‘The Crow’ and The Death of Brandon Lee on the N.C. Set

March 31, 2012 marks the 19th anniversary of the tragic death of actor Brandon Lee on the Wilmington, NC set of what would of been the breakthrough film for the charismatic son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee.

The Crow

The origin of The Crow itself is a tale about finding hope and redemption even after unimaginable tragedy.

The Crow - by James O'Barr

An orphan raised in foster care, Crow author and artist James O’Barr was inspired to create the original graphic novel the film is based on after his fiancée was killed by a drunk driver 1978. Lost and unable to deal with the loss, O’Barr joined the Marines, where he began work on what would become his masterpiece while stationed in Germany as a combat manual illustrator.

During this time, he read a Detroit newspaper story about a young couple murdered over a $20 engagement ring, which only furthered the writer’s dark fantasy of undying love and revenge.

The Crow - created by James O'Barr

The Crow sat finished on a shelf for seven years, until O’Barr showed it to Gary Reed of Caliber Press, who immediately snatched it up and published the first comic in 1989.

In the story, the hero and his fiancée are murdered by a gang of criminals on October 30th, the night before their wedding, in Detroit. He then returns from the dead as an avenging angel, hunting their killers one by one. 

The much anticipated movie adaptation went into production in early 1993 at EUE Screen Gems Studios in Wilmington, NC, starring Brandon Lee, son of martial arts legend Bruce Lee, in the title role.

The Crow - filmed in Wilmington, NC

Brandon’s father, Bruce Lee also died tragically (officially from an allergic reaction to a painkiller), while filming the kung-fu classic Enter the Dragon, which ultimately became his best known film to most American audiences. Bruce Lee was 32.

In the 1993 feature film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (released into theaters just a month after Brandon’s death), Bruce is depicted as having to battle a Samurai demon in order to protect his son from a family curse. You can watch the emotional scene in the player below.

On March 31, 1993, while filming scenes of his character’s death on the Screen Gems set in Wilmington, Brandon Lee sustained an accidental gunshot wound and was taken to New Hanover Regional Medical Center, where he later died. There were eight days left before shooting of the film was to be completed. Brandon Lee was 28.

The Crow starring Brandon Lee

The scenes of Lee’s character prior to his death and subsequent resurrection had been saved for the end of filming so that Brandon could work the final week without The Crow‘s signature makeup. One of the scenes was to have actor Michael Massee’s character shoot and kill Lee’s character.

Weeks prior to the event, a scene was filmed that required dummy rounds to be shown being loaded into the same handgun Massee was to use. According to reports filed later, inexperienced crew members, pressured by time constraints, purchased live ammunition, removed the bullets, dumped the gunpowder, and then replaced the bullets back into the empty cartridges with the live primers still in place.

For the scene where Massee shoots Lee’s character, the same gun was loaded with blank cartridges. but unknown to the crew, the bullet from one of the dummy rounds had become lodged in the barrel of the gun.

Brandon Lee in The Crow

It is believed that someone on set was playing with the gun, pulled the trigger and inadvertently caused the live primer to fire, which would have caused the bullet to move a couple inches into the barrel of the gun.

To make matters worse, the production company had sent the firearms specialist home early that day. Responsibility for the guns was given to a prop assistant who was not aware of the rule for checking all firearms before and after any handling, and the loaded barrel was not checked for obstructions when loading the blank rounds.

When the gun was then operated during filming of the death scene, the propellant in the blank rounds – which is used in movies to give the visible effect of a gunshot – dislodged the actual bullet, which penetrated Lee’s abdomen and lodged in his spine. The injury caused massive blood loss, and Brandon Lee died about 12 hours later, at 1:03 p.m.

With all but eight days of filming done, the film’s producers now faced the question of whether or not to complete The Crow.

Sofia Shinas, who played Lee’s fiancee and had witnessed the accident, did not want to continue and immediately went home to Los Angeles, while the rest of the cast and crew stayed in Wilmington, awaiting word on the future of the film.

Sophia Shinas was on the set of The Crow the day Brandon Lee died.

Paramount Pictures soon opted out of their initial agreement to release The Crow in theaters due to the delays in filming and new controversy over the violent content in the movie now seen as inappropriate given Brandon’s death. Miramax soon picked it up, however, with the intention of releasing it in theatres and injected a further $8 million into the production to help complete the film.

The unfinished flashback scenes were then rewritten and a then-new technology called Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) was used along with a body double in order to finally finish The Crow as a tribute to its late star.

Brandon Lee on the North Carolina set of The Crow.

Released in theaters on Friday, May 13, 1994, more than a year after Lee’s death, the movie adaptation of O’Barr’s painful journey opened at number one at the box office and was quite well received by critics. Rolling Stone called it a “dazzling fever dream of a movie” and Roger Ebert called it “a stunning work of visual style”.

That style has gone on to inspire literally dozens of films and filmmakers over the two decades since Brandon Lee’s death, and it can easily be regarded as a true innovator among “comic book movies for adults”, having certainly paved the way for The Matrix, 300, and Watchmen, among others.

Brandon Lee as The Crow

You can view a pretty impressive fan-made video tribute to Brandon Lee and The Crow in the player below.

Like his iconic father, Brandon Lee’s final film would be the one that he is now most remembered for.

Brandon Lee

In the closing credits, The Crow is dedicated to Brandon Lee and his real life fiancee, Eliza Hutton. The couple was to be married on April 17, 1993, a week after filming of The Crow was scheduled to have been completed.

The Crow - Filmed in Wilmington, NC
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