EXCLUSIVE: Bruce Lee, who became pound for pound the best action hero Hollywood has ever produced even though he died at age 32 when he was just getting started, is such an iconic figure that when his daughter Shannon held meetings with prospective Chinese production partners on a biopic, she was told that when it came to revered Chinese cultural heroes, her father was right up there with Confucius.
Given Hollywood’s hot pursuit of projects that can draw a vast audience in China, here’s one that might find traction. Shannon Lee, who was four when her father died but with mom Linda Lee has helped keep his legacy alive, has partnered with Last Vegas producer Lawrence Grey, Ben Everard and veteran producer Janet Yang to mount what they call the definitive biographical film on Lee. Now, you might say that everybody with a yellow belt has seen Lee’s movies, worn the T-shirts, hung the posters in their bedrooms and brained themselves trying to navigate his signature weapon, the nunchuks. And there was a feature film about his life, the 1993 Universal pic Dragon. But Shannon said there is plenty of ground uncovered, and voluminous writings by the man to fuel a new movie to enlighten a new generation to Lee’s trailblazing accomplishments and his evolution from a brawling student to a teacher of sophisticated philosophies and his own martial art form.
“There have been projects out there involving my father, but they’ve lacked a complete understanding of his philosophies and artistry,” Lee said. “They haven’t captured the essence of his beliefs in martial arts or storytelling. The only way to get audiences to understand the depth and uniqueness of my father is to generate our own material and find amazing like-minded partners to work with…many don’t know that Bruce Lee was also a prolific writer and a creator of his own unique art and philosophy. That’s what we want to show, not just his kick-ass physicality, but the depth of his character and beliefs.”
This is the latest venture from Bruce Lee Entertainment, which launched last year with several projects that include a TV series based on an original idea and materials by Bruce Lee with Fast & Furious helmer Justin Lin, and a reality based show that will be launched in China by John Wick producers Keanu Reeves and Stephen Hamel of Company Films. There is also a series of novels based on the writings that Lee left behind, a comic book series and a successful mobile game launch, Bruce Lee: Enter The Game.
Grey said they are self-financing development. “We will bring on a world class filmmaker and writer, who’ll work with Shannon and myself and then we will talk to American and foreign partners,” he said. Yang will help with the latter. “It is a tremendous privilege to be working with Shannon on these exciting ventures about her father,” Yang said. “In this age of an increasingly globalized culture, I can’t think of a more talented and innovative individual who embodies the best of East and West, and who can inspire future generations,” she said.
According to Lee, much of the focus will be the intellectual approach that Lee brought to overcoming obstacles, and forming his own martial arts style, Jeet Kune Do. Those obstacles ranged from being told not to teach the art to non-Asians, to the difficulties he had getting work onscreen despite his movie star looks and unparalleled skills. He broke ground playing the sidekick on The Green Hornet, but was denied the role he really wanted, after creating the template for the series Kung-Fu. He not only watched the lead role go to white actor David Carradine, but he also was denied credit of any kind. There were just simply no Asians carrying series or movies. Lee was finally convinced by his close friend and student James Coburn to return to Hong Kong and make movies there. It was perhaps the best advice he ever got because he became a global star overnight.
“It’s hard to imagine it now, but when he made those films with Golden Harvest, they filmed without sound, and added that later, based on whatever language they were catering to,” Lee said. “The city was very noisy and it was just easier.” After early Lee films The Big Boss and Fist of Fury became hits, Warner Bros partnered with Golden Harvest to make the epic Enter The Dragon, the first one of his Lee’s filmed with sound. It was an outsized success, but Lee died not long after, while filming Game Of Death.
“In hundreds of years, how many people created their own martial art, something he used to break tradition because he believed in humanity and that the world was one brotherhood,” Lee said. “His approach to business an nutrition was revolutionary, mixing Eastern and Western philosophies. My father wrote thousands of pages of thoughts on his life. They based Dragon on a book my mom wrote in the 70s, but they didn’t work in partnership with us to create that film and it didn’t have the depth or essence of my father that it might have. There is a lot that hasn’t been told yet, and many lessons that deserve to live on.”
As for China, the pump was primed by The Legend Of Bruce Lee, a Mandarin language TV series that spanned 50 one hour episodes. Bruce Lee Entertainment is being repped by UTA.