisting of him asking me what I thought of the footage so far. As a studio employee I mainly kept 9-5 hours and went home that day just like any other. Arriving to work the next day there was a noticeably somber attitude from some of the people I passed. The studio head called down to our department and asked us all to gather in one of the shops with the rest of the studio employees right away, which was unusual. Once everyone was assembled we were informed that there had been an accident early that morning involving Brandon Lee and a firearm and he was currently at the local hospital in critical condition. Obviously, we were all shocked. The Crow was on suspension, but there were other active productions so we all went about our work as best we could.

There was never a moment where any of us thought that Brandon would not make it through this. From what details we were given, the projectile had lodged near his spine, so our biggest fear was that he might end up paralyzed. Also, no one cared about the details above what we were told. That was irrelevant, one of our own was hurt and that’s all that mattered. I happened to be doing some work in the front office just after lunch when I saw a PA walking by from the direction of The Crow office. She was crying. With a cold chill I just knew that the worst had happened. A few minutes later my boss walked by and told me the news that Brandon had died. Those of us not needed for the rest of the day went home. Before we left, the studio head had the unenviable task of reminding everyone that we were not to talk to the press about this. I thought that was rather puzzling… until I drove off the lot.

There were already several news vans camped out just off the studio property and everyone who left that day was accosted by several reporters and their cameramen in an attempt to stop us and get a story. Thankfully no one obliged. The studio and production company issued statements and updates to the press and during that time no one spoke out of turn. Any reports from then that cite “unnamed insiders close to the production” invariably reference some kooky conspiracy theory or are an extrapolation upon existing information. No one cracked, no one talked, we all respected Brandon way too much for that. It was a strange few days. I was followed twice upon leaving work, once to a gas station, the second time all the way to my home, and offered four figures to give information regarding the accident. I refused, appalled at the audacity of the news sharks. It was surreal to come home from work and see random shots of the studio on the evening news and the tabloid news programs, even unknowingly being in some of the footage that was shown. Then, of course, the rumors and conspiracies started.

The next day we were all gathered again and told the facts of what had occurred. A poorly-crimped blank had caused a bullet tip to become lodged in the barrel of the prop gun while shooting close ups. When a blank went off the following night during filming of the next scene, the bullet tip was discharged much like an actual bullet. No conspiracies, no curse, no murder plot. Just a stupid, silly mistake, nothing more sinister than that. The police were on site that day to investigate and eventually reached the same conclusion. They viewed a lot of evidence and I was on call in the projection room for much of it. Another strange, emotionally draining day. At some point, someone put up a poem on the door to the production offices. I wish I had a copy of it as I remember it being very moving and very fitting.

The following day everyone from the studio and involved in the film all gathered on one of the soundstages and there was a lot of great words said about Brandon. We were also informed that Brandon’s mother and fiancĂ©e wished for the film to be completed to honor him and his final performance. There were only eight days left of filming, but it was decided to shut down production for two months, rethink a few key things and then return to finish. It was weird walking around the sets that were left standing, but it definitely felt right to finish the film. Once they resumed production, the film was completed in a couple of weeks and then that was that. A month or so before the film’s release date, the producers rented out a theater and invited everyone who had worked on the film or was part of Carolco Studios to watch it. There was silence throughout and all of us got goosebumps when “For Brandon and Eliza…” came up on the screen at the end of the film. There was a standing ovation and not a dry eye in the house. It was and is a beautiful film and a wonderful tribute to Brandon Lee.

Looking back nearly thirty years later I can still clearly remember so much of what happened during that time, both before and after that tragic day. Occasionally I’ll come across something about The Crow on a website, more so now that there is talk of a remake. Everyone seems to still want to make Brandon’s death into something mysterious. Even the places that call it an accident do so in a way that lends an air of uncertainty to it. Again, really, truly, it was a stupid, stupid accident with no hint of any malice or superstitious nonsense attached to it. The Crow will always be a very special film to me, even if it is sometimes somewhat difficult to watch. I know exactly which scenes were filmed after Brandon’s death and it makes it all the more emotional to watch. That was a strange moment in an overall strange chapter in my life, but I am glad that I was a part of it and happy to remember Brandon as a regular guy who loved doing what he was doing.

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