After being heaped with praise for Brokeback Mountain and other films, the director isn’t exactly happy at the reaction to his latest offering, writes Will Lawrence.
ON THE face of it, Ang Lee has an eclectic approach to filmmaking. He’s veered from Jane Austen to big green super-heroes, from fantastical martial arts to a story about gay cowboys. His last outing saw him tackle a seemingly impossible adaptation in a big-screen version of Life of Pi. Now he’s taken on a film set against the backdrop of the war in Iraq.
And yet there is continuity running through all of his films, whether in seeking to push the boundaries of technology, or a universality of theme. “When talking about a thematic continuity, every few years my answer changes,” he begins when we meet up ahead of the release of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. “In the beginning I thought I was concerned with family drama. After Sense & Sensibility I thought it was personal freedom versus social obligation. Thinking about it now, it’s possibly something to do with a sense of security and faith.
“The only thing you can count on in life is that things will change on you,” he adds. “You always have to make adjustments. You are always groping. That feeling is something I deal with in life, in filmmaking, in the themes I am dealing with.”
In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, the character’s change is palpable. “In this film, the main character goes into the military thinking one thing and then comes out a man from a boy.”
The film is based on the bestselling novel by Ben Fountain, and is told from the point of view of 19-year-old private Billy Lynn (played by newcomer Joe Alwyn) who, along with his fellow soldiers in Bravo Squad, becomes a hero after a fierce battle in Iraq in which he acts with extreme bravery. The troops are brought home temporarily for a victory tour. Through flashbacks, culminating in an appearance during the halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys football game, the film reveals what really happened to the squad, contrasting the realities of the war with America’s perceptions of their heroes.
“With my last few movies I’ve also been dealing with a loss of innocence,” continues Lee. “This is one of the reasons why I keep using newcomers. For my last four movies in a row the leads have all been first timers, or not even actors.”
Indeed, for Life of Pi he plucked out a kid with no acting experience and who couldn’t swim, casting him in a film where the main character is an expert swimmer. With Billy Lynn, he found another fresh face, opting for a now-25-year-old newcomer who could convincingly stand in for a teenage solider.
“The book is from a middle-aged intellect putting his anger into this brilliant writing, and it’s put into the mouth of a 19-year-old old redneck boy. But I don’t think you can do that in a movie,” he says.
“I needed top-notch talent, and also someone with nothing to get rid of, nothing to unlearn, especially as I’m trying something new here.”
The something new is important. Lee is also bidding to push the boundaries, technologically, with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, opting to shoot his film with state-of-the-art 3D cameras that allow for a remarkably quick rate of 120 frames per second (a traditional movie shot with regular 2D cameras works with just 24 frames per second).
The enhanced frame rate allows for a super high resolution, which Lee hopes will creates a new way for audiences to experience drama, presenting the heightened sensations that young soldiers feel on the battlefield and the home front.
“It’s not only about clarity, where you have 40 times more information than a regular movie,” he says. “When it comes to 3D, it’s a different thing altogether. It’s so close to our own eyes. Our relationship with what we see is different.”
According to Lee, the actors had to shift their performances to match the new technology. “I knew from the tests with this technology that if you act, it looks like you’re acting,” he says. “I’m probably one of the few directors who knows that a 3D performance needs to be changed because it’s closer to your eyes. When it’s that clear it has to be more lifelike. There has to be less artifice. It has to be less obvious and more layers. It must be more complex.”
Watching Billy Lynn is certainly an unusual experience; the definition is unlike anything else, and it does it add remarkable clarity to the battlefield scenes. The public response, though, has been less than ecstatic. Critics have given it a pounding and its haul at the US box office was a paltry $1.7 million.
The Korea-born filmmaker feels that perhaps people are not yet ready to embrace this fresh form of filmmaking.
“I don’t think people get the idea that 3D is a new format,” he says. “We treat it as we do 2D. With movies we are brainwashed to think in 2D. There is a certain artifice that comes with the flatness of 2D. When it comes to 3D it is a different thing altogether.”
He says the reaction to the film has been exasperating. “It is frustrating but then again movies are very precious for people, me included, and we want to keep them as they are. To find a new art form, it is going to be transitional. You are damned when you’re one of the first and this is very frustrating.”
Despite the box office setback, however, Lee is trying to remain positive. After all, he’s overcome several obstacles in his career to date. After enjoying success with his first English-language movie, 1995’s Sense & Sensibility, for example, his next two films, The Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil stumbled at the box office, the latter earning less than $700,000 in the US. And yet he returned to triumph with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
The Hulk was poorly received. And yet he bounced back again, winning the Oscar for best film with Brokeback Mountain. Taking Woodstock made just $10 million worldwide; Life of Pi made more than $600 million.
“If I think about all the reactions to my films I would get very angry,” he concedes. “You don’t know how people will react but I suppose I welcome that mystery. If there were a formula, people would all be making the same movie. When you get approval there’s a joy. I am not a Zen master but I’ll try to take things equally. In life, nothing is easy.
“I treat all my films like my children, and the effort I put in is the same with each one,” he concludes. “But films have a life of their own. I just try to do my best.”
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