6 Filmmaking Tips From Ang Lee

By  · Published on March 6th, 2013

Coming off of his second Oscar win for Best Director, Ang Lee is as fierce a filmmaking force as ever. But even if his name comes with a sheen of prestige, it doesn’t change a broad range of topics and tones that he’s been able to capture on screen. This is the man who made the Civil War-era Ride with the Devil and contemporary dramedy Eat Drink Man Woman. Not to mention Brokeback Mountain right after Hulk.

The man’s versatile.

So here’s a bit of free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the Crouching Tiger From Taiwan.

Make What You Don’t Know

“I did a women’s movie, and I’m not a woman. I did a gay movie, and I’m not gay. I learned as I went along.”

Imagine that. You can step outside your own experiences and make something poetic and meaningful. Or absurd and entertaining ‐ whatever you’re aiming for. Of course, the last part of Lee’s statement is the most important there. You cannot simply be a storyteller in sheep’s clothing; you have to do enough to understand the points of view that you’re attempting to present. Otherwise, they’ll ring hollow, and you might as well stick to what you know.

Ultimately, the real lesson is to make what you don’t know yet.

Prepare to Immediately Regret Your Decisions

“Kid, water, big special effects, animals ‐ and they have to be in a small boat on water. It seemed to be a filmmaker’s every nightmare. I thought it was difficult and challenging and I got geared up and decided ‘I’ll be the one to do this’, but once I got into it I thought it was a dumb idea to have picked it up.”

Challenges are supposed to be scary. In that interview, Lee details a bit more about the challenges facing him when making Life of Pi, particularly the mountain of filming the unfilmable and adding the difficulty of 3D.

Find the Right Contest (One That Will Fund You)

This is probably the only practical lesson here, but it’s a big one. Think of how many script and filmmaking contests are out there, think about how many you’ve entered, think about the time and money that gets spent trying to win.

Now think about what these contests are actually offering as a prize.

That’s not to say that anything less than full funding of your winning script is a waste of time, but it’s paramount to weigh the reward against the cost.

Pay Attention to the Non-Obvious Chance at the Big Leagues

“How can you resist working with Emma Thompson? In [Sense and Sensibility] I didn’t think I did anything new for myself as a filmmaker, but I was bringing myself up to a new level. For an eastern director, it was the first significant western movie. Sense and Sensibility scared me because I had to prove I can endure a studio production, I can direct English language, I can work with a movie star, and so on.”

Be honest. If you were offered a period piece based on a classic novel for an Oscar-winning actress who’d most recently appeared in an Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy and who was getting her first screenplay made, would you think for a second that you were about to launch to super stardom?

Probably not. But that’s the movie that really changed the game for Lee (while scoring 7 Oscar nominations). The key is that there are opportunities that might not seem like launch pads even if they are ready to send the right person into orbit. Keep your eyes peeled.

Let Emotions Be Your Guide

“There is more than one way to make movies. To me it has to be led by emotion. That’s the only thing I could trust when making a movie. Emotions serve characters’ purposes. That is their motivation. Or at least it’s my safety net. The times you just don’t know what to do, every day people are asking you hundreds of questions: what should we do about this? The that? If we can’t do this, what about that? You have to have something centered around you, and to me, that’s always emotion. I’m an emotional person; maybe I rely on it. Maybe I’m melodramatic, I don’t know.”

Being Tired Can Be a Motivator

What Have We Learned

For the diversity, there are also some common kernels and themes that flow between the projects that Lee chooses to do. It’s kind of interesting to think about an alternative universe where Lee ended his career with Hulk, but thankfully he decided to get over his weariness by making something more intimate. Had he not done so, had he not continued on with Brokeback Mountain, he probably would have gone on to live comfortably as a professor somewhere without an Academy Award to his name.

His lessons here are challenging because they demand a certain amount of attention being paid to the unfulfilled possibilities of storytelling. Just as Lee sees a common Western-set love story in a movie many regard as controversial, he has also been able to see different routes to success, and he’s taken them not just to get ahead, but also because of their inherent value.

What that all amounts to is seeing something that’s hidden or, even more difficult, seeing something that hasn’t even come into focus yet. It’s about anticipating qualities in stories that others don’t readily recognize, and being able to bring them to the surface in a way that makes everyone catch on.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.