Acclaimed director Ang Lee visits Wellesley to discuss his filmmaking process

Ang Lee at Alumnae by Bianca Pichamuthu '16


Contributing Writer

Ang Lee at Alumnae by Bianca Pichamuthu '16

Ang Lee at Alumnae
by Bianca Pichamuthu ’16

The Department of Cinema and Media Studies and the East Asian Studies Department, in collaboration with the Newhouse Center for Humanities, hosted a series of Ang Lee movie marathons throughout October in preparation for the director’s visit at the end of the month. His talk at Wellesley was part of a series of events throughout the year highlighting Chinese cinema, and it was met with great enthusiasm by a packed crowd of students, faculty and guests.

Lee, a director made famous by his extensive work in critically acclaimed films such as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Life of Pi,” both charmed and educated nearly 1,200 audience members.

People began gathering outside Alumnae Hall at 8 a.m. on Oct. 26, well in advance of the director’s 10:30 a.m. talk. The conversation was moderated by Professor Mingwei Song of the East Asian Studies Department, and Lee spoke alongside his longtime friend and collaborator, James Schamus. Schamus is the CEO of Focus Features and has worked with Lee on eleven films, their relationship spanning a 22-year period. The talk was casual and entertaining; Lee and Schamus first answered prepared questions and then took questions from the audience.

Lee was good-natured and modest, often cracking jokes about his job and his “inability to do anything other than making movies.”

“Think about it, I have such a weird job,” he said. “I just sit and all day people come up to me asking what I want.”

When asked to give advice to students who are interested in the film industry he shouted, “Don’t do it!” eliciting laughter from the audience.  He elaborated that it is an extremely difficult industry and unless one is completely invested in it, it’s not the best idea to pursue filmmaking.

The conversation covered various topics, ranging from very specific questions about thematic elements in his films to general questions about diversity in the film industry. When talking about “Brokeback Mountain,” Lee mentioned that he had wanted to make a low-budget film “that no one would see” so he could focus on his own direction in movie making. Schamus discovered the short story by Annie Proulx and pitched the idea to Lee, who found the narrative extremely moving and decided that it would make a good subject for his low-budget film, because “who’s going to want to watch a movie about gay cowboys?” Ironically enough, the film premiered in 2005 to universal praise and box office success. Lee won his first Academy Award for directing this movie, becoming the first Asian winner of the award.

Lee and Schamus spoke candidly about the representation of different ethnic groups in the Western film industry. Lee said that while he did feel there was a lack of Asian representation in Western films, he thought that this is due to the fact that there are fewer Asian actors in general relative to actors identifying with other ethnic backgrounds.

“I don’t think directors or anyone have an obligation to have diversity in their films, because everyone’s process is different,” Lee said.

Schamus agreed that movies should not have to be diverse simply for the sake of being diverse. “I think sometimes we lose sight of the fact that diversity does not equal equality,” he said. “If we went by that standard, then the best movies would be the ‘Fast and Furious’ series.”

Lee and Schamus also briefly touched upon their plans for their next film, which is a historical film detailing the life of legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. They discussed the different obstacles they face when making historical films, and the standards they must live up to when they attempt to recreate real events and real figures.

The talk lasted for 90 minutes, and many audience members lined up to ask questions only to be cut off due to time constraints. Still, the audience seemed captivated by Lee and Schamus’ precision and simplicity.

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