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Interview : Ang Lee

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Oscar winner Ang Lee is one of Hollywood’s most unique visionaries. The Taiwanese director has managed to take Hulk and transform it into his own personal vision while partially conforming to what Hollywood expects. It’s a fine balancing act, but one he pulls off. He talked to PAUL FISCHER.

Question: Will this movie be a challenge for the market?
Answer: For the market or for me? I know it was for me.

Question: Do you think people will be surprised by this movie?
Answer: Well, I think surprise is good, I don’t really like ‘summer’ movies myself and because it’s a big movie it has to be released in summer, it is the only was they launch it, summer or Christmas. There’s a marketing side to it. s far as I’m concerned it’s my chance to do a big movie, it’s a franchise. I don’t need a big movie star to open big, it’s a lot of money to make, that’s ambitious, and so you have to sell it. To me I took advantage of the elements that are there, it can still be a film maker’s vehicle and I grabbed the chance. It’s like my new Hidden Dragon, you can mix the pulpy art which is a really guilty pleasure, it’s hidden and you don’t want to admit it, but it has a lot of juice in it and mix it with drama, which is always what I do and will probably always be what I do, with the human condition and psychology and I really like the back story. To me it’s not a comic book super hero movie, it’s a horror film.

Question: Was it hard to convince the studio not to go with a big name actor, a superstar?
Answer: No, it wasn’t an issue at all because with The Hulk the CG actor is the biggest star, he is more expensive than any star, so after that you have no money (laughs). and they like me prefer brand new faces, it’s more exciting. So it was no problem, I wanted Eric.

Question: So there was no question in your mind that you would make The Hulk CGI?
Answer: I didn’t know how to do that in the beginning. Larry Franco the line producer was the one, he showed me how Jurassic Park was done, and he had just come off Jurassic Park 3. Shot by shot, this was how it looks; this is how long it takes, the ways and means, how much it costs. He went through that shot by shot with me. and then we visited make up companies, animatronics companies and I got educated along the way but it was pretty obvious that CGI was the best way to do it. From understanding what I wanted from the scene it had to be CGI.

Question: Were you a little anxious of working with the CGI?
Answer: I didn’t know enough to be frightened and then once I was frightened I was half way into it. ILM never said ‘no’ to me, they said they could do it (laughs). It’s the producers and supervisors from our side that gave me the discipline. I found some things not satisfying which is why I would jump in and do the Hulk myself (reference to pre production videos where the director acted out how he wanted the Hulk to behave). I didn’t know how they used to do it, how they weren’t directed or that animators would use their own faces looking in a mirror or a camera on themselves. And they are not performers. And often there’s no reality in CGI characters, each time it looks like a different person so it has to be brought into some kind of continuity, starting with me performing it. It develops month by month, it’s painstaking and a lot of craftsmanship, there’s nothing fancy about it. It is frightening but when I got into it I didn’t know it was like that.

Question: When did you first hear about the Hulk?
Answer: I was promoting Crouching Tiger. It had just been released here and was getting very positive reviews and then big movies were offered to me. They felt I could bring something special, I guess if I can make a Chinese language martial arts film which did that kind of business maybe I could do something with the genre. I think the Hong Kong style of film making was particularly hipAndnd this particular project was found by James Schamus my long time collaborator.

Question: What was your initial reaction?
Answer: First of all I didn’t know what it was. Then I remembered the TV series with Lou Ferrigno painted in green and getting angry in slow motion. and then I checked out the Marvel Comics so it didn’t take long before it clicked. So It’s like my new Hidden Dragon, it’s like a larger way of doing Crouching Tiger in America. I like the psycho drama, I like the hidden aggression, it’s kind of Americana but universal, I like the sub conscious having a physical manifestation and the layout of the back story is very much of a psycho drama.

Question: Did you read all the comics?
Answer: Oh a lot. Started with the Thesis, the Essential, and then I kept all the favourite parts near me.

Question: But this is very much an Ang Lee film as opposed to a more typical summer blockbuster?
Answer: Oh yes. There was no doubt about that. I just had to prove that I could pull it off.

Question: Do you get involved in the marketing side of the film?
Answer: No, that’s not my department. It’s a brand new experience. I don’t want to partake in that. I’d go to the marketing meetings like twice, it’s immense. But I told them that I wanted to draw the line. I just make the movie that’s all I care about. I sell it the way I’m used to, talking to journalists and that’s all I can do. I don’t want to talk on the video game, I don’t want to do anything to do with the merchandise, it’s great they have to do that to sell a big summer movie, but I’ve no knowledge and don’t know how to go about it.

Question: Do you see these kinds of stories as modern day myths?
Answer: I see it as modern day myth. I took a lot from horror films, Frankenstein, King Kong, things like that, Jekyll and Hyde and a lot of Greek mythology and pseudo science, all sorts. It’s kind of low brow art, it’s very juicy, it’s not delicate but it’s definitely juicy, it depends what you make out of it.

Question: There are some very comic book visuals, with the split screens you use at certain points. How much of that do you storyboard?
Answer: It’s all in the editing room. I start out wanting to do it. This is one of the reasons I found an excuse to do something I always wanted to do. Why do we always line them up in a linear way? Why can’t we do like martial arts choreography? Choreograph images, having images like a comic book when you open a page, go to the most prominent design structure and it has a cause, your eyes go different places, they pick and choose, back and forth and it was ‘how can we do that in a movie?’ To a certain extent. So I was always thinking about doing that and we explored those possibilities but by the time we were shooting we didn’t know what we were doing (laughs). and the cinematographer was reluctant to give in to that because they want to expose as much as they can to get the best quality, if you leave some room for potential split screen maybe you don’t use it and then a scene will look bad, you will have to crop it and it looks really bad. So at the end of the day I just shot the hell out of it with lots of cameras, every possibility, which is a headache for the sound guy because you might end up using a close up where his mike is right up there. It’s very frustrating and you find out why people don’t do that in the first place. But then in the editing room little by little it started to happen.

Question: What was it about Eric Bana that you liked so much for this role?
Answer: I figured in the comic books nobody wanted to see Bruce Banner, they just wanted to see The Hulk come out. The guy is a loser, a wimp. But by simplified drawing you are able to project your own melancholy into him. But a movie is different. I was hoping to get something and have that melancholic demeanour and of course I always go for a good actor, which Eric is, and someone who could be sympathetic. I saw him in an Australian movie, Chopper, and that was Hulk for me. and Ridley Scott was kind enough to show me an early cut of Black Hawk Down and his scenes in that. In Black Hawk Down people complain they couldn’t tell who is who, but I think you remember Eric. He was my choice and the studio really like him.

Question: Will you do Hulk 2?
Answer: I have no idea. It’s in development but I’m so drained by the first one I have no thoughts about the second one.

Question: But you’ve made a period costume drama, a film set in the American civil war and a martial arts film. What would you like to do next?
Answer: I don’t know. I would like to do something different. I like in New York with my wife and two boys and I will go home. I’m in the process of de-Hulking right now! (laughs) It’s kind of painful, the adrenalin slows down, but I’m not thinking about the future yet.

Question: Is it true that you felt sick when you saw trees because they are green?
Answer: I did get a little sick of the colour green (laughs). He is a CG character what am I supposed to do. But yeah for a long time I was really sick of the colour green.

Question: Will we get more CGI actors in the future?
Answer: It’s a lot cheaper to use real actors, believe me, even big stars. lot easier and a lot cheaper, if you can get them to say the lines it’s a lot easier with real actors.

Question: What was your childhood like back in Taiwan?
Answer: Repressed I guess. Not much fun. That’s why I’ve had a mid life crisis, I was looking for fun. My father was the principal of the High School of the best one in Taiwan, and he was my principal. and I was a very shy, docile kind of kid, I didn’t go out or anything, I was very quiet. Private tutors go to school, study, sitting there all the time but my mind wasn’t in a book, and it was somewhere else.

Question: One of the themes of the film is genetic engineering. What are your thoughts on that?
Answer: We are at the point where we are facing a lot of fundamental questions about who we are, I think. I think we are at a crucial point. There’s always been a fear of science, ever since the industrial revolution. I think Frankenstein is an early example of that. We are afraid that we will build something that will turn on us, something that is out of control. Dramatically it interests me because the artificial brings out the innocence and the aggression, the real you, it has a physical manifestation and that’s interesting. I’m not a scientist but we are now into genetic engineering to improve ourselves, to stretch ourselves, that’s a big question, about who we are. Is that you or a little machine? I guess the only sense of yourself is memories and that’s why the movie deals with memory a lot. With the collective memory of human beings. I think we face a lot of metaphysical and fundamental questions about who we are.

Question: Do you believe in God?
Answer: I’m pretty much a student of the Chinese philosophies and we don’t really talk about it, anything three feet above your head you have to show respect and not pretend you know or imagine that somebody like you that created it. We just don’t talk about it. I put a lot in the movie actually. Big things, small things, there are just off balance with something. The big mushroom cloud caused by a bunch of atoms.

Question: Were you surprised by Nick Nolte’s passion for science and his knowledge?
Answer: Yeah, totally. I just envision him doing it. and because he is a respected actor who for 10, 12 years has turned away from Hollywood, he only wants to do small films, he had enough. And I had to go there and show respect and give him the pitch. I went to his house in Hollywood and it was the most gothic experience I ever had. It was this weird collection of stuff from all around the world. and I was sitting by the fire place and after five minutes he said ‘you must come up and see my blood..’ and I went upstairs and there was a lab with hundreds of bottles of something and there’s an electronic monitor. So he pricks his own finger and watches on this monitor his own (blood) cells and he went through that and I said something like can you make it colourful and he was impressed and we went downstairs and talked some more about science. So he was the role. He said ‘oh I’m on my down time in between films, I can get in shape..’ I had to bite my tongue because I just wanted to say ‘oh no, just come as you are…’ He knew the Hulk but he didn’t know what role. I was talking about Greek tragedy and he was into it.

Question: You spent a lot of time enacting things for how the Hulk should be. How did that come about?
Answer: It was out of necessity and desperation. I wanted to show them. Maybe there was a bit of my childhood, things I never fulfilled, coming out, too. I was just about the most spaced out child you could ever meet, people always tell me I am the most spaced out person they have ever met in their lives. I was like absent minded. I couldn’t help it because I had an attention span problem and I would be talking or reading and I would be somewhere else.

Question: You started as an actor, why did you switch?
Answer: I couldn’t speak English that’s why. I came to the States and I couldn’t get into the actor’s programme, it was very frustrating to me. It was a three year programme and they were the elite and then I didn’t really want to be on stage because I couldn’t really make it as an actor and I thought if I had to direct, I wanted to be a movie director, that’s my performance. I always thought movies were my way of performing. after a long while I began to get comfortable behind the camera as a watcher, rather than being watched, gradually, over a long period of time, I switched positions. Until lately when the Hulk started to come out.

Question: Eric Bana said you were a philosophical director. What’s your take on that?
Answer: I don’t know, maybe that’s their take on me. It’s a way to encourage them I guess, something abstract and then you nail them down in the actual act so they feel they are creating something interesting. I guess I like to do philosophical thoughts but in making movies you can only do so much and then you have throw it away and see how it plays, you have to level with everybody otherwise a concept is dead and philosophy can be pretentious. Sometimes I hate it called a film, I like the old name, movie. Like people are here you move them to there. It’s a movie.

Question: Do you want to make a small movie?
Answer: Yeah. But when I make it now it will be more expensive now. People charge me more. There will be a lot more people aware of it. But yeah I would like different challenges, I would like the freedom not bound by budget, big or small. I do like to make a small movie sometime.

Question: Is Hitchcock an influence?
Answer: Yeah I love him. He is one of my heroes that has done all the weird stuff disguised in popular films and he did it so well and I do admire him although when I do the same thing I have to update it. similar take on Freud and stuff can look too simple today. I like to have a different angle. But yeah, he is my hero.

"THE HULK" OPENS ACROSS THE UNITED STATES ON JUNE 20TH, 2003

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