James O'Barr - author of The Crow
San Diego Comic Con - San Diego, CA - July 20, 2000
A tormented soul sometimes creates the most beautiful stories. In this case, that soul belongs to James O'Barr, creator of The Crow - a gothic tale romantic beauty and eternal love that must cross the boundaries of adversarial evil. Most are already familiar with the tale of Eric Draven and his girlfriend, cut down in their prime on the eve of their Halloween wedding night only to see Eric return one year later, brought back by the keeper of spirits, the Crow. Eric's job is to set things right again and to remove those dead souls who would continue to actualize evil upon the mortal earth.
James, as Eric, has not had the easiest life himself when it has come to loves as the need to express himself in this particular literary manner was brought about when his fiancee was killed by a drunk driver. The actual story was then inspired by a news story that James had read shortly thereafter. The writing of The Crow was to be therapy but only brought on more pain and anguish. Art imitating life as the saying goes, or vice versa.
The sadness didn't end there as, during the filming of the first movie adaptation of The Crow, young and gifted actor Brandon Lee was shot indeliberately and killed. That was a shock not only to the people close to the set and story, it also brought about the rumors of Bruce Lee's son inheriting the family "curse". Either way, it was an incident that hit the entertainment world hard and drove James further into morose "how's and why's". The official story had stated that a "dummy" tip was lodged in the gun and was forced out when a blank was fired during a scene. That satisfied the courts and the insurance. It has since come out about the possibility of a more irresponsible negligence on the part of some nonunion crew playing around with the guns the night before that fatal scene. They apparently had gotten into the unsecured gun case on the set and loaded the gun with live rounds to shoot at targets out back, after which, they returned the weapons and it may very well be that a live bullet was still lodged in the chamber. During the next day, while loading the blanks to be used, the bullet may have been overlooked as a blank and was subsequently used. (There is a book that further details the incidents surrounding the film, entitled "The Crow: The Story Behind The Film" by Bridget Bass.)
In the short time that followed, greed made the studios rush about quickly to continue the - now envisioned - series of films and they pushed out The Crow: City Of Angels, a disappointing and emotion-lacking film that did more to showcase a great soundtrack and the acting of Iggy Pop. It quickly disappeared and the studio went on to make the third installment - not before making a TV series that has since been pulled - of the film series, The Crow: Salvation, a truly badly made film that not only shows the director's lack of composition but is the first time that a film audience has the opportunity to see very obvious editing glitches making for choppy film sequencing. (Read about The Crow: Salvation.)
During the San Diego Comic Con International 2000, we had the chance to speak with James O'Barr and finally get some facts set straight - because we all know that you can't really trust most of the media to give any more than cloned snippets of "good enough" info. James really filled in some blanks about the creation of the story, the films and his future projects. Here is a man who has suffered both internally as well as publicly (in the case of externalizing the pain in the film and comic book) and is finally at peace with himself as he is happily married and continuing on with some new Crow projects and other work.
James was very open and honest in talking about different incidents surrounding the whole phenomena of The Crow and, although we had met before several times and talked about the film, this was our first sit-down chat to get the whole story on paper.

K2K: So, to get some background, when did you do The Crow originally?
JO: I started it in 1981 when I was in Berlin, trying to deal with a personal tragedy. I was being too self-destructive in my life and I needed to do something like get it down on paper or something or I was going to end up dead. Berlin was just way too close to Amsterdam. I worked on it off and on for, like, six years in fifteen to twenty page increments. It was really difficult to work on. It was painful to go back to that. I never really thought about selling it. It was more for myself.
When the independent books started taking off, when Comico first started, I thought somebody might be interested in it. I sent it out to virtually every publisher that was out there. No one was interested in it. Either they all said it was too violent or not violent enough. It's too depressing, it's too moody. Nobody wanted it. So I put it on the shelf and thought it would be a personal project.
K2K: The original inspiration was the drunk driving accident though, right?
JO: Yeah.
K2K: How did you get from that to coming up with the actual storyline that you did?
JO: I'm from Detroit and I had read in the newspaper about a couple who were killed over a twenty-dollar engagement ring. I thought that that was so outrageous that I thought that would be a good typical point for the story to work around. So I kind of based it on that.
K2K: I had spoken with you before about the characters in the movie and you had mentioned that you had known these people or that they were real people from Detroit or something.
JO: Yeah, pretty much everyone who was in the book is a real person - either somebody I knew or was inspired by or some of them were even facets of my own personality, the parts I wasn't too happy with.
K2K: Embellishments?
JO: Yeah, yeah. All the names were actual gang names that I took off the walls of graffiti. T-Bird, Tom-Tom, Top Dollar, Spooky Stone, they're all real gang members in Detroit. I don't know if they know they've been immortalized in film or not.
K2K: What can you tell me to explain "Devil's Night" for those who don't really know about it.
JO: I thought it was a universal thing across the whole USA, that the night before Halloween, people go out and burn abandoned buildings, abandoned houses, warehouses, dumpsters on fire. I thought they did it across the U.S. because they did it every year in Detroit since I was a kid. When I'd tell people about it, they'd always look at me like I was stupid. Around 1985, in Detroit, it got some tremendous press. There were people from everywhere coming to Detroit to watch it burn on Devil's Night. There were, like, 25,000 reporters there for Devil's Night, so they kind of cracked down on it after that. They call it Angel's Night now because every single cop who is in Detroit is out that night. They have patrols. They keep it down to nothing now. The idea was that there were so many abandoned houses in Detroit - every other house is abandoned - to keep them from turning into crack houses, the people in the neighborhoods burn them down. They were all built in the 1920s and 1930s. They're beautiful houses. They're huge 5,000 square foot houses, but they haven't had any upkeep because they're in the ghetto with welfare families who have the "I don't own it, so why should I take care of it" mentality. The houses are like garbage. You could buy a mansion in Detroit for about $5,000, but it would cost you $50,000 to bring it up to code.
K2K: That's so funny because, coming from Silicon Valley, I'm used to seeing houses that used to cost about $150,000 now going for about $3 million. People would die to buy a house for $5,000 no matter what the extra costs. They should advertise the low purchase prices in Detroit to bring in outside interests.
JO: They need to do something. Detroit, people think it's the murder capital of the country. It's not even scary or dangerous, it's more sad. It's just empty skyscrapers and empty buildings. Dead neighborhoods. There are no major gangs in Detroit like Bloods or Crips. It's just small gangs of about 20 to 30 people. Neighborhood gangs.
K2K: Is it dangerous to walk around?
JO: No, not really. There are some definite bad areas that are obvious. You just don't wander around the ghetto. I lived in the worst part of Detroit for probably six years and never had any trouble at all. Not one incident. If you respect people, they will respect you back. Usually, you know where you're going to get in trouble in the city.
K2K: To get back to the Crow - Did you have any part in the casting of the first film?
JO: Yeah, I was real heavily involved in choosing the cast and making choices. They consulted me on pretty much every aspect of that.
K2K: Did you know Brandon Lee before the film?
JO: Not before The Crow. I first met him when they brought him in for me to talk to him to see if I thought he would be right for it. I thought he was perfect. The night before I met him, I had seen "Rapid Fire". In that movie, even though he's energetic and he does the action screens great, after he hit someone, he seemed almost apologetic. "I didn't really mean to do that." I didn't think he was threatening enough. He had some great screen presence, but I didn't think he was menacing enough. I was skeptical when I saw that. After I met him, I thought he was perfect. I couldn't picture anyone else beside him after meeting him one time. He was a huge fan of the comic. He knew phrases and lines of dialog from it. He was real instrumental in keeping it faithful to the comic. The first script they had pretty much had nothing to do with the comic. I was like, "What the f*** is this?" They buy this property and then completely change it into something that's completely different. What was the point of buying it if you were going to change it completely different. He was instrumental in bringing it back to the book.
K2K: The scenes, the death scenes, were changed. What I was wondering was about the Crown of Thorns scene from the comic book, where Eric is stabbing the needles into his chest that has the Crown of Thorns carved into it. Why was that taken out of the movie?
JO: I don't know. I thought those, where he was cutting his arms up so that he could have physical pain to match his emotional pains, I thought those were some of the most powerful moments in the book. They thought that nobody was going to identify or have empathy for a hero who is into self-mutilation.
Actually, they changed it in the movie where Eric is fighting with Fun Boy, in the loft. Fun Boy grabs a razor. Actually, Darla picks it up and drops it on the floor. There is a scene after that, a great scene where Fun Boy wakes up in the shower and there's this big fight where Fun Boy gashes up his arms and his stomach and that's why [Eric] has electrical tape on his arms and his stomach. The scene was so vicious that they cut it out. They submitted it five times and it got an X-rating every time, for the violence. I think they were overly sensitive over what happened to Brandon. They were looking at every little thing in there. It was ridiculous. Brandon choreographed all the fight scenes himself and spent a long time doing it. They were magnificent.
K2K: Are those scenes filmed and will they be released on a Director's Cut?
JO: Edward R. Pressman films tells me that there is not enough interest to warrant a Director's Cut. I keep telling them. They said it would cost $500,000 to reinstate the cut scenes and synch the sound together and put music in - which is practically nothing. They'll make that back in the first week of video and DVD rentals.
K2K: The DVD is plain. There is nothing special on it.
JO: They don't have a clue of what a huge market there is for it. There's probably another hour and a half of interviews with Brandon that haven't been seen either. I was there, or right afterwards, where Brandon was in full costume and they did a full interview with him. It's where he's talking about all the action scenes and the gunplay. "I get shot fifty times in this next scene." They were like "We don't want anyone to see that since he got shot." So they have forbidden Brandon Lee interviews that are just sitting on a shelf somewhere. They are great because he says a lot of really philosophical elements throughout the thing. It's stupid. They don't think, "We'll never see another film from this guy." because he's gone. It's just sitting on the shelf somewhere. It's aggravating to me.
K2K: So, was there a religious reason for taking out the Crown of Thorns scene?
JO: No. It was the same thing. Nobody ever brought that up to me and the director was pretty keen on keeping the religious elements in it. They made sure that the church stayed there and stuff.
K2K: What did you think about the second film, "City Of Angels"?
JO: I thought the second film had a lot of possibilities. It looked beautiful, like a Renaissance painting with the dark browns and scarlet reds. Vincent Perez is actually an excellent actor but I think he was miscast. That was unfortunate because he gets the blame for ruining that film and he actually did a tremendous job for what he was given.
K2K: In the end, it just wasn't believable.
JO: It was a bad script. It was another first-time director and all of his flaws were evident. The pacing was off on it. It would have a nice action segment and then it would stop for ten minutes with exposition of talking and explaining what's going on. It was like, the material is not that deep. The audience knows what's happening. Ninety-nine percent of these people saw the first one and know what's going on. You don't need to explain it again.
K2K: What about the ending with all the crows coming down from the heavens?
JO: Yeah, yeah. I argued and argued about that. It was just pointless and plus, it was a cheap effect. They needed something big for the ending and here was this cheap $10,000 CGI effect that looked totally cheap.
K2K: The original idea that you had for The Crow, was that it? Was there never supposed to be any more?
JO: Well, I thought it would be possible for the crow to come back and bring somebody else back. This wasn't a one-time thing for Eric. There are possibly other things that are tragic and outrageous enough for a person to come back and avenge it.
K2K: In the third film ["Salvation"], we were talking about the helicopter where he explodes it, killing many innocent people.
JO: Yeah, and then he goes into a room and kills ten innocent cops? Bad writing. And what was the s*** with the fake arm? What really got me was that the killer convinces Eric that he did kill his girlfriend. What is the whole point of that?
K2K: And in the spirituality, he would have known the truth.
JO: Yeah, he would have known that he had nothing to do with it.
K2K: So, is this going to be released or not?
JO: It would be my guess that it is going to go straight to video. They released it in Europe last month, as a test to see how it would do, and it didn't do well at all. I think they're just going to dump it on video. They already got their $10 million, their money back in the European release. It will do well on video but I can't see them putting any more money behind it. If they have a decent release, it will probably be another $6 million in prints and advertising, unless they did selected screenings.
K2K: Will there be any more Crow movies?
JO: They had the rights to do three Crow movies with me and then they have to renegotiate it with me. I'm going to pursue an animated Crow film or perhaps a TV series. I think, with the films, the budget got smaller with each successive film. It started at $20 million, then went to $15 million and then to $10 million. I think the way to go, to expand it, is animation, where there is no limits to what you can do. With Batman, it shows you that you can do something decent with minimum amount of money and you're only restricted by your imagination on animation.
K2K: Did you like the Crow TV show?
JO: I saw the possibilities but I think that they didn't know where to go with it.
K2K: I thought it was better than the last two films.
JO: Well, I liked Mark Dacostas. I thought he had a lot of potential. Usually you have to wait until the second season before the cast and crew get their ledge, to know what direction to take it. They didn't get the chance to do that. There were some really good shows and some really bad show. It had a million and a half dollars per episode budget, shot in Vancouver, which is like $3 million U.S. currency.
K2K: Why wasn't Mark cast in the Crow movies?
JO: He was considered for the second one but I told them he looked too much like Brandon. I told them, "Everyone is going to think that you're trying to replace Brandon and they're going to hate you for it." They agreed and went with somebody else.
K2K: Do you still feel that way now?
JO: I thought it was far enough removed from the first film. Enough time had gone by that people wouldn't feel that way. When you're doing the sequel six months after the first film was released, I just wasn't into that at all. I only see greed as a reason to do a sequel so soon after Brandon's death.
K2K: What about further comic book issues?
JO: We're re-releasing the graphic novel as eight individual issues with new covers and two to six pages of new artwork per issue. It's finally going to be the way I wanted it to be.
K2K: About your artwork in the past - Some of it seemed choppy and some seemed well thought out.
JO: That was stretched out over ten years and I got better as time went on. When I first started out, I had done a lot of paintings and drawings and stuff but I wasn't that familiar with comics. There were things that I wanted to do but didn't know how to do back then. As time went by, I learned my own strengths and weaknesses and learned how to do things I wanted. It opened up for me. A lot of that stuff I'm going back and fixing now. There are going to be before and after pages in there where I've changed the scene around and added a few pages and fixed some anatomy. It's going to be like a Director's Cut. That's going to lead into a new Crow series that I'm writing and drawing.
K2K: Your art has become quite brilliant over the years.
JO: Thanks. I've been working really hard at it. Even though I haven't published a whole lot of stuff in the last three years, I have been working and doing things for myself and just practicing on things. I don't feel intimidated by a blank page anymore at all. I don't feel intimidated by the things I couldn't do before. It just seems wide open to me now. I'm excited about doing comics again.
K2K: Do you like doing color or just black and white?
JO: It depends on your subject matter. I always thought the Crow belonged in black and white. The first film was sort of washed out looking in monochromatic colors.
K2K: How would you describe The Crow, the original idea, in one word?
JO: Bitter.
K2K: I found that a lot of people who don't like to think called it horror whereas I saw it as a romance.
JO: Well, it was a romance story but it was anger at having lost romance. Basically, the first book was just one big, long scream about what had happened to me in life.
K2K: Currently, have you found anything to replace that with?
JO: Yeah, I'm finally happily married. It's actually like Brandon's death brought things full circle for me. It gave me the perspective that I couldn't find before. So something good did come out of it for me, at least.
K2K: What other projects are you working on right now?
JO: I did a series called "Zeitgeist", which is a story about two brothers who are immortal who have been trying to kill each other for the last thousand years over a woman. Northstar published the first three installments of it. That's something that I want to finish up this year. I have this book called "Gothic" that I've been working on for six years. It's a fully painted series. I have three hundred pages done on it and probably have another hundred to go. That's been my pet project for years and years.
K2K: Any movie projects out of those?
JO: "Gothic" has been optioned for a movie.
K2K: Are you worried?
JO: It's the same producer who did the Crow, so he's willing to let me supervise it. I'm working on storyboards for a science-fiction western called, "Kerosene & Mr. Joe", which has been a lot of fun to do.
K2K: Otherwise, have you and Ed Pressman and them all get along well?
JO: Not especially, no. They understand what I think is important to the fans, so they try to get me to endorse the stuff to the fans. But, I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to lie to the fans. If something is s***, I'm going to tell them. So that worries them sometimes. When I wouldn't endorse the second one, they got really, really upset with me. It's not a very amicable relationship.
With that, it was closing time at the Comic Con for the day and we were all herded out. We spoke again shortly after to clear up some issues regarding Brandon Lee's accidental shooting and about Ed Pressman and Buena Vista pushing James O'Barr as representing the two sequels. James made it very clear that the two films were not handled properly, nor with full respect, and he has nothing to do with them. The PR folks at both of the aforementioned institutions may like to advertise it so, but it isn't true. In regards to Brandon Lee, James shed some light on some new stories that were uncovered regarding nonunion workers having used the guns the night before the accident, leaving live bullets in the chamber which were not properly checkd and identified the next day. The accident could have been avoided in several different ways, which clearly shows an illegal amount of negligence all the way around. Now that the legal control of The Crow is back in the hands of its creator and visionary, we can expect some good things in the near future. As one of the moodier and inspired writers / artists of today, James O'Barr is the Edgar Allen Poe of our generation. He has given us a classic piece of work that will continue on for some time to come.
Click here for more about Brandon Lee
Written by Philip Anderson

Philip Anderson is a musician, in addition to being a writer/photographer. He has performed as a guitarist/vocalist, as well as songwriter, in several bands over the past 20 years. As a writer and photographer, he has been published by several magazines and in several books, and had his works appear on television.

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