“I think I’d have a pretty good career if I’d retired after ‘Pi,’” said filmmaker Ang Lee. “But then I found this thing.”
Lee, the Taiwan-born filmmaker whose diverse body of work includes “Sense and Sensibility,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Life of Pi” (for which he won his second Academy Award for directing, in 2013), came to Seattle earlier this month, talking about “this thing”: an innovative new form of digital filmmaking utilizing 3D and high frame rate (HFR) effects. The latter — in which the normal rate of 24 frames per second is increased to 120, resulting in a hyperclear, intensely focused picture — is something he began experimenting with in the 2016 drama “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” to startled audiences. Now he’s put those techniques to use in the action film “Gemini Man,” starring Will Smith as an elite assassin who must face off against a younger version of himself. The movie opens in theaters Oct. 11.
In person, Lee is soft-spoken and thoughtful; ever the director, he’s concerned about the room’s lighting, and we adjust our seating so my face will be better lit. His interest in the new technologies, he said, came out of service to what’s always mattered most to him in filmmaking: actors. Acting, his first love (on a student stage in Taiwan), was Lee’s gateway to directing, and his films have given us some unforgettably intimate performances: Heath Ledger’s tiny flickers of emotion, like sparks from an ember, in an otherwise still man in “Brokeback Mountain”; Emma Thompson’s perfectly controlled Elinor in “Sense and Sensibility,” whose facade finally slips (in a late scene that never fails to make me cry); Tang Wei in “Lust, Caution,” as a young actress giving a performance on both sides of the curtain.
What the hyperrealism of 3D and rapid frame rate allows him to do, Lee said, is what he’s done all along, only more so: “study (actors’) faces in a sharper way, a more sensitive way … It seems like a new level, a layer of searching for what’s under there, beyond their performance.”
“Life of Pi,” filmed in 3D and featuring an entirely CGI tiger, was Lee’s initial immersion into this new kind of filmmaking. “I was very confused the first time I encountered that additional dimension,” he said. “It’s not just an additional dimension — it seems to be a different mindset. I’m still in the process of learning, trying to figure it out because nobody can teach you — how do you convey a story, a situation, in a more real, larger-than-life media?”
Despite “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” doing poorly at the box office (most theaters weren’t equipped to show it in the format Lee intended, and many reviewers found the hyperrealism of the filming distracting), Lee felt he wasn’t finished experimenting with the format. An action movie, he thought, might be a better fit for the startling immediacy that 3D and HFR brings. Then “Gemini Man” was pitched to him, a couple of years ago — and he was immediately pulled in.
“I heard ‘a man fighting his younger self,’ and I feel like, there are a lot of things I can do to explore that. I can do visualization of a struggle, that’s fun,” Lee said. Though he’s made a few action movies, Lee is far better known for dramas — “but I’m a filmmaker. I’m curious about making movies, all the genres. I don’t hesitate to go into action mode. But the human story attracted me the most.”
The biggest challenge for “Gemini Man” was in creating Junior, the younger version of Smith’s character, Henry. Lee decided early on that he didn’t want to do typical computer-enhanced de-aging, which involves manually changing the face — “you brush away some of the details,” he said. Instead, Junior was created in full CGI, which involved motion capture of Smith’s performance under Lee’s direction, followed by “hundreds of artists for two years, trying to make it come to life.” The result is both eerie and matter-of-fact; young Smith, from his “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Bad Boys” days, strolling into the movie.
“It’s pretty courageous to be examined that way — a big movie star, not knowing what will come out the other end,” said Lee. To channel his young self, he said, Smith had to “play the innocence.”
Now that “Gemini Man” is finally complete, Lee’s looking to his next project. For years, he’s been trying to get a movie called “Thrilla in Manila,” a boxing drama involving a real-life 1975 match between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, into production. He wants to film it using some of the same technology he used for “Gemini Man” — “but that’s where I get stuck — doing something experimental but very expensive.” He doesn’t currently have funding for “Thrilla,” but he’s still trying. “I don’t know if that’s the next one,” Lee said, noting that he also has a couple of books in mind for adaptation “that I’m developing in my head.”
But even as he finds new ways to capture performances, his primary focus will always be on actors. The young man who once dreamed of being on the stage now performs with cameras and “all kinds of media,” but he’ll always hold actors “at the center of my heart.”
“They put themselves into my hands,” he said. “I’m precious about actors. That probably won’t change. I’ll just do it different ways.”
“Gemini Man,” rated PG-13 for violence and action throughout, and brief strong language, opens Oct. 11 in multiple theaters. To see which theaters are exhibiting the film in 3D and HFR (in Seattle, only Regal Meridian and AMC Pacific Place are doing so, along with a handful of suburban theaters), see tickets.geminimanmovie.com.