Film: 'Martial arts movies are in my blood'

Ang Lee is renowned for his sensitivity, but now claims to have gone all macho. Should we believe him?

Back at the beginning of the decade everyone knew what Ang Lee was about. Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman, all his early films established the director as a wry chronicler of the culture-clash between traditional Taiwan and modern America. In Sense and Sensibility and last year's chilly 1970s chamber piece, The Ice Storm, Lee may have stepped back from his roots but his acute observation of dysfunctional families remained the same. Now after all these droll domestic dramas, Lee has directed his first action movie.

Ride With the Devil, which opened this year's London Film Festival is a swashbuckling yarn about the Confederacy bushwhackers who dug in down South during the American Civil War to fight a guerrilla war against the Northern, pro-abolition Unionists.

Tobey Maguire plays the son of an immigrant German farmer, who defies his father to go into battle alongside his childhood friend Skeet Ulrich, but slowly begins to question what he's fighting for.

As Lee himself puts it, "the backlash has begun". So how does it feel for the man once dubbed the "George Cukor" of contemporary cinema, the sensitive director of "womens' pictures", to get his hands dirty? "It feels a lot more macho, both as a person and as a film-maker," he murmurs politely. "You have a big production to take care of. You have action and safety to worry about. All I did before was kitchens and bedrooms. I used to shoot my films in a quarter of a room. Now I'm making movies where the stage is a whole town and you have to burn it down."

Silent laughter wheezes out when Lee remembers a conversation he had with Emma Thompson while shooting Sense and Sensibility. "No more women crying," I told her, "I want to do something very rough with people getting their arms chopped off." While dismemberment doesn't feature highly in his new film, Lee did get to realise his violent fantasy.

After surviving the exquisite torture of guiding a bunch of skeptical stage-trained Janeites through a piece of our precious period heritage, who wouldn't want to get nasty with a hacksaw?

Happily, the stocky figure sitting opposite me in well-pressed chinos and smart-casual sweater doesn't seem in danger of coming over all James Cameron. No king of the world claims for Lee, just an arcing career trajectory that has seen him move from struggling screenwriter ("Have you seen The Player? I was like the author in that.") to Hollywood big shot.

Born in 1954, Lee is the oldest son of parents who left China during the Revolution. Raised in Taiwan, Lee "disgraced" his family by failing his entrance exams for college. Instead of becoming a respectable lecturer like his father, Lee left for America in 1978, to study theatre at theUniversity of Illinois. He later moved to the New York Film School, but not before meeting Jane, his future wife ("We're the least romantic couple in the world," he once said, "Like horses.").

Over the following six years Jane went out to work, while Lee stayed home caring for their young son and going out of his mind as one script after another failed to get made. Bored and frustrated, Lee began to cook compusively and suffer insomnia. He had an unnatural urge to play tennis: "I didn't want to play the game. I just wanted to hit something."

His spell in development hell ended in 1991 when Lee won first and second prize in a Taiwanese script-writing competition. Those screenplays became Pushing Hands and The Wedding Banquet.

What Lee calls his "father knows best" trilogy ended with Eat, Drink, Man, Woman. A mouthwatering study of filial duty, the film reflected Lee's fascination with food and difficult relationship with his father. All were made with Good Machine, a small independent production company founded by Ted Hope and film lecturer James Schamus. As his star has risen, Lee has stuck with them, Schamus providing the literate scripts for The Ice Storm and now, Ride With the Devil.

In it, the elegant, emotional dim sum of Lee's early dramas appear to have been replaced by a sweeping horse opera full of swaggering boys and galloping battles. But scratch the bravura surface of his "pre-Western" and you'll find just the kind of sensitive, character-driven drama Lee is famous for. "No matter how fantastic the action is, if the audience stay three feet from the character, or even three shots," says Lee,"those scenes have to be cut. It's the same with stunts, if anything looks too professional, it has to go."

In the event, Lee didn't have much trouble persuading his cast to do their own stunts. With an almost all-male cast, the on-set atmosphere was thick with testosterone. "If you give a gun to a boy on horseback they want to do too much," he giggles.

A meek-looking man who still cooks meals for his family and puts them in the freezer before going off on location, Lee is notoriously tough on actors. As Emma Thompson's production diary recounts, Lee sent her a note while shooting Sense and Sensibility telling her to "stop looking so old", while a tearful Kate Winslet was made to do homework and Tai Chi.

When Winslet handed in a 75-page analysis of her character - Lee told her it was "wrong, very wrong". When she asked about her performance he simply said, "you'll get better".

Despite taking lessons with an 18th-century etiquette specialist, the straightalking Lee had a few lessons to learn about modern English manners. Everywhere he went, luvvies were laid low by his dreadful directness. Hugh Grant dubbed him "The Beast". The man who dared to tell Alan Rickman not to overact can't be all bad, but what's this in Em's diary about his fetish for measuring the distance between actors' noses and lips? The space between their lips and chins?

"Before I made Sense and Sensibility I didn't have to worry about how people looked," says Lee. "I made Chinese-language films, independent films. Then I suddenly had to deal with movie stars. As I moved up to major league productions I had to make Emma look good; make Kate look good. That's just photography. It's nothing to do with drama, performance or depth, but it's my job - the actors have to look pretty but also as audiences expect their characters to look. I found little things, like if Kate lowers her chin she looks smarter. If she raised it she looked ..." he pulls a stupid face. "Some things are easy - if an actor has a short neck, or an actress has wrinkles. Others are more mysterious. I just tell the actors to trust me and not look in the monitor."

All this may seem a bit obsessive. Sometimes even a little cruel. But it's Lee's eye for detail that gives his films their quiet but devastating effect. In The Ice Storm he had Joan Allen, Kevin Kline and Macguire practise walking across the room together "because families walk alike". In Sense and Sensibility he was fascinated with the social ritual of the ballroom. While it's not difficult to picture Lee dancing with his cast in Sense and Sensibility, it's harder to imagine the softly-spoken director down on the range for Ride With the Devil.

While Lee never went bareback riding with the boys, he did take them paintball shooting, before giving them big folders of American history to read. Boot camp followed in which the cast had weapons training and were fed period snacks such as salt pork bacon. Maybe, I suggest, his mixture of rehearsal and history seminars was a way to sneak a little of his father's education into the entertainment business.

"Perhaps subconsciously. I suppose I can be a bit preachy at times. Not only to the actors, but maybe with the audience as well. Then again," he adds, "I do try to avoid being black and white. When I grew up in Taiwan," he continues, "it was the most anti-Communist place in the world. Everything to do with Communism was banned. Then when I went to the States and started to read Communist books it was a big shock to me after all those years, to discover we were the bad guys. My whole value system was turned upsidedown. It took me years to get back my sense of self."

That has worked, of course, to his advantage. The great thing about Lee is his ability to put himself into different places and times with an uncanny historical and emotional accuracy. For now, though, he's heading back to where he began with the Beijing-based samurai movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Three months into a five-month shoot Lee's struggling with the fight scenes. "I grew up watching martial arts movies, so they're in my blood, but getting them on screen is a different thing altogether. The wire work," he grimaces, "You know, making people fly?"

As usual, the director has set himself an impossible task. Still, if anyone can make actors fly, it's Ang Lee.

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