THE THOUGHTS THAT COUNT

Philippa Hawker

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - Billy Lynn’s Long Half­time Walk

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

Joe Al­wyn, above; in a scene from the film, left; di­rec­tor Ang Lee, below

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