Producing an Oscar: GW alum helps ‘The Departed” win big

Alumnus Roy Lee’s recent work won him and his colleagues some distinctive awards: four Academy Awards, in fact.

It’s not every day that people get to work with Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon and Oscar-winning best director Martin Scorsese. But for Lee, it’s all just part of the job.

The 1991 graduate worked as a producer on last year’s Oscar-winning best film “The Departed” from the very beginning. The Korean-American helped a Warner Brothers film studio buy the rights to an Asian-made film on which the U.S. blockbuster was based off.

“We were involved in writing the screenplay and hiring crew members right up until Marty (Scorsese) took over,” he said.

Over the past several years, Lee has made a name for himself as a link between Asian films and American movie studios. Through his company, Vertigo Entertainment, the 38-year-old assists Asian filmmakers in selling the rights to their movies.

For “The Departed,” Hong Kong Studios first sent Lee a copy of “Infernal Affairs” an Asain movie with a similar plot. Lee jumped at the opportunity for a remake, getting involved in both selling the rights to the film and the production of the movie.

“It was incredible the way he took the movie and made it his own,” Lee said of Scorsese. “To see the thought process he went through and the way he worked with actors like Jack Nicholson was remarkable.”

Movie-making was not what Lee expected he would be doing in the future during his days at GW. While in Foggy Bottom, Lee had no intention of entering the film industry.

The Bethesda, Md., native graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and interned at a D.C. law firm before going to American University Law School.

“The education I got from GW was more aimed at legal profession,” he said. “I didn’t go to any film or media classes at GW.”

After law school, Lee relocated to Los Angeles to pursue a film career and used his legal background. He specialized in acquiring the rights to movies, the first step in production of a film.

“I was always on the lookout for new material, whether in the form of foreign movies, screenplays, novels, etc. It turned out that Asian movies were not being fully realized by movie studios even though the potential was there.”

Lee saw the Japanese movie “Ringu” in 1999 and pronounced it “an obvious remake.” He helped sell the rights to the movie to DreamWorks studio, and, within a year, “The Ring” was in production.

In the fall of 2001, Lee founded Vertigo Entertainment with producer Doug Davison. Today, he receives between 15 and 25 scripts, movies and novels every week. But Lee said grabbing his attention is not easy.

“I’d say I have to see a hundred or so movies before I find one I like,” he said.

This year Lee served as executive producer to two films he hopes will be big hits. “The Invasion” is a remake of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” is slated to be released this summer, and “The Eye” a remake of the Hong Kong film “Jian Gui” will hit theaters in October.

‘The Eye’ stars Jessica Alba as a blind woman who is given eyes from someone who may have been able to see ghosts,” Lee said. “Well, obviously, she can see ghosts, but it’s a really good story,” he added.

As for students who may be interested in the film industry, Lee has one piece of advice: Move to Los Angeles.

“Go to work in a low-paying job and learn where you feel most comfortable in the process of making film,” he said. “By coming here and starting off as an assistant you can work your way up the ladder.”

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