[HOLLYWOOD] Roy Lee's Success, Respect & Enemies
- REMAKE MAN
Roy Lee brings Asia to Hollywood, and finds some enemies along the
by TAD FRIEND
"The acquisitions people at Miramax and Dimension saw Roy as a
threat," a former Dimension executive told me, "because they were
pursuing that market unsuccessfully and here's this guy who comes in
and sets things up really fast and says, `You guys are idiots.' The
top executives there hate Royhe scares the hell out of them."
After listing all the ways in which Lee had lied to and about him and
had betrayed his trust, Macari concluded, without irony, "Roy is the
remake king. I have the utmost respect for him."
One afternoon last winter, the movie producer Roy Lee sat in a taupe
wing chair in the bar of Raffles L'Ermitage, a hotel in Beverly
Hills, posed as if for a formal portrait. A thirty-four-year-old
Korean-American in a nearly all-white industry, Lee is keenly aware
of the impression he wants to make. Only his splayfooted walk is
unstudied; everything else about him is clean, modern, contained. In
Lee's business letters, the paragraphs are all five lines long, for
maximum tidiness and impact. He recently considered putting his black
Mercedes in a garage and buying a scooter for his five-minute commute
but, after reviewing the mental image of himself in a helmet, decided
against it. He had three meetings lined up at L'Ermitage that day,
and he was dressed in a short-sleeved black knit Donna Karan shirt
and dark-tan Donna Karan chinos. His bedroom closet currently
contains only Donna Karan; in the coming year, he says, he intends to
wear only John Varvatos. Two years ago, Lee dropped thirty pounds and
got rid of most of his possessions.
What Lee does for a living sounds simple enough, but no one in
Hollywood had thought of it before. He watches videos of every Asian
movie ever made, picks the biggest hits, and then, on behalf of their
Asian distributors, sells the "remake rights" of those films to
studios here, so that they can be turned into big-budget American
spectacles. Lee got into this work in 2001, after seeing a Japanese
horror film called "Ringu," about a videotape that kills everyone who
watches it. With Lee serving as an intermediary, DreamWorks bought
the remake rights from the Japanese for a million dollars, and "The
Ring" went on to become a surprise hit last fall, earning more than a
hundred and twenty-nine million dollars domestically. Although Lee
doesn't speak Japanese, Chinese, or Korean, in the past two years he
has helped American studios option the remake rights to an additional
seventeen Asian movies. "Roy is the go-to guy for Asia," Julien
Thuan, an agent at United Talent Agency, says. "He knows the right
people, he knows what's going to be happening in a year, and he's
voraciously aggressive." Lee created and cornered his market by
merging two traditional Hollywood success stories: that of the
obsessive video-store clerk (Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino) with
that of the hard-nosed immigrants who founded the business nearly a
century ago (Samuel Goldwyn, Jack and Harry Warner, Louis B. Mayer).
The first person Lee would be meeting at L'Ermitage was Taka Ichise,
one of the producers of "Ringu." "Taka is known as a bully in Japan,"
Lee said, "but he's nice to me, because I made him a fortune." Taka,
a sturdy, bullet-headed man in his mid-forties, bowed to Lee, shook
his hand, and sat down. He had brought a female translator with him,
and he was wearing a shirt that featured a print of black women's
hairdos and the legend "Afro Coiffures."
After a few seconds of small talk, Lee said, "Well, what's next?"
"First is `Ju-On II,' in January," Taka said. His haunted-house
film "Ju-On," or "The Grudge," had recently been a hit in Japan.
"What's the story?" Lee asked.
Taka shrugged. "Oh, it's just the sequel. It's like `Friday the 13th
Part 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.' " He laughed mirthlessly.
"I haven't seen `Ju-On,' " Lee said, "but in the video"an earlier
Japanese straight-to-video prequel that spawned "Ju-On""the ghost
just appeared whenever. There weren't any rules. We need films with
rules. Rules and hooks, like a videotape that kills people."
"Japanese horror movies are not logical," Taka said. "Logical horror
movies fail. I will make ten movies next year," he continued. "Six by
Japan's top-six horror directors, each film costing one million
dollars. Do you know anyone who would invest?"
"I just had lunch with some Chinese money," Lee told him a few
minutes later. "I should get you in touch with Gareth Wigan, a top
guy at Sony. He's been investing in mini-studios in places like
"Sony?" Taka said. "Sony Pictures Japan are fucking idiots." (Taka's
translator, after a slight pause, rendered this as "old stupids.")
Taka liked Lee's first notion better. "I'm screening `Ju-On' tomorrow
night for Sam Raimi," Lee said, referring to the director of "Spider-
Man" and numerous horror films. "He's hot right now. If he wants to
produce it, he could get it remade in a second."
"Raimi's `Evil Dead' was very good," Taka said. He laughed
again. "Gave us many ideas." There is no reason that Taka couldn't
take his film directly to Sam Raimi; he might well make more money by
cutting Lee out of the transaction. But Taka doesn't know Sam Raimi.
Lee doesn't know Raimi, either, but he does know Nathan Kahane, a
thirty-year-old executive who is working with Raimi to produce a
slate of horror films. Lee knows all the Nathan Kahanes.
In many ways, Hollywood seems to exemplify the most joyless aspects
of capitalism. The "industry," as it insists upon calling itself,
packages artistic ideas and images as commodities and then values
those commodities according to how they "penetrate" markets,
support "platforms" of ancillary commodities (tie-in Burger King
action figures), and "brand" a company as a reliable purveyor of
The system's besetting inefficiency, of course, is that studios never
know what moviegoers will want to buy. So films are tested in front
of preview audiences, revised according to the audience's
suggestions, tested again, and then marketed with a vigor directly
proportionate to the test scores. There are two problems with this
approach. The first is that the test-sample size is minusculetwo
hundred mall walkers in Canoga Park, California, can determine a
movie's fate. The second is that by the time the Canoga Park test
audience sees a film it's too late to change it very much anyway,
particularly when twenty, fifty, or a hundred million dollars has
already been spent.
Roy Lee's Asian initiative enables Hollywood, in effect, to test
fully realized cinematic ideas in front of millions of people, and
then go forward with remakes of movies that are already proven hits.
Everyone benefits: Asian studios get a windfall; American studios get
a buffet of market-tested ideas; and Lee gets a producer's fee in the
range of three hundred thousand dollars whenever one of his remakes
goes into production. DreamWorks took "Ringu," a movie that
originally cost $1.2 million, and spent forty million dollars on the
remake, keeping the creepiest elements of the original film, and
streamlining and sweetening the story. DreamWorks stripped out a lot
of the film's paranormal texture; its moody, quintessentially
Japanese rainfall; and its periodic references to "brine and
goblins." Then the studio added a few eye-popping special effects. In
Japan, "Ringu" made $6.6 million; "The Ring" made $8.3 million there
in its first two weeks.
Lee's next meeting at L'Ermitage that afternoon was with Caldecot
(Cotty) Chubb, a middle-aged, gum-chewing man who recently helped
produce the Kurt Russell drama "Dark Blue." Before Chubb arrived, Lee
said, "Cotty fired me from my first job out here." And now, he seemed
to be saying, he's courting me. Chubb sat down and spun out a
penetrating disquisition on how "The Ring" whose main characters
are a single mother and her sensitive sonwas really a movie about
the trauma of divorce.
Lee's arms were folded. "I have no idea what you're talking about,"
Chubb blinked and got to the point, asking if Lee had any potential
remakes that would suit the writers and actors he was trying
to "service," as he put it, such as Ashton Kutcher, the star
of "Dude, Where's My Car?" and "Just Married."
"I don't even remember what I'm working on," Lee told him. "Whatever
I happen to see that week, I just send out to people." Chubb eyed him
to see if he was kidding; he wasn't. "I go with what people tell me
to go for," Lee continued. "I was working with a Warner Bros.
producer on another movie and he mentioned a French movie, `The Man
on the Train,' which he said had one great comedic moment. So I went
out and got the rights to `The Man on the Train' and sold them to
Warners." (Actually, Lee has not yet concluded the deal.)
"Had you seen it?"
"Not at that point."
"Roy, you are amazing," Chubb said uneasily.
Lee's third meeting was with Jason Filardi, the screenwriter of the
recent hit comedy "Bringing Down the House," which stars Steve Martin
and Queen Latifah. "I loved the trailer for `In the House,' " said
Lee, whose grasp of titles is often approximate. "My assistant,
Gabriel, watched some documentary about `whales,' these really rich
guys who get comped to everything in Vegas," Lee continued. "He came
up with a `Trading Places' idea about this poor black guy, like a
Bernie Mac or Ice Cube, who gets mistaken for a big player and is
comped by the whale hunter, who's like a Ben Stiller, nervous guy. I
sold it to New Line, and I'd love for you to write it."
"Off the hook!" Filardi exclaimed.
Lee began hawking his Asian remake possibilities. "I forgot to bring
you this review of `Saving My Hubby,' " he said. "Terrible title, but
it's a Korean movie about a woman kicking ass in the 'hood,
supposedly modelled on some Greek mythology thing about a woman
entering somewhere and doing something. Maybe we could do that as a
remake, setting it up for Queen Latifah."
"Yeah, she wants to do a kick-ass, driving-Harleys-and-shooting-guns
kind of thing," Filardi said. A jittery, good-looking young man, he
wore a gray cashmere V-neck sweater with no shirt under it and a
thumb ring. "I had drinks with Daryl Hannah a few weeks ago," he went
on. "Dude, she looks good."
"She looks old," Lee said.
"I don't know, it was kinda dark," Filardi said, almost
purring. "Kinda dark . . . in my bedroom."
Lee smiled. Filardi said, "And what's up with us doing a spring-break
movie? Like, a fresh-faced F.B.I. agent has to go undercover and
solve a crime at a fraternity during spring break."
"I'd love to do a spring-break movie," Lee said. "Could you do it for
Ashton Kutcher? Ashton Kutcher goes to Daytona Beach?"
Lee's brain often seems to work like the accounting system known as
lifo, for Last In, First Out. "I never have set goals," he told me
after Filardi had left. "Everyone thinks of me as a producer of
remakes, but that could mutate tomorrow depending on who I meet and
what they suggest I do. I'd compare myself to Forrest Gump."
Lee trusts the constant evolution of his interests because it is the
market's evolution. "It's good that I didn't know film history, that
I'd never seen a Hitchcock film until I moved out here," he said. His
favorite movies include "The Matrix" and "Joe Versus the
Volcano." "All films seem new to me, just like they do to ninety per
cent of filmgoers today," he continued. "I'm young, I like commercial
fare, and I get bored easily. I am the target audience."
Hollywood is filled with young men and women who share Roy Lee's
dreams. J. C. Spink, a thirty-year-old talent manager and producer
who was Lee's employer for almost two years, told me, "You come in
with the thousand people in your group who will all kill to get
ahead. Twenty years later, only twenty people are left standing, and
they're running the town. You all screwed each other over plenty, so
you kind of hate each other, but, at the same time, you're in this
crazy dysfunctional family where you have to coexist."
Lee's office at Vertigo Entertainment, the company that he co-founded
a couple of years ago with a young producer named Doug Davison, is a
bare, though comfortable, concrete cell. Its most notable furniture
is a plasma-screen television and a cooler stocked with Red Bull
energy drinks. At his apartment nearby, in Beverly Hills, the rooms
are almost empty and the walls are hung with paintings of empty
rooms. Lee has an overpowering fear of cockroaches: until he got
married, a few months ago, his kitchen contained no pots or food.
His obsessiveness is not merely a business tool; it is a stamp of
character. For months at a time, Lee will eat only one kind of
food. "Roy went through a macaroni-and-cheese phase where he bought
hundreds of boxes and ate it all day long," Robynne Reitnauer, a
longtime friend of his, said. "Then it was instant oatmeal. He
discovers something he likes and goes with it until it makes him
"Roy thinks like a studio exec," says Mark Morgan, the president of
Maverick Films, who helped Lee set up a Korean-comedy remake, "My
Sassy Girl," at DreamWorks last year. The film, one of Lee's
favorites, is a romance about a young man who rescues a pretty but
very drunk young woman on the subway; she turns out to be a bossy
brat who constantly slaps him around. "He brought `My Sassy Girl' to
me because I have experience with romantic comedies," Morgan went
on. "Or, as he said, in Roy-speak, `Because you like pussy movies.'
He's not trying to shove some weird love story he's had a passion for
since he was six down the studios' throats. A mind-set like Roy's
isn't going to get you a lot of `American Beauty's, but it will get
you a lot of `Spider-Man's."
Lee was born in 1969 at Wyckoff Heights hospital, in Brooklyn. His
father, a doctor, and his mother, a devout Christian, had been in
America for just three years and were still trying to fit in; his
mother asked the nurse for a good, short American name, and she
The Lees moved to Bethesda, Maryland, when Roy was three. In school,
he was self-conscious about his name (a neighborhood kid called him
Soy) and his appearance (another boy, in high school, would tug down
the folds of his eyes and chant, "I dropped a bomb on you!"). Lee's
mother nurtured hopes that he would become a minister. Lee told me
that the first time he went to a movie was when his mother took him
to see "The Exorcist." "It was almost a traumatic experience," he
said. "Her idea was to put the fear of God into me." Lee's mother
doesn't remember this, and his older brother, Yong Lee, who is now a
psychiatrist, said, "My mother didn't take us to the movies; it was
my uncle. The first movie I remember us seeing was `Herbie Goes to
Monte Carlo.' "
Lee was often embarrassed by his parents' behavior. His mother
insisted, for example, on attaching tennis-ball halves to the bottoms
of her kitchen-chair legs, so that they wouldn't scratch the
linoleum. When Lee started driving, he would remove the yarn-and-
Popsicle-stick crucifixes she kept hanging from the car's rearview
mirror. When Lee went to Hollywood, his mother says, "I told
him, `Don't make horrible, scary movies; make a good and religious
movie.' He just laughed."
As an adolescent, Lee was determined to be popular, and he kept up
with the latest hit films and songs. He would later tell close
friends the story of what happened when he was in the tenth grade and
a classmate shot him in the ankle with a BB gun. "I was mad," Lee
told me. So he went to the gunman's garage and unscrewed the lug nuts
on one of the front tires of his car. The driver was unhurt in the
resulting crash, but the car's axle broke. The police questioned Lee,
but they didn't have enough evidence to prosecute.
As an undergraduate at George Washington University, Lee did an
internship at the Washington bureau of the law firm Fried Frank
Harris Shriver & Jacobson. He began a self-improvement program in
which he read a book a day, working his way through the best-seller
list, from Douglas Adams to Stephen King. "Roy had a bunch of hard-
partying friends," Yong recalls, "and when he decided to buckle down
he threw them all a big party around Christmastime. At the end of the
night, he said, `I hope you've all had a great time. Because in the
new year I don't want to see any of you again.' He told me this,
thinking I'd be proud of him and his resolve, and I said, `That's
terrible!' He said, `The difference between you and me is you're too
chicken. I'll do what I have to do to get ahead.' "
While attending law school at American University, Lee tried his hand
at screenwriting. His approach was methodical: he transcribed "Pulp
Fiction," rewriting the script virtually line by line, creating what
he called "a whole new movie." He sent a talent agency a "Seinfeld"
script that he had refreshed in this manner, but nothing came of it.
Nonetheless, in 1996, after graduating and working at Fried Frank for
eight months, he quit and drove his Honda Prelude to Los Angeles. "I
wanted to reinvent myself in a different city, far away," he says.
Lee was twenty-seven. He soon got a job as a "tracker" at a
production company called Alphaville, where his boss was Cotty Chubb.
Trackers spend their days calling other trackers, trading information
on available scripts. Lee had a brainstorm: why not put the whole
information bourse on a Web site, as Fried Frank had done internally
with its caseload server? In 1997, Lee set up an Internet bulletin
board, called Tracker, for twenty of his friends, who logged and
rated the scripts they read.
Within six months, Lee had established twenty-five similar online
groups for other young trackers. Since he was the only member of each
group, he had the best information of all. When the screenplay
for "American Beauty" was being tracked at a furious rate, Lee called
his friend Mark Sourian, a young assistant at DreamWorks, to tell him
that he hadn't read the script himself but that it looked hot.
Sourian was the first to alert his boss, and after several other
executives had read the script DreamWorks wound up making the film.
Lee's new system basically killed the "spec script" market, in which
marquee writers such as Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas commanded
multimillion-dollar sums for original screenplays. Before Tracker, a
writer's agent could submit a script to a producer in secret, and
with a short response deadline, to try to force a large bid. Often, a
producer or a studio believed it was getting such a script first,
when it had already been rejected elsewhere. Now all it took was one
twenty-three-year-old typing "It sucks" on a tracking Web site and
that script was dead.
In 1999, Lee went to work for Benderspink, a talent-management
company owned by two of his friends, Chris Bender and J. C. Spink. He
was charged with finding Internet content: short films that would
play on personal computers. Two years later, when the Internet bubble
popped, Lee started looking for feature films to produce and came
across Taka Ichise's "Ringu."
But exactly how that happened is a matter of dispute. Lee says that
he was given "Ringu" by two different friends in January of 2001, and
became obsessed with it. He says he checked to see that the rights
were available, then showed the tape to Mark Sourian, who was by then
a DreamWorks executive, and who immediately persuaded the studio to
buy the remake rights for a million dollars.
But a remake of "Ringu" had been in development at Fine Line
Features, at least until January of 2001, when the executive in
charge of the project, Mike Macari, was laid off. Macari says that he
had shown "Ringu" to Lee, a close friend, much earlier. After he was
laid off, Macari planned to shop "Ringu" around, and he asked
Benderspink to act as his agent in selling the film. That's when Lee,
as Benderspink's employee, got involved and showed the tape to
Macari and his partner had understood that they would be the film's
producers. But when DreamWorks' Walter Parkes and Laurie MacDonald
decided that they wanted to produce the film, the resulting reshuffle
left Macari with a lesser credit than Lee. Macari says that when he
called Lee to ask about this, Lee said, "Fuck you, you're lucky to
even be involved in this thing," and hung up. Macari called Lee
repeatedly. He even messengered over a set of eight lug nuts with a
note: "I've already removed my lug nuts. Please call me back." Lee
refused to speak to Macari for fourteen months.
"Roy Lee didn't find `Ringu,' " J. C. Spink says. "Mike Macari
found `Ringu.' If it weren't for him, it would still be sitting in a
warehouse in Japan."
When Lee heard that people had been disputing his version of events,
he tried to get Macari to change his story. (His tactics included
threatening to circulate mug shots from a drunken-driving arrest
involving Macari.) After a few weeks, Lee finally admitted, "I guess
Mike deserves some credit." (Ultimately, Macari and Lee were both
listed as "executive producers" of "The Ring.")
After "The Ring" went into production at DreamWorks, there was
suddenly a great deal of interest in Hideo Nakata, the man who
directed "Ringu." Nakata became the focus of Lee's energies. In
addition to "Ringu," he had directed "Dark Water," a horror film
about an apartment building where it keeps raining indoors, which Lee
sold for five hundred and fifty thousand dollars. And Lee teamed with
two other production companies to get Universal Studios to buy the
remake rights to Nakata's stylish thriller "Chaos," about a handyman
who helps a woman arrange her fake kidnapping only to find out that
it's real and she's dead. (The remake is being developed for Robert
De Niro and Benicio Del Toro.)
Lee had little interest in developing scripts or in being an on-set
producer, so when he left Benderspink, in the fall of 2001, he joined
with Doug Davison to create Vertigo Entertainment. Davison would do
the follow-up work on a project after Lee had done the selling. In
the beginning, Lee said, the hardest thing was making contacts
abroad. "I didn't know a single person from Korea until 2001," he
told me. All he knew was that when you met an Asian you should bow.
He discovered, though, that his appearance gave him an advantage both
at home and in Asia: everyone assumed that he was culturally attuned.
In fact, he was market attuned. He quickly sold Korea's No. 2
film, "My Wife Is a Gangster," to Miramax (Queen Latifah just signed
on to star in the remake); its No. 3 film, "Marrying the Mafia," to
Warner Bros.; its No. 4 film, "My Sassy Girl," to DreamWorks; and so
on. His pitch was simple and effective: he would explain to Asian
distributors that their films would probably never sell in America,
because Americans hate movies with subtitles, and that they would
make more money by selling the remake rights anyway. Then Lee would
assure the rights holder that his agenda would never get muddled with
theirs because he was going to represent them for free (with the
American studio paying his fee if the film was made). Once Lee had
secured the right to negotiate for an Asian company, he would tell
the studios to regard the film as a script that someone had taken the
trouble to film, and that happened to have been tested and proved as
a hit in its home country.
Asian studios now send Lee subtitled cassettes before their films
have even been released. As he got deeper into the backlist, he
realized that he needed to bring in writers who could pitch the
studios' heavily revised versions of the originals. Lee's favorite
new idea is a high-school horror film that combines the best elements
of several Japanese films. "There's a great title I like," he
said. " `Whispering Corridors.' And there's a great opening scene in
another film where a girl gets e-mails on her PalmPilot from her
friend who committed suicide, and an idea from another one about a
haunted bathroom stall. I need a few more bits for it to all come
together, so I keep mentioning it to writers and maybe something will
happen." Budd Schulberg described this brand of Hollywood
storytelling in "What Makes Sammy Run?," his 1941 novel about an
aspiring producer named Sammy Glick. Glick would tell his
notions "over and over to people who supplied a line here, an idea
there, until the story began to take shape like a snowman forming
hastily under many hands."
The frenzy for Asian movies was such that in October of 2001, when
Lee persuaded Miramax to buy the remake rights to "My Wife Is a
Gangster," a kung-fu comedy, the tape that the executives saw didn't
even have subtitles. "Miramax bought it without even knowing what the
characters were talking about," Lee said.
Dimension Films, a division of Miramax, also signed Vertigo to
a "first look" deal, in which the studio pays the company's overhead
and base salaries for a young producer like Lee, roughly a hundred
and fifty thousand dollarsand, in return, the company offers its
projects to the studio first.
Vertigo's arrangement with Dimension quickly foundered. Lee believes
that, once the company's executives discovered who his sources in
Asia were, they told those sources that they'd get a better price if
they dealt with the studio directly.
"The acquisitions people at Miramax and Dimension saw Roy as a
threat," a former Dimension executive told me, "because they were
pursuing that market unsuccessfully and here's this guy who comes in
and sets things up really fast and says, `You guys are idiots.' The
top executives there hate Royhe scares the hell out of them."
Last fall, Lee's lawyer began negotiating with Dimension to release
Vertigo from its deal; Lee had a new first-look deal already lined up
with another studio. When Dimension refused to dissolve the contract,
Lee became furious. "I guess once `The Ring' reached a certain level,
Bob and Harvey Weinstein changed their minds," he said. "They've seen
our slate of movies they shouldn't have passed on. Plus, they're so
vindictive they might renew the option year, just to fuck us." (The
studio did, in fact, renew Vertigo's contract through 2004.)
Realizing that his obligations to Dimension would be continuing, Lee
dashed off a one-page treatment of "The Whale" (the comedy about the
guy who gets comped in Vegas) for the studio. He wanted to cover
himself, because he thought New Line might buy the concept for Ice
Cube. (Contrary to what Lee had told Jason Filardi at L'Ermitage, New
Line had not already done so.) Lee's hastily written treatment
described the crucial third-act plot twist as "an ingenious plan that
is too hilarious to mention here." He spent most of his time editing
each paragraph to be exactly five lines long.
Dimension promptly optioned the treatment, paying Lee's assistant,
its nominal author, about forty thousand dollars. "Nobody knows
anything," Lee said with a shrug, quoting the screenwriter William
Goldman's famous adage about Hollywood.
Lee has often held grudges against as many as four people at once,
but he prefers to focus his rage on one enemy at a time. He can be a
formidable antagonist; several of his former enemies became alarmed
at the mention of his name. "I have made it hard for someone who's an
enemy to get a job," Lee told me. "I'd have friends call the
potential new boss and say, `Call Roy for a reference.' And then I'd
unload. Or I'll go to X-rated Web sites and type in my enemy's e-mail
address, so they'll get spam from those sites forever. If I were rich
enough, I'd pay someone forty grand a year to be on staff and just do
dirty deeds. His car would block yours on your way to an important
meeting, or he'd heckle you on the street. Not really a hit man, but
an annoying man."
Recently, Lee suggested a bet with a producer in which the stakes
were extremely high. "If you lose, you have to cut off part of your
ear with a scissors and eat it," he told her. "You have to feel the
pain." When Lee learned that someone told me he had used prescription
diet pills to help him lose weight, he concludedincorrectlythat the
source was J. C. Spink. He sent me a long e-mail, c.c.-ing Spink,
recounting the epiphany in which he purportedly realized that he
needed to go on a diet:
It was a day in the year 2000 when I dropped JC off in front of Urth
Café where JC was meeting a prostitute. . . . I was thinking to
myself that it was so pathetic that someone would have to resort to
paying for sexual relationships. . . . I thought that maybe if I ever
got as obese as JC, it would be impossible to give a good first-
impression to any woman. . . . I urge you to ask him if he ever paid
for a sexual act such as the aforementioned blow-jobs, hand-jobs or
Spink, a burly man who affably asserts that the woman in question
was "one of the really hot strippers I used to hook up with," says
that he viewed Lee's e-mail as "more humorous than anything,"
adding, "It seems like he's panicked, like he's lost his shit."
I asked Lee whether, at this point in his career, such vindictiveness
was prudent. "I get pleasure from seeing someone suffer if they've
mistreated me," he said, appearing to be puzzled by the
question. "The way I do business seems to work out well, so I go with
what makes me angry. I like the way I am, just a happy guy."
Shortly before 8 p.m. one Wednesday night, Lee walked into the
basement of the Irving Thalberg Building on the Sony Pictures lot. He
was accompanied by his friend Nathan Kahane, the head of production
at Senator International, an American mini-studio owned by a German
conglomerate. It was the night that Lee was screening "Ju-On" for Sam
Raimi. Kahane, a short, chatty man with a broad smile, carried a bag
of turkey-and-avocado sandwiches past the "No Food" signs.
"Did you see the article about `Ju-On' on `Ain't It Cool News?' " Lee
asked. "It was a great article about the movie."
"About the trailer, I think," Kahane said.
"No, the movie. It was really, really positive."
Kahane grinned. "Don't try to sell me, Roy."
Inside Screening Room E, a handful of executives from Senator and
from Raimi's company were lounging around. As Kahane distributed the
sandwiches, Lee told him that he'd met with Taka Ichise, the film's
producer, the day before, and thathe raised his voice and spoke to
the roomTaka was looking for investors to make six great Japanese
horror films. "We can get Hideo Nakata to do a film in Japan, with
American actors, for one million dollars."
"That's a no-brainer," Joe Drake, Senator's president, said.
"Hideo Nakata?" Robert Tapert, Raimi's producing partner, said. "One
million? Done. Done." A moment later, Tapert asked, "But why would
the director of `Ringu' and `Dark Water' make a movie for us for a
total of one million?"
"They haven't figured it out yet," Drake said. "He's a Japanese
director and they haven't figured it out yet."
Sam Raimi came in quietly, carrying a leather satchel that was filled
with scripts. A small, modest-looking man in spectacles, he shook
everyone's hand and apologized for being late. His chin was covered
with graying stubble and he looked tired. "Should we learn anything
about this before we see it?" he asked.
"A haunted house infects the people who enter it with a virus that
makes them die or kill people," Lee said promptly. "The first
official American screening by the producer, Taka, is tomorrow, but
you're seeing it first." (Lee had, in fact, sent an unsubtitled
cassette of "Ju-On" to Dimension, expecting, and receiving, a pass.)
As the lights dimmed, Lee whispered to Kahane, "If it stinks,
remember, I haven't seen it before."
"If it stinks, your reputation is ruined."
The film, written and directed by an unknown named Shimizu Takashi,
was hypnotic. There were disturbing images of a woman crawling like a
crocodile, of a ghost materializing on a security camera, its eyes
swallowing the screen, and of a woman who, as she washes her hair in
the shower, finds an extra finger interlaced with hers. "Ju-On" was
also nearly impossible to follow, as there was no exposition and it
kept jumping around in time. In the dark, Lee twisted in his seat,
listening: was that sound someone snoring, or whimpering in fear?
Afterward, the men gathered in the hallway and tried to untangle the
story. Sam Raimi came out last. "That was super-scary," he said,
leaning against the wall. "Robert and I have a rule that we like to
see fifteen great scares in a movie, and there were at least that
many here, one after the other. Great sound design, great
screencraft. Very spooky. I'm not completely sure what happened,
Lee jumped in. His hands thrust into the pockets of his brown Donna
Karan pants, he said, "The video prequel is actually much scarier,
and it explains why the guy at the end has a grudge against everyone.
He's a father who finds out his wife had an affairor so he thinks,
because the house makes him crazyand he goes on a killing spree.
I've edited together the best scares from the video, and I could show
that to you."
"Could we get this director to repeat these images and put in a
linear narrative?" Raimi asked.
"Do it all in Japan," Tapert added, "using American actors who, for
the story, are there for some reason. They're whatmodels?"
"Exchange students," Kahane suggested.
"Absolutely," Lee said. "The writer Stephen Susco is working with me
on this, and he's got a terrific idea for a three-act story. He can
pitch it to you next week."
Raimi seemed to focus on Lee for the first time. "Are you the agent?"
"I'm more of a producing partner," Lee said.
"Roy did the same thing on `The Ring,' " Kahane said.
"So what are you asking for this?" Raimi asked.
"As I was telling Nathan," Lee replied, "because I know the producer,
I think we could get it for a great price, very low."
Raimi nodded, thinking. He snapped his satchel shut and said, "Let's
Within a few weeks, Raimi and Senator had firmed up a deal to film
the remake of "Ju-On" in Japan, in September, using American actors,
on an anticipated budget of between ten and fifteen million dollars.
Lee advised Taka Ichise to ask for whatever he liked and then settle
for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars, which is more or less
what happened. Lee's fee was roughly the same as Taka's.
"Coming in, Sam didn't know who Roy was," Nathan Kahane said
afterward, "but he will. Roy's at that moment, right now, where he's
twelve months away from all the Sam Raimis knowing who he is, and
calling him before he calls them."
Lee is at that point because he was able to view "Ringu" not just as
a remake but as the future. Recognizing that Lee possesses a rare
skill, neither J. C. Spink nor Mike Macari has entirely soured on his
ex-friend. "Part of me would like to crush Roy," Spink said. "But I
kind of like and respect him, too. Right now he's one of the hundred
still standing of the original one thousand, and he might well be one
of the twenty who rule in the end." After listing all the ways in
which Lee had lied to and about him and had betrayed his trust,
Macari concluded, without irony, "Roy is the remake king. I have the
utmost respect for him."
For his part, Lee seems not to mind the loss of two of his closest
companions. The compensations are evident, and he has learned, as he
rises, not to look back.