Kyu Lee, a Korean American from Mercer Island, took the world by storm when he introduced K-Pop star PSY to Scooter Braun, the talent manager of Justin Bieber and the British-Irish band The Wanted. With Lee’s help, PSY’s song “Gangnam Style” gained worldwide popularity and it became the first YouTube video to reach one billion views in 2012.
Lee was born in Seoul, South Korea in 1978 at the U.S. military base in Yongsan, making him a natural born U.S. citizen. He graduated from the University of Washington in 2000 with degrees in business and drama before moving to L.A. and working at Sony Pictures Entertainment. He recently co-produced a film called Operation Chromite about the Battle of Inchon during the Korean War, featuring Liam Neeson in the role of General MacArthur. The International Examiner spoke with Lee about his experiences working in the entertainment industry.
I.E.: What attracted you to the filmmaking aspect instead of acting?
Lee: Acting was never an aspiration for me. It was just to be part of it, even if it was just being behind the camera working with the director and the film crew. As a film producer, there’s so much you have to do behind the camera. You have to find the director, you have to find talent, find the crew, find the money, find so many different things to create a product. You have to know lawyers, investors, to actors, to directors, to insurance, to accounting. Without a producer, it’s difficult to make an amazing product. Things like that really drew me to the entertainment industry.
Before all of that, I made a list of things that I didn’t like doing and things I liked doing and started crossing things off the list. Entertainment and sports were the only things left over. I didn’t want to be a dentist, I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I enjoyed school but I didn’t enjoy reading textbooks all the time, I was more hands-on. Sports and entertainment were those two things that were really hands on and more inspiring and exciting.
I.E.: Growing up in Seattle where there are not as many big entertainment companies as there are in Los Angeles, how did you try to get your name out there and enter a career in entertainment?
Lee: When you’re a student, you don’t know how to put your name out there. It was more about, “I need to find a job. What am I going to do after I graduate?” It was a sense of urgency rather than putting my name out there. When I was in college, I wasn’t a starter, I wasn’t a big player on the [football] team but I was able to be involved in a lot of social events, being invited to a lot of celebrity events in the Seattle area and that sparked my relationships in the entertainment industry.
When I was a sophomore or junior at UW, I was invited to the Richard Karn Star Days. He’s an actor who co-starred with Tim Allen in a sitcom called Home Improvement and Richard was a huge advocate of cancer research through Fred Hutchinson in Seattle. He would invite Whoopi Goldberg, Samuel L. Jackson, and these old legends, and local celebrities like Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. I was one of a few Huskies that were involved in these events. At the end of the day, it’s really about networking and being at the right place at the right time.
I.E.: How did you get your start in L.A.?
Lee: The funny story there is, I went to stay at a friend’s house. He’d mentioned that the coming weekend it was the weekend of the Academy Awards. To be more exact, it was March 25th of 2001. I was like, “We’re in L.A. Why can’t we just go to the awards? Why do we have to watch it on T.V.? I want to see it in person.” He said, “Are you stupid? You can’t go down there. You have to be famous to go there.” So I went. Just in case I might get lucky, I dressed the part. I wore my suit that I wore to my job interviews and carried a couple of my resumes just in case.
I found my way behind the awards ceremony, away from the red carpet. There was this one area where craft services was walking in and out, media, and security…this one area where actors were getting a cigarette in or just some fresh air, and I noticed some Asian faces that were in this area. It happened to be Chow Yun Fat, [director] Ang Lee, and Zhang Ziyi and all these people who were famous Chinese actors. I thought, “Wow, how could this be that there’s Asian people at the Academy Awards?” I didn’t know it was the cast of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. They were nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Cinematography, and Art Direction. They had won four Oscars that year.
When I was in that area, I was so shocked. Everything was so surreal. I got curious so I moved closer and ran into a couple of security guards. They thought I looked suspicious. You know, when you’re a kid and you run into a cop, you kind of freeze and that’s what happened to me. The ignorance of these guys, they thought I couldn’t speak English. They were like “Sorry.” They thought I was part of the crew of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and let me in. I was able to weasel my way into the Academy Awards. When Crouching Tiger won their awards, people thought I was a part of that team and they were congratulating me in the process.
I.E.: How did you get involved with Operation Chromite? Was it a joint project between Hollywood and the Korean entertainment industry?
Lee: Operation Chromite was a film that was put together 7 years ago with a producer by the name of Taewon Chung. He owns Taewon Entertainment, which is one of the biggest entertainment companies in Korea. He and this writer put this together and had been wanting to do it for a while. About a year and a half ago, they took it back off the shelf.
Taewon has been a mentor to me for the past ten years. A year and a half ago, he brought up a project called “9-15.” It was an abbreviation for September 15, 1950 the day of Operation X-Ray where General MacArthur, who was the head of the U.N. Armed Forces was located in Japan at the time and given a secret mission to officers in Korea to Incheon at the time of the war, where China and North Korea had invaded all of Korea. It was a successful mission which in turn created the 38th parallel which divided North Korea and South Korea.
I thought it’d be cool to get a big actor to play General MacArthur. We joked around about getting all of these people to play the role — Robert De Niro, Tommy Lee Jones, Al Pacino, John Travolta — all the big military guys who would fit the role. All of a sudden, we looked at MacArthur’s side profile and we looked at Liam Neeson and we thought, “Oh my God, he looks exactly like him!” There was that spark of confidence in me who wanted to make that happen. It’s all because of the relationships that I’ve built over the past ten to fifteen years that I was able to bring [Liam] to Korea.
I.E.: Have you ever experienced any setbacks or obstacles because you’re an Asian-American?
Lee: I never used Asian-American as an excuse. I think many minorities tend to use the excuse of because I’m a minority, there’s always a glass ceiling. I think white people could use that same excuse if they were in Asia or in Africa. No, I don’t think being a minority is too much of a hardship, I think it was more of a challenge.
I use sports as an analogy. If you have home court advantage, then you have a little more pride and confidence and experience to overcome certain obstacles during your game. Working in the United States where the population is predominantly Caucasian, it’s an obstacle you have to compete with. That’s always the way I thought of it. I didn’t think of it as me being Asian, I just thought of it as if I was playing for the visiting team and some days the referee doesn’t see you and you win, and some days the referee doesn’t see you and you lose. You win with class and you lose with class, and that’s something I’m a huge advocate of.