It's been ten years since Ang Lee directed Anne Hathaway in Brokeback Mountain, and he is still in awe over her performance in a clip that's shown at the "Creative Encounters" event in Beverly Hills on February 20 showcasing his creative journey. It's the scene toward the end of the film, where Ennis (Heath Ledger) calls Lureen (Anne Hathaway), to find out what happened to her husband Jack Twist (Jake Gyllenhaal) -- also Ennis' secret lover. Framed in a stark close-up, Lureen begrudgingly rehashes the version of the story she's been telling everyone and, through their tense conversation, eventually realizes the mysterious "Brokeback Mountain" Jack used to talk about is actually a special place that Jack and Ennis shared.
"I don't know where that came from," Lee still marvels. Hathaway was 21 at the time, playing a conflicted middle-aged widow.
The admiration is mutual. Special guest Hathaway, who joined Lee onstage toward the end of the hour-long discussion about his two decades of filmmaking, told the audience that the Brokeback Mountain script is still one of the best she's read till this day, and she credits that particular scene for establishing her now Oscar-winning career. Ten years ago, she was still most known for her work in Princess Diaries, and it wasn't until Lee showed Meryl Streep the scene in Brokeback Mountain that Streep approved Hathaway's casting for The Devil Wears Prada.
Hosted by Louis XIII de Remy Martin and the Film Foundation (the non-profit film preservation organization founded by filmmaker Martin Scorsese), moderator Schawn Belston engaged director Ang Lee in a conversation about his journey from an unknown Taiwanese NYU film student to celebrated filmmaker around the world. Even up until he was directing 1995's Sense and Sensibility, Lee says that his English was broken at best, which was "terrifying" as he was directing the likes of Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant.
It took Lee a long time to embrace the title of director, since it wasn't until his mid-30's that he earned the professional credits to show for it. In fact, when he first came to the States in 1979, it was under the guise that he was earning a degree to come back to Taiwan and teach drama. ("So my father wouldn't be ashamed of me," he says.) Though after years of denial, Lee admits "after three Oscars, two Golden Lions, and two Golden Bears, I cannot pretend [anymore] that I'm not a talented filmmaker."
"I'm a dramatically-trained person," says Lee, who had actually wanted to become an actor earlier in life. "My heart is really with actors -- capturing faces, what they reveal and what they don't dare to reveal. In life, we lie, we perform. In drama, in the black box, we pretend we're something else, but through pretending, we reveal the truth."
Ang Lee is currently developing his next project, about boxing in the 1960's and '70s. He's even taken boxing classes to properly immerse himself in the sport. Though he's still working on the script, he says: "It's about two guys beating each other senseless. In the beginning, the fight has meaning, but eventually, it's just two guys hurting each other."
Lee has been able to experiment with many types of genres in his long filmography, from kung fu films (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to period pieces (Sense & Sensiblity) to war films (Ride With the Devil), family comedies (The Wedding Banquet) and dramas (The Ice Storm), and with this new project, he will continue the exploration of 3D technology that he started with 2012's Life of Pi. His goal is to show that 3D technology is not just for action scenes and car chases. He believes that 3D technology is best suited for drama, that it rewards good acting -- and in turn, punishes bad acting.
Though there are many things he's already proven he can do successfully, Lee is always determined to challenge himself with something he hasn't tried before. "That can make my crew very excited, but it can also drive them crazy," says Lee. "I'll think [the project] will be [one way], but I change, drift away and contradict myself. Early on in my career, it wasn't a good sign for a director, because [people think] you don't know what you're doing, so I tried my best to keep a consistency. But after a few successes, I don't have to pretend anymore. I just say, 'I don't know! I changed my mind!" He laughs. "'I figured it out now, so let's change it!'"
"I will prepare like crazy, but I think you can only prepare to improvise," he continues. In the end, he says it has to feel organic and somewhat spiritual. "It's just like boxing. It's all in the conditions. There's no boxing bout that's scripted."