THE THOUGHTS THAT COUNT
In his latest movie, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee has embraced a form of technology so innovative that few cinemas worldwide can show it in exactly the way he intended it to be seen. It’s being used, however, to bring us something both familiar and mysterious: ourselves. “What new technology should be showing us,” says Lee, “is not action but the human face.”
At the centre of this movie, he cast an actor entirely new to cinema. Joe Alwyn, 25, had never worked on a film set before. He was in his last year at London’s Royal Central School of Speech & Drama, and had just got an agent. One of the first things she organised for him to do was to record an audition tape with two scenes. It was for Billy Lynn.
Within no time he was summoned to New York to meet the casting director and Lee. “I ended up staying on in America for a series of tests and screen tests and meetings with producers, this big wild week and a half of not quite knowing what was going on,” Alwyn says. Ten days after he returned to London, he got a call to tell him he had the part. He had to quit school and start work on his first movie.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is adapted from a novel by Ben Fountain about a young American soldier who has returned on leave from the war in Iraq. It takes place on the final day of a two-week “victory tour” in 2004, when Billy and his fellow members of Bravo Squad are being celebrated during a halftime event at a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving. In the midst of the spectacle, Billy recalls everything from combat and death to visiting his family at home, and faces a series of choices about the future.
The book, says Lee, is all about thought processes and individual observation. “The most brilliant part is that it’s told through the eyes of a 19-year-old, but the thoughts he’s having are those of a middle-aged intellect.” It was an immediate challenge to him. “How can I make that into a movie?” he asked himself.
What he saw in the book and wanted to bring to the screen, Lee says, was “the contrast between the halftime show and the real battle, the two sides of the story. That contrast is a great way to examine a boy’s coming of age, and a great way to examine society.”
His answer was to explore filmmaking that combines the immersion of 3-D with the hyperreality and increase in visual detail that a higher frame rate brings. Australian audiences won’t be seeing the film in 3-D or at 120 frames per second, however: here it is showing in 2-D at the usual rate of 24 fps. We can only have intimations of what this new technology brings. Lee is convinced it is the future, for him at least. His hope is that his approach has filmmaking qualities that carry over into conventional formats.
Making the movie was a leap into the unknown, says Lee, for everyone, cast and crew alike. His actors — who include Kristen Stewart, Garrett Hedlund, Chris Tucker, Steve Martin and Vin Diesel — knew they were taking part in an experiment on a grand scale. “I told them what I’m going to try, I also told them I don’t know the result, because nobody does.”
Everything on set would be different. They would be working with much bigger cameras and much more lighting. They would not have make-up. And Lee was going to be directing them in a new way, because of the particular sense of interior life he was trying to convey.
In the real world, he says, “anybody going through any moment can have 20 thoughts at the same time. It’s not always directional or focused, or purely one action.” Movies refine and distil this in the interests of storytelling and clarity. But for Billy Lynn, he felt the need to “try to make it different. This isn’t purely storytelling, this is a thought-process movie.”
That’s why he took a new approach to the direction of actors, he says. “Usually we give them a task and motivation, and anything deviating from that is prohibited — you focus on what you have to do. But with this, I have to throw them a lot of thoughts, even from take to take.”
Alwyn, who was the first to be cast, had an inkling of this when he shot some tests with the new cameras. He had additional preparation, including “a great dialogue coach” to help him with his Texas accent. There was a two-week boot camp with the actors who played the other Ang Lee’s latest film uses experimental technology that takes the viewer into the mind of the actors, writes
I FELT A RESPONSIBILITY NOT TO LET PEOPLE DOWN AND NOT LET ANG’S CHOICE IN ME DOWN
members of Bravo Squad, preparing them to feel and look like soldiers, and helping them to create a sense of the squad’s deep-seated camaraderie. There were moments in the film where we need to see, Lee says, that “they have to perform as one unit, one person, one body”.
For Alwyn, there was also Fountain’s book to draw on. “It was a mine of information that I could dip back into if ever I felt a bit lost or wanted to flesh things out and explore other areas. It was a really useful tool.”
On set, he says, he was aware the most experienced cast members were coming to terms with an unfamiliar approach. For him, it was a little different. “I had no reference point, no habits to unlearn, nothing in terms of making a more conventional film. I didn’t have to readjust to anything.”
Even so, “it was overwhelming at times, being thrown into an environment like that — having never been on a set before, full stop, I felt a responsibility not to let people down and not let Ang’s choice in me down. He put his faith in me and had a lot of courage choosing me, and I wanted to live up to that responsibility.”
Scenes of spectacle and combat, he says, were “physically and emotionally draining in an obvious way. But those quieter, more intimate scenes, say with Billy and his sister [Stewart], or when there are close-ups on Billy’s face and he’s just thinking, they’re difficult in other ways.
“It all had to be truthful, to come from a truthful, deep place inside me.” This, he says, is something that’s a part of any performance. “Be it 120 frames or 24 frames or film or theatre, you’re trying to be a fully formed human being and trying to be honest.”
Yet there’s something about Billy Lynn that magnified the challenge in every conceivable way. “When this huge camera is a centimetre away from my face, and my head is almost inside the matte box” — a device like a lens hood — “I knew it was going to see into my eyes. I knew that if I was pushing things too much and overperforming, it was going to pop out.” On the other hand, he adds, “If the thoughts weren’t there, you were going to see they weren’t there. If the intensity or emotion wasn’t there, this was going to show up.
“Ang was here to steer me through this, to say, ‘You’re acting too much’, or ‘You’re not giving enough’, or ‘ Try this way of thinking’.” He also felt encouraged to follow his own instincts, to build the character himself.
Will Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk lead the way for others? Lee thinks audiences who get the chance to see the movie at 120 fps in 3-D and 4K resolution will have a singular experience. “I think the way you engage with it is different. You allow yourself to participate in the story, instead of watching it.
“It’s closer to what your eyes see, although it’s in the movie format, with close-ups, editing, camera positions. Your eyes get sharper, you’re greedy for more details.”
He would like the film industry to pick up the challenge, to develop the technology further, and to enable more theatres to show the format. “The industry has a need for this. They want to bring audiences back into theatres. When people watch films on their iPhones, going to the theatre becomes a task.”
Yet it’s not simply about the technology, he says. Creative imagination has to come into play. “Industry is not doing something fresh, with superheroes or whatever,” says Lee. “I think we need new inspirations and new technology formats if we want movies in theatres to continue.
“I want people to see this, and I hope other filmmakers will want to join in.”
is currently screening. Stephen Romei reviews the film on Page 13.
Joe Alwyn, above; in a scene from the film, left; director Ang Lee, below