Ang Lee

Born in 1954 in Taipei, Taiwanese director Ang Lee was one of the first Chinese-born directors to find critical and commercial success on both sides of the Pacific. After graduated from the National Taiwan College of Arts in 1975 he moved to the United States, where he studied theatre directing at the University of Illinois and film production at New York University. Best known for his critically acclaimed movies Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), Sense and Sensibility (1995) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) the question was could he cut it when it came to directing a summer blockbuster? We caught up with him as his latest movie Hulk was due to be released on DVD and video...

Nick Smithson: The Hulk DVD is released later this month. How did you feel when you first saw the finished movie?

Ang Lee: I was happy and at peace with myself. I only saw it five nights before it opened, finally with all the elements put together. It was a very tense post-production most of the time I was doing CG work, and spent a very small amount of time in the editing suite. So, for a long time I hadn't seen the whole thing put together.

I was happy that I had done it, but I couldn't feel the taste; if it was sweet or bitter. I know it is the taste of the Hulk, I was glad for the movie and hoping that people get a taste of the Hulk. The biggest thing for me was that they actually play it, because for many months I was struggling because it would probably not function as a summer movie as it was supposed to do, or play as a 'popcorn' movie. Some of my ideas, when I am working, may be too pretentious or too enthusiastic. So, for a long time I wasn't sure. I felt very lonely but I was so supported by everyone, my friends and family were telling me to "Keep filming, you are doing great." It was a very intense, unsettling experience, but I am very happy and proud of that. It was so strange walking this walk.

NS: What was your focus when directing the movie?

AL: On the surface you have to tell a story. That is my job when people put their money in my hands, that is the least that I have to do.

Actually for this one it was very hard to do, because the main thing in my mind was special effects. They don't have the model, everything has to be custom made, and they have to go to the art department to be designed. I had to go through designs, technically they have to go through research and development [R&D], new software, and apply it.

At the end of the day it has to be handmade, which is why I had to play the Hulk myself, usually with a mirror in my hand. I had no model. I thought about the history and the experience, that the manpower for R&D has to come up with something like this that looks easy - that was my goal, but it is probably the hardest thing to do. I never want to see 'Wow, special effects'. It turns out that the company that was supposed to deal with that were very happy because you have to compose it in the most fundamental way, not just push a button.

NS: Have you been interested in psychology and mythology for a long time?

AL: No, psychology and philosophy were more my interests when I was in my early 20s and I thought about that a lot. I think the right cause will bring that out of me, when the chance is right. Like for example I never had the chance to do a comic book movie, but had always thought about it, then it all came to life and I had the chance.

So some of the things I actually thought about when I was rather young all came back, and with the material I had a chance to do it. But it has to somehow be the heart of the picture, because I don't think comic books are a genre, it is just the material that we use to make movies with, like a horror film or a film noir or a detective story has a genre. So I had to go somewhere in this modern day mythology, where it comes from, and a lot of psychology had to come into it.

NS: Is it true that you wanted even more split screen scenes but that the producers at Universal weren't so keen?

AL: Not the studio, they were nervous but I did what I wanted with it. I have people that work around me, like the editor, that actually created a lot of those. We are opposed to it because it is distracting. I think two or three years from now it will not be an issue, but now I don't think people can deal with it, it takes you out of the scene. Sometimes, practically, the Hulk shots are so expensive, it would have been a shame to do a split screen, so the reality of it is you hardly see the Hulk in split screen.

NS: Were you interested in comic books before this movie?

AL: I was not a fan of American comic books when I grew up, I was reading the Chinese and Japanese comic books. They were the first model of comics where the superhero was not a patriotic hero, he is trying to save the world, but he has strengths and weaknesses.

In Hulk, he is the first monster to serve as a deed and what was hidden for a long time, so I think that they are great metaphors. They have something in common for me, when I think about the Chinese Yin and Yang, they are the themes you carry, your strengths are in a negative zone. Where you come from is where you go to when you die. What you care the most about is your family and where you are from. That is a metaphor that I really like.

Death in itself has a typical manifestation, I think it touches the subconscious which is unspeakable, but I think it has been very powerful to me as an abstract or it could be an artistic kind of form.

NS: How has your communication with the actors evolved?

AL: I am so much better now and actors can take my directions. I was the worst! It could be my English or something, in which case, my English is much better now, but I am saying something that I guess I will see in the future, and I describe it to them in a specific way so that they can start to act towards it. That is something for them to begin with, and my English doesn't help either, sometimes I mess up.

All English actors I have to tell to "Do less, do less" and it keeps going. To Alan Rickman I said "Reduce less", and then we did one take and I'd go up to him and say: "Do more!" He said: "You said do less!", and way after the movie was released I realised that he didn't understand what I meant by reducing!

Eric had a little bit of that too, but he is much luckier than the English actors I have worked with, plus this is a fantasy story, so a lot of it is guessing. I could be way out there and I wouldn't be aware of it.

I always try to make an effort to make myself clear, and my style of directing is to have good ideas to inspire people and make them clear. I cannot yell at people and all that, so I always make an effort to be clear, so I am sorry that I hear Eric felt that way. A lot of it has to do with my English and my thought process, I'll be way out there because I was thinking about something else and I won't be clear.

NS: He was surprised at how physically and mentally gruelling the whole process was, do you want your actors to work really hard and go deep into themselves, is that important to you?

AL: It depends, I think being the Hulk he has to. He signed a contract with the devil and you just have to go through it. He is a young actor, it is not like he has a choice, most good actors they care for it. It is a strange thing, unless you wear them to death, some good actors don't feel like you care for something, and they moan and complain. But that is their way of bragging. It is like when they say 'I want to kill you!' it means they love you.

Strange actor-director relationship. When it is bad, they don't like what you say, they don't like what you do, you are fighting each other and you wear each other out, that is negative energy. I believe my relationship with Eric is a good one. I want to wear him out because then I see the Hulk. When he really tried to please me or understand what I said and sometimes didn't. It was going to blow up. Then you still have three more takes if he is not there yet. Until he says he cannot do one more, he can still do one more and then something is being carried out and maybe it is something more interesting.

NS: How did you work with Nick Nolte?

AL: He is a blessing, I have never worked with anyone with such concentration. He acts like a crazy person, and I suspect that that is one way of him self-deprecating to the Hulk in ourselves, it is a way of him levelling people with himself.

There is a lot of self-deprecating in that craziness, and it is funny because seeing him work, I have never seen anybody more focused.

Some times I worried about him because he did not sleep the first night back home, and sometimes he worked so hard he passed out, he passed out a couple of times from excitement. He killed himself, he is a totally respectful artist. A good soul. Directing him is quite easy, particularly when his type of acting is so good that he can just do it slower or faster. And we made sure we were on the same track, we tried a lot of crazy stuff, he would give me his study of a Greek philosopher about special effects and would share biblical stories with me. It is a process of abstract approaching but when it came to production he was very, very straightforward.

In directing, you can steer him around and go anywhere you want. He is like a director's dream. And his look is nothing to do with him or me, it is just there. He can do all the craziness, the weird stuff and he would literally go to the top of the roof just because he provides the possibilities to go abstract. That is a gift, it is nothing that you can direct, you are blessed with somebody like him.

NS: You say that each actor deserves different attention, how do you work? Do you get together with them two weeks before the shoot to talk about stuff?

AL: I work with them individually, going through the scenes, exercise through the moments. Then with significant scenes, two or three pages scenes, I group them up, like if a father and a daughter, or a father and a son, if they have a scene together, I group them up so they have the pace of the scene and the pace of each other. That's up to themselves, to see what potential chemistry is there, both with the camera and with each other.

It is not like stage rehearsing, where you rehearse the character scene completely, a movie is about moments and photography. So, we do tests and a lot of talking. Sometimes more talking than I would like for some actors. There was a lot of confusion in production with dialogue where I didn't do a read-through.

All movies have that, they all go through that, big or small roles, all together they have a read through. I used to hate that, it didn't tell me anything. It just gives everybody the wrong idea of what it is. I hate that, but it is probably a mistake that I didn't do that in this one, because odd, unpredictable problems showed up when I tried to do drama over something like this, a lot of lines don't make sense then and they had to struggle. So, I didn't have the read through, and I don't know if that is good or bad. I will never have it the other way so I cannot tell.

NS: Would you be involved with a sequel to Hulk?

AL: I don't know. The attraction is that this is like a learning process for me and I have learned that for a Hulk 2 there will be so much more. Now I know that I can do so much more with this thing, I can do more split screens maybe, and now I know how to take it further. But sometimes you get drained doing the same genre, so I have to take a break and see how it develops, see whether it excites me or whether it won't be any different from doing this one.

NS: Where you concerned that the content of Hulk would go over the heads of the younger audience or that some of the scenes are too violent?

AL: Yeah, I worry about that. But that is not going to stop me from doing what I do. My boys tell me that I probably shouldn't worry too much. I am concerned about this for 5-8 and 9 year-olds, it is up to the parents. I think the intensity could affect them. My 12 year-old overheard some of the comments about children not getting things in the movies, and he didn't like to hear that, he said to me privately that you should give kids more credit. Because those who don't like the film will talk about kids and it sounds condescending.

We had a few experiences of younger girls of 10-11 who watched it, one 10 year-old boy totally loved and embraced it and the young girl was shy because it is a very intense movie, but their mother said that they loved it. It is very hard to say, for very small children it will be like Jurassic Park; too loud, their ears are not ready for it, but they probably won't be affected, they don't embrace the same kind of emotions as adults do. I think 10-12 boys and girls will like the picture on this level. It is hard to say, it is up to the parents discretion. I can get a little nervous sometimes thinking about that, but it didn't stop me from making what I think Hulk should be.

NS: What was your thought process on the military scenes?

Let the woman do the work, the men messed it up! [laughs] I like the contradiction.

This fighting in the army is all about a primitive force fighting high technology from day one, and that gives you great satisfaction. So that contradiction has to be there - love conquers all. I have a soft spot for that.

In principle, I believe that sometimes the Hulk doesn't mean to destroy anything, he is just irritated. That is the real situation. I love that dramatic tension and I think that the miracle reaction is the Hulk himself. I think it is a treat to the audience but then of course, where does it go?

NS: Thank you for your time.

With thanks to Michelle Byrne at New Media Maze

Universal Pictures Hulk is released on DVD and video from the 17 November 2003

Order your copy of Hulk on DVD for £13.99 (RRP: £19.99) by clicking here
Order your copy of Hulk on video for £11.99 (RRP: £14.99) by clicking here
Order your copy of the 3-disc DVD collection of Hulk for £22.48 (RRP: £29.99) by clicking here

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