'I Thought I Was Going to Have a Stroke'
Exclusive Web-only interview with Crouching Tiger director Ang Lee
Making a martial-arts film had been Taiwanese director Ang Lee's dream ever since he grew up with the Hong Kong-based genre as a boy. So the director of such hits as Sense and Sensibility and The Wedding Banquet teamed up with the legendary kung-fu choreographer Yuen Wo-ping (The Matrix). The result: a $15 million, rule-bending martial masterpiece complete with flying-over-rooftops and climbing-up-walls stunts which involved suspending stars Chow Yun-fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi on cables high up in the air. The famed director spoke to TIME Asia reporter Stephen Short. Edited excerpts:
Lee: It was around the beginning. We had started shooting a fighting scene in the Gobi Desert. That night, the crew got lost and it wasn't until 7 a.m. that we found them. We delayed shooting until 2 p.m. After the second shot, a sandstorm came in. The duel in the old temple was also hard. It was difficult because at that time I was full of ideas, [but] a lot of them were pure fantasy. They weren't workable, they didn't look good, so I was having to learn from Yuen Wo-ping. That early stuff didn't look good. It was no better than any Hong Kong movie I've seen. It was about halfway through the movie before things started to pick up. In Hong Kong movies, kung fu is a performing experience, but in this movie I wanted it to be a dramatic experience as well. I wanted people to take the journeys with the characters. I wanted action, emotion and suspense in those fight scenes, and those are almost contradictory things, so I think it was difficult for Wo-ping and distracting to the actors. I had fantasized about this [movie] since I was a boy, and trying to mix the martial arts with my career experience--which deals with the human condition--was just not workable a lot of the time.
TIME: Do you improvise much at all? Did any one scene in the movie grow out of nowhere?
Lee: No, not on the spot. I like controlled shooting. Improvising comes through the inspiration of making a film. When you can't get something to work, then you have to improvise. If the mountain doesn't turn around, make the world turn around. For a while, Zhang Ziyi was nowhere near where I thought her character should be, so I made the character go to her, and there was a meeting in the middle. One has to have an idea where one's going.
TIME: Were you marvelously surprised by Zhang Ziyi?
Lee: Yes. She is the most marvelous thing I have found. She did have a hard time at first, though. But then, as we got to know her and the character she was playing, that's when we started to veer the movie towards her. She has certain strengths; she is very sexy and we thought, sure, let's use that, let's go with her. Her character lets the audience enter her imagination--it's not really her in the movie, it's you. That is cinematic charisma--it's beyond acting, and I think Zhang Ziyi has that. Maybe that's why I chose her.
Lee: Yes and no. I hadn't seen her previous movie The Road Home. Zhang Yimou had phoned me and said, "take a look." In fact, after I chose her, I was almost glad I hadn't seen The Road Home. She was completely fresh, 19-years-old, and a third-year drama school student. She was the one who was nervous.
TIME: What scene in the movie stands out for you?
Lee: The bamboo scene. It's nuts. It's sexy. Nobody wanted to do it. Everybody said "don't do it, it might not look good, it's never been done before." And there's a reason why directors don't film scenes like that, because it's almost impossible. The first three days of shooting we did were a complete waste of time. There were 20 or 30 guys below the actors--that you can't see--trying to make them float and it was just chaotic. Another favorite scene is Michelle Yeoh's acting towards the end of the film. I know those aren't acting tears, they're very, very real tears. She brought tears to my eyes when we were filming it. She had to cry in every take. We started shooting at 2 p.m. and by the time we finished at 7 p.m., she was drained. It was all very emotional, and I'm very proud of that scene.
TIME: What about the Yun-fat/Yeoh scenes reminiscent of Anthony Hopkins/Emma Thompson in Remains of the Day--all that unrequited love?
Lee: Those scenes are difficult to write. To verbalize emotion is not really a Chinese thing. It was awkward to begin with for the actors--they had to do it in Mandarin for a start--so those were difficult scenes. Their faces carry lots of emotion, which is a bit strange to the Chinese, but I think there's something raw and pure about it that I hope any audience can appreciate.
TIME: This film is counterculture in some respects as it's so female-oriented. What sort of reaction do you expect it to get in China?
Lee: I'm anxious to find out.
TIME: What do you think it might be like?
Lee: I don't know. Even the distributor couldn't tell me. I think they're edgy. We don't have the luxury like we do in the West of starting films in art-house cinemas. So it's a little bit risky, but I hope they like it. Women will definitely go and see the movie, but young male traditional martial-arts fans I've no idea. It bends too many rules perhaps.
TIME: How much did this movie drain you?
Lee: Completely. I'm still resting now and trying to get fit again. But since I'm middle-aged, I'll probably never return to normal. We shot around the clock. I didn't take one break in eight months, not even half a day. At one point I thought I was about to have a stroke and I could hardly breathe.
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