Ang Lee’s latest film is discussed by a panel of its stars.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is the latest film by legendary director Ang Lee and is based on a novel of the same name by Ben Fountain. The film was filmed in staggering 120 frames per second, a rate previously thought to be impossible to achieve. It was screened as a special event at the 54th New York Film Festival. On October 15 there was a press conference attended by the film’s stars Kristen Stewart, Joe Alwyn, Chris Tucker, Garrett Hedlund, Steve Martin, and Makenzie Leigh. Also in attendance were Lee and Fountain.
Read below for the highlights from the conference.
Ben, seeing your novel realized in this way, did you recognize your work? Do you see it is a separate entity? Do you see this as something that feels authentic to your initial vision? Does the way Ang approached this feel true to what you were trying to do in the book?
Ben Fountain: I feel like the movie stayed absolutely true to the spirit of the book in terms of exploring that gap between reality and fantasy which is as wide as the grand canyon, a continental-wide grand canyon, in American life. One thing that really pleased me about the movie, and is carried over in discussions today verbally and in the press, is we get into these issues of what’s fake and what’s real. What’s true and what’s false? There’s a point in the book where Billy is thinking about the news footage that made him famous and he’s thinking about the fact that the news footage looks so fake. And he’s thinking about the Hollywood movie that might get made about the Bravos and he’s thinking, ‘well maybe that’s what it takes the make it look real: the fake’. Then he starts thinking, ‘well how much fake does it take to make the fake look real?’ And you know what does it mean when only the fake looks real? And the real looks fake? I think we start to lose our way. So in a very perverse way it pleases me that not only did Ang capture the spirit of the book in the movie, but it’s kind of overflowed the boundaries of the movie. What does that say about human consciousness that the real looks fake and the fake looks real? His movie busts open all those questions. Does American film criticism have the intellectual chops to start dealing with this?
Kristen, a question for you, you play Kathryn and she’s kind of the most overtly anti-war character in the film. Is she the conscience of the film? How do you view her function in the story?
Kristen Stewart: I was a lot younger when this all went down. And I think that I share a really generalized sort of remote relationship to it that most of the people my age do. Unless you’ve had a family member serve or unless you’ve become fervently involved politically which, to be honest, my generation has very little to do with. What I found most interesting about this was just that you have somebody who is essentially a pacifist. In the film, she never describes her liberalism in more words than anything that doesn’t sound completely humanitarian and that doesn’t just sound like somebody who’s provoking somebody or really requiring them to think for themselves. And acknowledging a massive gap between herself and somebody she’s known intimately her whole life and now could never hold as close she has because they’re now different beings. That experience changes someone to an extent that you can’t hold them as close enough as you’d like to, to love them as much as you’d want to. I think what she’s doing pretty topically – but it’s good timing, it’s fucking perfectly appropriate timing – is to be like, ‘well have you actually considered the fact that these inexplicable pieces are affecting us and you’re my brother and you’re so inside of something that you haven’t ever been given the opportunity to understand’. And is that fair? And can you be proud of that? And that’s a first-person situation. Now take all of us out of it, I have so much more distance than somebody who may have served does. Yet I still have those same feelings. Can I own my feelings because do I really understand it? I don’t think that she’s a completely left-wing anti-war, it’s just like let’s just understand what we’re fighting for and I think that she worries for him. What’s gonna happen when your training fades and all of those mechanical default responses fade and you become a human being who doesn’t know how to contend with what happened? And how do we contend with putting those people there? It’s hard and it’s not really something that anyone has done yet really. She’s kind of the epitome of question rather than opinion which I think is pretty cool.
Makenzie, your character seems very much an idealized representation of something for Joe while also very grounded. It’s amazing you could sell such a convincing relationship in such a compressed period of time. Was it challenging to give it substance and reality?
Makenzie Leigh: In some ways no, because Joe and I had a really instant connection and chemistry and yet, I was fearful that you would not have the same reaction. So I’m glad to hear that! But I think the most interesting thing for me was it was the first time that I got to play a woman who equally projected ideals onto a man. Because so often we’re viewed with the male gaze and it was amazing to have the opportunity to speak to sexism as it relates to masculinity and all of the things that we say that we want men to be and that both of these sides are actually very damaging. And it was really nice to feel that for once I was being idealized, but so was he. And not to take away from the unique, more animalistic connection, but there are these dreams that are not necessarily to be lived in.
A question for Ben, the clear character archetype in this story is that of the soldier. Were you trying to turn this archetype on its head in some way or show us a side we haven’t seen?
Fountain: I wasn’t thinking about any kind of theory or archetype when I was trying to write this book. I was just trying to tell this story correctly from the inside out. People have made the observation that this book has a political element and I felt like if I was gonna do it properly the politics had to come from the inside out. There was a sense that if I told the soldier’s story properly it couldn’t help but be political. You can’t write about war or make a movie about war because there’s the ‘what happens’: people doing unspeakable things to people. But a half-beat after that you’re asking yourself why. Why are people are doing this to one another? That can’t help but be a political question. That goes all the way back to Homer and the Odyssey. What’s the story of they Odyssey? It’s about a group of soldiers trying to get home. And only one makes it; Odysseus. And why exactly were they fighting that war? It was because Menolaus’ brother’s wife ran off with Paris, the prettiest boy in the Hellenistic world. What a sorry excuse for a war. They should’ve said ‘go get your wife back, but don’t involve the whole country in a war’. And I wonder if Homer is saying something about bullshit wars and is it harder for a soldier to come home from a bullshit war or to deal with a bullshit war than it is to deal with a war that is said to be arguably more just.
A question for Ang, this film really places you in the space of the battlefield. Now there are guys taking cameras with them into war and we’re getting closer and closer to feeling what it’s like to be over there. Was that something that drove you to this film?
Ang Lee: In a way, yes. I did military service. I grew up in Cold War era in Taiwan so we all had to do that, but I was lucky we weren’t engaged in a firefight or anything like that. So I guess I missed the best part and the worst part. But in a way, making a movie, I can associate with those soldiers. Reading the book and other materials, it does have an us versus them feeling. Very often people come to me to talk about my movies and I really when people talk about Billy Lynn they’re talking about themselves. At the same time, I really want to get into my art and understand life and people and do my thing. There is a bit of me in this and I tell him that he’s my avatar. I do associate with the soldiers in some ways. But in some other ways, this movie is an extension of Life of Pi because I care about man’s relationship with God, and when I say God I mean our emotional attachment to the unknown. When I read the book and I read about the halftime show and the battle I said I wanted to put it together because then I’d have a movie. That’s personal. When making art you may try to stay neutral, just examine, and don’t give comments, but you cannot help that because you’ve got instinct, you do connect. I think we are at the point that we need to understand soldiers. Since the Vietnam War, there is no draft. We become detached from soldiers. They’re a class of their own and they get smaller and smaller. It’s us against them. It drives me crazy. And every war is very specific. The Iraq War experience is different from the Vietnam War, from the Second World War. They’re all different, but we treat them like they’re the same, like they’re an idea.
Photo credits: AwardsDaily.