Film producer Teddy Zee is billed by one US publication as among the top 100 most inspiring Asian Americans of all time, no mean feat in a country full of trailblazers and a list that includes a Nobel Prize winner and a war hero.
But even if the list was never compiled in the first place, Zee is undoubtedly a pioneer. He is a successful film producer and is well-respected for championing positive roles for Asian actors in the industry.
What many people don’t know is that he is also behind ‘Hitch’, one of the most beloved romantic comedies in recent history.
With a budget of $70 million, the film went on to earn more than $365 million in worldwide ticket sales alone. The story of Dr. Alex ‘Hitch’ Hitchens, played by Will Smith, and Sara Melas, played by Eva Mendes, became a film staple for many (hopelessly romantic) Filipina women when it aired in 2005.
Seven years on, The Australian Filipina gets a chance to speak with the producer via e-mail. Here he shares some Hitch trivia and history.
Q & A with Teddy Zee, producer of ‘Hitch’
How did you become involved in the production of the movie?
Kevin Bisch had written a script on spec called "The Last First Kiss". His agent had sent it to me. It had already been seen around town and was passed on, but I absolutely loved the concept. At the time, I was running Will Smith's film company Overbrook and Will had never done a romantic comedy. So I sent it to Doug Belgrad, the current president of Columbia Pictures who was then a senior level production executive. He agreed for Columbia to option the screenplay. We then began the development process, trying to get the script in good enough shape to get it made.
Tell us more about the film involvement of Will Smith and Eva Mendes.
If my memory serves me right, I initially sent the script to Jennifer Lopez. I had met her early in her Hollywood career having worked with her on Anaconda. We attached her to co-star with Will. But at such an early stage, it was just window dressing. So much depends upon the finished script and timing. Ultimately, she was engaged on another film project when we were ready to go. In terms of Will, I had always hoped that he would star in the film. But if he didn't do it, I felt like we could always get someone else. Thankfully, it all came together the way we had intended.
Okay, so you had the script and the actors, what came next?
After we went through several drafts of the script, we decided to attach Sharon Maguire to supervise a rewrite. She knew the genre very well having directed the hit Bridget Jones’ Diary. When she withdrew due to personal reasons, we were on the search for another director. At the time, I was working out at Sports Club LA fairly regularly. I remember coming out of the shower stall and literally bumping into Andy Tennant. This was very serendipitous since he was available and looking for his next project. We had worked together on Fools Rush In, starring Matthew Perry and Salma Hayek. I set up a meeting for Andy with Will Smith and James Lassiter, Will's manager and partner in Overbrook Films, and Andy came aboard as director.
Wait, you talked about Jennifer Lopez almost getting the gig, but how did you get Eva Mendes in it?
Film is a very collaborative process, but the decision making hierarchy is fairly clear when it comes to casting and many other decisions made on the film. "Money talks" and it's the studio paying the bills has the last word. But when a superstar like Will Smith is involved, then it's a delicate balance between making both the studio and the star happy.
The great thing is that Will is the ultimate team player - he's no prima donna. He and Lassiter are excellent business minds and always have a long term mentality. This was the company's first real homegrown production featuring Will. When Jennifer Lopez couldn't do the film, we had discussed names like Cameron Diaz and Halle Berry … Lassiter was particularly fond of two actresses, Indian star Aishwarya Rai, and Eva Mendes, who ultimately got the role.
We loved, LOVED, Albert Brennaman. Tell us more about his character.
Kevin James' role in the film was initially much smaller. When we saw the kind of chemistry Kevin had with Will, little scenes that helped move the plot became scene stealing trailer moments. Sometimes, the scenes were written the day of shooting with the crew standing by. Watching Will and Kevin work together was a thing of beauty. The two that stand out were the dancing scene (making pizza) and the kissing tutorial. While Kevin was the star of the TV series ‘King of Queens’, he hadn't had a feature film career at that point. We were able to make a fair deal because Kevin's representatives saw the film for what it ultimately turned out to be - a hit film that would help launch Kevin as a film star.
What do you think of Hitch’s character?
My best friend Steve Liu likes to tell people that Hitch is loosely based on my life, but no one would argue with him since I was the one responsible for introducing him to his wife Linda.
Okay, this is not a ‘Hitch’ question anymore but do you have any advice to Filipino-Australian actors aspiring to make it in Hollywood?
Had I known then, what I know now, I would have never even tried to break into Hollywood. But I definitely beat the odds and I credit my own ignorance for getting my foot in the door. I see how so many people struggle to pursue their dream of having a career in the entertainment industry, regardless of their sex or race. The world has changed dramatically since I started over 30 years ago. This was before the Internet, 3D, DVDs, CDs, smart phones, and flat screens. I started at Paramount just before the Home Video revolution began … I came to Hollywood at the absolute perfect time.
But surely it wasn’t just luck and timing?
Upon graduating from college, I worked in Human Resources for NBC in New York and subsequently transferred to Burbank, California where I met Jeff Sagansky. He was the head of programming, the department responsible for developing all the shows we see on the network. When I found out that he had attended Harvard Business School, I decided I would try to follow the same path and applied. Getting an MBA from Harvard really allowed me to differentiate myself from the competition and was the key for landing my first creative job as creative executive at Paramount Pictures.
This is a random question but what's your favourite fruit and why?
My favorite fruit is Kiwi because it tastes so damn good and is packed with so much nutrition.