With Gemini Man, opening Friday (October 11), Ang Lee has produced a feature at the absolute vanguard of new cinema technology. So it’s jarring when the filmmaker describes himself to the Georgia Straight as a “low tech person.”
“I don’t have a scientific mind,” he insists. “I’m just reacting to the hardware companies showing me: ‘We can do this, we can do that.’ Show me something and my imagination will push me to realize some images, some situations—but that’s all I do.”
Calling from Toronto, the veteran filmmaker has an easy laugh and a self-deprecating style. He’s managed to maintain an almost 30-year career as both a populist and an arthouse favourite. Low tech person or not, he’s also waded into the digital age with gusto, lending credibility to the dramatic possibilities of CGI with efforts like 2012’s Life of Pi.
In 2016, Lee released the 3D drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which was shot at a resolution of 4K and at an unprecedented 120 frames-per-second—almost three times the frame rate that Peter Jackson was slammed for with the Hobbit trilogy. The film tanked, but the lessons were invaluable.
“People want to see artifice,” Lee concluded. “In Billy I tried to strip it off. Just because 3D is more life-like, people don’t, at least for now, take things as they are. You still have to put some kind of artifice in so that they can read the story. So I chose a genre, big movie star, all those things, and I lit it differently. Adding dimension makes it feel life-like, but it’s not like life. Life doesn’t have close-ups. People don’t do fantastic things. People don’t look as pretty as Will Smith. That’s the movies. But if you get drawn into it, that’s something else. I like to explore that possibility.”
And so we arrive at Gemini Man, which shares the deeply immersive tech pioneered in Billy Lynn, but with the turbocharged thrill of watching Will Smith do relentless battle across the globe with a clone of his younger self. The increased frame rate improves the 3D effect by eliminating any motion blur in the film’s stupendous actions sequences, turning a motorcycle showdown in the narrow streets of Cartagena, Colombia into a stunningly visceral experience, maybe even a game-changer. Lee chuckles softly and offers a modest, “Thank you. Even a simple pull focus, how we do that, just technically we learned a lot more. I think it plays better in terms of the look.”
Laughing to himself again, he adds: “But Junior is a game all its own. It’s just a different subject matter altogether.”
Indeed, “Junior” is the enemy who pursues Will Smith’s 51-year-old assassin Henry Brogan from Georgia to South America and on to Budapest. It gives nothing away to reveal that Junior is Brogan’s 23 year-old self, conceived in a lab as the perfect killing machine, deployed to eliminate an aging spook who knows too much. Smith plays both parts but the character is an entirely digital recreation, and the film hinges on its success.
“I think maybe 90 percent of the shots, if not 95, it really came across,” Lee muses. “Whether people accept it or not, like yourself, I cannot tell.” Besides a perilous attempt to cross the uncanny valley, there were subtler aspects to the risk. Lee mentions that an “unfamiliar actor” would have been the easier choice since we all walk around with an image of young Will Smith already in our heads. (This prompts the director to quip: “Ironically, he’s a better actor now.”)
As such, Gemini Man is a triumph. It feels like a sci-fi action picture beamed in from the near future, but it’s hardly short on the director’s characteristic investment in character and theme. Along with the timing of its release, the film’s quality demands that we mention Martin Scorsese’s recent dust-up with the Marvel fanbase. Lee shies away from the question.
“I dunno,” he groans. “I’m not gonna comment on that. It’s a really complicated question, but I do like the feeling of movie theatres, and as a filmmaker I make the effort to get people into the theatre. My newest effort is a new experience, and you can absorb it differently. If it’s something you can get used to, maybe you can watch movies this way.”
It might be a disingenuous question, in any case. Gemini Man takes a perfunctory chase story and turns it into elevated pulp, tickling the intellect with existential questions about ageing, life experience, even a kind of parenthood in the fitful relationship between Brogan and Junior. All techno-wonders aside—and they are considerable—it’s still the work of a thoughtful artist answering the demands of both the industry and the audience, even culture itself.
“Even in the '90s, when I started making movies, nothing seemed to change for a long time,” says Lee. “Now it’s not only changing but fundamentally changing. It’s mindboggling. People communicate differently. The essence has changed, not just the superficial stuff.” He almost sounds nervous about it, conceding that Gemini Man “is a different level of putting myself out there.”
In this light, it’s poignant to hear Ang Lee fantasize about the lives of classic-era Hollywood filmmakers—“I think I could be a really happy filmmaker in the '50s, a big shot director in the '50s, just shoot four or five movies and then go home, sleep in my bed,” he jokes—but even more so when he’s asked, per Gemini Man, what advice he would give to the younger version of himself.
“I would hope I was more diligent, more grounded,” he answers. “I was a very spaced out person. Now I feel I’m really inept and trying to catch up with things. Enthusiasm and dreaming—it’s okay when you’re young. When you get older, it gets harder. I wish he was more grounded. I wasted a lot of time.”
No kidding. If he hadn’t been such a slouch, maybe Ang Lee would have a dozen best director Oscars instead of a measly two.