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If fans believe the fate of ''The Hulk,'' opening June 20, rests on whether the title character will look frighteningly real or frightfully like Gumby on steroids (as early trailers with unrefined F/X seemed to suggest), they may be right. But in many ways, the success of this film hinges on whether Ang Lee -- the 48-year-old Taiwanese director profoundly uncomfortable with revealing his own emotions -- has what it takes to let out his inner Hulk.

''To me,'' says Lee, the filmmaker behind 1995's ''Sense and Sensibility'' and 2000's groundbreaking ''Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,'' ''the Hulk is the manifestation of the part of yourself that you're trying to deny.... He's the big unknown that is hiding in the deepest level of brain structure -- the reptile part of your brain, the 'fight, flight, f---' center. Bringing that out was the reason why I wanted to do this guy.'' Sure, he would jam the film with the character's trademark ''Hulk smash!'' ''But I don't think that's the juice,'' says Lee. ''It's just good psychodrama.''

Star Jennifer Connelly says she was inspired by Lee's vision. ''When I first met him, I asked why he wanted to do this,'' recalls the actress, who committed to the project before it even had a finished script. ''He said, 'I don't know, but here are some of my ideas.' I just found those ideas so intriguing and creative and kind of brave.''

The ideas, however, required organization, and Lee and his producing-writing partner, James Schamus, struggled to corral the concepts into a screenplay. After a key brainstorm -- adding a mysterious father figure -- they arrived at a story that plays like this: After a flashback focusing on a military scientist named David Banner (Nick Nolte), the plot flashes forward to Banner's son, Bruce (Eric Bana), also a scientist. He's just been dumped by another scientist, Betty Ross (Connelly), because, dammit, the emotionally aloof man can't open up. One day, an accident in their lab exposes Banner to gamma radiation. Henceforth, when he gets mad, he becomes a raging permutation of his id. Searching for a cure leads to conflict with Ross' Army-general father (Sam Elliott), an exploitative military contractor (''Sweet Home Alabama'''s Josh Lucas), and Banner's dad, who holds the secret to Bruce's painful past.

To cast the role of Bruce Banner, Lee looked to 34-year-old Eric Bana. The Australian actor is a star in his country, thanks to the TV comedy series ''Eric'' and ''Full Frontal,'' but to the rest of the world, he's known only for two humorless roles: a serial killer in 2000's art-house release ''Chopper'' and a Delta commando in ''Black Hawk Down.'' In 2001, Lee asked Bana to meet with him in New York City, where they talked mostly about their children (Bana has two kids with wife Rebecca; Lee has two with wife Jane Lin, a molecular biologist whose expertise was tapped for the film). That was the extent of the audition. Four months later, while Bana was in Australia filming a movie called ''The Nugget,'' his cell phone rang. ''I was looking out over the bush, being told I had to move to L.A. for 'The Hulk,''' says Bana, an unassuming man with angular good looks. ''It was quite surreal.''

Lee liked the actor for the edgy intensity he'd displayed in ''Chopper.'' He also liked his underexposed face: ''We don't need a big star to open the movie.? The biggest star of this movie is the Hulk.''

For the actor, Banner's tortured psychology proved elusive. ''It was very daunting -- and a lot of pressure -- to find something that I could relate to and build a character around,'' says Bana, who adds that Lee was a ''demanding perfectionist, [but] the beauty of this experience was walking away feeling like you could do anything.''

It was never Ang Lee's intention to actually play the Hulk in his movie. When the director wrapped filming last August, his plan was to return to his home in New York, where he would edit the film and keep tabs on ILM's animation work via long-distance videoconferencing. But last fall, Industrial Light & Magic showed the director and Universal some techniques that would allow for an even more realistic ''performance,'' particularly in how the Hulk's face could articulate emotions. Lee's conception of what was possible changed radically; a tender sequence between Connelly's Ross and the Hulk, for example, could now be constructed as a back-and-forth of intimate close-ups.

That would require reshoots, which took place earlier this year -- just after Connelly married her ''Beautiful Mind'' costar Paul Bettany and announced her pregnancy. (''I was tired and crazy and a bit weepy on the edges,'' says the actress. ''I was like, 'Are you sure this is going to match [what was shot previously]? Are you sure it's going to cut together?''') It would also require more dough -- an estimated $20 million more.

Ever the hands-on auteur, Lee also decided he needed to oversee the work, which meant moving to Marin County for seven months. Moreover, Lee wanted to act out much of the character himself, instead of relying solely on the athletes, wrestlers, and others ILM had also filmed to create a template for their work. ''Really, only I know how he should act,'' says Lee, who likens his Hulk to Jackie Chan in Arnold Schwarzenegger's body. ''It was the only choice we had.''

So, garbed in a wired motion-capture suit that recorded his movements, Lee performed everything from the raging ''Hulk smash!'' to a swooning Hulk in love. Finally, Lee had found a venue that gave him permission to unleash his bottled-up emotions. ''It felt f---ing great,'' laughs Lee, whose catharsis cost him a bout with tendinitis. ''It was very therapeutic. I realized -- this is why I needed to do 'The Hulk.'''

But for the ILM staffers who toiled on ''The Hulk,'' Lee's hovering presence -- and peculiar vision -- wasn't always so flipping great. ''It's been hard on the crew,'' confirms ILM's F/X wizard Dennis Muren. Lee -- who initially regarded the animators as button pushers, not artists -- admits to having been ''quiet and nitpicky.'' Halfway through the process, the producers asked Lee to give the staff a pep talk. He agreed. ''I needed to let them know I was a different kind of person,'' says Lee. Later that day, while reviewing the animation work, Lee shouted ''AWESOME!'' after the first shot hit
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