CHAMPAIGN – Director Ang Lee returned triumphant to his alma mater on Saturday, receiving a standing ovation at Roger Ebert's Film Festival after he first walked on stage, along with a surprise serenade of "Illinois Loyalty"" by the a cappella group The Other Guys.
Lee smiled, nodded and clapped. He thanked Chaz Ebert, who had introduced him as a leading filmmaker who apparently had come out of nowhere, and the audience.
"I'm so proud to be a Fighting Illini," said the 1980 graduate of the UI Department of Theatre and one of the world's leading filmmakers.
"I'm so happy to be back where I laid the foundation for what I do today," he said. "I'm happy to be back in the theater where I saw 'Rambo 2.' For two years of classes here I was guessing most of the time."
The Academy Award-winning director went on to introduce his 2003 movie "Hulk," which opened the Saturday session of the five-day Ebertfest, a special event of the UI College of Media. It ends today with the John Turturro-directed quasi-musical "Romance & Cigarettes."
Lee said "Hulk" is like a Greek psychodrama. "That's why it ends up in an overlooked-film festival," he said. "It's an honor for Roger to pick it up. I hope it's not for the reason we're both alumni."
After "Hulk" was screened, a clip from Ebert and Richard Roeper's movie-review television series was shown, in which Ebert praised "Hulk" but noted that the "underwhelming special effects" make the Hulk look like the Jolly Green Giant.
Lee, who wore a motion-capture suit to act out the Hulk, whose human counterpart was portrayed by the young, inexperienced actor Eric Bana, came onstage for the post-screening discussion in a Hulk stance.
"Besides the Illinois fight songs, we have another tradition," Chaz Ebert said, handing him the thumb-up trophy, a cast of her husband's thumb giving his now-iconic signal of approval.
Joining Lee onstage for the post-screening discussion was perennial Ebertfest guest Michael Barker, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics, which distributed "Hulk."
The relaxed Lee, who is 53, gave expansive answers to Barker's questions as well as those from people in the audience, among them Emmy Award-winning actor Joey Pantoliano, who asked Lee how he directed Nick Nolte in one of the more dramatic scenes in the movie. Pantoliano is at the festival with "Canvas," which was shown Thursday evening.
Lee said he basically let Nolte do his own thing, after the director explained the scene and the character's motivation. Nolte plays the Hulk's deranged father.
Lee admitted that the reaction to "Hulk" when it was released was not what he had expected. Most critics and many moviegoers were irritated with it and chose to ignore it, he said.
However, former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted "Hulk" to premiere to American troops in Iraq, Lee said. Through one of his assistants, Lee told Rumsfeld "I don't think this is a movie that will boost morale there."
However, Lee wanted support from the U.S. military, which tries to destroy the Hulk in his movie, so that he could accurately portray the latest in weaponry. He remembered that his production meeting with representatives of the Department of Defense didn't go too well.
"I thought they would have trouble with Gen. Ross (Sam Elliott) but they liked him," Lee said of the character who led the effort to obliterate the Hulk. "But they liked him. They thought he was very human. But they wanted him to win. I tried to pitch to them that this is the Incredible Hulk."
"Who's going to see the movie if the Incredible Hulk gets defeated?" Barker joked.
At the end, Bana, after surviving a nuclear blast, is shown in disguise, wearing a beard, dispensing medicine to poor people in Latin America.
Lee played the monster Hulk, saying he wanted to save animators three weeks of time. The film, except for the scenes with the Hulk, had already been shot. Once an aspiring actor, Lee knew precisely where the Hulk fit in and knew exactly how he wanted the Hulk to act and react.
Lee also used dynamic split-screen shots in the film to mimic panels in comic books. (The Hulk is a Marvel superhero.) Lee said a lot of people thought the split screens distracting.
"I didn't go as far as I wanted to with that," he said.