'Gemini Man' Director Ang Lee On 120 Frames Per Second And Staying Edgy [Interview]

Gemini Man is a globetrotting 3D action movie with assassins, motorcycle chases, and that emphasizes the value of life, so it's no surprise that it's directed by Ang Lee. The visionary director behind Life of Pi and Brokeback Mountain once again pushes the envelope with his high-frame-rate and Will Smith-headlined cinematic experiment. Similar to many Ang Lee movies, Gemini Man has an identity crisis, repression, and father issues to go along with the popcorn entertainment, which, like his Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, is shot in 120 frames per second and 3D. This time around, the result is more immersive and tactile, less otherworldly and distancing.

It's a new way of telling a story that, as Lee says, he's just getting started with as he remains hopeful other filmmakers will join him in his pursuit of the sharpest image possible. 120 fps remains polarizing, but Lee remains assured he's on the right path. Anytime an artist tries something new, it's automatically going to distance some audiences, anyway. There are still kinks to be smoothed out and movie theaters have to catch up to Lee, but he's also thinking about the long game: not just where the technology is now, but where it will go.

After over a decade of trying to interview him, we got 15 minutes with Lee, and although there's some pressure to finally sit across from this filmmaking giant when you walk in a room and are greeted by him, any nervousness dissipates fast. His calmness and modesty are impossible not to feel at ease around, but behind that calmness lies an intense desire to, as he told us, remain cutting edge.

You seem like such an instinctual filmmaker yet now make such technically demanding movies. How do you reconcile the two?

I was never technical. I'm pretty idiotic on technology and science because I just don't compute that way. I'm just curious about images, curious about how you make-believe and make movies. I love filmmaking probably more than a lot of films, like, "How do you make this thing?" [Laughs] People will feel this way or feel that way. Hopefully, wow people or they get into it, that's just how I connect to the world, that's my thing.

It just feels like the technology about filming, up until I was a student and I learned it, it sort of stayed that way. Now, we're so obviously in the digital world, our eyes and perception have changed, and social media has changed. It seems like it requires a different technique to get people into that innocence again, that fantasy world. Also, this medium provides a different look, feeling, and a different relationship to the story. So, that took my attention. Somebody figured out the technology side, but I want to look at people this way in dramatic content or in action. Moviemaking is fascinating, all aspects of it.

With all the technical demands involved, does it ever feel rigid for you?

It's a two-edged sword. It's more difficult, so that's rigid. There are more people working on it, like three times bigger the crew because you have people looking at meters. I don't know what they all do, but they all look busy. It's very immobile, not like you can just carry a camera and run to get your shot in a day [Laughs]. In that way, it's also rigid, because you have to plan it. I think the technical side of rigidness will improve, like all technology.

Making movies 100 years ago you just had that box; it was very huge and immobile. This media is clumsy, but someday they will shrink it and any film student will do it from home. You'll know the language, too. It's a new language to learn. I think that will change. So, it is rigid, but because of that rigidness, you go to new ground, and that's freedom. So, it's a double-edged sword. There will be more freedom [one day]. Not only the equipment, but the studio, the investors, all the money, and the formality and the release, it's a whole ecosystem.

Even with the de-aging and digital characters, when you see what face filters an iPhone can do now, it could be as good as Gemini Man one day.

We'll get there. We'll do clumsy stuff for whatever the next thing is. We'll keep chasing it. So, it's a double-edged sword. Making a digital human you have the freedom to create a young Will Smith, but the process is very rigid. You have to shoot the same thing over and over. The skin and everything, they put it together and examine it. It's very rigid.

With that high frame rate, what are the most subtle details you get that you appreciate? 

It's a lot clearer, but it's not so much about clarity, but about sharpness. Your mind is sharper, and you want it to be sharper. The equipment is just chasing what our eyes need to see. I think in that media you're sharper, you like more detail, and it makes you happy, I think. As a director, you look at certain things and your eyes can wander, and I think that's a pleasure. It should be a different kind of moviemaking, but it's so expensive, it comes with a rigidness. You have to go along with the crowds' habit [Laughs], and that's your paradox.

Billy Lynn, for the most part, was just drama. What do you think the high frame rate brings to intimate drama? 

It's actually smaller. We hardly see extras, because it's very focused on people. Even with action, it's just two guys with the same look dueling it out. Actually, the world expands and also shrinks from Billy Lynn. I learned how to deal with background, the art department, and how to do it so things don't stand out, so you're more immersed and not thinking about how to make it look pretty.

So how do you accomplish that?

Relighting and be more careful with the extras. You have to train extras to stand differently [Laughs]. If you ask them to be more careful and more natural, they do that.

The gunfight that leads to the motorcycle chase in Cartagena, Colombia, is stunning. Can you walk me through planning it and shooting it?

It was very different. In the script, it was in a favela of Cuba [Laughs]. Then Cuba didn't work out with the political situation and going back-and-forth. We checked other places and then visited Cartagena. From the pictures, it's the city that's the closest and looks good. Basically, it's location scouting with the stunt coordinator and action director, asking, "What can be done here? What can be done with that?" With an animator, we do storyboards and animate it. To me, it's so beautiful. It's important to showcase the beautiful place.

Also, it's an unusual action sequence when you think about it. It's not about a hero kicking ass; his ass is being kicked as he's seeing his own ghost. It's a haunted scene with color and bright daylight, so that's a fascinating idea – showcase the beauty and color of it, and then in the first-person experience, that becomes the thing.

We cut out the favela part because it's just too hard to do. It's expensive if everyone is there in two weeks and we do everything we need to do. Let's not do the favela as everyone else does with people jumping out of the slums and the hills; let's spend time in one spot. How can we do one spot and showcase something really fantastic? It's interesting, bike-fu [Laughs]. Never been done in a movie before. Think Crouching Tiger with bike-fu, and it's like, yeah [Laughs].

[Laughs] Like Crouching Tiger, you show a real beauty to the body language and action during that scene.

There's where the high frame rate and 3D come to work. You have to use a different principle in choreographing your action. It's not only speed, because you see speed. You're not getting a boost from the strobe and blur and horizontal move; it's head-on. The new trick is about business, details, and now you can see expressions: fear, strategy, bad intention, and the small business. You can portray it, for example, with the action we shoot on vehicles. It shows how hard it is. If you're right-handed with your gas [handle] on the right, and you're driving on a sea wall and the other guy is zigzagging [on the road], you get into the details of the business, like, how do you change a magazine? All those become the new excitement.

With the two Will Smith performances, what qualities does he have now, as an older and more experienced actor, and the qualities he had as a young actor that you wanted in Gemini Man?

Well, as he's grown older, he's still very entertaining, positive, and gung-ho. What comes with age is sophistication and melancholy, and I try to bring that out a bit, naturally, without touching the star quality. It's a different kind of charm. When he was young, it was something else: pure energy, aggression, and cute [Laughs].

[Laughs] He can now be charismatic by being still.

[Laughs] Yeah, in a more mature way, but still in his own way. They're quite different. The hardest is to catch his charisma.

And the eyes. You said during the press conference how important eyes are to you.

And the eyes. I think a lot is said in the eyes and the corner of your mouth and eyebrow. Eyes, it's for sure. The attitude and nuances we studied carefully, given this different medium. We had more makeup because it was lit differently. We studied his old films to give us an inclination of what we can work with and do.

Gemini Man is about doubt and negative emotions like fear, and instead of repressing them, embracing them. Being a filmmaker at your level, how do you experience and handle doubt?

The more experience, the more doubt you have [Laughs].

[Laughs] No kidding?

[Laughs] Yeah. It's not like a set of rules you learn and you feel safe and okay. It's not that. I think doubt makes life, and it keeps us alive and fresh. It keeps us energetic because otherwise, it's stagnant. You know, when I do a clone movie, I want to decide, does a clone have a soul? Like, self-awareness? I decided that's the clone movie I want to do. Then that makes me think, what makes us a person? What defines us as a person, and not as a clone? That's just a piece of genes swimming in the big soup of the universe of chemicals [Laughs]. What makes us soulful and feel special about ourselves? I think it's self-awareness, which has a lot to do with doubt. You're thinking. That's the thing, when you have doubt you work out, yeah, that keeps us fresh. I think it's very important we have faith but also have doubt, because they work with each other.

What about exploring the unknown as you do? That must keep life fresh.

Yes, it's not like I was so sure about myself [Laughs]. I was curious, and I think that's a part of it. The more you know, the harder it is to get excited and to take it to the next level, like you feel you're doing your best. You're feeling the edge, and that's important for me: keeping myself edgy and honest and doing my best. I also have a psychology of fear and doubt, because when I'm the worst, it's when I feel comfortable. When I'm comfortable that's when I'm the most nervous, like something really bad is going to happen [Laughs]. That makes me feel uneasy, so that plays a role, too.

What are some of the next envelopes you want to push? What haven't you done on film yet you want to show audiences one day?

Oh, this is just the beginning. I'm chasing a new media I want to tell stories with. It's what age can do because I'm turning a senior citizen in a couple of weeks...no [Laughs]. See, we always have doubts in ourselves. Things change. Nothing is really stable and not moving. Everything changes, nothing stands still. It's that way since the day of your birth to the day you die. You're always learning, you're always adapting, and you always feel vulnerable and finding your faith and stability. Life is a struggle, but try to enjoy it. Try to share that, try not to be selfish and get depressed about it. No, share that and, sometimes, share it with something fun that's undeniably exciting.


Gemini Man is in theaters now.