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Director series-Ang Lee

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In the introduction to his famous book of interviews with Alfred Hitchcock, Francois Truffaut belittled those Hollywood contract directors who would jump from a war film to the adaptation of a bestseller, and follow that with a musical or crime picture, depending on popular or commercial demand. Hitchcock, he believed, was superior because of his consistency, and thus was able to refine his directorial approach through his steadfast choice of thrillers for subject matter. At surface appraisal Ang Lee would seem to fit into the first category—a director who skips around in subjects. Who else in the world can say they went from making The Hulk to making Brokeback Mountain, a film featuring gay cowboys? Yet as incredibly eclectic as these two films may seem, there is something that holds them together. Lee has no need to apply himself to a given genre in order to express his aesthetic; rather, he is uniquely capable of finding deep emotional content in a variety of subjects—and perhaps this is his point in being so ranging.Below the Line: How did you learn of the story?Ang Lee: The script was floating around for a long time. It was given to me by the producers at Focus Features, who thought there was something quite special about it, but did not think anybody would make it. Actually I read the short story first, and I got choked up, it’s very powerful. As a filmmaker I would like to be forever a film student, so naturally I’m seeking something I have never done before. I realized, after doing Sense and Sensibility, that I was investigating social applications versus freewill. That inner/outer conflict was something I was always interested in. I’m always curious about something new, whether in genre or the approach to storytelling. Brokeback is something fresh: ranch hands in Wyoming. The characters talk western, but it’s not movie western and then it’s a great story. It wrenched my heart.BTL: You bring gay themes to a mainstream audience—what makes this a subject you want to investigate?Lee: It’s very fresh and very challenging. It makes the story more poignant, and because of that it goes beyond what we’re familiar with in the idea of the romantic, and I feel it distills the idea to a very pure point. As a love story itself, the idea of Brokeback Mountain, regardless of it being gay or not, is existential to me. It’s about the delusion of love, and it’s enigmatic, like Brokeback Mountain itself. When they’re inside of it, the relationship ends up in a fight; when they go out, they keep wanting to go back, but the times they had on the mountain keep dropping back into time and distance, like the mountain itself dropping into the background, gradually, and that was very inspiring to me.BTL: What attracted you to cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto [ASC]? Were you familiar with his Mexican films?Lee: He had just made a movie for Focus, so I got a recommendation from the Focus people. I loved 21 Grams, and I was a big fan of his work before, but again, he’s never done anything like this. This was a very low-budget film, so I was looking for somebody young and quick, and of course a great cameraman. I met and talked with him; he’s a very dramatically aware cinematographer; he seeks what works for the movie, he isn’t a cameraman who just does what he knows, and has his credits and his technical sense and is satisfied with that; he isn’t like that at all, he goes farther. We had to shoot quickly and wisely, without a lot of changes in lighting, using a lot of natural light. When I met him I said I don’t want you to do anything you’re used to doing. This movie should have a serene, limpid kind of a feeling, which is the very opposite of what he was admired for, the gritty look like that on the Mexican movies, very tough. But I think a talent is a talent.BTL: Everything looks absolutely natural. Was there much CGI?Lee: They did a great deal. The effects people did a wonderful job. There are a whole bunch of visual effects you don’t see as such. Very invisible. We have 60-some shots. Weather, moving clouds, we multiplied sheep, enhanced lighting, additional clouds. I like to use visual effects that way, so you don’t notice, so it’s all part of the story. That way nobody pays attention, they just think we’re lucky to be shooting that day. And small things like the bull’s legs after Jake is thrown during the bull riding, of course we’re not going to put the bull next to him.BTL: The editing structure emphasized longer scenes in the beginning, then increasingly faster cuts back and forth over both locales and jumps in time period, later.Lee: That’s the way it was shot. By nature this is an epic story, yet sometimes we wanted the scenes to be short and play like a slice of life, which is the way it was written. On the other hand it has a cumulative power of something expected to be epic, because it covers 20 years, and then there’s the landscape. As filmmakers we don’t have the benefit of internal writing, so we cannot lead the audience to imagine great feelings by a great prologue, or any prologue, we have to shoot the scenes. Naturally it was necessary to take time to establish the romance and show how the characters would want to keep coming back to the mountain to rediscover it. And the landscape conveys much of that. If you want to be loyal to westerns, you must be very careful how you use time and space. You have to treat if differently than in a regular Hollywood production, where you have no patience. In Brokeback the landscape is elegiac, in a way it’s brooding, and the West itself is a non-verbal culture.BTL: You make films in America and China; do you ever mix the crews?Lee: To some degree I have made a Chinese picture with an American crew—for Crouching Tiger I brought a lot of the sound crew, because China has weaker sound crews. And the work habits are American. But I always mix it, between set and editing because I always edit in New York with American editors, and naturally the communication system is always American, whether I make it in Taiwan or China with a Hong Kong crew. In terms of shooting I like to work with local crews. Local people know their available resources the best. Shooting a western in Calgary, the local people are best. They created these little cars that can drive on the mountains, with special wheels, so when we shoot in the mountains it’s quicker, and agile. Accumulated experience is really valuable. It’s the culmination of guerilla filmmaking in certain ways. It’s an organic approach and you have to borrow that, so that’s the benefit with the local crews. The downside is that they give you this look: “that’s how things are done.” So when you want to change that, you’re wrestling with a bull.BTL: Are you familiar with Han Shan, the Master of Cold Mountain, the ancient Chinese Taoist poet? Some of the aspects of Brokeback remind me of that, because there are two men isolated on a mountain, living ascetically, in the snow, and there’s a look to the film which recalls classical Chinese painting. It’s interesting to think that you are bringing such Chinese influences to the western, which is ostensibly a uniquely American genre. Do you do this intentionally?Lee: I think a lot of that is about the use of negative space. It’s not about a specifically realistic treatment of space—but how you treat space; it is a more humble way of relating to nature, and I think that’s very similar to westerns, the negative space. When it comes to poetry, to Han Shan, I think that indirectness works very well for the culture of the west, to use the landscape to reflect the inner landscape, through which to express feeling. It’s not about a verbal culture where the actors will put it all so well; it’s the beauty being unable to speak, therefore you have to use nature to reflect what really needs to be said,
and in that way it relates to the Chinese artwork quite a bit.BTL: You steer away from the John Ford sort of monumental shots.Lee: It’s really more about the sky than the ground. The big sky, the clouds. I consciously tried to avoid the movie western look.BTL: If you worked on a crew what would you do?Lee: Actually I’ve tried and I’m pretty bad at everything. I was the worst PA ever! I developed a fear of assistant directors and still have it. An editor, maybe, but I wouldn’t be good at using Avid. I think of all the work I did in my student days… I was good at was editing my own movies, I really enjoyed that, getting to do the cooking, so to speak, but to follow on the technical side these days, I don’t think I’d be any good. I was also a good AC. Yeah, and at school I used to be the AC for Ernest Dickerson [ASC]. I was pretty good, I think he’d back me up. I was AC for him and I did enjoy that.

Written by Henry Turner

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