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Columbus Genre Filmmaker William Lee Gets Blu-ray Restoration

Hope Madden Hope Madden Columbus Genre Filmmaker William Lee Gets Blu-ray RestorationA still from Treasure of the Ninja
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What are you waiting for? Shoot the movie!

This is William Lee’s motto, as evidenced by the 15 features he’s directed, a 16th that he’s completed and is ready for distribution, and 17th that is now prepping for production. But the prolific filmmaker and instructor—Lee teaches a film production course at CCAD and an online course on African American cinema for the University of Louisville—had no idea how popular he was. Not until his phone rang last year.

A representative from the American Genre Film Archive contacted Lee about restoring one of his earliest films, Treasure of the Ninja, and distributing a Blu-ray package through Vinegar Syndrome.

“This whole Vinegar Syndrome thing, this was not about me going out and looking for publicity,” Lee says. “It was a phone call last year out of the blue. There’s this young kid on the line from the America Genre Film Archive. He starts telling me about these people all over the world who loved the movie.”

The interest in the film came as quite a surprise to its maker.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought there’s entire cult following for me out there about this movie,” he says. “That film—which I sold out of the trunk of my car, by the way—became something a lot bigger than I ever thought. People absolutely love Treasure of the Ninja. I’ll be quite honest with you; it is not my favorite film.”

Though the filmmaker looks back now on that early feature and sees some of its limitations, it holds fond memories for him as well. Lee made the movie at and around Ohio State during graduate school, while he was working at OSU radio. 

“When we premiered Treasure of the Ninja at the Drexel Theatre on October 4, 1987, my relationship with my father did a 180,” he recalls. “He used to be very concerned, as a lot of parents are, that this film thing wouldn’t work out. When we came out of that theater, he was a new man. He was just gushing.”

That was 34 years ago, and between then and now Lee has written, directed, and/or starred in more than a dozen additional films, with Bulletproof Jesus readying for production. Six of his films are currently streaming on Tubi TV.

What keeps him doing it?

“Just a passion,” he says. “I never really had a childhood because I was always busy trying to make sure I wasn’t getting my ass kicked by other kids at school. So, filmmaking for me is me having my childhood. Every time I make a film, I feel like I’m a kid again. I’m just trying to really have fun. Sometimes there’s a political statement or something deep I’m trying to get into or a special homage to filmmaker nobody’s ever heard of, but mostly it’s just us trying to make a really kick ass film for people to enjoy. What you see on the screen is me.”

Completely self-taught, Lee is not your average multi-hyphenate. Beyond writing, directing, producing and starring, he has been known to edit his own films and do his own cinematography, not to mention stunts. But there was a time when he thought his film career was over.

In 1997, after an extended illness that brought him to various specialists all over the country, Lee was finally diagnosed with Lupus.

“For the next three years I basically had to reconstruct my body, my mind, my soul,” he says. “When I came out of it three years later, I gave up making films and became a personal trainer. Then my wife went into a Blockbuster and found a movie called Vampires of Atlanta or something and she said, ‘If these sons of bitches can make this, you should still be making films.’”

And that’s what he did.

“Every time I get one done people are like, ‘How the hell did you do that?’ Because I wanted to. Because I had to. Because I had no other recourse,” Lee says. “It’s like when I had lupus, do I want to live, or do I want to die? I like living. I chose living. With filmmaking, I have a choice today,” he says. “William, make another movie.”

Treasure of the Ninja is available on the Vinegar Syndrome website.

Follow Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to her weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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