While working on his seminal 1973 film “Enter the Dragon,” Bruce Lee wrote a letter to Ted Ashley, then-head of Warner Bros., explaining his passion for making the movie and what Lee regarded as his chance to make a lasting impression on Hollywood: “You see, my obsession is to make, pardon the expression, the f—ingest action motion picture that has ever been made,” Lee wrote. The film, a massive hit that grossed more than $350 million worldwide, would go on to cement him as a martial arts superstar, but Lee himself would not live to enjoy its success; he died one month before its release. It was the last movie he would complete before his death.
Lee’s struggles on the “Enter the Dragon” set and his battles with the systemic xenophobia he faced in Hollywood are interwoven with his own philosophical writings in a new book “Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee,” written by his daughter, Shannon Lee.
The caretaker of Bruce Lee’s estate, the 51-year-old producer and businesswoman details her dad’s personal ethos, centered on themes of self-reliance, introspection and inner strength (among others), as he applied them to martial arts and to life. The title is taken from a famous quote by Bruce Lee on being adaptable and practicing detachment — pillars of Jeet Kune Do, the martial arts practice he founded.
Shannon Lee says she first leaned into her father’s musings when she was in her 20s, following the sudden death of her action star older brother, Brandon Lee, in 1993; Brandon died at age 28 in an accident involving a prop gun on the set of “The Crow.”
“I was struggling a lot inwardly and in a lot of pain,” she tells Variety. Around the same time, her mother, Linda Lee Caldwell, had been in talks to publish some of Bruce Lee’s writings, almost all of which were handwritten. Shannon Lee received a set of them as photocopies.
“I just really connected with a number of the quotes, but one in particular really stood out to me: ‘The medicine for my suffering I had within me from the very beginning, but I did not take it… Now I see I will never find the light unless, like a candle, I am my own fuel,’” she recalls.
In 2016, Shannon Lee launched the “Bruce Lee Podcast,” centered on her father’s philosophy, and in 2018 she started writing “Be Water, My Friend.” The book is a mix of self-help and a collection of personal stories culled from her and her father’s lives, including her vivid memories of his funeral in Hong Kong in 1973 (she was 4 years old when he died) and his struggles with racism as a Chinese American trying to make it in the U.S. entertainment industry. For example, as the beleaguered star of “Enter the Dragon,” Bruce Lee famously refused to come to set until his requests for changes to the script had been made.
There is no shortage of recent examples of Bruce Lee’s enduring status as a pop culture icon. In 2019, he was controversially depicted in Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” Earlier this year, ESPN debuted a “30 for 30” documentary “Be Water” about his life, and the scripted drama series “Warrior” — based on an original concept by Bruce Lee and executive produced by Shannon Lee and Justin Lin — premiered its second season on Cinemax on Oct. 2.
Shannon Lee says her father’s writings feel particularly relevant, amid renewed calls for increased diversity in Hollywood and the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus pandemic.
“His words are timeless, really, and I just feel like when I read his words, I feel soothed. I feel hopeful,” she says. “I feel energized. Those are all things that we will always need and, in some ways, now more than ever.”
Read an exclusive excerpt from “Be Water, My Friend,” where Shannon Lee writes about her father’s challenging time making 1973’s “Enter the Dragon.” The book is available Oct. 6.
“Enter the Dragon” was the dream opportunity coming true for my father — a Hollywood feature for him to star in. That said, Hollywood billed it as a double lead in case their gamble on my father didn’t pay off, and in part due to the intense prejudice and concern surrounding the xenophobia of audiences of that time. But my father didn’t worry himself with this. He knew he had the goods even if others weren’t sure. He was ready to make the absolute most of this opportunity to accomplish his goal of showing the Western world the glory of Chinese gung fu and to express himself fully in a true, on-screen representation of a Chinese man.
There was only one problem. The script was terrible. So terrible, in fact, that my father was adamant that the writer be fired and sent back to California while he himself feverishly rewrote the majority of the screenplay. Of course, the studio didn’t listen to my father and kept the writer in Hong Kong, making small tweaks to this actioner that was initially entitled “Blood and Steel” and later the inventive “Han’s Island” (while lying to my father and telling him they had sent him back to Los Angeles). This original script had none of the iconic scenes that exist today. No “finger pointing at the moon.” No “art of fighting without fighting.” No philosophical scene with the monk discussing the true nature of mastery — “I do not hit. It hits all by itself.”
It was of utmost importance to my father that this film reflect his art and culture accurately and with depth. This was his moment to show the world who he was and what a Chinese gung fu man could do, and he was not going to settle for mediocre. So he rewrote the script and submitted his rewrites to the producers. He also argued back and forth with the studio over the title. His Chinese stage name was Siu Loong, which translates to “Little Dragon,” and this film was to be his introduction to the West. The title “Enter the Dragon” had a power and a specificity that “Han’s Island” and “Blood and Steel” did not. He wrote numerous letters to Warner Brothers petitioning for this name change: “Do consider carefully the title ‘Enter the Dragon.’ I really think this is a good title because ‘Enter the Dragon’ suggests the emergence of someone that is quality.” That “quality someone” he is referring to is, of course, himself!
The studio finally succumbed to this request and agreed to rename the film. My father trained like he had never trained before and worked continuously on the script to make it as good as possible. His production company, Concord Productions, became the Hong Kong production entity to make the film (though my father is not credited as a producer), and he was also tapped with choreographing the entire movie. He worked night and day to make the most of this opportunity he had been given. He was going to show Bruce Lee to the world.
As he wrote in a letter to Ted Ashley:
I am sure you agree with me that quality, extreme hard work, and professionalism is what cinema is all about. My twenty years of experience, both in martial arts and acting has led to the successful harmony of showmanship and genuine, efficient, artful expression. In short, this is it, and ain’t nobody knows it like I know it. Pardon my bluntness, but that is me! You see, my obsession is to make, pardon the expression, the f—ingest action motion picture that has ever been made. In closing, I will give you my heart, but please do not give me your head only. In return, I, Bruce Lee, will always feel the deepest appreciation for the intensity of your involvement.
The first day of shooting finally arrived, and the Hong Kong crew and the American crew were there and poised to begin, with various translators on set to help the two crews communicate with each other. My father, however, was a no-show — he refused to come to set. You see, the final locked shooting script had been issued, and it did not incorporate the pages he had written. None of his changes had been made.
One could argue that, in this moment, my father should have just done this movie as they wanted it, and then hoped it did well enough to get him the next opportunity, where maybe he could have had more creative control—a way to get his foot in the door and try to inch it open further and further with each subsequent project. But my father had already tried this in Hollywood, and he knew it didn’t work. He knew that if he didn’t take a stand, he would be marginalized over and over again by people who “knew better.”
And so the standoff began.
The crew started filming what shots they could that did not involve my father, and my father stayed in our house and refused to come to set until the changes were made. The producers would come to the house to try to reason with him. They would talk to my mom, who would act as the go-between when my father was fed up and refused to entertain any more of their rationalities about why they couldn’t do what he wanted. And my father continued to put his foot down. He told them they had the script for the movie he wanted to make, and if they used that script, he would happily show up to set.
The producers created cover-up stories about how my father was so nervous about being in a Hollywood movie and being a failure that he was terrified to show up to set. In books that were written many years after my father died, Fred Weintraub spun this tale of paralyzing fear on the part of my father — to the utter disgust and dismay of my mother and my family. Bruce Lee was not afraid of this opportunity. In fact, he was the only person who recognized the full nature of the opportunity and what it could be, and he would have rather blown it up than wasted it by doing something half-assed. He knew he would only get one chance to be introduced to the world. My mom urged the producers and director to pay attention, telling them, “He knows what he’s talking about. You should listen to him.”
The standoff continued for two weeks. As time went on, the crew ran out of shots to grab without their star and choreographer, and ended up sitting around with nothing to do at a substantial cost to the studio. Tensions were running high among the cast and crew.
The producers began to get pressure from Warner Brothers to get the production back on track, and there was only one way that was going to happen. The producers finally gave in to my father’s demands. They implemented the script changes he had made and agreed to shoot the film he envisioned.
When I asked my mom years later if he had really been willing to lose the opportunity rather than submit to their demands, she said without hesitation, “You bet!” Bruce Lee had taken a stand and held to his core. He brought the full force of his expression and his being into play because he knew what was important to his soul. He had stayed true to his center and in so doing, the full force of the tornado that was him changed the landscape around him forever.
“Enter the Dragon” became a global phenomenon and cemented my father as an icon of martial arts and culture.
Excerpted from “Be Water, My Friend: The Teachings of Bruce Lee,” copyright © 2020 by Shannon Lee, with permission from Flatiron Books.