In 1994, comic book movies were slowly but surely gaining respect in Hollywood, particularly in the wake of Tim Burton’s Batman movies; however, no one necessarily believed that comic book movies for adult audiences could prove successful. The Crow changed this.
Sadly, The Crow’s legacy is intrinsically linked with the tragic death of its leading man Brandon Lee, killed after an accident with a prop gun. The death of Lee (the son of Bruce Lee, another movie star who died under mysterious circumstances) has cast a long shadow over the film.
Despite this tragedy, The Crow remains a hugely entertaining film which generations of fans have fallen in love with. Here are some interesting facts about the film and its production…
30. The director wanted to shoot it in black and white like the comic
James O’Barr’s original comic book of The Crow is entirely in black and white, with no use of colour whatsoever.
When director Alex Proyas was hired to adapt the comic to the screen, he hoped to take a similar approach.
- Credit: Jeff Most Productions/Pressman Film
In order to more closely reflect the source material, Proyas proposed shooting most of the film in black and white.
However, the director did want to use colour for the film’s flashback scenes, in order to create a greater sense of contrast.
- Credit: Jeff Most Productions/Pressman Film
This approach was ruled out by studio Paramount, leading the filmmakers to adopt a largely monochromatic colour scheme instead, giving the film its distinctive look.
More than a decade later, comic book movie Sin City and video game adaptation Max Payne would use black and white in much the way Proyas had originally wanted to.
29. The Crow’s creator worried Brandon Lee’s casting would turn it into a kung fu movie
Today, it’s hard to imagine anyone other than the sadly missed Brandon Lee in the lead role of The Crow.
However, the decision to cast Lee didn’t go down well at first with The Crow’s creator, James O’Barr.
At the time, Lee was best known primarily for being Bruce Lee’s son, and up to that point he’d largely followed in his father’s footsteps in martial arts action movies.
These included Laser Mission, Rapid Fire and Showdown in Little Tokyo (co-starring Dolph Lundgren), none of which were exactly Oscar-worthy.
Because of this, James O’Barr was worried Lee’s casting would mean The Crow would end up a corny kung-fu movie and go straight to video.
However, once O’Barr met with Lee, saw him in costume and heard him recite some lines from the comic, he realised the actor was perfect for the role.
28. The film features quotes from William Makepeace Thackeray and Edgar Allan Poe
The Crow is essentially an action thriller with a supernatural twist, but it presents us with a hero quite different from those of the era.
Most tough guy characters in the early 90s might come out with the odd wisecrack in the vein of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Bruce Willis.
However, The Crow’s Eric Draven is a more artistically-inclined, intellectual figure prone to quoting literature.
At one point, Brandon Lee’s Eric recites (or, to be more precise, paraphrases) a line from Edgar Allan Poe’s famous poem, The Raven.
Lee recites, “And suddenly I heard a tapping, as of someone gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.” (It’s “suddenly there came a tapping” in Poe’s original poem.)
Later, Lee recites a line from from famed author William Makepeace Thackeray: “Mother is the name for God in the lips and hearts of little children.”
27. One producer wanted to make the film a musical starring Michael Jackson
- Credit: Timothy White
As is inevitable on any page-to-screen adaptation, the movie of The Crow diverges from the original comic book in many respects.
However, if one studio executive had been given their way, things could have been considerably further removed from James O’Barr’s creation.
O’Barr recalls that this unnamed producer suggested that The Crow should be a musical, with pop superstar Michael Jackson in the lead role.
O’Barr says he immediately laughed out loud assuming it was a joke – but the producer was entirely serious.
We can only imagine what that film might have ended up looking like, but happily more rational minds emerged victorious on the matter.
Reflecting on this, O’Barr says of Hollywood, “it’s like there’s this beautiful tree, and every dog that comes along has to p*** on it.”
26. Brandon Lee was unhappy with the make-up
A key aspect of The Crow’s iconography is the distinctive black and white make-up Brandon Lee wears in the film.
However, this was at times a bone of contention between the leading man and the make-up team.
- Credit: Jeff Most Productions/Pressman Film
Lee was reportedly unhappy with the result after leaving the make-up trailer, feeling that the look wasn’t quite right.
Lee’s main complaint was that his freshly applied make-up seemed – well – too fresh, and not reflective of how the character would really look.
Alex Proyas agreed, and suggested the actor apply his own make-up the night before filming, then sleep through the night with it on.
Lee did so, and as a result his make-up would appear naturally worn the next day; he would then shoot his day’s scenes this way.
25. No actual crows appear in the film
The core conceit of The Crow is that a crow has mystically brought Lee’s Eric back from the dead.
This crow then proceeds to act as a guide of sorts for Eric on his quest for revenge.
You might expect, then, that plenty of real crows were used on the set of the film.
However, in spite of the bird itself being in the title, no actual crows were used in the film at all.
The problem is, while crows are renowned for their sinister appearance, they’re actually quite small – plus they’re difficult to train.
At the advice of animal handlers, the filmmakers used ravens instead, which are easier to train as well as more imposing physically.
24. River Phoenix turned down the lead role
Before Brandon Lee wound up being cast as the lead in The Crow, another tragic young male star of the era was considered.
One of the first actors offered the part of Eric Draven was River Phoenix, at the height of his indie credibility after 1991’s My Own Private Idaho.
Phoenix wound up turning the part down – and he would pass away from multiple drug intoxication on 31st October 1993, seven months after Brandon Lee’s death.
Two other hot young male stars of the time were also on the wish list for The Crow’s male lead.
These were Christian Slater and Johnny Depp, both of whom were considered ideal for the part by James O’Barr.
However, neither Depp nor Slater showed anywhere near as much enthusiasm for the project as Brandon Lee, which is largely why Lee wound up winning the role.
23. Cameron Diaz was offered the role of Shelly
When The Crow went into production in early 1993, Cameron Diaz was a model who had not yet broken through in acting.
However, she impressed the producers of The Crow enough for them to offer the 21-year-old Diaz the role of Shelly Webster, Eric’s fiancé.
This would have been the actress’s first movie role – but Diaz declined because she didn’t like the script.
Diaz would instead make her film breakthrough in another 1994 comic book adaptation, The Mask – and singer-turned-actress Sofia Shinas would instead appear as Shelly in The Crow.
Had the filmmakers been able to shoot the entire original script of The Crow, Shelly would have played a larger role.
However, with Lee’s untimely death, many of the planned scenes featuring Shelly had not yet been shot, and most were lost by necessity with rewrites.
22. The original comic book was inspired by the death of James O’Barr’s girlfriend
When James O’Barr created The Crow in the early 80s, he was a young man dealing with a real-life trauma.
O’Barr had been engaged to be married at age 18; but then his fiancé was run over by a drunk driver, and died.
- Credit: Luigi Novi/Wikimedia Commons
Overwhelmed with grief and rage, O’Barr wrote and illustrated the original graphic novel entirely on his own as means of release.
Completing the graphic novel took several years as O’Barr did it in his spare time whilst working a regular day job as a mechanic.
O’Barr says initially he did it purely for himself, not caring about being published – but ultimately it would see print in 1988.
The comic soon gathered a cult following, and within a few years the film rights were snapped up.
21. O’Barr was inspired by Goth culture and his time in Berlin
With his black hair, clothes and make-up, The Crow provided a look which generations of fledgling Goth kids have tried out.
Fittingly, creator James O’Barr largely modelled his original take on the character on the fashions of the emerging Goth scene in the early 80s.
O’Barr’s primary models for the physicality of Eric Draven were veteran rocker Iggy Pop, and Peter Murphy of the band Bauhaus.
On top of this, the dark and gritty streets of the comic were inspired by Berlin, where O’Barr was stationed whilst serving in the US Marine Corps.
- Credit: Imago/Imagebroker
The author and artist recalls, “In six years [in Berlin], I don’t have any recollections of the sun ever shining. It was a good visual analogy to the post-punk and darkwave stuff that I was listening to.”
This look greatly informed the work of The Crow’s production designer Alex McDowell and director of photography Dariusz Wolski.
20. Brandon Lee requested the removal of a stereotypical Asian character
- Credit: Getty Images
Brandon Lee’s heritage as an Asian-American had no real bearing on his casting as Eric Draven in The Crow.
Indeed, Lee’s more Western looks lost him the opportunity to portray his own father in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (in which the unrelated Jason Scott Lee portrayed the late film legend).
However, Lee was naturally sensitive to the portrayal of Asian characters in Hollywood films, and took exception to one character in The Crow’s original script.
The early draft featured an Asian villain who had the mystical power to steal the powers of the Crow, and Lee had concerns that this was a two-dimensional stereotype.
Director Alex Proyas ultimately agreed, and this character was ultimately removed in its entirety from the screenplay.
It seems likely that elements of this character re-emerged in the more fully-rounded villain character of Myca, played by Bai Ling.
19. Supporting character ‘Skull Cowboy’ was entirely removed in the editing process
Due to the tragedy that occurred on the set of The Crow, a great deal about the film had to be re-thought late in the day.
Unfortunately for actor Michael Berryman, this meant the entirety of his role was left on the cutting room floor.
Berryman (familiar for his roles in horror movie The Hills Have Eyes and sci-fi comedy Weird Science) originally filmed scenes in The Crow as the enigmatic Skull Cowboy.
Originally a key character, the Skull Cowboy would have served as a guide of sorts for Brandon Lee’s Eric, explaining the rules of his return to the world of the living.
- Credit: Jeff Most Productions/Pressman Film
In this version of events, it was the Skull Cowboy who removed Eric’s powers of invulnerability in the final act, on the grounds that Eric had already done what he came back to do in avenging his own death and Shelly’s.
The character was cut for two key reasons: firstly, Brandon Lee hadn’t shot all his scenes with Berryman; secondly, Alex Proyas felt the character was corny and unnecessary. Subsequently, last-minute rewrites had Tony Todd’s Grange figure out that killing the crow itself would rob Eric of his power.
18. The story was also inspired by a real life murder of a couple
The Crow creator James O’Barr didn’t only draw on his own personal tragedy for the story.
O’Barr was also deeply moved by a tragic real life murder case which he read about.
The incident in question involved a couple who were both murdered whilst engaged to be married.
The couple had been held up at gunpoint for their engagement ring – which, in a sad irony, was reportedly said to be worth only £15.
The pointlessness of their deaths enraged O’Barr, resonating with his own feelings of loss and grief.
As a result, Eric and Shelly’s engagement ring became a key element of The Crow.
17. Brandon Lee lost 20 pounds in weight for the role
Before The Crow, Brandon Lee was gradually being built up as a new action star.
The actor’s impressive physique had a key role to play in that, and in his earlier films Lee cut a slightly more muscular figure.
However, Lee was determined to do something drastically different with The Crow, and so he deliberately trimmed down for the role.
James O’Barr recalls, “He lost 20 pounds after getting the role, and he didn’t have a lot to lose.”
“I could lift him up with one arm, he was so thin. There was absolutely no fat on him whatever. He was just completely streamlined.”
It was also in the interest of avoiding the action hero label that Lee largely put his martial arts expertise to one side, utilising less acrobatic fighting moves in the action scenes.
16. It was a chaotic set, and a lot of accidents occurred
The Crow initially went into production with a budget of $15 million; not a huge budget for such an ambitious project.
This comparative lack of funds meant the producers were often forced to cut corners.
As a result of this, safety regulations were not as strictly adhered to on set as they should have been.
Amongst other mishaps, the production saw a carpenter accidentally stab himself through the hand with a screwdriver.
On another occasion a stuntman fell through a roof, and part of the set was also damaged by stormy weather.
The generally grim working conditions are also said to have left much of the crew feeling disgruntled; this in turn may have fuelled the reportedly rampant drug use on set.
15. Brandon Lee’s manager accused the producers of “trying to kill” the actor
The Crow was shot almost entirely at night in a less-than-luxurious setting in North Carolina, in part in a disused cement factory later used as the main set of Super Mario Bros.
As most of the exterior scenes take place in stormy weather, the cast and crew were perpetually shivering under artificial rain and wind machines.
The conditions and physical demands were so extreme that at one point Brandon Lee’s manager furiously berated the producers over the phone, accusing them of “trying to kill” his client.
Regardless of this, James O’Barr insists that he never saw Lee being anything but an affable character on set.
The creator recalls, “in between takes, everyone would go huddle around a 50-gallon oil drum that was filled with wood, and start a fire to get warm, like vagrants do.
“A lot of the crew had brought their kids with them, and instead of going back to his trailer, Brandon would go over and spend time with them. He was personable, charming and genuine.”
14. The film’s firearms supervisor had gone home early when Lee’s tragic accident occurred
There were only three days of principal photography left to do on The Crow when the film’s infamous tragedy occurred.
The cast and crew were filming what would have been a flashback scene to the murder of Brandon Lee’s Eric.
As it seemed like a fairly straightforward scene with no real risk involved, the film’s firearms supervisor had already left the set.
The scene called for Lee’s Eric to enter his apartment holding a bag of groceries, only to find Shelly being attacked.
At this point, Funboy actor Michael Massee pointed his prop gun at Lee and fired; the plan was that a ‘squib’ in the grocery bag would explode and Lee would drop to the ground.
At first everyone thought they had the shot, no problem – but then after the director called ‘cut,’ Lee didn’t get back up.
13. The prop gun fired at Lee had not been properly checked for debris beforehand
On realising that Brandon Lee had somehow been shot for real, the crew rushed the actor to hospital and shut down the set.
At first no one could understand what had happened, as the prop gun was only loaded with blanks.
However, with the firearms supervisor absent, the prop team had not been aware of all the checks that needed to be done beforehand.
After being fired in an earlier scene, a fragment of a dummy bullet had been left wedged in the barrel of the prop gun.
The force of the blank firing behind this remnant of debris proved to be comparable to that of a real bullet.
As a result, when actor Michael Massee pulled the trigger, he unknowingly shot Brandon Lee.
12. The filmmakers didn’t want to go on after Brandon Lee died
Although Lee hung on for six hours in surgery, the doctors were ultimately unable to save his life.
Distraught, director Alex Proyas and The Crow’s producers immediately agreed to cease production.
Lee’s death naturally sparked a scandal, and under the circumstances many felt the film should never be completed or released.
Paramount Pictures, who had initially backed the film, decided to cut their losses and step away from the film, feeling it would be highly distasteful to put it out in any form.
- Credit: Getty Images
However, The Crow’s filmmakers were urged to reconsider by Brandon Lee’s mother Linda Lee Caldwell and his fiancé Eliza Hutton.
At their urging, a heavy-hearted Alex Proyas agreed to finish work on The Crow and release it in Brandon Lee’s memory. The film’s final dedication reads ‘For Brandon and Eliza,’ as the couple had been scheduled to wed mere weeks after production on the film ended.
11. Conspiracy theories surrounded Lee’s death
Conspiracy theories and urban legends have long abounded around Brandon Lee’s death. (One such legend, which is completely untrue, claims the moment Lee was actually shot was included in the theatrical release of The Crow.)
It has always been hard not to acknowledge the parallels between the actor’s sudden death at age 28, and that of his father Bruce Lee at age 32.
Bruce Lee’s death (an allergic reaction to an over-the-counter painkiller) has itself long been the subject of conspiracy theories.
Worse yet, the nature of Brandon’s death was similar to the plot of his father’s last film Game of Death: in that film, Bruce Lee plays an actor who appears to be accidentally shot dead whilst filming a scene, but has actually faked his own death.
Bruce Lee also died with his final film unfinished; Game of Death was eventually released several years later with additional footage shot, utilising very unconvincing doubles for Lee.
Various colourful and unfounded theories have suggested either that the Lee family were targeted by the Chinese criminal underworld, or genuinely cursed (as alluded to in the film Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story).
10. Original studio Paramount ditched the film, so Miramax picked it up
Even though Brandon Lee’s loved ones had given their blessing to The Crow’s completion, studio Paramount remained unwilling.
While the bulk of Lee’s role in the movie had been filmed, reshoots and additional scenes were required.
The producers calculated a required additional budget of $8 million to finish The Crow, but Paramount refused.
At this point, Miramax – the acclaimed independent film company who had not long since been bought by Disney – got involved in The Crow.
The mini-studio (run by the now disgraced producer brothers Bob and Harvey Weinstein) made a deal which included the required $8 million completion funds.
On top of this, Miramax would also distribute The Crow and hold the film rights to the property.
9. Brandon Lee’s stand-in for reshoots was future John Wick director Chad Stahelski
Finishing work on The Crow meant that many shots and in some cases full scenes had to be shot using a stand-in for Brandon Lee.
While a number of stand-ins were used, one of the most prominent was a friend of Lee’s, martial artist Chad Stahelski.
Stahelski went on to enjoy a successful stunt career before moving into directing with the hugely popular John Wick movies, starring Keanu Reeves.
The stuntman-turned-filmmaker said in 2019, “I knew Brandon for five years before the accident, we were good friends.”
- Credit: Isa Foltin/WireImage
Stahelski hadn’t worked on The Crow, and says it wasn’t until “three or four months” after Lee’s death that he was called by stunt co-ordinator Jeff Imada and offered the job of filling in for Lee.
Stahelski recalls, “I get that there are people who would have said ‘I don’t want to do that,’” but he firmly believes “Brandon would have wanted the thing done, and done well.”
8. The film features early use of a digital doubles
Computer generated imagery was slowly becoming more commonplace in filmmaking when The Crow was in production.
The special effects team on the movie recognised that CGI would prove helpful in completing the scenes of the sadly missed Lee.
One prominent shot sees the character of Eric fall from a window following his murder.
This was achieved by digitally placing an image of Lee’s face over that of a stunt double.
Another even trickier shot utilised CGI to show Lee’s face reflected in a fractured mirror.
In the years since, a similar approach has been utilised on a number of films in which an actor sadly died before completing their role.
Most famously, digital doubles were created for Oliver Reed in Gladiator, and Paul Walker in Fast & Furious 7.
7. It was a critical and commercial success, and became a cult classic
The Crow was released to cinemas in the US on the 13th of May 1994, just over 13 months after Brandon Lee’s death.
It went straight to number one at the box office on its opening weekend, and by the end of its run it grossed over $50 million worldwide.
Initially, critics and audiences alike were wary that The Crow might be in poor taste given the tragedy surrounding it.
However, it was generally agreed that the film honoured its sadly missed leading man, and did not exploit his death.
The esteemed critic Roger Ebert even went so far as to declare that, as well as being Brandon Lee’s best film, The Crow was also better than any film his father Bruce Lee ever made.
Once The Crow hit home video and cable TV, it became a firm favourite of 90s teenagers.
6. Actor Michael Massee never watched the film
- Credit: Getty Images
The official enquiry into the circumstances of Brandon Lee’s death quickly cleared actor Michael Massee of any wrongdoing.
Nonetheless, as the man who pulled the trigger on the prop gun that killed his co-star, Massee was naturally overwhelmed with guilt.
The actor did not work again for more than a year following the accident, and for a time contemplated giving up acting altogether.
Ultimately Massee got his career back on track, most famously taking a key role in the first season of TV thriller 24.
However, the actor could never bring himself to watch The Crow, and apparently never did before his own death from cancer in 2016.
Sadly, after Massee’s passing, the main thing mentioned in his obituaries was the fact that he inadvertently shot Brandon Lee.
5. James O’Barr gave most of his fee to charity
The Crow’s creator James O’Barr had been on set for much of the film’s production, but would not return after Lee’s death.
The writer and artist recalls, “They asked me to come back. I told them no, that I couldn’t imagine myself back there without him.”
For O’Barr, this further tragedy compounded the grief from which The Crow had been born in the first place.
Because of this, O’Barr wound up donating the bulk of the money he made from the film to charity.
O’Barr explained in 2009, “it just felt like blood money to me… I didn’t want to profit at [Brandon Lee’s] expense.”
The only things O’Barr admits to using some of his movie money for was a new car for his mother, and a new home stereo.
4. Three critically lambasted sequels followed
While completing and releasing The Crow felt like a fitting tribute to Brandon Lee, making sequels was another matter entirely.
Fans and critics alike generally agreed that it would have been more appropriate and respectful to leave it as a standalone film.
However, Miramax saw the commercial potential, and wasted no time getting to work on sequel The Crow: City of Angels.
Released to cinemas barely two years after the original, The Crow: City of Angels was widely panned.
Four years after this came The Crow: Salvation, most notable for co-starring Kirsten Dunst; this was released direct to video, and was also met with negative reviews.
Finally, in 2005 came fourth film The Crow: Wicked Prayer, starring Edward Furlong and Tara Reid; this also went straight to home entertainment, and has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
3. There have been more accidental deaths associated with the series
The tragic circumstances behind The Crow, and the accidental death of Brandon Lee, have lead to some declaring the franchise to be cursed.
Sadly, Lee is not the only figure involved in the series to meet an early death, which some feel lends credence to those curse claims.
1998 saw the launch of The Crow: Stairway to Heaven, a short-lived TV spin-off starring future John Wick 3 actor Mark Dacascos.
There was a tragic death on the set of the TV show, when stunt performer Marc Akerstream was killed after an explosion went wrong.
Then in 2001, The Crow: City of Angels actress Thuy Trang (best known for TV’s Mighty Morphin Power Rangers) also passed away.
Trang died following a car accident, weeks before she was due to be a bridesmaid at her best friend’s wedding.
2. Bradley Cooper, Mark Wahlberg and Jason Momoa and many more actors have been linked to a Crow reboot
Those who consider The Crow to be cursed have felt a lot of validation in this belief given the struggles faced by its long in-development reboot.
Plans to bring The Crow back to the big screen were first announced in 2008, with Blade director Stephen Norrington attached.
Initially, actors Bradley Cooper and Mark Wahlberg were linked to the lead role, but troubles behind the scenes stalled the project.
In the years since, many names have been linked to the project, including directors Juan Carlos Fresnadillo and Francisco Javier Gutiérrez, and actors Tom Hiddleston, Alexander Skarsgård, Luke Evans and Jack Huston.
In 2016, it looked like the film – then entitled The Crow Reborn – would at last be made with Corin Hardy in the director’s chair, and Jason Momoa in the lead role.
However, this iteration of The Crow also fell apart at the last minute. At the time of writing the film’s status is uncertain, although it is still said to be in development.
1. Firearms safety on film sets has been treated far more seriously since Lee’s death
Those associated with The Crow sensibly dismiss any notion of Lee’s death being somehow pre-ordained, insisting it was a tragic freak accident.
In a way, the tragedy has had a positive impact, as it resulted in any and all firearm use in movies being treated with far greater caution.
As Chad Stahelski says, “Brandon’s accident was a lot of little dumb things that got by, but it’s groupthink.
“All the people involved were very, very smart. You just get tired, you make one little mistake, it compounds… it was a safety standard that definitely changed the industry with firearms.
“You know where that leads to? John Wick is 90% guns, firearms. A lot of the safety or the methodology we use, it came about because of that accident.
“It’s retroactive, which sucks, it’s like most f***ing things in life. No one wants to change anything until something bad happens. But I know a great deal about that story, and there’s no one thing that you could point a finger at, it was a lot of little dumb mistakes that shouldn’t have happened.”