He’s our worst fear: ourselves

Special to The Times

The Universal Studios back lot, part tourist attraction, part working film facility, sprawls elaborately across the hillsides of North Hollywood, from Lankershim Boulevard to scrub canyons known mostly to coyotes. To visit a pair of crucial exteriors where director Ang Lee is shooting “The Hulk,” you first drive, then hike, advancing even further into the concrete wilderness than a sweating Albert Brooks trudged on his way to meet a faux Steven Spielberg in “The Muse.”

Walk on past the sound stage where the real Spielberg shot “Jurassic Park” (it’s now occupied by a sinister-looking “Hulk” set, where the title creature will be tormented by a gaggle of government operatives) and past the row of star trailers. There’s Jennifer Connelly, who plays Betty Ross, emerging from her trailer with a tolerant smirk -- or is it grimace? -- at the cigar smoke that’s wafting downwind from where Eric Bana, who plays her sometime boyfriend Bruce Banner, sits outside his trailer in a lawn chair, patiently killing time.

Today the Oscar-winning actress from “A Beautiful Mind” will enact a tense, emotional scene with the Australian discovery Bana, whose credits include the brutal-thug title role in “Chopper” and a Delta commando in “Black Hawk Down.” Playing a man who was hit with gene-altering bursts that cause the quiet Bruce Banner to “Hulk out” into the 15-foot knot of angry muscle that is the title character, Bana has to show a repressed man whose presence will compete with a giant, gray-green alter ego. For the computer-generated, tank-chucking Hulk creature, says Bana, “there is complete access to the audience.” For Banner, who must evidence well-buried demons, “there’s a large brick wall.”

Connelly, too, will admit to having her hands full: “I didn’t know what my niche was, because I’m playing a part in a drama where the man I love has problems expressing his emotions. But it’s also an action movie and also a comic book. And when he finally does turn into this green being, it doesn’t become tongue-in-cheek after that. You have to stay invested, and that’s a challenge.”


The dramatic work is far from the only challenge for the tent-pole comic-book entry from Universal. This afternoon marks the 86th day of what was planned to be 77 days of principal photography, every foot of it supervised by Lee, who’s far too meticulous to farm out even the most rote action sequences to a second unit. But the straight-up moviemaking may be half the battle or less.

What’s been clear since a snippet of the green behemoth was shown in a much-touted 45-second spot during the Super Bowl is that not just the usual Weblogging comic-book aficionados, but also every film buff in range of the water cooler has an opinion on how the computer-generated Hulk played on the small screen -- and the great majority of those opinions were negative. What’s been less widely known is that a group of exhibitors who saw newer computer graphics work at the ShoWest convention in March were reportedly quite pleased with it.

Found recently in his artwork-strewn temporary office at Industrial Light & Magic’s post-production facility in San Rafael, the 48-year-old Taiwanese-born director unflinchingly compared his work to a reproduction near him on the wall: “Cezanne tried to blend painting and drawing in the same picture, and the effort of combining the two was really the art ... not for the sake of success, but to leave the evidence of effort of mixing those two elements together, which is a great inspiration for me.

“I do have to deliver the goods. The exhilaration of kick boxing, action and Hulking out, fighting -- smashing whatever” -- Lee laughs -- “puny humans. But what really gets to me is the alter ego part. The true self we are all hiding in the dark. That’s the Hulk to me. So when the audience sees the movie, they are dealing with their own Hulk, the unknown, truthful self that we try to cover up all our life with our reasoning, with our social skills. It’s the opposite of us, but it is probably the real us, it’s big, it’s monstrous, and we’re so afraid to show any of it.”


Such aspirations are perhaps less inspiring to Vivendi Universal shareholders, who are rooting for a franchise series of films, videos and merchandise, as well as a new attraction at theme parks. Then there are the folks from Mountain Dew, Reese’s candy, Glad products and others hoping to ride the green being’s broad back to a global marketing coup. The film, opening June 20, is Universal’s big summer action flick and it faces stiff competition from other franchise films, including the sequel to “Charlie’s Angels,” which opens a week later.

Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider has been quick to lateral the credit to co-production chief Mary Parent, but it fell into place largely because of decisions she made along with Chief Operating Officer Ron Meyer. In a surprise move early last May, they created a specialty films division that would employ “Hulk” screenwriter and co-producer James Schamus, who has worked with Lee on all seven of the director’s films. He is a co-president of their new specialty division, Focus Films, incorporating Schamus’ Good Machine shingle, which co-produced “The Hulk.”

Any misgivings Snider has had about the costly rumbling noises Hulk has been making up the hill from her office must to some extent be muted by her corporate relationship with one of its key producers. Even Barry Diller, who until his March resignation as co-chief executive of Vivendi Universal was looming over the film division’s spending like a stern uncle, had been said to be much in favor of bringing in the Good Machine brain trust.


Call it cozy or claustrophobic, the relationship between studio and director hasn’t meant that Lee is rushing the shoot. In a franchise universe of baying, technocratic directors and their howling first assistant directors, Lee is the almost silent exception. (“He’s got to keep a lot of balls juggled,” Schamus says protectively.) As you approach the directorial command center on the studio lot, the clatter of carpentry work and the drone of the production’s hurrying golf carts drop away, and a certain gravity settles in. So somber was the set that when Bana brought “Black Hawk Down” pal Kim Coates to look in on a day’s shoot, Coates accused Bana of setting up the silent treatment just to spook him. “He turned to me,” recalls Bana, “and said, ‘You’re kidding with this, right?’ ”


Curling uphill takes you to today’s set in a grove of trees. The producers have dubbed this Berkeley Street, and it’s startlingly real, complete with transplanted and man-made trees and shrubs, a graceful curve of macadam and a group of six houses that perhaps look so real because they were built to closely resemble actual homes Lee scouted in the hills above Berkeley. Lee emerges from one now, en route to a consultation with his producers, but he will pause to admire the block that has erupted here where once was mostly sagebrush.

A wry, somewhat shy man who’s given to frequent if subdued laughter, he takes it all in and admits, “It’s so wonderful to do a picture this size and with your own vision. It is so personal, a lot of it is handcrafted, no different than independent filmmaking, but it is more freedom because you have the money to do that.” In fact, the budget for the film, originally $120 million, is believed to be considerably higher now because of extra shooting time and post-production costs.


If it all starts to sound like the answer to the question why do movie tickets cost $10?, take into account that Lee is well ahead of the typical director’s cost-to-profit ratio. His innovative “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” grossed more than $125 million domestically and cost just $12 million to make, painstakingly and with considerable commercial daring, in mainland China. Although it was this success that enabled Lee to turn down what Schamus reckons to be some 20 tent-pole films before he took on “Hulk,” the director had already captured industry attention in 1993 with “The Wedding Banquet,” one of a series of family-themed films. It grossed $30 million worldwide but cost $750,000.

He may have seemed like an offbeat choice for the decidedly English “Sense and Sensibility,” scripted by and starring Emma Thompson, but he seemed as at home in the patrician Jane Austen countryside as he’d seem in 1970s Connecticut and Manhattan with 1997’s less commercially successful “Ice Storm.” The critics were fairly cool to the Civil War western “Ride With the Devil,” leaving him with two low-earning outings in a row. But “Crouching Tiger” soared like one of its cleverly rigged and choreographed martial-arts scenes, collecting 10 Oscar nominations (it won four) and went on to become the highest-grossing foreign-language film of all time.

The bar is raised for Lee on this film: Anything less than a $400-million worldwide box-office take might be seen as a shortfall based on the mega-success of the comic-book blockbusters “Spider-Man,” and “X-Men”. One man who’s characteristically refusing to betray any doubts is Marvel Studios CEO Avi Arad, a compulsively informative, filmmaker-friendly man who started as a toy inventor and has been embraced by the studios as a gatekeeper who created an instant empire by aiming high.

“Ang and I have been in sync from the get-go. It was pretty clear that our dream was to be able to make a Hulk, to maintain humanity within him. So it’s not, God forbid, the ‘King Kong’ of this generation,” Arad says. “ ‘X-Men’ dealt with some pretty deep emotional issues, and that was our first big, big hit,” he continues. “And believe me, there were a lot of scared people at the time looking at [director Bryan Singer] saying, ‘Watch the depth, man, it’s a July movie.’ And why? People get stupid between May and August? I never got that -- summer movie, let’s make it nice and dumb. No, let’s make a good movie.”


Among the classics -- and Arad isn’t shy about insisting Lee is making one -- the Marvel executive likes Lee’s comparison to Greek tragedy and the Frankenstein story, but prefers “Beauty and the Beast.” “Betty is trying to get through to Bruce to say, ‘Hey, open up. Let me inside you.’ And you know what’s inside him is the Hulk.”


As Lee arrives at the ersatz street, producers Gale Anne Hurd and Larry Franco stand nearby, available but not overly so. She’s a Hollywood veteran of several pictures with James Cameron. The go-to producer can talk philosophy with an auteur one minute and order up the right crane the next. Franco’s a classic line producer, a bearded, burly presence whom Bana credits as the production’s amiable still center.

Lee and cinematographer Fred Elmes peer into a monitor as Bana and Connelly sit at a kitchen table in Bruce’s house. (The Berkeley setting offered ready access to state-of-the-art labs where Betty and Bruce could be seen in their jobs as geneticists and happens to be where Schamus studied for a graduate degree in film.) Their dialogue has her trying to figure out what Bruce has to do with the previous night’s chaos in the local lab.


“I had the most vivid dream,” he tells Betty, who (true to a familiar Lee character subtext) has her own repressed feelings to deal with.

“Her science is about healing wounds,” Connelly explains, “and that’s what she’s trying to do with him. I think anyone who is devoting all their time to that, it sometimes turns out she has a thought to healing herself.”

The couple will be interrupted by veteran actor Sam Elliott as Gen. Thunderbolt Ross, Betty’s father, who’s hardly a hero but, in true Lee (and Marvel movie) fashion, not an outright villain. He’s protective of his daughter and feels a duty to further the lab work on the Hulk (both the Army and the unscrupulous Talbott, played by Josh Lucas, want to exploit the creature’s genetic mutation to create a soldier who can heal his own battlefield wounds). Ross will step overbearingly into the couple’s life.

“It’s a real growth for these two characters,” says Elliott, who took some inspiration from his relationship with his own 17-year-old daughter. He says he was happy to do repeated takes, as all the actors did, for Lee.


“There’s the story where William Wyler had Olivier doing a scene, and Olivier said, ‘What is it you want?’ and Wyler said, ‘I want you to do it better.’ Ang knows it when he sees it,” the actor explains.

Nick Nolte plays Banner’s morally compromised father in a performance praised by other cast members and the producers. Lee recalls visiting a somewhat disheveled Nolte in Malibu, who showed him blood-testing apparatus (“a gothic experience,” says Lee) and said he’d need three months to get in shape: “I bit my tongue not to say just come like that.”

When Betty goes to Bruce’s father seeking answers, Connelly says, she has “that sort of childish, ‘Here is my loved one’s father, everything is going to get healed, and everything is going to be OK,’ and the guy is, disappointingly, really creepy.”

A look at some footage supplies all the proof her assertion needs. Watching the careworn but seethingly powerful old scientist move in on her is unsettling, and the reason he steals her scarf apparently has something to do with the Hulk dogs. These latter have been teased considerably on the Internet. Although we meet them as household pets, says Lee, they have been mutated in ways similar to the Hulk and there will indeed be a scene where their personalities are writ large. But Lee won’t discuss details.


Meanwhile, Talbott, the sometime boyfriend of Betty and a greedy military scientist, can be found on the interior set at Universal getting ready to go to work on Banner with what the film’s military advisor, Nick Teta, a former Navy SEAL, calls a “sexied-up” electric cattle prod.

As Talbott, Lucas does much of his work reacting to a taped mark or even a stick held at Hulk height. Arriving fresh from playing the likable country boy in “Sweet Home Alabama,” Lucas found that acting opposite a mark “can be very lonely; a big chunk of my stuff is playing alone with a being that doesn’t exist. It’s the hardest kind of acting that you can do, and in certain ways the purest, because you’re like a 4-year-old boy in a sandbox saying, ‘OK, this is Godzilla.’

“But my experience has been working with a master who’s supremely specific, and he’s taken an action genre and turned it into a psychological story as well. He’s really putting you into the psychological space to play emotions instead of just trying top hit a mark.”

Among the visual aids plastered around Ang Lee’s ILM lair are some of the original “Hulk” strips, all the way back to the comic book’s start in 1962.


“The back story, that very first comic, was interesting -- that melancholy mood,” Lee says. “I think Hulk is the first novel superhero who is a tragic monster. I would hate to make him the obvious meathead, violent creature.”


Lee admits to some torment as he teaches himself what the ILM technicians, such as Spielberg collaborator Dennis Muren, already know -- and then pushes them beyond that.

“We don’t do it overnight,” Lee says. “You have a whole year to make that work. It’s a constant job. Handcrafting, it is not push-button. There is no formula. Even at this budget and technology, the computer is not as smart as I hoped.” And the Hulk presents particular problems: “Because of his weight and the green color, psychologically you have to have more details. A constant effort.”


The stress isn’t solely on the technical side, Lee notes. “It was hard for the actors making this movie, hard for me too, to mix the fantasy-world tone and the realistically emotional acting.”

The filmmakers gave a nod to the “Hulk” TV series of 1977-82 by giving its star, Lou Ferrigno, a cameo. But a more immediate influence was video games. Lee shot his film with a greater than usual number of camera positions, sometimes parking cameras side by side, or looking over both shoulders of an actor. As a result, he’s got plenty of footage to play with, and will split his screen horizontally, vertically, even on an angle. It’s not just a split screen, says Schamus, but more -- “an image-rich environment.”

Says Lee, “I think it’s about time when I can choose my frames ratio [with images of multiple shapes and sizes on the screen at once]. It just opens up so much more dimensions. You can practically be Picasso if you want to.”

If he sounds like a revolutionary, Lee isn’t backing off. He, like Arad, doesn’t buy the traditional warm-weather formulas. “I cannot speak for how everybody feels about summer movies, but I think I can speak for a lot of people globally. We’re bored by the summer movie. I can’t take it anymore. It’s time for a change.


“I hope we can make that change. I don’t feel we have a different mood from summer to winter, but somehow that is how they market it. And summer is a very long and boring two months.”

Early and late in the film, he says, the desert plays a part in evoking a sense of place, literally and figuratively. “That is where [the government] is testing things, and that’s where they hide their base. That’s where things get buried. The desert’s haunting and everything is there to grasp. I think it is both poetic and secretive, and it’s also probably pretty real. It is poignant. I think it’s beautiful.”

Lee, sitting beneath his array of comic book images and classic art, looks up brightly with a flicker of amusement: “Just because it’s summer, we don’t have to be meatheads, do we?”