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|Posted: Sun Nov 25, 2007 9:37 am Post subject: Ang Lee - A Chicken Coop, but No Tigers
A Chicken Coop, but No Tigers
By JENNIFER FREY
Published: November 25, 2007
THE director Ang Lee, whose films have won eight Oscars out of 27 nominations, does not have a screening room in his four-bedroom home in Larchmont, N.Y., and rarely uses a computer or a cellphone. And instead of a fancy swimming pool in his backyard, he has a chicken coop.
“I don’t lead a Hollywood lifestyle,” said Mr. Lee, 53, who bristled at the thought of living either in Los Angeles or his homeland of Taiwan.
“In Taiwan, I’d be like Michael Jordan walking down the street,” he said. “Here I can live a normal life, and still make movies in the city.”
Sitting at the Watercolor Café in Larchmont one Saturday last month, Mr. Lee had just returned from 10 days promoting his newest film, the controversial “Lust, Caution,” released in September in the United States with a restrictive NC-17 rating. Home for four days before flying to London, China and Korea — a grueling schedule that won’t let up until January — he talked about making Westchester County his home.
He and his wife, Jane Lin, a microbiologist who drives a Mini Cooper, sent their sons to public school. Haan, 23, graduated from Mamaroneck High School in 2002; Mason, 17, is currently a senior there. “We’re not private school types,” Mr. Lee said. “We wanted to lead a very grounded, normal life. That’s what Jane likes.”
Normal, of course, is relative. Trick-or-treaters to the Lees’ home fish out Mars Bars from the very same bowl that held car keys for the notorious key party in “The Ice Storm.” And several fighting sticks from his martial arts fantasy “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” are displayed in the basement.
Still, when Mr. Lee is home, he is a typical suburban father. “I basically drive Mason to his friends’, pick them up, take them home,” he said. “Drive him to cello lessons and recitals.” Mason’s friends “know what I do,” he said. “But I’m just a pretty regular dad.” He also does the cooking. Mr. Lee has never really gotten used to American food, and Ms. Lin doesn’t like to cook. So when he can, Mr. Lee whips up wontons and other Chinese homestyle delicacies.
Mr. Lee and Ms. Lin speak Mandarin together at home, but converse with their children in English. Mr. Lee would also like to observe traditional Chinese festivals, but, he said, “Jane’s not up to it.”
While Mr. Lee is in charge of the kitchen, Ms. Lin rules the roost, he said. “Jane runs the house — she has her three boys,” he said, including himself in the head count, “and we have to listen to her. She makes the rules. We have to obey.”
The couple moved to Westchester in January 1986 so that Mr. Lee could be close to New York City and Ms. Lin could take a job in Valhalla at New York Medical College, where she is an assistant professor of pathology. They briefly rented a room from a friend in Chappaqua before moving into a small apartment in a blue-collar neighborhood of White Plains. Mr. Lee remembers those years as a time when he and Ms. Lin would take the children for outings at the Rockefeller State Park Preserve and spend hours at the White Plains library. They lived in White Plains for 11 years before moving to Larchmont.
“Larchmont is relatively relaxed,” he said. “It’s low-key. You can get involved as much or as little as you want. So it works out good for us. I feel comfortable here. The school system is good. The kids are happy at school. It’s a friendly neighborhood. We identify with the place. We’re totally residents here.”
“Totally” is relative. Because of Mr. Lee’s prodigious output — he has made a movie almost every year since 1992 — he has been away anywhere from six to 10 months of the year. He took his first extended leave from home in 1994 to film “Eat Drink Man Woman.”
“It was tough leaving the family for four months,” he said — so much so that he prepared and froze a couple hundred dumplings before he left.
Soon those lengthy stays became routine. He was in China for more than five months straight while filming “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and even longer for “Lust, Caution.”
“I feel bad,” he said. “I never saw Haan in a fencing competition. I missed all his games. I missed most of his teenage years.” But he said Ms. Lin and his sons backed his ambitions.
“It’s an us thing,” he said. “I cannot do it alone. I need the support of them. We have no regrets. I missed some of the family life, but those are good movies. They’re worth the effort. You have to sacrifice to achieve something. So it’s fair. A lot of people sacrificed and didn’t get the same result. We’re handsomely rewarded.”
Nonetheless, Mr. Lee has managed to carve out more time for his younger son. He moved his postproduction to a studio in Rye so that he could attend Mason’s football games. He made just about all of them, worrying that Mason was the smallest on the team and thrilled when his son decided to switch to acting.
For several years Mason performed in his school’s Semi-Royal Shakespeare Company, and Mr. Lee caught most of those performances, said Barbara Whitman, a Larchmont mother and Broadway producer whose son acts with Mason. Ms. Lin volunteered regularly, Ms. Whitman said, and once when Jane was sick, Mr. Lee replaced her backstage. “He was wonderful,” she said. “He’s very unassuming. You’d never know who he was, unless you knew.”
Last year Mason started acting at the Play Group Theater in White Plains. Mr. Lee was in China filming “Lust, Caution” when Mason made his debut in “Guys and Dolls,” but he caught the next show, “Zanna, Don’t!” The prospect of being an empty nester next year when Mason goes to college, Mr. Lee said, “is frightening — I don’t want to think about it.”
He still remembers his own flight from home. Mr. Lee was born and raised in Taiwan, one of four children. His mother, Se-Tsung, 82 and still living in Taiwan, taught elementary school. His father, Sheng Lee, who died three years ago at the age of 91, was the principal at the prestigious Tainan First Senior High School, which Mr. Lee attended. His stern father expected Mr. Lee to get his doctorate in America, and then “do something useful,” said Mr. Lee.
But Mr. Lee had other ideas. “I was very quiet, very shy and docile,” he said. “I loved watching movies and making up scenes in my head.” After failing the university entrance exam, he entered a three-year college to study drama. He said his father wasn’t happy. “My culture doesn’t regard acting highly,” Mr. Lee said. “It’s shameful to be an entertainer,” because of their perceived low morals, he explained. But, “once I acted on stage, I just knew that was my niche.”
In 1978, after finishing mandatory military service, Mr. Lee came to the United States to study theater at the University of Illinois. He met Ms. Lin during his first week there, in a car headed to Gary, Ind., to cheer for the Taiwanese team in a Little League championship. Mr. Lee opted for filmmaking rather than acting because of his limited English. “Making movies was easier for me,” he said. “It’s sight and sound. It’s not a lot of language, like being on the stage.”
After graduating from the University of Illinois in 1980, he received his master of fine arts at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. He and Ms. Lin married in 1983 and Haan was born the next year. Frustrated by the lack of filmmaking opportunities for Asians in the United States, Mr. Lee said, he had planned to return to Taiwan. “I didn’t think I had a chance here,” he said. But his plans changed rather dramatically. At 9:30 the night before his belongings were to be shipped to Taiwan, he received a phone call informing him that his 43-minute thesis, “Fine Line,” had won N.Y.U.’s award for outstanding direction. He was immediately picked up by the William Morris Agency.
But he soon learned that getting his foot in the door was only just that. “There was nothing,” he said. “I realized nobody hired me through the agency. I was waiting for a job, nothing was happening. I realized I had to write my own manuscript.” From 1986 to ’90, the Lees lived solely on Ms. Lin’s income. “I sent in script after script,” Mr. Lee said. “Most were turned down. Then there would be interest, I’d rewrite, hurry up, turn it in and wait weeks and weeks, just waiting. That was the toughest time for Jane and me. She didn’t know what a film career was like and neither did I.” Hundreds of scripts were turned down until Mr. Lee entered a Taiwanese-sponsored competition with “Pushing Hands,” a screenplay about a traditional Chinese tai chi teacher living in Westchester.
In 1991, “Pushing Hands” was released in Taiwan and was a success there. He followed that up with the making of “The Wedding Banquet,” released in 1993, which gave him his first Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film. From then on, he did nearly one film a year. “I freaked out if I didn’t have anything to do because of the six years waiting,” he said.
In 1994, he made “Eat Drink Man Woman,” which garnered another Oscar nomination. “Sense and Sensibility,” his first mainstream movie, was released a year later. It won an Oscar for best writing, picking up seven nominations in all, including the first of his three Academy Award nominations for best picture (the others were “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). And in 1997 he released “The Ice Storm,” a small arts theater film about a suburban Connecticut family careening out of control. After that film he bought his home in Larchmont.
“We drove the kids nuts looking for houses every weekend,” Mr. Lee recalled. Then on a whim, he and his wife asked to see a house that their broker had dismissed as a small, overpriced cottage sitting in muddy marshland. “I immediately fell in love with the place,” he said, particularly the waterfront setting. Soon after they moved in, they started taking the same train line into Manhattan as did the fictional characters in “The Ice Storm,” Mr. Lee said with a laugh.
A year later, Mr. Lee was in Kansas City, Mo., filming the American Civil War drama “Ride With the Devil” when he got a phone call from home. The baby chick that Ms. Lin had brought home from work escaped into the marshland and died. “The kids were crying and crying over the phone,” he recalled. “To comfort them,” he said, Ms. Lin bought another chick. And another. “I came home, and Jane and the kids were raising chickens,” he said with a chuckle. After a little dispute with his neighbors, he moved the chicken coop to the back of his property, where it remains today.
Mr. Lee didn’t become a household name until the release of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” in 2000, the highest grossing foreign film at that time. The Chinese language film, infused with magical special effects, won four Oscars including one for best foreign language film, and received numerous awards outside the Academy. Three years later he made “Hulk,” based on the Marvel comic book character. Unlike “Crouching Tiger,” “Hulk” got poor reviews and was a box-office disappointment. Mr. Lee considered retiring early, but found encouragement from an unlikely ally — his father. “He said, ‘You have to go on, you can’t quit,’ ” Mr. Lee recalled. “I finally got his blessing as a filmmaker — not because I got an Academy Award, but because I was leading a normal life.”
AFTER “Crouching Tiger” and “Hulk,” both of which were physically draining to produce, Mr. Lee didn’t want to tackle anything big. “I was exhausted. I just wanted something to do so I wouldn’t be depressed at home.”
So he took on a small, independent film “that I thought wouldn’t get much attention,” he said with a laugh. That film, “Brokeback Mountain,” became a cultural phenomenon, and nearly swept the Oscars in 2006. “ ‘Brokeback Mountain’ was my happiest time for years,” Mr. Lee said. “I was quite relaxed because I thought no one would see it. That movie was almost therapeutic for me.” His family visited him twice on the set, in the Calgary area in the foothills of the Canadian Rockies.
Mr. Lee celebrated his birthday just weeks after the release of “Lust, Caution,” which received mostly good reviews, and he is feeling his age.
“In the last four movies, I had to spill guts,” he said. “I’m really beaten by film-making. It takes a lot out of you.” Making “Lust, Caution,” with its graphic sex scenes, along with his giving upward of 50 interviews daily, had been so exhausting, he said, that he didn’t want to discuss the film. The intensity of directing the movie, he said, was “just so draining.”
“And to get it done in China was a big effort. I want to take a break. I’m exhausted.”
While Mr. Lee is rumored to be working on “A Little Game,” a film with his longtime friend, the producer James Schamus, Mr. Lee said the project was still in its infancy. He has nothing lined up now, and he is looking forward to a break, he said. After he wraps up his tours for “Lust, Caution,” he said: “I’ll just crash. Catch up with my family. Help Mason with college applications.”
Screening room or not, “I’ll be a bag of potatoes,” he said, giving a visual twist to the familiar phrase.