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Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk: Ang Lee on entering ‘unknown territory’

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Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

After his technologically experimental film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk debuted to mixed reviews at the New York Film Festival, filmmaker Ang Lee brought his wares to Los Angeles on Wednesday night for another pre-release screening. Held at the newly renovated Dolby Theater on Vine — one of the few theaters in the country with the technology advanced enough to screen Lee’s film close to how he intended it to be shown, 120 frames-per-second, 3D, 2K projection (it screened in 4K at NYFF) — the adaptation of the best-selling novel by Ben Fountain was also met with a muted response.

Starring newcomer Joe Alwyn as 19-year old private Billy Lynn, the film tracks his and his fellow soldiers’ U.S. victory tour during a brief respite from the war in Iraq. Told through flashbacks juxtaposed with the Bravo Company’s dubious celebration during an NFL football game, the movie — like the book — examines the horrors of war and America’s flawed perceptions of combat.

The problem, though, is Lee’s use of the advanced 3D technology and faster frame rate, which eliminates the veneer of traditional film and is supposed to bring the audience closer to the action on screen. Instead, either due to flaws in the storytelling or perhaps from the experimental technology itself, the audience seemed less engaged than would be the case with traditional film.

Lee, who participated in a Q&A following the screening, recognized the challenge he was presenting to audiences.

“This technology exposes what we don’t know,” he said. “I know I’m not good enough for this and I’m two years ahead of the audience. You all are just getting started. There is no reference here so I call it a baby. And the technology is still pretty clumsy. It’s very inconvenient.”  

Still, Lee finds this hyper-real environment invigorating. The filmmaker, who first experimented with 3D in his 2012 Oscar winner Life of Pi, wanted to go deeper with the technology, using it for dramatic effect, especially focused on close-ups. And after a frustrating year trying to get a boxing film made, Lee turned his attention to Fountain’s novel, convinced that the acerbic, satirical book could benefit from the new aesthetic he was experimenting with — especially the giant half-time show (featuring an odd Destiny’s Child reenactment complete with their song “Soldier,” but not group members Beyoncé Knowles, Kelly Rowland, or Michelle Williams) toggled with Bravo Company’s climatic battle with insurgents in Iraq.  

To get there, he had to recalibrate the actors’ performances, which included turns from Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, and Steve Martin, hounding them to focus on the genuine and eliminating make-up and much artificial lighting to highlight the real. As producer Marc Platt put it, “No artifice. No makeup can be allowed. Camera cuts are itself an artifice. If you notice, there is not a lot of editing in the war sequence.”

Very few theaters in the country have the capabilities to show the film in the 120 frame rate/3D form. Lee says a 2D version will be available, and it will be interesting to see if adding the veneer audiences are used to will engender a kinder response. Regardless, Lee should be recognized for his willingness to take chances, especially in the current movie-going climate when box-office receipts are down and younger viewers are content to use their phones as their entertainment vehicles.

“Once I passed 60 frames, my relationship with movies changed. It’s really unknown territory for me and for the audience. It’s quite frightening,” says Lee. “It’s not that different in principal to those boys being thrown into battlefield for the first time. You feel very vulnerable.” 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk opens Nov. 11 in limited release before arriving nationwide on Nov. 18.

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