JAMES O'BARR'S THE CROW
I wrote the Production Notes below for a press kit I put together in 2000. It was part exercise and partly to send along with VHS copies of the movie to the bands whose music was used for the soundtrack, asking their blessing. The plan was to build a website and offer tapes of the film to interested fans of the graphic novel--at cost. You can download a PDF of that 20-page press kit here.
The website was built; but just before it launched, I received a letter from Crowvision, Inc. counsel saying I had to cease and desist all said activities. I was more than a little bummed--especially because I'd put a lot of care and creativity into the website, as well as having digitally remastered the movie and making a 30 minute behind the scenes documentary on to share.
An expanded version of the documentary (INERTIA: RE-MAKING THE CROW) premiered at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival on February 15, 2002.
On Halloween 2018, in observance of the 20th Anniversary of this adaptation of James O'Barr's indelible graphic novel, I hosted a "clip-show" comprised of the times we've talked about The Crow on the Long Walk Short Drink podcast.
Since posting the podcast, I discovered this 11-page proposal from 2003 for an online CrowFan Film Site, which was being seriously considered by PressmanFilm Corp. in the early aughts. I had forgotten, but it turns out the reason I re-scored the movie to John Bergin's Trust Obey music in 2001 was because of the possibility of streaming the adaptation on this website--with the copyright holder's permission. That never ended up happening, but I did get some nice encouragement along the way.
JAMES O’BARR’S THE CROW tells the story of a young man who, a year after his own tragic, death rises from his grave to seek vengeance for the brutal murder of his fiancée. Through painful flashbacks, he relives their deaths and remembers their life together. Then, donning a sinister mime-like visage, he stalks the murky alleyways and rain-slicked city streets, determined to exact a terrible and bloody revenge upon the gang that killed them.
Starring a cast of talented unknowns, including the directing/producing team of David Ullman and Matt Jackson in the lead roles, this is THE CROW that fans have always hoped to see. For them, Ullman and Jackson have created the most faithful screen adaptation to date of artist James O’Barr’s gothic masterpiece.
A near panel-for-panel re-creation of the once underground comic book, JAMES O’BARR’S THE CROW is a product of IN-D FILMS, the combined effort of up and coming filmmakers David Ullman and Matt Jackson. Formed just prior to the completion of their first cut of THE CROW, IN-D FILMS was the new name chosen by Ullman and Jackson to represent this and future collaborations. In the years preceding their work on THE CROW, the two young men worked together on several original projects under the moniker SKYLARK PRODUCTIONS (Watchful Eyes, A Dying Breed).
In addition to starring in the movie, Ullman and Jackson wore many hats behind the scenes. “A crew there never really was,” Ullman states. “It was just myself and Matt. That was the crew.” With Ullman often in front of the camera playing the lead role of Eric, Jackson found himself framing and composing most of the shots, a task he quite enjoyed. "I really got into it,” he says. “Actually, most of the shots came from the comic book which we used as our script.” Jackson will be the first to tell you, though, that it was Ullman who would most readily assume the various positions they needed to be filled in lieu of their non-existent crew. “I knew it was his thing. He was more serious about it than I was, so at times I’d step back.”
It’s interesting to note, however, that it was only at Jackson’s urging that the project was undertaken. A week or so after they attended two opening weekend screenings of Miramax’s stunning film adaptation of THE CROW, starring the late Brandon Lee, Jackson convinced his partner that their next project should be a remake of THE CROW. Ullman was skeptical at first about remaking a movie with such dark themes and extreme settings, but after reading James O’Barr’s comic, he was inspired to collaborate with Jackson on a new, more literal adaptation of O’Barr’s haunting work.
“There’s this aura to the book,” Ullman begins. “When you look at it, you feel something. There is blood on the page and you can sense that. It’s very affecting. I think they captured that beautifully in the Miramax film, and it was our intention at first to make a hybrid of the existing movie and the comic book. But the more serious we became about the project in general, the more we wanted to really delve into the book, explore its themes and characters, create something more our own.”
With the decision made to go ahead with the project, the young filmmakers began approaching friends and family about appearing in the movie. “We were not in a position to hire professional actors. Matt and I assumed two of the larger roles and, fortunately, being still in high school at that time we had a student body to draw from as well.” First stop: the drama club, where they found their Fun Boy (Corey Steele) and T-Bird (Ken Starcher), as well as other supporting players. This proved to be a wise move. Fun Boy and T-Bird were the most demanding parts being portrayed by persons not otherwise involved in making the movie.
“When I first caught wind that David Ullman wanted to do THE CROW, I thought ‘OK, this’ll be just another stupid, throw-it-together high school flick’.” Starcher said. “But as time went on and people I knew had gotten involved, and I learned more about David Ullman, started talking to David Ullman; I really wanted to be in THE CROW. I wanted as big a part as I could get. And, because of my previous acting experience, David could say to me ‘this is what I want’ and I would understand it.”
In his attempt to best portray the complex and deranged Eric, Ullman began reading books on Method Acting. “I started to grasp what an inspired and interesting character Eric was, and I became very interested in doing the best job I could. Brandon Lee’s performance and approach inspired me immeasurably. In fact, for the first month of production, I was doing little more than mimicking his work. But once I recognized that, and we started to focus more on the book, I began searching for a more personal interpretation of Eric.”
During this time it was obvious to those around him that Ullman had slipped a little too far into the skin of a very morose character. “There was a period where, probably on purpose, I really let it affect me,” he said. “Playing this character became an outlet for some pain I was going through at the time in real life. I was dealing with some heartache over an unrequited love so I could identify with Eric’s feelings of loss and longing, and also anger. Plus, I was really going for this Method Acting thing. I think I thought it was cool. It wasn’t trivial to me at the time. I couldn’t be a basket case on the set. I had to keep the production together, but I let myself be a basket case in other areas of my life. The movie was an easy scapegoat for the troubles I was having in real life. I would blame my behavior on the stress of making the movie. But people were kind of on to that, and on to this little self-indulgent kick that I was on. At that time, though, it was something that was pretty real for me. But, there also came a time when I had to let go and stop trying to live that stupid ‘tortured artist’ thing and just do the work.”
About The Production
JAMES O’BARR’S THE CROW began shooting on June 11th 1994, not one month after David Ullman and Matt Jackson saw the premiere of the Miramax/Brandon Lee film. The young filmmakers were so inspired by the movie that much of their early footage resembled the Miramax adaptation far more than the O’Barr comic.
“Our original intent was to do it from the comic book,” Jackson recalls, “but we were also taking scenes from the movie that we thought were cool. We tried doing a rooftop running scene that looked terrible. We completely re-created Gideon’s. We did a lot from the movie that we ended up cutting out or re-filming.”
Ullman concurs: “In the beginning, we did veer more towards re-doing the Miramax version. But, after a certain point, we really began to focus on the comic. The comic was our script. We took a few liberties here and there for narrative purposes, and there were a few things that, with our very meager budget, we simply could not do, but in spirit, and largely in content as well, our movie is the comic.”
The filmmakers went to great lengths in their attempts to recreate the world that O’Barr depicts in THE CROW. Only 14 years old when they began the project, Ullman and Jackson had very few resources, and even fewer funds, at their disposal. Ullman says it was evident very early on that there would need to be some sets created for a project of this stature.
“We were used to making movies in and around our homes. So when it came time to construct sets, my basement was quickly drafted as the room we would time and again dress up according to the various indoor locations called for in the book.”
So prior to production Ullman, with the help of his family, cleaned out the cluttered basement of their Ohio home, a task that turned out to be quite an undertaking, because for years the Ullman basement had served as a junk room of sorts, a place where the family kept all the things they had no place else to put. But after a few full days spent cleaning, there was ample room in which to construct sets.
The first of these to be built was the Gin Mill, the bar where Eric confronts a dozen or so of T-Bird’s gang members, whom he quickly dispatches in a particularly gruesome gun battle. With absolutely no prior experience in woodworking, Ullman and Jackson managed to create a suitable bar for the scene in the confines of the Ullmans’ basement using only found wood from their equally cluttered attic.
Other sets constructed in the basement were Top Dollar’s lair, Fun Boy’s Bedroom, and T-Bird’s kitchen, each making use of the same two corners. “It was somewhat constricting” Ullman remembers, “but it forced us to be creative.”
“And,” Jackson adds “it was fun to make one little room into so many different sets. One day it was Fun Boy’s room, the next day we’d have a bar up, then it’d be the kitchen of T-Bird’s house… But, actually, my most vivid memory from making the movie was making Gideon’s Pawn in my basement.
“The basement of my family’s house had a mini-bar. There was so much stuff, family-wise, decorations, and things, on this counter by these cupboards. But to do this scene we had to take everything off, the microwave, all the decorations, and stuff and replace it with the pawnshop props. It was such an ordeal and by the end of the day the place would be covered in blood, covered in detergent (which was supposed to be gasoline), and my dad was so pissed off. During the making of this movie, I think my family turned on me for a very long time.”
When their comic-book-script called for outdoor locations, Ullman and Jackson utilized the more urban portions in their hometown of Rittman, Ohio, to convey the grittiness of O'Barr's asphalt apocalypse. "O'Barr was almost documentarian in his portrayal of Detroit as it was in the early eighties," Ullman says. "The buildings, the street names, even the nicknames of the villains all existed at one time. We shot our exteriors in the parts of Rittman that most resembled the architecture and style of O'Barr's Detroit. Largely this meant shooting in and around the factories that provide jobs for much of the city's scant population."
Even with written consent from the property owners and prior notification given to the local dispatch operator, police officers would regularly interrupt shooting to inquire about what was going on. "The problem with shooting a no-budget feature on location is the simple fact that you're not on a set,” Jackson says. “You're also not 'on location' in the same respect that bigger budget films are where there's a crew, lights, and equipment. You're just in some public place where people think you're really arguing or fighting. They don't know what's going on. They might not even see the camera. They just see two people fighting. So they're calling the cops. Cops are coming and talking to us. We talked to so many cops! The biggest issue is that we had to deal with people who didn't know what was going on. People hassling us, bothering us, people driving past, things like that."
While much of the location work for JAMES O'BARR'S THE CROW was done on a shoot and run basis, there were scenes that required more than one day at a particular location. The most often visited site was a stretch of country road where the murder of Eric and Shelly was to have taken place.
"During that scene, we never had more than one actor there at the same time," Ullman explains. "I had to shoot most of that scene one-on-one with whichever actor I could get on a given evening, and bring them together later in the editing. It was sort of tricky, but it worked out well in the finished product.
"When Matt and I were shooting my part of that scene (you know, where Eric has been shot in the head and he's just lying, bleeding, on the road,) people were stopping their cars to see if I was all right. Matt would just flash the camera and wave them past."
Another frequented location was a condemned house, on the edge of town that was used by the filmmakers for the exteriors of Eric & Shelly's abandoned home. In the book, before offing the last few gang members responsible for his fiancée’s death, Eric sets fire to the remnants of their home, burning with it all that remained of his former life. When Ullman discovered, through a friend involved in the fire department, that a local house was to be burned down for practice, he seized upon the opportunity to incorporate it in the movie.
In order to firmly establish the building as the doomed lovers’ abode, exterior shots of the house were filmed prior to its burning, as well a scene in which Ullman enters through the basement and begins climbing the stairwell to the attic. This scene had to be shot, not only at night, in a removed and unlit portion of land, but in the rain. This put a damper on Ullman's plan to light the action with the headlights of his car.
“We needed light and there was no light at all. So I drove my car around back with hopes of using the headlights for our lighting. But because it was raining, which it needed to be in the scene, the car got stuck in the mud. The sequence also called for me to fall in a nearby creek and subsequently shed my wet burial clothes. So it’s forty degrees outside, and I’m wet and half-naked, trying to push my car out of the mud! We ended up walking home, completely covered in mud, and having to get the car towed. But, if you discount the tow fee, that location and its on-camera demolition were one hundred percent free.”
That was not the first time Ullman finished a night’s work covered in mud. For the movie’s opening scene, in which his character rises from the grave, he had to be buried alive. “We dug a big hole,” Jackson says “but not quite big enough for him to lay in without crunching himself up into some sort of ball. Then we actually buried him in the dirt with sort of a mock, half-coffin lid over top of him. He did have a snorkel at some point so that he could breathe a little bit of air, which I would plug up from time to time to piss him off. We actually pulled it off, surprisingly well, just by burying him with that lid over top of him and showing it from the right angles.”
JAMES O'BARR'S THE CROW shot for five months in 1994, before closing down due to lack of participation. “There’s a great big massacre at the end of the book,” Jackson said “where all the remaining bad guys come to confront Eric and he kills all of them except for T-Bird. And we were going to film as much of this as we could.” Ullman handed out thirty-five fliers inviting people to come be part of the scene, which was to take place behind their high school on a Saturday night. Of the thirty-five, thirty of the people said they’d be there. Only one showed up.
"Perhaps the most evident disadvantage of using friends in the movie was their lack of commitment to the project," Ullman said. “We had that scene all worked out. And when such a magnitude of people didn’t show up for something that we’d put so much planning into, we just decided to hang it up.”
“I could understand people not wanting to do it,” said Jackson. “But the fact that they told us they would. They said ‘Ok, I’ll be there at this time,’ and they just wouldn’t, for no good reason. It happened every other night throughout the making of the movie, but when it came down to that big night it was so bad that it was almost worth quitting for.”
Production closed down for two months to give the filmmakers a much-needed break from the stress of such a demanding project. When principal photography resumed in January of 1995 it was with a renewed sense of purpose and dedication to completing the movie. “We shot for six more months and wrapped on the one-year anniversary of our first day of shooting,” Ullman said. “I then spent the remainder of summer editing between two VCRs, and that fall we held a cast-screening and made the movie available to our high school, which consisted of about 300 people.”
“We made a bunch of 8 ½ by 11 posters and put them up all over the school,” Jackson recalls. “A lot of people who bought it were friends of ours who were probably in the movie at some point in time or knew we were doing it and wanted to see how it turned out. Other people saw the posters and got interested, they’d talked to people who talked to us about it, and they’d decide to buy one. I think we sold them for $5.00 apiece, and, amazingly enough, fifty people bought our movie.”
In the months that followed Ullman became increasingly dissatisfied with their finished product. “I started to dislike a lot of things here and there and I watched it a bunch of times, making extensive notes on what I wanted to be cut out, re-shot, or added. And, at my behest, in January or February of ‘96, we again resumed production.”
This decision, largely Ullman’s, was met with disinterest on Jackson’s part. “I was satisfied with the first version. I thought we did an excellent job. It was better than most could do. It was better than I thought it would be. We had music, it was shot well, in black and white; which was kind of different… I was impressed with it and surprised that Dave wanted to actually go back and fix it. So I remained involved, but not nearly as much as before. I just gradually did less and less. I no longer had the time or interest. I was done with it, ready for something else, a change.”
Ullman, however, was determined to re-shape their movie into something bigger, better, and more in-step with O’Barr’s original vision. Though it would ultimately take him two more years of shooting, researching, and editing to complete JAMES O’BARR’S THE CROW, he remained focussed and inspired. “It became my baby. I saw something in it or felt there were enough good things about it to warrant its completion. I had higher and higher aspirations for how good I wanted it to be. I approached it one scene at a time, one shot at a time and one element at a time to ensure that the finished piece was the best work that my limited capabilities and resources could yield.
“I had never before considered myself a patient person. But I think I learned a measure of patience doing this. I gained the ability to look beyond just the here-and-now and to say ‘Well maybe I can’t film this tomorrow or the next week, but sometime, somehow, I can get this and get it good or I can do it again and get it better and ultimately get what I want’.”