Interview: How GAME OF DEATH REDUX Producer Alan Canvan Resurrected Bruce Lee’s Lost Footage

GAME OF DEATH REDUX can be found on Criterion’s “Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits” box set

Perhaps the most exciting piece of supplemental material on Criterion’s box set Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits is Game Of Death Redux. Infamously, Bruce Lee passed away before completing what was to be his second feature film as a director: Game Of Death. Having shot some 100 minutes of footage, only about 11 minutes of that footage ultimately made it into the (kind of awful) Game Of Death theatrical release directed by Robert Clouse and released in 1978. That film attempts to retrofit a screenplay that ultimately leads to a sequence near the end where we get to see the transcendent Bruce Lee fight a couple of masters in a pagoda. With the yellow tracksuit and the eternal dynamism of Bruce Lee, Game Of Death briefly alights from a dismal affair to an action film brimming with vitality.

But Game Of Death (1978) really isn’t about Bruce Lee’s vision. Game Of Death Redux clocks in at just under 40 minutes and simply does its best to use the footage we have to tell the story Bruce Lee was trying to tell. It’s vibrant, intriguing, and beguiling. It’s special. It gives us a little glimpse of what might have been. It’s got an element of magic in showing us something we’ve never gotten to really see before, and an element of melancholy that reminds us we’ll never see any other new work from Bruce Lee again.

I’m thrilled to get the chance to pick producer/editor/mastermind-of-this-project Alan Canvan’s brain about how this project came to be and what his vision for the project ultimately was.

Ed Travis: Alan, can you talk a little bit about the footage itself? It’s well known that Bruce Lee shot a bunch of footage, shut down production to make Enter The Dragon, and intended to pick back up on the other side. What’s the brief story of the life of this footage from the time of Lee’s death until you got your hands on it?

Alan Canvan: Game of Death was intended to be Bruce’s directorial sophomore effort. He did some principle shooting between August — October of 1972 and then put things on hold to film Enter the Dragon for Warner Bros, with plans to resume filming the following year. Tragically, Bruce passed away in the Summer of 1973 before resuming work on the project, leaving behind approximately 97 minutes worth of fight footage, 2/3rds of which were outtakes.

Four years later, his business partner Raymond Chow hired the director of Enter the Dragon, Robert Clouse, to build a story around the footage, resulting in a 1978 film entitled Game of Death, that bore no resemblance to Lee’s original premise. Only 12 minutes and 18 seconds of Bruce’s actual footage were used in this production. Jumping ahead a few years to the late ’90s, the full footage was rediscovered in the Golden Harvest vaults, and the film was re-edited to incorporate the additional 27 minutes and 42 seconds that were missing from the 1978 film. It was then repackaged as the centerpiece of 2 documentaries: Bruce Lee: A Warrior’s Journey and its Japanese counterpart, Bruce Lee in G.O.D. (released in 2000 and 2001 respectively).

While I was initially thrilled to finally see the full footage, I wasn’t quite as jazzed by the presentation. Artistically, I disagreed with almost all the creative choices made in both productions. Much of what I thought was missing stemmed from the filmmakers’ need to incorporate every last drop of footage possible, which, while understandable in terms of fan service, is highly problematic for the overall structure and pacing of a film — and specifically for a narrative defined by its kinetic expression of a psychological landscape. Additionally, I didn’t feel either soundtrack delivered the most effective portrayal of the story. For the record, I sincerely appreciate both men’s efforts — believe me, it is no easy task.

Seventeen years later, in 2018, I attempted to convey the deeper story/subtext that I felt existed within the material.

Ed Travis: Can you talk about how you got involved in creating this project? Were you simply a fan who committed a ton of time to a passion project or were you commissioned? And as a follow up to that question, can you discuss how your completed project made its way to this incredible home on the Criterion Collection’s remarkable box set?

Alan Canvan: Criterion didn’t hire me to do the edit, it was independently financed and, indeed, a passion project that had been gestating in me for quite a while. I have a background in film and am a lifelong fan of both Bruce Lee and cinema, so this project was a natural evolution of my interests/obsessions.

My friend Matthew Polly, author of the stellar biography Bruce Lee: A Life, introduced me to Curtis Tsui, the Criterion producer responsible for the Bruce Lee box set. Curtis had learned about my edit (which had premiered in July 2019 at the Asian American Institute in New York City) and was interested in viewing it. Upon seeing Redux, Curtis immediately contacted me and asked if Criterion could include it as an extra feature on the box set. I was overwhelmed by his enthusiasm and praise for the film, and incredibly flattered that he deemed it worthy of Criterion.

I have Matthew to thank for the introduction to Curtis, and I have Curtis and Criterion to thank for recognizing my work on its own merit and showcasing it on such an honorable platform. It’s a dream come true.

Ed Travis: A personal question. Here you are, a lifelong fan of Bruce Lee’s, getting to make a passion project and see it to completion and have a chance for audiences around the world to see the fruit of your labor. I’d love to hear how you’ve felt about this opportunity both personally and professionally.

Alan Canvan: There is definitely a sense of things coming full circle. Game of Death has always been significant to me because it was my very first cinematic glimpse of Bruce Lee. I was 8 years old and absolutely in awe. Despite the ’78 film’s shortcomings, it worked for three reasons: the opening credit sequence (that swiped Lee’s fight with Chuck Norris from Way of the Dragon), the 11-minute finale that used Lee’s 1972 Game of Death footage and John Barry’s amazing soundtrack. Barry’s score, in my mind, is such an integral piece of the Game of Death jigsaw. With Redux, my aim was to honor both Bruce Lee’s unparalleled genius as well as John Barry’s phenomenal talent.

Regarding Bruce’s vision, it’s apparent that the pagoda segment was truly the story he was interested in telling. With that in mind, I chose to approach the sequence as its own short film with three distinct acts. The narrative itself was much more than just a Jeet Kune Do tutorial that stressed the importance of adaptability in combat. The deeper interpretation recognizes the pagoda motif as a metaphor for the psyche and the ascension of the temple as an allegory for the struggles that exist within the human condition, told through classical Jungian archetypes. For me, it was important to highlight these aspects, and give the fight scenes a psychological context.

To share my rendition of a film that I watched repeatedly as a child (on VHS tapes!) almost 40 years later is a huge milestone, and equally surreal. On a professional note, it was an amazing opportunity and, hopefully, a stepping stone to future projects that will find their place in the world.

I really appreciate Alan taking the time to dialog with me about his experience in creating Game Of Death Redux. And I believe fans of Bruce Lee the world over will feel that watching this cut of the Game Of Death footage is a unique privilege afforded to them through Alan’s passionate and informed work and Criterion’s presentation. Learn more about Game Of Death Redux in the below video, and don’t miss Bruce Lee: His Greatest Hits on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

And I’m Out.

Part 1 covers the first two discs in this box set: The Big Boss & Fist Of Fury

Part 2 covers the second two discs in this box set: The Way of the Dragon & Enter The Dragon

Part 3 covers the final discs in this box set: Game Of Death & Supplemental Material

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