Ang Lee admitted he was nervous before the first public screening of his new film, “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” at the New York Film Festival last month. The director was concerned if the first audience to see his film would be receptive to its unique 3D look. “Let’s give it a chance,” Ang Lee implored the audience, adding, “have an open mind.”
“Billy Lynn” is shot at 120 frames per second, which is five times faster than how we watch movies, and it’s in 3D, “like our eyes,” said the director. Ang noted that it was eight to nine times the brightness of a regular 3D movie. It does take get some getting use to, and on a first viewing, the result is an intense hi-definition image that almost feels like virtual reality.
The movie is adapted from Ben Fountain’s book of the same name, set in 2004 when George Bush was in the White House, and focuses on 19-year-old Army specialist Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn making his feature film debut). Billy Lynn returns home to his small town in Texas with the surviving members of his troop, Bravo Company, who just returned from a fierce firefight in Iraq where they lost a number of their comrades.
In Texas they find themselves in the surreal situation of participating in the halftime show of a Thanksgiving Day professional football game. While applauded for their sacrifices, Bravo Company also become objects of cheap sentimentality, while the slick football-team owner (Steve Martin) exploits them and tries to lowball them for movie rights to their story.
Kristen Stewart plays Billy’s older sister who tries to talk her brother out of returning to Iraq for another tour of duty with his army troop, who has now become his de facto family. The love and responsibility the Bravos feel for each other is the driving force and subject of the film.
Stewart, who had three films in the NYFF, demonstrates again how charismatic and strong she’s become as an actress; it’s impossible to take your eyes off her when she is on screen. Of her character, she told journalists, “Because of her brother’s wartime experiences, she comes to acknowledge a massive gap between herself and somebody that she’s known intimately her whole life and now could never hold as close as she has because they’re different beings.”
Stewart added, “That experience changes somebody to an extent you can’t hold them as close enough as you’d like to, love them as much as you want to. What she’s doing is pretty topical. It’s good timing. It’s f…..king perfectly appropriate timing,” said the actress of the timeliness of the film’s theme, using the kind of salty language that cracked up journalists at all her press conferences.
The other big names in the film include Vin Diesel and Garrett Hedlund as senior officers. Makenzie Leigh plays a cheerleader who catches Joe’s eye, and Chris Tucker is the Bravo’s publicist who tries to do right by the Bravos and aggressively tries to sell their story to Hollywood. The stars of the film, along with Lee and Fountain, attended a press conference last month in Manhattan to promote the movie.
Alwyn, the 25-year-old British star of the film, went straight from acting school in London into his first major acting role, and has the kind of beautiful face the movie’s technology requires. Asked what filming was like in this new format, Alwyn said he had no point of reference to compare it with.
“Because it was my first movie, I didn’t have any references of making a normal film before with normal technology, so for me, it was a little less weird probably than other actors” in the film, he told me on the red carpet. “But it was strange. I could tell it was unusual. The cameras were very, very big, and very, very close to your face. You often couldn’t see the other actors who were looking at tape on a box around the screen. It took some getting used to.”
But the unusual circumstances of the shoot helped him find his character, he said. “In the same way that Billy is thrown into quite an extreme, strange situation, I suddenly found myself in an environment I’d never been in. It was unusual for me, and I tried to use part of that in my performance.”
Steve Martin had concerns of another type going into the film.
“I thought, ‘Okay, I’m 70 years old. I’m going to be shot in hi-def, with no makeup. I’m going to look fantastic!’”
“You know how you take a photo of your dog with your phone and his nose comes out like this?’ And his nose is almost as big as his head. I thought, ‘Okay, I’m going to be in 3D. Is my nose going to be out in the audience or what?’ But I prepared for the role. I went to fancy restaurants. I drove expensive cars,” Martin joked.
He adds that he was impressed by the idea of the technology. “I’ve been in situations where crazy things happen on set, shooting under crazy circumstances, and the 3D camera was actually quite physically beautiful. It became very attractive. It’s a gorgeous piece of machinery, and the operation of it is so skillful,” said Martin. “I felt, I think all the actors felt, I can only act and do my job, and in many cases, I felt like we weren’t really acting somehow. It was quite a natural experience.”
He added, “I felt very comfortable in the environment. It’s like a process that is really, really fun, especially when you’re working with very talented people, so that’s why the scene becomes the important thing, what you’re getting from the other actor. But you have to have a memory of what happened in the scene, because you might be acting with the actor hidden completely behind the camera.”
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” opened on November 11.