Hawaii native Chris Lee makes his mark on Hollywood

Movie producer Chris Lee settles into the Balinese day bed on the lanai of his Kahala home and tries to talk about anything but himself. He flips through a signed photo album that Tom Cruise gave him when they worked together on Jerry Maguire in the mid-1990s. The actor and producer reunited for Valkyrie, last year’s World War II flick about the plot to assassinate Hitler.

“Tom is the most generous person,” Lee says while pointing to pictures and notes from Cruise, Renee Zellweger and Kelly Preston. Working with Cruise is a pleasure – if you can keep up, Lee explains. “Everything he does is intense. He’s like a sponge for information, so it’s a little intimidating.”

The conversation shifts to the success of the students at the Academy of Creative Media (ACM) at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, a topic about which Lee, the school’s director, is passionate. The program emerged from a desire to create high-technology job opportunities that allow talented youngsters to stay in Hawaii and tell indigenous stories through film. Lee opens his laptop to show examples of the sophisticated animated work produced by Blue Water Multimedia, an effects company comprised of a group of early ACM graduates.

“It’s a huge deal now, and I’m proud of the fact that these kids are in this industry here in Hawaii,” Lee says of ACM, which he founded in 2003 with 26 students. Though it now has 600 students in 38 courses, he feels “it needs to go to the next level; that’s one of the things I’m working on.” Then again, Lee is always looking ahead.

Born to an Episcopalian minister father and a mother who ran the YWCA, Lee grew up in Hawaii and graduated from Iolani School in 1975 before attending Yale University. After working for Good Morning America and Wayne Wang as an assistant director, he landed a job as a script analyst at TriStar Pictures and Columbia Pictures. And that’s when he began to make history.

For someone with a sprawling résumé filled with international awards and noteworthy accomplishments, there is a remarkable lack of pretension in Lee. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that he propelled himself from script reader to become the first Asian-American president of motion picture production at TriStar Pictures and Columbia Pictures in the 1980s and 1990s, where he oversaw the production of movies such as Philadelphia, Jerry Maguire and As Good as it Gets, he exudes a sense of calm humility.

Lee’s education and meteoric rise in Hollywood kept him away from Hawaii for 27 years. In 2001, his purchase of a Vladimir Ossipoff (“He was green before everyone knew what the word meant,” Lee says of the architect) house in Kahala brought him back to the Islands. Aside from the rich, dark bamboo flooring that scratches or dents at the slightest provocation, movie posters featuring Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Anthony Hopkins and another from Robert Longo, as well as a series of paintings by muralist Martin Charlot and Maui artist Avi Kiriaty, it’s a modest affair of eclectic furnishings and a kitchen largely unchanged since the 1950s.

“The Japanese influence really shows,” Lee says, noting the sliding components of the house. “It’s very hard to duplicate that today.”

When asked about his indulgences beyond his well-loved house, Lee admits to being an “early adopter” of technology. A 65-inch screen is hooked up to an Apple TV in the small living room, accessorized with a cadre of remote controls. Yet in the adjoining room, books overflow from the shelves around paraphernalia from years of movie-making adventures, creating a perception of balance.

He’s also a foodie with a fondness for interesting restaurants and cooking his own meals, particularly Chinese food. And there’s that tiny weakness for caviar. Beyond that, however, Lee lives rather simply and donates his time and money generously.

And while it’s likely for us to expect many more exciting movies from Chris Lee, his greatest legacy may be with tomorrow’s filmmakers right here at home.