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Cedric Lee: Hollywood North

Need a location for your film? Ask Cedric Lee.

Cedric LeeMovie production has a long history in Michigan with the state and its culture serving almost as a supporting character in some iconic films, including the 1959 classic Anatomy of a Murder (starring Jimmy Stewart) set in the Upper Peninsula. There was Beverly Hills Cop (I and II with Eddie Murphy) in the 80s, and the dark crime comedy Grosse Pointe Blank (featuring John Cusack) in 1997. But with the passage of state tax incentives for production companies, movies made in Michigan really took off starting in 2008 with 32 filmed that year, up more than 10-fold from 2007.

Recently the Richard Gere thriller, The Double, was shot on location in metro Detroit. In reporting on the shoot, The Detroit Free Press highlighted some of the on-location action: “Off camera, Cedric N. Lee, 29, of Rochester Hills, who graduated from Ferris State University with a business degree, was wired to a headset as he looked over the transformed corner of Grand River Avenue and Centre Street. The scene flashes back to 1988 Paris, with the Coaches Corner bar made over to resemble a Paris Café.”

In addition to his work as assistant location manager onThe Double, Lee rose from being an intern to a consultant on Gran Torino, in which Clint Eastwood portrays Walt Kowalski, a grizzled Korean War veteran living in Highland Park. He grudgingly befriends a young Hmong neighbor who is being pressured to join a gang. Lee’s interest in film
combined with his knowledge of Detroit and his own Hmong heritage gave him a unique set of attributes that dovetailed with the needs of the film’s production crew.

“I was asked to be on the set every day, and that’s where I learned set etiquette and how things really function,” says Lee. “I had a lot of one-on-one interaction with Clint. At times I would be asked to be with him and help interpret for the actors. It was a great experience. Clint is a very, very humble person for someone of his stature. I thought he would come off as all Hollywood, but he was very down-to-earth. He opened up a lot of doors for me.”

One of the doors that opened was the opportunity to create subtitles for the movie, which Lee flew out to Hollywood to work on. While in LA, he approached the film’s producer to see if there would be interest in a documentary he and a friend were working on about the film and the Hmong community.

“I told him I had put this little documentary together—which I really hadn’t at the time, it was still just all this footage. He said he would love to see it,” Lee says. “I never heard back, so I figured he was just saying that to be nice. Then I got an e-mail maybe three weeks later asking how the documentary was coming along and could I mail it to him. We stayed up all weekend to put together maybe a 20-minute sample.”

That sample ultimately turned into “Gran Torino: Next Door,” which was included as an extra on the film’s Blu-ray edition. In addition to interviews with first-time Hmong actors, actor-director Eastwood and others, the documentary also delves into some Hmong history. Most importantly for Lee and other first- and second-generation Americans, that history includes how the Central Intelligence Agency recruited Hmong for covert actions in Laos during the Vietnam War. After the war, many Hmong fled—primarily to France and the United States. Lee’s Hmong/French heritage stems from that exodus.

“The Ho Chi Minh Trail ran through Laos, which the Viet Cong used to infiltrate South Vietnam. My grandpa was involved, and that’s pretty much why we’re here. He was a mayor for Long Tieng, which is where Air America [a CIA supply operation] was headquartered.”

Lee’s work on Gran Torino was a springboard for further work in Michigan’s burgeoning film industry. In addition to his involvement with The Double, Lee has done casting and locations work on the George Clooney film Up In the Air, Rosie O’Donnell’s Lifetime movie America, the Rob Reiner-directed Flipped, the HBO series Hung, the remake of Red Dawn, the Miley Cyrus headlined LOL, and the new television series Detroit 187. He chose working on Detroit 187 over a shoot for Transformers 3 since a television series provides that much-sought-after element in creative work—stability.

Detroit 187 is an awesome, awesome project. We’re shooting the first nine episodes going into December, and if it gets picked up for the back nine episodes then we go until April,” explains Lee. He also was involved in the filming of Jinn, being produced by an independent, Michigan-based production company, Exxodus Pictures. That would be the next step for Michigan’s film industry—not simply to bring money to the state during production, but to keep the profits
from a project in the state. As with Gran Torino, Lee is working on a “behind-the-scenes” featurette about the making of Jinn.

The growth of Michigan’s film industry came at just the right time for Lee, who has had an interest in making movies since he shot his first short at age 12 using his parents’ home video camera. Although he considered going to film school, he decided a Ferris Business degree would be something he could rely upon right after graduation. Ironically, Detroit is getting nearly as much buzz for its movie and TV shoots as it is for the latest model hybrid car. So if the area isn’t yet quite “Hollywood North,” it is definitely a place where a career in media is more viable than it has ever been.

“Three years ago you couldn’t have said, ‘Hey, I’m going to work in the film industry in Michigan.’ Today you can get a job in the industry and learn the craft. I see people doing it every day,” says Lee. “The tax incentive may go away at some point, but my plan is to learn as much here as I can and meet as many people as I can. Ultimately I’d like to produce.  I like having visions in my head and bringing them to life.”