The big production problems of Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story

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Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story was a production that fought the weather, health problems, and an awful lot of brain – oh, and the Triads as well.

A few years’ back, a film telling the story of a young Bruce Lee made it to the screen, with The Adjustment Bureau’s George Nolfi directing. The film – Birth Of The Dragon – wasn’t much of a success though, with Lee’s daughter for one speaking out about the movie, and box office receipts on the low side. But then the late, great Bruce Lee, such an iconic movie star, has a story and a half that’s always going to be a major challenge to bring to the screen.

Perhaps that’s why so few have tried and succeeded in getting such a project made. But then even the most successful project to have done so had to get over some major hurdles even when its filming was up and running.

Returning just over $63m in box office takings off a relatively modest $16m production budget then, 1993’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story was a solid success for Universal Pictures. It was an even more impressive result given the uphill battle to make the film in the first place.

For instance, just finding someone to play Bruce Lee was a challenge. His son, the late Brandon Lee, was considered at one stage, but his face was deemed not to fit. Instead, the role went to Jason Scott Lee – no relation – who came to the production’s attention as a consequence of being turned down for Michael Mann’s The Last Of The Mohicans.

The cast then came together, and Universal formally gave the project the greenlight. Then there was the small matter of the film’s physical production. It’d be fair to say it presented a sizeable number of problems.

The film shot in Los Angeles and San Francisco, yet crucially also went on location to Hong Kong where the bulk of the movie was filmed. But there would be four major delays that hit the physical filming of Dragon. A film that was working on a relatively modest budget to realise an ambitious-looking biopic in the first place.

Firstly, there was the health of man behind the camera. The movie would be a hit for its helmer, Rob Cohen (who has since been accused of and denied very serious allegations made against him over his sexual conduct), but early on in the production he had a major health scare that nearly brought his work on the film to a close much earlier than intended. For on February 6th 1992, with filming underway, Cohen had a heart attack. He recovered, but it had a knock-on on filming, as you’d expect. Production shut down for one month to allow him to regain his health, and the contingency fund for budget overruns – a pot worth $1.3m – was already being eaten up.

Mind you, it wouldn’t be long before it was gone altogether.

A further delay was caused when Jason Scott Lee too fell ill (although not as seriously), causing a further short halt in filming. Yet the next huge hurdle was sent by the weather gods.

For this time, the production found itself caught in the midst of the worst rainfall that Hong Kong had seen in a very, very long time. Scrub that: it was said to be the worst monsoon in the area’s history full stop, dropping a huge amount of rain on the film’s locations, when its time in Hong Kong was already limited. It was impossible to film whilst the rain was coming down, and challenging once it’d stopped. A freak turn of weather that caused damage and further scheduling issues.

The budget inevitably was all the time slowly creeping up, and Universal was getting concerned. But then so were the filmmakers when the fourth major problem hit. This was when the local mob got involved.

As Premiere magazine reported back in its May 1993 issue, the Hong Kong leg of the film’s shoot attracted the attention of the local Triad gang. Their complaint was that filming was taking place on what they deemed to be Triad territory, and they wanted, er, ‘recompense’ for this.

The article noted that the asking price for filming on said territory was duly set at $50,000 a day. Inevitably, there was never any question that the production would stump up (how, exactly, do you tally that on the studio Excel spreadsheet?). “It you pay them, it never stops”, Cohen is quoted as saying.

Instead, the production had to come up with some remedies of its own. The Chinese production crew therefore who were working on the film included armed policeman for a start, as a not very subtle measure. But also, there was a limit to the amount of protection they were able to offer the film.

As such, the practical decision was made to speed up filming, which was not without major challenges. One particularly complex sequence that had been planned to shoot over more than a day had to be rushed to a finish in less than one, with the crew then having to quickly pack up their equipment and move on.

The overspend on the budget meant that Universal – as is pretty regular in Hollywood, brought in a completion bond organisation. This is a go-to Hollywood tactic for ensuring movies get made on time and close to budget: basically outsourcing the ‘bad cop’ element of moviemaking, and making sure deadlines are hit. In this case, Universal hired a firm called The Completion Bond Company, and it got to work. The production was thus set a firm deadline for completion, else the plug was going to be pulled altogether. The movie got finished.

As it happened, Universal was happy with the first cut it saw, to the point where it stumped up a further $1m for better quality sound effects, and a Randy Edelman score. But the pressure was firmly on the movie, which would return to the USA to complete its physical filming. The cost had gone up by $2m by the time the film was done, and wrapped up in the summer of 1992.

It would be released just under a year later in the US, and earn its place as the most successful Bruce Lee biopic to date. Still, whilst liberties have been taken with Bruce Lee since on the big screen to bigger box office returns (just last year, as it happened), arguably the wait continues for the definitive telling of the Bruce Lee story…


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