It seems incongruous that Oscar-winning film-maker Ang Lee served in the military. The Sense and Sensibility and Life of Pi director is softly spoken, an artistic innovator; he describes himself as “docile”. Time spent in his company is restful and thought-provoking. And yet many years ago he ran around with a shaved head and combat fatigues.
“It did me some good, especially boot camp,” the 62-year-old remembers of his two-year stint in the Chinese navy, fulfilling his national service. “They deprive you of your pride, your dignity, your self-esteem. Everybody is equal. You put your ego aside and while it’s very painful for the first week, it becomes quite comfortable. There’s a certain Zen pleasure in it. You don’t have problems because you’re not important.”
There is a parallel, he notes, between war and spirituality. “In a warzone, facing hostility and insecurity, there’s something very alive about it; it is like the ‘God zone’. It’s almost religious.” The idea surfaces in his latest movie, the anti-war literary adaptation Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which tells of a young Texan soldier whose heroism in Iraq is celebrated during the interval at a Dallas Cowboys football game.
In many war films, the action is shot in a frantic manner, disorientating the viewer as they witness the chaos. Lee has approached his scenes differently. “I wanted the opposite,” he says. “Even in chaos, in the soldier’s state of mind, there is clarity. There’s almost tranquillity.”
The combat scenes form only a small portion of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (in cinemas Friday 10 February) and yet these are the moments that benefit most from Lee’s use of new techniques. His last movie, the adaptation of the Yann Martel novel Life of Pi, saw Lee work for the first time in 3D. The experience encouraged him to reach even further, and for Billy Lynn he has experimented with super-high-definition 3D, opting to shoot at 120 frames per second. A traditional movie works with just 24 frames per second.
“It’s not only about clarity, where you have 40 times more information than a regular movie,” he says. “When it comes to 3D, it’s a different thing altogether. It’s so close to our own eyes. Our relationship with what we see is different.”
Watching Billy Lynn is a unique experience. Whether the drama away from the battlefield benefits from the enhanced frame rate, however, is open to question. In truth, few cinemas are equipped to showcase this format, and the way in which Lee has asked his actors to alter their performances for this type of camera might not translate well to an ordinary cinema. The film has earned mixed reviews and its take at the US box office was a paltry $1.7 million.
The studio behind the film hoped it might be an awards season contender, but thus far it has been overlooked.
“It is frustrating,” Lee says, smiling serenely. “Then again, movies are very precious for people, me included, and we want to keep them as they are. To find a new art form, it’s going to be transitional. You’re damned when you’re one of the first.”
Lee is determined to not dwell on the negative. After all, he’s overcome many hurdles in his career thus far. After scoring a hit with his first English-language movie, 1995’s Sense and Sensibility (Thursday Sky Select), his next two films, The Ice Storm and Ride with the Devil, stumbled at the box office. And yet he returned to enjoy huge success with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His follow up, Hulk, was poorly received. Then he bounced back again, winning the Oscar for Brokeback Mountain (Thursday Sky Valentine). Taking Woodstock made just $10 million worldwide; Life of Pi made more than $600 million. Lee has experienced it all.
“If I think about all the reactions, I would get very angry,” he concedes. “I treat all my films like my children and the effort I put in is the same with each one. But films have a life of their own. No one expected Brokeback Mountain to do so well, and I don’t know why people didn’t embrace Taking Woodstock.
“But I welcome that mystery. If there was a formula, people would all be making the same movie. When you get approval, there’s joy. I am not a Zen master but I try to take things equally. In life, nothing is easy.”
Being a director, he says, takes courage. “I feel like a soldier sometimes when I’m making a movie, and I really felt that on Billy Lynn. I bonded with the military consultant. On Life of Pi, I felt very much like the tiger trainer. For him, tigers don’t play. It’s life and death. There’s something attractive about that.”
Which is why he keeps taking risks. “It is why I keep testing myself; I’m not just doing my job. I’m putting myself in the way of fear, doing something new where I don’t know what to do – like a soldier. In those moments you get a taste of something that you don’t often get to taste in life. You’re very much alive. It’s in normal life that you’re in a daze.” In that context, thinking of Lee in combat fatigues is not quite so incongruous after all.
Life of Pi is on tonight at 6.25pm on Film4