Bruce Lee is a martial arts legend and an icon in Hollywood who broke ground as an Asian American actor. After his untimely death in 1973, he continued to be praised as a cultural touchstone in more ways than one and his likeness has been all over films and TV for decades. But if there is one gatekeeper to everything that is Bruce Lee it would be his daughter Shannon Lee, who is in charge of his estate. She is also the executive producer of the Cinemax action drama Warrior (the season one finale airs tonight) which comes from an eight-page treatment for a TV series her father wrote and pitched to Warner Bros. It was basically a Hollywood urban legend.
“Technically, if we’re really starting from the beginning, the journey began 50 years ago with him,” Lee tells Deadline of the origin of Warrior. “I’d always heard the story that he had created this and pitched it, but I guess I didn’t know for sure that the actual pages existed.”
Lee said that there were boxes and boxes of her father’s notes and writings (which included plenty of other treatments) and in the back of her mind, she knew that they were in there but she really didn’t know. It was a long process, but Lee found the treatment during 2001. There were several drafts of it with several pages of notes that included his vision. “Had we just had the treatment, we wouldn’t really have been able to see as much of his process, what he was really thinking, what was important to him and what scenes he was trying to work through.”
Even so, Lee wasn’t quick to get this series made. “I was still in a process of going through everything,” she said. “There was a lot I was trying to get my arms around. I was ending an acting career, stepping into a new one and not in a position to also step into trying to be a producer.” That said, it went back into the box for about 10 more years — and then Justin Lin called.
Lin, who directed the documentary Finishing the Game: The Search for a New Bruce Lee as well as the wildly successful Fast and the Furious franchise, was also familiar with this elusive treatment that never went past the pitch phase because, as Lee put it, at the time he presented it to WB they weren’t ready for a TV show from a Chinese man even if it was Bruce Lee.
Lin asked Lee if the treatment really existed and if she would be willing to show it to him — and she was more than happy to. He was very impressed with how well-written it was and more importantly, he saw her father’s vision. “He asked me if I had any desire to make series and I told him I would love nothing more than to make this.”
He responded: “If you would want to, we should make this — and not just make it. But really make it the way your father intended it to be made and with the intent behind it.” Lee said Lin said it needed to be made right away otherwise it’s not really worth doing. She answered, “Oh my God, this is music to my ears.” Thus the seed for Warrior was officially planted.
Set in San Francisco, Warrior is a crime drama injected with adrenaline-filled martial arts that echoes the legacy of Bruce Lee. The series takes place during the brutal Tong Wars of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the second half of the 19th century. The story puts the focus on Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), a martial arts prodigy who emigrates from China to San Francisco under mysterious circumstances and becomes a hatchet man for one of Chinatown’s most powerful organized crime family. The series was picked up for a second season.
Lee said a lot of care was given to make the series authentic, which meant getting as many Asian voices and collaborators involved as possible. At the same time, there was an understanding that they also had to collaborate with people who really understood what they were trying to do.
“Jonathan Tropper, who is the head writer and the showrunner and executive producer, is not Asian,” Lee points out. “But we did meet with other Asian writers, and there were Asian writers in the writers’ room when we filled it out.”
She continues, “One of the reasons that Jonathan was such a great collaborator on this was because, first of all, he has a deep martial arts background. He has a black belt himself. He’s a huge fan of Bruce Lee, knows all the movies and all that fun stuff.”
“We wanted to try and find an Asian showrunner and for the timing of it and where we were and what was available at the time, that was not the fit that came about,” she explained. “But we needed to have that support throughout the show in every possible aspect of it — and it’s a show that also has to take in the entirety of the world.”
Lee and Lin stayed on top of every aspect of the show. They guided the show and made sure that the approach came correct. She points out that the show still has an Asian center with the martial arts, Chinatown and the nuanced characters — specifically wit the women. “I wanted to make sure that the women were being portrayed in a particular way and not just victims of the men,” she said. “But certainly the characters are in the constraints of their time and place, but they all have their own power in their own way and their own way in which they’re exhibiting their power in this world and not just swooning on a fainting couch.”
Through the updated tone, portrayal of Asian and women, Warrior maintains the Bruce Lee vision and brand, if you will. “That’s how my father approached his stuff,” she explains. “He was like, ‘Look, if I don’t make an entertaining movie, nobody’s going to come — and then I get to sneak in my philosophy and all these great things.'”
Lee admits that she is in a position where she has to partner with people to make projects like Warrior happen (she has a couple of more scripted series under wraps as well). The collaboration between Lee and Lin was a match made in heaven and Lee did not have any reservations about making the show with the Fast and Furious Godfather. But it hasn’t always been like this for her. Bruce Lee is an icon and with that, comes tons of TV shows and films using his likeness. Whether it is in a comedic or dramatic context, Bruce Lee has been portrayed on the big and small screen in multiple iterations and there is no end in sight.
When it comes to her father’s estate, Lee walks a fine line of being a gatekeeper to her father’s “brand” and also being his daughter. She realizes her responsibility and is very careful who she aligns herself with. She said she has been pitched numerous projects about her father and, most of the time she has said no. The times she did say yes, the projects fell apart and she regretted saying yes.
“People know the name Bruce Lee and it’s exciting and they want to capitalize on that,” she said. “They want to get involved with that, but they don’t want to get involved with me.”
Lee adds that when many people want to option the rights to her father and then have her go away. That is one of the main reasons why it takes so long for her to make many of these Bruce Lee-centric projects. She is aware that she doesn’t have a track record when it comes to making TV shows or film. All she has is her words. “I really, really need to be involved in this process — and not because I’m trying to be overly controlling or I have this specific vision,” she said about projects about her father. “I just need to make sure it gets made the right way.”
“It has to be in alignment with my father’s legacy and with my family and with my family’s legacy,” she adds. “We can be as creative and as free and as awesome as we want to be, but if, at the end, if come to me and say ‘I want to make a buddy cop movie where Bruce Lee goes around giving people the death touch and scaling walls like Spider-Man,’ I’m going to say no.”
In the first trailer for Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, which premiered at Cannes, there is a significant part of it that includes Mike Moh Bruce Lee. She said that no one reached out to her about including her father’s likeness in the movie. “In these instances, there are a lot of different ways you can go,” she admits.
She continues, “If they contacted me, I could be completely unreasonable and a pain in the ass and make all kinds of ridiculous demands — but they don’t know that I’m not going to do that. A lot of times, the best practice is ‘we’ll just stay away from that so we don’t have to even open that can of worms.'”
Lee said that it is completely up to her to what she spends her time and money fighting over. “With Tarantino’s film, to not have been included in any kind of way, when I know that he reached out to other people but did not reach out to me, there’s a level of annoyance — and there’s part of me that says this is not worth my time and my energy. Let’s just see how the universe deals with this one.”
She adds that she thought it was interesting that they put the Bruce Lee character front and center in the trailer. She doesn’t know what his role in in the movie and has no ill will against Moh. She just hopes that the finished product is good.
When she first took charge of her father’s estate, she not only had to balance the business and personal, she had to be comfortable in running a business.”Whether I want to run it or somebody else wants to run it, people want to make things using Bruce Lee,” she said. “In my mind, who better to at least have some say in what that is and how that goes other than his family? But it does get challenging because I have my own sort of desire and dream about how this goes and the projects that get made.”