During his tenure as head of production at Columbia TriStar in the 1990s, Chris Lee oversaw such Hollywood classics as Philadelphia, Jerry Maguire and As Good As It Gets.
But behind the scenes, as the first known Asian American to lead production at a major Hollywood studio, the Hawaii native was also actively involved in nurturing the industry’s then-inchoate AAPI community of executives and creatives, co-founding in 1991 the Coalition of Asian Pacifics in Entertainment.
Just over 20 years ago, Lee returned to his home state and continued his mission of developing AAPI storytellers by establishing the Academy for Creative Media across the University of Hawai’i system, where he still directs the program. Two ACM alumni have premiered features at Sundance over the past two years — Christopher Makoto Yogi with I Was a Simple Man in 2021 and Alika Maikau with Kaimuki in 2022.
This year Lee himself is returning to the festival as an executive producer on Justin Chon’s drama Jamojaya, the first feature from Asian diaspora media company 88rising, starring Indonesian rapper Rich Brian, whose real name is Brian Imanuel. In his movie acting debut, Imanuel is an up-and-coming rapper whose father gets demoted from manager to assistant when he signs with a U.S. label.
Lee spoke with The Hollywood Reporter ahead of the 2023 Sundance Film Festival about his full-circle journey from Hawaii to Hollywood and his reflections on how AAPI power in the industry has changed over the past three decades.
How did you get from Hawaii to Hollywood?
My parents met at Yale, my father as an undergraduate in the ‘50s where he was on the Chinese basketball team — which had one Korean and one Italian on it because I guess they were all considered minorities at Yale at the time. My parents were kind of bold, because my mother was white and my father was Chinese, and the reason I come from Hawaii is because they felt that was a better place for all of us to be raised. They met at the divinity school, my father was a minister, so when the church gave him an opportunity to move to Hawaii, that’s where he chose. I’m very grateful to them for doing that because it’s very different when you grow up Asian or mixed on the mainland.
I followed [their footsteps] to Yale, and I was a political science major. I was intending to be an attorney, maybe a public defender or something, but I always had an interest in entertainment. I had been a child actor in Hawaii and [at home we had] a Super 8 camera, and my sister says, “Oh, The Fabelmans is all about you.” That’s how she remembers me forcing them to be in all my movies when I was a kid. My first job was as a PA at Good Morning America and eventually, I became an entertainment segment producer. I met a then-young writer-director, Wayne Wang, who had done Chan is Missing, at a reception in New York Chinatown. We got to talking and he offered me as job as his assistant director on his upcoming second feature [Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart]. I said, “I really don’t know what they do. I know what they do in television, but I know it’s a very different job in film.” And he said, “If you’re willing to come out and basically not be paid, I’ve never had an assistant director before, so we can both find out together.” So that was my entrée into film, and I also ended up being the apprentice editor on the picture. That I thought of as my film school; I learned about the nuts and bolts of production and post-production. And I also realized, “I don’t think I’m going to be an AD or an editor.” There’s production and post and what’s left is what comes before it, and that’s development.
So I took another shot and did a bunch of interviews to get a job as a freelance script reader for TriStar Pictures. One of my dear friends from college was David Henry Hwang, and I actually slept on his parents’ floor for a little while until I got my footing in Los Angeles. I was getting like $25 a script at TriStar. It was one of the few places where you could get that job because it wasn’t a union shop. Then I moved up to assistant story editor, and then director of creative affairs, vp, senior vp, executive vp, and then president of production, and then they merged the companies and I was president of production for Columbia and TriStar. That was my climb through Hollywood.
Did you have any Asian American peers in the industry at that time?
That’s one of the reasons myself [and fellow executives] Fritz Friedman and Wenda Fong founded CAPE. I had known Fritz in New York when he worked for RCA Home Video before it was bought by Columbia. Wenda had been doing this for a long time, but we were among the very few. Janet Yang — Dim Sum was where I met her for the first time and we’ve been friends ever since — was another one. Our very first meeting was probably 15 people in the back room of The Mandarin, and the owner Phillip Chiang burst into tears because he was just so happy that we were going to try to make a difference behind the lens as well as in front of the lens. There had been organizations that were focused on the actors, like the Jimmie Awards [presented by the Association of Asian-Pacific American Artists], but that was the birth of CAPE.
Dan Lin is very kind because he heard me speak [in college] at Penn, and he says that’s what convinced him he could actually get a job in Hollywood. Walter Hamada was my assistant, it was his first job in the business. I made it a policy to pretty much, where I could, hire other Asian Americans and intern Asian Americans in the different offices I had.
So there was a small community of individuals working in Hollywood, but what was it like interacting with non-Asian American colleagues?
The Gold House website has a [statement] which I think is very smart, where it says, “We don’t want a seat at the table, we want to build a whole new house.” But back in the day, I was always the only minority face at any of those tables. There were no Black people in those meetings, no Latinos. We had this thing called weekend read — I’m sure they’re all on iPads now but we would have these massive bags full of 15, 30 scripts and then on Monday morning everybody is at this long table and has to talk about if they read something that they really believe in. When Janet came around with The Joy Luck Club, I really believed in it because the script made me cry and the book was a bestseller, so I felt we could market it. I remember on that Monday morning read, one of the executives said, “There’s no Americans in it.” I said, “They are American, they just don’t look like you!” [Editor’s note: The film was eventually produced by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures.]
One time I was developing an adaptation of an action book about bodyguards by the guy who wrote the Rambo series [The Fifth Profession by David Morrell], and it was a Japanese guy and a white guy together. The head of production at the time said to me, “Get rid of this Japanese character because they won’t be able to speak English anyway.” So it was a very different time, let me just put it that way. But you did what you could. For instance, because I had grown up [watching] Chinese movies at the Shaw Brothers and Nippon and all the Asian theaters in the old Chinatowns in Hawaii, I was a huge Tsui Hark fan and went to Hong Kong trying to get him to come to Hollywood. He wasn’t interested in it but because of that visit, I got to meet John Woo and that led me to try to figure out a way to bring John over and Terence [Chang], his producer. I actually bought the rights to remake The Killer. At that time, we put it together with Walter Hill to direct, which John was thrilled about, and it was going to be Richard Gere and Denzel Washington. And for some reason my bosses never pulled the trigger on it, [even though] it was a turnkey movie.
One thing that came out of it was, originally, I sent a copy of The Killer to Sam Raimi to see if he wanted to remake it, because John was not interested in remaking it at all. He got back to me and he goes, “I don’t want to remake it, but I want to hire this guy.” So that’s how John got hired for Hard Target, which was his first American picture, which he was very challenged by. The studio didn’t understand what he was doing. They had an editor cutting behind him, and he used to call me in the middle of the night and ask me to explain the behavior of Jean-Claude Van Damme. (Laughs) Anyway, so that’s an example of trying to make a dent in the universe, as Steve Jobs used to put it, in terms of making not wholesale but incremental changes, but also just recognizing where some of the most exciting cinema was coming from and how we could change that.
How did you eventually come back to Hawaii and start ACM?
I ascribe some of it to 9/11: What do I really want to do? And I decided to base out of Hawaii. When I made that decision, the University of Hawai’i, which had been asking me a few times if I would help them start a film school, came to me again and said, “Now that you’re living here, could you really think about this?” That’s when I set out to sort of conceive of something different from what they wanted. They wanted a film school, and I said, “Film is a dying medium and not that storytelling won’t continue to exist, but we don’t even have a lab here, and stories will be told through other technology.” So what we agreed to was to start a traditional film school at our flagship campus [at Mānoa]. I was able to get 14 positions from the legislature – it’s very much like California – and funding and then raise money from private individuals to start the program.
We could do it in such a way that while we didn’t have cameras and big lights and all the things you have at USC, we basically could compress that all into what I call the digital toolbelt, which was a backpack with a Mac computer, the software for writing or animation or editing and a small Sony camera and then just sort of unleash [the students]. One of the most important things was Bird Runningwater introduced me to [the late filmmaker] Merata Mita, who’s really the godmother of the New Zealand film industry. Everybody from Taika Waititi to Peter Jackson is from her school of learning. She was one of my very first hires, and she basically empowered a new generation of Indigenous filmmakers from Hawaii to tell their stories and not ask for permission.
How did you get involved in Jamojaya, which is premiering at Sundance?
I’m very proud that we’ve had [ACM alumni with films] at Sundance the last two years. I feel so bad that they were the non-in-person years, so they didn’t get that joy, but this year we have Jamojaya, and we had interns on it from the school. The very first film Justin made as a director — he co-directed Man Up with KevJumba in Hawaii — virtually, that entire crew was our students. That’s where he found his editor, Reynolds Barney, who has cut every one of his pictures since, including this one. And so Justin, who has chosen to raise his family here in Hawaii and has been doing guest lectures for us, has a strong connection to our school.
Justin often sends me his stuff to look at, and he sent me the script and I just fell in love with it. They were trying to pull together the financing, and there was a group that I’d worked with before called Starlight Media, and I sent it to them and they came in as the majority financier on the picture.
I’m really looking forward to seeing everybody at Sundance. I haven’t gone for a long time; I think the last time I went I was one of the mentors to a Native American woman named Sydney Freeland — the credit really has to go to [longtime Sundance Institute creative advisor] Joan Tewkesbury — but I worked with Sydney on her first script, the one showing the different lives on the reservation [Drunktown’s Finest]. It was a great picture, and she’s doing Marvel now [Disney +’s upcoming Echo].
[This year the festival is] going to have an Asian house; I was there when they didn’t even have a breakfast! I think [director of programming] Kim Yutani’s done a great job in terms of the inclusivity of the program, but I also think it’s because there’s a tremendous amount of great product out there. There is genuinely a buffet of choices that are quality pictures.
How has AAPI presence and power in the industry changed — if you indeed feel it has changed?
There’s no question. Look at [the Gold List]. That doesn’t even begin to include everything else that came out this year. When I talk about how we didn’t have a bench when we started CAPE, now we have an extraordinarily deep bench of talent. If you want an A-list director, you can go from Destin [Daniel Cretton] to James Wan, Justin [Chon], Justin Lin, Lulu Wang, Daniels, Jon Chu. And there are so many more actors and actresses making their way up the chain who are viable and can make a picture go. We didn’t have that before.
But one thing that’s very different, beyond the depth of talent, is that we have these deep pockets now and organizations. When you talk about building a house, 88Rising is its own house. CAPE is still the leading networking group mentoring the next generation of writers and executives, while Gold House has all the Internet money. You have TAAF [The Asian American Foundation] with [board members like Alibaba co-founder and Brooklyn Nets owner] Joe Tsai; you actually have these deep-pocketed resources. You see this surfeit of AAPI projects that are going to, say, be at Sundance. A lot of them come from entities, like AUM Group, that have the power of that ability to write a major check. And Starlight and obviously MACRO, which financed [Chon’s] last movie, is devoted to diverse filmmaking. You’re going to see a lot more examples of that.
So yes, things have changed tremendously! It may not seem like it if you’re just looking at the last few years because you’re so used to the fact that Crazy Rich Asians blew the doors off of everything. But even though everything didn’t get made, think about all the pilots that have been created. Yes, things are very, very different and I’m very proud when I see people that I knew, and lots of people that I don’t know, succeeding at wildly high levels.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.