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Summer Sneaks

He's our worst fear: ourselves

Ang Lee and company labor on a Hulk who's actually the raging monster in us all.

May 04, 2003|Fred Schruers | Special to The Times

The Universal Studios back lot, part tourist attraction, part working film facility, sprawls elaborately across the hillsides of North Hollywood, from Lankershim Boulevard to scrub canyons known mostly to coyotes. To visit a pair of crucial exteriors where director Ang Lee is shooting "The Hulk," you first drive, then hike, advancing even further into the concrete wilderness than a sweating Albert Brooks trudged on his way to meet a faux Steven Spielberg in "The Muse."

Walk on past the sound stage where the real Spielberg shot "Jurassic Park" (it's now occupied by a sinister-looking "Hulk" set, where the title creature will be tormented by a gaggle of government operatives) and past the row of star trailers. There's Jennifer Connelly, who plays Betty Ross, emerging from her trailer with a tolerant smirk -- or is it grimace? -- at the cigar smoke that's wafting downwind from where Eric Bana, who plays her sometime boyfriend Bruce Banner, sits outside his trailer in a lawn chair, patiently killing time.

Today the Oscar-winning actress from "A Beautiful Mind" will enact a tense, emotional scene with the Australian discovery Bana, whose credits include the brutal-thug title role in "Chopper" and a Delta commando in "Black Hawk Down." Playing a man who was hit with gene-altering bursts that cause the quiet Bruce Banner to "Hulk out" into the 15-foot knot of angry muscle that is the title character, Bana has to show a repressed man whose presence will compete with a giant, gray-green alter ego. For the computer-generated, tank-chucking Hulk creature, says Bana, "there is complete access to the audience." For Banner, who must evidence well-buried demons, "there's a large brick wall."

Connelly, too, will admit to having her hands full: "I didn't know what my niche was, because I'm playing a part in a drama where the man I love has problems expressing his emotions. But it's also an action movie and also a comic book. And when he finally does turn into this green being, it doesn't become tongue-in-cheek after that. You have to stay invested, and that's a challenge."

The dramatic work is far from the only challenge for the tent-pole comic-book entry from Universal. This afternoon marks the 86th day of what was planned to be 77 days of principal photography, every foot of it supervised by Lee, who's far too meticulous to farm out even the most rote action sequences to a second unit. But the straight-up moviemaking may be half the battle or less.

What's been clear since a snippet of the green behemoth was shown in a much-touted 45-second spot during the Super Bowl is that not just the usual Weblogging comic-book aficionados, but also every film buff in range of the water cooler has an opinion on how the computer-generated Hulk played on the small screen -- and the great majority of those opinions were negative. What's been less widely known is that a group of exhibitors who saw newer computer graphics work at the ShoWest convention in March were reportedly quite pleased with it.

Found recently in his artwork-strewn temporary office at Industrial Light & Magic's post-production facility in San Rafael, the 48-year-old Taiwanese-born director unflinchingly compared his work to a reproduction near him on the wall: "Cezanne tried to blend painting and drawing in the same picture, and the effort of combining the two was really the art ... not for the sake of success, but to leave the evidence of effort of mixing those two elements together, which is a great inspiration for me.

"I do have to deliver the goods. The exhilaration of kick boxing, action and Hulking out, fighting -- smashing whatever" -- Lee laughs -- "puny humans. But what really gets to me is the alter ego part. The true self we are all hiding in the dark. That's the Hulk to me. So when the audience sees the movie, they are dealing with their own Hulk, the unknown, truthful self that we try to cover up all our life with our reasoning, with our social skills. It's the opposite of us, but it is probably the real us, it's big, it's monstrous, and we're so afraid to show any of it."

QUIET ON THE SET

Such aspirations are perhaps less inspiring to Vivendi Universal shareholders, who are rooting for a franchise series of films, videos and merchandise, as well as a new attraction at theme parks. Then there are the folks from Mountain Dew, Reese's candy, Glad products and others hoping to ride the green being's broad back to a global marketing coup. The film, opening June 20, is Universal's big summer action flick and it faces stiff competition from other franchise films, including the sequel to "Charlie's Angels," which opens a week later.

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