July 26th, 1973 marked the release of the most culturally significant (and arguably best) martial arts picture of all-time: Enter the Dragon. The film made an icon posthumously of Bruce Lee and ushered in a wave of martial arts’ films, classes, and television programs in its wake. Martial Arts was, of course, predominant in the Far East up to that point, but it wasn’t truly until Enter the Dragon that such philosophizing/fighting made its way to the U.S. There hasn’t been a martial arts film or a star associated with the movement as big as Bruce Lee in the forty years since. It’s both a testament to Enter the Dragon and a staggering denouement of the industry as a whole that (Jackie Chan aside), no Chinese actor has broken through the collective consciousness the same way as Bruce Lee.
In celebration of Enter the Dragon’s fortieth anniversary, Warner Brothers released a brand new blu-ray of the film. At the press junket for the blu-ray, many of the film’s stars (John Saxon & Robert Wall), producers (Fred Weintraub & Paul Heller), crew (cinematographer Gil Hubbs) and family (Bruce Lee’s wife Linda Lee Cadwell) were on hand to discuss the conception and far reaching influence of Enter the Dragon. For the full interview, hit the jump.
Of note: the following Q&A has been edited together from various individual conversations with the talent at the junket.
Fred Weintraub (Producer on Enter the Dragon): I had a nightclub in New York called The Bitter End. And it was very popular. Ted Ashley and Steve Ross had just bought Warner Brothers. They asked me to come [join them] for the youth market. I had a long ponytail. They needed a hip kind of guy. Since I had never been in the movie business, I figured why not. I started right at the top as an executive next to the CEO of Warner Brothers. That’s how I became an executive and on the board of directors for my first job [in the entertainment industry].
Paul Heller (Producer on Enter the Dragon): I started out as a designer in the theater and for film. Freddy and I knew each other. Before Ted Ashley and Steve Ross took it over, it had been Warner Bros.-Seven Arts and they (Head of Production Kenneth Hyman and co.) ran it into the ground. There was nothing in the pipeline. They had no pictures. They were losing money right and left. Steve Ross and Ted Ashley came in and bought the company and took Seven Arts out of it and they brought Fred into it. And soon after that, Fred asked me to come out here too.
Weintraub: I think what happened was – I didn’t know anything about movies. But Paul knew something about movies. I told him to come out here. I needed three executives to work for me. I didn’t know what they did but I knew they worked for me. So Paul came out and we started to try to put projects together.
Heller: As we like to say: we had no bad habits.
Weintraub: I started to look at old Chinese films – they were three hours long and boring as hell except the last ten minutes when the guy in white comes out and destroys five hundred guys in black all by himself. And I got so fascinated by that process. That’s how Bruce Lee came to me by the fact that I was so fascinated with these martial arts films. He came to me through James Coburn and Steve McQueen. He was very smart, very bright. A charming, intelligent guy.
Linda Lee Cadwell (wife of Bruce Lee): I think that the [Bruce Lee] you see on the screen was very much like he was in real life. Just really very dynamic, full of energy and very focused on his work.
Heller: Bruce had gotten very despondent because he wasn’t getting work. I mean he trained people like Steve McQueen. He had a lot of stars in his classes but he was frustrated. I never met anyone in my life that wanted to be a star more than Bruce.
Weintraub: It was in his blood. He had met the stars and he wanted to be one of them… So when he lost out on Kung Fu and it was given to David Carradine, it [really hurt] him…
Heller: [Kung Fu] was developed for Bruce. [It was supposed to be] about a Shaolin monk who came to the United States to take care of the Chinese immigrants working on the railroads. That became the TV series Kung Fu – but it was originally developed as a film for Bruce Lee. And then there was another picture called The Silent Flute – Stirling Silliphant had written it. And we brought that to Warner Brothers [and they passed] on that as well.
(Ironically enough, The Silent Flute – retitled Circle of Iron – would be green lit after the success of Enter the Dragon. However since Bruce Lee had passed away by that point in time, his part was recast and given once again to Kung Fu star David Carradine.)
Heller: So Bruce Lee went back to Hong Kong and made a deal with Raymond Chow (one of the founders of Golden Harvest Pictures) and they did two films: Fists of Fury and The Big Boss. [Those films] exploded in the Far East. Within a couple months, he was the biggest thing to ever happen there. Freddy came back to me and said we have to make something [here] for Bruce. So we sat down and figured out a story called Blood and Steel (the original title of Enter the Dragon).
Weintraub: Still nobody wanted [Bruce Lee] here, even with the success over there. Never had a Chinese man been played by an actual Chinese. So I had to go to foreign [investment]. [The foreign guy] told me ‘Well I can get you two or three hundred thousand out of the Far East.’ And I said ‘That’s all?’ And he said ‘Yeah – nobodies going to want an American film with a Chinese in China.’ So then I went to Ted Ashley – and I said ‘I can get three hundred thousand dollars. I need three hundred thousand more to make it.’ He said ‘I’ll go for the three hundred but no more.’ And then I was off to Hong Kong…
(Weintraub goes to Hong Kong to give Bruce Lee the news and get permission from Hong Kong Producer Raymond Chow, who Lee was still under contract to whilst making the incomplete Game Of Death).
Weintraub: Bruce was, of course, very excited. He couldn’t walk down the street in Hong Kong without many people following him. And Raymond Chow, smart and wily and difficult to deal with, was as charming and nice as could be. He greeted me yet wouldn’t make a deal. I said to him – ‘You can use your people [on Enter the Dragon] but you’re going to have to pay for them [because] you pay nothing [to begin with]. A stunt man gets paid two dollars a day. And so we negotiated for two weeks, at which point Chow said ‘I want to have [distribution in] Singapore, Thailand and Micronesia. And I finally said ‘Okay.” and then he said ‘Well – I’ve decided against it.’ Because he didn’t want to lose his cash cow. They were making money over in China. Why lose that when you’re making a fortune. I sat with Raymond and Bruce in a Japanese restaurant saying goodbyes and then as the dinner went on Bruce asked me – ‘Did you make the deal?’ I said ‘We would have but Raymond doesn’t want to see you become an international star. He thinks you’re doing wonderful over here and I agree with him – you’re doing great here but nobody knows if a Chinese man can make it in the world.’ And Bruce turned to Raymond and said ‘Sign it.’ And Raymond signed it and I got on a plane and came back.
Cadwell: I think it’s been portrayed that [Bruce Lee] was very nervous before filming began [on Enter the Dragon]. I think it’s been misrepresented to the point that some people say he was having a nervous breakdown he was so paralyzed by fear. That is false. He was a professional actor. He’d been acting his whole life. And he was a professional martial artist as well. So he had no butterflies about that kind of thing. But what he wanted was to make this film very special. And he had ideas he would like to see added to the script. He was very adamant about it. He really put a lot of work into studying how to improve this film. To make it the best product that it could be because this was an important film for Bruce. It was going to be his first introduction to the American market. There was some reticence on the side of the people making the film. They wanted Bruce to get on the set and get going but he didn’t want to show up and get going on the film until the things he wanted – namely all the philosophy – in the film were done.
Gil Hubbs (cinematographer on Enter the Dragon): It was the first film I shot. I was doing mostly commercials and documentaries. I got a call from Bob Clouse (director of Enter the Dragon) in the middle of the night. It was a bad connection so I only heard every third or fourth word – but I did [hear him ask] “Do you want to come to Hong Kong?” So I said ‘Yeah – why not?’ I had never seen a kung fu movie. I had never seen a martial arts scene. The only martial artist I had ever met was an instructor in the Marine Corps. I had never heard of Bruce Lee – but I knew of Hong Kong… [Bob told me] he was shooting anamorphic but I didn’t even know what that was. I had my American Cinematheque manual on the plane and I had to look up anamorphic – that means it’s widescreen. But I was a confident fellow.
John Saxon (the heroic Roper who ultimately teams up with Lee in the film): Weintraub had brought [Enter the Dragon] to my attention. I had done things like karate and other stuff for a number of years so I thought this might be interesting. I didn’t know much about Bruce. I saw some TV show and stuff that he was on…
Robert Wall (the villainous scarred Oharra): [Bruce and I] had been training partners for eleven years – so we were good friends. My specialty was to take all kinds of abuse. I had gotten my ribs broken many years before and it was the absence of fun – so I decided to study how to take punches and kicks. I had George Foreman, Muhammad Ali, Chuck Norris – every great puncher and kicker hit on me. It’s always amusing when they would think they can kill the little white boy and then find out they can’t. Bruce loved that he could beat on me. He hit like a mule. Most people didn’t want to get hit by him once yet alone several times. And I had to do six or seven takes [of this abuse]. Before every take, Bruce would say to me ‘Robert, I’m going to break something.’ I would say ‘Yeah, right – you little China man. You aren’t going to break anything.’ Which wasn’t too smart because by the third or fourth take, Bruce would really try to unload on me. But we were good friends and training partners. When you’re fighting your training partner, you’re really not trying to hurt him because you want him to come back the next day.
Saxon: I had six or seven years experience doing [martial arts] – so I felt prepared to do a movie like this. I mean – I had questions. I would ask Bruce what if I did [the fight] this way and he would say ‘That’s okay. Okay you can do it that way if you want.’ And that’s how we went on for most of the time.
Wall: Bruce always had a clear image of what he wanted to do. And he would explain to John or me conceptually what he wanted. Conceptually he knew what the script was, what the dialogue was. He did all of his fight scenes with stick men and he always thought them through. And he would come to me and say ‘I want your character to do this and that. He would basically give it to us in generalities more so with me because he knew I was going to get beat up. Kicked in the groin here, kicked in the head there and so on and so forth. But he always had a clear image and he imparted it to you and then let you do your own thing within that.
(Perhaps the most famous sequence in Enter the Dragon is the climactic fight scene between Lee and villainous one-armed Han (Kiehn Shih) in the room of mirrors)
Hubbs: [The mirror sequence] was (director) Bob Clouse’s idea. It was actually very easy to light because there weren’t a lot of options. Bob’s idea was – so that we wouldn’t be seen — to build a closet and put mirrors on the outside of it. We would put the camera in there with me and Bob and the assistant. We cut a couple holes. If we wanted the camera here, we would move the closet to [get that angle] and just stick the lens [through the hole]. That complicated the image a lot because we were shooting into a mirror and the mirror bounced all around. You actually got nauseous in the room. Bruce banged himself into the mirrors a whole bunch. But it was pretty easy to shoot because you could only put lights up above and they bounced all over the mirrors. When you turned on a light, everything was lit. The way to put lights up high was very restricted. It wasn’t like a stage in Warner Brothers. So you were limited by the physical space. If there was room to put a light, then that would be a good place for a light. It was very difficult to direct the action because of the complication of the images. If you wanted [Bruce] to move in camera to the left, he had to move to the right. Bruce would say ‘No – Han is right there, why don’t I hit him.’ We would have to explain [the camera] doesn’t see him there…
(Enter the Dragon was an enormous success upon it’s release, grossing upward of twenty-five million dollars in the U.S. – the equivalent of one hundred-eighty million today. Of course the film’s success was mired by the fact that six days prior Bruce Lee passed away due to an allergic reaction to painkillers)
Weintraub: When I brought the film back, the people at Warner Brothers who at first were completely down on the film, started to change their minds. They began to see the first rough cuts of the film and started to get excited about it. The head of distribution said ‘I think I can sell it.’ That’s the key guy. If he says I can sell it, that’s half the battle. And there were people – the advertising guys, the publicity guys – all came together and promoted Enter the Dragon. We even had a big dragon race the night of the premier.
Cadwell: Bruce’s way of martial arts was the total opposite of the classical style. He wanted to get away from that. He was a superb martial artist. There was no one who could’ve done the scenes like he did. It was beautiful… He called it scientific street fighting. For him the purpose of fighting was to defend yourself or your loved ones or your property… It makes me very sad that Bruce never got to see what his work became. And for us to have never seen forty years later what he would have done. Of course it was a huge tragedy but thanks to his strength, we were able to carry on and here we are forty years later. With the advent of the internet, you discover new things every day. Just the other day [I learned] they’re putting up a statue in Bosnia of Bruce Lee to represent the unity of people. That’s truly amazing.
Enter the Dragon: 40th Anniversary Edition is currently available everywhere.