This was supposed to be a two-parter, but there’s just too much to tell.
To bring you up to date: for a month, we (Quentin Tarantino, Uma Thurman, Lucy Liu, Daryl Hanna, Vivica A. Fox, Julie Dreyfus and I) had all been sweating it out in Beijing, training vigorously under the tutelage of Yuen Wu Ping, Sonny Chiba and Tetsuro Shimaguchi, while Quentin prepared to start shooting his epic Martial-Arts film: probably the bloodiest, most ambitious ‘B’ movie ever made. A Kung Fu/Samurai/Spaghetti-Western/Revenge/Love-Story, with lots of special effects and Matrix-style wirework, plus (are you ready?) more than a taste of Japanese-style animation! “KILL BILL”. (I’m Bill…but don’t try it!)
At night, though, we partied. Oh, yes, we partied. Beijing is a party town. Discos abound. And Quentin is the very definition of a party animal. He throws his limitless energy into play just as thoroughly as he does into work. This was a good thing, as the apartment they had me stashed in was truly bleak, though luxurious, and tucked around in the back behind heavy security. I felt like I was in The Witness-Protection Program. Sometimes it was more like a minimum-security prison.
One night Quentin called me up and said, “Hey, they’ve got a cigar lounge in the hotel. Do you smoke cigars?” “Well, sure,” I said. So we spent a few hours smoking fine Cuban Churchills, drinking espresso and rapping. We talked about everything. Then, Q lit up another one. Quentin is a man of great appetites. It was a very mild Davidoff, which he said made a great second cigar. I took a puff and told him it tasted like a milk shake. He liked that. Told me all he would have to do was write down things I said and people would think he was a genius. I said, “Well, you are. But feel free to use anything I say.” So, four days later, he produced a rewrite of the script that included a five-page monologue, which covered most of our conversation that night.
I had to go back to New York for a concert with my band, The Cosmic Rescue Team”. While I was there, Production called and told me to go home. They wouldn’t need me for ten days. It was nine weeks before they called me back. This was okay. I played with the kids and the dogs, saw every movie in town, knowing whatever I missed, I’d miss forever on the big screen. Beijing has none of those. Every day I practiced my kung fu and Samurai fights.
Finally, sometime in July, I took off for China with my darling Annie. No way I was going to go this thing alone. I’d arranged to be moved from the ‘Witness Protection Program’ to a very romantic, and gorgeous, corner suite, right in the middle of things.
They’d been shooting for almost two months: almost entirely action. And were a month behind schedule. I took a walk through the “House of Blue Leaves” set, which had been under construction when I left. Now, it was in shambles. Utterly trashed by the sequence in which Uma takes out “The Crazy Eighty-Eight” with her Samurai sword. (Actually over a hundred: “They just called themselves The Crazy Eighty-Eight,” was my line. “Why,” Michael Madsen says. “I don’t know. I guess they thought it sounded cool,” I reply.)
The beautiful set was full of smashed furniture, blood everywhere, dismembered dummies floating in the Koi Pond. When you see this sequence, you’ll flip.
My first scene was at a campfire, which they’d set up on a sound stage. I walked toward the set, past the fight crew playing basketball. Outside the big doors was a sign which read, “Please do not spit” in two languages. Expectoration is rampant in Beijing.
As I passed through the darkened soundstage toward the glow of the campfire, I heard the Chinese crew members whispering, what sounded like “Beer…Beer”. I learned later they were saying, “Bill…Bill…That’s Bill!” This was the 52nd day of the film called “Kill Bill”, and this was the first they’d seen of ‘Bill’.
Uma was snuggled into a sleeping bag, looking absolutely beautiful. No one is ready for how lovely she is in this film. Nor are they prepared for her expertise with the sword, or, for that matter, the depth of her acting performance. She has become my favorite actress.
My job today was to tell her, as a kind of bedtime story, the history of Pai Mei’s “5 Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” (another five-page Tarantino monologue) while providing myself with musical accompaniment on ‘The Silent Flute’, a five-foot long bamboo flute which I’d made in ’76 for the movie, released in the USA as “Circle of Iron”. Quentin was jumping up and down with glee, as for nine weeks he’d been shooting nothing but action. This was the first time in the movie he’d heard his words spoken, and Quentin’s movies are all about his words.
I had a few days off to visit The summer Palace and The Great Wall (had to do that) and then, it was work, work, and work. Starting out with the Kung Fu/Samurai fight with Michael Jai White, the dialogue for which we received the morning of the fight, written in Magic-Marker on the back of a call sheet. That, I would learn, was Quentin.
We shot that sequence for four days. Exhausting, yes; but nothing but fun. Michael is a Prince, besides being a formidable opponent. And, God, can that man eat. Well, his body needs a lot of fuel. His deltoids are the size of my head. Before I got to fight him, I had to take out his four henchmen. That, with the help of Yuen Wu Ping’s hot choreography, I accomplished in two moves. But, we spent half a day shooting it from every possible angle.
I received a serious cut on the arm during my battle with Michael. Not his fault, I hastily add. A badge of honor. I thought briefly about rubbing salt in the wound so I could keep the scar as a memento. I went on with the routine, until we had to stop because of the big, spreading stain of red on my off-white tunic. A Band-Aid and a fresh shirt, and we went at it again. You’re gonna love this fight. It’s dazzling, and the end is a big surprise.
Then we moved on to The White Lotus Temple for the sequences with Pai Mei, the evil master. Quentin had decided to forego playing the part, as he was having so much fun directing. Also, he had available Gordon Wu, who had played Pai Mei in several Hong Kong movies. Gordon is cool! He’s super-dedicated. He takes the role very seriously. He’s a musician: a composer. He comes bopping in, gets into makeup and wardrobe, and then assumes the lotus position and meditates. When he rises, he is Pai Mei.
The temple was a real one, very old, even by Chinese standards, way out in the sticks, and on top of a mountain; reached by a flight of four hundred steps. I would have to negotiate a hundred and sixty of them at a dead run some thirty times this day. Piece of cake, as it turned out. Those three months of sweat had stood me in good stead. Uma would have to do all four hundred of them, carrying two buckets of water on a stick as many times. It’s not all autographs and sunglasses, you know.
As we were leaving The Temple for the last time, I suddenly realized that I had a chance to cut some bamboo for flutes from an ancient temple in China. I couldn’t pass that up. I vaulted over the wall and started at the roots with my jack-knife, then switched to a shovel and then an axe. The root structure is important. It adds resonance, and makes a good club as well.
Quentin came by and said, “Are you allowed to do that?” I said, “Well, bamboo is a pest.” He had a point, though. There were signs all around specifying a huge fine for messing with the old trees. The bamboo could be included.
I hurried. One of the American crewmembers yelled down to me that someone was coming. I feverishly collected the four trees I’d extracted, lopped off the tops and stuck them back in the ground. If the rains came soon, they’d take root. Getting the pieces in the car was tough. And the authorities were getting close. I had visions of a Chinese jail cell. We made it out just in time. I must have been a strange sight, walking through the marble lobby of The St. Regis with a bundle of twelve-foot bamboo stalks on my shoulder, trailing temple dirt from the roots. Fortunately, six-star hotels have tall elevators.
Then it was back home to L.A. for me and most of the company, while Quentin took a small unit to Japan to shoot a motorcycle chase through the streets of Tokyo.
I’d have another month off (if they stayed on schedule) before continuing the saga in Southern California. Had to keep working at the samurai and kung fu, though. Much more fun to be had.