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The Telegraph

Ang Lee interview: ‘When I saw Devon, I knew Sense & Sensibility belonged to me’

Formative moments in the lives of great artists can occur almost anywhere. Ang Lee’s came on the train from London to Plymouth. It was a wet winter day in early 1994, and the Taiwanese filmmaker was steeling himself for Sense and Sensibility, an adaptation of the Jane Austen novel and his first entirely English-language project. At that point, the film was to be shot in Ireland for tax reasons – but Lee, then 39, felt he owed it to Austen to see firsthand the Devonshire countryside in which her story was set, “just so I knew what I’d be imitating,” he chuckles. Lee, now 66, takes up the tale. “It had been raining hard when we’d left London, but the moment our train emerged from the tunnel into Devon was one of the most magical in my life. It was bright and sunny, at around four o’clock, and the late afternoon sun was hitting those rolling hills in the most beautiful way. I could already see Marianne Dashwood tumbling down the hillside and being rescued by Willoughby on his white horse. And I thought: we have to do it here.” It was, he explains, a pivotal point – “a sign that this English period piece, something I had never imagined I would make, actually belonged to me. And if I could make that movie, then I could dare to go anywhere.” At the Bafta Film Awards in 1996, Sense and Sensibility won three awards, including Best Film. And at the same event 25 years later – via one of the most far-reaching and head-spinningly eclectic careers in modern cinema – he will receive the Bafta Fellowship: the highest honour in the Academy’s gift. Speaking on the phone, the director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain and Life of Pi describes the accolade as “overwhelming. For some reason, Britain has always been good to me. Even aside from Sense and Sensibility. It was the only place in the world where The Ice Storm” – his provocative 1997 thriller – made any money.” It not being an optimal time for international travel, Lee will accept the Fellowship remotely, although he isn’t stuck at home. In fact, he’s in Wellington, New Zealand, on a “research trip” to the visual effects house Weta Digital, to test some technology for a forthcoming project which may or may not be his long-planned Muhammad Ali/Joe Frazier boxing film Thrilla in Manila (it’s all under wraps). He flew there from Taiwan – where, as in New Zealand, “life is almost back to normal” – although his interim stretch in a quarantine hotel has taken its toll.