HULK MOVIE ARTICLE: Creating a Monster

"This is an art-house film inside a huge action-adventure canvas," she says flatly. She clearly thinks that Lee is the one director capable of pulling off such a hybrid.
The Hulk: Creating a monster
Director Lee rises to challenge

UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. -- It was a new experience for the technical wizards at Industrial Light And Magic. Their job was to use computer-generated imagery to create the massive figure of the Hulk -- to provide 1,165 pieces of muscular movement, to develop realistic skin tones, veins, wrinkles, wounds, even dirt.

And at the end of a collective 2.5 million computer hours involving the talents of 69 technical artists, 41 animators, 35 compositors, 10 muscle animators, nine CGI modellers, eight supervisors, six skin painters and three art directors, they would have given birth to a being 15 feet tall. He could lift 5,000 pounds, leap three miles at a time and run 100 miles an hour.

It's the sort of challenge on which ILM thrives. But on this occasion, there was a new and unexpected dynamic in the equation -- the presence of diminutive director Ang Lee acting out the Hulk's complex emotions and body language, taking technicians through key sequences to show them exactly what he wanted audiences to see and the kind of movie he intended to make.

"I'm trying to make a delicacy out of American fast food," he told them. It was an astonishing comment, given the nature of Lee's assignment, but he wasn't kidding.

He had a further message for the ILM people: "I am the Hulk." To be sure, he had a real actor, Eric Bana, portraying Bruce Banner, the obsessive scientist whose exposure to gamma radiation triggers his transformation into a ferocious rampaging monster. But Lee had decided that no one but himself could convey the essence of the Hulk to ILM's creative team.

"I was pretty much desperate to show them," he admits now. "With actors, you can talk to them and then they feed you back their performance. They can get analytical. But Hulk is no actor -- he doesn't talk back. He doesn't feed me back. I think it would be easy if he's just a creature, but if you identify with him in a human context, which is the purpose of making this movie, then it's a lot harder."

He says he was being driven crazy by the thought of the animators creating this character out of their own imaginations rather than from his vision of the movie. "So finally I had to do it. I know how it fits in -- I know how to pretend and look real."

Lee is chatting with reporters in a cavernous sound stage on the Universal lot. He is shy and tentative in many of his answers. This is partly due to unease with the English language, but there's also anxiety about how his movie will be received when it opens on June 20. Hulk -- the latest item to be based on a legendary Marvel Comics series -- is Universal's biggest summer release. But it's a mass-audience film that has been entrusted to a director whose tastes veer in quite a different direction.

Lee won recognition on the art-house circuit 10 years ago with The Wedding Banquet, an amusing comedy-drama about a young Chinese male's attempt to conceal his homosexuality from his traditionalist parents. Two years later he surprised critics with an excellent film adaptation of Jane Austen's Sense And Sensibility. He then delved into suburban American tragedy with The Ice Storm and offered a cerebral look at the American Civil War with Ride With The Devil. Then came his biggest international triumph, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Lee has demonstrated his impressive versatility, but Hulk poses a different kind of challenge. And no filmmaker entering this genre has had such a radical notion of what he wants to achieve.

He laid it out for Nick Nolte when he set out to persuade that actor to play the Hulk's mysterious father. Nolte had served notice years ago that he didn't want to do any more Hollywood movies, but Lee won him over when he told him: "I don't know how to make a comic book. I know how to make a Greek tragedy."

Producer Gale Anne Hurd, the canny lady behind The Terminator and Armageddon, is under no illusions either about what Lee is attempting. "This is an art-house film inside a huge action-adventure canvas," she says flatly. She clearly thinks that Lee is the one director capable of pulling off such a hybrid.

Lee has his own spin. "I think it's an opportunity for me to make a big movie without a big movie star to open it," he says mildly. But he's also had the freedom to impose his own sensibility on such a film. "This is franchise material. It will open big because people will come to see the Hulk. I think for filmmakers it's a rare chance. You can do a personal film on a huge canvas."

But fans of both the comic book and an earlier TV series are fiercely possessive of the Hulk. So how will he respond if they start sounding off?

"I can't," he says helplessly. "This is a 'new' episode. Some will like it." He's not even sure that he'll read reviews, figuring that he'll "go crazy" if he does.

"I hear 120 different opinions which way to go. All I can try to do is to give it my best shot and try to please them as much as I can."

He says he's tried to give the film a comic book feel. That's the justification for multiple screens, but this procedure also reflects concerns that have gnawed at him for years. "Why do we have to cut away? Why can't we see both faces at the same time? Why can't we compare?" He talks about working with his film editor Tim Squyres in search of fresh techniques, about the thrill of choreographing multiple shots. A comic book sensibility -- where there are several frames on a separate page -- suits this purpose wonderfully. "When you open a comic book page, you go to the most prominent part -- you have your own choice."

Yet he's conscious of the enormity of the gamble that he and his longtime screenwriter, James Schamus, are taking. "That makes it very scary for me. I have nobody to blame. If it doesn't work, it's my indulgence and my inability and my weakness."

The Hulk starts June 20 at Pacific and Centre Cinemas.
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