Chris Chan Lee: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker

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Never let others declare or define what you are capable of doing. When I was younger I was told point-blank, “You’re Asian, no one is going to give you a movie to direct.” That is only one overt example of things you will hear.

As a part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker”, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing writer/director Chris Chan Lee.

With a surreal filmmaking style inspired by the neo-noir work of David Lynch, Silent River — which enjoyed a highly successful film festival run and is now available on VOD — is the third feature film release from Lee, who made his directorial debut in 1997 with the award-winning, critically acclaimed film, Yellow, a coming-of-age drama/comedy about a group of Asian-American teens in Los Angeles. Yellow featured the theatrical film acting debuts of John Cho (the Star Trek and Harold & Kumar film franchises) and Jason Tobin (Warrior, Jasmine, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift). Lee followed with producing the thriller, Jasmine, which won 100 awards in international film festival competitions.

Lee was one of the “Class of 1997” — as noted in the book Rise: A Pop History of Asian Americans from the Nineties to Now — when the film industry lauded six Asian filmmakers who were bringing the same game-changing talent and momentum to indie film that had previously announced the bomb-dropping “arrival” of noted Black filmmakers like Spike Lee and queer filmmakers like Todd Haynes, followed by others riding the wave of their successes.

In Silent River, a taut and evocative, sci-fi mystery/suspense film, Elliot (West Liang) is desperate to reconcile with his estranged wife, Julie (Amy Tsang). At a loss for his next move, he falls into a downward spiral and, when he encounters the sultry Greta (Tsang in a dual role) — an uncanny woman on the run from a mysterious past — strange and mysterious occurrences begin to haunt him.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit of the ‘backstory’ of how you grew up?

My parents were first generation immigrants from Korea. I was born and raised in California. My parents eventually opened up a corner convenience store and deli, where I spent my childhood working during summers and weekends.

The store was located in what was, at the time, a rough, crime-ridden neighborhood in San Francisco. We were eventually able to afford to move to the suburbs, so I very much experienced an upbringing of living between cultures and generations and being stretched across very different socioeconomic classes. I never fully felt a part of or that I belonged to any one distinct group, but was always an outsider and observer.

My parents worked seven days a week until late at night, so I was a latchkey kid, riding bikes around my hometown with friends, staying out late — back in a time when it seemed okay for kids to do so.

Can you share a story with us about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was pretty good at computer programming and science and thought that would be my career. This was before they had sufficient computer classes at my school, so I had to get permission to attend classes at local universities while still a high school junior. During that time, I took a beginning photography class at Stanford University. I was also drawing my own comic books and making short films with my friends. My interest in visual arts and photography began to overtake my interest in computer science. When I happened upon a near-empty movie theater in San Francisco and saw David Lynch’s Blue Velvet for the first time, I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your filmmaking career?

One of my first film industry jobs was as a PA/runner for a network tv show starring a very well-known actress who headlined a detective series. One day, I had to deliver something on set while they were rehearsing, I saw this actor and was star struck. Of course, I eventually learned along the way to never get in an actor’s eyeline — and I don’t believe I was in her eyeline — but she proceeded to chew me out in front of the entire crew. I never heard one word she was saying but have had years since then to speculate on what they might have been. Instead, I was stunned, truly impressed at seeing an actor that my family and I used to gather around the TV to watch while eating dinner. It’s like I fell into a soundless tunnel as this legend shouted inaudibly at me. Later, I got called into the producer’s office where they told me this actor was known for being quite eccentric and that they had no choice but to politely let me go.

When I was about 20 and still in film school, I got hired to follow a newly signed band and direct rockumentary-style footage while at a beautiful, remote recording studio in the mountains, documenting this rising group as they recorded their first album for an iconic record producer. I was shooting 16mm and Super 8.

The band was amazing. They had all come up together in a midwest town before moving out to Los Angeles and played beautiful, soulful rock music. They had the ear of many superstars who were in support of their arrival and we met with many of them along the way. Only one week into recording the album on this beautiful mountain top, the lead singer got into an altercation with one of the other band members, then tried to commit suicide. Fortunately, everything ended with no one getting hurt. The next day they were dropped from their record deal. I had a really sad, brief convo with the lead singer. Eventually, everyone went back home to L.A.

Around the same time, I was a PA on a location shoot, tasked with holding onto a rain hat mounted on a C-stand in order to keep it stable amid wind, to keep a light dry from the rain machine. I remember thinking at the time, while freezing at 2 a.m., getting drenched by artificial rain as a human sandbag, “I need to get into a different business.”

Almost 30 years later and here I am. Still here. The stories only get crazier.

I suppose I can’t remember if I have a story that is both funny and interesting. But I do know I’ve had a lot of memorable experiences on this path as a filmmaker. Some fun, some positive. Looking back, I can say, there is no job too small on a film production. Many of the hardest working, most committed and successful filmmakers I know today were the hardest working people I knew in my own early days. At that time, they were fellow PAs and assistants.

Who are some of the most interesting people you have interacted with? What was that like? Do you have any stories?

Like everyone who lives in L.A., you eventually meet famous people. Years ago in Los Angeles, I was introduced to legendary South Korean filmmaker Shin Sang-ok, who famously had been kidnapped along with his wife Choi Eun-hee by North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il and held for eight years, forced to direct state-produced entertainment, until they escaped and sought asylum in the United States. I was hired as a ghost writer to do a polish on one of Mr. Shin’s feature film scripts for his U.S. studio deal. It was amazing to meet someone of his era and my parents were delighted about it because they were fans back in Korea.

I also remember being introduced to Prince while he was filming a music video in Griffith Park. He was chilling in his purple Mercedes before he came out to say hello.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I haven’t been lucky enough to have a mentor that guided me over the years. But I’ve been very fortunate to meet and build relationships and collaborations with fellow filmmakers and artists. That has been an ongoing experience, where one might be in the right place, on a certain path, with a certain project, while encountering another like-minded collaborator at the appropriate time.

During film school, I became friends with Scott Dikkers. We would share scripts and he showed me some things he was tinkering with, including a satirical newspaper called The Onion, which he had co-founded. He was also drawing and writing a four-panel, daily cartoon called Jim’s Journal. He said the deadpan, introverted character of Jim was modeled after me. Scott ultimately dropped out of film school to go back to the midwest to work on The Onion full time. We stayed in touch and, eventually, there was a period where we both wanted to make a feature film, so we made a pact. I would shoot his comedy, sci-fi feature Spaceman as his director of photography, shooting in Wisconsin and Illinois; and he would sound design my first feature Yellow at his tiny, yet mighty, recording studio in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, where he was performing and producing Onion radio show content.

Over time people often diverge and grow apart. But it can be wonderful when you manage to align for a time together.

I am very interested in diversity in the entertainment industry. Can you share three reasons with our readers about why you think it’s important to have diversity represented in film and television? How can that potentially affect our culture?

When you are starting out, there can be a lot of outside pressure and influence, especially while living near Hollywood. You’re being told what is relevant, what is trending and told who and what you need to be while working to find your voice as an artist and filmmaker.

I think it is vitally important to realize as early as possible to embrace what makes you unique and different. Whether it be based on your upbringing, culture, life experiences or any of the things that define you as an individual. While attending film school at USC, I realized early on that I was never going to be quite like Robert Zemeckis or James Cameron. I could dream about one day reaching a level of that kind of accomplishment, but my path would have to be my own if I was ever going to get there.

While still in school, I wrote one of my first feature screenplays Mission Street, about a Korean immigrant who opens a convenience store in a working class neighborhood of San Francisco and falls in love with the daughter of his Latino landlord. It was a bit of a Romeo & Juliet-inspired type of story with burgeoning, racially driven tensions. The drama soon escalates to a dramatic and violent climatic set piece.

I went to the Samuel & French bookstore in West Hollywood and purchased a copy of “The Hollywood Studio Directory,” which listed all the executives at all the studios and production companies and their contact info. in one directory. It was about $40, which at the time might as well have been $500 to a starving student. I mailed my script and cover letter to many major production executives in town, referencing that directory.

I received a few letters of encouragement but, for the most part, that is where things ended. But then something unexpected happened — The horrific tragedy of the L.A. Riots. An outbreak that was both an uprising and act of destruction that had many victims.

There was suddenly context for my story and I was called to many meetings at most of the studios in Hollywood. At the same time, I was navigating the trauma that everyone in Los Angeles shared, including the destruction and looting that occurred at my parents’ store in Long Beach (where they had relocated from San Francisco). It was like living in a war zone. But I was grateful for the encouragement I received from people in the business.

Long story short, I was still going to have to find ways to tell my stories on my own. I set out to write another screenplay, Yellow, a comedy/drama about a group of Asian American teens in Los Angeles and their fateful graduation night. A film that Kevin Thomas of the L.A. Times would later describe as “an Asian American Graffiti.”

Just financing and making the film was an uphill battle. I heard comments like, “You should change some of the leads to white characters.” Pounding the pavement on the festival and distribution circuit was a next-level challenge. When describing my film about “a group of Asian American teens” to anyone who’d listen in Park City while Sundance was taking place, I’d be asked questions such as “Is it in English?”

We’ve come a long way. Embracing my own identity has allowed me to carve out my own space and also the ability to attract collaboration with many like-minded people throughout the years. In particular Asian and Asian American actors such as Jason Tobin, John Cho, Amy Hill, Oh Soon-Teck, Leonardo Nam, Amy Tsang, West Liang and many, many others.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?

I’m developing a feature film project with a friend of mine and we already have a tightly executed script. I can’t talk about it yet on any level, but the thing that excites me that I can share is that I’ve known this friend most of my adult life. One of the most talented writers and artists I know, that somehow — despite writing dozens upon dozens of amazing screenplays — remains unproduced. We came up together during our 20s in Los Angeles when it seemed there were but just a handful of people like us in the community. I’ve been wanting for a long time to not write my own movie, but to collaborate with another writer. I think this project might be the one.

Which aspect of your work makes you most proud? Can you explain or give a story?

For this most recent effort, what I am very proud of is that we took risks. I wanted to take certain creative and even practical risks to make the whole journey worthwhile. To arrive at something unique as a filmmaker. Will people get this, will they have the patience and the trust? We had to build and create this world. There will be those that vibe with it, that will be excited about the experience we created. We made this film for those people.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

1. Embrace what is unique and special about you.

2. Never let others declare or define what you are capable of doing. When I was younger I was told point-blank, “You’re Asian, no one is going to give you a movie to direct.” That is only one overt example of things you will hear.

3. Have fun in the process, while surrounding yourself and working with good people.

4. Trust your instincts. Always.

5. Never let anyone borrow any of your books or DVDs. No matter how close or trusted a friend they may be. And if they say, “Don’t worry I’ll get it back to you right away,” then be extra vigilant. If they want to borrow something that is special edition or out of print, it is not considered rude to stop them mid-sentence.

When you create a film, which stakeholders have the greatest impact on the artistic and cinematic choices you make? Is it the viewers, the critics, the financiers, or your own personal artistic vision? Can you share a story with us or give an example about what you mean?

I think at the outset, especially when you are in the formative stages, you are conceptualizing or writing for yourself. If the project moves beyond that, then you are building your team and seeking the right collaborators — Your producers, actors, visual artists and other key creatives. There should be an excitement and shared interest between each of these collaborators to get things started. So ultimately, as the writer or director, you are in a situation now where you try to do right by your entire team. It is not about and should never be about making a film by committee. However, you are now in a position where you’ve established common ground and your job as a project leader is to try and make conditions where everyone can do their best, most honest work while staying on course. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions. Decisions that everybody can’t agree with. You can do all the research, present all the facts and reasons and logic behind everything … But ultimately you have to trust your instincts. There is a reason why you have come this far.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Choosing my own path is something I have always done, for better or worse, since the beginning.

I set out to make my first feature film after getting my feet wet writing several unproduced Asian American themed scripts. In the mid-90s, virtually no one thought that making Asian American feature films were viable, important, or would ever catch on. Even many Asian American filmmakers.

There had always been inspiring breakthroughs and major works by the likes of Wayne Wang and others but overall it was a bigger uphill battle than it is today.

I faced a lot of skepticism about trying to make a film about Asian American youth. But I’d always believed that things are ever-changing. Chasing trends is futile. It’s always more interesting to start something new.

Silent River may not fit into any category of what people might expect out of an “Asian American feature film.” We are in new terrain, again.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂

That’s a tough question. There are so many heroes. Many of them are no longer with us. And we’re surrounded by many whose names we know, whose influence is felt throughout the world. There are many people I’d love to meet and to get to know. But let’s take a few steps back and evaluate the scenario … Private lunch. Maybe breakfast …

Yes, I’d love to sit down and have a 10-course breakfast with Park Chan Wook, Yorgos Lanthimos or Martin Scorsese. I’d ask Mr. Scorsese how he got that shot in Taxi Driver? What was it like shooting in New York back then? I’d ask him how it was filming the trading floor in Wolf of Wall Street and about the work he did with those actors, etc. Sounds like a good time, right? For me.

You’ve got to wonder about the other side of the table. What did somebody have to say to Martin Scorsese, to sit down and have breakfast with me? What kind of threat had to be made? I just think, in actual practice, that scenario could be awkward.

If anything, I really wish I could be a fly on the wall. Or a parrot on the shoulder of Scorsese, of David Lynch, Zulawski, Kubrick, Park Chan-Wook, Chantal Akerman, Lanthimos, Kieslowski. (We’d need a time machine as well for some of these people.) But these are circumstances where they’re not obliged to have an omelet with a stranger. Rather, they are in their element, doing their work, being themselves, seeing and interacting with the world as themselves. That’s what I’d love to observe. What is their process? How do these people manage and orchestrate the chaos?

In real-life practice, some of my favorite people in the world are other artists, that may be lesser known than such public figures. But I learn so much working alongside my artist friends, sometimes helping them in any way I can on their own projects. I get to see the world the way they see it. The problems they find, I begin to see. There is so much to learn by being in the room together with creative, generous people.

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This was very meaningful, thank you so much! We wish you continued success!

Chris Chan Lee: 5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Became A Filmmaker was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.