Kurt Russell confessed on the DVD commentary that he was afraid of starring in the movie, because he had made a string of movies that flopped at the box-office. When he asked John Carpenter about it, he told Kurt that it didn't matter to him - he just wanted to make the movie with him.
The Three Storms were partly the inspiration for the popular character of thunder god Raiden from Mortal Kombat fighting video game series. while David Lo Pan was the inspiration for the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung.
This was the last studio film that John Carpenter worked on at the end of the 1980s, due to various problems he experienced during the production of the film, with then studio head Lawrence Gordon, who constantly interfered with the film up until its release date. Carpenter's two follow-ups Prince of Darkness (1987) and They Live (1988) were made independently via Alive Films, without any studio interference, and distributed by Universal Pictures.
The vehicle Egg Shen drove in the movie was a 1936 White touring car. That car is now in Yellowstone National Park (the location, for which it was originally built), named "Hollywood", and gives tours out of Old Faithful.
According to John Carpenter, the opening of the film with Egg Shen (Victor Wong) in the lawyer's office was added in at the request of 20th Century Fox executives, in order to make Kurt Russell's character Jack Burton more heroic (they didn't get the idea of Jack being a sidekick rather than a hero). Without the added scene, the film would have started with Jack driving to San Francisco.
John Carpenter and Kurt Russell explain on the audio commentary that the test screening was so overwhelmingly positive, that both of them expected it to be a big hit. However, 20th Century Fox put little into promoting the movie, and it ended up being a box-office bomb. In addition, the film was released in the midst of the hype for Aliens (1986), which was released sixteen days afterwards. However, it went on to be a huge cult hit through home video. Carpenter and Russell explained that the reason the studio did little to promote the film, was because they simply didn't know how to promote it.
According to John Carpenter and Kurt Russell in the DVD commentary, the story was originally written as a western, but Carpenter decided to set it during modern times. They even mention that instead of Jack Burton's truck being stolen, it was originally his horse.
Right before the end credits when Jack Burton is driving his truck and talking on his CB Radio, he says, "You just listen to the old Pork-Chop Express here now, and take his advice on a dark and stormy night, when the lightning's crashing, and the thunder's rollin', and the rain's coming down..." paying homage to the names of the 3 Storms, Lo Pan's bodyguards.
The Brides of Lo Pan must have green eyes. Yet Kim Cattrall and Suzee Pai have brown eyes in real-life. Both wore green contacts for the movie. This is very obvious in the high definition version of the movie.
The studio felt that Kurt Russell was an up-and-coming star. Russell was initially not interested because he felt there were "a number of different ways to approach Jack, but I didn't know if there was a way that would be interesting enough for this movie". After talking to John Carpenter, and reading the script a couple more times, he gained insight into the character and liked the notion of playing "a hero who has so many faults. Jack is and isn't the hero. He falls on his ass as much as he comes through. This guy is a real blowhard. He's a lot of hot air, very self-assured, a screw-up". Furthermore, the actor felt that "at heart he thinks he's Indiana Jones, but the circumstances are always too much for him".
The studio pressured John Carpenter to cast a rock star in the role of Gracie Law, Jack Burton's love interest and constant source of aggravation. For Carpenter there was no question, he wanted Kim Cattrall. The studio was not keen on the idea because at the time Cattrall was primarily known for raunchy comedies like Porky's (1981) and Police Academy (1984). She was drawn to the movie because of the way her character was portrayed. "I'm not screaming for help the whole time. I think the humor comes out of the situations and my relationship with Jack Burton. I'm the brains and he's the brawn".
John Carpenter envisioned the film as an inverse of traditional scenarios in action films with a Caucasian protagonist helped by a minority sidekick. Jack Burton, despite his bravado, is constantly portrayed as rather bumbling; in one fight sequence he even knocks himself unconscious before the fight begins. Wang Chi, on the other hand, is constantly portrayed as highly skilled and competent.
The martial arts sequences were not hard for Dennis Dun who had "dabbled" in training as a kid and done Chinese opera as an adult. He was drawn to the portrayal of Asian characters in the movie as he said, "I'm seeing Chinese actors getting to do stuff that American movies usually don't let them do. I've never seen this type of role for an Asian in an American film".
Problems began to arise when John Carpenter learned that The Golden Child (1986) featured a similar theme and was going to be released around the same time. (As it happened, Carpenter was asked by Paramount Pictures to direct that film). He remarked in an interview, "How many adventure pictures dealing with Chinese mysticism have been released by the major studios in the past twenty years? For two of them to come along at the exact same time is more than mere coincidence." To beat the rival production at being released in theaters, Big Trouble went into production in October 1985 so that it could open in July 1986, five months before The Golden Child (1986)'s Christmas release.
The short knives wielded by the "Three Storms" warriors, that Thunder calls "Hui Huan Dou" (Soul-Returning Blades) are in fact Nepalese Kukri. These knives were made famous for their usage by the Gurkhas in the British Indian Army.
The characters in the film reminded John Carpenter "of the characters in Bringing Up Baby (1938) or His Girl Friday (1940). These are very 1930s, Howard Hawks' people." The rapid-fire delivery of dialogue, especially between Jack Burton and Gracie Law, is an example to what the director is referring.
Kurt Russell felt that the film would be a hard one to market. "This is a difficult picture to sell, because it's hard to explain. It's a mixture of the real history of Chinatown in San Francisco blended with Chinese legend and lore. It's bizarre stuff. There are only a handful of non-Asian actors in the cast".
One of the more difficult effects was the floating eyeball, a spy for Lo-Pan. It was powered by several puppeteers and dozens of cables to control its facial expressions. It was shot with a special matting system specially designed for it.
The first version of the screenplay was written by first-time screenwriters Gary Goldman and David Z. Weinstein. Goldman had been inspired by a new wave of martial arts films that had "all sorts of weird actions and special effects, shot against this background of Oriental mysticism and modern sensibilities". They had written a western, originally set in the 1880s, with Jack Burton as a cowboy who rides into town. Goldman and Weinstein envisioned combining Chinese fantasy elements with the western. They submitted the script to TAFT Entertainment Pictures Executive Producers Paul Monash and Keith Barish during the summer of 1982. Monash bought their script, and had them do at least one re-write, but still did not like the results. He remembers, "The problems came largely from the fact it was set in turn-of-the-century San Francisco, which affected everything-style, dialogue, action". Goldman rejected a request by 20th Century Fox for a re-write that asked for major alterations. He was angered when the studio wanted to update it to a contemporary setting. The studio then removed the writers from the project. However, they still wanted credit for their contributions. The studio brought in screenwriter W.D. Richter to extensively re-write the script, as he felt that the Wild West and fantasy elements didn't work together. The screenwriter modernized everything. Almost everything in the original script was discarded, except for Lo Pan's story. Richter realized that "what it needed wasn't a re-write, but a complete overhaul. It was a dreadful screenplay. This happens often when scripts are bought, and there's no intention that the original writers will stay on". He wrote his own draft in ten weeks. Goldman contacted Richter and suggested that he should not work on the project. Richter told him, "I'm sorry the studio doesn't want to go forward with you guys, but my turning it down, is not going to get you the job. They'll just hire someone else". Fox wanted to deny Goldman and Weinstein writing credit, and eliminated their names from press releases They wanted only Richter to have credit. In March 1986, the Writers Guild of America, west determined that "written by" credit would go to Goldman and Weinstein, based on the WGA screenwriting credit system which protects original writers. However, Richter did get an "adaptation by" credit for his work on the script. John Carpenter was disappointed that Richter did not get a proper screenwriting credit because of the ruling. Carpenter made his own additions to Richter's rewrites, which included strengthening the Gracie Law role and linking her to Chinatown, removing a few action sequences due to budgetary restrictions and eliminating material deemed offensive to Chinese Americans.
For the film's many fight scenes John Carpenter worked with martial arts choreographer James Lew, who planned out every move in advance. Says Carpenter, "I used every cheap gag - trampolines, wires, reverse movements, and upside down sets. It was much like photographing a dance."
The name of the murdered gang leader, Lem Lee, is probably a reference to Tom Lee, the leader of the On Leong Tong, a crime syndicate in New York's Chinatown in the early twentieth century, that fronted itself as a merchant association.
John Carpenter was not entirely satisfied with Boss Film Studios, the company in charge of the film's visual effects. According to him, they took on more projects than they could handle, and some effects for the film had to be cut down. Richard Edlund, head of Boss Film Studios, said that there were no difficulties with the company's workload, and that Big Trouble was probably its favorite film at the time, with the exception of Ghostbusters (1984). The effects budget for the film was just under two million dollars, which Edlund said was barely adequate.
Kurt Russell lifted weights and began running two months before production began in order to get ready for the physical demands of principal photography. In addition, John Carpenter and his cast and crew did a week's rehearsals that mainly involved choreographing the martial arts scenes.
Production Designer John J. Lloyd designed the elaborate underground sets and re-created Chinatown with three-story buildings, roads, streetlights, sewers, and so on. This was necessary for the staging of complicated special effects and kung fu fight sequences that would have been very hard to do on location. This forced the filmmaker to shoot the film in fifteen weeks with a 25 million dollar budget.
W.D. Richter used Rosemary's Baby (1968) as his template, presenting "the foreground story in a familiar context - rather than San Francisco at the turn-of-the-century, which distances the audience immediately - and just have one simple remove, the world underground, you have a much better chance of making direct contact with the audience".
Kim Cattrall left the set at 4:30 p.m. each day, then performed in a production of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters. Cattrall remembers having to explain to studio bosses who Chekhov was. "My film career subsidized my theater career," she said. "If I only did theater, I would have had to waitress, and I didn't want to waitress."
John Carpenter yelled at a special effects coordinator, after one of the squibs on the wall went off much sooner than expected. Kurt Russell said it was one of the few times he ever saw Carpenter lose his cool on-set.
When Jack and Wang are almost run over by the Lords of Death, John Carpenter shot the scene backwards, with the actors performing in reverse. This was done not to confuse the actors, but for safety reasons. "That whole set with the mouth, coming down the steps of the escalator, it was very dangerous," James Hong revealed. "It was a very narrow escalator, and I was on lifts, 12-inch lifts. All of a sudden, John said, 'We don't have time, we've got to do it right away.' I said, 'Can't you get a stunt man, get George Cheung, he's my stunt man.' He said, 'No, no, you just got to step in.' So, with that long robe, I tried to put it over the lifts, and when I stepped on just the part before you go down, the real escalator, I said, 'Oh my God, this is going to be my last scene.' ... It looked like I was fierce, but I was trembling. That's the way it was, everything had to be real."
Just before leaving to assault Lo Pan's domain. Egg offers Jack a .357 Magnum and tells him "It'll make you feel like Dirty Harry". Dirty Harry was played by Clint Eastwood, who was considered for the role of Jack Burton.
Peter Kwong cited his character's long hair as one of the best parts of making the film, even though, according to him, "I had to sit in three hours of make-up everyday, just to get in and out of the three thousand dollar wig."
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
As Lightning (the character, one of the Three Storms) is crushed to death near the end of the film, some of the lightning he emits forms a small Chinese symbol as it disappears (near the top middle of the screen). The symbol translates as "carpenter", a nod to the director.
In the DVD Commentary, John Carpenter jokingly says that Kurt Russell's character Jack Burton is the hero of the movie, but other than killing Lo Pan, and saving Wang when he shoots the guard, he is more of a sidekick throughout the movie.
Kurt Russell was sick with flu during production. In John Carpenter's later film Escape from L.A. (1996), Snake Plissken learns that the Plutoxin 7 virus, with which he has been infected, is fake, and is revealed to be a hard hitting case of the flu.