More powerful than a locomotive, Superman Returnsí producer Chris Lee is surprisingly mild-mannered

As soon as Chris Lee knew heíd be joining the Superman Returns' production team, he rushed to his local comic book store and invested nearly USD 400 in back issues. Though not a great fan of the superhero from Krypton (he prefers The Batman), the 50-year-old Hawaii-born film producer needed to do his homework. Which is to say he had to study the 70-decade long evolution of the Man of Steel. Clearly, the manís a professional.

A Hollywood executive and former president of motion picture production at both Tri-Star Pictures and Columbia Pictures, Leeís supervised many Academy Award-winning films and box office hits. A large number of which featured A-list actors (Jerry Maguire with Tom Cruise; Philadelphia with Tom Hanks; My Best Friendís Wedding with Julia Roberts; Legends of the Fall with Brad Pitt, etc.,). Along the way, heís not only mastered the production of large, big budget films, but the technical requirements of computer generated imagery (CGI) on projects such as Final Fantasy, Starship Troopers, and Godzilla.

What sets him apart from his producing peers in Tinseltown is his passion for the art itself, and his willingness to share his filmmaking experiences with film students and fellow cineastes alike. In addition, thereís something about Lee that one might call unique, at least in the film industry. Despite his obvious success, he remains true to his roots, and his friends.

In 2002, Lee left the Hollywood fast lane to return to Hawaii, where he founded the Academy for Creative Media (ACM). In cooperation with ten campuses affiliated with the University of Hawaii, ACM offers a platform for indigenous voices to tell their stories, via films and video games, to the broadest possible audience. In the four years since the academy was established, it now offers a total of 27 courses to 200 students.

Lee has also lent a helping hand to numerous mainstream projects wherever they may be. He was creative producer on Bryan Singerís (X-Men) Superman Returns, released this summer in China, and co-producer of Chen Damingís (Manhole) comedy One Foot off the Ground (OFOTG).

Superman Returns, the fifth episode in the franchise, is Leeís second collaboration with long-time friend, Singer. One of the most eagerly anticipated films of this summer, the film cost USD 200 million and doubled its money in worldwide gross profits.

In contrast, Chinese actor-director Chen Damingís second directorial effort, OFOTG is a character-driven, small budget film, with no SFX and, of course, lower financial expectations. Regardless, while putting the last spin on Superman Returns in Australia in 2005, Lee assisted in the pre- and the post-production of Chenís bittersweet tale shot in local dialect in Kaifeng (Henan province). OFOTG concerns the vanishing glory of traditional opera. Leeís expertise in customizing films for multiple markets has already helped Chen achieve international notice, not an easy task for a zany, if quaint, comedy. The film was screened this autumn at several prestigious European film festivals (Spainís San Sebastian; Greeceís Thessaloniki) to much acclaim, and will open in the Chinese mainland next month.

In our interview with Chris Lee, he offers insights into the filmmaking process, both Hollywood style and in China.

thatís: You graduated from Yale University with a degree in political science. How does that apply to the entertainment industry?
Chris Lee: I think one of the great advantages of a school like Yale is that your major need not determine your future. That said, I did plan to become a lawyer or political consultant, but my first job ended up being in television Ė for ABCís Good Morning America [a morning news talk show first broadcast in 1976].
When I decided television wasnít for me, I tried film, working with [Hong Kong-born, US-based] director Wayne Wang on his second movie, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart (1985), which featured an 18-year-old Joan Chen. I worked as assistant director (AD), apprentice editor and various other jobs that come with low budget filmmaking. I decided being an AD and an editor werenít for me, so I headed for Hollywood proper and got a job as a script analyst for Tri-Star Pictures which eventually led to my position of president of production for that studio.

thatís: Whatís your advice to Chinese filmmakers eager to break into Hollywood?
CL: What a broad question! And at the same time, what a specific one, because I donít think anyone coming to Hollywood is going to have the same experience as anyone else.
What often separates the success stories [from the failures] is the individualís ability to market themselves and their tenacity; Hollywood is a very tough town that revels in rejection and failure. You need a very thick skin if you want to survive and prosper. You also have to learn from the inevitable failures and not get too discouraged.
My suggestion is to remember the maxim that itís important to get your foot in the door any way you can; be an intern, be an assistant, go to parties and meet as many people as you can. And know that you need to both make as many friends as possible and be as wary as you can. Also, agents and managers do have the ability to be enormously helpful. Always try to find a mentor and listen to othersí experiences.

thatís: You were a creative producer on Superman Returns. Can you explain that title?
CL: Good question. Everyone knows what a director does, or an editor, cinematographer, etc. But producers play many roles and have many titles: producer; executive producer; co-producer; etc. In my case, I was the creative producer for both the studio [Warner Bros.] and Bryan Singer, and served as the chief liaison between the two. I was with Bryan all the time, involved in everything from script, casting, to second-unit work, marketing and publicity. I wasnít a Ďlineí producer which is to say, I didnít come up through the ranks of the talented people who know how to physically Ďruní a picture. But I was responsible for making sure Bryan had smooth sailing every day.

thatís: Superman is an icon. What challenges were there working on a film with such a well-known character?
CL: There are 70 years of history connected to Superman, so you really want to make sure you get it right. That means honoring the legacy and roots of the characters, but it also means, after an absence of 20 years on the big screen, re-establishing the franchise for an entirely new generation. The fans are, of course, quite vocal on their likes and dislikes and while we of course listen to them, Bryan wanted to try some things that had never been done before Ė but always with tremendous respect and love for what made Superman great in the first place.

thatís: You also produced OFOTG. Was it difficult moving from a Hollywood blockbuster to a low budget Chinese comedy?
CL: Well, they [the two projects] actually happened simultaneously. Chen Daming is an old friend of mine, but Iíve always known him as an actor. He has been my host in China on several occasions, even translating for me when I guest lectured at the Beijing Film Academy. I was pleasantly surprised when he wrote and directed Manhole (2004), which I thoroughly enjoyed. He asked me to read an early draft of OFOTG and I just loved the characters and asked if I could work on it, developing the script with him. Together, via the Internet mostly, we worked on focusing the story and the comedy and emotion. Then he got financing from the [Beijing-based] Huayi Brothers to make it. I was in Sydney at the time doing Superman Returns, so I couldnít go to Kaifeng for any of the shooting. But I went to Beijing in January [2006] and worked on the final cut with [producer] Henry Wang. Then in April I went to Bangkok to supervise the sound mix at Technicolor. Iím very proud to be involved and look forward to making more movies with Chen Daming.

thatís: What sort of film is OFOTG?
CL: Itís very much a comedy with heart. If I had to categorize it Iíd say itís similar to Four Weddings and a Funeral (Mike Newell, 1994) with multiple story lines, laughter and tears.
It is very Chinese, but itís very universal as well. Itís about surviving in changing times and dealing with the people we love. The conflicts and dilemmas are recognizable for any audience. Yet I was [also] excited by the opportunity to make a film about contemporary Chinese society. There are already enough martial arts epics and woeful villagers' movies Ė these are characters I think Chinese audiences will embrace as their own.

thatís: How familiar are you with the work of OFOTGís investors, the Wang brothers of Huayi Brothers (The Banquet; A World Without Thieves)?
CL: Theyíre interested in actually developing a script before shooting it and applying marketing to selling them. They seem very supportive of their filmmakers. I know that theyíre very successful and I enjoy working with them. I think theyíre mostly successful because theyíre audience driven; theyíre not interested in making films just for the filmmakers. They remind me of Hollywood producers in that way.

thatís: How can Chinese cinema benefit from foreign expertise?
CL: I think script development could help some filmmakers. I also think better marketing would bring the films to a broader audience. Again, Iím sure there are many ways to define ĎChinese cinemaí but as a Hollywood producer, I am always interested in pictures that speak to the broadest audience.

thatís: Thereís a growing trend in Chinese films to use more CGI effects? Is that progress?
CL: CGIís just a tool, and it can certainly be overused as it is in many Western films that just end up looking like cartoons or video games. Itís more important to care about the stories and characters. You know, some of my favorite Hong Kong pictures were things like A Chinese Ghost Story (Tsui Hark, 1987) and The Storm Riders (Andrew Lau, 1998), which used all kinds of SFX to tell their stories. So I think thereís a history in Chinese cinema to use SFX. And I think CGI provides an opportunity to tell many of the mythical stories of Chinese folklore in ways that could not be done before Ė similar to what we do with our superhero films.
I love what Zhang Yimou did with CGI in Hero (2002) and also House of Flying Daggers (2004). I loved the use of color and the CGI sets.

(c) that's Shanghai Magazine
Chief editor: Steven Crane
October 2006 issue