Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: Ang Lee’s New Challenge

billy_lynn's_long_halftime_walk_1Ang Lee, the two-time Oscar winning director, refuses to be labeled–or stand still.  Over the past 15 years, he has become one of Hollywood’s most experimental directors, not only in terms of genre and theme, but also in technique and visual style.

With his upcoming war movie Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, he’s also hoping to change radically both film-making and film-viewing with a bold new technique.

Billy Lynn was shot at 120 frames per second (24 FPS is the industry standard), which aims to capture everything — especially gritty action sequences — in clear focus. “It’s like how your eyes see things,” says Lee of the technique. “It is a new movie experience.”

This film is based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 book about an Iraq War hero (British newcomer Joe Alwyn), who has a crisis of conscience just as he’s being honored at the 2004 Super Bowl.  “I thought if I can put a battle scene and a halftime show next to each other, that would be very exciting,” Lee explains.

Lee also took a risk on Alwyn, an actor who had left drama school early just days before getting cast in the titular role. “I left school and, about two days later, I put myself on tape and we got a call saying they wanted me to come to New York a few days later and meet Ang Lee. It was all the most surreal situation.”

While the studio wasn’t initially sure about an unknown carrying the film, Alwyn eventually convinced them after days of screen tests. “They decided to fly me from New York to Atlanta on set,” says the actor. “I did about four or five days testing there. Eventually about a week and a half later, I got home and the next night I got a call saying I got it.”

The film is told through Billy’s eyes and flashes back and forth from the war in Iraq (Vin Diesel plays his sergeant), to moments from the night before the Super Bowl with family (Kristen Stewart is Billy’s sister), to the halftime show.

At one point, the confused and lost Billy is imagining an alternative domestic future with a cheerleader he’s just met.

The precision technology impacted even the actors’ choices. “With the high frame rate you can see right into somebody’s eyes and somebody’s soul,” says Alwyn. Only naturalism would do. “So Ang didn’t want anything pushed or ‘performed.’”

This crisp new camera work does present an extra layer of production challenges, though. “We had 400 extras and if someone way in the back does something funny, you notice it,” Lee says, laughing.

I happened to be in the charming town of Provincetown, MA, this past June, during its annual film festival, which this year honored Ang Lee with its prestigious Filmmaker on  the Edge Award, presented to him by local resident, John Waters, the cult director of Pink Flamingos.

Waters traced Lee’s career from the Taiwanese family trilogy that put him on the map — Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman — through his English-language debut with the Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility to his first directing Oscar for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to his upcoming November release, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

Flops as Part of Life

spqxuf6d5jaKnown for his candid approach, Lee did not shy away from discussing his artistic and commercial flops, such as Ride With the Devil, Hulk, Taking Woodstock and even the critically adored The Ice Storm, which was a commercial failure. “They are all my kids. I don’t judge these movies by their success or by what critics say. They’re all a part of my life.”

Unpredictability

Lee addressed the issue of unpredictability and uncertainty, built into the operation of the film industry. One film that was thought to be a disaster, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, turned out to be a huge success. “Once I had gotten into it and started shooting, I realized I did something that didn’t make any sense.  I made an A-grade B genre movie, when martial arts films are supposed to be trashy; all that wild energy.  It cost $12 million, and at that time nobody was putting so much money into Chinese-language movies.”

Lee’s Masterpiece

Lee discussed his initial reaction to Annie Proulx’s short story that became the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain, starring Heath Lodger and Jake Gyllenhaal, in Oscar-nominated performances.  That 2005 film, arguably Lee’s masterpiece, for which he won his first Best Director Oscar, screened in Provincetown as part of the tribute.  Lee recalled: “I wept at the end of that story.  Why a straight guy who grew up conservative in Taiwan could be so moved by gay cowboys in Wyoming I don’t know. But it haunted me.” It could have been the director’s own experience of cultural repression which enabled him to relate to those characters.

It’s All About Faces

Lee stressed that despite his fascination with evolving technology in Life of Pi, for which Lee won his second Best Director Oscar, and the new film, which is already touted as potential Oscar contender, his movies have remained anchored in classic storytelling and strong acting. “To me it’s still really all about faces,” he said. “At times, an image will impress me, but then it’s always faces first.”

Accepting the Filmmaker on the Edge Award, Lee said: “I don’t really think of myself as ‘on the edge,’ but I always try to be honest.  I want to make movies that come from my heart, and I want to share that feeling with you.”