Ang Lee loves a challenge. Creating a tiger on a life raft was his challenge for Life of Pi. Filming at 200 frames per second was his challenge for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. For Gemini Man, Lee filmed at 120 frames per second, and created a 23-year-old clone of Will Smith.
Smith plays Henry, the best assassin at the Defense Intelligence Agency. When he retires, Clay Varris (Clive Owen) sends Junior to take Henry out. Junior is Henry’s clone, now aged 23. Smith plays both Henry and Junior, with the help of Weta digital artists for Junior. Lee, Smith and producer Jerry Bruckheimer were at a Los Angeles press conference for Gemini Man and Dream Alliance was there. Gemini Man is in theaters Friday, October 11.
Q: What made you say you’re the guy to direct this?
AL: Of course I’m the guy.
WS: That’s Ang’s inner gangster rapper. He has an inner gangster rapper that every once in a while just comes out.
AL: Well, it’s too attractive so that made me like yes. Each time I make a movie, I have that feeling I am the guy. There’s nobody else. This is my movie. You make that connection, the visceral connection. I do feel this one. Actually, the first person to talk to me was David Ellison in his office at Skydance. Now we’re getting into the digital work and how they create it. In my head, this is within reach. The first time we talked, I said I want to do it. I want to have a new approach and I want to try a different media. So I invited Jerry and the Skydance people into my New York editing room to see a reel of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. I said, “This is the media I want to do. I want to approach a digital way of shooting here.” And then they fell for it so that’s how we started. I have to give them a lot of credit for the support they have for this project. Some shots take a year and while we’re shooting, we have to turn over before they see anything. They’re like okay, we trust this guy.
Q: This story has been around a long time. Jerry, when did you come on and how did it evolve?
JB: Well, it’s been at least 10 years that we’ve been working on this. The issue was the technology hadn’t caught up with the creativity of the writer. So we had to wait for these gentlemen over here and Ang Lee to figure out how to get this movie made. We did some unsuccessful version of this. In testing it it looked pretty awful. So we kind of put it on the shelf until Ang said, “I have a new way of doing this. I’m going to create something really special” and he certainly did.”
Q: What was the breakthrough moment?
WS: We’re still waiting for that. I’ve been doing a lot of interviews and I think people don’t completely understand the depth of what you guys have attempted and accomplished here. So Junior is not de-aging. It’s not my face and then they smooth out my face to make it look younger. It’s a 100% digital human in the same way that the tiger in Life of Pi, they used a real tiger to understand the movement but in the movie when you’re seeing the tiger, you’re seeing 100% digital recreation of a tiger. This is not me de-aged. It’s a 100% digital interpretation of me. It’s a digital character. It’s the first digital human. So it’s actually a spectacular thing to be able to make people feel emotion in that way capturing the youthful eyes. That’s the thing for me that was so amazing, was the hardest part that me and Ang were talking about.
Q: How do you make sure the visual effect is always invisible?
AL: I have this whole plan of first we see him with sunglasses in bright sunlight, but he seems to see a ghost. It was an action sequence, very exciting so hopefully you accept that it’s Will Smith. Then I have a shot of an intimate moment. You get into the world being a real person. Then we move on. Then the trailer seems to give everything away. I got really, really nervous. I think everything you talk about, actually that was the easier part. People call it technology. It’s really an artist. We work with everybody’s imagination, collective subconsciousness so that the real challenge. The science these guys did was mind boggling. It is mind boggling study into the science of aging, our structure and how our emotion connects with every tissue in our body. That is mind boggling but that was, I would say, 10% of the work. When everything is absolutely right, believable, it’s not really believable because it’s too correct. Just mess it up so we think the movie you still play a different person in this new media in that situation. That was scratching our head and a very expensive process. Like Life of Pi, the tiger, I remember one day [I] wake up and from now on we know that tiger. There was never such a moment here. We come and go, come and go. It’s whimsical.
Q: Jerry, this is not a sequel, prequel, Star Wars, superhero or reboot.
WS: It should’ve been on Netflix.
Q: How rewarding was it to nurture this film along?
JB: It’s always great when you find a piece of material you love and you can bring it to an audience who hopefully they’ll enjoy it the way you enjoy it when you read it. You have to understand that when they talk about digital Will, it’s a performance. So it’s 100% Will’s performance on a digital full body. It’s not just they replace the head. It’s everything. So he wore a head thing. He played two characters in this movie. He did first the Henry part of it and then he turned around and did the Junior part of it. So it was grueling for him to play two parts every single day that those two characters were on screen together. So you have to understand the accomplishment that not only Weta did and Ang did, but his performance is outstanding for two parts. So difficult, draining.
Q: Why did you shoot 120 fps and what does that mean?
JB: I think the goal was to bring a new experience to an audience. We haven’t made huge technological advances in cinema in quite a while. Moving from black and white to color, we’re mostly digital now, makes the images clearer but this is a huge, huge jump as far as what an audience is going to experience. It’s immersive. It puts you right there with the actors and it takes a little while for you to get used to it because you’re not used to seeing something with such clarity ever. So Ang really is pioneering this technology because we have to advance cinema. People are so comfortable in their homes because they have big televisions and everything is interesting that we’re making for television. There’s a lot of good material on television now, so we have to have technology that you can’t actually see in your home to get people back in the theaters.
WS: It’s so clear, so it responds the way reality responds to your eye. That was the attempt to make it a much more realistic experience, so much so, it’s so crystal clear that the actors couldn’t wear makeup because when the camera comes in, you could see makeup on our faces. So I had to drink a lot of water. Couldn’t afford a breakout.
AL: For me, Will talks about clarity, to me is really the sharpness. I think when you’re doing 3D, the analogy would be more immersive. You make the experience how we experience real life so you feel it’s real. You’re in it. To invite them into that world, it’s not just clear and sharp. The way you process the image through your eyes with an angle is different than when we used to watch movies. It was more dreamy. It was a lot of things. It was the best thing to make anybody in our minds but this is something new. We want to experience the movie then, watching it, when you bask in a situation, I think your mind needs to be sharper. It just needs to be sharper in perception. Detail more accurate to even begin with. I think eventually we will go to the abstract. When you visualize it, it takes a lot of details and sharpness even just to process in our heads and believe that’s real, like real life. So the frame rate needs to be raised. The basic is the strobe free because in life there’s blur. There’s no strobe. It’s not lifelike. Your eyes want to believe that’s real and you have to get rid of obstacles to allow them to get into that world. It really challenges how you make a movie. We don’t know how. We just try and hope it works. It’s a new medium. It’s technology related but it’s really a medium. We’re trying to find a relationship to that medium.
Q: There’s been controversy about digital actors replacing real actors. This film proves it can be done. How do you think reaction will be from union folks?
AL: I think for a long time they don’t really have to. The digital one is a lot more expensive than this guy.
Q: Audiences have a love/hate relationship with 3D. How do you think the audience will embrace the experience?
JB: I think the 3D is so subtle, again, it feels like you’re actually in the room with the actors. It gives dimension to their performances. It’s not like the old 3D where you get eye strain. That’s all gone now. There’s no headaches anymore. The way they’ve done it, it’s very comfortable to watch and I hope the audience gets to experience it in 3D.
Q: How did you keep Henry and Junior separate playing them both?
WS: What Ang did that was really great is what makes someone, when you say oh man, he or she is really an actor’s director, is when they understand how to create circumstances for you to achieve the psychological and emotional space that they’re looking for. So Ang was really good about separating Henry from Junior in the scheduling. I would get lathered up into Henry and if the shift is too abrupt, it’s hard to get your mind around it. So he did a great job of separating the time from Henry and Junior so I could spend more time in one mindset or the other.
AL: At some point you feel this camaraderie. It’s like you’re in a trench together. At some point you feel like it’s us against the whole world. They don’t know. That’s actually a very selfishly wonderful feeling. I cherish every moment I work with actors or crews. That school makes me feel like I want to be a forever film student. To learn to do those things, it makes the work, make the movies.