How a bulky antihero, an unknown actor, a sultry heroine, and a visionary director joined forces for THE HULK and found that even with a monster budget, it isn't easy making green

By Scott Brown and Jeff Jensen
June 06, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT

First comes his fist, punching up through the floor like a battering ram — a big green battering ram. ** Stuntmen in soldier uniforms, pretending to be freaked by a creature that isn’t actually there, tumble over the railing of the raised platform, expertly landing on cushions 12 feet below. ** Then, the rest of him emerges, his body as thick as Jack’s fairy-tale beanstalk. ** Scores of additional stuntmen scatter across the set, which is supposed to be a secret military facility located in the New Mexico desert. A few throw themselves to the ground as if swatted aside. ** ”Puny humans,” says the contemptuous snarl on the green Goliath’s face. Then he jumps. ** The camera, mounted on a crane, rises suddenly, then drops just as quickly, mimicking the leap of the invisible monster it’s been tracking. ** The giant gives a roar, then bounds away. ** ”Cut!” yells a man with a bullhorn. ** It’s July 2002 on the Universal Studios lot in Hollywood, and principal photography on the high-tech pantomime that is The Hulk is coming to an end. Soon the cast and crew of this reported $150 million adaptation of the Marvel Comics antihero — starring an unproven box office entity (Eric Bana of Black Hawk Down) and an Oscar-winning beauty (Jennifer Connelly of A Beautiful Mind) — will disperse after an arduous shoot. All that remains is the arduous task of bringing to life the movie’s real star: the computer-generated giant himself.

Look closely, though, and you can catch a glimpse of the incredible one on the soundstage. No, it’s not the Hulk-head-on-a-stick (dubbed Elvis) used to give folks on set some idea of what they’re working with (or at least where they’re supposed to be looking). It’s the soft-spoken Asian man in the crew jacket bearing the title Eat Drink Man Woman. He is Ang Lee, the 48-year-old Taiwanese director of that 1994 import, as well as 1995’s Sense and Sensibility and 2000’s groundbreaking Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Watch him long enough, and eventually you will see him become the Hulk — sometimes for fun during a break and sometimes seriously during filming. His slightly hunched body crouches menacingly; his tired face contorts with rage. He lowers his shoulders and lumbers a step. He thrashes. It makes for a strange spectacle, as if there’s something awful inside that’s bucking wildly to be released.

And there it is in the flesh: the defining struggle of making The Hulk. If fans believe the fate of this movie rests on whether the Hulk will look frighteningly real or frightfully like Gumby on steroids (as early trailers with unrefined F/X seemed to suggest), they may be right. But in many ways, the success of this film hinges on whether a director profoundly uncomfortable with revealing his own emotions has what it takes to let out his inner Hulk.

On the walls of Lee’s office at Industrial Light & Magic in Marin County, Calif., there are two sets of framed prints. One contains images from 40 years of Hulk comics — panels of brawny, kinetic action drawn by Marvel legends Jack Kirby and John Byrne. The other set is composed of surreal vistas that juxtapose the everyday with the subconscious, painted by modern masters Picasso and de Chirico. Lee says his ”unspeakable vision” of The Hulk is a fusion of these conflicting aesthetics. ”You know the sword everyone is frantically after in Crouching Tiger — the Green Destiny?” says Lee, slumped meekly in his office chair. He nods toward the prints. ”This is my new Green Destiny.”