The Director's Chair Interviews

Ang Lee On Directing in an Ice Storm
by Mary Hardesty
DGA Magazine

Click here for Ang Lee films, books, and soundtracks

Itís difficult to believe that Taiwanese-born Ang Lee didnít even move to the United States until five years after the time period of his latest film Ice Storm. In the film, everything from shag rugs to wife-swapping and "Me" generation thinking is deftly examined in this funny/tragic look at two upper-class suburban Connecticut families trying to cope with a terrible Thanksgiving ice storm.

Lee, who received his BFA in theater from the University of Illinois and his MFA in film production from NYU, has been on a winning streak since his first 45-minute short film Fine Line received Best Director and Best Film Awards at the NYU Film Festival.

A winner of numerous Golden Horse awards (the Taiwanese Academy Award), Independent Spirit Awards and Berlin Film Festival Golden Bear Awards, his films include Eat Drink Man Woman, The Wedding Banquet and Sense and Sensibility.

Lee talked with DGA Magazine about his latest film and his views on directing.

Did the critical success on Sense and Sensibility help you to get this film made?

Oh yes. It proved I could handle a major league English language production. With Sense under my belt, I had more confidence and so did the money people. With an edgy movie like Ice Storm, the creative freedom they gave me was tremendous. I couldnít have just done three Chinese films and then done Ice Storm. Also my work on Sense helped me to attract Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline.

What excited you about Ice Storm?

Well, like Sense and Sensibility it came from a book. Itís a moving story set in 1973 ó a year that has just become costume drama. Yet, it is very fresh in the audienceís memory, and nothing much has been done yet on this period. Itís a family drama, which Iím used to directing, but itís very opposite from Sense and Sensibility. The social culture is hip and liberating. The characters have begun to feel uncomfortable with these freedoms. Itís a good time to reexamine where we were, which is the beginning of our world today. Also, I thought the beautiful crystal world of the ice storm is something Iíd never seen done on film before. Weird destructive sounds are very inviting for a filmmaker.

This is the first time youíve gone over budget and overtime?

Yes. The shoot was planned for 50 days and it took 55. We had a lot of difficulty with weather. We were shooting going away from winter instead of into winter, and constantly had to fight to find backgrounds where trees werenít budding. We also lost some locations when the folks in New Canaan, Connecticut ó where the book is based ó finally read the book. They didnít like what they read and threw us out of a lot of places, which meant a lot of difficulty. We were shooting April to July and trying to re-create a Thanksgiving weekend.

What made you pick that time of the year to shoot?

I didnít want to wait. I was making a movie for a year up to that point and I wanted a change from the publicity tour of Sense and Sensibility.

Did you use storyboards?

No. I donít like storyboarding, but I do shot planning. Technically, with big special effects/action sequences, you need storyboards. So we did diagram out the electrocution scene ó top side, front view ó but I donít enjoy that, and do it only when I have to. At NYU, I used to faithfully draw my films. I probably spent more time on the storyboards than the movie, but, by my thesis film, I begin not to like it. I felt it was unnatural to have the real movie match pictures somebody drew. I felt there would be more life to the film if I didnít do that.

You are known for re-cutting scenes many times. The ice storm sequences are particularly harrowing. How many different versions of that sequence did you cut?

I did 18 versions.

Growing up, did you always want to direct?

My father was principal of my school. He wanted me to be anything but a filmmaker. I always loved movies and it was a hidden wish, but he loved me, and, after a long struggle, and kind of disgracing the family, he now thinks itís OK. In Taiwan anything to do with entertainment is considered to be low.

Do you have a directorial style?

I see a director as a good seducer, who can organically observe things and try to control them. Maybe I donít have to build it into a dictator situation. I believe a group effort under close control is the best way to work for me. I like dramatic material. I still think itís the best way to examine humanity. I had a dramatic background before I went to film school. Undramatic, sometimes when you want to stretch out a bit more and express yourself and your material differently. Unlike the live stage, I think it takes a certain realism on camera to lure the audience in. You donít want to be too dramatic. That just looks too phony.

What do you think your acting background has brought to your directing abilities?

Put the center on characters. I focus the movie a lot on peopleís faces. For most of the time, I felt I was portraying actors rather than using them as moving props.

For Ice Storm, how did you help the actors get into the spirit of their characters?

Because there were so many main characters, I didnít get to rehearse everything. I would rehearse one or two key scenes for every character to help them nail down their own character and their relationship with the others.

A lot of directors feel casting is one of the most crucial decisions they have to make. How do you feel?

Yeah, I probably spent the most preproduction time on this. Usually the script comes first. Then I envisioned the role for Kevin Kline. Iím in the habit of doing father figures to see the collapse of patriarchal society from the past. I did three Chinese films like that, using my father and myself as the son, but this one I was putting myself on the line, or at least my fear as a father. I wanted to cast a likable comedian in the role. Kevin is able to get away with being silly and pathetic and still get to your heart. He was the anchor and I cast the rest according to him. Sigourney is his best friend in real life, and she read the script and loved it.

What did you do to help your actors create a good performance?

I think you need to watch closely and be very sensitive to how they feel. Iím brutally honest, and I think the only reason I can get away with that is because of my uneven English. My English is clumsier than other American directors, but one way or another, I try to get them to do what I want. If they donít come to the movie, I tailor the movie to them.

What did you bring to it as a father yourself?

The electrocution scene took three nights and it was very tough for me to shoot. I had to depersonalize that as I was doing it. Even cutting and final mixing of that scene made me feel very uncomfortable. Losing a child this way is one of the worst fears, and making this film has made me want to put more restrictions on my children.

You came to the United States in 1978, so you didnít live in America during this period. How did you go about getting a feel for this period?

I listened to music of that era and looked at everything I could put my hands on. I hired a researcher who made me reports on what was going on then, like the womenís movement. I didnít watch too many films from the period, deliberately. I didnít watch so I could avoid the í70s way of shooting. I also gathered photos, newspapers, compilation tapes, lyrics, fashion magazines, lots of magazines.

For a long time youíve been known as an independent film director, shying away from the Hollywood machine. How do you now like being part of the mainstream?

Because I spent six years in development hell after film school, my first experience was negative. So when they called me again I shied away from it and returned to Taiwan and made a Chinese movie. When I tried again I went to England (Sense and Sensibility) but with Ice Storm I felt comfortable. I think in the lower- budget Hollywood movies Iím enjoying it immensely because thereís a lot more freedom. I have the luxury of having money, but I can still be creative, which I think is every independent directorís dream. You donít have to be cheap to be independent. Itís best to keep a balance. Too much money ruins creative freedom; too little money makes the movie suffer too.

How do you relieve stress?

I like to cook. Also, in the morning I do tíai chi and give actors some warm-up tíai chi exercises if itís necessary, but with actors at this level, I donít have to do it.

You recently joined the Directors Guild. Why?

I finally decided to join to use the talents of the union crews. Iíve found union crews to be far more sophisticated than the crews on independent films.

Cinematographer Fred Aames, in particular, was great. Iím glad I joined because it has very good programs. I enjoyed the film directors gathering of best director nominees. Before I joined, I had a very vague idea about the union. The DGA in New York was very encouraging. When I was concerned about the budget on Ice Storm, they were helpful. The DGA also has a very good health and pension program.

How closely do you work with your cinematographers?

Very. Fred is more experimental than the usual major league cameraman. He has the sophistication of big Hollywood movies, but I think he thinks younger than me. Sometimes he says, "Come on. Donít chicken out." Usually the director wants something and the DP wants to make sure his credit is not impaired by the directorís thought. Letís say you want to shoot without back hair light. Youíll find your cameraman is reluctant to do that, not only because itís less pretty, but they donít want to have their peers think, "He doesnít know what heís doing." Fred was not like that. He would do everything for the movie instead of his own credibility. Usually they hate glass mirrors, but when I was about to give up on one triple mirror scene, he said donít give up. He was constantly trying to see where the edge of the lowest exposure was. Heíll go for it. Each movie he tries to do something different.

Can you give an example of a scene where your cinematographer really pushed you?

The final ice storm scene. The other shot I was really proud of was Kevin playing golf inside a glass house. That was, I would say, the most beautiful shot Iíve done. Fred took it even further. I wanted the house to be open to nature, but give a feeling of being exposed. Through the house you see nature, and in the reflection you see the clouds. Inside you see Kevin wearing boxer shorts, playing golf.

What is your immediate goal?

To make each movie different from the last one.

Then whatís next?

Iím going to do another period piece for Fox. It is also an adaptation from a book, Woe to Live On. This time itís about the Civil War, the Kansas-Missouri border skirmishes and bushwhackers. It will be shot in March of 1998 and Iím casting now.

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