Taiwan-born Ang Lee has one of the most varied resumes of American directors working today. He began with the indie success of his "Father Knows Best" trilogy: Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman. Lee broke into the mainstream with Sense and Sensibility, followed by The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (for which he received an Oscar nomination), and Hulk. I spoke to Lee at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel on November 28, 2005.
Groucho: B. Ruby Rich called Brokeback Mountain "the most important film to come out of America in years"—and on one level it's a universal, tragic love story about unjust obstacles to love. But do you also see the film in a political context?
Ang Lee: Not for me. I was just so moved by Annie Proulx's writing. I thought it's indeed a great, brilliant piece of literature of the American West. It does have an unfamiliar mixture of the macho western thing with the gay love story. So that makes this unusual—it makes it very attractive to me. Some new angle to check into America and to humanity. And there's another thing that really interested me—the idea of Brokeback Mountain, to me, is illusion of love, of affection. The guys spent twenty years to try to go back to something they didn't understand in the first place. And they missed it. When he takes the shirts out, I got choked up. He missed it. He missed the love life. To me that's everything of a love story. So it's the mixture of the two, and the idea really intrigued me to tell this beautiful love story. I didn't really have an issue. In personal life I do. I have my beliefs—I have my idea of what's right and what's wrong. But the movie, I think—it's a vehicle to check into what's really important and what's transcendent to the textures. To me it's about affection and commitment. Are you willing to fall for it—to take a fall to that negative space—to the unknown? Are you reserving yourself? How honest are you to your own feelings? How much are you honest dealing with social obligations and personal feeling? Those are the big things for me. But I would imagine there would be political implications when it comes out. I'll just deal with it, I guess. But that's not what motivated me to do this movie. I certainly didn't think it's the most important Amer—I mean, it's just too big a hat on my head. (Laughs.) I'm flattered that somebody [would] say that, but it's too heavy for me.
G: In a cultural context, did you think of this as a breakthrough movie in the art world, and did that present any obstacles to you in getting the film made—that sensitive subject matter?
AL: I think if you stay small—shoestring budget—and you only release in art houses, you can do anything. Anything you want. But the allowance for this project, given the subject matter, is not really realistic, because it wanted to be epic at the same time. There's so many scenes spread out in Texas and Wyoming. Just finishing those scenes is unreasonable for that budget. And the way I got in—the way Focus Features—James Schamus, my old pal, sitting on the other side of the table now, made it realistic. That's how we got into it. Sorry—at the end of the day. What was your other question?
G: I was just asking if you see it as a breakthrough film in the greater context of cinema.
AL: It may be. I didn't want to think about that too much because when I think about being brave and groundbreaking, it's scary. If I think about messing with the western genre, that's very scary. (Laughs.) I'd better not think about it—stay with a love story. If it does [turn out to be a breakthrough film], then we'll deal with that. I think the mixture is inevitably something fresh. That's what I loved so much about it. And from the reception so far, it might break outside of art houses. That might be a breakthrough. Because the short story is there. There's a lot of things being tried out in art houses. But, at this scale, if it does go wider—sometimes that's a scary thought to me that it could be successful, and what would be the implication of that? Sometimes it feels nice because it means the attempt [has] been successful, and the tenderness reached out [beyond] the obstacles, the social taboo, the subject matter. That's a nice feeling—if it does go wider—
G: In your career, who's taught you the most about working with actors, and what's your philosophy in that regard?
AL: Working with actors? In school, I had many good teachers who taught me different methods. This went back to, in Taiwan, the traditional acting Chinese way—not a whole lot different from the English way of acting. And then method acting, and improvisation, Alexander Technique—all that—I was in the theatre department for a long time. And I actually, professionally, I learned mostly—that there's no method. You just have to deal with them as individuals. They come from different backgrounds. They have a different disposition. They offer different things to the camera. And my job is to make them function—seduce the best out of their performance and then blend them together so they're not in five movies, but in one. So that's my biggest job. I feel sometimes I can dictate them and tell them what to do and inspire them. And sometimes, I feel like they are tailors—I do the best for them. Whatever they are, I have to take it. And then I figure out a way to photograph them so it looks like it happened. And then I have to blend it. If I use this method to this [actor], I cannot use the same method with the other one. I have to save some room for—it's like a puzzle. And every actor is like a big mountain I have to climb over. I think experience counts a lot. In the past, I had them do homework. A lot of written homework. And I share my research material with them. And lately, the more experience I gather, the way I deal with them gets simpler. I think whatever you do, the most important thing is in shooting days. You have to capture the best. And that's spontaneous. And that's the most precious time—whatever you prepare, you have to throw it away and just take whatever you have. I think focus on the shooting days is probably the most important thing. And that's filmmaking. And you have to work along with them—do it together. And also, with the cinematographer. It's a strange thing. After the shooting days, they seem to be gone. You get them back to do voiceover—to do the looping. And they're like—they're into the next movie. They're like a different person. Their voice has changed—there's a pitch change. It's like a different person. It won't match. It hardly can match. And the spirit is different. Even though I'm still there directing them, they're different. So shooting-day for me is precious, 'cause all the elements are there: their psychology—every thing is tuned—everyone is tuned to that moment. And you really have to pay attention. I think all the preparation is to make yourself available so you can inter-relate to each other, interact and make changes and have an organic approach. And you're at like an altered state—everyone's at the altered states. It can be quite soothing 'cause you are so focused. And you feel you have power over things—you can make things change. And once you are out of that zone, it's like—. (Laughs.) It's like another life to you.
[For Groucho's review of Brokeback Mountain, click here.]