Q&A: Roy Lee

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Roy Lee was born in Brooklyn, grew up in Maryland, has lived in Los Angeles for the last dozen years and is best known for having sold the remake rights to the Hong Kong film that became Martin Scorsese's Oscar-winner "The Departed." Lee first made a big splash in 2002 when he sold the remake rights to the Japanese film that became "The Ring."

The remake and the franchise it spawned have made Lee and DreamWorks a bundle. Vertigo Entertainment Lee's company with partner Doug Davison, has made a net profit each year since its founding in 2001, Lee says. Trained as a lawyer, Lee is known for his singular focus and appreciation of routine -- he wears clothes from one designer at a time and repeatedly eats at the same restaurants. "Give me a task and I'll always get the job done. That's what I'm known for," he says of himself. The Hollywood Reporter's Asia editor Jonathan Landreth catches up with Lee to see how he's handling his reign as Hollywood's "Remake King."


The Hollywood Reporter: Where do you begin your search for new movies to remake?

Roy Lee: At this point I begin by talking with filmmakers and producers in Asia who are in the process, because I pretty much know all the movies that have been released or are about to come out so I pretty much reach out to them to find out what else is coming up.

THR: Are you doing original production and thinking about shifting more in that direction?

Lee: "The Strangers," which was released this past May was our first original script that we developed into a movie. It was a script we found through a screenwriting competition that we then developed and put into production through Universal.

THR: Is this a model you'd like to expand upon?

Lee: The model I'm looking for is to tell interesting stories. These stories can come from remakes or original scripts. I'm not saying that I'm focusing on either one primarily. It is, to me, easier to get remakes made than original scripts because the studios, being so risk-averse, feel more comfortable making a remake.

THR: Do you think that the current economic crisis is good, bad or indifferent to the remake business?

Lee: I think it's bad for remakes just because there are fewer properties to choose from. There already has been a significant drop, especially from Korea, where they went from ... maybe close to 140 movies a year ago to under 40 this year.

THR: Most Asian remakes are from Korea and Japan and Hong Kong. Where's the next great cache of Asian remakes going to come from?

Lee: It's hard to say. I don't know which country will emerge as dominant. It depends on which country makes the most movies that are easily translated to a different culture. It still feels like Korea is still making the most commercial movies.

THR: Are there particular projects you're keen to lock up at AFM this year?

Lee: Actually, I've only pinpointed one project that's going into production next year, that's the only one that I'm specifically going after. It's from Korea.

THR: China and India -- which is most likely to produce stories that are viable for Hollywood remakes?

Lee: I just feel that at this moment in time it's easier to deal with India because there are so many variables with regards to the Chinese government and their relationship to the film industry there. ... The censorship issues make it difficult to foresee certain problems that can arise in the development process.

THR: "Elizabeth" is as close to a Bollywood film as an English tale has ever come. Are we going to see more Asian directors take on Western subjects and add an Asian flavor?

Lee: I don't see how it's possible for them not to be influenced by their prior experiences within their own culture. Which isn't a bad thing because it makes the audiences in the U.S. take a broader view of the world.

THR: What's new at Vertigo?

Lee: "Strangers" was released by Universal in May, we just released "Quarantine" with Screen Gems, and that was a remake of a Spanish film, and the next movie coming out is called "The Uninvited," which is a (Paramount) remake of "A Tale of Two Sisters" from Korea by Kim Ji-woon.

THR: In 2003, the New Yorker dubbed you the "Remake King." Have you ever resented that title?

Lee: In Hollywood, it's always good to have someone know who you are and if it's for something that makes you stand out against all the other producers. I don't see it as a bad thing. Would I rather have never done a remake? No. If that were the case I would never have been involved with "The Ring," which I loved, or "The Departed," which won an Oscar. I would gladly take the moniker of "the remake King" if it included being a part of "The Departed."

THR: Would you consider that your greatest success?

Lee: I hope not.
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