HE'S EXECUTIVE PRODUCER FOR "VALKYRIE"
A story of honor
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Mike Gordon
In the summer of 1944, with his beloved Germany losing a brutal war, an assassin stalked Adolf Hitler to a military field command in Eastern Prussia that the dictator called the Wolf's Lair.
Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, both patriot and aristocrat, carried in his briefcase two bombs that he planned to detonate himself. This was a mission of selfless desperation — a last chance to save his country.
No wars are defined in simple absolutes of black and white. The same holds true for their heroes, whose uniforms can hide moral struggles between good and evil.
Stauffenberg was such a hero. His actions, which at one point branded him a German traitor, are the basis of "Valkyrie," the new World War II movie from United Artists/MGM and produced by Hawai'i's Chris Lee.
The film stars United Artists co-owner Tom Cruise as Stauffenberg and was directed by Bryan Singer, whose previous films include "The Usual Suspects," "X-Men" and "Superman Returns."
On location in Berlin, where much of "Valkyrie" was shot from June to October 2007, Lee was in position to see the movie unfold.
Lee, the former Hollywood movie executive who grew up in the Islands and graduated from 'Iolani School, served as executive producer on "Valkyrie," along with Singer and Paula Wagner. Based in Hawai'i, where he maintains an office at the Academy for Creative Media at the University of Hawai'i, the 51-year-old Lee remains active in big-screen productions. Before "Valkyrie," he oversaw "Superman Returns."
In Lee's sparse Manoa office, he called "Valkyrie" a different kind of World War II movie.
"What I think is different about this film is it is very much a thriller," he said. "Even if you know the outcome — which most people, quite frankly are going to know — it's how things play out that keeps you riveted to the screen."
"Valkyrie" also features a strong ensemble cast, including Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy and Terrence Stamp.
"It's a dream cast," Lee said.
When combined with Singer's attention to detail and love of history, the cast and crew brought Nazi Germany to life, complete with flying antique warplanes and locations where actual events took place. Singer even chose actors who resembled the characters they played, Lee said. The only detour: A battle in Tunisia was filmed outside of the high desert town of Victorville, Calif.
But audiences at advance screenings — the film officially opens Christmas Day — were witness to more than a period piece, Lee said.
"A lot of people who have seen the picture tell us they were very surprised by the emotions that it evokes," he said. "A lot of people cry at the end, and they are not used to crying when they see dead German soldiers."
Lee and Singer, who visits Hawai'i often, have been friends for 15 years. Two years ago, the director showed Lee the script for "Valkyrie," written by Christopher McQuarrie — who won an Academy Award for "The Usual Suspects" screenplay — and Nathan Alexander.
Singer wanted Lee to oversee the project. Lee didn't hesitate to say yes.
"Valkyrie" wasn't viewed as a large production until Cruise asked Singer if he could play the lead. Cruise wanted to work with Singer, who had never directed someone like Cruise — an actor Lee called "the biggest star in the world."
"The performance Tom gives comes through as something different," said Lee, who was on the set every day. "Tom always is the consummate professional in terms of preparation. No one is ever waiting for Tom to get on set. I don't know when he sleeps."
But Singer is one of Hollywood's great directors, Lee said.
"He has this ability to mine the actors for great performances," Lee said. "He doesn't do a lot of takes and oddly enough, he is not big on rehearsals. He likes to get things in the moment."
Singer worked his cast through moments of adversity, from the eye patch Cruise wore to the first day of shooting, when temperatures soared to 115 degrees.
"It was so hot, we had extras practically fainting and the tarmac was melting," Lee said. "And it was supposed to be winter. You will never know it when you see the film."
When the production team first got to Berlin, Lee discovered that Stauffenberg's story already had been told in several German movies. The country had softened its view of the officer initially branded as a traitor.
"He is sort of their one hero from the war," Lee said.
Lee figured that American audiences would probably know little about the German resistance or Stauffenberg's role, but they would appreciate the intrigue, genuine suspense and patriotism.
"What people in this country and in most of the world don't know is the extent to which the conspiracy involved a lot of individuals, most of them in the military, high-ranking officers and also aristocrats, who really wanted their Germany back," he said.
In "Valkyrie," though, Lee saw a familiar story. As a boy, growing up in Olomana and McCully, Lee often went to Japanese movie theaters to see various versions of the 47 Ronin story — telling of samurai forced to avenge their slain lord before taking their own lives as a way to maintain their honor.
"Valkyrie" has the same trajectory, he said.
"You are literally on a suicide mission," Lee said. "But you know you have to do it."
When Stauffenberg asked, as he was being recruited for the German resistance, if their plan has a chance of success, the response from Maj. Gen. Henning von Tresckow — the character played by Branagh — iis a revelation: It only matters that they try, because otherwise it will always be Hitler's Germany.
"In the end, I think this movie is about honor and trying to make a difference and stepping up," Lee said. "That is really what drove these guys as patriots. For Americans I think it is a pretty unknown story, but they will recognize the heroism in it."
Reach Mike Gordon at email@example.com.