Chris Lee is a 4th generation American hapa — some very brave or desperate great grandfather from Toi San in Guang Dong province in China came to build the railroads and eventually begat him: a Chinese-Scottish motion picture producer, studio executive (at TriStar Pictures) and unexpected educator who travels a lot, but lives in Hawaii where he started the Academy for Creative Media at the University of Hawaii. Currently in post in LA as Producer of Quentin Lee’s White Frog and in prep in Beijing producing Chen Da Ming’s Seven, The Chosen Killer, Chris most loves working closely with directors to help them bring their visions to the screen. He used to be a lot of things but he’s too terrified to ever read about himself on google or imdb to find out what. He suspects there’s actually nothing there. (Editor’s note: Actually, Chris’ credits as producer or executive producer are very well-represented and include Superman Returns, S.W.A.T. and Valkyrie)
While very honored to be newly included among the Offenders, I have struggled to find something to say. If you know me, this is rather odd as I am frequently and accurately accused of saying too much. Now that we have wrapped principle photography, I do have a few thoughts on what it’s like to journey full circle, from my first job in film over twenty years ago on Wayne Wang’s second film, Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, to now, as producer of Quentin Lee’s fifth film, White Frog.
The first thing I notice is that these films are still being made as cheaply as possible. Dim Sum and White Frog have similar budgets (though not in terms of inflation), which is to say, roughly the cost of our catering on my last film, Bryan Singer’s Valkyrie. This means that everyone is still making them for love: I’ve been staying in Quentin’s spare bedroom for two months because my home is in Hawaii and our incredible cast including Booboo Stewart, BD Wong, Harry Shum, Jr., Joan Chen, Gregg Sulkin, Tyler Posey, Kelly Hu and Amy Hill who have all been driving themselves to set and working at the SAG Modified Low Budget rate (plus 10 percent for their agents).
You can look it up, but trust me, they all make much more money on their regular gigs, as they should. And that’s the second thing I noticed about making this film: there was a fabulous pool of established Asian American talent with which to execute all aspects of movie-making from development, camera (we have a great DP in Yasu Tanida), production, performance, financing, post, sales and marketing. Audrey Magazine is right in recognizing White Frog’s “A-List (and we don’t just mean “A” for “Asian) cast and crew.” When we made Dim Sum, very few of us in front of or behind the camera had ever worked in film before — especially me.
Back in 1980-something I was working for Good Morning America in NYC, my first job after graduating from Yale with a BA in Political Science that I was somehow trying to utilize in the television business. Wayne Wang, for reasons still unknown, asked me at some Chinese banquet fundraiser thing to be his First Assistant Director on what was going to be his next movie after his break out Chan is Missing — the Godfather of Asian American film. I told him I didn’t know what a 1st AD does, but he said he had never had one so if I was willing to relocate to San Francisco and work for nothing, we would figure it out together.
I had no idea what I was doing. None. The movie kept shooting and re-shooting for 2 years (when I got to SF it was a murder mystery, then morphed into an Ozu film), the crew kept getting smaller, I ended up 1st AD, PA, caterer and grip, then in post production as the Apprentice Editor. The lovely result was a precursor to Wayne’s adaptation of The Joy Luck Club. What I learned was that I was a lousy First AD, was never going to be an editor, and if I had any hope of staying in this business, I had to get myself down to LA to try being a script analyst for TriStar Pictures — but that’s another blog.
On Dim Sum we cast an 18 year old Joan Chen who actually stayed with me because we had no hotel accommodations, I met Amy Hill who played one of the key roles in that film, and I also “found” Mark Dacascos walking down Grant Avenue and asked him to audition (he was 18, too, his mom thought it was some porno come on, but that’s another blog, as well). He got the part as Joan’s love interest, but I think he got cut out, along with most of her scenes — a particular pity if you never saw her version of “My Boyfriend’s Back” or rendition of “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” in full Marilyn Monroe outfit. Mark, unfortunately, was too busy being “The Chairman” on Iron Chef America and Wo Fat on Hawaii Five-0 to offer a part on White Frog. But another dear friend who, like Mark and I, is from Hawaii and whom I have always wanted to work with, Kelly Hu, came aboard in a pivotal role. Every movie (and crew) should be so lucky as to have Kelly light up their set. BD Wong is someone I still call Brad from our days in LA before he changed his name and won the Tony and every other theater award for M. Butterfly.
But the reunion doesn’t stop there. I was sent the script to produce by Quentin Lee whom I have known and admired for almost 20 years, and that’s when I first learned that David Henry Hwang was attached as Executive Producer. Oddly, he wasn’t the writer — White Frog is the first original screenplay from the remarkable mother and daughter team of Ellie and Fabienne Wen. David and I go back to when he was a young playwright in NYC and I stalked him in the lobby of the Public Theater during the run of his breakthrough hit, Dance and the Railroad because he was so brilliantly talented I just had to meet him. We have not seen enough of each other since he became a superstar after writing M. Butterfly so I was thrilled to work with him as Script Advisor in developing White Frog for production and he even has a cameo in the film — as a pastor.
I understand co-writer and producer Ellie Wen met David using similar stalking skills when she was at Stanford, but I’ll let DHH tell you how he came to this film as he’s an Offender, too. But once you shoot a film you have to finish and sell it, so I am extraordinarily grateful for a huge post production favor from the guy with one of the biggest hearts in the business: Dean Devlin. Dean and I have been friends since he started working with Roland Emmerich (whom I met before he made Moon 44 — which starred Dean). Finally, I brought CAA graduate Kevin Iwashina to the project as Executive Producer. He is now one of the top independent film finance and sales guys in the business. Kevin had seven movies for sale at Sundance last year. And he still looks 13. Even with his goatee.
So, with White Frog, I feel I’ve come full circle back to where I started: low budget, mostly Asian American cast and crew, and having a great time working with old friends while making new ones. Except, this time we finished the picture in 18 days instead of two years. The budget may be same, but the talent is not. White Frog could not have been without a lot of friends in the community sharing their wealth of experiences. That’s something you could not buy 25 years ago. And something you have to earn today. Hopefully I have learned a thing or two along the way. I think we all have.