From remote sets in China’s backcountry to projects in Mongolia, from Japan to the enigmatic halls of Hollywood, producer Philip S.W. Lee has seen and done it all.
A soft-spoken Hong Kong native with a 25-year record of production experience in and around Asia, he has quietly pioneered a rigorous work ethic that seeks to improve standards of filmmaking in the region.
Philip has been carrying his weight for filmmakers from around the world, including such notables as Ang Lee, Chen Kaige, David Cronenberg, Rob Cohen and Zhang Yimou.
These days he stretches his time among many global projects, as an assistant professor at City University of Hong Kong’s School of Creative Media, completing his PhD and being with his family.
How did you first get started in film and why did you choose Japan as a place to study?
I always liked watching movies since I was young. My parents used to bring us to watch morning shows and matinees. I wasn’t formally working in film until around 1978 when I saw an ad for a production company that was hiring an administrative assistant. I quickly realized that I liked the work and thought to myself that it would be a pretty great career.
At the time the company had a project called “Shogun,” a big TV co-production with Paramount. They needed to send someone to Japan to take care of equipment rentals. I was 22 then and hadn’t even been on a plane yet! I spent eight years in Japan. The first four years I merely helped out at the company. But then I decided I wanted to study film seriously so I become a student while working part-time.
My Japanese was all right by then so I applied for a course in film directing at the College of Art at Nippon University. It was hard to get in but I got accepted. Tuition was expensive but a lot of people were working at restaurants or whatever; I worked at night. Everything was poetic to me. (Please refer to my previous explanation). But after graduation I was anxious to return to Hong Kong.
What personal reflections can you offer regarding the current state of the feature film industry in Hong Kong and China?
My first contact with the movie industry in Hong Kong was while I was still studying in Japan. I remember one time I was invited to a production set in Hong Kong and I saw some paper on the floor. It was actually the script for the production which was written only the day before.
I was wondering why would they do things this way? Previously I had participated in a few western productions and there was always a fully prepared script to work with. The way Hong Kong works and the way western companies work is very different. I told myself then that I would prefer to work on foreign productions.
At the time, I didn’t want to participate in Hong Kong or mainland productions. Of course I’m doing it now but I guess in retrospect, there’s always some good and bad in the making of every movie no matter where it is. I always learn a lot from the extremes.
For example, in one production I was involved in, there was a strange case involving the financing. We had investors from France and Japan who obviously thought that their investment was for a movie. But when the editing was finished it was more than four hours long. We had to cut a lot and the final product turned out mediocre. Then later we were told that it had been edited into an eight episode television series that was sold at a TV festival in Shanghai.
After all our effort and after the investors had put so much into the project, how could it be sold like that just for some quick cash? Sure, they were able to get their money back by doing it that way, but it wouldn’t do them any good in the long run, for future productions. From my experience, whether it’s Hong Kong or on the mainland, it’s typically shortsighted. I thought to myself then, how could this happen?
In another case, a friend of mine recently invested in a production. He said he really liked the script. The mainland Chinese partner said the total investment needed would be about HK$3.5 million. My friend decided to partially invest in it, which meant he would have a third of the copyright. But he said he wouldn’t be very dedicated to the production since the overall budget was so small. But later the producers said it was actually over-budgeted! My friend thought it wasn’t an issue as he had already signed the contract. The other side said we had to renegotiate.
When my friend spoke to the producers and the director, he asked why they thought it was over budget. They said, didn’t we already know from the outset that it would be over budget? They had expected to talk about that after the production had begun. My friend said he couldn’t help the feeling of being cheated. To be very blunt, this rarely happens when being involved in western productions. I think it’s because of the way we do things here that drives investors away. People are just too greedy.
But, on the other hand, people like Bill Kong, the producer of Crouching, Hero and House of Flying Daggers, always tells me the most important thing when making a movie is that you should not let your investors lose money. You should help them make money. To me this is the correct attitude. But some unscrupulous people will say a production is going to cost such and such a figure but actually they’ll keep a lot of it in their pockets.
And then there’s the situation where somebody will come to me and say they have a good idea for a project. But they don’t have a script! I think to myself if you don’t even believe that your ideas will work and invest time in writing a script, then how can you convince investors? An idea by itself is not good enough.
On occasion I’ll hire a writer to write a script for me to see if an idea works or not but well before I’d talk to an investor. The situation is very bad in the China and Hong Kong movie industry, especially in Hong Kong.
Very often the filmmakers themselves create the situation. Sure piracy plays a role and the government could help make the infrastructure better, but I think basically it’s because of the unfortunate mentality of the filmmakers that creates this situation in the first place.
That’s why I believe in education. I always think we don’t have enough quality people making movies now. We have to nurture the next generation to be more passionate about the business of film to make things more transparent.
Recently I talked to a film student I know who graduated a year or so ago. He’s been forced to do other things and found it so hard. He wants to be making movies so he asked me if there is a future in the movie industry here. I said, sure, but it’s entirely up to you. If a profession has a good future, then it would be easier for you to do well. But if an industry isn’t that doing well, then isn’t it an opportunity in disguise?
Of course one will probably have to suffer in the beginning and the pay will be very low. But in the movie industry, very often the return is not proportional. Some people might have put a lot of effort in a production but not get much out of it. Others gain much more but do very little.
I saw a lot while I was studying in the states. After graduation, some of my classmates had to do different jobs or write scripts and do small projects at the same time to prepare themselves. Then later they made a successful movie and someone approached them and packaged them. It’s entirely up to your efforts.
Nothing is guaranteed but it’s about how you focus yourself. How you see your career and your vision for the market. How well you can do it. It’s very simple. For example, in “Crouching,” hundreds of million of dollars were made all over the world. The returns were multiple at the box office alone. In what other business can you make a profit like that?
Of course you have to take risks. You might have invested hundreds of millions of dollars and end up losing everything. There are lots of examples of that. The movie industry is risky. I think it depends on how you want to walk it. The road you take depends on so many things. It depends on your luck, your confidence and your knowledge. It all counts.
Success requires a certain spirit of risk. If you don’t have the mentality to risk, or if you don’t have the mentality to strive for excellence, then it’ll be difficult to survive. There’ll be such pain. You’ll find it hard to do any project. In this sense, doing a small project is not very different from doing a big project.
Get the rest of the interview in part two of PRODUCTION PERFECTIONIST: PHILIP LEE>>>