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Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Will Smith in a scene from Gemini Man. The high frame rate makes the action pristine and crystal-clear.Photo Credit: Ben Rothstein/Paramount Pictures.

You might assume that being a three-time Oscar winner would be the only qualification needed for a filmmaker to get their next project financed. But for director Ang Lee, known for such landmark works as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi, it was no easy feat to get his latest film off the ground. Lee is a prolific filmmaker who has worked across genres and national cinemas, but Gemini Man, his most ambitious endeavour to date, takes some unprecedented risks.

Like his previous film, the war drama Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Gemini Man was shot in 3D at 120 frames a second, as opposed to the traditional 24. The sci-fi action film also boasts another technological feat: a computer-generated character as the younger clone of Will Smith’s character.

“I found there’s definitely a world out there that’s so new, it gives me a lot of reasons to have the energy to pursue this further. I’m curious to see how it turns out," Lee said a few hours before Gemini Man had its Toronto premiere. "We have to see how this performs and if people will still put the money up for me to do that.”

Gemini Man does indeed feel like a new world in filmmaking. The high frame rate makes the action pristine and crystal-clear. Smith’s character, the retired government assassin Henry Brogan, has a fear of drowning and he confronts this phobia in a number of underwater scenes that are sublime and breathtaking to behold on a big screen. The clarity of the image is completely immersive; when he goes under, we feel it, too.

When I ask Lee if Henry’s fear of drowning was in the original script or was brought in because of the way that water looks in this format, it’s no surprise to hear him say it was his idea. “I know only 3D does water justice because I did a 3D water movie [with Life of Pi]. Water can be beautiful and induce nightmarish feelings, it can feel like you’re drowning," he says. "There’s an intuitive response to these images of water with layers and reflections, it’s a beautiful thing. It can get to [a character’s] psychology.”

Regarding the psychology of his characters, Lee spoke about the challenges of imagining the relationship between a person and their clone. “It’s a weird relationship,” he says. “We don’t know clone psychology, I hope we never have to. I imagine it’s not exactly like father and son. It’s somewhere between father and son and being twins and seeing a reflection of yourself.”

As Henry finds himself facing off against a younger incarnation of himself that has been sent to kill him, self-reflection becomes necessary. He is forced to consider his own strengths and weaknesses in order to fight someone with the same skills. Lee describes this as “a visualization of the abstract internal struggle.”

Henry’s clone was sent by Clive Owen’s Clay Verris, a one-time ally of Henry’s. Lee describes the character as fulfilling a paternal role for Henry and his clone, who Clay raised as a son and named Junior. “He’s the father figure for both of them, with his insistence on training and discipline. He also literally raised [Junior].” For both Henry and Junior, unpacking all of this is a complex emotional process. In some ways, both parenthood and being cloned are “an extension of your life,” Lee explains. Even while working with a futuristic sci-fi narrative, Lee aims to reckon with the real struggles of personal identity and mortality.

Gemini Man is meticulously crafted, but Lee explains that there were still moments of spontaneity on set. “You have to prepare so well to improvise on set. The technical crew is huge, you have to plan, but there’s room for improvisation. Without it, it wouldn’t be lively.” In particular, Lee points to one moment where Henry first sees Junior. He’d planned for six shots, but instead did one, using a dolly (a cart with a mounted camera that travels along tracks)."We wanted to see if that would work. I also did some coverage just to be responsible, but that shot was improvised.”

The difference between several static shots and one tracking shot may sound minor, but when you’re working with a computer-generated character, capturing movement can be a monumental task. Some of the most impressive aspects of the film are its action set pieces. As Lee explains, the film’s fight scenes involved computer engineering in addition to stunt choreography.

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Director Ang Lee of Gemini Man.JENNIFER ROBERTS/The Globe and Mail

“The action we’re doing here in 3D is about detail, it has a lot more information. That becomes part of the excitement, not only the speed and the adrenaline. At close range, you have to provide details. For example, in hand-to-hand combat, you see intention, you see strategy, you see the blows. You can’t fake that. We can dirty up the fight, make it feel more visceral [in post-production], but we still choreograph it and the stunt work is still there.”

From on-set choreography to post-production technology, bringing Gemini Man to life was an undertaking that required a complete commitment from all involved. Lee was frank about the struggle that comes with convincing investors to finance a project with so many moving parts and so much at stake. “It’s a burden. When people believe in you and give you a lot of money for something unknown, it’s a burden, I feel responsible for this.”

It’s a burden he’s clearly willing to shoulder. Lee is an incredibly accomplished and undeniably ambitious filmmaker who has the desire to make more films in a high frame rate but is realistic about the fact that doing so will depend on Gemini Man’s success.

“I think I need encouragement, whether it’s financial support or people responding to it [positively]. I hope I get to do it.”

Gemini Man opens Oct. 11.

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