Man behind the movies

The harsh weather conditions during the shooting of The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio (above), caused problems on set.
The harsh weather conditions during the shooting of The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio (above), caused problems on set.PHOTO: TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Singapore-based movie producer Philip Lee handled the money matters for the critically acclaimed The Revenant

Nothing makes a producer tremble like the words "trouble on the set". It was a situation that Singapore- based Philip Lee, executive producer of The Revenant, became aware of in the middle of last year.

Reports emerged of extreme hardship in Western Canada, on the location of the wilderness survival drama starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.

There were press reports of long days in the cold, caused by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's decision to forgo the use of computer effects and artificial light, leaving the crew with only a sliver of time each day for photography.

Schedules were stretched, the budget ballooned from US$95 million (S$1.3 billion) to US$135 million and crew members were quitting, issues worsened by Inarritu's decision to continue the shoot in the wilds of Argentina because of a lack of snow in Canada.

"I heard about the hardships," says Mr Lee on a Skype call to The Straits Times from Hong Kong last week. The 50-something producer of films including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Cloud Atlas (2012) considered visiting the set.

In the 1980s, he cut his teeth on film sets in Hong Kong as line producer and production manager. He remembers what he used to think of studio executives visiting sets on fact-finding or trouble- shooting tours - these visits are seen by film crews as disruptive.

"I hated those visits, and the Revenant team were already in a difficult location," he says. So he decided to leave them alone, trusting that Inarritu's team would iron things out on their own.

That trust has paid off, says Mr Lee, who considers the work "fantastic". The story of 19th- century trapper Hugh Glass, left for dead after a bear mauling, has earned 12 Oscar nominations, including for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor In A Leading Role for DiCaprio and Best Actor In A Supporting Role for Hardy.

The film, which is now showing in Singapore, took home Golden Globes for Best Picture (Drama), Best Director and Best Actor, for DiCaprio.

Mr Lee is a Hong Kong citizen and a permanent resident of Singapore. He lives here with his wife and three daughters aged 24, 19 and 14.

On The Revenant, he was one of a team of a half-dozen executive producers and his duties were mainly in the area of financial management. But each movie makes its own demands on him, he says.

For the sci-fi fantasy Cloud Atlas, for example, he says he was "five times more involved in the production" than he was for The Revenant. His job duty went beyond the financial.

In the ambitious 2012 ensemble drama about the migration of souls across time and space, he helped to hire the cast, consisting of actors from around the world, including China and South Korea.

That the movie was a commercial failure has not dimmed his appreciation of it.

"I love that movie and I believed in it, and a lot of people like it, even though it was not successful," he says.

Director Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight trilogy, 2005-2012) sent the Cloud Atlas team a note, he adds.

"He said he loved the movie. But there was just one big problem. He said it was made 20 years too early."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 10, 2016, with the headline 'Man behind the movies'. Print Edition | Subscribe