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Portrait of an Artist
Ang Lee has done it all, from Oscar-winning emotion to spectacular action, and now he’s back with both, pouring everything he has learned into creating a new kind of cinema
One of the most daring and acclaimed filmmakers alive, there might be nothing Ang Lee cannot do. Perhaps that’s why he makes life so difficult for himself.
Gemini Man is the combination of everything Lee has learned over 30 years, in a career unrivalled in its success and diversity – from his breakthrough family dramas in Taiwan to the Oscar-winning action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, with acclaimed period dramas Sense & Sensibility and The Ice Storm en route. Not forgetting, of course, the film he won the first of his two Oscars for, 2005’s beautiful Brokeback Mountain.
Lee first started seeing the possibilities of digital filmmaking when he made his Marvel movie Hulk, though it proved more satisfying when he embraced it with the blockbuster adaptation of the bestselling novel Life Of Pi. That story – about a boy adrift in a lifeboat with a tiger – won four Oscars, a testament to just how much the director and his team had mastered the medium. “Step by step, I’m getting to a new world,” says the 64-year-old filmmaker. “[Gemini Man] is ultimate filmmaking…”
You’ve achieved everything in movies – box office success, Oscars. What makes you keep pushing yourself?
“I don’t have a checklist, like, ‘I must do this and this before I retire’. I just love making movies and there are so many things to learn. I’m curious. I can’t help it. If I know what to do, I’m less interested in it. If I know how I should do it then that’s when I get really nervous. I don’t know what that says about my psychology. I try to not understand that!
Psychologically, if I know how to do something, I feel like something really bad will happen!”
Have you always been a curious person?
“In film, not in everything else [laughs]. Like iPhones, I use them to make a call, that’s about it. But filmmaking, that’s how I associate with life; how I discover the world, and myself. I trust movies more than I trust life. Movies make sense. Life doesn’t. When I look through the viewfinder, the world makes more sense to me. I’m more attracted to it. Just dealing with life, with people, was always like that. Once I saw that image, everything changed. [Life was] very confusing. And I wanted to make sense of it, to sort it out. To create something beautiful.”
Was Will Smith nervous that you were both doing something completely new with Gemini Man?
“You’d have to ask him! For me, Will embraced everything. We were so lucky to have him. To make this work we needed a big movie star – a movie star who was big 25 years ago and is still big now [so that there was on-screen footage of the younger version as a reference from which to build Junior]. And there are maybe only two or three people [who fit that bill]. And then you need one who can do an action movie! So, we were so lucky to have Will. And it turned out he wanted to work with me too. It’s funny, not too long ago, I saw on YouTube a video of him promoting a movie of his in Taiwan, on the red carpet. He shouted out to all the cameras, ‘Ang Lee! Where are you? I’m getting older! Use me! I’m in your homeland! I’ve chased you all the way to your home!’ That was maybe two-and-a-half, three years ago. I thought, ‘That’s interesting…!’”
What was it about Gemini Man that hooked you?
“The concept: someone fighting with their younger self. To me, it comes down to how you deal with yourself – if you lived again, what would you do? And in the future, would you want to hear that advice, or live your own life? Of course, we’re delivering that [idea] in a kick-ass action movie, visualising that inner conflict by action, by drama. I’m taking a genre film and trying to find my way to a new aesthetic in what 3D really needs, what it belongs to. I don’t think we know dimensionalised filmmaking. We haven’t even scratched the surface. We [have in the past been] making a 3D movie as if it’s flat. Step by step, starting from Life Of Pi, I’m getting to a new world. With this one I’m really eager to find a new aesthetic, a new artifice, a new beauty, a new way of lighting, of performing. Taking you into a different world, discovering it. It’s very exciting, every day discovering it shot by shot. And the actors have been wonderful.”
You’re known for getting great performances from actors. Why do they respond to you? “I think [when you are] directing actors in a movie you have to know them, their method and their training. When I came to the States, I wanted to be an actor. That was my background in Taiwan. But I couldn’t speak English, couldn’t act, so didn’t get a part. So, I
had to direct. And I found directing movies a lot easier, so that became my thing. I’ve always felt like I’m a failed actor. For me, in order of great things [to be], it goes ‘rock star’, ‘movie star’, ‘director’ – in that rank. But I still see myself as a performer, just using cameras. I found my media. I don’t have to be centre-stage or in the light of the camera. I do my performance through filmmaking. So, I’ve always felt very close to actors, can feel how they feel. I’m the actor-whisperer or something!”
The technology you’re using here is so complex. Were you ever tempted to take any shortcuts?
“Never. I had doubts in myself about three times a day, but never about that. The harder way is the right way. It has to be hard. I’m not sadistic or anything, but the clarity [means] you have more material to work with. It’s very challenging and takes a lot of time, but it’s so much richer. Making Junior is a science and a performing art, something we’ve never seen. Will now is not Will [from] 25 years ago – his face does different things! What we portray in Gemini Man is not Bad Boys; it’s not what he did 25 years ago. Our media is super-genuine. It does something different to something people are so familiar with.”
What you’ve achieved here is a new kind of cinema. What made the technology ready? “It’s not ready [laughs]! Thirty years not ready. But that’s the exciting part. You get to discover – not just doing something good, discovering something new. That’s very satisfying. I hope audiences and the world share our excitement. That’s why we’re doing it!”
Has this process reinvigorated you?
“Oh, yeah! You realise that you don’t even know how to make a movie anymore! All the things you knew before don’t exactly work. It’s hard, but fascinating. The crew [on Gemini Man], after they wrap, they get depressed, like post-traumatic stress syndrome. It’s like you’ve gone to war and come back. The adrenaline of this kind of filmmaking, I’ve never felt anything like it. You’re throwing everything you know [at it], are on high alert all the time.
That kind of adrenaline is amazing. This is more filmmaking than ever! This is ultimate
Could you ever see yourself going back to traditional filmmaking, after this?
“No, I can’t. I am too deep into this. This is a new religion. When it comes to the traditional, it’s not like this is superior; it’s just a different media. With that [traditional] media, we pretty much know what we need to know, and have for a long time. I want to explore something I don’t know.”
So, what’s your next step?
“I want to try the next step! Each movie, starting with Life Of Pi, [I’ve been] searching for what digital cinema can do for us. It’s a new language, and I’m trying to learn how to say that language. It’s a different experience, different process, different final movie. I think that in movies, 500 years from now, people will look back and go, ‘Oh, for the first hundred years they did just that…’ People will look back and realise how much more there was to be done. I refuse to think that nearly 50 years ago we reached the peak. We have just scratched the surface. There are still a lot of things to explore. It’s like silent movies. It’s like sound, like colour. We went through that!”
Has the technology changed how you direct actors?
“A lot. More often than not, I would give a performer motivation and be, ‘Don’t deviate from that. You have a task, a performance.’ But that’s not what we do in life. In life, you have other thoughts in your head. So, I pitch them a lot more thoughts. It’s more difficult, but more interesting, to keep pitching them different stuff to keep them alive in the [new] media. You have to work a lot harder, in a different gear. They are good professionals, so they’re willing to try things they didn’t try before. And when it comes alive, you know.”
Is Gemini Man the movie you’re most proud of?
“I’m proud of every movie I do. It’s like your children, you’re not allowed to pick a favourite! But I certainly feel very proud that I got to [do] this because there are so many unknowns.
And this is the best crew I have ever experienced. People who are willing to put aside their pride and know that they still have a lot to learn, to grow, to discover. That’s not easy.
Everyone has to put down their egos to work together. It’s a very moving experience. Once you have a taste of that, you don’t want to do anything else. You feel like Junior; you feel that innocence again. I had an AC [a key member of the camera crew] who did such amazing stuff that at the end of the day I said, ‘I want to buy you dinner’. At dinner, we were talking, and he said, ‘This shot, it reminded me why I wanted to make movies in the first place’. And
he started to break down. I got a lot of this, people who were beside themselves, lost in this innocence. You become the movies you make. Gradually, you’re in a movie. That’s your life, your professional life and your personal life. It’s so reflective. You just hope that on the next movie you get the same dosage, that same sensation.”
What was your first ever conversation about Gemini Man like?
“I am old enough to imagine, ‘If I was to meet my younger self, what would that be like?’ If I’m 40 years old, I don’t think those things! Now I’m at an age where you’re hit by elements like that. The original [script] was a straightforward action-thriller. I wrote to them and said, ‘This has the potential to do this, do that’. And I was ready – if they said, ‘Oh, this is not what we do’ – to turn them down. But they came back right away, saying, ‘Yes, we want to make that movie.’”
What would you say to your 23-year-old self, if you met him?
“Ah, I’d tell him to fuck off! I don’t want to see him. If I see that somebody has on the same shirt that I’m wearing, I get pissed. Let alone a clone of myself! An exact same person? Think how pissed I would be then! I don’t want to deal with him. I think, in life, as in your career, there shouldn’t be any regret. Everyone is doing their best. That’s life, you know? When it’s passed, it’s passed. I think it’s important that you live the moment. Whether you make the most of it or not, that’s your path. I think it’s the message of this movie: leave that guy alone. He’s okay, you’re okay. Don’t think you’re not okay. Let it go. Don’t be so harsh on yourself. We all have that self-hatred thing, disguised usually as narcissism, we all feel like there’s something not quite right with ourselves. But this is a movie that says, ‘It’s alright. At the end of the day, it’s okay. You’re okay.’ That’s what I want to say to myself.”