Helen Lee by Fiona MacDonald
(Originally published in Playback Magazine, June 25, 2001)
Although she has almost a decade of formal film studies behind her, Helen Lee says she learned filmmaking "by doing."
Lee, fresh from her feature directorial debut on the The Art of Woo, started her undergraduate studies at the University of Western Ontario where she balanced business studies with artier subjects before transferring to the University of Toronto "because they had a cinema studies program." New York was next, with Lee signing on for a masters degree in film at NYU, an experience she calls "an eye-opener." This was followed by curatorial studies at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
But all along Lee was turning out her own work. Despite her concentration on theory, Lee was able to incorporate enough technical courses to equip her to write, direct and edit her first short film, Sally's Beauty Spot, which screened at the Toronto Festival of Festivals in 1990.
"It was during that time I felt most torn, because when I should have been writing essays I was more interested in going to an editing suite and cutting my film. It was where I [thought I] should go with my life," she says.
Back in Toronto in the early 1990s, a stint as director observer on Atom Egoyan's Exotica helped make up her mind, and she enrolled in the Canadian Film Centre. More study was to come: Lee had a Nomad Residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts and a director residency at the CFC. And then school was out.
"I was so glad to be out of institutions; it was like being released or something. At the same time, I enjoyed my time there. I learned a lot about dramatic filmmaking at the centre."
Two other films from Lee during this period were My Niagara, a dramatic short, which she directed, co-wrote and produced, that won a Special Jury Citation at the Toronto International Film Festival, and Prey, a comedic drama that was an official selection at the Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival.
After a five-year hiatus spent in her native Korea ("It was a long period of rejuvenation"), Lee returned to Canada last year with a feature film in development, a romantic thriller called Priceless. Interest was forthcoming from Alliance Atlantis and Citytv, and Sienna Films was on board for development. "But it didn't really get off the ground," says Lee, although she still harbors hopes of getting the project made.
Something else did get made though. Approached a year ago by Anita Lee, a friend from her CFC days, with a premise for The Art of Woo, the two began work on the script Helen would direct. The romantic comedy follows Toronto art dealer Allessa Woo as she searches for the perfect man. The two Lees managed to cast such luminaries as Sook-Yin Lee, Adam Beach, Alberta Watson, Don McKellar and Kelly Harms.
"We were really lucky. We approached the actors and they all seemed to like the script. It's a funny story and all the parts are across the board."
With editing just completed, Lee looks forward to submitting the film to this year's TIFF.
"It's all been done in a very fast time line," she says of the $500,000 project, produced through ArtStar Pix and the CFC's Feature Film Project.