Ang Lee's first choice of profession was acting. But his Chinese accent made it difficult to get a break in America, where he had gone from Taiwan to study drama and film making. He turned to directing instead. As a director, his voice is heard all over the world. He has recently picked up a second best-director Oscar for Life of Pi. He had earlier won an Oscar for Brokeback Mountain.
Lee believes that "life is a process of learning." He wants to be a permanent student of film studies, so that "I can always make different films, taste different roles, go to different places and experience various stories…. I want to study my own life and discover myself by making films…. My work is driven by feelings. I follow my feelings and then communicate them to the audience.”
In this interview, conducted by students from Wharton’s Joseph H. Lauder Institute of Management & International Studies, Lee talks about his strong interest in experimenting with new themes, his focus on cultural similarities rather than differences and the influence of his own life on his movies.
Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
China Knowledge@Wharton: The films you have worked on are very diversified. Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Wedding Banquet and Life of Pi are so different from each other. How do you select the theme?
Ang Lee: It’s like traveling; you always prefer to go to a different destination each time.
We learn all our lives. School is just the beginning. All work is a process of learning. I want to be a permanent student of film studies, so that I can always make different films, taste different roles, go to different places and experience various stories…. I want to study my own life and discover myself by making films. For me, filmmaking is not just work; it’s my life.
I have learned a lot of professional skills, too. After my fourth work, Sense and Sensibility, I refused to be stereotyped. I tried diversified themes which needed more effort and also some sacrifice in remuneration. After I tried several different topics, people realized I would not be stereotyped. It’s a big world and there are so many things to do. Why should we repeat the same thing? Of course, there are some people who are getting better and better in one direction. But I love continuous experiments and adventure, and to learn and grow from that.
China Knowledge@Wharton: Given the rise of mainland China, how can Taiwan improve its visibility? Also, many people think that its cultural diversity is a competitive advantage for Taiwan. Do you agree? How can Taiwan build on this?
Lee: I fully understand when you say that Taiwan’s visibility is inadequate. Taiwan has a lot of so-called soft power. We have been nurtured by Chinese traditional culture and have also absorbed Western and Japanese culture to some extent. In addition, I think the Taiwanese are very nice people. Maybe it’s because I am a Taiwanese myself.
The basic quality of the Taiwanese people is very good, which is an advantage. But the world doesn't understand Taiwan very much. So I shot Life of Pi in Taiwan partly to increase its visibility.
On the film industry in particular, I think Taiwan does not have the infrastructure. All the basic elements are there; they are just not very well organized. Our film industry has to become stronger and the government should pay more attention.
Taiwanese people should have a sense of crisis. Young people like you should be alert that we have to try harder because the current advantages will not last too long. I think young people on the mainland are more diligent.
China Knowledge@Wharton: You have built a cross-cultural communication bridge with your international works. Was that your original vision?
Lee: No. It was just survival at the beginning. My original dream was to become an actor, although that failed because of my poor English when, at the age of 23, I came to the U.S. to study drama. I grew up in a Chinese milieu, but was quite gifted in Western drama. Deep in my heart, I am still fascinated by the stage, though I am now telling stories with the camera. I am a mixture of both Eastern and Western cultures. I live in New York, and most of my colleagues — from idea generation, research and playwriting to post production and film editing — are American.
My first film in New York was sponsored by a Taiwan film company. That was a hit with the mainstream Taiwan audience. My second work, Wedding Banquet, got me some international recognition. My [early] films were mainstream in Asia, but in the U.S. they were distributed slowly by art houses because they were foreign-language films. After I made some Chinese films, I began to shoot English films. I also joined the global tour to promote Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. This was an international hit.
As a filmmaker, I am a vessel. I feel something and then express it. It is an experiment. We are driven by feelings instead of plans. You have emotions and you express them. We are observed by others. Many artists do not start with a concept. We are more intuitive. My work is driven by feelings. I follow my feelings and then communicate them to the audience.
China Knowledge@Wharton: Leaving aside your family members, who has had the biggest influence on your life and work?
Lee: My family members have had the most influence on me. For example, fatherhood — the dynamics between father and son — is a major theme in my work. How does the Chinese traditional culture represented by my father survive in a modern society? How does he adapt to a Western-oriented life?
Apart from my family, James Schamus, my long time working partner, is a very influential figure for me. He is the one who takes care of me at work. From the original idea and research to production, he is involved in everything. He has written many scripts for me and has helped sell my films later on. He is now CEO of Focus Features [a production and distribution company], so he was actually the boss of three of my works. He also teaches at Columbia University.
Many people who worked with me are close partners when we are shooting the film. Their lives get injected into my perceptions and the theme I am working on. When you are so engrossed doing one thing, the story you are telling becomes your own story. The past four years, I have drifted like Pi on the sea. In order to experience that loneliness, I didn’t work with James on this one, which is the first time we were not together on a film. I wanted to taste that loneliness, so that I could finally grow, reach the other shore of the Pacific, and become a man from a boy. My life developed in parallel with my film.
China Knowledge@Wharton: You have won many prizes globally and achieved a lot. What do you plan next?
Lee: As I was saying, I don’t have plans. When I was young and unknown, no one wrote scripts for me. So I wrote them myself. Now, there are people who write for me. I look at what stimulates my imagination. Some directors can shoot different films at the same time. I can’t. I always spend years on one film. Until that is nearly finished, I do not select the next one. I don’t have too many hobbies in life. I just love making films.
Right now, my work is at the crossroads. Life of Pi was more high-tech and visual-arts involved. This was quite novel for me, but also very expensive. In the future, I might go back to low-budget films.
At present, I am taking on a new project — a TV play. I have never done this before. The first episode is titled “Tyrant” and we are shooting in the Middle East, which should be quite interesting.
My previous nine films were all made from books. I am still reading a lot of scripts both in English and Chinese, so there is no answer to your question yet.
China Knowledge@Wharton: I read an interview you did in 2008 after Brokeback Mountain won an Oscar award. You mentioned that you have experienced a lot of difficulties and challenges. What advice you would offer students like us?
Lee: Life is a permanent learning process. You have to keep learning as long as you are alive. Never think you know the answer; constantly challenge yourself. Life has so much to teach; school is just the beginning.
For [those looking at a career in film], my advice is to write the script yourself. When you are young, no one will write for you. It is especially tough for a Chinese [actor] to find a good role in the U.S. So you have to be able to write and create. The theme has to be novel and connected with your life so that you have true feelings about it. But it has to be above your personal experience and contain some universal value so people around the world can accept it.
China Knowledge@Wharton: Would you tell us which of your films impacted you the most and why?
Lee: Actually every film was an experience for me; it was what I most wanted to do at that time. If you want to me to choose, it’s Lust, Caution. For a Chinese citizen, it’s scary to talk of female sexuality, patriotism in war and treason all in one story. It is easier to portray a gay American cowboy [Brokeback Mountain].
One of the most important missions for drama is to explore human nature. If everyone is calm and life is nice, there will be nothing to examine or reveal. In Lust, Caution, I not only needed to explore a topic I was scared about and unwilling to face, but I also needed to expose a forbidden theme in Chinese culture. That film was a painful, rebellious and unsettling experience. Americans are not as interested in this story because they do not feel strongly on the subject.
China Knowledge@Wharton: You have made films on homosexual subjects. However, I feel that the target audience of these films is mainly Westerners. How would you make a film on that theme for Asian people, especially Chinese?
Lee: As a matter of fact, Wedding Banquet was made for the mainstream audience in Taiwan. I was not expecting it to be a box-office success in the U.S. That script was written by me for the Taiwan Central Motion Picture Corporation. But they didn’t want to make the film because of the homosexual theme. Americans didn’t want to make it because it was too Chinese. So I got the chance to make it only later. The movie was a hit in Taiwan and internationally. Brokeback Mountain was also received well in Taiwan. Some people have watched it more than a dozen times.
I am not sensitive about the nationality of my film. I grew up in Taiwan in a Chinese culture, so my view of the world is more oriental. At the same time, I have absorbed a lot of Western culture and technology; I work closely with my American colleagues on everything.
Take Life of Pi, for example. It is an English-language film. It’s an Indian story. It did best in Taiwan and mainland China. It doesn't make a difference to me. I think you can find people you can relate to in every corner of the world. People are not divided by cultures. Your heart, beliefs and perceptions of art are more important than cultural differences. This is human nature.
As a film director, I have to be able to capture the flavor of a particular place. But the ultimate goal is to explore human nature through the prism of culture, which is universal.
China Knowledge@Wharton: I like Life of Pi and have also read the novel. There are a lot of different interpretations. What is the major theme of your film?
Lee: When I first read the novel, I did not think of religion. I thought of authorship — the connection between the author and the story. I think Life of Pi is not about religion; it is about God. What is God? It is hard to define. We Chinese think anything beyond three feet above our heads is God. Everything which is unknown to you or not controlled by you is God. I think God is your emotional connection to the unknown.
Oriental people worship mysticism; we respect things we don’t understand. This book has inspired me to [look at] that unknown. We not only need to know, we but also need to know that we cannot know. Faith is the connection between us and the unknown in terms of our emotional life.
This involves storytelling. Why do we need to tell stories? Because life doesn’t make sense; we can’t give it an artificial, logical interpretation based on our own assumption and understanding. So we need storytelling. A story will contain a structure, including a beginning, a middle and an end. So the story itself is meaningful. I think telling stories is a quest for the meaning of life. Pi is an endless and irrational number. It’s always developing and it represents the impenetrable, meaningless and ridiculous nature of life. We need stories to make sense of our lives.
We are together to listen to a story and to share wisdom. We feel that life has a meaning. But according to Buddhism, this is only an illusion. But do you think illusion has less meaning than what you can touch or verify?
China Knowledge@Wharton: As an international director and producer, you are also a manager of an organization. You have to consider cost, budget, promotion, profitability etc. How do you organize this kind of work?
Lee: China has a saying: “Man’s calculation can never be as good as God’s calculation.”
There are many outstanding MBA and law school graduates working in the film and entertainment industry. If we could calculate which movie will make more money, we can all become very rich. The fact is that most productions make a loss; you subsidize them with a few hits. From the business angle, no one really knows the result [in advance].
You need to have the ability to organize work and control the budget. You have a vision and implement it. You need to be very rational and organized in implementation, which is my strength. I am not only a director but also a producer. So I have to be very organized and efficient at work. I do not think too much about whether the movie will be a hit.
Music has something similar to math. So do films. It is not just intuition. In such a big project, calculation has a role, too. But in the end, you have to make people feel it is one piece – that it has not been calculated. That can make it really touching.
I think the most important things are what you have not calculated — like emotion. A film is an emotional ride. It has curves. The story needs to be a flow and you have to capture emotions. This is something you cannot get through calculation. You have to devote your heart. Art is abstract; both sense and sensibility are crucial.
The questions in this interview were contributed by Lauder students Charlotte McAusland, Michael Wu, Ying Wang, David Cummins, Kevin Lam, Jeanne Chen, Lane Rettig, Edward Wu and Justin Knapp, and Theresa Jen, director of the Lauder Chinese Language and Culture Program.