ESPN Films’ latest film in the 30 for 30 series, “Be Water,” is an intimate portrait of martial artist and cultural icon Bruce Lee, told in large part in Lee’s own words.
Director Bao Nguyen tells Front Row about the challenges of making a film about a giant like Lee, and what the response has been like since it debuted June 7.
Why did you want to make this film?
I kept up with the idea to do the film because I’m always interested in icons and American institutions and looking at them through a different lens. I felt I always knew the name and icon Bruce Lee, but I never knew him as a person. In past tellings of his life, he seemed a bit distant and almost mythical.
Like my last film Live From New York, which looked at Saturday Night Live in a more anthropological way, I wanted to unpack the myth of Bruce Lee by mostly talking to the people who knew him intimately. At the same time, I wanted to understand how an actor with that level of charisma and onscreen presence would be rejected by Hollywood. And that meant examining the journey of the Asian in America and how certain negative stereotypes have been created over the course of American history.
What is one thing you learned or were surprised about that you discovered through making the film?
I learned how much the people he met early on during his time in America really informed the rest of his life. We know Bruce Lee as this great teacher of martial arts and philosophy, but he was very much a student of those he met as well. From Jesse Glover – who was a victim of police brutality and who taught him the American way – to his first girlfriend in America, Amy Sanbo, who taught him a lot about the Asian-American experience, especially the darker side like the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
Why was ESPN the right place for this film?
Bruce Lee isn’t the most traditional sports figure, and ESPN is not the traditional sports channel, especially their series 30 for 30. I have always loved how they’ve mixed sports and social commentary such as in films like “OJ: Made in America” or “The Two Escobars.” I wanted to do the same with “Be Water,” where Bruce Lee, as a sports figure, is in the background of a larger story about being an immigrant and the racial history of Asian Americans.
How much did the ABC film archives help?
The first place we went to for archive was the ABC archives because we knew they had such a vast collection, and it was easy to access digitally. We found some great Hong Kong footage along with some sports footage of Muhammad Ali that added the context we needed to make a richer, more layered film.
What’s been the reaction to “Be Water?”
The reaction has been amazing. I’ve had so many messages telling me how multiple generations within a single household watched the film together and felt very connected to the story. Bruce Lee is an intergenerational icon, and we all have different entry points with how we know him. I would hear stories of how a grandfather knew him from watching [the 1960’s ABC television series starring Lee] The Green Hornet to a granddaughter hearing his name in a pop song. Still, they all watched the documentary together and came out of it on the same emotional journey.