For a guy who made Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the most thrilling martial arts film in movie history - with limbs and swords twirling and tumbling across lily pads and Chinese roof tops - Ang Lee sure looks like a soccer dad.
It's a bit like finding out Pulp Fiction was directed by Bob Newhart.
Never mind that Crouching Tiger (opening here Friday) is an audacious blend of old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama and 21st century Hong Kong action moves. Or that the movie is a shoo-in for multiple Academy Award nominations (including, possibly, for both best picture and best foreign picture). Or that it is drawing an odd mix of mainstream film fans and the art house crowd. Or that the movie - a Top 10 finisher since Christmas, even though it's been playing on less than 200 screens nationwide - is poised to become the highest-grossing foreign film ever.
Never mind even that Ang Lee is now one of the most sought-after directors in the world. Or that Crouching Tiger is in Mandarin (with subtitles).
Lee sure wears a lot of dull windbreakers.
Boyish and shy, he has got to be one of the least assuming A-list directors around. In a recent interview with The Blade, he barely spoke above a whisper. He dressed not in the usual film director sunglasses and pomposity, but suburban chain store duds and sneakers. He looks like a guy who makes quiet movies - his two most famous, until now, being Sense and Sensibility and The Ice Storm.
Not the sort to stage an epic sword fight at the top of a bamboo tree forest.
And yet Crouching Tiger - which Lee and co-screenwriter/executive producer James Schamus call “Sense and Sensibility with martial arts” - features stars Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat running up walls and flying across roof tops and repelling a hail of poison darts with quicksilver flicks of the wrist.
When Schamus got around to writing the action scenes, however, words escaped him. How to describe the kinetic free-for-all that Lee had in his head? He knew what Lee had in mind. But sometimes words don't do daydreams justice. Sometimes a movie has to be seen to believed. Schamus wrote one line and left it at that:
“Ang guarantees he will stage the most fantastic fight scenes ever.”
He handed in the draft and a bit later it came back with a handwritten remark scrawled across the cover page: “The fight scenes are underwritten.”
Schamus revised the script and devised a strategy for handling fight scenes.
Each time the story needed a fight, he says he wrote simply: “They fight.”
Which, when faced with the final film, is a laughable understatement, sort of like saying Michael Jordan plays sports or the Kennedys hold government posts.
For his fisticuffs ballet, Lee hired Yuen Wo-Ping, the choreographer behind the gravity-defying brawls in The Matrix, which opened in spring 1999, about the same time Crouching Tiger began pre-production in mainland China. He told Wo-Ping he wanted the greatest martial arts fights ever or he didn't want to direct the film.
“The Matrix became good news-bad news for us,” Lee said. “The good news was that now the time was right for that type of movie action to come along. It meant there was room in the culture for what we were trying to do.
“The bad news was that they raised the bar, and that makes it harder. How do you top them when you don't have their kind of money? What do you have in traditional Hong Kong filmmaking that can compensate?”
The same thing The Matrix had: imagination.
Compared to the $63 million Matrix, Crouching Tiger, made for $12 million (but pumped up with a $10 million marketing campaign from Sony Pictures Classics), is almost a scrawny independent - even if, with its Chinese mountain sets and Gobi Desert battles, Lee's film looks three times more expensive.
Besides some shooting at the Beijing Film Studio, the rest of the film was made on location in nearly every part of China, from the Gobi to the Taklamakan Plateau in the north to the bamboo forests in the south. Post-production work was done in Hong Kong, and the music, including cello solos from Yo-Yo Ma, was recorded in Shanghai.
For the extraordinary fight scenes, Lee suspended the actors, sometimes from construction cranes, by wires and harnesses and bungee cords - which were later removed digitally. For weeks, they flipped and rotated and spun and bounced as if they were making a martial arts epic directed by Sandy Duncan.
“It doesn't look like how you imagine a fight to look [when you're making it],” Lee said. “It's not about martial arts. It has much more to do with musicals, more to do with Chinese opera - even more to do with choreography than filmmaking. It's also visual effects a lot of the time, so for the actors, a pounce is not about a pounce.”
He smiles and says, “It's acting ... It's just ...”
Lee shoots his hand through the air, rumbles his cheeks, makes a Looney Tunes noise. It's the only time he raises his voice. He catches himself and goes on.
“To do it, I had to be become the choreographer, and [Wo-Ping] had to become director. The first half of the shoot was quite painful for him. Quite irritating. The amount of coverage [shooting from different angles for editing purposes] I wanted drove him nuts. I was asking a lot. I have no concept of gravity when it comes to wire work. The bamboo sequence, for example: very painful. What I first envisioned was silly to him - simply not filmable ...” He seems embarrassed to even be talking about this. After all, he directs dramas, he mentions for the third or fourth time, movies about people, not people kicking each other in the head.
Crouching Tiger is a nugget from his childhood, he says. The movie is an adaptation of the fourth “episode” in a five-volume martial arts novel written before World War II by Wang Du Lu, a Chinese author whose books were banned in the 1960s when, as mandated by the Cultural Revolution, all martial arts novels were outlawed.
Though Lee, 46, only became aware of the book in 1994, the story sticks close to the traditional Chinese martial arts novels, or wuxia (a sort of Chinese western), he grew up reading as a boy in Taiwan, where he was born and raised. (His parents moved there from China in 1949.) “It was a very Asian thing to allow the secret pleasure [of these books],” he says. “But back then, the adventure, the fantasy, the storytelling - that's what I liked. Back then, I didn't find the moral tale that fascinating.”
He mimes a karate kick and smiles and shrugs.
An art house regular now, Lee never even saw a typical art house film until he left Asia in 1978 at age 23 and moved to the United States, where he studied theater at the University of Illinois and then film at New York University. There, in the mid-1980s, his career pulled in two directions: he could head back to Asia, where Asian-themed movies would find an audience, or remain in the United States, where a new wave of Asian film icons (including John Woo and Jackie Chan) hadn't yet been embraced - but where he had also won two prestigious NYU student film awards.
Then in the early 1990s, about the time Asian art films flooded American theaters, Lee made his first feature, 1992's Pushing Hands; that was followed by a couple of international art house hits, The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994); a year later, he leaped into Hollywood-financed features with the Jane Austin adaptation Sense and Sensibility (nominated for a best picture Oscar), The Ice Storm (1997), and Ride with The Devil (1999) - all art house, all the way.
But on closer inspection what we have here, respectively, are two Asian family dramas, a British drawing room picture, a 1970s Connecticut rumpus room weepy, and a western - and now, a martial arts picture. (Lee's next film? Possibly a romantic musical written by Schamus, he says.) Rarely has a Hollywood director leaped between so many film genres so smoothly and made his mark on each, complementing rather than deconstructing or debunking; Howard Hawks is the most famous example, a legendary studio director proficient in, for starters, comedy (His Girl Friday), science fiction (The Thing), mob movies (1932's Scarface), westerns (Red River), war flicks (Sergeant York), and mysteries (The Big Sleep).
The secret to directing different types of movies is finding the personal drama, Lee said, looking wary, thinking back to shooting Ride With the Devil's action scenes. “You're dealing with a lot of people on horseback, shooting, burning down a town,” he says. “I wasn't aware of the safety issues at all. Anything looks good if it's dangerous, but these are human lives. And there are animal rights and all these production issues.
“How much time does it take to rig a blood bag, a bullet hole? I learned a very important lesson from that: No matter how well I stage something, if it doesn't relate well to emotion, it's not worth the time to do.”
Nevertheless, part Hollywood epic, part Chinese melodrama, the international nature of Crouching Tiger left Lee with no choice but to add more action scenes than he intended. (A problem he could encounter again if, as rumored, he is on Tom Cruise's short list for Mission: Impossible 3 directors.) “It's a summer blockbuster in Asia, and here it's an art house film because it has subtitles. So there are things I have to deliver, like 30 more minutes of cheesy stuff, even if I surrender to that with great pleasure.”
Of course, he said, pressure was applied to just shoot the movie in English - then he might not worry about notoriously subtitle-phobic American audiences.
“My life would be easier if it were in English. But to me that would have been like John Wayne speaking Chinese in a western. It just doesn't work, and if I did that I would have a hard time for a very long period. This movie fulfills my childhood dreams, and why would I want to do anything that would poison a dream?”