No one can ever accuse Ang Lee of playing it safe. Throughout his career, the two-time Academy Award-winning director has put his spin on nearly every genre, from martial-arts epic (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) to romance (Brokeback Mountain) to CG spectacle (Life of Pi). Now he’s not only trying his hand at a new genre with the war movie Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, he’s also hoping to change filmmaking forever with a bold new technique. Billy Lynn was shot at 120 frames per second (24 FPS is the industry standard; Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit played at 48 FPS, to mixed reviews), which aims to capture everything — especially gritty action sequences — in crystal-clear focus. “It’s like how your eyes see things,” says Lee of the technique. “It must be a new movie experience.”
This film, based on Ben Fountain’s 2012 book about an Iraq War hero (British newcomer Joe Alwyn) having a crisis of conscience just as he’s being honored at the 2004 Super Bowl, seemed like the perfect opportunity to test this new style. “I thought if I can put a battle scene and a halftime show next to each other, that would be very exciting,” Lee explains.
Lee also took a huge risk on Alwyn, who had left drama school early just days before getting cast in the pivotal role. “I left school and, about two days later, I put myself on tape and we got a call saying they wanted me to come to New York a few days later and meet Ang. It was all the most surreal situation.” While the studio wasn’t initially sure about an unknown carrying the film, Alwyn eventually convinced them after days of screen tests. “They decided to fly me from New York to Atlanta on set,” says the actor. “I did about four or five days testing there. Eventually about a week and a half later, I got home and the next night I got a call I think at like 1 a.m. saying I got it.”
The film is told through Billy’s eyes and flashes back and forth from the war in Iraq (Vin Diesel plays his sergeant), to moments from the night before the Super Bowl with family (Kristen Stewart is Billy’s sister), to the halftime show. In this shot, a confused and lost Billy is imagining an alternative, domestic future with a cheerleader he’s just met. The precision technology impacted even the actors’ choices. “[With the high frame rate] you can see right into somebody’s eyes and somebody’s soul,” says Alwyn. Only naturalism would do. “So Ang didn’t want anything pushed or ‘performed.'”
This crisp new camera work does present an extra layer of production challenges, though. “We had 400 extras and if someone way in the back does something funny, you notice it,” Lee says, laughing. “It would drive us crazy.” Now we’ll see if audiences go crazy for it.
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