Dave Friedman: Filming the Dragon
Words: Mark Edward Harris
While several other cast and crew members on the film have since passed away (including martial arts star Jim Kelley and Chinese actor Shih Kien, who played the villainous Han), many are happily still with us. Notable among them is Dave Friedman, the world-renowned photographer whose production stills for Enter the Dragon played no small role in helping the film—and Lee—achieve iconic status. In 2013, the Southern California-based photographer released Enter the Dragon: A Photographer’s Journey on the film’s 40th anniversary. The book features many never-before-seen images of the filming, along with unseen documents from the Warner Bros. archives and personal reminiscences from Friedman and several of the film’s producers.
Released in 1973, Enter the Dragon was the first Chinese martial arts film to be produced by a major Hollywood studio. In association with Hong Kong producer Raymond Chow of Golden Harvest and Lee’s Concord Production Company, Warner Bros. enlisted the support of major Hollywood players, including Fred Weintraub to produce the film and Lalo Schifrin to create a memorable soundtrack. The still photos that would drive the publicity campaign were handed to Friedman.
In every frame Friedman takes us back to a magical time on a mythical island—The Isle of Han—where Lee’s cinematic exploits made him a touchstone for generations. In 2004, Enter the Dragon was deemed “culturally significant” in the United States and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Needless to say, the film long ago secured its place in the hearts of martial arts and action film fans the world over.
How did the opportunity to shoot the stills on Enter the Dragon come about?
I had met Bruce in 1966 when I was an assistant cameraman on The Green Hornet while at Twentieth Century Fox. We became friends. When the show was cancelled, Bruce found it hard to get a good acting job here and returned to Hong Kong to work for Raymond Chow and at Golden Harvest Studios. He soon became Asia’s biggest movie star.
At the time I was married to an airline stewardess, so I flew back and forth to Hong Kong for various reasons and see Bruce on occasion. You could buy photo equipment much cheaper there than you could here back then, and since my wife was a stewardess I could fly there for almost nothing.
When I switched to being a still photographer in 1969, I did a film at Warner Bros. called Summer of ’42. A couple of years later the head of the studio’s stills department, Mort Lickter, asked me to come to his office. He knew that I loved Hong Kong and that I was friendly with Bruce. They had started Enter the Dragon over there and had worked about a week, but the local still photographers weren’t getting what the publicity department here needed. So they sent me to Hong Kong in January of 1973, and I stayed there until they finished shooting.
Enter the Dragon was really the first Hollywood-style martial arts movie.
Yes, it was. When Bruce started the film he was very nervous. He didn’t want it to be the Hong Kong style of martial arts movie, which at that time wasn’t done with synced sound. They dubbed everything, and had all of those hokey visual effects and sound effects—it was very cartoonish. He wanted to make a Hollywood-style film. There were a lot of changes made to the equipment, including the use of Panavision cameras to get the right look. Hong Kong was not equipped to shoot Hollywood-type films.
I had the equipment that I used in Hollywood which photographers from Golden Harvest were not equipped with. They had never seen Jacobson sound blimps. I shot with Nikon Fs and a Hasselblad camera similar to what the astronauts used on the moon. I was equipped to work like we did in Hollywood. Their people were not. I shot 35mm color transparencies, Plus-X and Tri-X for black and white, and 2¼ Kodacolor negative film loaded in a 70mm back on the Hasselblad. I had my film sent back in a company pouch to Hollywood for processing and I brought back some of it as well.
Where was the movie actually shot? There really is no Han’s Island on the map.
An estate in Repulse Bay on the back side of Hong Kong that was owned by a well-known attorney M.W. Lo. The tournament scenes were shot on his grass tennis court. The estate was torn down to make way for condos in the 1980s. Some of the walls seen in the film still exist. Almost everything was shot in Hong Kong. One of the opening scenes, where John Saxon kicks the shit out of two collection agents on a golf course, that was Griffith Park in Los Angeles. I was there.
How was John Saxon as a martial artist?
He’s a pretty good martial artist. I think somebody bullshitted him into thinking he was going to be the star of the movie. As associate producer Andre Morgan said, “After the first scene in the movie, you knew who the star was.” Saxon, Bruce, Jim Kelly, all got along well.
On some sets, still photographers are often treated like a necessary evil. How was your reception on Enter the Dragon?
I never had problems on any of the films I’ve ever worked on. I know how to stay out of the way and I know how to be invisible.
What’s the percentage of shooting during filming versus setting a shot up before or after a take?
Most of the images are from when the cameras were rolling, because when people are rehearsing a scene the feeling isn’t there and they’re often not in the right wardrobe. I hate set-up shots; they put people out of character.
The film included a completely unknown 19-year-old extra under the stage name Chan Yuen Lung who would later become the international megastar Jackie Chan. Do you recall meeting him?
Jackie got killed several times in the film. He’s in a few of my shots, but I wouldn’t have known Jackie Chan from Joe Blow at the time because there were so many extras. Bruce broke Jackie Chan’s neck in the cave in the dungeon scene.
While that was make believe, there’s a caption in your book beside a photo that says the image is of a real fight between Bruce and an extra. How did that come about and what was the result?
It all went down in Chinese. We were on our way to lunch, and some guy got egged on by his friends to challenge Bruce. Big mistake. Whatever he said pulled a trigger. I had seen Bruce challenged over the years, kind of like the old gunfighter being challenged by some young punk who thinks he’s faster. This time Bruce did one swift kick and the guy’s teeth went flying and the fight was over. The next day the guy was found floating in Victoria Harbor … that’s what I’m told.
Sounds like something the evil Han would have done.
That was just hearsay. One thing for sure. That extra didn’t show up for work anymore.
How was working with the actor who played Han?
Shih Kien was very famous over there. He had been in the business since 1939 and had done over 500 films by the time he did Enter the Dragon. He was 60 years old and did most of his own stunts in the mirrored room. He died at age 96. He didn’t speak English but seemed to understand everything we asked him to do. He was dubbed by a famous Chinese actor in the States. He was very professional and a very nice man.
What are the challenges of shooting stills on a film?
Blimps are a pain in the ass. The key is to capture the right moment. I always read the script and watched very carefully and knew when the moment was. It depended on the light and the situation, but I always tried to go for the fastest possible shutter speed. In terms of low light, it’s just about figuring out how to make do with what you have. For Enter the Dragon we had plenty of light on the set.
It’s interesting that you went from cinematography to stills. That’s the opposite of what many people in the industry do.
Stills are what I wanted to do. Being on a camera crew was a means to an end. But the five years at Fox gave me an education you could never get in school.
Did you study formally at all?
No. When I got out of high school—I graduated from Beverly Hills High in 1956—I went into the Navy. I started out shooting sports cars and I got a job with a company called Shelby American in Venice, California, which built Cobras. I was the company photographer. When they started phasing out the Cobra I realized what my job expectancy was, so I looked for something else and I got in the movie industry at Colombia Studios working on a day-to-day basis. Then I got a call from the union that Twentieth Century Fox needed help on a film. That one-day call turned into five years. The film was The Sound of Music and the learning process began. I held a slate on the last part of The Sound of Music, which was being shot on Stage 15. In those days it was so busy they were taking people off the street. I got a permit to work. From there you had to get your days to join the union, which at that time was 90 days. As I moved up I was a second assistant, then a focus puller, then I actually was a camera operator on later films.
How did you transition to being a still photographer?
I did a film at Paramount called Little Fauss and Big Halsy, which was a real turkey with Robert Redford, Michael J. Pollard and Lauren Hutton. Redford and Pollard hated each other and it showed in the film. When I finished that movie I had a reputation as an assistant cameraman, but I couldn’t steal a job as a still photographer because nobody knew what I could do in that specialty. You go right down to the bottom again when you change categories.
So I wound up working for ABC and Fox TV. That kept me alive until I snuck in the back door on Summer of ’42. Bob Surtees, a cameraman I worked with on Dr. Doolittle, and who I had done a camera test with in India, recommended me to the director as a still photographer and the director said fine. That didn’t sit too well with Mort Lickter, who was the head of the publicity department at Warner Bros., because he usually chose the photographers. When I went in to meet him it was a chilly experience. We got to become very good friends after that and I learned a lot from him. He’s the one who brought me into Enter the Dragon. He called me one day at my home in Palos Verdes and said, “Dave, how fast can you get here? I’ve got something I think you’d be interested in but it’s very important. I need you now.” I said, “Well, give me an hour and a half.” So we hung up and I head over there. He explained, “I know you worked with Bruce Lee. We’re doing this film in Hong Kong called Enter the Dragon. You’d be perfect for it. When can you be on the plane?” I said, “Tomorrow.”
He had a first-class ticket for me on Pan American, and it was literally the next day that I was on the plane. That’s one of the reasons why marriages in the movie industry don’t always work out. “Goodbye, honey, I’ll see you in three months.” Spouses sometimes think it’s all autographs and sunglasses. One of my two ex-wives actually designed the Enter the Dragon book. We often laugh that we should have been business partners. The lifestyle wasn’t for her. She wanted something more stable.
How long were you in Hong Kong for the making of the film?
About eight weeks. I think it wrapped over there at the beginning of March.
What makes the movie so timeless?
We all knew we had a good film. Little did anybody know that it was going to make its money back in the first week. Bruce had magnetism and he was quick. He was more in control of his body movements than any person I’ve ever seen. He asked me to put my camera up to my face and he kicked with his foot ending up inches away from my 20mm lens. But he was wound very tight and it was hard for him to relax. I believe that’s what killed him. The rubber band finally snapped. On the set he was an absolute professional. He paid attention to everything. He choreographed all the fight scenes.
No matter how carefully things were choreographed, there were mishaps, including one famous incident with fellow martial artist Bob Wall, who played the villainous Oharra.
The bottle-breaking shot where Bruce had his hand cut. That was shot with real bottles. In Hollywood we would have used candy glass for those sorts of scenes, but they had never heard of that in Hong Kong. We didn’t have time to order it from Los Angeles. So it was done with real bottles. Bob and Bruce knew the dangers. What happened was a case of a missed mark, a little mistiming. Bruce went to the hospital, got 12 stitches and a flesh-colored bandage put on his hand and came back to work the same day. Bruce kicked Bob Wall in the balls one time and another time in the nose because they missed their timing. Fred Weintraub said so much of the film was not in the script; it was done on the fly. It was a day-to-day thing. Adding things, changing things. If you read the original script the famous mirrored-room scene isn’t there.
How did it come about and how was it shot?
That was down to the director, Robert Clouse. His wife went into one of the stores at the Repulse Bay Hotel and she walked past an angled mirror and he saw the reflections with multiple images. And he thought, “That’s it!” So they built a mirrored room at Golden Harvest. The most disconcerting set I ever worked on. You’re looking at somebody and talking to somebody and they’re not there. They’re not in front of you but they’re behind you.
That whole maze of mirrors must have really been difficult to shoot in. How did the cameras avoid being seen with all the reflections?
In the book there’s a diagram of how it was done. They had a camera room within a room and a hole for the camera. It was one-way glass. Clouse’s wife was an art director and she was very good. She contributed a lot, especially in scenes like the banquet hall and the mirrored room. Paul Heller, who was one of the producers, was an artist and had done a lot of set design in theatre and Paul came in and did a lot of the artwork. The makeup artists in Hong Kong were very good but had a very different way of working from they way we did in Hollywood. They didn’t work in a makeup trailer, they worked on the set. They didn’t understand continuity. They didn’t understand that a tattoo on somebody’s back had to look the same tomorrow as at did today. Paul understood that so he did all that type of work.
How did you hear about Bruce’s passing?
When we finished this film, I went to Europe to cover the Motorcycle Grand Prix circuit. While I was at Monza for the Italian Grand Prix in July 1973 a fellow photographer told me that he had heard that Bruce had died. I was in complete shock. Bruce was my age and in great shape. Back in LA I attended a private screening of Enter the Dragon at Warner Bros. There was a great sadness, knowing that Bruce would never see the completed version of the film that would make him an international superstar.
Learn more about Friedman’s film still photography at dfphotography.wordpress.com.