Combustible Celluloid

Interview with David Carradine

Wild 'Bill'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Buy David Carradine Movies

Note: Since I interviewed David Carradine in 2004, his filmography had swelled to well past 200 films and TV shows. He was found dead in a Bangkok hotel room June 4, 2009. He was 72.

Say what you will about them, but the Carradine family is not afraid to work. Actor John Carradine (1906-1988) reportedly appeared in some 500 movies, including Stagecoach and The Grapes of Wrath. John's eldest son David is on his way there, having been involved in nearly 150 movies and TV shows.

When volume one of Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill debuted in theaters last October, its title character was hardly to be seen, only appearing in voiceover or in cryptic shots of hands gripping a magnificent samurai sword. The new Kill Bill - Vol. 2, which opens Friday, is different. This time, Bill runs the show. And we get to see a new, cool, confident Carradine not evident since the 1970s.

Born in 1936, Carradine attended San Francisco State College, just before it became the State University. He switched from a music major to a theater major because "that's where all the girls were." He made his movie debut in 1964, and within two years was playing the title character on the "Shane" TV series. In 1972 he landed a job working with a young director called Martin Scorsese making his first big film, Boxcar Bertha. In the same year, he got the job playing Caine on the TV series "Kung Fu."

A hot property, he jumped from top-notch "B" pictures like Death Race 2000 and Cannonball to high-profile pictures like the Oscar-nominated Woody Guthrie biopic Bound for Glory and Ingmar Bergman's English-language The Serpent's Egg.

But during the 80s and 90s, Carradine's star fell. He worked steadily, but in low-budget films that either went straight to TV or video or drew little attention.

Cue Quentin Tarantino, who has a knack for catching falling stars and has thus far resurrected the careers of John Travolta, Pam Grier and Robert Forster, not to mention giving work to one-of-a-kind character actors like Laurence Tierney, Sid Haig and Michael Parks.

Today Carradine has dropped by his old stomping grounds, San Francisco, looking very much like Bill. His shaggy, silver shoulder-length hair is parted just the way it was in the movie, his fingers come adorned with thick, heavy rings and his black suit hints at a western style. The full effect gives him a vaguely sinister look, which is belied by his warm, open conversational skills. He complains of an ear problem, one that affects both his hearing and his balance. He's still in good humor, though, producing a pack of Tropical Life-Savers and offering the treats all around. "They got mangos in here," he says, amazed. "You never know what you're going to get next."

In Kill Bill - Vol. 2, the Bride (Uma Thurman) has it on her mind to kill three people, after having killed two in the first film. Her targets are: Budd (Michael Madsen), Elle Driver (Daryl Hannah) and Bill (Carradine). She's doing it because they tried to kill her, and they tried to kill her because she ran out on them.

Carradine utters at least three amazing speeches during this second film, one about a mystical kung-fu move that can make a man's heart explode, one about a goldfish and one about Superman. Sometimes, he's given bits of "business" to do, such as building a sandwich and cutting the crusts off, while he's talking.

Combustible Celluloid: How do you approach speeches like these?

David Carradine: The first thing is to get it down. Quentin has worked on this script for 2-3 years. He has changed every 'if,' 'and' and 'but' four or five times and he's got it to a point that he considers it perfection. That's exactly how you must do it. So I studied it very carefully like I would Shakespeare. I know this sounds a little funny, but in his own way, Quentin's not far away from Shakespeare. The way that he treats things, the way that he looks inside people, and the godlike stature of everybody in this movie. Part of the thing that I think Quentin's talking about, part of the samurai thing, and the Spaghetti Western thing and the gangster thing and the Chinese kung-fu thing, is that betrayal cannot be forgiven. It has to be paid off. It doesn't matter how much love there is between these two people -- and there's a lot of love -- but when I shot her in the head, she betrayed me. And that's all. Somebody asked me how I like being the bad guy, and I thought, 'what are you talking about?' This is a Quentin Tarantino movie. They're all bad and they're all good. You love them all. And none of them are pussies. Nobody's chicken. I love that about his stuff.

CC: He's very good at letting characters have a lot of time to think about stuff and talk about stuff...

DC: I wish he'd given it more time. I wish he'd said, 'screw it. I'm gonna make a 2-1/2 hour movie here.' Nobody would have walked out. But he felt his obligation was to give you a shorter movie and still a long movie. He keeps saying it's an exploitation movie.

CC: I don't think it is.

DC: No, it isn't! It's an epic. It has qualities of David Lean about it. One of his heroes is definitely Sergio Leone. And the two movies that Sergio did that way, Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, those are incredibly long and they're brilliant from beginning to end. And they do stand up to Lawrence of Arabia. In a way, this movie does that. You can see, particularly in the first movie, these moments of incredible, expansive moviemaking, where you realize that Quentin has those chops. He's a young guy. This is only his fourth movie. Who knows what he's going to come up with?

CC: I hope he's faster than Sergio Leone. That poor guy only made half a dozen movies in 20 years.

DC: He will. He's in a hurry now. This movie was different; he didn't want to just make this movie. He wanted to get lost in it. He wanted to not know if there was an end. To have it change his life forever. And he wanted to do that for everybody else in the movie. And I think he did. He did it for me.

CC: I heard that after you left Ingmar Bergman's movie you had an eye twitch for a couple of months?

DC: Yeah. I had a tic.

CC: Did Quentin give you anything like that?

DC: No. I feel regenerated from doing Quentin's movie. It added years to my life. But you know, Ingmar was deliberately a bummer. That's what his movies are about. He's trying to bring you down.

CC: Did Quentin mine you for any movie stories?

DC: I don't know about mining me. I'm a talker, but you can't talk that much to Quentin. But we eventually got to be close friends. And he'd listen to me. He wrote this character for me. He'd seen half the movies I've made, and he was a big fan of "Kung Fu." He actually owns 16mm prints of some of the episodes. And he'd read my autobiography. So we had a lot to talk about. We had a good time doing all that. Some of the things, like the Superman monologue, is actually a conversation that Quentin and I had in a cigar lounge in Beijing. I felt almost like a collaborator at times. And that's a great feeling. I didn't feel like that with Bergman. Bergman tells you exactly what you're supposed to do and that's what you do. I felt like that with Martin Scorsese. He really wanted to know who you were and what you could bring. Quentin is like that in spades.

April 10, 2004

Partial David Carradine Filmography:
Boxcar Bertha (1972)
Kung Fu (1972) [TV series]
Mean Streets (1973)
The Long Goodbye (1973)
Death Race 2000 (1975)
Bound for Glory (1976)
Cannonball! (1976)
The Serpent's Egg (1977)
Circle of Iron (1978)
The Long Riders (1980)
Q: The Winged Serpent (1982)
Lone Wolf McQuade (1983)
Bird on a Wire (1990)
Evil Toons (1992)
Roadside Prophets (1992)
Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992)
Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror (1998)
Kill Bill - Vol. 1 (2003)
Kill Bill - Vol. 2 (2004)
Dead & Breakfast (2004)
Max Havoc: Curse of the Dragon (2004)
Brothers in Arms (2005)
Hair High (2007) [voice]
Epic Movie (2007)
How to Rob a Bank (2007)
Hell Ride (2008)
Crank: High Voltage (2009)

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