DIRECTOR ANG LEE has developed a reputation for making films about foreign worlds. With “The Wedding Banquet,” he explored the dilemma of a gay Chinese man living with his white lover in New York City whose life is thrown into turmoil when his traditional parents arrive for a visit. The director then ventured further afield with “Sense and Sensibility,” his adaptation of the Jane Austen classic set in 19th century England. Now, with “The Ice Storm,” Lee explores the most alien culture yet: suburban New England in the 1970s. Since the Chinese director was living in Taiwan during the period depicted in the film, he drew heavily on Rick Moody’s novel of middle-class angst and sexual ennui as well as the suggestions of his screenwriter, James Schamus, and his American crew, who had experienced the decade firsthand. Both period piece and psychological drama, “The Ice Storm” evokes a country in flux and a family in crisis. Salon spoke with Lee when he was in town for the Mill Valley Film Festival, where “The Ice Storm” screened on opening night.
What was your biggest challenge in making this film?
Making this movie as a period piece about a period that was very recent in people’s minds. I was in Taiwan [during the 1970s], so I hope I did all right. Otherwise, it could be the biggest embarrassment of my life. Also, the story is not linear, it’s patchy, like a cubist painting, and there is always the possibility it will not hold together, it will fall apart. The tone is part satire, part serious drama, part tragedy, all mixed together, and it has to hit an emotional core. That’s also very scary.
You sound uncertain if you’ve accomplished your goals. Are you happy with the film?
Very happy. It’s the first movie I feel really proud of. But I know it’s not a movie for everyone. Some people will embrace it, but some people will hate it, and I’m not really sure how to deal with that. In the past I’ve made movies that were pretty universally liked. You can’t really hate them. You can discard them, but you can’t really hate them.
What are you worried people will hate about the film?
That maybe they will see it not as a tragedy but as a morality tale; that they will think I’m punishing these characters. Or maybe that they’ll see me as a foreigner picking on the most embarrassing moment in American history.
The crew you used for this film was largely made up of people who had lived through this period in America. Did you have to be sensitive about misrepresenting their memories?
I basically made the movie from the crew’s suggestions. For one scene, I wanted some kids’ toys against the wall in Mikey’s room, to give the scene texture, and we tried a field hockey stick. It looked really good to me, until someone had to say that in America, field hockey is more of a girl’s game. Gradually I got tuned into the world — that happens on every movie. I did a women’s movie, and I’m not a woman. I did a gay movie, and I’m not gay. I learned as I went along. What hit me the most was when Wendy says, “Mom, are you all right?” And I couldn’t understand when Ben tells the kids to go to bed by 10, and they don’t do it — I couldn’t relate to that. I had to learn from the crew, who explained to me that this was a time when the kids were really raising their parents. The parents were so self-absorbed that the kids had to take responsibility for their own upbringing.
Father figures are an important theme in all of your films. How do you think the role of the father differs in the culture you grew up in and American culture?
The stern dad stuff doesn’t work anymore. You have to be level with the kids, you have to be a nice guy. In my previous films I’ve portrayed the father like my own dad. He knew I looked up to him and thought he had all the answers. I didn’t have too much communication with him — as he got older, we hardly talked. He did his father thing, we did our children thing. I think the kind of dad Ben Hood is (in “The Ice Storm”) would be OK in the ’50s, but it’s not OK in the ’70s, which is how I feel as a father today in America — you have to explain, you have to reason with them, you have to set a good example. The authority thing just doesn’t work anymore. It’s like directing a Chinese film vs. directing an American film. On a Chinese film you just give orders, no one questions you. Here, you have to convince people, you have to tell them why you want to do it a certain way, and they argue with you. Democracy.
Do you trace the change in the role of the father back to Nixon and his role in Watergate? You make several references to the hearings in the film, and seem to parallel Nixon’s speeches to Ben’s own failure to communicate with his children.
I think the American president, not only in the nation, but worldwide, is the ultimate father figure. So when he fails, it’s like robbing people of their innocence. There’s a great sense of loss of trust, of faith. The Chinese see that a bit differently, though — we lost our innocence 3,000 years ago. During Watergate, we didn’t understand why Nixon had to resign, why Americans made such a big fuss over a president trying to cover up something: That’s just what they do. But America’s different, because it’s such a young country, it’s still so innocent.
When you’ve seen the film with an audience, has their reaction surprised you at all? When I saw it, everyone was laughing in the beginning, and by the end, everyone was crying. Did you expect for people to find so much humor in the film?
No, actually, I wished people wouldn’t laugh so hard. In earlier test screenings, we kept cutting it, because people were laughing so hard in the beginning, and then by the end they hated it. So I tried to tone down a lot of the humor — to keep you on the verge of laughing, sort of this nervous chuckling, but not so funny that the ending doesn’t work. That was the hardest part of making this film, finding the right balance between the humor and the tragedy.
Were you worried that the costumes and the sets would overwhelm the story? That audiences wouldn’t be able to get beyond the shag carpeting and wall hangings and the jumpsuits and turtlenecks?
My principle is when in doubt, do less. Still it was impossible to really restrain myself — it was so tempting. To some people it’s right on, to some people it’s too much, but compared to my other movies, we were really restrained.
What elements of the book did you want to retain, and what elements did you want to change?
I tried to keep the emotional core of the tragedy — that’s what prompted me to make the movie. What I had to change was the structure, because cinematically we couldn’t do a lot of the things described in the book. There is a lot of masturbation in the book that we couldn’t show on the screen — the book starts with Ben wandering around (his neighbor) Janey’s house, and he takes her underwear and jerks off in it and throws it in (her son) Mikey’s room. Audiences would never forgive him if we put that in the movie.
What about the tone of the book compared to the movie?
I think [the movie] is a lot softer. Less angry. I didn’t grow up there. I wasn’t pissed off. That distance helped me to make it art — it wasn’t so personal. But I think if the movie moves people, it’s because it has a subtext that’s universal, that anyone, from any culture, can relate to.