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Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: Ang Lee talks new movie

Director, cast discuss the ambitious project at its New York Film Festival world premiere

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Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Two-time Oscar-winning director Ang Lee’s 13th feature film, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, had its world premiere as part of the New York Film Festival on Friday night, finally giving select audiences a first look at the long-gestating project’s boundary-pushing visuals.

During a post-screening Q&A with festival director Kent Jones and the film’s ensemble cast, including Kristen Stewart, Steve Martin, Vin Diesel, Garrett Hedlund, Chris Tucker, and newcomer Joe Alwyn, Lee revealed the 3-D film, which was shot at 120 frames-per-second with 4K HD clarity, posed a unique challenge to the Hollywood veteran’s time-tested skills, which he previously flexed at the helm of commercial (and critical) hits like Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

“I gave [the cast] direction, but I’m really harvesting what [the actors] gave. I’m very nervous… I’ve been through this 12 times before, but I was never really nervous. The movie is what it is, but it’s new to our eyes,” Lee said of the film’s ambitious frame rate, which only two theaters in the United States are equipped to screen. (The normal frame rate for movies is 24 frames-per-second). “Clarity is very soothing. Our eyes want it. This is beautiful, at least to my eyes, but then I found something else. I had to change the way I direct. I would pitch [the actors] a lot of thoughts to see if they even looked alive on the screen… just to look like a real person is a big task [here]… We had to pitch different thoughts, different temperatures, all senses, all memories, all thoughts, because that’s what life does to us. It was never that simple as one direction or task… I pitched them different things with each take.”

The 61-year-old continued: “I found new things when I started to be able to look at 120, 4K dual projection… it became something else, and I had to deal with that. I cut it for over a year. It’s a very simple movie, so I just keep learning from that… I’m still learning how to make movies… It’s really scary. Sometimes I feel like I don’t know how to make movies, but I’m precious about these guys’ trust in me. I was very frank with them… they let me say things like, ‘listen, you’re not good enough” … it’s very important that I remember I’m not good enough [to get better].”

Also taking the plunge into new territory on the film is Alwyn, the first-time actor behind Billy Lynn‘s titular role, a 19-year-old soldier returning home from the Iraq War. 

“It’s strange seeing the film for the first time, because I have no history of looking at myself on a huge screen. But, making it was terrifying, it was scary, it was overwhelming, it was brilliant, and it was fun,” Alwyn said. “I got to work with one of the best directors there is… someone who is continually pushing boundaries in all of his films in all areas, be it in technology or content.” 

Diesel, who plays one of Lynn’s comrades, similarly praised Lee’s vision. 

“Seeing the movie is such a heavy experience. The nuances in the movie and the proposed message in the movie are kind of heavy. I think, after you see the credits, everyone is like a deer in headlights, just shocked by the experience,” he said. “The technology allows you to come into the story in a unique way, and you realize you’ve been overwhelmed by the drama in the piece… the performances that Ang was able to get across the board takes you to a place you don’t expect to go to, normally, in a war picture, and then to have the whole [thing] simplified into one statement of love [at the end] is very powerful, and I think it’s a testament to what Ang has done and a testament to how incredible this cast is.” 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk opens nationwide on Nov. 11. Watch the film’s first teaser trailer below.