Even ardent film buffs might be hard-pressed to identify what the following directors have in common: Mexico’s Alejandro González Iñárritu; Englishman Christopher Nolan; Canadian Paul Haggis; Germany’s Tom Tykwer; Dutchman Jan de Bont; Americans Terrence Malick and the Wachowski siblings; Hong Kong’s Ronny Yu; Taiwan-born Ang Lee; and China’s Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou.

Some in this list make crowd-pleasing blockbusters. Some are renowned auteurs, with more than a few Oscars between them. As it turns out, the common thread uniting their disparate styles is producer Philip Lee, who’s worked with them all and lived to tell the tales. Mention that quite a few of these directors have reputations for being rather controlling, and Lee gives a good-natured laugh. “If they are good, why not? If I were them, I would be controlling too.”

Two-time Oscar-winning Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu pits man against nature in The Revenant

His own background may explain his affinity with demanding creative types. Now based in Singapore with his Singaporean wife and three daughters, Lee started his producing career in the 1980s with Hong Kong’s Salon Films, where he worked on Hollywood projects shooting in Asia. He later studied directing in Japan, at Nihon University’s College of Arts, and this has helped him immensely as a producer.

“I can become very good friends with directors. I know how they think; why they feel insecure; when is the best time to talk to them,” he says. “Being a director can be very lonely, and you have to gain their trust. My purpose is to help them make a great movie, which eventually will benefit myself as well. If you’re talking to someone who’s only thinking about money and have no ideas about story and characters, why waste your time?”

Chinese private equity firms find lucrative returns in film production studios

Earlier this year, Lee started production company Facing East with business partner and lawyer Markus Barmettler. He is reviving a project – The 19th Step – which was previously announced in 2008 but eventually fell through due to what Lee describes as “stupid reasons”. Paul Haggis will also write and direct a trilogy for Facing East based on US author Paolo Bacigalupi’s young adult novels, beginning with Ship Breaker.

Other upcoming projects include Inversion, a science-fiction piece written by Haggis; and Radegund, a second world war drama directed by the legendary Malick. But first, he has action film Assassin’s Creed opening in Hong Kong on December 22. Unusually for Lee, this is a project based on a popular video game, and its backers have hopes of turning it into a profitable franchise. Beneath the film’s commercial ambitions lie a wealth of potent creative talents who first made their names in the arthouse scene, chief among them Australian director Justin Kurzel, and leading man Michael Fassbender.

For Lee, producing is an act of creativity. With Barmettler’s expertise in structuring financing deals, Lee can now focus on his passion for developing scripts, nurturing creative relationships, and finding potential investors who share their vision. “I choose projects with my heart. They don’t always look like obvious successes, but as a salesman, I can only sell things that I love,” he explains. “I want to do good movies that can communicate with audiences, that have artistic value as well as commercial value.”

For instance, Iñárritu’s Oscar-winning The Revenant was a tough sell to investors, but Lee believed in Leonardo DiCaprio’s star power as well as the director’s vision. “I believe in fate. I can only tell potential investors sincerely and wholeheartedly about a project. If they buy it, they buy it; if they don’t, they don’t,” he says.

Another of his favourite projects is 2012’s Cloud Atlas , a trippy science-fiction movie co-directed by the Wachowskis and Tykwer. “I think it’s a great film, but a lot of people didn’t get it. Maybe someday they will. I feel very sorry that the investors didn’t make money, but every single one is still friends with me, because they love the movie and they understand that nothing in life is guaranteed.”

You might say that Lee has settled on a very tough niche as a producer — in an industry currently dominated by tentpole movies usually featuring at least one superhero, he has set his sights on big-budget, non-franchise projects that tell original stories, often helmed by storytellers whose artistic vision may not necessarily be an easy sell. His job is to help strike that fine balance between art and commerce, delivering distinctive movies that still have a shot at box office success.

After all, big-budget spectacle alone is no substitute for sheer talent, and above all, a good script, Lee believes. “You can spend very little on a movie’s budget and still touch an international audience. It’s not undoable. But the chance is slim,” he says. “The size of the audience you want decides the kind of movie you make.”

I choose projects with my heart. They don’t always look like obvious successes, but as a salesman, I can only sell things that I love
Philip Lee

In the late 1990s, Lee became one of the earliest Hong Kong producers to venture into China’s film industry because he was excited by the untapped potential of the Chinese market. Today, this massive market has become a coveted driver of global box office success for many Hollywood players. But for Lee, “China’s film market today is prosperous, but the industry itself is very different. It may be getting worse compared to 10 or 20 years ago – it’s become too complicated, and directors concern themselves with too many things besides telling a good story.” The technology deployed in Chinese movies may have improved by leaps and bounds, “but for storytelling, I still prefer Farewell My Concubine, To Live and The Blue Kite. That sort of movie is much more exciting to me,” he says.

“In the past few years, movies that have been successful in China have been mostly comedies, which has always been a genre that does not travel easily. These may be entertaining for Chinese audiences, but they are not that appealing for an international audience.”

Indeed, few contemporary Chinese filmmakers have attracted international acclaim the way Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee did with their arthouse movies in the 1990s. Lee says he has been “looking around, but so far, from the younger generation, there are not that many that I can find”. He does, however, want to bring some attention to more established names who have not yet had their global breakthrough. One of these is Tsui Hark. “I still think he is a very exciting director, and I want to find an opportunity to work with him. We just need the right script.”

Another filmmaker on his wishlist is Wong Kar-wai, who made his English-language debut in 2007 with My Blueberry Nights.

“A lot of people think that’s not a very good movie, but personally I like it. I think it’s very romantic, very sexy. I love all his movies,” Lee says. “Would I have had the courage to work with him before? No. But now, yes. I love a challenge. Are there good directors who are easy to work with? I think that doesn’t exist. All have their difficulties, in different forms. Sometimes you think, life is too short. But on the other hand, if after all the hard work, you can create a movie everyone is proud of, why not?”

Philip Lee’s road to success

1987 – 1993: 
Ran the production department at Salon Films, where he worked on numerous Hollywood films and TV productions

Featured in the  first Kodak Worldwide Emerging Filmmakers’ Showcase at Cannes

Associate producer for Chen Kaige’s The Emperor And The Assassin

1999 – 2005: 
Assistant professor at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong 

Associate producer for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 

Line producer for Zhang Yimou’s Hero

Associate producer for Ronny Yu’s Fearless

Line producer (Hong Kong portion) of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight 

Executive producer of Alejandro González Iñárritu’s The Revenant, with his producing partner Markus Barmettler

Executive producer of Justin Kurzel’s Assassin’s Creed, with his producing partner Barmettler

Set up production company Facing East with Barmettler. First two projects, Inversion and Radegund, are scheduled for 2017/2018 releases. Will revive a previously dropped project, The 19th Step. Paul Haggis will write and direct a trilogy for Facing East based on US author Paolo Bacigalupi’s young adult novels, beginning with Ship Breaker

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