Ang Lee Rejects 3D for Bruce Lee Biopic: ‘The Whole Ecosystem Is Bad’ for the Format

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Ang Lee broke ground on films like “Gemini Man” and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” developing new camera systems to experiment with de-aging and high-frame rates in 3D. But as the old adage goes, you’re only as good as your last picture, and in the case of the Oscar-winning “Brokeback Mountain” director, he hasn’t released a new movie since 2019’s “Gemini Man” bombed at the box office. As did “Billy Lynn,” a movie that could only be shown properly in a small handful of screens, before it underperformed in 2016.

Lee, who is being honored at his alma mater New York University at a Tisch gala on April 8, spoke with IndieWire about his experiences making those films — and why he’s not going to repeat their innovations for his upcoming Bruce Lee biopic, starring Ang Lee’s own son Mason. Lee also had harsh words about the state of 3D filmmaking, which he said quite simply is all “bad.”

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Both “Gemini Man” and “Billy Lynn” were met with hostility for their speeds of 120 frames per second, giving the films (in crass terms) the look of a TV soap opera or sports broadcast with motion smoothing turned on at home. On the big screen and working in the language of 3D, Lee wanted to again achieve a hyper-realistic look in the case of “Gemini Man,” with Will Smith fighting a de-aged younger version of himself, that led more to uncanny valley comparisons. Ultimately, “Gemini Man” lost Paramount more than $100 million after the box office underperformed.

“I tried higher frame rate and I tried 3D,” Lee said. “I tried new ways of making movies. Those pictures are really sharp. That’s a lot of pressure. Everything is difficult, so that is always a great pressure. I cannot get into detail on how to make those movies. People have not tried even one minute of that scale. I did two feature films. That’s great pressure. Of course, that brought in economic pressure, studio pressures, doing something nobody really knows. That’s a lot of pressure. It’s quite complicated [in ways] that audiences don’t see.”

Lee had prior become disillusioned with the traditional 2D mode of making movies, which is what led him to “Life of Pi,” the 3D film that won him his second Best Director Oscar in 2013. “You can preserve it as much as you want, but I think everything’s been done back to the ‘70s,” Lee said of the current state of filmmaking’s need to evolve. “There have to be new ways of expression. 500 years from now, they’re looking back and saying, ‘70s is the peak of cinema? I don’t think so.”

Lee added that he does not want to “touch” de-aging again “because I got beat,” he said, referring to the failures of “Gemini Man” to connect with audiences.

“In general, not only my two movies, 3D in general … [is] so bad,” Lee said. “The filmmakers are bad. The theaters are bad. The whole ecosystem is bad. It’s not made for [3D]. I refuse to complain, to blame it on the medium… it’s the audience, and the industry, [who] were not prepared.”

He also criticized how 3D movies are exhibited, and how they tend to look dim in most venues, which is often the complaint of 3D movies when shown outside of IMAX screens.

“The theaters are stingy. It’s really dim, you can’t really see it. It’s flickering, and the 3D,” he said. “People do a poor job, [it] gives you a headache, it’s purely bad. You can’t blame the audience for not liking it because it’s bad. And they’re asked to pay more money. When it gets good, people like it. It’s simple. 3D is different than 2D. Your mind works differently. You cannot compare the two. One is sophisticated and the other is like a baby.”

Lee added, “That’s why I developed new projectors. It’s four times brighter. It’s a new language a filmmaker has to pick up, audience has to get used to it, it just takes time. There are bad filmmakers, it’s that simple. Audiences only see what they see. It’s dark, and they get a headache. Filmmakers don’t know what they’re doing with the images. It’s just the beginning.”

For that reason, Lee said he will not shoot the Bruce Lee biopic in 3D and is unlikely to return to shooting in high-frame rate any time soon, either.

“It’s too hard, especially after the two movies. The 3D is just too hard. I’ll go back to the regular way, the old way of making movies,” he said. “There’s a great story to be told, a lot to explore. I’m still working on it. But it won’t be in 3D.”

The biopic, titled “Bruce Lee” is set up at Sony’s 3000 Pictures, with a script by Dan Futterman, writer of the Oscar-nominated films “Capote” and “Foxcatcher.” Lee previously directed his son Mason in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” which was intended to be a historic theatrical event, only to be largely forgotten in Lee’s filmography. But still, he deserved praise for stepping into the future.

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