The Official Making of Big Trouble in Little China by Tara Bennett and Paul Terry, available now, is a must-read for cult movie fans. It’s packed with on-set photos and interviews with just about everyone who was involved in the making of John Carpenter’s cult classic—and it’s filled with trivia about the making of the movie. Here are the most fascinating things we learned.
Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, the two screenwriters who originally came up with the idea to make an “Asian mystical martial arts movie” set in the West, set their tale during San Francisco’s wild Barbary Coast days. The contemporary setting was added during the script rewrite by W.D. Richter (director of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension), who also made Big Trouble far more comedic, but kept some of its essential beats. For instance, the character eventually known as trucker Jack Burton was originally a cowboy, and he spent the entire movie trying to recover his favorite horse. (That, of course, became Jack’s beloved Pork-Chop Express in the finished movie.) Goldman and Weinstein’s irresistibly catchy title, however, went the distance from page to screen.
Speaking of Jack’s truck, a script extract shared in the book notes that the truck is “pig-filled” as it zooms across the Golden Gate Bridge in those opening shots. The theme continued, as Richter specifies that the giant sandwich Jack stuffs into his mouth between CB radio rants is, in fact, a ham sandwich.
Though the Big Trouble book showers rightful praise on costume designer April Ferry, Russell says he had a hand in selecting his character’s distinctive footwear. He had Jack Burton’s “funky, high-top moccasins” specially made in Aspen at a shop he happened to know about.
The man who plays Jack’s old friend Wang Chi—and who ends up being the real hero of the story—was also offered a part in a TV movie that was filming at the same time, so he had to choose. His agent advised him to play it safe and pass on the bizarre-sounding John Carpenter film, but Dun went for the wild card because he was a huge Buckaroo Banzai fan.
Peter Kwong tells the authors that his scenes as Rain, one of the villainous Lo Pan’s well-armed lieutenants, were so intense that he was under the impression that Big Trouble was merely “an action-adventure with a mysterious ghost story.”
It wasn’t until he filmed his last-act fight—and noted Dennis Dun’s over-the-top eyebrow raise at a key moment during their battle—that he realized the movie was actually a comedy that also happened to have action-adventure and mystical elements. Later in the book, Kwong reveals that his luxurious long wig, which was specifically designed to look like those traditionally worn in Chinese martial arts movies, cost $3,000.
Dun was so inspired by his experience working with Victor Wong, who plays Egg Shen, that he named his daughter Victoria in his honor. Their friendship actually spanned years before and after the movie; Dun and Wong had performed in plays together at San Francisco’s Asian American Theater Company, and they made three films together in three years: Michael Cimino’s Year of the Dragon in 1985; Big Trouble in 1986; and another John Carpenter movie, The Prince of Darkness, in 1987.
And not just at the gnarled, creepy hands of Lo Pan. Gracie Law’s prized peepers came courtesy of painful hard contact lenses that she had to insert 15 minutes before going on camera, because that’s how long it took her eyes to stop watering.
According to a paragraph of exposition that was (rather wisely) cut from the final script, Gracie was born in China but was shipped back to the states as a child after her missionary parents were “massacred.”
The stunt man who donned the hairy Wild Man costume is never named in the book, and there’s a good reason for that: he was a pain to work with. For one thing, he hated the suit he was hired to wear, because it’s cumbersome, elongated arms made it impossible for him to do anything while he was in costume.
He also couldn’t really see, because his head was below the creature’s head. He balked at performing a key stunt, jumping through a hole, until additional padding (including a mattress) was added to break his fall. And he refused to walk in the manner that creature creator and special effects make-up artist Steve Johnson requested: on his tip-toes, so that the monster would have a “Lon Chaney Jr., Wolf Man-style” gait.
The eyeball-covered floating head that pursues Jack, Egg Shen, and company through the halls of the Spirit Path only appears on screen very briefly, but Steve Johnson still calls the creature, which was crafted by a team led by effects legend Screaming Mad George, “the most difficult thing I’ve ever been asked to create.” Over 60 artists and engineers worked on it, and because of all its moving parts, it cost over $100,000 to make. Visual effects producer Richard Edlund kept one of the ghoulish green eyes (of course it had green eyes) as a souvenir, but the rest of the Guardian has since been lost to time.
Actor James Hong plays two versions of iconic bad guy David Lo Pan: the ancient old man, and the younger sorcerer. His on-screen transformation comes courtesy of both a bust of Hong that was covered in clear, flexible skin, carefully painted to look like Hong in his old-man make-up, and by fading the lights off outside the bust while fading the lights inside the bust on. According to Johnson, the scene was completed in just one take.
According to Peter Kwong, after the demise of Lightning (played by James Pax), there’s a special meaning behind the Chinese character that lingers in his wake. What’s it say? “Carpenter,” of course!