By Tim Nasson
Los Angeles – Academy Award winning director Ang Lee, the prestigious title only hours old, is a soft-spoken, humble man. An extremely talented and intelligent person, who happens to be a happy husband, (still on his first wife, after nearly twenty-five years of marriage), a terrific father, (two sons, one twenty-two, one sixteen, both born in the United States), and loving son to two great parents back in the Orient. What else would anyone expect from the fifty-one year Taiwanese native?
Lee is a treasure that Hollywood is lucky to have in its clutches and to the worldwide film community, Oscar only solidifying his status as directing genius.
But, hold on a minute, Lee doesn’t think of himself as a director, per se. He is, if anything, “a chef.”
“I don’t really think of myself as a ‘director,'” Lee says, in his soft-spoken, American accented voice. Though from Taiwan, and having lived there the first twenty-something years of his life, the man is fluent in English and shows no signs of a foreign accent.
“I think of myself as a chef. When I am about to make a movie, I think of it as going shopping, for ingredients, the cast, the music, the locations, and all with a budget,” he laughs, not the serious person you would expect, upon first impression. The man has a sense of humor, too.
“When I am done directing a movie, and am in the editing room, it is like I am finally done shopping and I am finally cooking. It’s a lot easier.
“With ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ while directing, I had sheep running around, sun when it should be raining or snowing, snow when it should be sunny, sheep running in a hundred different directions, and, you get the picture.
“In the editing room or what I refer to as my kitchen, there is calm and peace. The sheep can’t run away, the sun can’t come out during a rain storm and it can’t rain when I need the sun.”
What’s amazing, however, is the Academy’s sweet and sour response to Lee’s recipe, a recipe that most movie critics deemed as the best dish of the year – and it may have been an omen, a sign that “Brokeback Mountain” would not win Best Picture – “Brokeback Mountain” was not nominated for a Best Editing Oscar. “Crash” won Best Editing at this year’s Oscars, going on, of course, to win Best Picture.
The last time a Best Picture winner was not at least nominated for Best Editing was twenty-five years ago – “Ordinary People.”
The first time I spoke to Lee was seven years ago for what most would call his least impressive movie, “Ride With The Devil,” in which he cast the folksy-pop singer, Jewel.
At that time, “Brokeback Mountain” was only a short story and not even on Lee’s mind.
A lot has changed in seven years.
But let’s start at the beginning of Lee’s movie making career.
The year was 1992, almost twenty years after Lee arrived in the United States for college.
The movie was “Pushing Hands,” a Taiwanese film, as were his next two films, which would make anyone think he was a foreign director, someone not living in the United States, let alone speaking the language clearly. His second film “The Wedding Banquet,” in 1993, went on to garner a Best Foreign Film Academy Award nomination for Lee, his first brush with Oscar. The year later was his second shot, with another Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, “Eat Drink Man Woman.”
It wasn’t until 1995 that non-art house patrons got to see Lee’s “Sense & Sensibility.” The film was nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, but Lee failed to receive a nomination for Best Director.
Lee would have to wait until his next foreign film was released, six years later, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” before he would win his first Best Director Academy Award nomination. “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” is Lee’s most honored film, to date, beating “Brokeback Mountain,” by two Oscar nominations, with a total of 10, including one for Best Editing, thank you very much. “Crouching Tiger” went on to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar along with three other technical Oscars.
Amid the hits there have been two misses, “Ride With the Devil,” which was the first time I had a chance to sit with Lee. And, although he took a chance, and the film didn’t work, he never looked back. “I wanted to make a western, and I did,” he laughs. “I need to keep myself challenged.”
And with “The Hulk,” which was portrayed by Eric Bana, Lee challenged himself, again.
“At the time of ‘The Hulk’ I needed to really challenge myself. I had finished ‘Crouching Tiger,’ and was itching to make another action picture. Am I sorry I chose it? No. I think I did the best job I could and perhaps that ‘The Hulk’ isn’t as big of an action icon as ‘SpiderMan’ or ‘Batman’ or ‘Superman’ in the United States.”
As for “Brokeback Mountain” and the whole gay thing, Lee says he had concerns. “I have wanted to make this movie for more than six years,” he reveals. “But there were actors who I approached that wouldn’t sign on. They were too afraid to play a gay romantic role.” Lee wouldn’t name names, of course, but it is safe to say he has had the last laugh and that whichever actors did turn down the role are kicking themselves, since they may have received Academy Award nominations for their efforts.
“The major concerns I had with ‘Brokeback,'” says Lee, “were that I wanted to get it right. Was it too gay? Not gay enough? Is it realistic? I wasn’t around in the Midwest in the 1960s. But Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana (the film’s Oscar winning screenwriters) got it just right, thankfully. They took a novella, a story with hardly any words from the characters and created something that will definitely stand the test of time. I think it is wonderful that the film has opened the eyes of many non-gay people, to see that gay people are just that, people, too, who fall in love, and who need to be loved. I wanted the movie to be honest and did my best.”
Lee surely did a great job, a superb job. As did the entire cast, which is evident by the film’s slew of acting Oscar nominations.
No one is making excuses for “Brokeback Mountain” not winning Best Picture, but could it be that it peaked too early? If only the Oscars were a month earlier…
Lee is taking a break at the moment, but will surely be back soon, with what everyone hopes is another thought provoking, and tasty five course meal.
Will it be a Chinese or American dish? “I don’t know, yet,” he laughs. “But I can assure you, whatever the flavor, I will try to make it as tasty as possible.”
Ang Lee Brokeback Mountain Interview, by Tim Nasson.