Another one from the vaults. This is an interview with the horror author David J. Schow, one of two credited screenwriters (with John Shirley) on Alex Proyas’ The Crow (1994). The conversation – conducted by email – was for a planned Empire magazine Crow feature that didn’t end up happening, so I’ve never been able to use it and haven’t published any of it before. It dates back a few years, so much has happened in the Crow remake saga since. But Schow’s thoughts remain insightful and pertinent.
So maybe I’ll begin with the broader picture, and ask what you think of the ‘franchise’, as it now stands. You clearly haven’t left your own film behind, but have you seen any of the others, or read any of the post-O’Barr comics?
DJS: Call me stubborn, or a purist, but I haven’t seen any of the satellites, with a single exception: the first episode of the TV show. As a pilot, it was basically a remake of the movie. I called Alex Proyas to say, ‘Well, four years and we’re remade already.’ He asked what the show was like. I said, ‘Imagine a broad daylight, Hawaiian-shirt, missionary position version of The Crow.’ He laughed for nearly thirty seconds, long-distance.
Now this isn’t to denigrate what [executive producer] Bryce Zabel accomplished, because I understand the TV series has its own substantial fan base. Making a tricky concept fly for TV is no small feat, and the shackles of adaptability are confounding… just as they were when we were adapting James O’Barr’s comic.
The first movie is completely self-contained, so necessity aside, I guess it made some kind of sense to use a different Crow each time if there were to be sequels. But I was amazed to read that Brandon Lee was actually contracted for three films, so that if he’d lived, we would presumably have seen him back in a Crow 2. I can’t imagine how that would have worked. Would you have had any involvement in those circumstances? Did you have any ideas on how to continue on to further installments?
DJS: My thought was that the film should remain a stand-alone to honour Brandon. Remember that Alex’s first impulse was to shelve the film entirely, and he got talked out of it, also by way of honoring Brandon, this time as legacy. The rest is just the diminishing returns of a wannabe brand name. But when the idea of a Brandon-less sequel came up, I said there was only one way to do it: Sarah grows up, convinced that her memory of a ghostlike spirit guardian was a wish-fulfillment fantasy born of her grief and pain at losing Eric and Shelly. She is a woman of 19 or 20 when she herself is brutally murdered. And she gets the same put-the-wrong-things-right deal because her death was so unfair. She becomes the avenger, and she realizes that everything she romanticized in her childhood memory about Eric — including the bird — was true. I actually pitched that story. The production company said, ‘Naah, no way can it be a woman!’ Double irony: In the best of the Crow porn knock-offs, Phoenix Rising, the lead is… a woman.
How would a Crow 2 or Crow 3 — with Brandon — have worked? Probably very much like the TV series, although I envisioned that Brandon’s actual participation would diminish because at that point he would be getting bigger money for major films. It was poised to happen. With the Sarah scenario cited above, it would have made for a dynamite reunion scene.
I understand that you made a speech (accepting an award?) at one point denouncing the very idea of the second film. Could you give me a few details about what you said? Is there a transcript online anywhere?
The speech you cite was from the Fangoria Chainsaw Awards in 1995, where The Crow won Best Wide Release Film. I read a heartfelt letter from a fan named Miriam Frankenstein (I’m not making this up) in Germany, beseeching the studio not to make a sequel; to leave the original film inviolate. Basically, no Brandon, no Crow. I still feel the same way.
Instead, a bunch of other movies cued off The Crow — everything from Daredevil to Underworld to obscurities like El Muerto, all of which help make the idea of a contemporary “reboot” even more absurd. The pop-cultural arc of influence that yields goth nightclubs and Hot Topic chain stores basically begins in 1980 with the film version of The Hunger and ends with The Crow fourteen years later. Add a decade for trickle-down styles and effects, and voila. Now it would be goofy to attempt breaking ground in a kind of ‘goth noir’ since the furniture has become so prevalent in films since then. It would date at lightspeed. The Crow is of its time: what are you going to do, make it darker? It would be a hundred minutes of black film. Which is why, when the reboot was proposed, the various players fled from anything ‘gothic’ like pedestrians running away from a giant dinosaur.
And away from the films, were you ever tempted to contribute any original fiction, as Poppy Z Brite did?
No. I wasn’t much interested in ‘the further adventures of’. I was invited into the Crow anthology that White Wolf did. For the novel-scale tie-ins, I was never asked.
You mention the “shackles of adaptability”, so can we talk a bit about your adaptation process on the original film? How did you decide what to keep and what to discard from the book? And what was the thinking behind some of your embellishments? Top Dollar and his triumvirate are essentially your creations, and their exact relationship is left nicely ambiguous in the film. What were your thoughts on their unit? I spoke to Tony Todd recently, and he told me they were siblings. I love that idea – is it true? He also said that each has a unique function, with Wincott being the brain, Todd the action and Bai Ling the mystical. Did that come from you or did they fill in the back-story themselves as actors?
The bad guys exist by name in the comic but we winnowed them down to a core group to make them seem less interchangeable. We wanted more of a hierarchy, like military rank, which would make Skank an earnest buck private. Hence, ‘soldiers’. We posited that Myca was Top’s sister, so the ‘family unit’ idea was probably fallout from that. What we did discuss was that Grange, T-Bird and the others were the ‘fingers’ of Top’s long reach.
David Patrick Kelly really went to town with T-Bird, complete with burn scars on his head, and his hair slicked back with fire retardant to depict the team bomber and pyromaniac. He gave copies of [John Milton’s epic poem] Paradise Lost to a lot of people on the set. I still have mine.
And what’s Michael Wincott like, by the way? He’s a fascinating actor but I’ve never once seen a single interview with him.
Michael was like sterling silver. He loved to work dialogue. He had a three-minute speech, walking around the gangster table, that we pared down and reworked multiple times on the spot. He’s a great ad-libber: not like actors who mess over dialogue because they want to repeat some line they got from another movie. I’d cast Michael in nearly anything in a hot second. He was a Proyas pick. Alex and I went over the Paramount to watch a screening of 1492: Conquest of Paradise just to get a look at him.
You mention the many “goth-noir” films that followed in The Crow‘s wake. Clearly Blade is part of that (although it’s not on your list) and I wonder what you made of that film and what you therefore made of Stephen Norrington being attached to the remake for some time. You touch on the idea that the remake can hardly be darker, but do you have any sympathy with the idea, put forth by Relativity. There was talk of “an almost documentary style”… They’ve also been selling it as “a more faithful adaptation” of the comics. Do you resent that?
I doubt very much that any new take on The Crow would result in something ‘closer to the comic’, not in today’s production environment. In the comic, Eric kills guys with almost Halloween-like extravagance, then shoots heroin, then plays guitar, then kills more guys, then repeats… because there were dozens of bad guys.
Just as telling a ‘true’ story on film inherently fictionalizes it, adaptations unavoidably work changes on source material. The trick is to capture the tone and overall sensibility, which I think we did, despite quibbles. Comic fans in particular get snarky when a film is not a beat-for-beat tableau vivant: in other words, if you fail to meticulously recreate somebody’s favorite comic panel as a moving version of a still picture, then your whole movie gets disqualified. O’Barr rated the film overall as a good job, even though we twisted and turned his material. I’ll take that over the puling nit-pickery of some whiny blogger any day.
I got very interested when it was revealed that Nick Cave had written a draft (I love The Proposition). Do you think that was just “stunt casting” for the goth-rock cred, or do you think Cave might have produced something intriguing? I guess we may never know…
Of course it’s stunt casting. But in Nick Cave’s case, it’s credible. The Proposition was a terrific movie. That version was supposed to start filming a year and several directors ago, so it may have fallen into the rewrite grinder. It may also have fallen into the ‘too dark’ sand-trap. I’ve had countless meetings on projects where the mandate was to ‘make it dark, we like it dark, quirky and dark!’ Then you come back in and the execs go: ‘Ehhhh … not THAT dark!’ They want a diet version of ‘dark’. Dark Lite.
And on the musical note, do you agree that the music has played a large part in keeping The Crow alive? Most soundtracks date terribly, but The Crow‘s seems to me to be very, very credible. The Cure, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine… People are still listening to those bands. The use of the Cure and Joy Division in the book could have dictated a very 80s soundtrack, but the film avoids that. I kind of have a feeling that The Crow remains a classic for rock fans, rather than general movie-goers, and that Brandon is part of that grunge “pantheon” with Kurt Cobain and Layne Staley, remembered alongside musicians rather than actors. Do you think there’s some truth in that?
It might seem grandiose, but I think The Crow had as much of an effect on subsequent movie soundtracks as Easy Rider did in its day. That is, it influenced everything that came after it. Proyas’ car and house were full of Front 242 and Ministry. The art department was overly fond of Nirvana’s Nevermind. I suggested Stone Temple Pilots and was blown away when we actually got them. I wanted an Alice in Chains song, “Down in a Hole,” but we missed on that one. One producer wanted to add “Freebird.” I am very pleased to report that was shot down.
Graeme Revell did a terrific support score as well. We temp-tracked most of the rough cut to the score from The Last Temptation of Christ, and that’s intriguing to watch. Actually, the Nine Inch Nails cover of Joy Division’s “Dead Souls” is synced to the action better in the rough cut: something a lot of hardcore fans will never experience.
So, in short, the soundtrack is a reflection of the timeframe in which we did the movie, and it has weathered better than most.
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