A New York-based, Taiwan-born independent producer, director and screenwriter, Ang Lee gained international attention with his second feature, “The Wedding Banquet” (1993), whcih became a huge success and helped put Taiwanese cinema on the international map.
His next, “Eat Drink Man Woman” (1994), which also picked up an Oscar nomination as Best Foreign-Language Film, opened to laudatory reviews and robust box office. A seemingly unlikely choice to film a classic British novel, Lee was then hired to direct an adaptation of Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” (1995), his first English-language movie which went on to receive seven Oscar nominations. Subsequent films “The Ice Storm” (1997) and “Ride With the Devil” (1999) drew critical raves but only minor box-office. Then in 2000, Lee made his first Chinese-language project in years, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, which scored ten Academy Award nominations and the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
If his next film, the 2003 comic adaptation of “The Hulk” was largely viewed as a disappointment, Lee redeemed himself thoroughly with his next film, the haunting, sensitive drama “Brokeback Mountain”. An adaptation and expansion of E. Annie Proulx’s revered story (with a screenplay by Western master Larry McMurtry) which cast Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal as Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist, respectively,a pair of rugged ranch hands who, while driving sheep through a mountain range in the 1960s, enter into a relationship and struggle through a painful, heart-wrenching gay love affair that spans several decades, hampered by Ennis’ need to be closeted and their mutual heterosexual relationships with women. The soft spoken Lee sat down with press recently to talk about ‘Brokeback’ and the various issues it brings up:
Question: What was it about the short story and script that made you want to do this film?
Lee: I don’t know why it hit me so hard, I cried. I read the short story first and the script afterward. It’s a great adaptation, a movie out of a thirty page short story. It was very unfamiliar to me. Usually when something hits you, you’re caught off guard, I think that’s why. I was thinking about, and possibly looking for repressive elements or outsiders. It was repression and a whole lot of things.
Question: You’ve been quoted as saying the movie is about the impossibility of love?
Lee: I think the gay factors, after a while, maybe half the movie, the circumstances are set. They can live together. Ennis has a choice to make it work. That’s why Jack complains later in the movie. All they got is Brokeback? That’s bullshit. They’re both gays, but one chooses to be more adventurous. The other has to go through self denial and only accepts it when it’s too late, when he missed him. That is true. Eventually we surpass the obstacles and it’s really a search for that obscure object of love.
Question: You get great performances from Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal. How did you cast them?
Lee: I wanted younger actors in their early twenties to play older. I think they have a better chance to achieve the twenty years that time passed. I think they’re among the best. They were suggested by casting director. There’s not a lot to choose from. They’re at the top. Heath, I like his disposition, he carries that western mood. I think he’s the anchorman for that western theme. He’s more macho and brooding, but provides the vulnerability, expressing his fear about violence. He also has that energetic power about him that carries the western literature, particularly at the turn of the last century. I think he’s that man for me. Jake, I choose him because he carried the romantic edge. I think they’re very different and compliment each other. I think they’re a great couple. I think there was a little bit of psychological fear factor that we were doing a challenging movie. I think that also forced the best out of them. I think the performances, especially the sex scenes, were unusual. I’ve done quite a few movies now. The fear factor actually brings the genuineness. They have to try their best.
Question: Do actors normally agree to work for you without meeting you?
Lee: I could image them playing that part. I wasn’t reachable. I was in the mountains in China. I somehow have to show interest so they don’t accept other offers. That was clear to the producers that I can’t do my job right if I don’t meet them. After I come back, I stop in LA and meet Heath. Jake I’d already met. Heath, I showed interest while I was traveling.
Question: When you were shooting, did you have a lot of pressure about the sex scenes?
Lee: Yes, I have counsel from outside groups and inside groups too, what with the gay scenes. Was it enough or do they want to see more? At some point you stop thinking about it and see what has to be done.
Question: Is there more intimacy that wasn’t used that may appear on DVD?
Lee: No, it was precisely how I shoot. After I call action and before I call cut, it’s pretty much there.
Question: Did it help that Heath fell in love with his wife on the set?
Lee: That was before the set was built, when that started. I know it was love at first site. I think he was probably in love with her before they meet. He checked with me a couple times about when Michelle arrives. I think it was a process about breaking up with Naomi. I don’t get into their private lives, but that is what I saw.
Question: There’s an important scene near the end where Ennis is told what happened to Jack. It’s a bit ambiguous. You’re not sure what really happened. How do you see that?
Lee: At that time, it’s told from Ennis’s point of view. You have no choice but to see his imagination. I think it’s clear to me that his imagination resorted to his bad memory as a child. Why he goes there is helped by the wife’s performance. Anne Hathaway, her performance, I think she’s definitely angry and lying about the truth.
Question: Were you at all affected by what happened to Matthew Shepard?
Lee: No, the book was written a year before that happened. There were similarities.
Question: What was the most difficult thing about making this film?
Lee: Technically, it was aging, because it’s a short epic story. It wants to be epic, but it’s made of very short slices of life. It happens very quickly, but at some points it needs to be dramatic, like twenty years have passed. In order to do that as a filmmaker, in particular with aging, you need to have detail. So each time you see them, you can make up what’s missing from the last time you see them two or three years ago. So filling in that gap with small things, enough detail in the acting, the way they carry themselves, the voices; technically, I think that’s the hardest thing to do. But I think blending the macho western genre, western life, with a gay love story, I think in terms of tonality, that’s hard to do as a director.
Question: With the Wedding Banquet and Brokeback Mountain, you’re getting a reputation of a straight filmmaker who’s making the best gay films…
Lee: I don’t know if that statement is true. Some would say that, some wouldn’t, they would disagree. Everyone in the gay community doesn’t think alike. I don’t know if I make the best gay films.
Question: Do you see them as gay films?
Lee: That’s a hard question to answer. I do what’s truthful to my feelings. I brought some universal feelings, whether you’re gay or straight, about love, Chinese family drama, about romance. I think I brought a lot of universality that help the two communities. It’s a good gay film for people because it’s in the middle of the road. I don’t squeeze the characters into gay cinema. I think that’s what’s good…or not so good. I always try my best when I do a film that feels genuine to me. I put myself in the middle to try to make cinema work.
Question: Did people assume you were a gay filmmaker?
Lee: At the time, I thought they were gay movies. But why was it so widely accepted by everybody, it was the biggest hit in Taiwan. They had never seen men kiss before. That was the first one and you could hear the collective gasp from a thousand people, and then they settle down and watch the rest of the movie. They loved the movie. Because we won the Golden Bear in Berlin, it was rated PG, a family movie, but it was R-rated in the states. There was a lot of confusion where it belongs. It was definitely a mainstream movie. I don’t know, it does feel gay but real to you.
Question: You spoke about making this movie in the middle of the road?
Lee: That’s not a conscious decision. I do what I think is best and usually that’s the middle of the road.
Question: The setting plays an important role in your films. This film is an epic cowboy movie set in Wyoming. Was this another thing that sold you aside from the romance?
Lee: Yes, I think that sold me and helped the romance. I think great romance needs great obstacles and textures. Romance and love are abstract ideas, an illusion. How do you make that? I think, most of the time, obstacles help build the romance. It helps to envision and make it feel real to you. I think that mixture is ultimately very interesting because they’re very macho, but romance is usually soft. That strange mixture was very fresh and helped me to grope into what love is.
Question: Where does this film rank compared to your other films?
Lee: The most relaxed. I was simply knocked out, wrecked by the previous two movies. Maybe it was the accumalation of my career, but by the time Hulk was released, I was wrecked, in terrible shape. I wasn’t going to make a movie for a long time or retire. That was my mentality. I made this. It’s a small budget film, very limited audience. To me it’s a healing process. I was still making movies, so I didn’t have any time to be depressed. What’s most important was to make the performances and the idea of the story secure. That’s pretty fundamental filmmaking that goes back to my first films. It was very refreshing. I was in the mood of love and everybody loved each other. It was a very loving set. I think that influenced the movie and how people see the movie. That was quite nurturing to me. I think I came back to life over the process. It was a very loving filmmaking process.
Question: You’re very chameleon-like in your choices. What would you say is your essence as a filmmaker?
Lee: I would have to say repression. (Laughs) I always use, but I try not to. I try to be a partygoer. But at some point I don’t know why I’m doing it and fall back. I’ve been using repression, the struggle between behaving as a social animal. You’re seeking to be honest with your free will, less conflict. I think that’s an important subject with me. That’s who I am, how I was brought up. I think I use that a lot. I mistrust everything I think. Things you think you can trust, believe in, or hang on to, changes. That’s the essence of life. That’s kind of Taoist. At a certain age, many Chinese think that way. When things change, we must adapt to it. That’s our faith and belief.
Question: How relevant is Brokeback Mountain today?
Lee: I hope nothing like that happens anymore. It could be in the west, in the east, New Jersey.
Question: Did the sheep give you any trouble?
Lee: What do think? (Laughs) They’re not the smartest animal. Nobody had wrangled that many for a movie. We all learned, the wranglers and us. What’s the best way to shoot them, the most flattering. It takes a while, plus the weather and the mountains. It can be stressful.
Question: What are you planning to do next?
Lee: Something Chinese.