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Ang Lee and the uncertainty of success

February 23, 2013


Recently I was going through some old things I had put away for safekeeping, and I found these:

Business card and interview tape, circa 1993.

Business card and interview tape, circa 1993.

In 1993 I interviewed film director Ang Lee before the US premiere of his second movie, “The Wedding Banquet,” at the Seattle International Film Festival (at the time I was editor of the International Examiner and we were one of their media sponsors). At the time, Lee was an unknown in the U.S., an anomaly as a Taiwan-born immigrant director in the United States, mostly notable for having been the NYU classmate of the more famous director Spike Lee.

Nearly two decades later, it’s Ang Lee who’s up at Sunday’s Academy Awards for Best Picture (his fourth nomination) and Best Director (his third), for “Life of Pi.” And in terms of overall tally, “Life of Pi” (11 nominations) trails only Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (12 nominations).

It’s hard not to root for Lee — an unassuming, down-to-earth guy that sends his kids to public schools, does the cooking and shuttles his sons to cello lessons when he comes home. I have always had a personal affinity for him, partly because he was super-nice to my parents (they were seated next to him at the premiere of “The Wedding Banquet”); partly because he was gracious both times I interviewed him; partly because he’s from Taiwan (he has the same accent as my parents) and is kicking ass but not in semiconductors, manufacturing or medicine. Those are all factors.

But the thing that I perhaps relate to most (and the part that you hopefully find as inspiring) is the part of his story that’s between the lines, specifically these lines:

1984: Graduates NYU, signed by William Morris agency after winning the Wasserman prize with “Fine Line”
1990: Wins prize for two scripts in a contest sponsored by the Taiwanese government. Gets backing to direct his first feature, “Pushing Hands”

From age 30 to 36, he’s living in an apartment in White Plains, NY trying to get something — anything — going, while his wife Jane supports the family of four (they also had two young children) on her modest salary as a microbiologist. He spends every day at home, working on scripts, raising the kids, doing the cooking. That’s a six-year span — six years! — filled with dashed hopes and disappointments. “There was nothing,” he told The New York Times. “I sent in script after script. Most were turned down. Then there would be interest, I’d rewrite, hurry up, turn it in and wait weeks and weeks, just waiting. That was the toughest time for Jane and me. She didn’t know what a film career was like and neither did I.” It got so discouraging that Lee reportedly contemplated learning computer science so he could find a job during this time, but was scolded by his wife when she found out, telling him to keep his focus.

Put yourself in his shoes. Imagine starting something now, this year, that you felt you were pretty good at, having won some student awards, devoting yourself to it full time…and then getting rejected over and over until 2019. That’s the middle of the term of the next President of the United States. Can you imagine working that long, not knowing if anything would come of it? Facing the inevitable “So how’s that film thing going?” question for the fifth consecutive Thanksgiving dinner; explaining for the umpteeth time this time it’s different to parents that had hoped that film study meant you wanted to be a professor of film at a university.

It wasn’t until 1991 that Lee finally got a chance to helm his first movie, “Pushing Hands,” which wasn’t even released in the U.S. But after “Pushing Hands” came “The Wedding Banquet,” the film that would be his U.S. breakout and net him a Best Foreign Picture nomination; two years later, “Sense and Sensibility” would bring him into worldwide prominence; then a string of hits: “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Brokeback Mountain,” and now “Life of Pi” that have made him a common figure in the Oscar proceedings and the box-office charts ($576 million and 11 nominations for “Life of Pi” alone).

Of course, looking at the Ang Lee story now, who wouldn’t want to trade places: what’s six, seven, ten, even more years if you knew it would result in massive worldwide commercial and critical success? It’s common to hear “follow your bliss” or “do what you love and success follows.” Sounds great, right? Except here’s one small detail: You never get to know if it’s ever going to happen. You don’t get to choose if and in what form the success manifests; you don’t get to choose when it arrives.

It’s not as if you say, “Okay, universe, I’m ready for my turn! Any day now!” For some people it happens immediately; for others they get steady bits of success over time; and for others, they have long, long stretches of nothing over years. Another detail that I’ve always wondered about: during this long period at home, his NYU classmate Spike Lee releases three films, including the commercially successful and universally acclaimed “Do The Right Thing” in 1989. Having been in similar situations I can only imagine it stirred a very complex set of emotions.

If you’re an aspiring author, director, musician, startup founder, these long stretches of nothing are a huge reason why it’s important to pick something personally meaningful, something that you actually love to do. When external rewards and validation are nonexistent; when you suffer through bouts of jealousy, wondering “How come so-and-so got signed/is successful/got a deal/etc?”; when every new development seems like a kick in the stomach, the love of what you are doing gives you something to hang onto.

Much is made of genius and talent, but the foundation of any life where you get to realize your ambitions is simply being able to out-last everyone through the tough, crappy times — whether through sheer determination, a strong support network, or simply a lack of options.

On Sunday, as they announce “Life of Pi” as a contender in its 11 categories, make a note to remember it the next time you hit another rough patch — a series of rejections, a long stretch of nothing. Your achievements of tomorrow may be very well be planted with the seeds of today’s disappointments.

P.S. “Life of Pi” is an adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 Man Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name. It recently surpassed sales of 3.1 million volumes. Of course, first it was rejected by five London publishing houses before being picked up by Knopf Canada.


Post a comment
  1. March 10, 2013

    Very nice story.

    Thank you.

    Best wishes.

  2. m #
    March 8, 2013

    Six years? Six years is nothing.

    • Steve #
      March 9, 2013

      Six years is an eternity if everyday is hopefully THE day. Six years to a dying man is another lifetime. Six years is only nothing if your time on this earth is amounting to nothing.

  3. March 8, 2013

    i love this story

  4. March 7, 2013

    Thank you for this wonderful article! Well put and inspirational!

  5. March 7, 2013

    Reblogged this on Foundry in the Forest.

  6. Reya #
    March 6, 2013

    Thank you for writing this article. It’s a real boost for what I chose to do for my career. Seeing Ang Lee Succeeded in making his dream come true really gave me the courage to keep going despite all the obstacles.

  7. March 5, 2013

    This is *exactly* what I’ve been needing the past few days. Thank you for this reminder.

  8. Alex #
    March 5, 2013

    Would be awesome if we could hear that interview, or at least a transcript of it.

    • Ray #
      May 14, 2013

      I wholeheartedly agree with Alex. It would be delightful if you’d share at least a piece of that interview

  9. March 4, 2013

    Fantastic article and wholly inspiring. Thank you so much for writing this.

  10. March 4, 2013

    Yea… I always telling to myself all the time “Feels not comfort ? Ooh.. just not accustomed yet.”
    That’s sentence keeps me focus on learning and working today, and forgetting the future… that may would take years and years…

  11. March 4, 2013

    Reblogged this on the shiny adventures of kittykatmandoo and commented:
    something to hang onto during those [long] moments when all there are only tumbleweeds a-blowin and crickets chirping.

  12. March 3, 2013

    Reblogged this on the year of living aloha and commented:
    Living the life of an artist…the ups, the downs, the long stretches of uncertainty. I love this blog post about Ang Lee, Oscar winning film director who spent his “lean” years in my hometown of White Plains, NY. Success is equal parts following your bliss and TENACITY!

  13. Jay Lawrence Kiman #
    March 3, 2013

    I guess the truest test of one’s desire to live the life of an artist is during those patches of seeming “nothingness”. The greatest test to me is striving to stay positive during the lean years, not to become bitchy and jaded, especially when others you may deem as “less talented” achieve successes. I try to remind myself that success is not a limited quantity and strive to be happy for anyone who achieves a modicum of success or notoriety. I guess it is like wealth. Person A becoming wealthy does not mean there is any less wealth available to go around. the same with happiness. I am hoping that karma comes into play here. The more i am grateful for my own successes and try to support other artist’s in their goals, the more good success karma there is for us all! Living the life of an artist should not necessarily be equated with constant struggle (though this is usually the case). I yearn for success and wealth while still retaining a sense of humility and gratitude. For this life i have is the one i have chosen! To be an artist is a gift we are given and i feel it is my responsibility to stay true to my yearnings and my path. May we all succeed beyond our wildest dreams and bring more art and beauty to the our world. There is enough pain and suffering and war and cruelty to go around. Be part of the light!

    Jay Lawrence Kiman

  14. March 3, 2013

    Reblogged this on Coffee & Cinema and commented:
    A little push before the work week begins; if nothing else, always remember to believe in yourself.

  15. March 3, 2013

    Reblogged this on In My Roots and commented:
    If you haven’t seen Life of Pi yet, I recommend dropping everything you have including this blog, and GO. It was truly incredible. The visual effects, the story, the actors — and yes, I cried. This post brings me even more love into my heart for this movie! The writer explains all the struggles that Ang Lee went through to get to where he is now. He held on just like Pi and battled whatever came his way. This was my favorite movie of the year, and I am so happy it got the recognition it deserved.

  16. March 3, 2013

    I did have some success in the past and then a total bleak for 10 years. There is a corner in my mind, I truly believe It is coming to me in a big time. Am I crazy? Your article about Ang Lee really inspired me…! I am going to hang in there until…. it becomes the reality!

  17. Marie #
    March 3, 2013

    Thank you for writing this blog post. It uplift my spirit. I can’t see yet the result of what I’m doing. But I believe my breakthrough will come soon.

  18. M #
    March 3, 2013

    Thanks for writing this… I needed to hear it. I’m sure many artists are grateful to you for sharing this story; sometimes it is tempting to forfeit your dreams and get a desk job, no matter how much it would kill you to do so.

  19. Jake #
    March 3, 2013

    Thanks for this.

  20. Truman #
    March 3, 2013

    Never have read the reality of the creative life put so well before. Thanks for sharing the piece.

  21. March 3, 2013

    Saw this post in the top blogs category. Glad I stopped by, fascinating read.

  22. mark #
    March 2, 2013

    Well now that you’ve got me curious — do you perhaps have a transcription of the interview?

  23. March 2, 2013

    Well said! Using passion to sustain is timeless advice. I’ve used it successfully a few times in my career. When I embarked on my next adventure I thought I might as well do it again!

  24. Surupa Chatterjee #
    March 2, 2013

    Honest…endearing…very refreshing…made my day reading this…

  25. March 2, 2013

    Thanks for this wonderful piece. Touched and inspired. Way to go!

  26. Venki #
    March 2, 2013

    Brilliant article and very well written..Crisp and to the point !
    Really did give goose pimples at some points.

  27. March 1, 2013

    Really beautiful post, Jeff. I found it via StartupDigest today, and featured it on our own blog. I’ll be following you directly from here on! 🙂

  28. March 1, 2013

    You had me right up until “for others, they have long, long stretches of nothing over years”.

    For some people, that goes on forever. For most, in fact.

    That’s the unspoken truth, and why your urging people to do what’s meaningful *to them* is so on the money.

    Superb piece, thanks.

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