Tuesday, 16 June 2020

The Kill Bill Diary

It could have been so different, as David Carradine reminds us in the second entry of his 2004 memoir The Kill Bill Diary. It's March 2002 and for the past year Warren Beatty has been courted by Quentin Tarantino to the play the part of Bill. The 65 year old Beatty however has grown increasingly weary of the amount of time and effort the part requires, and when Tarantino suggests Beatty play Bill "like David Carradine", a fed up Beatty shoots back with "Why don't you offer it to David ?" Two weeks later Carradine along with his fellow Deadly Viper Squad of actors are in the thick of a grueling month-long, pre-shoot training regime learning martial arts and wire work under the tutelage of Yuen Wu Ping. And Carradine is enjoying every moment of it. 

Written in a breezy, unpretentious style, The Kill Bill Diary is an interesting, sometimes fascinating account of David Carradine’s unlikely late career bump up to the A-list movie-making league after two decades worth of straight to video crap. Carradine’s reputation rests mostly on his 70's work, having made films for Martin Scorsese, Roger Corman, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, Walter Hill and lest we forget Ingmar Bergman, plus he created a television icon as Caine, the wandering Shaolin monk in Kung Fu. But as the 80’s wore on Carradine’s increasingly erratic lifestyle reduced him to the status of jobbing actor taking fast pay checks for exploitation quickies. Carradine’s book doesn't rake over the ashes of the years spent languishing in the margins; he’s more content to spin a yarn about making Bound for Glory or The Long Riders, but what emerges most strongly from the diaries is Carradine's joy at finally landing the big fish (and director) he has been waiting for his entire career. 

David Carradine in a scene deleted from Kill Bill Vol. 2

Those looking for a detailed look at the making of Kill Bill will be disappointed. Carradine has little interest in recording the nuts and bolts of film-making and perhaps to bolster that aspect of the book, he lazily borrows two set reports written by Harry Knowles. The focus instead is on Carradine's interactions with his fellow actors (he's especially generous in his praise for Uma Thurman and Michael Madsen) and his collaboration with Quentin Tarantino, here displaying a Wellesian level of energy and enthusiasm on set, inventing dialogue and scenes moments before they are shot. One peripheral but noteworthy character in the book is Rob Moses, whom Carradine describes as his "personal trainer and guitar buddy". Their twenty-year friendship was one of the more important relationships in Carradine's life and the actor had come to rely on him, so much so that he endeavored to get Moses attached to the production and served as Carradine's driver to and from locations. I had to wonder if Tarantino took some inspiration from this when writing Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

Carradine steers clear of gossip and controversy for the most part, but there are a few grumbles of complaint along the way. Carradine is candid about his perilous finances (a string of ex wives and a taste for the good life will do that) and moans that his fee for the film was strictly scale (as was the rest of the cast) and the lengthy shoot resulted in him turning down several film offers and lucrative work on the convention circuit signing autographs (I presume the diary was Carradine's idea to squeeze a little extra revenue out of the film). Carradine records his irritation with Miramax for reprimanding the actor for various faux pas made during the film's promotional campaign - most seriously, when Carradine prematurely announced to a journalist that the original film would be split in two. Incidentally, Harvey Weinstein makes a few cameo appearances in the book, and is an intimating presence. Carradine refers to him at him at one point as a "master of the universe", (a seemingly complimentary but perhaps a knowingly ambiguous description), and admits "Harvey's not someone you want to be mad at you". Elsewhere Carradine writes: "Harvey showed up with a young actress in whom he is showing an interest" which prompts a shudder.

As I came to the end of The Kill Bill Diary, I felt a touch of sadness that Carradine never benefited from his change of fortune. As Carradine closes out his work on the film, with a whirlwind of globe-trotting promotion, Carradine is optimistic that better roles in bigger films were to come following his acclaimed performance in Kill Bill Vol. 2. But despite the prestige of appearing as the titular character in a Quentin Tarantino film, Carradine never did escape the low-budget film circuit where he continued to work until he was found dead in a Bangkok hotel room in 2009 in what is best described as strange circumstances.

In preparation for reading the book, I watched Kill Bill Vol 1 and 2 back to back, and it was interesting to revisit them in one single sitting. In fact this was my first time seeing the films together, strange considering I've owned the Japanese DVDs since 2004. Probably I was holding off for a release of the long rumored Whole Bloody Affair edition which has had a few select theatrical screenings but has yet to emerge on home video. But now that I’ve seen both films together, I have to wonder though how they ever knitted together in the first place, considering how distinctive both films are from each other - Vol 1, the fast, flashy, psychedelic blood feast, and Vol 2. the languid, introspective character study. 

I suspect Quentin Tarantino had originally envisioned Kill Bill as a big take-the-day-off-work roadshow event a 4-hour magnum opus deserves, but eventually conceded that the epic length was too demanding for theatrical audiences. And to retain as much of his director's cut as possible, he was forced to split the film into two easily digestible halves. I now think that this was the best thing for the film, not because it breaks up the excessive run time, but because the story (assuming it follows the structure of Vol.1 and 2), no longer peaks much too early with the House of Blue Leaves massacre. I wonder had the original 4-hour version come out in 2003 would audiences have criticized the film for the quite drastic shift in tone from the stylish pyrotechnics of the first half to the comparatively quiet and reflective second half ? We'll never know. Almost 20-years later, it's impossible to think of Quentin Tarantino's fourth film as anything but his fourth and fifth and even if the Whole Bloody Affair does eventually get a home video or streamed release, it will surely be seen as a novelty item much like The Godfather Saga...

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