Over his two-decade career, Oscar-winning director Ang Lee has always found himself on the cutting edge of the art. He has managed to consistently turn in works that are both visually stunning and technically mind-boggling. From the high-flying action of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the swirling mysticism of Life of Pi, Lee has achieved the near impossible in the crowded Hollywood field: originality. And now there is Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which is arguably the most dynamic work yet from this master filmmaker.
The movie follows young army specialist Billy Lynn, played by newcomer Joe Alwyn, whose Bravo Company finds itself in the center of the spotlight when video of his heroic deeds in the middle of a hellish firefight go viral. Before they are deployed back to Iraq, a wealthy football team owner invites the company as his guests to the 2004 Super Bowl, and asks them to partake in the halftime show. Though the tale of Billy and The Bravos is fictional, the issues addressed have been tailored to fit the narrative of the soldiers who are struggling with the reintegration back into society, and those who chose not to. Though the subject is already quite stirring, Lee sought to heighten the audience’s experience by experimenting with new technology to accomplish an even deeper connection with the characters. The camera was capable of capturing super-high-definition 3-D footage that in theaters would be shown in a hyper-accelerated frame rate, creating an intensified sense of urgency.
“For me, it just seemed like the next logical step in cinema, and I knew that I had to do this,” says Lee. “I needed to be closer to their faces. I needed to feel like I was in those trenches with them.”
Since the lenses would be seeing more than usual, the actors playing the soldiers took their pre-shoot boot camp incredibly serious. Under the instruction of Navy SEALs, the group, which included Garrett Hedlund and Vin Diesel, was jolted from bed at 2 in the morning, and engaged in activities like eight-mile rucksack runs through the mud. “Those guys kicked our ass, and we deserved every bit of it,” says Hedlund, who plays taskmaster Dime. “Those were character-altering days, for the movie and for our lives, and we did it all for Ang.” There is no question that it is a dedication to leadership that permeated throughout the film’s cast and crew.
Before Billy Lynn was released nationally in theaters on Veterans Day, we sat with Lee to talk about how his own military service inspired him to defy the standards of filmmaking.
What was it about Ben Fountain’s novel, and the script that resulted from it, that attracted you?
When I was younger I did my military service. I grew up in the Cold War–era Taiwan. So I went though training and boot camp, all of it, but I ended up being lucky and never had to engage in a firefight. Some of the people I am close to did, and they felt the affects of it. I was lucky and missed the worse part, or the majority of the war, but it did make me tougher. That service did allow me to associate with those soldiers. I think for many soldiers they can start to have an “us versus them” sort of feeling. I started to feel like I understood Billy, and, in a way, he could be me.
What drove you to experiment with new filmmaking techniques? What is solely the material that warranted this type of treatment?
Yes, exactly, and absolutely that was one of the appeals to me. I have no true interest in technology, but since I’ve done Life Of Pi, it just seemed like the natural next step for me. Before I took on this project I never questioned 24 frames per second. I was used to adjusting my work based on it, to fit the strobe, to look right. Eventually I asked myself why? To me this was a very logical step. I think it is important not to restrict film as a medium. It can do anything. It can show so much if you give it the opportunity. But I knew that this change couldn’t just be a baby step, we had to take a giant leap to make this point. This movie was an incredible story to tell this way. The dueling storylines between the soldiers in the field and the halftime show happening back in the States. It was the perfect opportunity for this experiment.
Do you think more films should be made this way?
We’ve been doing films this way for around 100 years. And tremendous art has been done with it. It is not my place to challenge that. I want to be a filmmaker in that form still too.
How did the results change from using this technology?
With digital, I feel the urge to see true dimension. I crave the reality and the most information. I was finally able to truly read faces. I want to be able to see the changes in their skin. Those close-ups of the faces truly draw me in. This is what digital cinema means to me. I know that it is a huge leap. Well here we go. My eyes are different than your eyes. I think the more you watch this movie, or movies done like this, the more sense it will make to your eyes and the more you will get out of it. I think a lot can be gained by filmmakers using this method. It is only natural to want more detail. I don’t think it is overwhelming. I think it is comforting. It is actually focusing. I think watching this kind of action in this way will only help us have sympathy and empathy for other human beings. For this movie, it is the human beings who have experienced war like this. It is important.
How did the actors rise to the test of this new form?
The actors do so much tremendous work to embody their characters, not only in physicality but also emotionally. This gives the audience the ability to appreciate the work that they’ve done, and gives the actor the ability to show it. You can see how earnest all of these performances are. I trust them. They are my Bravos. I only hope that it will be understood.
Has digging deeper into these stories changed your opinion on the war, and the state of the war?
For me as a filmmaker I want to remain as neutral on a subject as I can. I want to see this situation play out. It is a character study for me. I don’t want to have a political agenda. Drama should always be trying to understand every human being on the screen throughout conflict.
Spending time with the veterans on set and before, was there any moment that particularly moved you, that changed your own personal perspective?
I was sitting with one of the veterans who used to do house raids. He told me of a time that he was sitting in a room with a woman in the States complaining about getting raiding, about exactly what he used to do, and he kept his head down. You could see in his face that he has to deal with that shame, on top of everything else that he’s been forced to see. It was very moving for me to be close to these men, to hear these stories.
Is there anything that you are hoping to impart with this film to the audience?
I think we are in a time when it is even more critical to understand soldiers. Since Vietnam there has been no draft. People have become even more detached from soldiers, and their segments get smaller and smaller. It can be maddening. I also think it is unfair to group all veterans together; the Iraqi War is an incredibly different experience to World War II, yet we treat them the same. My heart breaks for that. I think we forget how young these soldiers are. I was thrown into the war as a teenager, as well. That is what matters most for me, is to help them understand more what that experience is like.