Ang Lee on the future of movie theaters and filmmaking: 'It has to upgrade'
Ang Lee won't reveal much about the new project he's developing, other than to say, "It has action in it." But he will divulge that he's still pursuing that elusive new mode of cinema his last two films — 2016's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk and 2019's Gemini Man — have tried to achieve. Both films pushed the boundaries of filmmaking technology but were unsuccessful both with critics and at the box office.
"It's very difficult," says Lee, speaking to EW to mark the 20th anniversary of his film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. "Right now, the challenge [for me] is challenging how we process images in different ways, challenging the medium itself."
The Brokeback Mountain director moved into a new phase of his career with 2012's Life of Pi, using 3-D and extensive digital effects to transform an "unfilmable" book into a visually stunning, rapturously-received triumph that earned Lee his second Oscar for Best Director (after Brokeback). He pushed even further into the digital frontier with Billy Lynn and Gemini Man, the first feature films ever shot in the ultra-high frame rate of 120 frames per second. (Movies are typically shot at 24 frames per second, a tradition stretching back to the start of the sound era.)
Lee sees these innovative devices as the future of filmmaking, not just in a technical sense but as a potential way to revitalize the importance of movie theaters. Like many directors of his pedigree, Lee is deeply invested in preserving the theatrical experience, a concern which has gained added urgency as the COVID-19 pandemic has threatened movie theaters' very existence and escalated the dominance of streaming.
"I believe we always need [the movie theater]. It's our church, our temple," Lee says. "It's a ceremony. It's in our nature, the congregation. But now television's so convenient. You have to come up with something you cannot experience at home. Not only the crowd, not only the size, but the ceremonial effect. It has to upgrade."
He continues, "I think the next step, logically, is the immersiveness which you cannot do with a TV screen. But how do you get [audiences] to participate, rather than just viewing? How do you engage? That's something we should work on to get them to the theater."
His attempts to create this immersiveness through 3-D and high frame rates have not yet been able to match his vision, but Lee — who has attempted to create something new and bold for much of his career — is determined to keep pushing for it.
"Sometimes, you hit it right, sometimes you hit the wrong spot. But that's moviemaking," the director says. "Keep the freshness, keep the innocence, keep your curiosity, keep your dreams. You have to embrace your audience and hope they come along with you. That's why we make movies."
And after all: "People want to go to the theater," Lee adds with a laugh. "That's the thing. They want to be on our side."