BY GLENN KENNY
Photographed by Mike McGregor
“It’s a good day to do an interview,” says Ang Lee on a quiet morning in midtown Manhattan. The director is in a brief lull as he moves from one office to another before embarking on his latest cinematic adventure. So the space where we meet is relatively empty, and though Lee is low key and serene, it is his formidable presence that fills the room.
There is a paradox at work here. Despite his mild manner, Lee has been something of an artistic daredevil, flying from one genre to another and consistently taking risks. With his still controversial Hulk, he tried to bring genuine human feeling to a comic book superhero; with Lust, Caution, the lineaments of the erotic thriller were applied to something deeper, more profound. His last feature, Taking Woodstock, was a coming-of-age story set against the counterculture upheaval of the ’60s, which doesn’t sound particularly subversive, except when you consider it was as much a coming-out story as it was a coming-of-age story.
Born in Taiwan, Lee has directed an impressively varied array of humanist films, including The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman, The Ice Storm, and Ride with the Devil. He was nominated for a DGA Award for his Jane Austen adaptation, Sense and Sensibility, and won DGA Awards for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, for which he also received the Academy Award for best director.
Listening to Lee describe his working methods, one is struck by the compassion of his vision. He said he was honored to do the DGA Interview, and seemed to regard the occasion as a chance to articulate his artistic principles—not just for members, but for himself. “It’s great,” he says, “to have gotten to a place where I can share advice and experience with my fellows in this way.”
Glenn Kenny: In a sense you are both a Taiwanese filmmaker and an American one. So let’s start by talking about your beginnings and how you got to this place.
Ang Lee: In Taiwan I was brought up very non-artistically. The idea in my family, in the culture itself, was to study something practical, get into a good college, then come to America and study, get a degree. But I flunked the college examination because I was too nervous. I got into the Taiwan University of Art, majoring in theater and cinema. Back then, in the early ’70s, there was not much you could do with cinema in Taiwan. But once I stood on stage, as an actor, I just fell in love. I was very happy at the school but we didn’t have a lot of Western theater. I started watch-ing a lot of movies—Bergman, Renoir, many movies by these masters. At the age of 23, I got into the University of Illinois, majoring in theater. I had two years there. That changed my life; I started to devour Western culture, not so much literature or science or social studies, but theater.
MOMENTS IN TIME: Lee orchestrates a marriage of convenience
in The Wedding Banquet.
Directing Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility.
Directing Sigourney Weaver in The Ice Storm.
Directing young lovers in Eat Drink Man Woman.
(Credits (top to bottom): MGM; Columbia/Everett; 20th Century Fox/Everett; MGM)
Q: At what point did you realize you were more interested in directing than acting?
A: It happened when I started studying in the States. I couldn’t speak much English at all, I spoke pidgin English. And because of that I couldn’t really act. So I switched from acting to directing. Nevertheless, I think I absorbed a lot that changed me. I grew up in an agricultural culture, which tries to emphasize peace and balance with society and nature, and so attempts to diffuse as much conflict as it can. But in Western culture, particularly theatrical culture, it’s all about conflict, asserting personal free will and how that can create a conflict within the family, or in the larger society. And I found I was talented at communicating those kinds of situations. Eventually, after all my exposure to film, seeing five to seven movies every weekend, I wanted to do films. I did my graduate work at NYU, three years in the film program. It’s a very pragmatic program; you just go out and make movies.
Q: So how did you make the transition from student to professional?
A: Well, after film school, I went through six years of development hell. At NYU we did short films, and I got an agent at William Morris based on those. The thing was, after getting out, it took me three years to really understand the difference between a short and a feature. Nobody really taught us how to deal with a feature-length structure, how that functions, how to develop characters. So now I was lost again. I did quite a bit of pitching in Hollywood, and one project after another just kept falling apart. But through those years I was able to teach myself a few things. Among them, how a feature-length script functions, and what the market wants.
Q: How did you finally break through?
A: In 1990 I entered a Taiwanese govern-ment script competition. It was good money, $16,000 for first prize, and half that amount for second place. And I won both first and second place! The first was for Pushing Hands. I just wrote it specifically for the competition. And The Wedding Banquet, which I had written five years before, won the second prize, and that became my second film. When I wrote Wedding Banquet, it was too Chinese to make in the U.S. and too gay to make in Taiwan. So it had just been sitting there. So I sent the two scripts in and both won. And then a Taiwanese studio wanted to invest in Pushing Hands. It was a small story of a Taiwanese family set in New York. They gave me about $400,000 to make the movie in New York. I was referred to Good Machine, the production company started by Ted Hope and James Schamus. I pitched the story to them, and James said to me, ‘No wonder you couldn’t get anything made for six years. You’re the worst pitcher—you can’t pitch out of a basket.’ They pitched themselves to me as the kings of no-budget filmmaking. Not low budget, no budget. So we hooked up, did the first movie and it was a hit in Taiwan. It didn’t go anywhere else, really. And because that was a hit, the Taiwan studio gave me more money, three-quarters of a million, to make The Wedding Banquet. James said, ‘Let me help you revise the script.’ He did, and the rest, I would like to say, is history.
Q: That started your partnership with Schamus, who has co-written and co-produced almost all of the 10 films you’ve made since 1993, and, as head of Focus Features, distributed several of them as well. How has that relationship helped make it possible for you to keep up a steady output of films?
A: It has been a very organic partnership, something that came out of a friendship, not any kind of master plan. The Wedding Banquet was seen by the future producers of Sense and Sensibility, and because of that film, somehow they thought I’d be a good candidate to adapt Jane Austen. I turned to James and asked, ‘What am I going to do?’ During that time we were thinking about doing English-language films with each other. But these producers approached with Sense, and I couldn’t decide whether to do it or not; for one thing the budget was $16 million. I had never handled that kind of money. And also, I had never done a period piece. But I just couldn’t refuse the temptation to work with Emma Thompson. I read the script [written by Thompson] and despite my English being less fluent at the time, I felt I knew it by heart, that by its nature it was very close to what I do. So I took the challenge, and I went to England. I was very scared. I spoke broken English, and there was Jane Austen. I had to work with a top-of-the-line English cast and crew, with Oxforders, Royal Shakespeareans—just a top-notch cast and crew. Of course I was going to feel intimidated. So I brought James along with me. And during this time and through the shoot, James became kind of my frontman, doing the social interaction with all these people while I was doing my thing.
Q: After Sense and Sensibility, you jumped to The Ice Storm, about the mores of a totally different society: America in the early ’70s. How did that project come about?
A: I read the book because James had recommended it; I wasn’t necessarily looking to make a movie of it. But when I read the part where the character Mikey Carver is sliding down the ice, that image just clicked in my head. I told James, ‘I think I want to make this into a movie.’ He thought it was a valid idea, and then we met [the author of the book] Rick Moody. We bought the rights for nearly nothing. Sense and Sensibility interrupted that process, but when we picked it up again, that was the first time James wrote a screenplay for me on his own.
Q: After establishing yourself in this country with The Ice Storm, you then went back to China for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. What was that like?
A: I was directing both in English and Chinese and bouncing in between the two; it became a balancing act for me. In American films, because it was an adopted culture, the skill and artistic endeavor became clearer. And actually in some ways, psychologically it’s easier. I see the subtext better. As a foreigner, accuracy is the first thing you’ll see, but getting the cultural habits is more difficult. Then once I had directed in English and went back and started Crouching Tiger, I found my thinking had been Westernized, globalized a lot. So I had to find my way back into the Chinese culture, which was my first culture.
STARTING OVER: Lee works with Chow Yun-Fat on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. He
returned to China to make the film, but didn’t want to just do a Hong Kong-style martial arts movie. (Photo Credit: Sony Pictures Classics/Everett)
Q: In your career, you’ve gone from a Civil War tale, a superhero adaptation, a modern-day Western. What do you think makes you jump from genre to genre?
A: I have this fear that if I stay in one place, I will lose the freshness I like to bring to every film. If I stay in one genre, I’m afraid I’ll be less honest, because having a certain kind of fluency in a particular genre might allow me to, I don’t know, to fake it. I feel that in order to do my best work I have to put myself in a place where I don’t know much about what I’m doing. A place where I could feel as if I were making my first movie. If I feel like I’m repeating something, or repeating myself, I actually feel more frightened than I would in taking the risk of doing something new.
Q: Is that why you change cinemato-graphers periodically?
A: I think it’s potentially interesting to have a relationship with somebody over a few movies in a row that keeps developing, goes deeper and deeper and becomes more and more artistically fruitful. With cinematographers, there are a few principles I think I stick to. And when I get hooked up with them, it’s for a specific reason. I approached Frederick Elmes for The Ice Storm because the last part of that story, the most important part of it, is the stormy night when the power goes out, the lights go off. The cinematographer was going to have to create this illusion of letting us see people function in the dark. That’s the core of the drama. I so admired what Fred did with David Lynch, particularly in Blue Velvet. Fred just pushed it to the maximum of how low the exposure could get, and he does these wonderful, experimental things.
Q: What about your visual approach for Brokeback Mountain?
A: I went for Rodrigo Prieto [Amores Perros, Babel] on Brokeback Mountain because I think he’s versatile, and I wanted somebody who could shoot quickly. But then I asked him to do the opposite of the frenetic style that he is famous for and he was able to give me the tranquil, almost passive look I wanted for Brokeback. I believe a talent’s a talent.
Q: How do you collaborate with your cinematographer?
A: I like to work with a cinematographer who has two distinct attitudes, regardless of age or experience. First, I want them to talk to me about the drama, not the visuals. I’m not worried about how to shoot it. That will come along if we focus on how to help the actors portray the characters, and move in a way in which they can perform comfortably. I want the cinematographer to have an interest in the content, in telling the story. That’s number one for me. And number two: I don’t want anyone who’s going to behave as if he or she is a master, someone who knows everything about what they do. I want to work with someone who feels they’re still learning, who doesn’t automatically have all the answers. When I meet with someone and ask them what they think about something, and they’re not sure, that’s usually a good sign for me.
Q: A couple of your films have strong visual effects elements—Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with the wirework that gives its characters the appearance of flying, and Hulk with CGI animating a comic book character. How do you retain the humanity of your characters when working with these effects?
A: Well you know, wirework is actually a relatively low-tech special effect, and there’s no way of getting away from the human element of it. For Crouching Tiger’s battle in the bamboo forest, we had scores of people on the ground physically manipulating the various elements. The human aspect as far as the characters were concerned had to do with the way they fly, which was not specified in the writing but conceived and carried out in the shooting. For instance, Zhang Ziyi’s character seems to be able to fly at will, while the older character played by Michelle Yeoh is a very fast runner, and the momentum she gains by running enables her to bounce up. These particular techniques were very expressive of what the characters were about.
Q: How was that different on Hulk?
A: On Hulk I looked at it as if I were a painter and was using a new and very expensive tool. It was problematic commercially, because what we made was more of a horror movie than a comic book movie, and we had to sell it like Spider-Man. For me, the theme was tied in with that of Crouching Tiger. In that film, the ‘hidden dragon’ is what’s inherent but also repressed in the culture—so in the East it was sex; in Hulk’s America the ‘hidden dragon’ is anger and violence. But we found that instead of describing what I wanted to the animators, if I put on the motion-capture suit or let them shoot my face acting out a certain expression, it could save them weeks of work. So I wound up performing the actions of the Hulk, acting out his anger. And it was a very profound experience for me. I like to work with CGI in a way that the audience won’t see. We actually used some CGI on Brokeback Mountain, with some of the landscapes. If you want a cloud to be in a particular place in the image, you can just put it there. It’s wonderful.
TAKING CHANCES: Lee shares his most private thoughts with his actors. With Tang Wei
in the erotic melodrama Lust, Caution. (Photo Credits: Kimberley French/Focus Features)
With Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as lovers in Brokeback Mountain.
(Photo Credits: Chan Kam Cheun/Focus Features)
Q: Do you regret not having access to today’s special effects tools when you made The Ice Storm, which required certain specific images?
A: No, we were able to get what we needed. This is the important thing: people watch a movie, and a movie’s average length is something like an hour and forty minutes, two hours. And I believe that people really focus on the film as an image for maybe about ten, fifteen minutes. The drama is what is really important in the kinds of films I make. It’s got to be about human beings. Nothing holds your attention longer than human faces, something the audience can identify with. Storytelling, drama and human faces—all those comprise the center of what I want to do. I spent movie after movie trying to break away from it, to be more visual, because I like differences. But you can only do so much. It all has to relate to the characters.
Q: One of the most dramatic moments in all your work is the scene when Ennis Del Mar visits Jack Twist’s parents at the end of Brokeback Mountain. How did you go about setting the mood?
A: Well, it goes much farther back from the point when you step on the set. And that scene is, as it happens, my favorite scene in the movie. It’s a very stoic scene, a scene about a person who’s not there but had been brought to life so vividly by Jake Gyllenhaal, who all of these characters have lost. For my visual inspiration I referred to Andrew Wyeth, and also the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi, for those stark, white doors. So the first thing to do was find the right house, the right space, and of course that’s the task I brought to the production designer, Judy Becker. And to shoot that scene I used a style that I had worked with in Hulk. I shot with two cameras, capturing the actors from both sides, and then changing lenses and doing it again. It’s a very irregular way of coverage. When you edit it together, you can apply certain emphasis to certain reactions, emotions. Shooting this kind of coverage can confuse some actors. But of course it did not confuse Heath [Ledger], Peter [McRobbie], and Roberta [Maxwell], all of whom I just loved. It was a strange day. I wanted a lot of sunshine for that scene, and I got it, and I remember walking to the set and just feeling that this was going to be a great day. Still, a scene like that, it’s the actors and their faces, they make it all.
Q: In casting, you frequently mix ex-perienced actors with novices. How do you guide actors to give you the emotion you need for each film?
A: I probably can talk about this for days, because every actor is different. And each one is like a mountain you have to climb over. Nothing, of course, is easy. I think when one devotes so much energy in making a movie, at the very least the leading roles are a significant part of you as the director. So you apply yourself to the actors. And they know that. You’re watching them, they’re watching you. And I’m wondering, how can I turn them into something I had in mind? And they’re watching me, trying to figure out a part of my mind, so they can play that. It’s all very abstract and it goes back and forth a lot. I’ve said about my relations with cinematographers, production designers, writers, and producers, that I give them all parts of myself. But I have no doubt I give my best part to actors. It doesn’t mean that I’m a friend of theirs. I hardly, if ever, socialize with them. Some of them have found me cold, in fact. But I do what I think I have to in order to get artistic moments laid out and fixed on celluloid for good. There’s definitely a battle to it. Making a movie is pretty holy to me, and I think the actors sense that.
Q: Is it ever a problem getting a newcomer and a veteran on the same page?
A: It can be difficult getting everything on the same page. When I did Sense and Sensibility, Kate Winslet was only 19, it was her second movie. It could be difficult to get her to do certain things, to deal with the camera and not to react to it self-consciously. Now, of course, she is aware of all that, but not so much back then. And that’s the easiest thing for Emma Thompson, on top of which, Emma can deliver something like four or five layers of meaning at once, effortlessly. While Kate, even at that relatively raw stage, had the power to move people, to make the audience worry for her. That seemed like an easy thing for Kate, and a harder thing for Emma. And they were playing sisters.
WAR AND PEACE: Lee sets up a psychedelic scene with Demetri Martin and
Paul Dano in Taking Woodstock.
Lee tried to bring real human emotions to Hulk, and shot on location in San Francisco.
(Credits: (top) Ken Regan/Focus Features, (bottom) Courtesy of Universal Pictures)
Q: What’s the process like when you’re just beginning to work with the actors?
A: First off, you have to get a sense of their breathing, their vibes. Rehearsing helps you get into the zone. But the most important thing is the shooting day. Usually I do two, three weeks of rehearsal. The rehearsal is not about running through the film like it’s the real thing. I think movie actors tend not to give you a lot during rehearsals, and for good reason. Because if they give it all out, you lose it for the shooting days. If they hold it, then those qualities you’re really looking for are—we hope—preserved for the shooting. So I think rehearsals are about helping us all to see the actors, and for myself, to see and hear the character begin to take shape in them, to have a taste of the character and that character’s chemistry with the others. On set, we all have to work with the camera and we work for the moments. You have to think and feel. And so what comes out of the rehearsal is not the performance, but a way of thinking together.
Q: With all of this activity going on around you, how do you see your role as director?
A: I think film is an artificial medium. It’s not life. It’s not real. But it certainly has a god of its own. There’s a film god you have to worship. There’s a certain point you just have to give up everybody’s ideas and listen to that voice. I initiate a lot of things, but then I kind of become the observer and decide which way to go that will match the film god’s intent. I think each film has its own way. I tell my cast and crew it’s not about us, it’s not about me. We’re all slaves to that big master of the movies. So that’s my goal. I try to tune everybody in to that and bring unity.
Q: What’s the first thing you do when you come on the set?
A: When I’m shooting, I block in the morning, and then the actors go back to do their makeup. I give out the shot list. I work out the upcoming scene with the assistant director, the camera person, and the art department. And when we have the shot ready, we work on the details, refine them. And try to hit, hit, hit until you hit that one take, take after take.
Q: How many takes?
A: I would say six or seven. It’s hard to go over twelve takes. Probably no less than three takes. On Lust, Caution, after five takes Tang Wei, who was making her first film, would lose concentration. She was very emotional, very moody. She would zoom into the mood of the set right away, but then she might drift. With other similarly less experienced actors it’s different. Lee-Hom Wang [in Lust, Caution] or Demetri Martin [in Taking Woodstock], both novice film actors, would consistently get better take after take. You could count on the seventh take being better than the sixth. But by the same token, you also really haven’t gotten anywhere until the fifth take. And then you have a dream actor like a Tony Leung [Lust, Caution] or a Joan Allen [The Ice Storm], and take after take they’re just perfect. So you have all of that. There’s a lot of mixing, matching, and balancing to do.
Q: In Lust, Caution you combined emotional intensity with very explicit sex scenes. Was it difficult to get the right balance?
A: Yes. The two characters are trying to kill each other. He’s an interrogator and she is the seducer, and I don’t find anything more intense than that. With actors I get into subject matter I don’t even get into with my wife, with my family, because I share the most private place with the actors and am very direct with them. We make our art out of those materials and we make a connection at that level. And with those characters I was exposing myself. So that was a very painful experience for me actually. With the sex scenes, I think we were breaking the boundaries of certain kinds of acting. To oversee that, to create a situation where you have to wonder whether what’s going on in front of you is real, that’s the ultimate experience that a director can have with actors. But it was terrible, too. After the shoot we all got sick for a month. It was that intense. And after the movie, for the first time, I felt it was my job to bring the actors back from it. I’m still dealing with Tang Wei. I’m still helping her to come off from that character. In the past I didn’t see that as my job.
Q: What kind of relationship do you us-ually have with your actors?
A: I don’t know how actors feel about me. I used to be able to get away with certain things when I first directed English-language movies. Because I couldn’t speak English very well, I’d give very direct and blunt directions. The actors would be shocked by this, but they figured it was because my English was bad and I didn’t know any better, so they tolerated it. But the better my English became, the less I could get away with it. I had to become more civilized like everybody else. With Taking Woodstock I began to loosen up a bit, partially because the process of making Lust, Caution was so intense. Aside from the sunnier subject matter, I personally decided to be a little nicer, a little more complimentary, and be more concerned with making sure everybody was happy.
Q: Some of your pictures seem to be de-signed for an international audience. Have they been well received overseas, especially in the Asian market?
A: Our experiences with Asian markets have been interesting. When we made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it was because for a long time I had wanted to make a martial arts film, but at the same time I thought I had to upgrade it. I didn’t want to just make a Hong Kong-style B-genre movie of the type I saw when I was growing up. We wound up giving it a mixture of A and B ingredients. That didn’t really go over very well in the Eastern markets, although we had great success in the West. The fresh approach was more appreciated here. The opposite happened with Lust, Caution. It was a huge cultural phenomenon in the East, but it didn’t do anything in the West. Maybe because it related so directly to history there, and maybe because its sense of tragedy is more commonly accepted in the East than it is here.
Q: What’s the audience like in China?
A: Mainland Chinese cinema is really beginning to take off. It’s a new market and it’s an interesting market, and that industry is beginning to make its own middle-of-the-road movies. Piracy is everywhere but the audience there still goes to the movie theater. Looking at what becomes a hit there, even for me it’s very hard to understand why they like certain things, why they don’t like certain things. But they’re four times the size of the American audience, so even just playing one city, a film can make a hundred million, and it’s a hit. That’s a significant market.
Q: Given the complexities of the mar-ketplace, do you think there will continue to be room for the kind of films you make?
A: I’m in a pretty safe zone. When I’m making what you might call a big-small movie, I don’t particularly have much of a problem then. And I get to make the movie I want to make. In terms of international movies, I think there are a lot of interesting movies that happen outside of America. And the American art house film seems to be defined as a low-budget enterprise. So you have that, and then there’s the Hollywood movie. But I do think we need a lot more of what you might call the ‘tweeners.’ Movies are being polarized. You have some successful directors of artistic integrity who get to do more expensive movies, but not a lot of them.
Q: Your next film, The Life of Pi, based on the book by Yann Martel, is an adventure story about a boy stranded on a lifeboat in the Pacific with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger. That sounds like a tricky film that will require lots of preparation.
A: I was very intrigued by the book when I read it in 2001 but didn’t think it could be made into a movie. Then when I was starting Woodstock, Fox 2000 approached me and said the project had become available again. This movie I think will be different because technically it’s difficult. It deals with animation, so previsualization will come into play. I hate previsualization; usually I don’t do storyboards. Sometimes I do, but I don’t follow them. Why would you cover the shot [as it was storyboarded] instead of finding something and trying to make that work for you? It doesn’t make much sense to me. But then directing doesn’t stand still. When you do shots that are expensive, you have to plan them out. You cannot afford the usual process. It’s exciting. It’s moviemaking. There are no rules.