Ang Lee interview: ‘When I saw Devon, I knew Sense & Sensibility belonged to me’

·8 min read
Director Ang Lee is to receive a Fellowship from Bafta  - AP Photo/Chris Pizzello
Director Ang Lee is to receive a Fellowship from Bafta - AP Photo/Chris Pizzello

Formative moments in the lives of great artists can occur almost anywhere. Ang Lee’s came on the train from London to Plymouth. It was a wet winter day in early 1994, and the Taiwanese filmmaker was steeling himself for Sense and Sensibility, an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel and his first entirely English-language project. At that point, the film was to be shot in Ireland for tax reasons – but Lee, then 39, felt he owed it to Austen to see firsthand the Devonshire countryside in which her story was set, “just so I knew what I’d be imitating,” he chuckles.

Lee, now 66, takes up the tale. “It had been raining hard when we’d left London, but the moment our train emerged from the tunnel into Devon was one of the most magical in my life. It was bright and sunny, at around four o’clock, and the late afternoon sun was hitting those rolling hills in the most beautiful way. I could already see Marianne Dashwood tumbling down the hillside and being rescued by Willoughby on his white horse. And I thought: we have to do it here.”

It was, he explains, a pivotal point – “a sign that this English period piece, something I had never imagined I would make, actually belonged to me. And if I could make that movie, then I could dare to go anywhere.”

At the Bafta Film Awards in 1996, Sense and Sensibility won three awards, including Best Film. And at the same event 25 years later – via one of the most far-reaching and head-spinningly eclectic careers in modern cinema – he will receive the Bafta Fellowship: the highest honour in the Academy’s gift. Speaking on the phone, the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi describes the accolade as “overwhelming. For some reason, Britain has always been good to me. Even aside from Sense and Sensibility. It was the only place in the world where The Ice Storm” – his provocative 1997 thriller – made any money.”

It not being an optimal time for international travel, Lee will accept the Fellowship remotely, although he isn’t stuck at home. In fact, he’s in Wellington, New Zealand, on a “research trip” to the visual effects house Weta Digital, to test some technology for a forthcoming project which may or may not be his long-planned Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier boxing film Thrilla in Manila (it’s all under wraps). He flew there from Taiwan – where, as in New Zealand, “life is almost back to normal” – although his interim stretch in a quarantine hotel has taken its toll.

Lee's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility was a triumph - Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo
Lee's adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility was a triumph - Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

Still, the emotion in his voice can’t be solely put down to 14 days of confinement. The Bafta Fellowship has come at the end of a turbulent, frustrating decade, in which Lee’s two most recent films, made in the wake of his world-conquering 3D adaptation of Life of Pi, have been meet with muted ticket sales and indifference from the industry at large. The issue was the medium itself. As Hollywood beat a sheepish retreat from 3D, Lee became obsessed with unlocking what he saw as its enormous artistic potential.

Since the transition to the talkies, films have purred along at 24 frames per second. But Lee designed both his Iraq war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and his Will Smith-led action thriller Gemini Man to be projected at 120 frames per second – creating an ultra-sharp and fluid three-dimensional image with none of the customary stutter or blur we’ve come to associate with the art form long known as the flicks. When seen as Lee intended, these films looked nothing like film as anyone knew it. The problem was, only a handful of cinemas on Earth (and none in the UK or US) were actually capable of screening them, and the technologically compromised mass-market versions failed to win many fans.

He says he is “still hesitant to talk about it, because for the last seven or eight years I’ve been beaten up whenever I do.” But he believes the so-called 3D revolution prompted by Avatar a little over ten years ago was a false dawn: “the technology wasn’t ready, and we never got into it properly.” Now, though, he hopes the time is almost right.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon set a new benchmark for karate films  - Film Stills
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon set a new benchmark for karate films - Film Stills

“People still think 3D is tacky. To me, it’s a way of observing differently. I think it’s a new and different medium, and I see something very beautiful there.” He believes it ought to be used for dramatic purposes – “To study faces; that’s the best. Nothing is more complicated or pleasurable for us to read, because we’re reading ourselves.”

Is he surprised more directors haven’t joined the cause? “Very. Because whether they like my movie or not, they should be curious.”

Nevertheless, he remains committed to the fight. “It’s like Brokeback Mountain,” he laughs ruefully, citing his acclaimed 2005 western romance. “I wish I knew how to quit.”

Innovation is how Lee sees cinemas winning back customers after the pandemic – not just high-frame-rate projection, but smarter seating arrangements, more immersive sound, and sharper images.

“There’s more to cinema than absorbing a story,” he says, adding that the experience should feel “collective and participatory – things a TV screen at home could never provide.”

Will superhero films remain the draw they were pre-Covid? Even as the director of 2003’s Hulk – one of the preliminary swells before the 21st century Marvel tsunami – Lee is unsure. In fact, he doesn’t regard this eerie, soulful film – divisive on release, but now increasingly well-regarded – as part of the trend. “It started after me and had nothing to do with me. I didn’t even know there was such a genre!” He describes the film as “a psychodrama mixed with a little science fiction and elements of classic Italian horror – those were the genres I thought I was working in. Then Spider-Man came out right before us and defined what the genre was.”

He doesn’t envy younger filmmakers in the same boat today. “Studios have learned how to control that kind of production,” he says. “If I made Hulk now, I wouldn’t be able to do what I did. The industry has made it much harder to wiggle and stretch.”

Hulk’s mixed commercial and critical fortunes hit Lee hard – and, coupled with the death of his father, he was “exhausted and sad”, and seriously contemplating retirement. Instead, he got in touch with his old producer friend James Schamus and asked if a small project they’d discussed three years before had ever got underway. It had not, so Lee got back to work. This was Brokeback Mountain, which he now describes as “the easiest movie I ever made. Nothing could go wrong on it – it was as if it was blessed.” That good fortune followed Brokeback Mountain to the Baftas and Oscars, and also the box office, where it made £128 million worldwide.

Brokeback Mountain starred the heterosexual actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger - Film Stills
Brokeback Mountain starred the heterosexual actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger - Film Stills

If he were to make the film now, would he feel duty-bound to cast openly gay actors in the lead roles, in line with the latest industry contortions over representation on screen?

“I think good actors have to come first,” he says, noting that as soon as action is called, “people can no longer be themselves. Acting is not about who you are. I’ve cast broadcasters to play broadcasters and when the camera rolls, they don’t know what to do.”

Such a prohibition would have ruled out both Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger, whose performances in the film were both universally praised. Ledger, who died aged 28 just two years after its release, was a perfect case in point, Lee says: “His character was gay, but also a macho homophobe, and he portrayed that brilliantly.” He recalls the shooting of the café scene in which Ledger’s Ennis Del Mar is confronted by his former girlfriend, while Ennis disconsolately chomps on an apple pie. “She was acting her heart out, and all Heath was doing was eating. He must have got through 40 slices that night. And when the crew watched the footage the next day, they were all calling out, ‘Leave the poor guy alone!’ That was when I knew he really had something.”

Such moments – where he feels lucky just to witness a project coming together – take him back to his first film Pushing Hands – “a little Chinese family drama I shot in New York”, about a tai chi master who travels from Beijing to live with his son. He remembers stressing out on set, when from out of nowhere, “My assistant director brought me an apple box and said, ‘Mr Director, sit on this.’ And I realised actually, life is OK.” There have been many times since when that apple box would have come in handy: “A lot of wondering what I was doing, a lot of worrying I was going to snap, or be punished.” He sees cinema – the making and the sharing of it – as a kind of collective dream; “one that I’m always worried I’ll wake up from. But I’m still going.”

The EE Bafta Film Awards will be broadcast in two parts this Saturday on BBC Two and Sunday on BBC One