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You Wouldn’t Like Him When He’s Ang Lee

The Hulk director says he doesn’t get mad, but can he control the raging spirit that dwells within him? We’ll try to stay on his good side

Fanboys nearly split their pants in surprise when Ang Lee, the chameleonlike auteur behind The Ice Storm and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, decided his next directorial effort would be a big-screen version of The Hulk. And you didn’t have to be a genetic scientist to predict that his movie about the mean, green Marvel Comics antihero would have a soul beneath all the special effects. Having tamed the largest film of his career, the perpetually calm Lee, 48, was bursting with insights about his famously bad-tempered protagonist.

You lived the first 23 years of your life in Chinese-ruled Taiwan. Did your homeland have much of a comic-book culture?
Yes, but the comic books were very local. Overseas, nobody understands why Adam Sandler’s funny or why Spider-Man is a hero. They don’t quite get it. So the Taiwanese comic books I grew up with had less superheroes, more martial arts. But comic books were prohibited. When I was a child, they were not allowed–anywhere. But people would sneak them into school, and we would read them in class secretly. They’d look up at the blackboard, and you’d look down in your lap. That was the thrill.

Did your two years of mandatory service in the Taiwanese army inform the depiction of the Hulk’s battle against the U.S. military? ?
I think Taiwan’s military is a take on the American system, so it’s very easy for me to tune into it. To me, that’s part of the Hulk–he’s always fighting the military. It’s a symbol of a primal force of nature fighting the high-tech weaponry. We actually met with the U.S. Department of Defense quite a few times, and they made suggestions on the script, but they could not stand the fact that their weapons couldn’t kill the Hulk!

So how do you make the Hulk more believable? By sending him to key parties? ?
[Laughs] I had to make him more interesting. In the comic, nobody gave a shit about [his alter ego] Bruce Banner. He’s a wimp, a loser. You’re basically waiting for him to Hulk out. So I had to cast someone like Eric Bana, who could act like he’s carrying the Hulk inside. Eric’s a naturally intimidating character, so it’s about him covering that up, not losing control–playing it opposite what is obvious in the comic book, which I think is quite true to life. I think our existence is just a covering up of what we really are inside.

Are you covering up a Hulk inside yourself? ?
I’m not an angry person–really! I was never rebellious. I don’t hate anyone. But this movie has been my Hulk. By making it, I feel like the Hulk. I feel big. I want to smash.

Before we bust up this conversation, could you answer one question about Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Where were the tigers, and where were the dragons? ?
In Chinese, the name of the young-girl character would roughly translate to Jen, or dragon. Her lover, Lo, is the little tiger. So that’s where the title comes from. But in Taoist theory, the dragon and the tiger are the hidden desires–sexual desires, the hardest to get rid of. Now you understand why they fought so much.