David Carradine has opened an industrial-sized vat of whoop-ass over his long and checkered career, so it’s not surprising that a tinge of anxiety would precede an encounter with the 6 foot 2 inch star of Kill Bill. Fortunately, this icon of both the cinema (Bound For Glory, The Long Riders) and the small screen (Kung Fu) appears sedate and talkative as he reclines in a swanky room at Seattle’s Fairmont Hotel.
White smoke trails upward from a cigarette, one of many that Carradine will pull from a silver smokes case and light up over the course of the next forty-five minutes. Smoking, it seems, was key to a bonding experience he shared with Kill Bill director Quentin Tarantino during production, which resulted in much of the spectacular wordplay that concludes the film.
"When we were in pre-production in Beijing," Carradine explains, sitting cross-legged in a hotel chair, "I got a call one evening in my hotel room. It was Quentin. He said, ‘Do you smoke cigars?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘There’s a cigar lounge here at the hotel. Will you meet me there?’ So we met there, smoked cigars, and had this conversation about Superman and superheroes, and all that. Six days later, there was a re-write to the script. And there it was, in the movie."
The resulting monologue from this inspired stogie session is the capper to Kill Bill, a speech delivered by Carradine that covers parenting, goldfish, life, death, and the romantic regrets of a hardened-yet-human killer. Of course, there’s also the part about why Superman is the toughest badass hero of ‘em all.
Such dialogue delights, but doesn’t necessarily surprise. After all, Tarantino’s comic book fixation has left its mark on his work as consistently as the funnies brand newspapers each day. Tony Scott’s True Romance (which Tarantino scripted) featured a comic store slacker as its hero, and even the submarine actioner Crimson Tide (also directed by Scott, but partially penned by Tarantino) gave us Denzel Washington singing the praises of Marvel Comics’ Silver Surfer.
What is surprising about Tarantino, however, is his open, improvisational approach to such unique movie moments. According to Carradine (who knows a thing or two about the methodry of legendary directors, having played the lead in Martin Scorsese’s Boxcar Bertha in 1972), the set of Kill Bill was a testing ground for tinkering, revising, and experimenting. "Most of the time (during filmmaking)," Carradine laments, extending his cigarette with jade-ringed fingers, "the director has a preconceived notion of what he’s gonna do. And he’ll do it, come hell or high water, even if it’s not the greatest idea any more. Maybe the location isn’t right, or maybe the chemistry between the actors isn’t there. But he’ll do it anyway.
"But Quentin is open to changing with the wind, and he did it with his writing right up until the very end. That whole final monologue changed, like five times. The last time it changed was the day that I came in to do it! I had the whole thing committed to memory, and he just threw it out the window and started over."
Carradine reflects on such challenges not with frustration, but with a deep respect for the moviemaking auteur behind classics Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Part of this appreciation springs from gratitude: Tarantino put the actor’s career on the "in demand" track with Kill Bill, much as he raised the value of Pam Grier’s stock from depths of obscurity by casting her in 1997’s Jackie Brown. Like Grier, Carradine’s status as a genre icon – not only as martial arts wanderer Caine in the long-running seventies T.V. series Kung Fu, but also as a hero of pulpy B-movie classics like 1975’s Death Race 2000- put him on Tarantino’s radar early on.
"Quentin had read my autobiography, had seen my movies, and was a Kung Fu fan," Carradine informs with a grin, revealing perfect teeth. "In fact, he collects 16 mm prints of the series, and Shane (1966), too. And he could actually recite Americana (1981), a picture I directed. I guess in that respect, I had a lot of influence on Bill’s character.
"With Bill, however, Quentin got me out of what I’ve done my whole career, which is to construct a character. Like, ‘Oh, I’m a folk singer,’ or, ‘I’m the guy who started the Civil War.’ But Quentin kept opening me up to just be there. It was not a constructed performance."
Kill Bill presented the veteran onscreen shit-kicker with another challenge, as well. Following Miramax’s decision to slice the film into two halves and release each as a separate entity (Kill Bill Vol. 1 surfaced in October, 2003), Bill would ultimately appear only as a malevolent voice in the first installment. Nonetheless, his title character looms large and casts a commanding shadow.
"It was originally conceived as one movie," he explains of the two-film extravaganza. "Quentin was gonna keep Bill out of it for awhile and build up this idea of him as an incredibly powerful, cruel, monstrous guy. Then, you meet him and he’s likeable and charming. There was one point, where there was a close-up of me at the end of the first movie. Then, (Tarantino) took that back out and though, "I’m gonna keep this a complete mystery (until the second film)."
In Kill Bill Vol. 2, Carradine’s main man becomes flesh to eventually dominate the story. Bill is revealed as a storyteller, spinning yarns in front of a firepit, behind a wet bar, and on the front porch of a Texas chapel. While the character is proficient with hands, feet, and weaponry, Carradine is seldom seen exercising such fighting skills. His strength comes from the script’s tasty wordplay, instead. Whether offering a fellow assassin advice on how to survive martial arts training with an unforgiving teacher ("Do what he says, or he’ll snap your neck and back like twigs), or reflecting on his own bloodstained past ("Some things can never be undone"), Carradine’s villain is a memorable, magnetic force.
"It’s hard to talk about the process," he comments of Bill’s transition from unseen foe to prominent presence. "Putting it into two movies totally changed the concept. The result is that you have two very different movies. The first movie is pure action, but the second moves a lot faster, actually. The cutting is choppier - more Tarantino-styled and ‘get it on!’- but the content is rambling all over the place. That’s more of what we’re used to with Tarantino."
Asked which of the two Kill Bill films is his personal favorite, Carradine flashes his impressive, smiling choppers and exhales another cloud of cigarette smoke. "I actually like the second movie better," he laughs. "But, of course, I’m in it."