Interview: Ang Lee
by Carlo Cavagna
LEFT: Ang Lee on the set of Brokeback Mountain.
You might not expect that this filmmaker would next turn to American culture with a somber, empathetic portrayal of 1970s angst and indirection in The Ice Storm (1997), and with a drama about social and family dislocations amid the wreckage Civil War in Ride with the Devil (1999). Nor would you expect such a director to then return home to make a romantic, period action epic like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), which earned four Oscars and helped usher in the age using digitally erased harnesses to facilitate balletic martial arts sequences. And you certainly wouldn't guess that a director with the artistic integrity to make such films would next accept a job on a big, loud Hollywood special effects film like The Hulk (2003).Now, with the difficult experience of The Hulk behind him, Lee surprises us yet again with a heart-wrenching Western romantic tragedy… a Western tragedy with quite a difference. In Brokeback Mountain, Lee brings his gentle, introspective touch to the story of Ennis Del Mar (Heath Ledger) and Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal), two gay cowboys fated never to realize their true desires. Last November, Lee talked to reporters extensively about his new film, his observations about the American West, and how The Hulk almost made him quit the movie business.
Question: Did you feel any trepidation in taking a movie that was controversial—or let's say less “safe—after making The Hulk?
Lee: Production-wise it was safe. I was exhausted. Not only from The Hulk, even more exhausting was Crouching Tiger. I had five years of exhaustion. So, [Brokeback Mountain] was very relaxed for me in terms of production. The challenge was there [though]. I read the short story and the script before I did The Hulk, and I decided to do The Hulk because I didn't think anyone would make or see this movie. It's not really cheap, as is required because of the subject matter. But, it kept haunting me. After I had done the The Hulk I wasn't going to do a movie for a very long time. I even thought about retirement some nights. Some sleepless nights. [Laughs.]
Then I met my father. He says, “What's going on? You look kind of weird. Depressed.” He [had] never encouraged me to make a movie, even after I got an Oscar. [He always used to say,] “It's about time you do something real.” [Laughs.] But he said, “You'll be very depressed. You're not even fifty. What are you going to do with your life? Are you going to teach?” I said “No.” He always wanted me to teach, like a safe[ty] net.
I felt very weird, because I sort of blew him up in the The Hulk as a jellyfish, and those images kept haunting me. That movie provoked a lot of anger, so I was feeling very unhealthy. Then he said, “You have to go make a movie”—for the first time in my life. And two weeks later he passed away. He was healthy and everything. So, regardless of my condition—physical or mental condition—I took [it] on. So, I was in a strange mood. In some ways, it was a movie I didn't dare to make for both economic and subject matter reasons. At that time it was very natural to do it, from my father's advice. And it happened to be a gay movie. I didn't tell him what I was going to make. [Laughs.]
Question: All of your films have been in different genres. This is the first time you are revisiting one, with the Western elements. What is it like for you to revisit a genre?
Lee: Actually, other than The Ice Storm, my three other American movies were Westerns. To me, The Hulk was kind of a Western. He is like a Western wonder-hero, out in the desert. To me he is more of a Western hero than anything. I think the American West really attracts me, because it's romantic. The desert, the empty space—it's a great stage for drama. Also, [it attracted me] because of the unfamiliarity. I [had done only] a pre-Western and somewhat of a desert-y green monster Western. [Laughs.] The Hulk to me definitely belongs to the West. I don't see him jumping around in Boston or something. There's something very romantic about the West. Same thing with China—something romantic is always [set] in the West, the Gobi Desert.
I think the unfamiliarity was very attractive to me. I wanted to shoot a straight, mainstream, somehow offbeat [movie with a] realistic West, which is quite unfamiliar to the world's population, even to a lot of Americans I know from the cities, from Hollywood movies, television. That unfamiliar [world] is centered, almost anchoring America. That conservative side, that mystery—it's becoming more and more aware to us every day. That's really haunting with this particular material. It's both haunting, evoking, and [it] distilled the idea a romantic story to me. A very pure form—that makes it very attractive to me.
Question: You traveled with [screenwriter] Larry McMurtry to Western locations while scouting the movie. What surprised you about Western people or locations that you didn't know before?
Lee: The location, we have seen it. We have traveled through it or [seen it in] a movie. I think it was more the people. Of course, they are always nice people. They are just like everybody here, except they are nicer, and I felt guilty that I was going to do a tough movie about them. [Laughs.] Something struck me, [with my] fresh eyes. Sorry to say—[the] eccentric[ity]. You go to a bar and just see the things that they hang up. I can't believe the things they hang up inside and outside of bars. So imaginary. I don't know how else to put it. Of course that will annoy a lot of Westerners, because [they'll say], “We have a lot of normal people.” There are two sides. One is like that. It's like [they] don't want [you] to go into their territory. I saw a sign in Wyoming—a “No Trespassing” sign. And it says, “Trespassers will be shot. Survivors will be shot again.” [Laughs.] Some characters are like that. If they hear you're coming with the Wyoming film commissioners, [they want] nothing to do with the state.
But they are also very nice people, because they are lonely and when you go to the countryside and want [friendliness], you can't shut them down. They keep talking and talking and talking, and they have this Wyoming lazy town kind of thing. You have to pay a lot of attention. They have this easy tone. Very slow, very easy. Relax, and we'll talk about something really tragic. One tragic story after another—the most miserable things. It's just on and on, slowly. And you have to pay attention. They take long pauses. So, I learned a lot like that. Of course, [if] you watch Larry McMurtry you learn. He's the epitome.
Question: Can you talk about the cinematography? It was very beautiful.
Lee: I got a Mexican DP, Rodrigo Prieto, who worked with Alejandro Iñárritu on 21 Grams, Amores Perros. Because 21 Grams was Focus [Features], that's how they hooked us up. I wanted somebody cheap, up-and-coming, [who] shoots fast, and a real talent. And of course, what he did here was the total opposite of what he is famous [for]—the hand held, gritty kind of [filmmaking]. I wanted something more transcendent, more serene. Limpid. But, sometimes eccentric. I got ideas from location scouting and still photography. I think a talent is talent. He is very smart, lighting very quickly and efficiently without much direction, so we would save everything for the actors.
In terms of landscape, [I thought] it should play a character in the movie, because it is called Brokeback Mountain . It is a very existential idea to me. It's about the illusion of love. They keep wanting to go back to something they really didn't understand to begin with, when they are inside of it. They never get it. And when they get it, they've missed it. I think that is the theme for me that got me hooked. Brokeback Mountain has to be a character itself. So, how do we treat it so it looks manageable—so it's not a grand Western where people disappear in it, but you use [it] as a dramatic element? So, it looks loveable. It's suggestive, it's romantic. Somehow you have to shoot it that way.
AboutFilm: You've talked about finding an eccentric world, a world that is completely new to you in the West. But at the same time you have to draw out the universal human elements of the story, and you have to depict the conformism of this unfamiliar world. How does an outsider go about doing that?
Lee: A lot of that is in the script. Conformism—the social pressures so to speak—are not really visible other than the Randy Quaid character giving them a stern look. Other than that, you really don't see society. So, it's really [about] what society did to them. The actors have to carry that—the repression, the mental block they are putting on themselves, particularly Ennis. And also another vehicle we have to use in that non-verbal culture, in that particular time, is the privacy that you sense. There is no vocabulary [for them] to understand how they feel. We are including the wives. When [Michelle Williams' character Alma] sees them kissing, her world is crushed, but she wouldn't know what caused that. There is no understanding. Everything they feel is private. So, again, the silence, the performance, the way they carry the scene, I think that plays a bigger part than society, because we don't really see that. We see Texas, [when] they are ballroom dancing. Then you see the father-in-law, kind of an asshole, [who says], “Boy should play football.” That's minimal. That doesn't present a threat. Oh, and the bar when Jake gives a wrong stare and he has to run, because it's the wrong thing to do. But, quite minimal.
It's something in the air. I think that's important in Western cowboy poetry, literature, and therefore in the movie is that things are in the air. They got space and time. They've got a lot of wind. Drives you crazy, constant wind. It's on the screen the whole time. The place where we shot has the biggest wind in all Canada, therefore the highest suicide rate in the whole nation. It just drives you crazy.
Question: High suicide rate? Why is that?
Lee: Constant wind. When you are out there you go crazy. It drives you nuts. Just stand there for a year in the wind, and you'd go shoot yourself. I don't know, it does drive you crazy when you're doing that the whole day. So, I learned that and Larry also reminded me, so we shoot wind and put in the sound of wind, twenty, thirty types of wind mixed in. All kinds of wind. In Annie's writing there is a sentence like, “In the trailer you could hear the wind like a truck load of dirt dumped on.” They always talk about wind. Very important to how you carry on the mood. It's such a non-verbal culture I think those elements are very important. They have to be romantic.
Question: Can you talk about working with Heath and Jake? Do they have different approaches to the work?
Lee: Yeah, they are pretty opposite. I think Heath is very methodic. I don't usually ask them. They don't have to tell me, they just understand what I tell them. When I see something I like, that's all that counts. What they use, how they get there—I never bother them. I guess Heath has a very meticulous way of approaching the character, because from take to take there is not a lot of difference. It's not like he pre-programmed it. He would respond, but he set himself in a certain zone that seemed to me pre-determined, and he kept refining it. Jake on the other hand was more free style. Every take he would have a wide variety, [but] with an understanding of what the scene was about, what the character develops. He'll respond differently. In a way, I think it's good, because Heath is really the anchor for that Western mood. So, it's good he's reliable and always that way. Very subtle changes. Jake, I sometimes had to remind him that innocence is on his side. As a young actor they are scary good, but they can forget that innocence is on their side. [If] they are too skillful, they are too good, they take away some of the innocence. So, basically just remind them.
Question: Did you audition them together?
Question: How did you know they would have the chemistry?
Lee: The chemistry I pretty much played in my head. I just imagined they were a good couple. I cast Heath very much as the short story required. I did something quite different with Jake. In the novel, he is even stronger, bulkier, shorter, very rough. Jake, of course, is more like a city boy. I think he is a good romantic lead, and I think he is a good counterpart to Heath. I cast Jake first and then Heath. I was hoping I would meet somebody like Heath. As soon as I met Heath I imagined they would be a good match for a romantic love story. The first time I met them together we were in LA in a restaurant. So, that was the first time all three of us were together.
Question: Can you talk about shooting the love scenes?
Lee: The lovemaking scene—I am a shy person. The way I go about a lovemaking scene is that we will talk about it during the rehearsing time. At what point in the drama [does] it fit in, in their character development? The psychological aspects—chemistry, tension, confusion, what have you. But, we don't rehearse or exercise that. Just roll the camera and expect them to deliver. I will tell them, “If you don't believe it, then nobody will.” So, you have to see it. And it's their job to deliver.
Question: Considering these are both heartthrob actors, do you think these are brave performances by them, to play these characters?
Lee: I never think about it as being brave. Once, you are in a zone, once you believing you are falling in love with something, whatever scares you disappears. All you are worrying about is how to make it work. And after you make it, you have to talk your way out of it. You see what happened, and you're concerned again. But, when we're doing [it] we are happy. So it never strikes me whether they are being brave or not. They are good actors; that is what they should do. I believe that much. It never occurred to me that female fans, girls—what would happen to their careers. They knew what they were getting into.
But, I remember at one point, in the first lovemaking scene in the tent, I remember thinking, “They were being brave.” Particularly Jake. You see it in the dark—that's pretty dim. But I saw it very clear right in front of my eyes, in detail. It was very close, actually, with a hand-held camera. The whole scene was in one shot. So many times you see a beautiful lovemaking scene with a lot of exposure, or an awkward love-making scene, but I think it's very rare you see that it's private. That's what we were shooting for with this story. I thought I saw a private moment there. I think as actors they are pretty brave.
Question: I can't remember any film that trusted its source material as much as this one.
Lee: Not only did I want to be loyal to [Annie Proulx's] writing, but I needed to do additional scenes to confirm her writing, because we don't have the internal depictions which she did most brilliantly. We don't have that benefit. We are photography. So, that tent scene for example—I needed to add another tent scene, to confirm that they commit to the love, so it's reasonable for the next twenty years they want to keep going back. I don't even know if she liked it. I always had this theory that she would hate it. I think in movies, in cinema language, you have to see them committed. In a book, it's in the writing and you don't [have to] see it. She's very good in terms of [being] hands-off. Once you make the movie, it's your work. I told her, “Your prose is very hard to translate into cinema.” She just smiled and said, “That's your problem.”
Question: How did you cast Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway? Did you ever think you were taking a big chance?
Lee: I am fortunate or unfortunate I didn't see much of their previous work. Michelle, I didn't see her work except The Station Agent. That was the main impression I had [of] her. Anne Hathaway, I had never seen anything that she did. I didn't know who she was actually. They were purposely not letting me know. They said, “When this girl comes, she's very young. She will apologize for her hair and make up”—because she was on the set [of another movie]. And she walked in and she said, “This is my lunch time. We're doing a parade scene. A wedding parade scene.” She apologized again and again, and I said, “You play a character from Northern Texas so that's just fine.” [Laughs] So, anyway, she did the best reading. And Michelle just looked right for the part to me. There is something really genuine about her, both in her performance and in person. I just can see right away that she play Alma. But, she's actually the first one I met. And then there were twenty more to come.
Question: Did you ever notice whether Michelle and Heath [who are currently dating] were getting on a little more than normal?
Lee: No, no. Well, it started happening shortly after rehearsal. I know Heath had just broken up with Naomi [Watts]. Of course, I kept pushing him towards Jake. [Laughs] Maybe I pushed to hard.
I have to tell a story about how serious an actress Michelle is. The first kissing scene by the staircase, that's the first kissing scene that we did. It was the first week of shooting with Jake. The guys were exhausted from [the] different angles we shot. Then we turn around to shoot Michelle's reaction. So, we talk about how she was crushed; she was blank; she doesn't know what hits her. It takes her the rest of the movie to see how pissed she is—everything. And so, the guys were down there sort of leaning on each other for her to look at. And she wanted them to start kissing and mess around [even though] she could hardly see them. [Laughs] They were just there to help her. So, the guys start necking and she was not happy about it. “Come on guys, a real kiss.” So then they started kissing, and she was like, “Come on guys I need it!” [Laughs] That was [Heath's] girlfriend! I was very impressed. And when I see her face on the monitor, just that one moment, for just that one second it's really worth it.
Question: Avi Arad is thinking about doing a Hulk 2 but calling it Diet Hulk. What do you think of that idea?
Lee: Diet Hulk?
Question: A happier, less angtsy Hulk sequel. Would you be interested in that?
Lee: Isn't The Hulk about anger? About aggression? Even She-Hulk would be very angry. I dunno, I haven't heard that.
[Read the AboutFilm review of Brokeback Mountain]
[Read the AboutFilm interview with Jake Gyllenhaal]
Article and interviews © December 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN images © 2005 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.
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