Anger Management

What on earth is Ang Lee so worried about? The Oscar-winning director of the martial-arts fantasy "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" is leaning against a wall outside his office at the Marin County, Calif., visual-effects factory Industrial Light & Magic, his right hand pressed flat against his cheek, as if he has a toothache. He's listening to a conversation (about--what else?--summer movies) between his producer, Larry Franco, and a NEWSWEEK reporter, but he's not contributing much. He looks exhausted. Like a man who's spent 2i years making a movie--a very big movie--and now has a month to finish it. But Lee will be done on time. So what's eating at him? Is it that this movie, "The Hulk," has a higher budget than his seven previous films combined? Is it that, at a price tag of $150 million, it's one of the most expensive movies that Universal Studios has ever made? Actually, no. "At this point, for Ang, this is a small movie," says James Schamus, who co-wrote "The Hulk" and has worked with Lee for 11 years. "His ambition always gets him far beyond where he needs to be."

--It must be something else, then. Something huge. And green.

It's pretty rare when the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the room actually resembles an 800-pound gorilla, but that's the case with Lee's film version of the legendary Marvel comic-book franchise. Top billing on "The Hulk" goes to Australian actor Eric Bana ("Black Hawk Down") and Oscar-winner Jennifer Connelly ("A Beautiful Mind"), but the film's real draw is an entirely computer-generated monster who emerges whenever Bana's character, Berkeley geneticist Bruce Banner, has a major-league snit. Universal executives decided to give the world its first peek at their big green gamble during the Super Bowl in January. The next day, they were the ones turning green. Comic-book lovers and Web geeks decreed that Hulk looked puffy and fake. Never mind that the movie's June 20 release was six months away--an eternity at ILM--or that marketers had futzed with some shots in a misguided attempt to give the trailer more juice. The buzz was set, and it was bad. Which is why Lee's hand has been welded to his cheek for 10 minutes. Finally, Franco, the production's chatty cheerleader, can't take it anymore. "Ang, trust me," he says. "Don't. Worry."

Listen to the man, Ang. The Hulk in "The Hulk" is arguably the most challenging CGI character ever attempted--a thinking, feeling monster who grows from nine to 12 to 15 feet depending on the size of his tantrum, runs 100mph, leaps three miles and tosses tanks like toy cars--but Lee and ILM have pulled it off. The creature actually gets more impressive as Hulk emerges from darker settings into the light of day, culminating with a showstopping set piece in the Mojave Desert. (Gollum was great, sure, but he resided in a fantasy world, not ours. He was also a wuss.) Lee humanizes Hulk, in part, by crafting an unusually naturalistic action movie. Shots of lichen, rocks and aging wood dot the film, lending it a handmade feel. Lee's movie is like "Spider-Man's" soulful, moody big brother. It'll be interesting to see if fans of one sniff at the other--but no matter what, "The Hulk" will have lots of fans.

The film, at its heart, is a Freudian drama about a son struggling to escape the sins of his father. "It's a journey of self-discovery rather than, you know, saving the world," says Bana, "which is good. I think it's more believable." Banner, recently single after getting dumped by his lab-partner girlfriend, Betty Ross (Connelly), is a gifted scientist in the field of nanomeds, which purports to heal patients on a molecular level. Unbeknownst to Banner, though, he's continuing work that his estranged father (played by Nick Nolte, who's evidently sticking with the mug-shot look) began 30 years earlier--and took a bit too far. Daddy Banner experimented on himself and passed on mutated genes to his newborn son. After grown-up Bruce survives a gamma-ray accident at his lab, his anger over a tragic childhood triggers the genes and spawns a jumbo-size headache for all of northern California.

It was no picnic for Lee, either. After "Crouching Tiger" won four Oscars in 2000 and became the highest-grossing foreign film, the Taiwanese-born director had his pick of projects. That Lee chose "The Hulk"--a summer blockbuster based on a comic book he had never read and a 1970s TV show he had only vaguely heard of--came as a surprise. But it probably shouldn't have. Since launching his career with offbeat comedies like 1994's "Eat Drink Man Woman," the 48-year-old has ricocheted from one subject he has no business conquering to another, from Victorian England ("Sense and Sensibility") to 1970s American suburbia ("The Ice Storm"). Isn't a comic-book movie the next illogical step? To Lee, though, all his movies--including "Hulk"--are about the same thing: emotional repression. "It clicked right away," he says. "I call Hulk my new Green Destiny [the sword in 'Crouching Tiger']. Both films are about the real you that you try to cover up with your culture and your character. It's the darker side, the anger. It's the unknown."

For Lee, the unknown on "Hulk" was the visual effects. Not only had he never worked with CGI before, he wasn't especially interested in it. "I don't even know how to turn a computer on," he says. (OK, he's joking. Then again, Lee's office at ILM was surely the only one on the campus without a computer.) But when his visual-effects supervisor, ILM's Dennis Muren, told Lee his team could make Hulk so realistic that its performance could be directed like an actor, the director knew he had to go from zero to 60 in a hurry. So he did something ILM never expected: he moved in for six months. "I don't think they ever see directors," Lee says. "If I don't read them wrong, I think they liked it."

Mostly. People who work with Lee typically have the same response to the experience: adoring frustration. Lee is a really nice guy--and a self-confessed pain in the butt. On "Sense and Sensibility," he famously told Emma Thompson to "stop looking so old." Connelly laughs when she hears the story. "It seemed like 'keep your chin down' was Ang's No. 1 direction for me--and I don't know why," she says. "He definitely doesn't mince words. I might take it differently from someone whose work I don't admire. But Ang is so talented he gets the benefit of the doubt." The ILM team got a healthy dose of the Ang Lee treatment. "Ang is--how to put this?--charmingly naive about CGI," says graphics engineer Chris Townsend. "He'll look at something really complex and go, 'Well, that doesn't look real.' People who know the industry and saw some of the early stuff we'd done were blown away by it. But to Ang, it didn't look real. So that's it. End of discussion. At one point I was sick to my stomach. I thought, 'My God, what if we can't pull this off?' He's got incredibly high standards. And that's wonderful." Muren, an industry legend who's worked with every titan in the blockbuster game--Spielberg, Lucas, James Cameron--says that he's met only one director as demanding and passionate as Lee about his art: Stanley Kubrick.

Universal had given Lee "The Hulk" because it knew he wouldn't let the characters get overshadowed by the action. By the time the director turned in his first cut, though, the studio was concerned that the action was getting overshadowed by the characters. Hulk's look was no longer a sticking point. Everyone was happy. But the studio asked for changes in some dramatic scenes, and Lee--eventually--acquiesced. "I come from art house, where you can do what you want. If things don't make sense, people will make sense out of it. In summer movies, you have to remember you're dealing with popcorn. It just means making things more... normal. Likable. What the studio calls 'playability'." Lee rolls his eyes, then laughs. To satisfy his bosses, he trimmed the film's slower first third and toned down the weightier dialogue. "There's a reason why they do things the way they do. So I had to learn all that and then try to break it. Do it my way." Breaking the rules may not be as dramatic as breaking, say, walls--but it still draws a crowd.

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