Last week, Ang Lee and James Schamus — the prolific pair behind such landmark independent films as Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — received the Freedom of Expression award at the ShoWest convention in Las Vegas. The prize commemorated the fact that they made and distributed the China-set period thriller/romance Lust, Caution with an NC-17 rating last year. (Lee directed and produced the film and Schamus co-wrote and produced it; Schamus is also head of Focus Features, the studio behind Lust, Caution.) While that risk may not have reaped much in monetary rewards in the U.S. (the film grossed more than $60 million overseas but just $4.6 million domestically), many applauded the leap that Lee and Schamus took in embracing, rather than fleeing from, a rating that most in the movie industry consider to be restrictive for business and akin to a label of pornography.
EW.com sat down with the filmmakers to talk about their experiences with Lust, Caution and the NC-17 rating, as well as their thoughts on the upcoming remake of their 2003 collaboration Hulk and memories of Brokeback star Heath Ledger.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What does the Freedom of Expression Award mean to you?
JAMES SCHAMUS: For us, we came here to honor [the theater owners]. Its not like [this award] is going to boost our DVD sales. We had no commercial reason to stand up there today. There was no business pitch. This gave us an opportunity to come here and thank that whole room [of theater owners] for being there for us. We were able to push this NC-17 over and through whatever stigma had almost by neglect accrued to it and now that people have seen it, we’re off.
ANG LEE: It’s a legitimate [rating], so why not show the best version of the film? To me [the part of the film that drew the NC-17] is a matter of seconds, but they are the best few seconds — the anchor, the depth, and the emotional weight of the movie. You see the precious, private moment in the performance. Visually, it’s astonishing. When I was making the movie I just wanted to go as far as I could, make it the best I could. At one point, James explained to me that if we lose the R rating, there are things we’d lose that would be associated with the stigma of the NC-17 rating. So I was aware of it. [But] he saw the cut of it and he said, ”Let’s do it.” He supported it.
SCHAMUS: There was really no stress.
How did the theater chains react when they learned that you were going to release an NC-17-rated movie?
SCHAMUS: I forewarned them very early, even before we got the rating. I don’t want to be picking fights. My philosophy is: I like to distribute movies, I don’t like to create controversy. That’s the way we are as a company: With Brokeback, you never saw us on Dateline calling anyone homophobic. That said, I’m going to fight very hard if there is pushback. I think it’s incredibly hypocritical. With Brokeback we were thrown out of a theater in Salt Lake that was showing Hostel. I was like, ”You guys are sick, and I’m not going to sit back and take it.” But on the other hand I don’t want to have a fight. Let’s just get the work done and roll up our sleeves on this. So a lot of the groundwork was laid ahead of time with the theater owners. We got to talk and hash things out with people in a really effective way.
What was the biggest surprise, any specific part of the country that was more or less resistant than you thought they would be?
SCHAMUS: It’s funny. As you know, in Asia, this movie is epoch making — there was nothing like it in the culture in terms of the politics of it, there’s been nothing like it in the culture that has that revolutionary feel. What it’s opened up in the culture is just unbelievable. [So] you had an Asian-American audience that was just desperate to see the film. But in their wake they brought audiences from economic strata that was quite all over the place. The film, as we knew, would play here more or less in strictly art-house, specialized theaters. We didn’t expect a breakout thing. So for us we were very satisfied with the release, however modest it was. It was a profitable venture for us. So thank you, Ang. That helps us make the next one. You can’t make the gay cowboy movie and the Chinese porn movie, and if those don’t make money then on the third one they start looking at you funny. So it’s nice. It also means that you’re opening doors for other people.
Going forward, then, is it fair to say that you wouldn’t shy away from making another NC-17 movie?
LEE: Lust, Caution is what it is and I did the best for the movie. I don’t think I shy away or keep pushing the envelope. I desire to make movies the best they can.
What are your thoughts on this year’s Hulk remake, The Incredible Hulk?
LEE: I haven’t seen any of it. I wish them the best of luck.
SCHAMUS: Louis Letterier [the director of The Incredible Hulk] is a friend. I worked with him on Unleashed and he’s a gem. He was really nervous, kept asking if it’s okay. And I said to him, and this sounds absurdly pretentious, but I really think that these Marvel Stan Lee characters are like great theater, like Shakespeare — Olivier can do Hamlet, so can Kenneth Branagh. They are open to many interpretations. There is room for many Hulks.
SCHAMUS: We’re kind of playing around with a couple of things. Hopefully something on the less heavy side. That’s our goal. We’re going to go back to Ang’s early, funny movies.
LEE: I’ve made six tragedies in a row. What’s wrong with me?
So the next movie will be a comedy?
LEE: The material will tell me. It’s not that I’m passive-aggressive, but the material just hits me and then I know.
Can you share any memories or thoughts about Heath Ledger?
LEE: I miss him. He’s a great talent and I wish we would have gotten to see more movies made with him. I remember everything. All the memories we made while making Brokeback Mountain, I treasure them. My consolation is that I got to share with him a best part of life in the movies.