A groundbreaking, cinematic event from three- time Oscar-winning director Ang Lee.
With Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Ang Lee redefines what is possible in filmmaking and storytelling with the goal of further engaging the audience in an advanced cinematic experience.
Joined by two-time Oscar-winning cinematographer John Toll, Lee employs state-of-the-art cameras to shoot in native 3D, high resolution and a history-making frame rate that seemed impossible until now. He creates a new way for audiences to experience drama, presenting the heightened sensations that young soldiers feel on the battlefield and the home front.
“Since Pi, I discovered that in making a 3D movie [we need to be] adding not only dimension, but a higher resolution that comes along with a much higher frame rate than we are used to having. The whole experience is not just about extravaganza, not just about action—but actually about drama as well. The way we look at things, the way we want the audience to engage in a movie I think is more personal. It’s much more grand. I think the future is really exciting.”
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, based on the acclaimed bestselling novel by Ben Fountain, is told from the point of view of 19-year-old private Billy Lynn (newcomer Joe Alwyn) who, along with his fellow soldiers in Bravo Squad, becomes a hero after a harrowing Iraq battle and is brought home temporarily for a victory tour. Through flashbacks, culminating at the spectacular halftime show of the Thanksgiving Day football game, the film reveals what really happened to the squad – contrasting the realities of the war with America’s perceptions.
From Acclaimed Novel To Groundbreaking Film
While its development and use of technical breakthroughs may secure Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk’s place in film history, it’s important to recognize that its achievements are securely driven by the drama of a human and compelling narrative.
The story is based on a novel that producer Rhodri Thomas at Ink Factory read eight months prior to its publication (it ultimately became a 2012 National Book Award finalist).
“A friend of mine, a publisher, gave me the manuscript and said, ‘You’ve got to read this book. It’ll change your life.’ Which turned out to be quite prophetic words. I read it on vacation and loved it—it had a particular magic that spoke so well about our times. It was anti-war but very much pro-soldier which is something that moved me deeply—and I wanted to tell this story.
After some inquiries my co-producer Stephen Cornwell and I found ourselves in dialogue with Ben Fountain the novel’s author.” “I thought it spoke to an era in which the whole country was going through the collective trauma of the Iraq war,” continues Cornwell, “a time that hadn’t really been addressed, recognized or reflected upon. And I thought that in the character Billy Lynn Ben had found a very engaging and sympathetic way to enter what it meant to experience that war. But when we initially reached out, Ben’s representatives said that it was way premature—they wanted to wait until the book was published. So Rhodri and I made a trip to Dallas and after spending some time with Ben were able to convince him it could be the movie it’s becoming.”
“So the Ink Factory optioned the book in 2012,” says Thomas, “and developed it with Film 4, the film arm of the UK broadcast Channel Four. They’re incredibly supportive of cinema–they like to take risks and six months before its publication they took a risk on this material. Happily, the book was phenomenally well-received. We then started developing the screenplay.
”With that screenplay, in 2013 we began work with TriStar—in fact they came to us because Tom Rothman, who at the time was running TriStar, was a fan of the book, which had been published by then. When Ang Lee signed on, we were thrilled—there was no one else that we could imagine telling the story quite as honestly and sensitively. What we didn’t imagine was that he was going to make it as a 3D, high frame rate spectacle—which, while quite a surprise, we embraced in an instant having been completely blown over by Life of Pi. Ang’s vision for the film was completely right from the get go—he’s a visionary director who saw in the material the ability to create an experience that was immersive and emotional in the newest possible way.”
Producer Marc Platt remembers receiving “a phone call one day from Tom Rothman, who said that he had a very special project to be directed by Ang Lee and ‘we’re not quite sure how to push it up the mountain.’ Ang is someone that I’ve always held in the highest regard as a filmmaker—back in my years as a production executive and President of Universal Pictures we made a film together called Ride With the Devil. So the moment he said Ang Lee of course I was interested. He asked me to read the screenplay first and then the novel. So I first read the screenplay and was immediately struck by what I saw to be the importance of the story that honored our soldiers by really explaining that none of us truly understands what the experience of a soldier actually is. That we can only project what we think it is. And that the best way to honor our soldiers is, in fact, to understand that they do their job, and they are just soldiers. And to give them the distance, respect and space to honor that experience in the way that is very unique to each of them. In this particular story, our group of soldiers is brought back [to the U.S.] to be honored for their heroic deeds. To be trophies if you will.”
“The genesis of the novel,” says novelist Ben Fountain, “began in 2004 during a Cowboys Thanksgiving Day football game. This was three weeks after the general election when George W. Bush had beaten Kerry. I felt like I didn’t understand my country. Then, we had a bunch of people over at our house for Thanksgiving. We had the game on. Halftime comes and I’m sitting on the sofa. And everybody else gets up, ‘cause nobody watches the halftime show. But I stayed and started watching the halftime show—I mean really looking at it. And it’s very much the way I write it in the book: a surreal, pretty psychotic mash-up of American patriotism, exceptionalism, popular music, soft-core porn and militarism: lots of soldiers standing on the field with American flags and fireworks. I thought, this is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. But everybody else was okay with it, 3 the announcers on TV and everybody around, just another normal day in America. Since there were lots of soldiers in the field at that time, I wondered what it would be like to be a soldier who had been in combat who gets brought back to the US and dropped into this very artificial situation. What would that do to your head? I wanted the reader to feel like he or she is in Billy’s skin. And I think that’s what Ang’s trying to do too.”
“Adapting the novel,” notes Stephen Cornwell, “was a big challenge. And like any adaptation, it evolved. One of the big questions was how to place Billy at the center of the story. How to find a way of creating this character whom, in the novel, engages the reader with his internal dialogue. How do you make that work cinematically? How do you place this character, his experiences, observations and point of view in the center of the story without resorting to narration, something we didn’t want to do. So as we adapted it, we went on a journey of trying to find the best way to express Billy’s point of view: how do you realize that first person experience in a cinematic context? How do you evolve cinematic language and the way we experience film in ways that allow us to get inside Billy’s head and go on this journey with him?”
Initially, it was Billy Lynn’s story that captivated Lee, his literal and emotional journey and the complicated juxtaposition of the glorification of returning war heroes and the horrific nature of the war they’ve fought. It was the kind of story that he thought lent itself to a new filmmaking approach he had been considering, one that could really connect the audience to Billy Lynn in an immersive, organic way, the cinematic equivalent of the first person, internal narrative of the book.
“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was a very compelling book. His observations of the absurdity of the over the top welcome home these warriors receive, the juxtaposition of this extravagant celebration of his heroism intercut with his battlefield service in Iraq, the irony of those two experiences side by side, it’s kind of an existential examination of what’s real and what’s not, there’s a sort of Zen quality to that comparison that fascinated me. I was attracted to the situation of the storytelling as well, the halftime show to celebrate the soldier in 2004 juxtaposed against the real battle – the drama, the conflict, a kind of coming of age story of a young soldier who has to sort it all out. It was great material to use this new technology I had been considering to really engage the audience. To me, when we see movies, it’s as if we’re watching someone’s story from a distance. My hope with this new technology is that it could allow for greater intimacy, to really convey the personal feelings of a conflicted young soldier. That’s why I call it ‘new cinema’ – because it’s a new way of making, watching and experiencing a movie and it seemed perfect for this project. It’s a great way to put Billy Lynn in the center of this halftime show that is very dramatic and an intriguing way to examine humanity and our society. About halfway through the book, I knew I wanted to do it,” Ang Lee remarks.
Ang Lee’s use of this new technology creates an immersive experience that is designed to allow the audience to deeply experience Billy Lynn’s emotional, physical and spiritual journey in a personal and profoundly encompassing way.
“The film explores what the reality of his experience is for this one soldier, Billy Lynn; the technology allows us to realize how he hears it, how he views it,” notes Producer Marc Platt. “This particular story is very well suited to the use of this technology. Depending on the scene the world can be rendered hyper real by the frame rate or it can be blended down to be a little bit more movie-like. When people are talking to Billy, particularly if it’s an intimate moment and they’re in a close up, their eye line would be directly at the camera, which is very unusual. When it’s the other person’s perception and we’re on Billy, it’s a more traditional eye line, a little bit to the side. The effect of that, particularly in a high frame rate is that when someone is looking right into camera you are in the space of Billy, seeing and hearing it the way he is and you’re feeling it in a visceral, intense way. Or if Billy is feeling separate from what’s around him, if he’s hearing what’s being said but he’s not processing it or feeling defensive about it and is in his own head space, it allows us to 4 isolate Billy, creating a feeling of subjectivity and it’s as if we the audience are sitting with him while things are being projected around him. These are just a few of the things that are being developed along with the high frame rate and high resolution that will make this a particularly singular cinematic experience.”
“What’s so exciting about the process,” says Stephen Cornwell, “is that Ang was fascinated by finding a way to explore a new language with cinema—the high frame rates, the three dimensions—not simply for special effects but to actually define a way to tell an emotional, character-driven story; embracing new technology as a tool to create a wholly new way of cinematic storytelling.”
Lee’s approach would create logistical and technological challenges never before encountered on a traditional movie – the team developed a new cinematic lexicon by necessity, every shooting day and on into post-production, but always in service of the story. And his careful use of this new approach allowed him to explore shifts of dimension, film speed and perspectives with brand new tools. The movie even set up its own lab in Atlanta in order to process a vast quantity of data, as Lee and Toll invariably relied on two cameras running at five times the normal speed with twice the amount of data running on each of those cameras. That translated into twenty times the data storage of a normal high-quality Hollywood film on a daily basis. Before cameras even rolled, Lee knew he was entering uncharted territory and yet he also believed that it was the best way to tell the story in an authentic way.
“I stepped into a new world with this movie, “Lee says. “The use of the high frame rate and high dynamic range will provide, I hope, a unique opportunity to feel the realities of war and peace through the protagonist’s eyes. It’s not a political statement as much as an opportunity to experience what the characters do on a human, emotional level. I thought that taking a platoon from the battlefield on to this Thanksgiving Day halftime show as some sort of celebration of valor would freak them out. The difference between the heroics that people project on them and their experiences on the battlefield where it’s just chaos, a fight for survival … the adrenaline level is extraordinary. Those two antithetical experiences next to each other seemed to be the perfect way to explore this new cinema. I didn’t have a proper name for it but early on, I was thinking the higher frame rate to view 3D more accurately could really explore what digital could do in terms of conveying the human condition. The way we see each other in life, the way we pick up nuances from each other is very different from how we’ve been depicted in film. So this approach seemed to be a direct way to carry on the soldier’s sensation, as he goes into what we call normal life. It was very dramatic and inspiring and I knew it would be very difficult, technologically and artistically. But I like a challenge and trying new things,” Lee says.
“This movie was challenging on many different levels,” adds Platt. “We had logistical challenges— a large portion of it took place in a stadium and we needed another location to shoot war sequences. The tone of it was a challenge. And then on top of everything, of course, was Ang’s intention to undertake and employ a technology not heretofore utilized in cinematic history, which is to shoot the film at a frame rate of 120 frames per second, resolution of 4K, and 3D—to really explore that technology and develop a vocabulary, a cinematic grammar using that technology to tell a specific story, none of that had been done before. The vocabulary hadn’t been created. In fact it was actually created every day on the set. “
Lee’s new immersive cinema, Cornwell adds, has the potential to move the art form forward in a bold way. “I think what’s interesting is how you make cinema evolve,” says Stephen Cornwell, “how you speak to a younger generation along a broader spectrum, how you keep cinema fresh. In some ways the language of cinema hasn’t really evolved for a hundred years. The frame rate’s been the same. The way things are performed, spoken and constructed and the way narrative unfolds is something that we’ve all come to accept as norms. And what Ang has done is ask how do we evolve cinematic language to stay relevant, distinct and unique in the post digital age, in an age where cinema is plateauing, where story telling has become very familiar? To do that, we have to change the way people experience cinema, and that’s what Ang’s reaching for, what we’re all reaching for in this film. How people will respond—that is a new frontier. Personally, I think it’s going be an eye-opening extraordinary experience.”
The new immersive cinema allowed Lee to depict war in the sharpest, highest visual quality, which dovetailed with his belief that that for a soldier the war is real—everything else is not. Indeed, as early as 2010, CNN reported that a soldier who had returned from Afghanistan had vivid memories in flashback of a particularly gruesome fight with the Taliban.
Lee’s approach also provided several options from which to create multiple formats that will end up being shown in commercial theaters. It all came down to math, essentially. “There are a few reasons for that with one of the most important being that 120 is a multiple of 24, and that gave us the most options.” The film will be able to be shown in multiple formats, all of which will be more immersive and have more clarity than any film has before.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk was shot in native 3D and not in 2D with later 3D conversion. On set the filmmakers and crew wore special glasses to watch the 3D monitors; Lee worked off of a fifty-five inch 3D monitor. “Ang, who can see things dramatically in ways that other creatives don’t, insisted on shooting in 3D rather than converting for 3D,” says Scot Barbour, Vice President of Production Technology for Sony. “One of the reasons is that it maintains textures. Imagine you’re shooting a film [in 2D] that will be released in 3D, but you never see it in 3D during production. Everything happens in front of you in two dimensions. No one ever witnesses it until the end.”
In the end, Ang Lee hopes that his new cinema will prove to be more than an exercise in innovative technology but rather a compelling and novel way to experience cinematic storytelling.
“The book was inspiring on a human, emotional level and I thought this approach was a chance to undergo this sensation in an immersive way that is artistically authentic and part of the communal experience we all hope for every time we go to the movies,” he says.