Loners, Rappers, and Bankrobbers: Pete Lee Brings the Bay's Scrappiness to Life

Editor's Note: Behind the Lens is a digital video series featuring bold California indie filmmakers pushing the boundaries of their craft. Each episode captures the personal experiences that inform a filmmaker's work and the risks they take to bring stories to the screen.

Pete Lee has never been known to stay in one lane. He’s a writer and director; his short film Don’t Be a Hero premiered as an official selection at 2018’s Sundance Film Festival. He makes stylish, athletic music videos (for The Coup, Atmosphere and Aesop Rock, among others). He’s also a food photographer, a lifelong kung fu aficionado, an outspoken advocate for immigrants and homeless folks, and an erstwhile musician-slash-standup-comedian who likes to cover Mariah Carey.

But the most accurate word for Lee, really, is ringleader: wherever he goes, interesting people follow. You only need one glimpse of the Taiwan-born, Boston suburb-raised 36-year-old giving direction on a film set—or making jokes and bossing his friends-turned-sous-chefs around in his tiny kitchen in the Mission District as he cooks dinner for a packed house of local artists, writers and musicians—to understand you’re dealing with someone special.

Lee’s a ham, but there’s a distinctly collaborative thread that runs through his films: an eye for an unlikely pairing or mashup, a gift for knowing when to step back and let magic work—and then a tendency to just say “to hell with it” and invite everyone to join in. He’s scrappy in a way that screams Bay Area, drawn to artistic and logistical challenges that would make other filmmakers balk. And, whether solo or through Scandinavia, the Bay Area production company he co-founded, he always manages to get others excited about outrageous, sometimes far-from-lucrative creative endeavors as well.

His protagonists are often loners and outsiders. But: “I’m at my best when I’m in the company of other people,” is how Lee puts it. KQED Arts sat down with the filmmaker to hear more. —Intro by Emma Silvers

Still from "Don't be A Hero" (Courtesy of Pete Lee)

How did you get your start in filmmaking?

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Pete: When I was 16, my cousin got me a bootleg DVD, an instructional video of Jackie Chan teaching how to shoot fight scenes. So I got a camera and grabbed one of my high school classmates who could do backflips, and then we started making things. But my first like real gig was working with a local hip-hop group Zion I. They were looking to do some guerrilla-style music videos for their new album coming out. They didn't have any money, but I knew that that was probably going to be the quickest way for me to really get some practice, so I started working with them and made six music videos that summer. The first, I had two or three helpers, and by the end, I had formed this pretty sizable film crew, with a lot of people in film who didn’t just want to hustle on commercial sets. So we kept a very loose, collaborative atmosphere, and I think the payoff was a lot of really interesting work from people with very different backgrounds. And that was the start of this little family [of filmmakers] forming in Oakland.

How do you define success for yourself?

Pete: Success for me is if I can keep working with inspiring people whose work I admire. Most of my friends I've met on film sets through filmmaking, and most of the people that I've considered family, I've met through film, so I just want to keep doing that. Also, by “inspiring,” I don't mean in a high school counselor kind of way. Sometimes motivation comes from being competitive with one another and sometimes it can come from hearing really tough words from people you like.

Still from "Rope A Dope 2"
Courtesy of Pete Lee

What's something you wish you could say to your younger self?

Pete: Filmmaking, freelancing, can be a really tough business. When times get slow, it can feel really, really lonely, especially in a place like San Francisco when there's not much of a film industry. I would tell myself: ‘Hang in there, and whether you are hibernating or working on your passion projects or trying to reach out to everyone, just understand that we've been conditioned to be embarrassed by things beyond our control, like money. Just ride it out, and worry about whether or not you're putting good work into the world.’

There are so many setbacks in filmmaking, so many moving parts. Even when you feel like you failed, it can be hard to know by the final product what adjustments should’ve been made, because the situations are so specific. Was it that I didn't know how to talk to the actors, or because the weather was just bad that day so the shot looks bad, or that I’m not very good at logistics and making a schedule? And you can think, ‘I'm not meant for this,’ and question, ‘Am I a real artist, a filmmaker?’ When I was younger I think that identity, that status, was really important to me.

What is a source of inspiration to you that might be surprising to other people?

There’s a really beautiful church and community called the City of Refuge that used to be in San Francisco, but I think, because of gentrification, they are now in East Oakland. They don’t have the biggest choir, church band or whatever, and it’s not a super polished church. But there's something about their music, and their Sunday services that just really, really moves me. A lot of the people that the church serves are queer and transgender, and I always just feel like it really is true to its name, City of Refuge. And sometimes when I feel disconnected from humanity, or I get a little cynical or whatever, I go there to get lost in the music and the spirit of the place.

Still from Meklit's video "Super Nova"
Courtesy of Pete Lee

What does the future of filmmaking look like in your ideal world?

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I'm really excited by this resurgence of different types of stories and approaches. They kind of come in booms, like very personal independent films and really intelligent takes on genre films with political implications, like Get Out. And on television and in web series too, all these artists are figuring out different ways to break storytelling [conventions]. Shows like Atlanta; or Nanette, the Netflix comedy special [featuring Australian Hannah Gadsby]; the really personal documentary Minding the Gap that came out this year. I’m excited that we have all these really young filmmakers who are learning to put all of that together—to tell personal stories that are fun, or infused with genre and pop culture that we grow up with, and using that to a political end, and to give strength to people. Very quickly the boom can fade, or things could turn formulaic quickly and everyone turns lazy—that might also be a possible outcome. But I'm excited by the possibility that we might get 10 great years of personal filmmaking that's really joyful and vibrant and has the ability to change the discourse.            --Interview by Masha Pershay

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