Ang Lee is known for being a gentle spirit with few enemies in Hollywood. But underneath his calm demeanor is a spine of steel, colleagues say. That side of the two-time Oscar winning director was on full display during the punishing shoot of his latest endeavor, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which opens in limited release next week.
Lee and Tom Rothman, the hard-charging movie chief of Sony Pictures, clashed regularly during filming and in post-production, according to insiders, on the roller-coaster production with a $40 million pricetag (after tax credits). Many of their most heated discussions stemmed from Lee’s decision to shoot the Iraq war picture (based on a 2012 best-selling novel) in 120 frames-per-second, a new record for a big screen feature (most movies are shot at 24 frames-per-second, while Peter Jackson and James Cameron have dabbled in 48 frames-per-second).
Rothman wasn’t sure about the high-definition glisten that resulted from the accelerated speed of the images, especially when it came to the series of scenes set backstage at a Texas football game. He liked the effect during the battle sequences, but asked Lee to consider blending different frame rates, so that the outcome of some of the more run-of-the-mill interactions wouldn’t be as jarring for viewers (early reviews on “Billy Lynn” have faulted the movie for being “hyper-real,” more akin to a telenovela). Lee, who maintained final cut of the movie, experimented with some of Rothman’s suggestions, but ultimately abandoned them, believing they were not what he was out to accomplish, sources tell Variety.
After Lee’s final version came in, Rothman decided not to outfit hundreds of theaters — like Warner Bros. did with “The Hobbit” in 2014 — with high-tech projectors that could handle the data required to screen Lee’s opus. As of now, only five locations around the world will be able to screen “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” in the way Lee wants it to be seen: 120 frames-per-second, 4K resolution and in 3D. That’s left many pundits scratching their heads. But the truth is, market research indicated that audiences gave higher scores to “Billy Lynn” at the regular 24 frames-per-second, which is how the movie will play at 800 or so theaters when it expands on Nov. 18. (Other high-frame-rate screens could be added later on.)
A representative from Sony declined to comment. Despite tensions, colleagues say that the heated back-and-forth between Lee and Rothman is typical of the way the two men work with each other. And they have a long relationship, dating back to 1993’s “The Wedding Banquet,” 1997’s “The Ice Storm” at Fox Searchlight, and 2012’s “Life of Pi” at Twentieth Century Fox. Stephen Cornwell, a producer on “Billy Lynn,” described Rothman as a champion for Lee’s latest endeavor. “I felt that he was deeply supportive of Ang in a profound way,” Cornwell said. “I think he deserves credit for letting Ang do the film and for allowing him to go on that journey.”
Lee’s publicist, Simon Halls, added: “Ang and Tom Rothman have had a longstanding and productive relationship for more than 25 years. Their latest collaboration on ‘Billy Lynn’ has resulted in a beautiful film that features the most advanced technology available today. They embarked on this project together, they worked tirelessly side by side to create a new and exciting moviegoing experience, and they are both looking forward to unveiling the film to the public in a few weeks’ time.”
“Billy Lynn” has had a long walk to the big screen. The movie got off the ground when Film4 chief Tessa Ross optioned the book several years ago, and Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) was brought in to adapt the script. Lee became attached in mid-2014, after the studio had flirted with other directors such as Yann Demange (“’71”). At the time, with the director coming off “Life of Pi,” every studio was eager to land Lee’s next project.
Lee had been studying 120 frame-rate for a biopic that was to recreate the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” fight between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, which fell apart. He decided “Billy Lynn” would be a good vehicle to unveil the groundbreaking technology. There were other reasons to think that “Billy Lynn” would be a success: “Gravity” had just become a box office phenomenon, and Hollywood was eager to find new ways to lure audiences into movie theaters.
When it was greenlit, the hope was that “Billy Lynn” would be a major awards contender, like “Life of Pi” which went on to gross more than $500 million. (Rothman and Lee also battled on that project, but the end result was a beloved blockbuster that picked up 11 Oscar nominations.) Instead, “Billy Lynn” finds itself saddled with mediocre reviews out of the New York Film Festival last month and moribund tracking. The film is expected to debut with less than $10 million, a disappointment given its star-studded cast that includes Vin Diesel, Kristen Stewart, Steve Martin, Garrett Hedlund, and Chris Tucker.
The box office uncertainty of “Billy Lynn” could be another blow for Sony Pictures, which is having a mediocre year with titles such as “Inferno” (which is at $18 million domestically), “Money Monster,” and the “Ghostbusters” reboot. And within the studio’s halls, the project is being described as a misfire for Rothman, who shepherded it to the big screen while he was head of TriStar pictures. Even after he was elevated to the head of Sony in 2015, he remained involved, visiting the set in Georgia during shooting of the half-time sequence that serves as the emotional crescendo of the story. Sony co-financed the movie with Jeff Robinov’s Studio 8, Bona Film Group, and Film4.
When Rothman was tapped to rejuvenate TriStar in 2013, he argued that mid-budget pictures could still find a home with audiences. So far, however, that bet has failed to pay off. TriStar offerings such as “The Walk” and “Ricki and the Flash” have failed to drive ticket sales. Nor is TriStar alone. The mixed buzz for “Billy Lynn” points to a larger issue that major studios are having developing projects that aren’t comic-book sequels. In 2016, adult dramas have continued to struggle to draw big crowds, with such recent failures as “Deepwater Horizon,” “Snowden,” and “The Birth of a Nation.”
In an interview with Variety last spring, Lee acknowledged that the production had been fraught, but said he hoped that “Billy Lynn” would shake up the movie business. “Literally, a lot of the time, I know what we’re doing,” Lee said, adding, “This is something new. We just scratch our head and try to figure something out. It’s a lot of pressure when you take that much money to make a movie.”
Leo Barraclough and David Cohen contributed to this report.