Working the Town

Damon Lee ’91
Photo by Mike Lovett
Damon Lee ’91

A recovering alcoholic makes amends to her resentful daughter. An infatuated assistant stalks a married financial executive. A mismatched group of family members try to reconnect at Christmas.

It’s all about spinning narratives like these. “When I tell a story and see that people are truly moved by it, crying or laughing — that they’re being reminded of their past, their present predicament or their potential future — that’s what’s most rewarding about my job,” says Hollywood producer Damon Lee ’91.

The founder/CEO of a production company called Deacon Entertainment, Lee has built his reputation on turning audience-pleasing storylines into successful features and TV movies, powered by the high-octane stars he casts: Jill Scott in the 2010 TV movie “Sins of the Mother,” the second-most-watched original film in the Lifetime Movie Network’s history, and Loretta Devine, M.F.A.’76, Delroy Lindo and Idris Elba in the 2007 feature “This Christmas.”

“You’re always out there working this town to get projects going,” says the 43-year-old Lee, who lives in Santa Monica with his wife, Michelle, and sons Carter, 8, and Beckett, 7. “It’s difficult, but that’s the job I chose. If you’re not willing to do it, this is not the business for you.”

At the moment, Lee is trying to put together a Lifetime movie starring Eva Longoria. “But if I wait on that project and it doesn’t happen, that’s my fault,” he says.

So this busy executive keeps plenty of irons in the fire. For instance, he’s produced public-service spots for the U.S. Navy and the Department of Education, featuring such notables as Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and a certain celebrity-in-chief named Barack Obama. Some of the spots address the need for more African-American, Latino and special-needs teachers. Education is a natural area of interest for Lee, who worked with Teach for America from 1991-92.

He entered the entertainment industry in 1994, after earning an M.F.A. through a scholarship to the Peter Stark Producing Program at the University of Southern California. One of his first jobs was in the production office of the film “Higher Learning” with writer/director John Singleton, who became a mentor.

Brandeis also served as a cornerstone of the future mogul’s career. Lee, who majored in English and African-American studies, says the freshman writing seminar taught him “how to articulate my point of view about others’ work.”

“That’s what a good producer does — figures out ways to make a good story great,” he explains.

When President Fred Lawrence asked whether he would consider teaching at Brandeis, Lee says his first thought was “This is the adventure I’m looking for.” He came back to Waltham for part of the spring 2012 semester to teach genre-film studies with fellow producer Stanley M. Brooks ’79, showing budding filmmakers some tried-and-true methods of making comedy funny, drama dramatic and horror scary.

“It sounds so simple,” Lee says. “But you have to learn the rules before you can break them.”

This story, as you might expect, had a happy ending. “I have taught at at least four universities,” says Lee. “My Brandeis students were as sharp as or, in most cases, sharper than the students at those other schools, which was a source of real pride for me.

“The whole thing was a magical experience.”

Susan Piland