Mr. Lee made his directorial debut in 1992 with Pushing Hands, a dramedy highlighting the tension between tradition and modernity which arises when a retired Tai Chi master moves to the U.S. to live with his Westernized son. His next two offerings, The Wedding Banquet (1993) and Eat Drink Man Woman (1994), each landed an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Film category.
Since then, the versatile director has successfully tackled an impressive variety of genres, reflected in a resume which includes a literary classic (Sense and Sensibility), a dysfunctional family drama (The Ice Storm), a Western (Ride with the Devil), a gay-themed romance (Brokeback Mountain), an erotic, espionage thriller (Lust, Caution), a comic book adaptation (Hulk) and a martial arts fairytale (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Although Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did take home the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, the deserving Mr. Lee himself was overlooked by the Academy as the picture’s director. He finally won in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain, a tale of forbidden love starring the late Heath Ledger. Here, he talks about his latest film, Taking Woodstock, a comedy about the 1969 concert which helped define the Hippie Generation.
Kam Williams: Mr. Lee, thanks so much for the time. I’m honored to be speaking with you.
Ang Lee: Oh, you’re welcome.
KW: What interested you in telling this particular story?
AL: Well, a couple things. It just came upon me. While I was at a TV station in San Francisco promoting my last movie, Lust, Caution, I met Elliot Tiber, the author of Taking Woodstock. We were both appearing on the same show. He was coming on after me. When my segment had finished, while they were preparing for him, he gave me a two-minute pitch. It struck me, because years ago I had made The Ice Storm, which was set in 1973, as a sort of hangover of 1969. So, my mind became really intrigued thinking about ’69 when he started telling me about Woodstock and some of the anecdotes. Also, I was looking to do a comedy, after shooting a series of six tragedies in a row. So, I read the book, and it all just happened very quickly.
KW: You’re a very versatile director. Laz Lyles was wondering whether you feel any pressure to make movies about China?
AL: Chinese culture is my roots… where I grew up… Taiwan… So, yes, I do feel compelled and also a lot of pressure to make Chinese movies. But they take a lot out of me. It is very hard for me to make art out of them. [Chuckles] It’s too close. It can be painful and very heavy. Plus, I want to upgrade the production to the level I think it is in America. That’s an added stress for everyone who works with me, and even on the audience, too. I’m kind of in the vanguard of the industry’s development and cultural events, and that adds a lot of weight on me. It’s just not freedom. After I make a Chinese film, it takes so much out of me that I usually feel like I need to do a few English films to recover. [Laughs]
KW: How is making a movie in America more free?
AL: Nobody makes movies like America, where you have a very healthy support of the industry, abundant materials and worldwide distribution. So, by doing English-language films you can fulfill a lot of dreams. That’s the freedom part of making non-Chinese films.
KW: I remember when I attended a critics’ screening of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon before it opened, there was cheering in the middle of the movie simply at the stunning special effects. All of us knew we were witnessing something very special.
AL: I hope that emotion was part of that cheering, too. I went back to my childish wishful thinking. It’s a fantasy. In some way, you relate to the innocence when you go to the movies to begin with. I think the movie deals with my innocence, and a lot of people could relate to that. Because it was a foreign film and because it was martial arts, it was something that they were sort of aware but didn’t quite know. I think that allowed people to go to an emotional world which fulfilled their fantasies. I think that’s why that movie works, but I didn’t have that in mind when I made it.
KW: I also remember being upset that Crouching Tiger did not win the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Script Adaptation and Best Editing. I know you’re much too polite to say it, but I can say it for you. You were robbed! I wrote that at the time. I also thought it was a crime that none of the actors in the movie were even nominated, especially Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Ziyi Zhang. And the same thing happened this year to the actors in Slumdog Millionaire. None were nominated, yet it won Best Picture.
AL: Well, there’s a community in Hollywood, I think, the Academy. Sense and Sensibility got nominated in seven categories, including Best Picture, but I was not nominated. I guess it might take a few movies for them to become aware of you. [LOL]
KW: Let’s talk a little about Taking Woodstock. I haven’t seen the movie yet. It’s based on the memoirs of a gay man. Did you keep in much of his childhood?
AL: No, I didn’t use much about how he grew up. That’s too long a story to tell. I started with his encounter with Woodstock. Honestly, I didn’t find a lot of his gay issues to be that fresh. My main interest was in seeing how he connected to Woodstock, the event, from his angle. We don’t get to see the stage. That’s sort of besides the point. I followed the lead of the book. If you take Woodstock to heart, that’s what happened to most of the people who attended, and to the world at large. Woodstock’s sort of an abstract idea that’s very inspiring. The film is a small family drama focusing on his experience just on the outskirts of the stage and the event. It’s probably a very good way to have a slice and taste of Woodstock. He’s gay and everything, and we deal with that, but only in so far as it pertains to Woodstock.
KW: Ling-Ju Yen was wondering whether since winning your Academy Award for Best Director you feel pressure from either people at home or from the media that, from this point on, every single movie you make has got to be Oscar-worthy?
AL: I don’t think anybody’s saying that I have to win an Oscar or have to shoot for it. But I just came back from the Cannes Film Festival, and they certainly talk about it. So, that’s a kind of pressure, but only my personal feelings. If I can put that aside, I don’t think anybody really gets upset. [Chuckles]. It’s not like the sort of pressure the Lakers feel playing for the City of Los Angeles. With a movie, people sometimes speculate about whether an actor or actress who did a good job might get nominated. It’s a plus for the project, but you don’t always aim for the awards.
KW: You directed the late Heath Ledger to his first Academy Award-nominated performance in Brokeback Mountain. How did you feel when he died and what did you think of his Oscar-winning outing as The Joker in The Dark Knight?
AL: that’s a hard question for me to answer. I was eager to see the movie, but I delayed, because I wanted to avoid it, too. Finally, about two or three weeks after it was released, I went to see it. It was quite disturbing, especially with him playing that character. I didn’t have a good time. It disturbed me to watch him. It was just very difficult, personally.
KW: You were at NYU at the same time as Spike Lee. Is there any truth to the rumor that you were the cinematographer on his student film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop?
AL: He was a year ahead of me. I was a camera assistant, but not the only one.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
AL: No, not off the top of my head. I really wish they asked fewer questions. [Laughs]
KW: The Tasha Smith question: Are you ever afraid?
AL: Yes. Fear is actually one of the motivations for me to take on something. It gives me the thrill.
KW: The Columbus Short question: Are you happy?
KW: The Teri Emerson question: When was the last time you had a good belly laugh?
AL: That’s a tricky question to try to answer, because I actually had to make some effort to be happy. Shooting Taking Woodstock, I had some good laughs. But if you had asked me that same question after I finished making the movie before this one, I would be hard pressed to say when I last had a heartfelt laugh. I am so heavy, and that’s why I need to do a comedy when I feel this inner exhaustion. So, Taking Woodstock was a project that came at the right time because it helped dig me out of that heaviness. There was something I was looking for in search of the subconscious, something I don’t understand about myself, to get deeper. And then I needed to be healthier, happier, and more in love with everybody around me and making the movie with me. That’s why I chose a project dealing with happiness and innocence. I miss that as much as people miss the Sixties. So, when this project came along it was pretty handy. But still, I had to make the decision to be happy, and I had to make sure that everybody around me was happy, which takes a certain sophistication. And it did happen, and I did have some good laughs. I feel that all the time in the excitement of making a movie, but I won’t admit. Speaking of fear, you think something terrible will happen if you admit you’re excited and happy while in the middle of making a movie. [Laughs] I sort of felt that I had earned that right, to just enjoy making a movie. So, this was that project for me.
KW: The bookworm Troy Johnson question: What was the last book you read?
AL: A book about religion called A History of God.
KW: The music maven Heather Covington question: What music are you listening to nowadays?
AL: Right now, I’m beginning to listen to Indian music. Normally, I’m more into Classical. But for Taking Woodstock, I had to soak up a lot of pop music.
KW: What would you say has been the biggest obstacle you have had to overcome?
AL: The biggest obstacle? In making movies?
KW: In life.
KW: The Rudy Lewis question: Who’s at the top of your hero list?
AL: Oh there are a lot. So many people can be heroes. Right now, Kobe Bryant’s the hero. That’ll last for maybe a week.
KW: The Laz Alonso question: How can your fans help you?
AL: By being open-minded, and sharing in my growth experience. Some of my fans, if I’m allowed to say “fans,” are very nice and see everything I make. Others get stuck on a certain movie they really love, and can get angry if the next one’s not along those lines. That places a lot of pressure on me, not that I would do anything differently. But I just hope that whether they like a film or not, they would watch me grow and see what they could get from the experience. That would be best.
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
AL: Myself. I think it’s very important to be honest, to be able to look yourself in the eye and say, “That’s me.”
KW: What is your favorite meal to cook?
AL: I only cook Chinese. I make a pretty good noodle sauce and also a dish called Lion’s Head. It’s Chinese meatballs.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
AL: Oh, I say, “Don’t!” [LOL] Over the years, I’ve noticed that the people who make movies are the ones that cannot be discouraged. You can tell them all the bad things, but they still want to do it. they can’t help themselves. So, I don’t think anybody needs my advice. I will say, that if you want to be a director, it’s best if you learn to write and create your own material.
KW: When you’re creating, do you think in English or in Chinese?
AL: In Chinese, most of the time. But for something like Woodstock, where the original material comes directly from English, much of my thinking about it would be in English.
KW: Where do you live?
AL: I live in upstate New York.
KW: Near Woodstock?
AL: No, not that far north.
KW: What’s next on your agenda?
AL: I’m going to Asia to do some research.
KW: Well, thanks for giving me such a thought-provoking interview, Mr. Lee.
AL: Thank you. Some of your questions were hard to answer, like the hero question. In terms of filmmakers, I’d say [Ingmar] Bergman is one. His movies were an epiphany for me to go into the business. But there are so many great heroes in the world of filmmaking, it would be unfair for me to name just a few. But Bergman’s a safe bet.
KW: Well, thanks again, and best of luck with Taking Woodstock.
AL: Thank you, bye.