Big Budget, Big Trouble

Reconciling three narratives of the production of Big Trouble In Little China

2011. Los Angeles. John Carpenter is 63 years old, sitting on a stage in front of a crowd. “We absolutely loved the film.” The presenter says to him. “The movie tanked.” He replies curtly, almost before the presenter finished speaking. “They weren’t ready for it, that’s all.” The presenter says. Carpenter shakes his head. “Story of my life, I guess.” He fidgets in his chair, gives exaggerated nods as the presenter speaks to him. He’s had this conversation before. “Can we cut to the end of this?” He says after about ninety seconds. The whole exchange is over in under three minutes.

They are speaking, of course, about the 1986 film Big Trouble in Little China. Now, I don’t want to assume that John Carpenter wants nothing more than to subvert the will of powerful people but I’m familiar enough with his body of work to say that is exactly what he often ends up doing. I can think of no better example than his 1988 film They Live… but that is not the film I said I’d write about. Fortunately, the second best example I can think of happens to be Big Trouble in Little China.

From left to right: Dennis Dun as Wang Chi, Donald Li as Eddie Lee and Kate Burton as Margo Litzenberger.

The movie, now considered a classic by most, endured a troubled production that ultimately would put an end to John Carpenter’s big-budget career in Hollywood.

Despite my best efforts (and apparently reddit’s best efforts before me), I have been unable to locate a copy of the first Goldman/Weinstein draft of the screenplay to read myself and have to go by second-hand accounts of what the script was like. It appears, in the original version sold to studios, the 1980s were the 1890s and the avatar of white masculine insecurity Jack Burton was Wiley Prescott who was a cowboy managing Chinese railroad workers. I do know that Carpenter described the Weinstein/Goldman version of the screenplay as “Outrageously unreadable” (Starlog #108) and that the studio wanted to cast Clint Eastwood or John Wayne as the lead… Presumably opposite David Carradine in yellow-face.

Left: Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name (named Blondie) in the Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and Right: David Carradine in yellowface as Kwai Chang Caine in Kung Fu (1972–1975).

The screenplay for the film has a bizarre and unnecessarily complicated history (if you’d like, you can read the entirety of Goldman and Weinstein’s narrative of events in Ashley Burns and Chloe Schildhause’s piece), but if you’d rather I summarize it, I’d say it goes like this: Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein set out to write a Hollywood blockbuster formula film, something like (and seriously they mention both of these) Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark but with a cowboy and some vague “Chinese magic.” Twentieth Century Fox bought the screenplay out right but Westerns were risky, as were new screenwriters, the studio hired W.D. Richter to rewrite the film to the present-day (by which I mean the 1980s) but Richter wasn’t given quite enough time for the amount of work the screenplay required (as a fiction editor, I can identify with that. I can’t imagine how little research writers did before the internet). A contemporary account of the script credit controversy can be found in the L.A. Times digital archive: “Writers Find Big Trouble On Road To ‘Little China” by Patrick Goldenstein, June 29, 1986. It varies on some details.

“There was great urgency that I get a first draft out and there was no way to Google all this mysticism and stuff, so I got a big pile of books and just started reading them. I think I read for two or three weeks and then I just had to start writing.” Richter said in 2015.

Left: The Chang-Sings, one of the factions in Big Trouble. Right: The Yellow Turban Rebellion (184–c. 204 ce)

Twentieth Century Fox hired John Carpenter, who had been slated to direct the rival film the Golden Child but left the production early on, to direct Big Trouble in Little China. The Golden Child had developed into an Eddie Murphy vehicle where it would be reasonable to say that casting decision meant Carpenter couldn’t do the sort of film he wanted.

As a noted lover of action and martial arts films, Carpenter had formed a vision of Big Trouble in Little China that was more centered on an aspect of contemporary Chinese culture: he wanted to compose his love-letter to Hong Kong cinema. “It was kung fu movies that mattered and they are a really unique kind of cinematic form.” He even tried to recruit Jackie Chan to play Wang Chi (the movie’s real hero) after seeing his performance in Police Story (1985). This would have been nine years before Rumble in the Bronx (1995) which is often credited as Jackie Chan’s first major success in American cinema.

The studio had given screenplay credit to Richter which prompted Weinstein and Goldman to challenge it in arbitration. He was asked to weigh in on the Writer’s Guild’s ultimate ruling that Weinstein and Goldman should receive sole screenplay credit, Carpenter expressed his concern that not all three men were credited and was quick to point out that Richter wrote the version of the movie that actually got shot. “This bullshit goes on and on. […] the Writers Guild tends to protect the original writers. I don’t necessarily blame them, but it’s annoying as hell.”

It was in the same interview that John Carpenter described the Weinstein/Goldman version of the screenplay as “outrageously unreadable.” “The Goldman/Weinstein screenplay was unfilmable,” Carpenter said. “I started to read it, but I couldn’t continue because it was outrageously unreadable though it had many interesting elements. I could see where there had been a great deal of creativity put into it, but it just wasn’t a movie.” While, he was happier with the Richter version, there were still changes to be made. “There was an unending number of action sequences, so we cut them down, basically for budgetary reasons. And we eliminated certain material which might have offended Chinese Americans.”

It strikes me that in Weinstein and Goldman’s narrative, Goldman claims “[W]e had written something really original and different and something that someone else couldn’t invent.” However, Richter’s narrative of events, none of it was ‘invented.’ When asked about the aspects of Chinese mythology the final script ended up incorporating, Richter details having to do significant research. “The original script didn’t really go into it that deeply. I don’t think it was an interest of theirs so I had to fill it with specifics and read and write at the same time.” Laterally, the film had been unofficially rewritten on the fly by members of the cast and crew, including representatives of the larger the Chinese-American community.

It’s no secret to anyone but white people that the power structures of the United States have been uniquely terrible to Asian Americans in the 20th century (uniquely as in ‘in unique ways’ rather than as in only. The current and historical power structures of the United States are uniquely terrible to other groups as well). During Big Trouble in Little China’s production, several Asian-American groups were actively condemning the 1985 movie Year of the Dragon for being pretty gross… I mean, for its negative depictions of both Chinese and Chinese-American peoples (Year of the Dragon currently sits at 60% on Rotten Tomatoes at time of writing, by the way).

J.K. Yamamoto, staff writer at the Rafu Shimpo, tells us in a piece about a 2015 cast reunion at the Japanese American National Museum’s Tateuchi Democracy Forum: “Community leaders and media were invited to the set during filming to assure them that this was a different kind of movie.”

“[I]t represented a critical point of where the community met Hollywood. John Carpenter was really amazing because he really reached out to cast and crew. He really asked for all of us to put in our input.” Peter Kwong, the actor who played Rain, one of Lo Pan’s three supernatural henchmen, and an honorary member of the Los Angeles Mime Guild said at the Japanese American National Museum.

Another cast member, cinema legend with over 400 credits to his name, founder of the East West Players, and just the best guy ever, James Hong, also remarked on the production at JANM. “Big Trouble in Little China was the kind of movie for us, martial artists, the greatest of all, actors, writers, that movie, John gave us all a chance. In fact, Jim Lau, James Lew and Jeff Imada were stunt coordinators, choreographers, and were promoted to associate producers by the end, that’s how hard they worked. So that was the kind of atmosphere that existed on the set. I slept outside the stage, overnight in a little small trailer, got up and put on the makeup. In those days, we couldn’t afford much. It was a tough shoot but it was the best we could do at that time and everybody had high hopes. Believe it or not, that whole film was made for 25 million dollars. Now it would cost you close to 150. Everybody here put 150% of effort into that movie, way beyond what they were paid but for some reason, the studio did not put the publicity behind it.”

Big Trouble in Little China (1986) © Twentieth Century Fox

However, the studio didn’t seem to understand what this movie was or who it was about. They demanded Carpenter add the scene with the lawyer at the beginning to make Kurt Russell’s character seem more heroic than he was meant to be. The studio, it seems, was convinced the white guy was all that mattered.

Hong continued, discussing the issue of Asian representation in Hollywood more head on. “It still didn’t open the field wide enough for the Asian Americans, in a way, after that movie, we still just took minor roles, not principal roles […] We were still just cliched Chinamen in the movies for a long time, and now, it’s starting to come up. And I hope you people will write to studios and speak up and open up the field more for Asian-Americans.” His optimistic statements were met with applause. This panel was held prior to the production and the release of Doctor Strange and Ghost in the Shell, both controversial for the whitewashing of principal roles, as well as Marvel’s Iron Fist in 2017, which was controversial for its continued appropriation of Asian culture (and stunningly bad fight choreography).

Like Hong, John Carpenter has said in the past he believed the film was poorly advertised and never really given a chance at the box office and Kurt Russell reinforces Hong’s sentiment about how the studio never really got behind the film on the DVD commentary: “And then I kept waiting to see ads and things that just didn’t happen.”

Just six days after the movie’s premiere, Twentieth Century Fox pulled it from theaters. No public explanation was given at the time. The original screenplay writers, Goldman and Weinstein blamed its lack of success on Richter’s adaptation. While, Kurt Russell and James Hong blamed it on a lack of marketing, John Carpenter, on the other hand, went deeper and blamed it on the studio’s lack of imagination in the 2011 interview this piece opened with. “The studio was in shock, because, well, they wanted Raiders of the Lost Ark, that’s what they wanted me to do, with an Asian theme. And that wasn’t what I did.”

Either Carpenter didn’t explain what he was doing to studio well enough or they just weren’t listening. The movie poster (which is not the art you’re probably thinking of, that’s the 1996 VHS box art) for Big Trouble in Little China was noticeably bad and incredibly inaccurate on top of ignoring all of the heroic Chinese characters (which the box art also does). Kurt Russell and Kim Cattrall were plastered across what meager advertising did get produced.

Terrible, right?

For me, at least, as a white kid growing up in an incredibly conservative state, while I was already aware there was a China and they had films and that many of which were worth seeing, those films were often presented as artifacts of some foreign land. Big Trouble in Little China wasn’t there to make the world feel bigger the way Hong Kong cinema did. It made America feel bigger and deeper than most films bothered to acknowledge. It was a completely American movie in which you could count the white actors in speaking roles on one hand. And those characters, Jack, Gracie, Margo and some random lawyer were all profoundly flawed people depending on their, well, whiteness and their privilege.

Jack Burton wasn’t Indiana Jones. He wasn’t Luke Skywalker. He was something that felt much more real. Earlier, I described Kurt Russell’s Jack Burton as an “avatar of white masculine insecurity” and while the description of him as “a Western action hero who doesn’t know he’s in an Eastern action film” may be more tactful and easier to sell to a white audience, the film’s subversive nature went further than that. Jack is a bundle of bravado, privilege, and narcissism who, once removed from a place where his privilege can carry him, ends up often sidelined by his own ineptitude (even if he does come through in the end). Likewise, my wife has described Gracie Law as “white feminism personified.” She announces herself when she enters rooms, insists on “sticking her nose where it doesn’t belong” and only partially takes responsibility for her actions when things go badly. Dennis Dun and Donald Li (Wang and Eddie respectively) play the roles traditionally allocated to protagonists, capable, cool-headed and with a real stake in the plot.

I think, if you boil away everything the film does down to its core, that core seemed to be saying in no uncertain terms that this country is shared, it was a friendly reminder some spaces were not made for me. It wasn’t presented as a request or a recommendation, it was given as fact.

Comedy is a weapon. It matters who you aim at it.

But that potential was not seen by Twentieth Century Fox. This wasn’t the first time John Carpenter had been betrayed by studio marketing but it seemed to leave a mark on him. His 1982 film the Thing had been marketed as a remake (it was not) and critics, expecting to see square-jawed scientists fight their favorite 1951 carrot-monster and not what, as it turned out, was a much more faithful adaptation of the original story Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell Jr. (John Carpenter’s The Thing now maintains an 81% “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes).

By 1987, he was said of his experiences with Twentieth Century Fox. “At one time, I thought I wanted to be a big budget, major studio Hollywood director. Now, I realize that I don’t. There’s no way. I can’t do it. I hate authority too much. After making four big-budget, major studio Hollywood films, I was burned out. The grind of production, the dishonesty of the studios, and the corruption involved in advertising, the publicity and the press made me want to quit. When you make a big budget film, you get trapped into so many situations that you don’t want to be in. You’re making a movie with the studio’s money, and they’ll spend it the way they want.”

It’s uncertain if Weinstein and Goldman’s battle with the studio and the Writer’s Guild or the largely uncredited creative decisions by the cast and crew had any lasting effect on John Carpenter. It is certain that in 1988, when speaking about his use of a pseudonym (‘Frank Armitage’, the same name given to Keith David’s character) for his writing credit on They Live, John Carpenter had this to say. “It’s a personal statement on my part. There are many contributors to the screenplay.” And in 2011, he told the A.V. Club when asked about the odd way he puts his names on films: “There’s no such thing as “a film by…” It’s a collaborative effort. All I can take credit for is the directing.”

They Live (1988) © Alive Films

All of John Carpenter’s subsequent films were produced with independent studios. The first of which was the second film of his “Apocalypse Trilogy,” Prince of Darkness, where he again worked with Victor Wong and Dennis Dun. Working with Alive Films instead of a more established studio, Carpenter was able to negotiate for complete creative control. After Prince of Darkness, Carpenter wrote and directed They Live (1988), based on a number of sources, including, it appears, his own experiences.

They Live (1988) © Alive Films

“I quickly realized that everything we see is designed to sell us something. My awareness became so acute after while that I couldn’t even watch MTV. It’s all about wanting us to buy something. The only thing they want to do is take our money. I also look at movies. Most movies now are nothing more than television on a bigger screen. The studios are run by former TV executives. Their movies are manufactured like TV. They have the same number of story climaxes and they end the same way — with no uncertainty. […] The picture’s premise is that the ‘Reagan Revolution’ is run by aliens from another galaxy. Free enterprisers from outer space have taken over the world and are exploiting the Earth as if it’s a third world country. As soon as they exhaust all our resources, they’ll move on to another world.” Carpenter also admits to turning down the director’s chair for the Exorcist III in the same interview. “The threat in They Live isn’t that the aliens want to eat our bones. They want to own all our businesses. A Universal executive asked me, ‘Where’s the threat in that? We all sell out every day.’ I ended up using that line in the film.”

As for Big Trouble In Little China, it would receive its first positive review in 1992 and go onto gain success in home media after its VHS release in 1996. At time of writing, Big Trouble in Little China has a 82% “Certified Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Backstage Pass with Lia Chang: James Hong Talks about Big Trouble in Little China

James Hong, reflecting on the film said, in 2015: “For some reason, the hidden values and gimmicks that Carpenter put in have become alive nowadays. When I do go to the conventions, that is the most popular role I have ever done, among the hundreds that I have done. They remember that one.”

This piece would not be possible without the previous efforts of Steve Swires of Starlog Magazine who conducted multiple interviews with John Carpenter and Kurt Russell in the 1980s; Lia Chang, who can be found at Bevs Girl Films, Backstage Pass with Lia Chang, Lia Chang Photography, and her personal website; J. .K. Yamamoto’s documentation of the 2015 Tateuchi Democracy Forum at the Japanese American National Museum, Ashley Burns and Chloe Schildhause’s piece at Uproxx “‘It’s All In The Reflexes’: The Story Of The Contentious ‘Big Trouble In Little China’ Screenplay” as well as others who are sourced individually in the text.

Additionally, the research I had to do for this was more extensive than I’d predicted, so if you enjoyed this piece you can also tip me on PayPal, or Cash.me. My cats eat a lot, more than you’d think 12 to 16 pound cats could eat. It’s pretty dire.