One of the great things about the independent film business is that you meet a lot of peculiar characters. If one is interested in people and the things people are interested in – as I am – it presents fertile territory for observation and reflection. Numerous authors have observed there’s something about the concept of Hollywood that penetrates deep into the American psyche, drawing people from all walks of life, mesmerized like moths to a flame by the prospect of fortune (sometimes) and fame (always). Kerry Li was a paradigm example of this tendency.
Li was Norm Waitt’s boyfriend roughly during the period 1998-2001. The way I understood matters, Li ran a karate studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Waitt, who had a home in Santa Fe at the time, stopped by for some lessons. One thing led to another and before long Waitt was lending money to Li and employing his friends in various capacities. Then, Li abandoned the karate studio, moved to California, and became Waitt’s “manager.” I never was clear on exactly what his job description was. While I have no personal knowledge one way or the other, more than one person within the Waitt organization characterized Waitt’s sexual appetite as voracious and told me that one of Li’s main duties in effect was to act as Waitt’s pimp. I am skeptical about this because it’s hard to believe Waitt required such a service. Although he was shy and self-effacing, it’s not hard to see how these qualities might appeal to a certain type of man or woman, not to mention having a ton of money, which always is an aphrodisiac regardless of whom one is.
Even though Li was odd I rather liked him. He bore an uncanny physical resemblance to the French actor Sacha Pitoëff, who uses a weird card game to fool Giorgio Albertazzi in Alain Resnais/Alain Robbe-Grillet’s immortalLast Year at Marienbad (I’m quite sure Li didn’t know Robbe-Grillet from a hole in the ground). This always cracked me up whenever I saw him to the point where it was difficult for me to maintain my composure. “Hi Sacha, how are you?” Or was it, “Hi Kerry, how are you?” Take a look for yourself:
Li had a perennial chip on his shoulder because he was an adopted child and acutely bore trauma from early rejection. He compensated for this by acquiring (alleged) expertise in martial arts. He frequently bragged to anyone who would listen that he was the “karate champion of the world.” Intrigued, I looked this up on the www, and could find no reference to it at all.
There came a time when Li conceived a desire to be a screen-writer. And an actor. And a director. All of which he presented to Waitt, giving Waitt (who had no evident interest in cinema) the impetus, momentum and propulsion to establish Gold Circle Films (named after the street on which Waitt’s corporate headquarters was located in Omaha, Nebraska). Li previously had written a karate movie called “The Eighth Immortal.” He almost had gotten Waitt into a mood to fund it with a budget of around $30 million if I recall correctly. This of course would have been an incredible disaster. I took some time to educate Waitt as to the financial rudiments of the independent film business. I performed a genuine service to him when I was able to convince him to kill this project, though not before some funds had been expended to develop it.
I remember driving with Li from the Salt Lake City airport up to Park City for Sundance 2000. Rather than listen to him blather on about his amorous adventures with Waitt, I decided to engage him in some Socratic dialog. Such as, “Would Kerry the brilliant actor want a crappy director to direct the movie? Would Kerry the brilliant screenwriter want crappy actors in the movie? Would Kerry the brilliant director want a crappy script and crappy actors in the movie?” etc. It was an ego orgy. Li never written, acted or directed anything in his life. He had some headshots taken, and you know how actors have a brief CV on the back of their headshots, Li’s was bereft of any experience whatsoever. Li wasn’t able to answer the questions I posed to him and seemed confused by this mode of discourse; I think the entire discussion went over his head. In any event one of the positive outcomes was that I was successful in getting him to enroll in acting classes with a famous acting coach, when we got back to LA. After a few lessons, he reported back to me the teacher had said “he was one of the best actors he’d ever seen” and that “further instruction would be futile.” He took this seriously, without realizing he was a latter-day Merton of the Movies (without the ironic ending).
It was hilarious to watch Li’s moves at Sundance. He would do things like send a fast-food hamburger back to the kitchen because he didn’t like the way it had been cooked. He enjoyed making pretentious comments at Q&A sessions following films. He would spontaneously assume various karate poses. He frequently made disparaging remarks about Waitt, evaluating their relationship in terms of dominance and submission.
Although I was successful in killing the karate movie, Waitt made it crystal clear to everybody that his main reason for getting involved in the film business was because he wanted to give Li a platform as an actor. “You have to put him in every movie you make,” he said. Pretty soon this requirement expanded to one of Li’s girlfriends, Aileen Natalia (also an adopted waif). Natalia had run a dance studio out of the same building where Li had his karate studio and moved with him to California.
Given Li’s lack of experience and attitude, this was pretty hard to do. Directors didn’t want him. Casting directors didn’t want him. So Waitt’s mandate turned into a difficult and arduous task. I had a long talk about the problem with Tom DiCillo, who directed “Double Whammy,” one of the first movies I financed. Li had wanted the part of the deranged military veteran who crashes into the restaurant in the first scene, where Denis Leary’s back seizes up and paralyzes him from doing anything. “I’m perfect for it,” Li said. DiCillo had other ideas and cast him as an overly mannered reporter quizzing Leary on his way out of the police precinct station later in the film. DiCillo told me he viewed this as an inspired bit of casting, although of course he mainly was making fun of Li’s pretentiousness.
I remember driving with Li in Manhattan over to one of the locations where DiCillo was shooting. After we arrived, Li asked: “Where’s the set?” In other words, he expected a big Cecil B. DeMille production with klieg lights, dancing girls and what not. He didn’t realize how low to the ground location shooting actually was. I said, “Kerry, it’s right here.” Li attempted to recover as best he could, but you could tell he was chagrined his poorly concealed secret lack of knowledge and experience was out of the bag.
The company presented Double Whammy at Sundance 2001 and it was a big success. I sold it for a million dollars over its production cost. We had a dinner afterwards for Leary and Elizabeth Hurley, his co-star. Li and Natalia spent most of the evening with their chins on their folded hands, rapturously gazing into Ms. Hurley’s eyes, which I’m sure freaked her out to no end.
I could tell the situation with Gold Circle was going to be unstable a few months into it. Waitt’s and Li’s relationship was volatile. Waitt started going out with another one of Li’s girlfriends, Chloe Grey. Grey was one of Natalia’s dance students. Li told me he started having sex with her when she was at the tender age of 13. He also said (although he may have been exaggerating retrospectively) that he carefully had researched New Mexico law, and found out this was the age of consent. There really was nothing for Li to do at Gold Circle and he always was getting underfoot. I tried to get him interested in development, but he didn’t take to it. This being the early days of mobile phones, he thought it incredibly louche to wear an earpiece in his ear with the cord dangling down to the receiver in his pocket. I guess he was hyper-vigilant for calls from Waitt (or some other firm desirous of his acting services). He always was doing goofy stuff like buying a motorized scooter and some work of abstract art for $60,000 or thereabouts. He conceived of an extravagant build-out for a new corporate headquarters that would have cost millions of dollars, and even hired an architect to draw up plans for it. He would say disturbing (and obviously false) things like “I even would hide dead bodies for you” … which was pretty creepy.
Another one of my all-time favorite Kerry anecdotes involves the 1971 film “Billy Jack” and its director Tom Laughlin. Lauglin, who was shopping some new screenplay had written, somehow had gotten in touch with Li, or vice versa. Turns out “Billy Jack” was Li’s favorite film of all time and he worshipped Laughlin. So we had to drive out to Laughlin’s house in the middle of nowhere to hear him pitch his project. Li brought with him some kind of magic peace pipe or other karate totem, which he reverentially presented to Laughlin as a token of his undying fealty and admiration. Laughlin in turn gave each of us some kind of loose-leaf book he’d written about screen-writing, in which he claimed to have discovered the secrets of Hollywood – ironic, since he was a washed-up has been and, at the time we met, borderline senile.
As word spread around town about the Kerry-in-the-movie requirement it became correspondingly more difficult to get people to take him seriously, which he found irritating. I had no trouble locating commercially desirable properties – like “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” for example. However, it was impossible to squeeze Li into them. At Waitt’s suggestion, I even commissioned a karate script (budgeted at a more feasible $1 million) for Li and Natalia to star in. Waitt ended up killing this project, but telling Li I had done so. This inflamed Li’s passions to no end, and I think what happened is that Li finally had enough and told Waitt it either was him or me. Waitt evidently still was enamored with Li (and I certainly had no desire to become Waitt’s boyfriend). The situation had become untenable and I had offers for a lot better things to do. Waitt didn’t have the temperament to fire me in person. He had one of his corporate functionaries, Mike Delich fly out from Omaha and hand-deliver a short note to that effect. Li tried to amp up the situation as best he could to reinforce Waitt’s resolve. My assistant told me they posted an armed guard at the door of the company’s office so I wouldn’t break into it afterwards (something Li, of course, might have done). I can just imagine Li and Waitt holding hands and dancing around in a circle like Beavis and Butthead, getting each other off on how incredibly suave they were.
But poor Li didn’t have the slightest notion of the dynamics of tightly wound corporate situations like Gold Circle. I enjoyed having him around and tolerated his hijinks. We were in a condition of equipoise. Paul Brooks, who replaced me after I left, would have none of that. He fired Li about six months later. Had Li asked before exerting influence over Waitt, I would have predicted this outcome to him, probably down to the week it transpired. Even worse for Li, Waitt also broke up with him – leaving him bereft of the “whale” (Li’s words) to whom he had devoted his career for sustenance. I don’t know what happened to Li thereafter. I actually kind of miss him and for some time tried to figure out a way to collaborate with him. I guess he slunk off under a rock somewhere because he has no Internet presence I have been able to discern, and hasn’t been heard from since – especially in the movies!