There’s an interesting contradiction going on when you talk to Ang Lee about Gemini Man, the Oscar-winner’s action-thriller starring Will Smith as an over-the-hill hitman being hunted by his younger clone, Junior, a role also performed by Smith but created digitally for the film. The director always notes that underneath the shootouts and the explosions, the theme of the film is the dangers of thinking you can play God, the hubris of creating life. But Lee is also adamant that Junior is not a result of the de-aging technology we’ve seen recently in Captain Marvel and trailers for Martin Scorsese‘s The Irishman; the younger Will Smith is 100% a digital creation, which means, technically, Lee and the folks at Weta Digital have created a living person from the ground up.
Which is why, during a recent round table interview with the director in Manhattan, I had to ask Ang Lee whether it felt strange to play God just like Clive Owens‘ villainous mercenary-turned-Doctor-Frankenstein, Clay Verris. To his credit, Lee isn’t exactly denying the comparison.
“Even with the previews, people are like, “You know what? [Verris] kind of makes sense,'” Lee laughed. “I was like, ‘We’re fucked. We are the bad guys. We are fucked. Okay, I’ll make sure the music tells people that he is evil.’ You know, make sure they compose the evil music.”
But that doesn’t mean the Life of Pi filmmaker isn’t going to continue his quest to change the theatrical experience with the highest-tech possible.
“Will I stop it?” Lee said. “No. I’ve been too curious.”
Junior isn’t the only technical leap in Gemini Man. Continuing the experiments he toyed with in 2016’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Lee shot his latest film at an extra high frame-rate, 120 frames-per-second, which means for a lot of the film it looks like you’re seeing Will Smith on the other side of a hyper-clear window, every single pore on his face included. Yes, this is the same tech that made Peter Jackson‘s Hobbit trilogy look like the worst LARP’ing home video in history back in 2012. But the process has evolved a good deal since then. Lee adjusted Gemini Man for 3D, which meant shooting the footage using brand new lightweight ARRI Alexa M cameras capable of capturing that sky-high frame rate at 3.2K resolution on a 3D rig.
Lee seems endlessly fascinating by pushing the limits of how crystal-clear a film can become, and refreshingly candid in admitting he has to agree to a big, loud action movie starring Will Smith to afford the chance to play around in that cutting edge sandbox.
“I will say this, I have to deliver action movies. And I have great fun doing it, exploring how you change the courses of action, how you stage it,” Lee said. But the filmmaker’s intentions with the tech are on a much more personal scale. “I think I gained the most from studying people’s faces,” he said. “People think 3D is high-tech and anything high-tech is the opposite of art and soul. I don’t buy that.”
“Because I want to study those faces I have to deliver action and spectacles. I’m delighted to do it but I think the biggest gain is small things like studying the human face close up. This media, you read through people. They cannot fake it. They have to fake it differently, rather…they really have to get the visceral feeling and every take I have to hit them with different thoughts. It’s distracting, so they can react or so they look alive instead of performing well. They have to be a lot more genuine, a lot more complex. I think it’s a wonderful world when you do the digital phase and the body study. It’s like a microscopic study of what drama is….what age does to you, cell by cell.”
So what’s Lee’s end-goal for the human-creating, eye-popping tech he’s playing with in Gemini Man? “I hope dramatic film gets to use it,” he said. “If all you do is an action movie, doing car crash and monsters, I don’t think it’s worth it.”
But really, Lee just wants what any cinephile wants: To make the theatrical experience an event again, worth leaving the house and all those streaming options behind for a night of worship under the big screen.
“I hope someday people stop calling it a high frame rate. They can call 24 a low frame rate. You don’t call it a ‘color film’, or ‘talking pictures’. You say ‘silent film’. Let’s explore that new world. My dream is, I hope this movie do some business and other filmmakers join in and we develop this thing. And bring people to the big theater. I would like to imagine single theaters come back with a big screen. Different seat layout. More immersive. I would like to see people go back to the temple, spiritually, of the theater. That’s my dream.”
Gemini Man hits theaters on October 11.