Sometimes, when your lifelong dreams just don’t seem to be working for you, they may just need a little tweaking.
Film producer Yvonne Huff Lee dreamt of becoming an actress since the age of nine, when she appeared as a nun in her Phoenix-based elementary school production of The Sound of Music. Never looking back nor veering to the left or right, she went on to major in theater arts at the University of Arizona, and at the suggestion of a beloved teacher, began her career in theater in Chicago.
“I had a professor who was at Wisdom Bridge theater in Chicago,” Lee told Shadow and Act. “One semester, I went and I visited in the fall, and once I got there, it was so different from everything that I knew. I knew that that’s where I want it to be, so I moved to Chicago.”
Lee appeared in countless theater projects in Chicago for many years before eventually moving to Los Angeles to work in television. Part Filipina and part black, the former Miss Teen Arizona bumped into the usual obstacles, when she hit Los Angeles, some of which specifically pertained to her identity as a biracial woman. Lee couldn’t figure out where she fit.
“If I were to go back to that time in my career, I was definitely concerned with body image,” she said. “‘Do I have enough boobs? Do I have enough butt? Am I skinny enough?’ I had those kinds of things in the back of my head, even though I was also like, ‘No, I’m a competent woman,'”Lee said. “And also, just being biracial — being black and being Filipino — at that time, I was still kind of dealing with (thoughts like), ‘Am I black enough? Am I Filipino enough?’”
Lee stuck with TV for a number of years before recently deciding to focus on being an independent film producer. She recalled the events that led to her decision to pivot away from acting and focus on producing film.
“My husband and I were doing the entire going on auditions and all of that. But we started a family, and we just couldn’t keep playing the game the way the industry was asking us to play it,” Lee said. “It was personal necessity, artistic necessity and financial necessity that drove us to start our own production company.”
Having a family was what truly brought everything to a head. This “come to Jesus” moment occurred on a Los Angeles freeway at the cusp of evening rush hour.
“It really was a drive on the 405 South with my six-month-old daughter crying all the way down there to go book a job for a commercial, when my husband and I looked at each other like, ‘What are we doing?'” Lee said. “It was that drive and the drive back where we decided, ‘OK, let’s turn to something else!’” It seemed to be a decision that the universe applauded. “Once we knew we wanted to be on that path, then all of a sudden, the opportunities started to arise.” Not long after, the couple created their production company The Lagralane Group.
Lee and her husband Jason, who is also multiracial, are executive producers.
“With Lagralane, we don’t necessarily do the day to day process of getting a film made. We’re not on the ground people really at this point. We operate as executive producers, in terms of where we invest in film,” she explained. “We do like to have creative voice but that is to never overshadow the project that the creatives that have already decided on.”
Though they are not in the business of seizing creative control from the filmmakers with whom they work, Lee makes sure that the project is in line with the mission of her company.
“Our role is to take a look at the entire project and see if it actually upholds the values that we have in terms of diversity in front of the camera and behind the camera,” she said. Also, the characters that are represented in the story — are they actually represented in the community around the film?”
As far as distribution, Lee leaves that to whatever team Lagralane has invested in a particular project. Lee has been luckier than others, in that her challenges as an independent producer are mainly centered on sometimes just getting people to take her seriously as the person heading up a project. A lot of the questions she asks have to do with making sure that those who have been traditionally underrepresented are involved.
“When people come to us with a project, we make sure they’re clear on our entire brand in terms of what kind of community we’re willing to invest in,” Lee said. “Still, we get scripts where it’s not a person of color that’s at the center of the story or on the team. Or they’re doing something that has an LGBTQ (element), but they don’t have anybody attached to the team that is in an important way contributing to the project.”
As one of the sponsors of the latest Los Angeles Film Festival (which, this year, began on September 20), the types of scripts that Lagralane gets excited about are what Lee calls “well-honed craft”: A story that’s authentic and true to the person who’s telling it. “Characters who, as you’re reading it, you just can’t wait to find out what is the next thing that’s going to happen,” Lee said. She herself is particularly interested in stories that center women and people of color. “Even if it’s a story that’s been told over, and over and over again, you’re telling it from a different perspective that integrates culture, or racial identity or a place in a way that you’ve not seen it before.”
Lee counts herself fortunate as someone who hasn’t been privy to some of the worst examples of sexism or other forms of discrimination in Hollywood. She has often experienced being “the only one” in the room, however. When this happens, she goes on high alert.
“I do notice if I’m the only one or there’s only one other,” Lee told Shadow and Act. “And then that’s when I go on a little bit of alert and make sure even more that my voice was heard — because I know I’m one of a few or the only one.”
Some people in the industry have observed that filmmakers who are also women of color aren’t being met with the support they need after the film is completed. Lee said she agrees.
“I would absolutely agree with that. I mean, I think there’s different parts to it. I think that as filmmakers — people who are artists — once the film is finished, we’re so excited that it’s finished. But sometimes, it’s just about getting finished, and then the whole plan is not completely thought out,” she explained.
Though Lee sees the tide shifting in certain organizations, such as at Sundance and Film Independent, there is much more work to be done.
“I do think that there needs to be a more concerted effort to really, really make sure that all of the resources are being shared with people who would not normally have access to what it takes to get your film in the can, and then on screen,” she said. “It really does take people of color and women to have a seat at the table to say this is how we need help that’s different than our counterparts, than people who would normally have access.”
Lee has positive things to say about Array, the independent film distribution and resource collective founded by Ava DuVernay.
“I think that one of the things that they’re doing so beautifully is create. They’re creating a database of all the people below the line and making it accessible. So there’s really no reason ever to say you can’t find that black, female DP (director of photography),” Lee said. “They can say, ‘Well, we have a database that you can access that we have curated where that never really has to be a question for you.’”
Lee is also optimistic about the direction Sundance is moving in, as it does its part to create an industry that is in fact more inclusive, rather than just paying lip service to the notion. As someone who pays close attention to both gender and race, and is also an industry insider, Lee was asked if she had noticed whether or not the boats were rising equally — particularly in terms of film festivals. Independent films traditionally rely on film festivals for exposure to industry executives as well a media. In Lee’s opinion, it comes down to what festival and where the film festival is being held.
“I think, depending upon where the film festival is taking place, you would probably see a lot more of the same,” she said. “You have to look at who are the individuals choosing the film and who the programmers are. I would like to see more female directors, who are totally in charge of the story, with it coming from their perspective. I can tell you from my perspective, but that’s what I’ve noticed.”
Recently, Lee’s Lagralane Group produced the critically-praised Night Comes On, starring Dominique Fishback (The Deuce). The film struck a chord with her husband, who has a history in the foster care system. Night Comes On was one of the most buzzed about films at the most recent Sundance Film Festival.
“I was just totally moved by it and (director and co-writer Jordana Spiro’s) vision, and her conviction, and knowing that she had worked with a foster care program, and also that her co-writer actually had graduated from that program. There were just a lot of layers of meaning. And to have a social impact without being a documentary, but still make people think about what system we’ve created in the foster care world — that’s what made us do (it).”
Lagralane continues to rack up an impressive portfolio of projects. It was also one of the producers of the critically acclaimed documentary Unrest, which was nominated for a Grand Jury Prize at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, and the 2017 Sundance selection and AFI Docs Audience Award Winner Step, among others. Lagralane was also an investor in the Tony Award-winning The Color Purple starring Cynthia Erivo (Widows), Danielle Brooks (Orange Is The New Black) and Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls).
At present, Lee is really excited about her latest project Lifeline, which is currently still in development. Lagralane is also in the process of finding financial and creative partners for it. The quintessential Lagralane project, Lee described it as loosely based on her husband’s life.
“(It’s the) story of being a biracial man, adopted into a white family,” Lee said. “The story of race, identity, and social class and what’s that meant to him—impacting his life.”