Big Trouble in Little China was a box office bomb that was mostly panned by critics and is credited with souring John Carpenter on Hollywood. It’s also a cult classic unlike any other, an action comedy that’s endlessly quotable and eternally rewatchable for its most diehard fans. It’s a film made better over time by its flaws, especially the over-the-top performances, and its campiness has become so popular that even Dwayne Johnson wants to bring Jack Burton back.
But for all of Big Trouble in Little China’s afterlife as a cult classic, this was never the legacy that its original writers, Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein, expected for their first screenplay. They believed their idea, a kung fu Western set in 1890s San Francisco, had the potential to not only revive the once-beloved cowboy genre, which was all but dead in Hollywood in the early 1980s, but that it could have become a franchise on the same level as Star Wars. That’s a bold proclamation, sure, but it’s one that this writing duo still believes today. (And, in fact, their story has become something of a franchise, between the BOOM! Comics series, which serves as an immediate sequel to Carpenter’s film, and Johnson’s upcoming remake.)
Perhaps just as interesting as the story of David Lo Pan and his quest for immortality is the story behind the film’s script, one that features everything from aspiring writers with visions of glory to big shot studio executives bent on crushing the little man, with plenty of classic Hollywood politics in between. To tell this story, we spoke with Goldman and Weinstein, W.D. Richter, and Carpenter himself. And it all starts with a cowboy named Wiley Prescott.
You know what ol’ Wiley Prescott says at a time like this?
“The film it was closest to at that time, and this sounds maybe immodest, was Star Wars.”
Before he was the one liner-slinging driver of the Pork Chop Express, Jack Burton was a loner buffalo hunter named Wiley Prescott, a man employed by a railroad company to manage the Chinese immigrants tasked with the hard labor. The Goldman/Weinstein script began similarly to the big screen version, with the pistol-packing Prescott making a seemingly impossible bet with a worker named Sun over whether or not he could shoot the eyes out of a kite dancing way up in the sky. Sun takes Wiley’s bet thinking that there’s no way the cocky cowboy can hit the kite’s eyes, but of course he hits them with ease. Just as Wang Chi doesn’t have the cash to pay Jack, Sun admits to Wiley he’s short on funds – like, all the way short. So, Wiley is forced to accompany Sun on his trip to San Francisco to meet up with his bride, and that’s where all hell breaks loose once Wiley’s horse is stolen, and it’s revealed that the shooter isn’t all that sharp.
“Instead of a comical cowboy hero he’s a blowhard,” Goldman tells us of his story’s lead character. “He has real skills but he’s not this scary cowboy. And in the end, he’s just all talk.”
The main difference between John Carpenter’s film and the original screenplay is the change of setting. Jack Burton didn’t live in 1890s San Francisco. He became a modern man, a truck driver roaming the concrete plains and spouting his road warrior wisdom over his CB radio. By making this film contemporary, Jack became more of a comedic character, as he struggled to comprehend the mysticism that he encountered in his feud with Lo Pan and the eternal battle between the Wing Kong and Chang Sing. Wiley would have been more serious and the action would have been much more authentic.
“Once you make the story contemporary, that changes a lot,” Goldman says. “Our idea was that because it was set in the past it was more like Raiders of the Lost Ark, where the hero wasn’t as ridiculous because he didn’t need to be. Jack Burton is a truck driver who encounters Chinese magic, and by making it contemporary you had to turn it into, really, a full-on comedy. Whereas what we were doing, [was] really the same character and the same situations but because it was in the past he was a little bit more of a lighthearted adventurer. You had to make him savvier.”
Additionally, the original concept was meant to include elements of horror. Nothing about Big Trouble in Little China is scary. Lo Pan’s sorcery merely adds to the film’s comedic appeal, and even his “Sewer Monster” is sort of cute and cuddly in a weird way.
“The original [script] was a fantasy action movie with kung fu in it, which in those days was pretty original, with elements of horror with Lo Pan,” Weinstein explains. Like any aspiring writers they had huge ambitions for their debut project. Not only did they think they would revive the Western genre, but they thought they’d have the next big franchise on their hands.
“We felt like we were writing a brilliant movie that would be the next Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Goldman says. “It was a very unusual project, and it still is. There’s never been anything like it. So trying to do something unusual was a little bit of a risk, but we had great confidence that we could pull it off. Then we created a template for something new and wonderful that audiences would like it. We wanted to do a movie that would take this whole genre of Chinese fantasy and martial arts movies and make them accessible, re-do them with an American or Western sense of characterization and plotting, and bring that spirit as a new kind of influence into Hollywood filmmaking.”
The duo wanted to make an “American-type Jackie Chan movie,” which explains why Chan was originally the favorite for the role of Wang Chi. They also found inspiration in the Tong Wars of Chinatown, which, when combined with mysticism and kung fu, Goldman and Weinstein believed was on the same level creatively as another franchise that had captivated millions of moviegoers in previous years.
“The film it was closest to at that time, and this sounds maybe immodest, was Star Wars because the original script had a real sense of magic, mystery, and mythology,” Weinstein says. “And in a fantasy film, the trick for writers and the director and the actors is to make the people believe in the fantasy. The film that came out was very campy and the idea was to wink at the audience and say, well, this isn’t really happening. That creates a cult film, a cult classic. I have nothing against cult films or cult classics but we were going for a blockbuster tentpole movie that the studios were beginning to really want in those days.”
Goldman’s background at the time had been in documentary work, and his passion was for art films. He had no interest in “commercial Hollywood cinema,” but working for producer Larry Gordon taught him about the industry, and more importantly, he says, it put him in touch with a number of agents. Goldman and Weinstein sold the script to famed producer Paul Monash and real-estate-developer-turned-producer Keith Barish, who made an immediate impact in Hollywood with Sophie’s Choice. Strangely enough, the script ended up back with Goldman’s former boss, who had become the president of 20th Century Fox.
“I’m a reasonable guy. But, I’ve just experienced some very unreasonable things.”
“It’s like you guys hit a home run but they called off the game just before the ball soared over the fence.”
Larry Gordon has much to brag about in his career as a producer and studio exec, with his name appearing in the credits of many popular action films, including Die Hard, Predator, and Point Break. However, Big Trouble in Little China was not destined to be one of those blockbusters.
Goldman admits that when he and Weinstein were shopping their script, they didn’t send it to Gordon, his former boss, because they weren’t exactly on the best terms. More accurately, Gordon had fired Goldman. “Not for anything specifically that I had done,” Goldman recalls, explaining that they just didn’t click. However, he knew that his old boss would probably like the idea, which was evident when Gordon made the decision to buy the script and work with Monash and Barish. There was a “little bit of tension” in this situation, Goldman says, as the man who once fired him was now in charge of not only the studio, but this script that was the writing duo’s perceived blockbuster franchise. Interestingly, Gordon wanted to keep Big Trouble in Little China as a Western, and it might have happened if he’d landed his go-to director.
“He originally sent it to Walter Hill, who was a director he had worked with. He did his first three movies with Walter Hill — Hard Times, The Driver, and The Warriors,” Goldman says. “None of those were Westerns but Walter had done a number of Westerns in the meantime. So, he sent it to Walter but Walter didn’t want to do it. He didn’t seem himself directing a special effects movie, and together with that the fact that Westerns were now dangerous again. I think Larry felt that even if he liked the project it would need to be changed if he were going to take the risk of producing it. So, he put it out there to say: How do we fix this? How do we make this movie without it being a Western? W.D. Richter came in with a take he liked and they quickly did this rewrite. He adapted it to being a period picture to it being modern day.”
The process of changing Big Trouble in Little China went quickly. Once Richter’s fix was accepted and the director of The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension was hired to rewrite Big Trouble in Little China, Goldman says he and Weinstein were “entirely left out of the process.” They were offered the opportunity to make the changes, but they were adamant that their story had to be told in the Old West.
“We were emotionally invested in [the script] and the way we had written it and it’s possible that it would just sort of seem to us beyond our ability to do, to make it contemporary,” Goldman says of their decision at the time to stand their ground on the Western theme. “And the idea of changing the tone and making it camp probably would have been hard for us to imagine. I think that Richter did a good job of taking it in that direction. Once the decision was made to go in that direction, I think he did a good job of it.”
Weinstein remembers having some very important people on their side, which certainly would have made it easier for these rookies to stick up for Wiley and Sun.
“It was a huge hit when it went on the readers’ circle that they have in Hollywood, when agents send it out, and it got the highest readers report possible at 20th Century Fox,” he says. “As first time writers we wanted to see a successful movie at the box office and wanted good reviews. That’s what any writer would want. So, one of the fans of the screenplay said, ‘It’s like you guys hit a home run but they called off the game just before the ball soared over the fence.’ And so it was almost a success first time at bat and then they called off the game. That would be one metaphor.”
Among the fans that Weinstein recalls being fond of their script were Lee Rosenberg, an agent who called their idea “a monster,” and Australian director Fred Schepisi (The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith, Roxanne), who wanted to direct this unique Western, but ultimately chose another project. Joe Wizan, who was the head of 20th Century Fox’s motion picture division in 1983 and 1984, was told by his assistant at the time, a man named Harry Chottner, that the original Big Trouble in Little China script was “the kind of film you want to make,” according to Weinstein, who thinks that Hollywood politics had more to do with Gordon’s decisions than any other factor.
“Everybody relax, I’m here.”
“If you’re going to be a writer in Hollywood… you gotta expect at some point in your career you’re going to be re-written.”
Richter and Carpenter were classmates in USC’s graduate film program in the 1970s, but they weren’t exactly old buddies who were looking to reunite on an exciting new project. Instead, Richter convinced Gordon to let him try his idea of bringing Big Trouble in Little China to a contemporary setting, and then Carpenter was eventually brought in as the big name director. For Richter, this was a job, plain and simple, and he was always surprised that the original writers were so upset about Hollywood business-as-usual.
“Paul Monash, an amazing, legendary producer and writer, and Keith Barish, who was another producer, partnered on it and took that to Larry Gordon, who was president of Fox productions at the time, and Larry liked the concept,” Richter tells us. “In retrospect, what he really liked was the whole mystical underworld, and Monash and Barish and Weinstein and Goldman do a second draft and nobody liked it. I never read the first draft so I don’t know how radically different it was and I don’t know what their notes were, but they really didn’t like it and the two writers really did. That’s one of those classic splits where the writers don’t own it anymore even though it’s an original thing and the studio put the word out that they wanted to find somebody to rewrite it.”
Gordon referred to Richter’s plan to update Big Trouble in Little China as a “no-brainer,” and he then ordered a completely new script from Richter, not a rewrite, and that’s when the matter became contentious. Richter didn’t believe that he was writing an adaptation, because he had to “re-conceive almost everything beyond the original concept” in order to make the story contemporary. On top of that, he had to read a ton of books about Chinese history and mysticism because he knew nothing about those subjects. And the clock was ticking.
“They were in a hurry to get that script,” Richter explains. “I think it was because they wanted to know if they were going to make it or not, they don’t know if this is something they should be pushing under the back burner or not. There was great urgency that I get a first draft out and there was no way to Google all this mysticism and stuff, so I got a big pile of books and just started reading them. I think I read for two or three weeks and then I just had to start writing. I’m basically trying to cherry pick strange things that are out of Chinese mysticism that I’m not familiar with, figuring the audience wouldn’t be either, it wasn’t just typical stuff. The original script didn’t really go into it that deeply. I don’t think it was an interest of theirs so I had to fill it with specifics and read and write at the same time.”
Was it simply, as Richter tells it, the decision to move fast on an idea that the studio loved? Or was it a power move by a studio executive who wanted to remind the man he once fired that he was still in charge? Weinstein believes the latter, that there was something else in play at the time, and the studio was rushing a new script because Gordon wanted to completely erase the original writers from the project. He says that Goldman was “very diplomatic” when it came to their dealings, but from his perspective, this was a shrewd maneuver by Gordon. Even their one opportunity to remain on the film seemed all for naught.
“There was this one kind of weird meeting where we met with the executive of Larry Gordon, a guy named Larry Marks and we came in and we were told that he wasn’t too bad a guy and he looked at it and said, ‘You can stay on if you have a really big change that you want to put into your screenplay,’” Weinstein remembers. “It was like saying, okay, here’s a blade and you can do a hara-kiri here if you want in the office. We gave them some ideas but they weren’t big enough changes. Larry then put it out to screenwriters’ agents that he wanted ‘a big change.’ We used to call him Larry ‘A Big Change’ Gordon, but he was known to be a real writer killer.”
Richter, however, still wonders why they chose to stick to their guns, so to speak, when it should have been the obvious choice to tell the story in the present anyway. “I don’t want to say their’s wouldn’t have been watchable but my own instinct at that time was that the root concept was so interesting, why bother setting it in the past?” he asks. “First of all, it’s a much more complicated thing to have to make. You have to create 1890s San Francisco and I just finished Buckaroo and I know how hard it is to create a whole world and make it up out of thin air. And jeez, wouldn’t it be great to be able to point the camera at something that existed at a real location and worry about the content of the script and the performances rather than, ‘Do we have the right building behind us, do we have the money to make it look like it’s the 1890s?’ Why do that? You have to ask yourself, what’s the real advantage? It’s not a Western, it’s not a John Ford panoramic thing where you’re taking in the glory of the West and there’s some strange alien thing.”
Making things harder for Goldman and Weinstein: When production began on Big Trouble in Little China, people they knew still thought it was their film and were genuinely excited for them. Or they would meet people who had no clue that they wrote the movie. When they eventually got their hands on a copy of the new screenplay, their names were nowhere to be found. It simply read: “Written by W.D. Richter.” That didn’t sit well with them.
“At some point during that early period, David Weinstein called me at home and it was one of the two weirdest phone conversations I think I’ve had in my Hollywood career,” Richter says. “He came on really strong and said I had betrayed all writers everywhere just by agreeing to re-work the project. He insisted — this wasn’t just a chat — he told me I had to call up Fox and withdraw from the project. And he was really worked up. I mean, if you’re going to be a writer in Hollywood and sell your material to the system, you gotta expect at some point in your career you’re going to be re-written. Maybe justifiably, maybe not. It happened to me already and life goes on.” [Ed. note: While Richter originally identified Goldman as the caller, Goldman clarified that it was Weinstein who had called him.]
To his credit, Goldman looks back on the ordeal with a much more positive attitude. For starters, he says that shortly after he rewrote the sci-fi hit Total Recall, he and Gordon patched things up and they’ve been fine ever since. But he has also sweetened on Richter’s effort as the years have gone by, and realizes they reacted based on emotion.
“I could feel bad that it was changed. But, on the other hand, it was my first screenplay that I had written, other than a couple attempts that were totally self-indulgent, artistic, un-structured, student-type screenplays,” he says. “But this was really the first time I had tried to write anything after having worked with Larry and working the studio system and learned from reading 10,000 screenplays and what made a good screenplay. This was my first screenplay and we sold it and it was getting made. So, I was very happy. Disappointed and happy at the same time. In the meantime, [we] were now professional writers as a result of this screenplay. We were getting assignments and as a result of it getting made and going into production, our careers were going to be better. I was pretty happy about the whole thing but a little peeved that it wasn’t going according to my greatest wishes.”
Richter still recalls one bit of “hilarious” irony from Goldman’s reaction. When Goldman was brought on to rewrite the Total Recall script — succeeding Dan O’Bannon, who was another of Richter’s classmates at USC — he made one particular change to Michael Ironside’s bad guy, who met a very gruesome and memorable end. Specifically, his name became “Richter.”
“My mind and my spirit are going north and south.”
“Triads are real. They are real gangsters. You don’t want to fool around with them.”
Carpenter was hired to direct the film after Richter had already completed his rewrite, but the director loved the original concept. He loved everything he was working with, because he’d never had the chance to work on such a film before, and it excited him to pay tribute to the kung fu films of the ‘70s that inspired him.
“I read it and it was just delightful, it was crazy,” he tells us. “I found out later that it was originally a Western and had been rewritten into a modern day movie by a guy I went to film school with, Rick Richter. He’s a real quirky character and the script was very quirky and very strange. But what I loved about it was it was a chance for me to do a big-budget Hollywood kung fu movie, which I thought, wow, I haven’t seen that. So, that was the beginning.”
It was also the beginning of a troubled production process. For starters, just as Richter had been rushed to finish his new script, Carpenter was under added pressure to get the movie done quickly so it could beat a competing film, The Golden Child, to theaters. It also didn’t help that he had to deal with studio people interfering with his creative process, but he still ultimately praised Gordon in an otherwise unpleasant interview with United Press International published a week after the film was released.
“It was weird, I sat with the studio people and they said, ‘Well, can we cut that little scene out?’ They were trying to make it more serious and it’s not going to work but okay. So, I did it for them and then we had a preview and after the preview they said, ‘Well, can we put that stuff back in?’” he laughs. “We did. They expected something like Indiana Jones, that kind of movie. But they didn’t expect this kind of movie which was very different.”
Richter’s desire to incorporate as much real Chinese history and mysticism as possible was never a concern for Carpenter. When the director began production, he offered his old classmate some notes and made some minor changes to the script. As for the accuracy of magic, well, Carpenter put martial arts above magic and only focused on the aspects that could end up costing the studio dearly.
“I didn’t care so much about the reality of Chinese mythology because that didn’t matter,” he says. “It was kung fu movies that mattered, and they are a really unique kind of cinematic form. They are extremely innocent but incredibly violent. It’s hard to describe them. They’re really strange and they have all these odd-ball things that happen in them. They’re delightful. Actually, because Rick had included some names of real triads, real Chinese triads, we had to change the names because we were going to get sued. We had to make up a bunch of names. Triads are real. They are real gangsters. There’s nothing you can do about it, you don’t want to fool around with them.”
As for Carpenter’s inspiration, he wanted to pay homage to “all sorts of crazy-ass movies,” some more obscure than others. “Kung fu arrived in America in ’73, as I remember, with the movie called Five Fingers of Death, which was unbelievably funny, but just great,” he says. “I began to see a lot of kung fu movies and all sorts of really fascinating movies. The One-Armed Boxer who would walk by getting up on his fingers and tip-toeing, and there was Master of the Flying Guillotine. They had this amazing innocence to them, yet intensely violent. I loved it.”
Interestingly, Carpenter didn’t dislike the idea of Big Trouble in Little China being a Western, he just didn’t really have a say. He definitely understands why Goldman and Weinstein prefer their setting, but he also loves his movie and the way that he helped tell Richter’s story.
“It makes sense why it was back in the Old West, but I like the one we have now,” Carpenter says. “That’s the movie I like better. It was the whole feel of the movie. When it’s a Western it’s just a different feeling. It’s a totally different feeling. In some ways, I suppose, it’s a little easier to swallow the whole thing because it’s back in the Old West, but I didn’t really think about it after that. I thought, this is going to be fun.
“There were two ways we could do this movie — we could take it a lot more seriously or we could play it the way we’re going to play it, which is goofy and there are ghosts under Chinatown. I mean, c’mon, you can’t take that seriously.”
“Sooner or later I rub everybody the wrong way.”
“Writers are the lowest woman or man on the totem pole in Hollywood.”
In June of 1986, less than a week before Big Trouble in Little China would be released in theaters, Goldman and Weinstein were fighting the studio to have their names added to Carpenter’s finished product. They appealed to the Writer’s Guild and the case went to arbitration, ultimately being decided in their favor. But the process wasn’t without its headaches for the writers.
“It was terribly frustrating,” Goldman says. “When I look back now on it, I think, yes, it’s perfectly understandable that they wouldn’t want to talk to us because we were new and they probably didn’t want to talk to us because they knew we would be difficult. But I also think that it was a little strange, because we had written something really original and different and something that someone else couldn’t invent. It was really foolish of any director or producer to get involved in a project like this then think they don’t need to discuss it with the person who created it. Even if it’s just to be polite or to pick their brain and disregard what they say then go about and do what they want.”
“Writers are the lowest woman or man on the totem pole in Hollywood,” Weinstein adds. “There’s always the possibility of a screenplay being rewritten, severely rewritten, and you have no power to stop it. You have to be very political in Hollywood. The idea is to surround yourself with people you respect and who respect you. The greatest ally of a writer/screenwriter would be the director. We probably should have gone out and found our own director and then brought a package to the studio director and maybe a star. Then they’re less likely to make huge changes because they feel financially more comfortable that they’ll get their money back, then can have mentors and protectors.”
They finally received credits as the original writers and Richter was given credit for an adaptation. In pleading their case to the L.A. Times, Weinstein was the diplomatic one, telling the outlet: “We still think our script was more commercial and of better quality. But after seeing it, we’re basically happy. The basic concept of the movie we envisioned — a Chinese magic movie — still comes across well.”
Weinstein doesn’t remember saying that he was pleased with the film, however. Instead, he recalls a New York Times article in which Marks attributed the film’s story solely to Richter. Goldman called the reporter who wrote the article to set things straight, and it forced Marks to make up for it. “Gary, to his credit, called the journalist at the New York Times and said, ‘No, we wrote this and we’re hoping to get at least some credit,’” he says. “She called Larry Marks and she was, as a journalist should be, insulted that he basically lied to her and he was really embarrassed after that. So, he invited us to the premiere at the studio.”
Just as the L.A. Times article foreshadowed the poor critical response and box office performance, Weinstein recalls the reaction at the studio’s premiere for staff and friends: “After it was over you’re expecting clapping or whatever and it was just sort of stunned hush. I felt like I had just seen a train wreck, the feeling that most of the people at the studio felt the same way. I still feel that way when I see it, I’m watching the train wreck that unfortunately we’re in.”
Weinstein says that Gordon was still upset with the outcome of the arbitration and the producer didn’t let it go easily. “Gordon, for years was really angry at the Writer’s Guild for giving us credit and I talked to some people at the Guild and they’d often get calls from him, intimidating calls,” he says. “He was going to do this and that and they would just laugh at him. But it’s basically still our characters and story so he didn’t get away with murder, so maybe that’s the quasi-happy ending.”
“We really shook the pillars of Heaven, didn’t we, Wang?”
“People finally begin to see it differently than they did when it was released, which is great. I’m happy about that. It’s just a little late, but I’m still happy about it.”
Over the years, there’s been a theory that Buckaroo Banzai fans have attributed to Big Trouble in Little China, that Richter’s story served as a sort of unofficial sequel to his 1984 film. Richter calls the idea “nutty,” because for starters he didn’t write Buckaroo Banzai, he only directed it. But Goldman thinks the similar nature of the films is why Big Trouble in Little China never stood a chance at the box office.
“Richter had done this movie called Buckaroo Banzai, which is a great movie, I love it, but it’s a similar tone and that movie didn’t perform at the box office,” he says. “Basically, by redoing Big Trouble in Little China in the style of Buckaroo Banzai, I would say that’s responsible for why it didn’t perform well at the box office at the time. Now the way we had written it, which was kind of a period, halfway between Shanghai Noon and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, ours was a Western with an American white guy and a Chinese partner and it involved special effects and magic in greater quantity than Raiders of the Lost Ark, but kind of similar. We were trying to catch that on the upswing and take advantage of the fact that there was a great appetite for movies like that.”
Even as mad as the original writers were about being booted from the production, they didn’t enjoy seeing Carpenter’s film shredded by critics. There were a few who enjoyed the film, like Walter Goodman of the New York Times who called it an “upscale send-up,” but mostly it was negative. Weinstein admits that after reading a couple reviews, he couldn’t bear to read anymore. He knew it was going to be a “flop,” but he was still surprised that Fox pulled it from theaters so quickly.
“I remember we saw it in Westwood area,” he says. “They let you in, you show that you’re part of the film, we watched it again. Then six days later Fox completely pulled it from release, which is extraordinary. Even flops you let go two or three weeks now. I asked them, where can I bring some friends to see this movie? And the person said, sarcastically, ‘I think it might still be playing on Catalina Island. And if you buy an airline ticket you can see it in-flight. That’s kinda it.’ I think Gordon and his regime got their comeuppance. He got fired unceremoniously soon afterwards but I think a good part of it was Big Trouble, and also the way he treated people.”
A lot has been made about what the film’s failure meant to Carpenter, but today he focuses on what’s important, saying, “The audience liked it so what the hell. Anyways, I’m happy with it and that’s all I can say.” He does still blame the studio’s poor marketing efforts for the lousy box office performance, noting that he can’t change anything now. “It was very poor. Not enough money was spent on it. But what can I do about it? Nothing. Nothing. You can’t make them do anything.”
Over the years, Goldman has not only grown to love Carpenter’s film, but he’s made appearances with the cast to celebrate the film’s legacy and the impact that it had in opening doors and creating more opportunities for Asian-American actors, despite having never met Carpenter after 30 years. Both he and Weinstein accept that it is a cult classic, and they’re certainly happy about it, even if they still love their original idea. “In a way it’s a consolation prize,” Weinstein says. “I understand that our plot and characters are still there but it missed that Star Wars potential that we had in mind.”
They both lamented the film’s campy nature when they watched it 30 years ago, but now Goldman readily admits that if it wasn’t campy we’d probably have nothing at all. “The fact that they made it camp has a huge amount to do with why it’s become successful over time and it has found its audience,” he says. “I look back on it and our original vision was there and the audience has caught up with it. Honestly the movie now really is this offspring of our vision and Richter’s.”
Carpenter is certainly no stranger to cult status. “It’s always weird,” the director says. It has happened with plenty of his movies, and he mentions The Thing when looking back on his habit of creating fan-favorite films. “People finally begin to see it differently than they did when it was released, which is great. I’m happy about that. It’s just a little late, but I’m still happy about it.”
“I thought that the imagination in Big Trouble in Little China was immense,” Goldman adds. “Really, I’m still very proud of it. I expected it to be a big hit and I was surprised it wasn’t the big hit when it first came out. And as people get used to it and it has less to do with what’s hot at the time and what people are looking for at the time in terms of camp or not camp, Western or not, it was a wonderful, original vision and I think people still love it for that. You go see that movie and try to think of what else is like it, and there’s nothing else like it. It’s exploding with imagination.”
The reaction to the news of Johnson’s possible remake has been mixed but mostly negative, and the former WWE champ is aware of this. He appreciates the feedback, and has promised not to let fans down. But those diehard fans, as Richter tells us, don’t want to see someone else play Jack Burton, especially someone who looks like The Rock. Jack wasn’t a juiced up superhero-looking badass. He had a mullet and a mouth that was more dangerous than his boot knife. It’s worth asking, though – could the original story be told today?
“No way,” Goldman says. “It’s way too original and weird, it has nothing to do with quality, it has to do with the fact that nowadays, if it were written as a graphic novel, then it could get optioned and made into a movie. But as an original screenplay today? I can’t imagine anybody buying it. I felt lucky back then that producers and studios were open enough to new material that they took a chance on it. It was good, people liked it. 20th Century Fox wanted it, and then the next regime wanted it and then Larry Gordon and Barry Diller both liked it and wanted to take credit for it and have it be their baby. We had a new vision and we pulled it off. We got lucky and deserving that we did it well enough we were able to sell our original vision.”
This is an updated version of an article that originally ran in July 2016.