“If I had known what I was doing, I wouldn’t have done it,” laughs director Ang Lee, recalling his gruelling five-month shoot in China for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
His ambition was to make what he calls an “A-grade version of a B-movie.” But back in 1999, China simply wasn’t equipped for the task.
“People ask me what it was like. I reply (that) it was like handcrafting a Space Shuttle,” Lee says.
Filming took place six or seven days a week, round the clock. “If you want to do a martial-arts movie well, it takes a long time,” he says. “Half the time we had two units going at once, day and night, 12 hours each, with me doing the daytime shoot then driving for an hour to another set and doing the nighttime shoot. I slept in the car.
“Plus we had three different major locations, in different corners of China, and sometimes the shoot was four or even 12 hours from our base.”
The physical challenges of locations, logistics and skills were matched by his own creative battle to shape the material in his own head, and to capture that vision on camera.
“For a long time during the shoot, I couldn’t make sense of the whole thing,” he confesses. “In the midpoint of shooting, I was still changing the script. That was the most painful part, to go through an elaborate production without knowing what it was about. I lost sleep over that, it was hair-raising.
“I found the tone pretty much in post,” he says. “That was hair-raising too. We had something like 400 or 600 visual-effects shots, between Los Angeles and Hong Kong, and we were not experienced in that. But we were younger then.”
The agonies of production, including a race to get the film ready for Cannes, were rapidly replaced by ecstasy when the film was unveiled in the Palais de Festivals. “It was an instant hit, everyone loved it,” Lee says.
That was when the team at Sony Pictures Classics came into its own. SPC had acquired North American rights and other foreign territories as part of the pic’s financing, but was characteristically hands-off during production. “Every time I did a cut, Michael (Bernard) and Tom (Barker) saw it, but if they said anything, I don’t remember,” Lee says.
But when the film was delivered, they seized the moment with gusto. “They had the best time in their career with this film. It was a Chinese martial-arts movie, and they are arthouse guys, so they tried things they had never tried before. They really had a blast. From Cannes to the Oscars, that was an amazing journey, and it would be the highlight of anyone’s career,” Lee adds.
The target was to double the $7 million box office of Lee’s previous “Eat Drink Man Woman.” In the end, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” topped out at $128 million in the U.S., and $187 million worldwide, according to Rentrak.
“Michael and Tom are some of the most fun people that I’m friends with, not just to work with. Michael knows everything about everything to do with film, and Tom is this big burly guy who protected me a lot,” Lee says. “I’d love to work with those guys again.”
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