Mapping Contemporary Cinema

Short guide to Roy Lee

Roy Lee is a US film producer known within the industry as the ‘remake king’ due to his success with Hollywood remakes of mostly Asian films. Daniel Herbert argues that “[t]he recent cycle of Hollywood remakes of East Asian films constitutes one of the most important changes in Hollywood’s transnational composition” and that “[p]roducer Roy Lee is immensely responsible for this industrial and cultural change” (94). Lee was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1969; his parents were Korean immigrants who had moved to America in order for Lee’s father to pursue a medical career. At the age of three, Lee’s family moved to Washington DC, with Lee later attending George Washington University and the American University Washington College of Law. After graduating, Lee worked for eight months as a corporate lawyer but then undertook a radical life change, selling all his possessions and, in 1996, driving to Los Angeles to start over (Friend 3-4). When Lee arrived in Hollywood he started work for a production company called Alphaville where he worked as a tracker; a low end job that required Lee to look over scripts and determine which ones had the potential to become feature films. Eager to get ahead, Lee set up an online forum for him and a few other trackers working for the company; here the trackers could post the scripts online and rate them. Eventually Lee had set up similar forums for other groups of trackers, and as the only person with membership of all groups Lee had the first glimpses of which scripts were gaining the most favourable attention. Through this process Lee managed to tip off Mark Sourian, a friend at DreamWorks Studio, that a “buzz” was building around the script for American Beauty (1999), which became a major commercial and critical success (Nakayama).

In 1999, Lee started working for Benderspink, a talent management company owned by close friends, Chris Bender and J.C Spink. At Benderspink, Lee was given the job of finding projects that could be made into downloadable shorts as well as prospecting for possible feature film projects. Lee’s opportunity arose when a recently laid off executive from Fine Line came to Benderspink for help passing around a project which he had previously been working on: a remake of Japanese horror film Ringu/The Ring (Hideo Nakata, 1998). Lee passed the project on to Mark Sourian, now an executive at DreamWorks, who convinced the studio to buy the remake rights for $1m (Nakayama). Ringu was remade into The Ring in 2002, directed by Gore Verbinski. The production budget for the original film had been $1.2 million (not much more than the amount paid for the remake rights) but DreamWorks poured $40m into the remake. The decision to acquire the film and to upscale paid dividends: “In Japan, Ringu made $6.6 million; The Ring made $8.3 million there in its first two weeks” (Friend 2).

The success of The Ring (total gross nearly $250m) precipitated a cycle of remakes of Japanese horror movies, also known as J-horror and Lee became a key player in brokering deals for the adaptation of successful Asian feature films.  As Balmain notes, “[w]ith the exhaustion of American horror cinema, as evidenced by the recent trend towards remakes of classic 1970 films such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), The Amityville Horror (2003) and The Hills Have Eyes (2006), it is not surprising that both American studios and western audiences have been looking elsewhere for inspiration” (Balmain ix). Anticipating this trend, Lee secured the remake rights to two other films directed by Nakata–Kaosu/Chaos (2000) and Honoguraimizu no sokokara/Dark Water (2002)–as well as launching a second major project in the form of a remake of Japanese horror Ju-on: The Grudge (2000) (the US version was also titled The Grudge (2004) and starred Sarah Michelle Geller; both versions of the film were directed by Japan’s Takashi Shimizu). The Grudge also proved commercially successful, with a $40m opening weekend (“The Grudge grabs box office top spot”).

As producer, Lee is distinctive for the way he remains heavily involved in the films’ productions right up until filming starts. At the outset Lee receives a script or a videotape of an Asian film he thinks is worthy of being made into a feature. He will then send it to various writers and ask them to send back a treatment/script indicating how they would convert the film for western audiences. Lee will also place the film with certain directors or stars. At this point, Lee combines the various elements and offers them as a package (or deal) to the studios.  As well as this development work, Lee works as a representative for the Asian studios as the deal is put together and the adaptation takes place. This reassures the rights owners that their film doesn’t get “muddled” and will return as large a profit as is possible (Friend 5). This is not so much a case of protecting the integrity of the original property, more a commitment to ensuring that the film will be coherent and play well in a wider, western context.  For example, the narrative of Ringu includes images relating to Japanese religion and folklore ”that are deeply rooted in the Japanese kaidaneiga (ghost-story film)” (Kermode 261). The US remake has removed or reworked these to relate to ghost stories/folklore relevant to western culture. In Japan, there are many superstitions about water, specifically the sea. In many of folk stories the occurrence of tsunamis and earthquakes are believed to be the doing of a sea monster rather than natural occurrences. As such, images of the sea monster have been central to Japanese horror films, most prominently in the form of Godzilla. In the US remake, images of the sea are still very present but do not hold the same meaning for western audiences. Instead images which do relate to western superstitions are included, such as ladders. As Tad Friend notes, DreamWorks were determined to keep “the creepiest elements of the original film” whilst removing “a lot of the film’s paranormal texture; its moody, quintessentially Japanese rainfall; and its periodic references to ‘brine and goblins’” (2). Lee is unapologetic (or at least extremely pragmatic) about these kinds of changes and the need to move the films into English language formats, noting that “the last big subtitle movie after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo which made about 10 million dollars but I’m sure the US remake will make over 100 million” (Lee qtd. in Kim). Peijen Beth Tsai suggests that “[f]or American audiences, it is more straightforward to experience the story and the visuals first hand, without translations and inscription of the verbal element, and often the conversion contains new ideas that help to explain the situation in a more familiar cultural context” (Tsai 274-275). Lee’s commercial approach can also be seen in the description of himself as “the target audience” for his films, expressing a preference for entertainment over artistic cleverness: The Matrix (1999) rather than Hitchcock, for example (Friend 3). In an article for The New Yorker, for example, Lee stated that he once secured the rights to a French film, L’homme du train/The Man on the Train (2002), because it contained a single comedic moment. Indeed, Lee hadn’t even seen the film but had heard it praised by a Warner Bros. executive who he believed he could sell the rights to (Friend 2). It is perhaps no surprise then that a number of commentators have criticized Lee-produced films for their “watering down” of cultural specificity and an archly commercial aesthetic. Mark Kermode, for example, argues that the cycle of Asian horror adaptations offer “depressing evidence of a horrible cultural imperialism that has made American the default language around the globe” (275).

There are two plausible counter-arguments to this, however. The first is that remakes of Asian films act as a transnational bridge between Asian and US cinema. These films allow a foreign culture to enter the consciousness of a large western audience in a way that the originals (distributed only on the art house circuit) would not. Although the conversion of such films may distorted the original in order to cater for western audiences the overall themes of the film are still very much rooted in Asian culture, most notably through the use of psychological horror and ghost stories rather than splatter aesthetics and teen slasher narratives. The second counter-argument is that the conversion of Asian films for the Hollywood market benefits both US and Japanese studios. This mutually beneficial arrangement is visible in Lee’s technique when trying to attain the rights to a certain film: as intermediary, Lee reiterates to Asian studios that they would make more money from selling the rights to their film than by attempting to distribute it themselves. As such, the conversion of Asian films benefits Asian studios financially and is a business transaction in which they have a choice. Considered thus, the accusation that Lee’s work is part of a wider imperialist project seems overstated.

Lee has built a reputation as someone the Asian studios can trust to help them get their films remade in the US – his appearance perhaps giving him an advantage as executives in America and Asia assume he is attuned to the two relevant markets and their respective cultural contexts (Friend 4). His success has allowed him to leave Benderspink and set up a new production company, Vertigo Entertainment, with business partner, Doug Davison. He is now regularly referred to as “The Remake Man” or “The Remake King” and in its first two years Vertigo Entertainment has aided “American studios [to] option the remake rights to 18 Asian movies” (Tsai 274). Significantly, not all of these movies have been horror films. Lee saw that the horror formula could be extended to a wide range of home grown East Asian films which he described as representing “a boom in terms of the acquisition of the remake rights, because it was almost like opening a door that hadn’t been opened before, so there was so much to choose from” (Lee qtd in Herbert 97). For example, in 2003 Vertigo secured the rights to Infernal Affairs (2002), a Hong Kong crime film, for $1.75m (Nakayama). In 2006, Infernal Affairs was remade as The Departed, a Warner Bros. production with an all-star cast including Matt Damon, Leonardo Di Caprio and Jack Nicholson. As well as success at the box office, The Departed was the first foreign film remake to win an Academy Award for Best Picture and also won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Lee has stated that the reason he chose to buy the remake rights for Infernal Affairs is because it “rivalled the quality of Hollywood movies” (Lee qtd. in Herbert 97). Lee’s comments indicate deep processes of cross-fertilisation: a commercial, genre-based Hong Kong cinema (itself heavily influenced by Hollywood) becomes a rich terrain for identifying work for import and remaking, in a creative and commercial loop linking Hollywood with increasingly important markets in East Asia. As Tad Friend notes, Lee’s approach to selecting foreign films for remaking “enables Hollywood, in effect, to test fully realized cinematic ideas in front of millions of people, and then go forward with remakes of movies that are already proven hits” (2). Indeed, Lee’s contribution to the industry over the last decade or so can be easily identified as a personification of certain key facets of contemporary film industry economics: an increasingly global outlook and an interest in low budget productions that will return high profits. These tendencies show no signs of abating, and Lee is currently working on a remake of the South Korean film Oldeuboi/Oldboy (2003), which will star Josh Brolin and be directed by Spike Lee.

References

Balmain, Colette. Introduction to Japanese Horror Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008.

Dirks, Tim. “Academy Awards Best Picture Trivia”, Filmsite.org. n.p. n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.

Friend, Tad. “Letter from California: Remake Man”, New Yorker.com. 2 Jun. 2003. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.

Herbert, Daniel. “Remaking Transnational Hollywood: an Interview with Roy Lee”, Spectator 27.2 ( 2007). Print.

Nakayama, William. “Roy Lee: Hollywood Dealmaker”, Goldsea.com. n.p. n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.

“Nominees & Winners for the 79th Academy Awards”, Oscars.org , n.p. n.d. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.

The Grudge grabs box office top spot”, Today.com. 24 Oct. 2004. Web. 15 Mar. 2012.

Tsai, Peijen Beth. “Adapting Japanese Horror: The Ring”, Asian Cinema 20.2 (2009),  272-289. Print.

Written by James Chapman (2012); edited by Guy Westwell (2012) Queen Mary, University of London

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Copyright © 2011 James Chapman/Mapping Contemporary Cinema

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