The Filmmaker, Author, Composer and Model Sits Down with Veteran Storyteller Brian Berusch to Discuss Her Role as a Hawaiian Historian
It can be said that having strong roots is the best foundation for becoming a successful storyteller. Filmmaker Edgy Lee’s great-great grandfather was the first Vice Consul to China from the Kingdom of Hawaii. With a passion for stories rooted well below the known surface, Lee has produced documentaries such as “The Hawaiians – Reflecting Spirit”, “Waikiki: In the Wake of Dreams”, “Paniolo O Hawaii: Cowboys of the Far West” and “Papakolea, Story of Hawaiian Land.”
The Hawaiians previewed at the opening of the Smithsonian Museum of American Indian in Washington D.C., and various films of Lee’s have garnered national acclaim. She’s received “Best Cinematography” and “Best Editing” awards at the New York FIlm & Video Festival; “Best Documentary History” and “Best Writing” from the Chicago Int’l Film Festival.
An LA Times film critic wrote: “What Lee has done in irresistible fashion is a splendid example of the enduring power of the traditional documentary. The kind that brings alive an unfamiliar world in a straightforward manner that is as entertaining as it is informative."
She’s a classically trained pianist and violinist, studied Fine Art in San Francisco and has modeled for a national agency. She’s also an accomplished music producer.
Lee has since returned home to tell more stories from roots that go well beneath Pacific lands. She’s hard at work on two documentaries—of which she will delve in this month’s (July 2014) Study Hall at The Modern Honolulu—as well as cultivating talent from throughout the region.
July 8, 2014
[Each response from Edgy Lee has been shortened in this venue; to follow the conversation in its entirety, click the “Continued” links at the end of each paragraph to read the full transcripts at BonHawaii.com]
Brian Berusch for THE MODERN LIVE: I read in your bio about the rich legacy begun by your great-great Grandfather in Hawaii. Can you talk about what legacy means to you? How did his contributions to outside cultures settling in Hawaii affect how you progressed within your own career?
LEE: My great great arrived from China in 1853 and over time he did a lot of business in the Kingdom of Hawaii. Had I been here then, I’m not so sure I would have agreed with all his transactions, some involving the commoditization of natural resources which is what they did in the 19th c., and what they continue to do today all over the world. So some 160 years later I find myself co-writing and producing a film set in this period, entitled, “Sandalwood - A Cautionary Tale”. At the heart of the story is the poignant and historic ruination of Hawaii's precious sandalwood forests, a precursor to what happened to the native culture. It’s a tale of discovery, betrayal, envy, and greed.
(pick up HERE from The Modern Live) The characters are merchants, missionaries and monarchs caught in the pursuit of power and accumulation of wealth, and add to this, the shameful post Civil War practice of ‘blackbirding’, kidnapping or “shanghaiing” people from their homes and forcing them into lives of servitude, and this happened in parts of the South Pacific.
It’s like a “perfect storm”. Ecological, social, and political influences converged, and this brought about radical change. Among those influences was the desire for western luxuries by the Hawaiian ruling class, arrival of foreigners in a land of innocents whose curiosity of the outside world opened the door to new influences -- some good, some very bad and interlopers wrested strategic control of the Pacific. Foreigners brought literacy, western medicine, and christianity. The kapu system was abolished. We take a different slant at telling an untold part of the story by tracing multiple parallels to the demise of other precious cultures and commodities that met their historic end during this time.
Ironically one of the lines in the sacred ancient Hawaiian creation chant, the Kumulipo, includes, “Born is the Palaoa (great whale) living in the sea, guarded by the A’oa (Sandalwood) living on the land” meaning when the tree is gone so goes the whale. This is precisely what occurred in these islands. So what we see happening now in 21st century Hawaii, one can easily foresee an outcome.
BERUSCH: Can you share with us some interesting challenges or opportunities that being from Hawaii presented throughout your career, be it in modeling, writing, filmmaking, music? (Anecdotes are great here)
LEE: I was one of two girls who were signed with the Nina Blanchard Agency in L.A. (partnered with Eileen Ford in NYC) and at the time, there were no other girls who looked like us. I became the spokesmodel for Chun King on the Johnny Carson Show and they had me wear the same dress
Ms Kwan wore in Hollywood’s version of the Broadway musical (The World of Suzy Wong). I called home and my Dad said, “You were good. You made everyone laugh… but were you wearing falsies?” I admitted so and also told him that when we did a cutaway to a live commercial, they had me stand barefoot in between Ed McMahon who was quite tall and Doc Severinson, who stood on an apple box.
For years I’d get sides and scripts to read at interviews and they’d ask me to do an “asian accent” or “can you be more asian?” This was great inspiration to get me beyond the front of a camera to being behind the camera where I could control the imaging and the message and I’ve been doing this ever since.
(pick up here from The Modern Live) As for music, I was one of few female music producers. Countless hours in windowless studios listening over and over again to maybe just one take, editing and mixing for hours. Not the glamorous vision one might have of making records but what a great experience in patience and discipline. I did mostly Jamaican records because I worked with Joe Higgs, the “Godfather of Reggae”—mentor to Bob Marley and a host of other great musician composers.
I would call a session for a 10 am start and the band would show up at 12:30 pm and they’d be rolling these gigantic cigarettes, the size of ice cream cones. Huge spliffs and they’d smoke all day and all night. And they’d all be talking really fast in their beautiful accents and after awhile I began to understand the nuance and the rhythm in their speech, and just how naturally funny they were when they’d be just shootin’ the breeze. They loved to play with words and use words that were local slang, just like when we “ talk pidgin” here in Hawaii. I think my being from Hawaii helped me tremendously when working with Jamaican musicians because we all come from island lifestyles and I’d kick back and laugh it off and say “hey, ain’t no big ting” that we’re 3 hours into a recording session and everybody’s outside getting stoned and then it’s time to order food.
BERUSCH: Can you name some of your biggest influences, both from within Hawaii and beyond?
LEE: Hmmm, biggest personal influence was Bronislau Kaper. Polish film composer and like a hanai grandfather to me and my sisters. Bonni was just starting to work at MGM where Broni had worked from the time he landed in the U.S. after escaping Nazi occupied Poland for Paris. He loved the fact that there she was on the same lot where he’d scored tons of movies, all live. 75 players and one person makes a mistake and they’ve got to start all over from the top. He taught me to rely on my instincts and follow my heart not just my head. Other influences are mostly dead guys like Matisse, Rothko, Motherwell, Gauguin, Vermeer. Composers and musicians like Brubeck, Debussy, Chopin, Jobim, Beck, Wayne Shorter. Alvin Ailey, Dorothy Parker. There are many greats and I also love Ghandi and Einstein, and people like Lisa Randall a theoretical physicist and Brian Greene who wrote all about string theory. Thinkers who are so outside the box that they see outside or should I say inside, the Universe and are able to describe what is not easily visible and intangible.
BERUSCH: Talk a little bit about the nature of being able to survive in Hawaii as a filmmaker. Is it "harder" to attain a level of success in Hawaii vs. elsewhere?
LEE: If you’re managing to live here and call yourself a filmmaker, actually paying bills making films, that is awesome and that is rare. If you work as a maitre’d in your day job and have managed to raise funds to create a documentary film that’s an accomplishment few have attained. If you’re producing a local TV series and you’ve secured sponsorships enough to air one season of shows and you paid your mortgage, that’s yet another achievement. All incredibly good. If you’re asking what does it take to produce and fund an independent film made in and not necessarily always about Hawaii, distributed out of state to national and international audiences? That is a different challenge. It is more difficult in terms of raising funding for content that should read well for both regional and national audiences. But highly possible.
(pick up here from The Modern Live) It’s not the responsibility of the state of Hawaii to subsidize Hawaii arts & entertainment but if they wanted to understand the success of places like Wilmington North Carolina, Vancouver, or Tribeca in NYC, they would do some authentic research with real live independent filmmakers living in Hawaii. There are a few of us living here. They’d learn about production and post production from a filmmaker’s’ point of view and what it would take to establish a viable industry like Vancouver did for nearly two generations. Who doesn’t want to live and work here at least 4-6 months out of the year? Who would argue that arts & culture industries are eco friendly and that traditionally everywhere in the world they enhance the visitor industry and that is good for Hawaii and for enrollment at UH and KCC campuses. We need to educate legislators and corporations and create better policies that will kick start local production and that is not to diss film tax credits but there’s more that can be done and some of those changes are small but significant. When the state created a recent exhibition of a film history in Hawaii, it excluded one of the most renowned film historians, Ed Rampell, who knows more about this subject than any writer alive today. They also, for some inexplicable reason, excluded many local films in their historic reflection. What, only block buster movies are worthy of mention? This kind of oversight is commonplace. What I see instead of a burgeoning film and TV industry is Hawaii being rented as a location much like a high end luxury spa.
We rent out beautiful sites and great weather and we supply the basics. Towels, amenities, staff, and transportation. When clients come to town maybe we see 150 jobs for the duration of a big series or for 4 months during the making of a feature maybe they’ll hire our top cameramen as second unit and yes it is all good. Dry cleaning and equipment rental revenues increase. It can be good PR for Hawaii but we’re not seeing the greater potential. Why are we not seeing local talent coming to live back home, doing their craft, owning copyrights, raising their families, growing old so they begin to mentor other young writers, directors and producers who could influence the existing landscape, who could reinvent that antiquated picture of Hawaii because they’d be working with a local 6th sense while relying on skills that are as good as any Hollywood or New York based professional? I mean really. How many more series will be written without local input, shot here, then cancelled, and everybody goes home and our local folks go back on unemployment until the next out of town producer manages to get his/her picture set in Hawaii. So, is it harder to attain a level of success here in film and TV?
The question really is, how does one define success. How big is that brass ring you’re dreaming of, what are you willing to sacrifice to attain your goals, and what do you consider success? It’s different for everyone. That maitre’d who produced, wrote, directed and shot his first short film might be happy seeing his films make the film festival circuit, and maybe he’ll seek internet crowd funding and his budget will be ten times as much for his next project and he’ll submit it and win an academy award but decide, hey that was ok. It was fun but I like my lifestyle when I have the freedom to make films but go surfing every day, spend time with my new baby, and live the life, in Hawaii. Success these days is more than a big bank account. After all, at some point in our collective future, money may not afford us good food or clean drinking water and certainly we’re all learning what it means to consider the value of one’s peace of mind.
BERUSCH: More than anyone, you seem to embrace various agencies and local governance when building up a project (or so I've heard); is this something that needs to be done to craft a well-rounded film, or is it more financially driven?
LEE: Yes, I’ve secured film funding from national and state entities such as the Hawaii Tourism Authority, foundations, corporations, and private donors who may never before have supported film or independent television programming produced in Hawaii. I once saw a great cartoon and have kept it for years. It’s a little guy on the phone with balloons over his head, text is him making pitches for film funding and the last balloon over his head says, “Hello… Grandma?” Making films can be an expensive process. Easier of recent, if you’re shooting on a small HD camera you can pick up at Costco and edit with one of many consumer level editing softwares available to a fifth grade student, so many people can create a story using video as the medium. This is an exciting time to be working in digital media.
(pick up here from The Modern Live) Print, video or who knows what’s on the horizon with touch screen animation, drawing, and I’m old school. I studied fine art. I painted and never thought I would appreciate nor become part of the digital world but why not? So long as the next generation learns how to spell and at least know how to address an envelope even though they’ll never mail anything in their lifetime but a wedding invitation.
So for those of us whose work requires bigger budgets, we have to deliver bigger deliverables. Foundation grants are limited more than ever, but new creative work is reaching the public because of YouTube or work is produced in non traditional ways via internet outreach to public funding, and I think wealthy smart progressive people are good with supporting arts and culture. They travel. They see what the alternative is to not being able to enjoy the arts, to live with art, or not to have artists living in and influencing their communities. Raising funds to make a film, producing an original script whether it be a documentary dramatic non fiction or feature film or an hour for television -- there is much more to building an industry in Hawaii than shooting on location. That is only one aspect of a long process. Post production editing, scoring the film, even animation can be done here in the islands and I do hope we will succeed in raising enough to complete Sandalwood - A Cautionary Tale, as it requires a good bit of animation sequences to help depict 19th century, Kingdom of Hawaii when there were no photographs to rely on, and very few illustrations from the times.
I always feel an obligation to ensure that the films we produce give back to those who made it possible. We seek more than a one time broadcast or a public screening or a dvd sitting on a library shelf. Consequently we construct the narrative in a way that is as timeless as possible so that the content remains pertinent. And after the film has been released I take time to step out now and then to encourage use of the films. Most of my films have been presented in national museums, film festivals, on television, and eventually seen in college and high school classrooms, or utilized at events, sometimes years after their original release. You asked about Waikiki in the Wake of Dreams. Ultimately this film did more than document a history that was never brought to film before. In 2001,
in partnership with a established hoteliers in Waikiki, we created a venue in Waikiki to premiere that film and it continues to serve both the hospitality industry and the local community. It took us 6 months to convince, design, and organize all the players. The City and County, the neighborhood, hoteliers, merchants, and HPD. The idea was to create a venue that only very few places in the world can offer and because we’ve got such consistently great weather it could work.
We erected a large screen on Kuhio Beach at Waikiki, in the shadow of Diamond Head, under a full moon. Our film premiered there to an audience of about 5000 folks. Local families and visitors from all over the world, residents from across Kalakaua Blvd. hung out their windows and watched a film that reached back hundred of years into the past with images of precisely the spot where thousands of people had gathered, sitting on the beach watching a story that brought Waikiki’s rich history to life. When it was over, the audience walked on the same pathways as the royals had walked, as Robert Louis Stevenson, Somerset Maugham and Jack London had walked, and in spite of there being sidewalks and commercialization, their understanding and their sense of place, the essence of Waikiki, was forever changed. That is why I make films. We can never go back in time, but the more we expand the context in which we live in the present and continue to modernize, the smarter we will be in shaping our human ecology -- our relationships with nature and the man made environments we create.
So this little experiment was an example of the arts enhancing a visitor destination and working with business and government and the result was positive. We suggested the City of Honolulu consider this as a permanent venue that would draw locals back to Waikiki while visitors would be blown away to be on the beach, open air, watching movies on the shores of this world class location, all for free. The concept was meant as a venue for local films as well as big studio movies. Well the venue is a huge success as planned, but they forgot to include films made locally.
As for content of that film, if I’d said to you, I want to make a film about one of the most popular visitor sites in the world, as familiar to anyone on the planet as if you’d said “The Sphinx” or “The Eiffel Tower”. We’d like to tell you a story about this small beach no larger than one square mile, situated on an island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and in sixty minutes, we’ll cover 500 years of authentic history. We’ll drill down to find out what the fascination has been with this little strip of land and why every generation is obsessed with reinventing it and why people continue to be drawn to Waikiki.
But let’s not stop there. Let’s look at what happens to this quiet beach community when it becomes the most densely populated little cities in a city, with 125,000 residents living in that one square mile radius, with no less than 4 of the 8 million annual visitors to Hawaii stopping in Waikiki a minimum of one to seven nights, 365 days a year. National funding sources would likely have responded with a pass because they’d assume the story would be too regional for national audiences. So who else would have understood what we had intended but the people who promote the Waikiki we see today? That is why I went to HTA where there are some very smart and mindful people who took a chance and never even asked to sign off on the script. I think it’s like having a bond you never would break. I’m a local girl and I would never diss Waikiki in a way that was hurtful. I’ll tell it like it is, but I’d rather convince than berate. The ultimate goal is to engage people to do better, to be more mindful.
Waikiki in the Wake of Dreams, asks the viewer to notice the wake, the aftermath of one generation after another reinventing, refurbishing, renovating and revitalizing Waikiki, a place whose reputation precedes the reality. Dreams that were one generation’s design of paradise are left behind for the next generation. Duke Kahanamoku’s niece described growing up in Waikiki in the 1930s. She knew it as a place where families lived in small one story clapboard houses lined on narrow lanes lined with tall palm trees and you could catch fresh water shrimp in front of the Moana Hotel, and “smell the sweet limu lipoa when you entered the Royal Hawaiian”, and “we ate bananas, taro grew like weeds” by the Hilton, and the boys caught all kinds of reef fish, just yards out from the shore all the way down to where the Modern is today. All the changes since then and before then, are our footprints on a natural cove that attracted the earliest settlers to the islands, and continues to entice millions of people to its’ shores.
I hope that films like Waikiki will open one’s imagination with visions of Waikiki’s historic almost magical past, and if that same viewer becomes more appreciative of the sense of place, perhaps visitors will begin to demand more natural beauty and less luxury, more history and less homogenization. So, this is all to say that I am forever grateful to HTA and First Hawaiian Bank and all the funders who made that film and companion book possible.
"When it was over, the audience walked on the same pathways as the royals had walked, as Robert Louis Stevenson, Somerset Maugham and Jack London had walked, and in spite of there being sidewalks and commercialization, their understanding and their sense of place, the essence of Waikiki, was forever changed."