5Qs with Merissa Jane Lee, Electric Somewhere Company

Our 5Qs series is a chance for the SGN members to know more about folks in the community, where we pose 5 questions to exciting individuals to find out more about what they do.

2 June 2021 / By SGN

Having worked on Hollywood blockbusters such as Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights, Merissa Jane Lee gives a behind-the-scenes sneak peek of film and TV through her work with Jon M. Chu’s Electric Somewhere Company.

How did you end up working in Hollywood?

Growing up in Singapore, my friends and I would joke that eating and watching TV were the only exciting things to do – so it’s no surprise that my brother became a Chef while I went on to work in Hollywood. I studied Mass Communication at Ngee Ann Polytechnic and interned at HBO Asia during my final semester and joined them after graduating. I was also fortunate to receive the Ngee Ann Kongsi scholarship – because of their generosity and my experience at HBO Asia, I was able to enroll at my dream college – the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts.

How it all started: Jane started producing short films while in film school

I made several short films during college, and maximized my time in Los Angeles by interning almost every semester – working at dream companies like Marvel, Heyday Films, Lionsgate. I started working in film development after graduating, eventually landing my current job at Jon M. Chu’s Electric Somewhere Company. The notion of working in Hollywood still feels surreal to me, as a Taman Jurong kid whose only knowledge of California used to come from watching episodes of The O.C. on Channel 5 (imagine my rude awakening when I landed in LAX only to realize it was nothing like and nowhere near Newport Beach).

It might be tough to pick one, which production left a strong impression on you?

I moved to New York in the Spring of 2019 for In the Heights, and I will always cherish the year I spent there, the friends I made, and the memories we created. On the surface, it might be hard to see how a Singaporean could relate to a story set in Washington Heights, about the hopes and dreams of a Latinx community. But while working on the production, I realized that it was a film celebrating and acknowledging where you came from, and how that would get you to where you want to be. Isn’t that something that all overseas Singaporeans can understand? Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jon M. Chu’s vision for this musical was about expressing what happens when the walls of your apartment cannot contain the big dreams that you have, and to acknowledge and highlight the dreams of your everyday neighbor.

To me, growing up in an HDB flat in Taman Jurong while aspiring to move to Los Angeles, the idea of dreaming beyond my window resonated with me so starkly. One of my favorite songs in the musical, “Breathe”, talks about what it means for the person who “made it out” and the pressures she’s placed on herself to succeed while away from home. I feel that pressure every day – that worry of letting your parents down. Seeing that struggle portrayed so vulnerably in the film and hearing my fellow crew members talk about how they feel the same was very reassuring. We all have our dreams, hopes and fears and the community we made through this production has really fueled me to continue on in my filmmaking journey.

Jane and her mum on the set of In the Heights
With Leslie Grace, Corey Hawkins, Quiara Alegría Hudes and fellow crew members of In the Heights

What is the best advice you’ve gotten as an aspiring film producer?

For others who want to work in the film and television industry, don’t get into this for the glitz and glamour, because it’s a hard road ahead and fame shouldn’t be your guiding motivation to stay in this business. The most successful and fulfilled people I’ve met in this industry are people who do it for the love of storytelling. And that ties back to the best career advice I’ve gotten – if you’re a storyteller, you press forward no matter what is holding you back. There’s more to the industry than being a famous actor, director or producer – it’s a massive, nuanced craft and every person in it is a skilled storyteller in their own right, so if you have the opportunity to, try out every path in this industry and find what you love about storytelling, find out what your heart needs to share with the world and dream bigger than you think you’re allowed to.

What do you miss most about Singapore? Where are your go-to spots in Los Angeles to satisfy your cravings?

As any true Taman Jurong kia will tell you – the three storey hawker center is where it’s at. It’s actually called Taman Jurong Market and Food Centre, but my family and I just call it “three storey.” That’s where I spend most of my time whenever I’m home – for Fish Head Curry, Lor Mee, Carrot Cake, BBQ Stingray and my favourite dish: Bak Chor Mee. Whenever I am back in Singapore, I make it a point to have breakfast there every day, at 58 Minced Meat Noodles – you just can’t get BCM in LA.

The closest I’ve found is Phnom Penh Noodle Shack’s Phom Penh Noodles, in Long Beach. I bring my own vinegar to get it just right. I also love Prata House in West Covina –  the first time I went, I nearly cried after having their prata. The uncle (who is Singaporean) found out I was also Singaporean and gave me a cup of Teh Halia on the house. There’s a special, immediate bond when you find another Singaporean overseas – it’s always a great and heartwarming reminder that Home is not just a place, but a people too.

How do you stay in touch with your loved ones in Singapore?

I call my mum on Telegram every day after work, right before she heads to the office. She’s the most important person to me and I wouldn’t be where I am without her. My dad and I WhatsApp every day too; he was really the one to first push me to take the leap and study film and TV production in LA. My brother and I keep in touch over WhatsApp, it’s mostly me sending pictures of my home-cooked dishes and him sending back tips to improve them. I’m very blessed with such a supportive family. I’m enjoying my work in Los Angeles now but Singapore will always be home, truly, and that won’t ever change. Where else can I get my teh peng and BCM?

Jane with her strongest supporters in life: her parents and her brother

Check out Jane’s previous Student Academy Award Finalist short film, Under Darkness, on YouTube, and catch her latest project, In the Heights, opening in cinemas and HBO Max (for US audiences) on 11 June 2021 (take a picture of her name on the credits roll!)

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