David Carradine, R. I. P. …and My Beginnings as a Screenwriter

This morning I was deeply saddened to learn that David Carradine has taken his own life in Bangkok, Thailand.

David was the star of the first film I ever wrote, “The Warrior and the Sorceress”. He was my first choice for the lead role. He was the son of the great actor John Carradine and brother to the brilliant actors Keith, Robert and Chris.

Pardon this sidebar, but David’s story relates to how my first screenwriting gig came about.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s I was drawing and painting tons of movie posters. I also created a lot of work in a related field known as “presentation art.”

Presentation art was created for movies that hadn’t yet been financed. Most of it followed this pattern: a producer would have an idea and title for a film. He would commission me to paint a fake movie poster. The art would visually express what the film was and how it would be sold to the public. The producer would take the art to the Cannes Film Festival or MiFed and on the basis of the film’s concept and my artwork, he’d line up financing for his movie.

Producer Sandy Howard and I would do this every year. Sandy would come to me with twelve high concept titles (not even scripts!). I would produce twelve pieces of art. Sandy would take both to Cannes and come back with the financing for twelve different movies.

An example of this was “Terror Train.” “Teenage girls terrorized on a train!” Sandy enthusiastically exclaimed. I painted a mini-poster of a teenage girl inside a train corridor being threatened by a menacing shadow of someone holding a big knife. Voila! The next thing I knew, it was a Jamie Lee Curtis movie!

I was approached by the low budget producer (and sometimes director) John C. Broderick about doing presentation art for a film version of the first Gor novel by John Norman. Actually, John wasn’t that specific. He just wanted to rip off the Gor concept (sword & sorcery mixed with T & A and S & M) and make it into a movie.

I misunderstood and heard “Gor” as “gore”. I told John I was intimately familiar with the sword & sorcery genre, especially as it related to gore (as I was a passionate fan of Robert E. Howard’s Conan books). Eventually I figured out John was talking about “Gor” (with which I was also familiar, although not a fan), not “gore” — but by that time I was already hip deep in the job.

Because of my enthusiasm and story suggestions, but primarily because John thought I was an expert on John Norman’s erotic world of Gor (which I wasn’t), John began to have me write the screenplay. John asked me if I had ever seen the Akira Kurosawa film, “Yojimbo”. I hadn’t. “How about ‘Fistful of Dollars’?” “Sure!” “Same movie.” John screened “Yojimbo” for me. Quite frankly, John wanted me to steal the story from “Yojimbo” and then layer it with as many sexy elements as possible from Norman’s Gor novels.

I had never written a screenplay. I didn’t know how long they were and was only the slightest bit aware of their format. I also didn’t type, so my screenplay (and each subsequent draft) was entirely written in longhand (back then there were screenplay typing services for guys like me)!

I wasn’t about to steal someone else’s story, so here is what I did. I watched “Yojimbo” and made story notes. Those notes gave me the length and structure. Once I had written that all out, I went back and changed every element that was distinctly “Yojimbo” to something else. I ended up with an almost completely different story that was the same length as “Yojimbo”. When I was finished it bore no relationship at all to that classic film.

Writing “Kain of Dark Planet” (my title) was hard — one of the hardest creative exercises I’d ever attempted. I would hone the script to what I thought was perfection. Then John would tear it apart and make me do a complete rewrite. It psychologically felt like I was flaying my own skin from my body. The screenplay went through about seven of these rewrites.

John took the finished screenplay and verbally pitched his version of it to Roger Corman. “Yojimbo!” blurted Roger, no slouch when it came to cinema history. “On another planet. Great!”

I didn’t hear anything from John for months. I did receive a phone call, however, from the head of publicity for Roger (I had been creating movie posters for Roger for films like “Up From the Depths” and “Rock ‘n’ Roll High School”). In the midst of catching up with each other I asked what films New World (Roger’s film company) had in the works. “Kain of Dark Planet” really caught my ear.

“Kain of Dark Planet?” I asked.

“Yeah; I’ve got the screenplay right here.”

“Do me a favor and turn to the front page.”

“Sure.”

“Please read it for me.”

“’Kain of Dark Planet’; Screenplay by John C. Broderick.”

“…and…?”

“No ‘and’…”

“My name’s not on that title page?”

“Nope.”

My next call was to my attorney, Henry Holmes. His next call was to Roger Corman.

Roger Corman may be tight with a buck but he’s an ethical guy. He immediately docked the pay of the director (John Broderick) and sent me the money in payment for my screenplay.

Roger had just made a film down in Argentina. The sets were still up so Roger called John Broderick and told him he could shoot “Kain of Dark Planet” using those sets. I think that Roger gave John a film budget of $80,000(!). Broderick based the rest of the production design on a series of presentation paintings I had done for the project.

Shortly thereafter, I received a frantic call from Argentina. It was John. I asked him why on earth he had taken my name off the screenplay.

“It’s easier to sell a script if there’s only one name on it,” he lied. I just laughed. His reasons for calling were to smooth things over between us but mainly because he didn’t want to share screenplay or story credit with me. He thought he could talk me out of it. His ego demanded that the film credit read “Written & Directed by John C. Broderick.”

Welcome to Show Biz.

I was sorry this had happened. I really liked John. I learned a lot from him about screenwriting. John turned me on to Kurosawa’s films. He introduced me to the man who brought Godzilla to these shores, old time showman Harry Rybnick. During my gig writing “Kain of Dark Planet” we wrote other stuff together: “Galaxy of Terror” and “Time Gate” (also uncredited). It was quite an education in The Biz.

When the film came out in 1984, Roger had re-titled it “Warrior and the Sorceress”, even though there was no sorceress in the film! It was re-titled that way so that New World could have a sexy sorceress in the ads and on the movie poster. John Broderick had wanted to cast his old friend Gary Lockwood in the lead but Roger gave John my first choice, David Carradine, to play Kain the Warrior.

About that name…

Some people assume I called David’s character “Kain” because David played “Caine” in the “Kung Fu” TV series. Not so. To this day I have never seen a single episode of “Kung Fu.” “Kung Fu” came out at a time when I wasn’t watching any television (except to view old movies late at night). I was aware of it and its impact on pop culture — one would have to be deaf, dumb and blind not to be. It’s just that I was fresh out of art school and was much too busy trying to make it as a freelancer to watch network TV shows. I had admired David for his work in the films like “Q”, “The Long Riders”, “Death Race 2000” and “The Long Goodbye.” The Kain name was sheer coincidence.

I was horrified when I saw the film at the World Theater (“3 Films for 99¢!”) in Hollywood. John had taken most of my original ideas as well as the dialogue on which I had worked so hard and jettisoned them. He went right back to aping “Yojimbo.” The movie came off as a complete plagiarism.

There is still some confusion as to my writing credit. IMDB does not have me listed as the writer. An early print of the film was missing my credit. Subsequent prints, videos and the cable & TV versions all have my writing credit. The credit helped me to become a member of the Writers Guild of America West.

Years later, David Carradine tracked me down at San Diego’s Comic-Con and asked me to write a sequel to “Warrior and the Sorceress”. I remember being shocked by his deep, gravelly voice (I assume it was in practice for a role since his voice subsequently returned to normal). I also felt deeply honored. I’m sorry I didn’t follow through on that request. I think two factors discouraged me from writing the sequel.

One, I was worried I couldn’t deliver a script worthy of David. I’m pretty damn confident about my art (on my good days) but I still have doubts regarding my writing abilities. I set the same high standards for my writing as I do for my art. I might also have been really busy at the time, which is likely.

Two, I was concerned that if I wrote this on my own that I might (ironically) be sued by John Broderick, with whom I shared screenplay credit on the original.

So I didn’t do it. In retrospect, I think I should have, just to have had the experience of working with David.

The last time I spoke with David was just a couple of years ago. We were both guests at a convention back east. After the convention we shared a limo ride back to the airport. I reminded him who I was and that he had starred in the first screenplay I ever wrote. David lit up and regaled me with tales of the making of that production for the entire ride to the airport. His stories were both funny and insightful, told by one of the world’s great raconteurs.

I have had other Carradine connections besides David. I worked with David’s brother Chris at Walt Disney Imagineering. Chris is perhaps the finest actor of the Carradine brothers (he convinced an entire corporation — and Michael Eisner — that he was an architect!). Chris is quite the dazzling showman. Although because of my film biz background (and my inner bullshit detector) I always saw right through his dramatic presentations, I nevertheless marveled at how Chris pulled them off, convincing the rest of the room that they had just seen something deep and fantastic. In the conversations I had with Chris about his family, Chris’ edge softened and he became another man. He obviously was very proud of his dad and brothers’ acting accomplishments…and rightfully so.

My brother John had many conversations with John Carradine when he would run into him at Carradine’s favorite Ventura County watering hole. Being a monster fan I, of course, love John Carradine’s performances in the many horror films (“Invisible Man”, “Bride of Frankenstein”, House of Frankenstein”, “House of Dracula”, etc.) of his career. I think my favorite performance of his, however, was his haunted portrayal of Casy in the non-genre classic (although a horror film in its own way), “The Grapes of Wrath”.

Thank you, Quentin Tarantino, for giving David’s career a lift (with “Kill Bill”) just when he needed it and reminding the world of David’s enormous acting talent (the guy had the lead in a Bergman film, for chrissake!).

I’m going to miss seeing David at conventions. I’m also going to miss the many fine performances I know he still had left in him.

Goodbye, Grasshopper.

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