The film’s story is pretty straightforward, following Alwyn as a young Iraq War vet who returns home on a U.S. victory tour while suffering from PTSD flashbacks. But its the technology behind Billy Lynn that made it such a unique experience for the entire cast and crew of the film. Lee shot the movie in 3D at 4K resolution and 120 frames per second, giving the film a hyperrealistic look with astonishing clarity.
Since this camera equipment was totally groundbreaking, it meant Lee and his actors had to learn how to make a movie in a whole new way. As shocking and unusual as that experience may seem for a first-time actor, Alwyn says it became the norm for him. “Because I had never done anything before,” Alwyn told me, “it was probably stranger for other people coming in who had to unlearn what making a normal movie was like with normal size cameras.” I sat down with the 25-year-old Alwyn to discuss preparing for the role at a two-week-long boot camp and what it was like working with a cast including Kristen Stewart, Steve Martin, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker, and Garrett Hedlund.
This is a really unique project to have as your first film. What’s the experience been like so far, making this then doing your first junket and first film premiere?
Yeah. Today is my first press day ever. It’s a little surreal, doesn’t feel quite real. But it’s fun and exciting, the whole journey of it over the last year and a half has been quite like, unusual and strange just because – having never done a film before and being at school last year. Everything came about so quickly, it’s been a bit of a whirlwind. It’s been a lot of fun and it’s been a lot of hard work.
What were your expectations going into your first film and how were they changed by the project?
I don’t think I had any expectations. I just feel very lucky to work with people I did, with a director like Ang, let alone be the lead character. So to be able to do that and so early in a strange circumstance and be part of a project that’s trying to push boundaries, as all of his films do, is amazing.
Since Ang shot in 4K and 120 FPS, I’ve read the other actors say how the cameras were so close to them while filming. Did you know when you got the job that making this would be such an intense and intimate experience?
When we were doing some screen tests, he was explaining and either I didn’t understand or really listen. I was just like, “OK I just want to get the part, let’s focus on that.” Because I had never done anything before, it was probably stranger for other people coming in who had to unlearn what making a normal movie was like with normal size cameras, rather than these huge things that were right in your face. Whereas, for me that became the norm. I had no frame of reference of what it was normally like. In some ways, it was probably weirder for them.
How did Ang direct you in those scenes?
He might do a wide shot of me and you, and then if it was going to film you or me [in a close-up], the cameras were just so big it would be there in my face. He’d be over there, just a voice, and I’d be looking. I have a piece of tape there [points across the room] and a piece of tape there and just have to imagine.
We just did a Q&A downstairs and Kristen was saying you would just use the memory of the wide shot when you have the eye contact and you just have to hold onto it and then kind of hear it in the voice behind the camera, put the pieces together, and have it clearly in your head when the camera came close. It was unusual. Took some getting used to, definitely.
Some of those close-up shots are really emotional scenes for Billy. Was it hard to perform that with such an unusual filmmaking technique?
Some of them, yeah. But in some ways I would like those scenes more. You kind of know where you are when you’re grounded in a deeper emotion, something deeper to hold onto, if that makes sense. There are a few intense scenes.
Did you do much research about American soldiers and their experiences during the Iraq War?
We did. I was cast and about four days later I had to leave and start boot camp. We did two weeks of boot camp in Atlanta. Seven of us did it, seven of the boys did it for two weeks. There was no contact to the outside world and it was run by these people who had served [as] Navy SEALs. It was just the most intense, tough thing I have ever, ever done until making the film, which was intense in its own way.
It really pushed us physically and mentally. It was really tough, but also incredibly useful and eye-opening. They were all very generous when they spoke to us about their own experiences and what they had gone through and had done. It wasn’t just about learning the tactics and how to use the weapons. It was putting us together as a group and a unit and trying to bond us as a bunch of boys, which was important for the story and important for the film.
Brotherhood is such an essential part of the story. Did you spend a lot of time with the rest of the Bravo Squad outside of the boot camp to create those bonds onscreen?
Yeah, because we were there from the beginning of the film until the end. Everyone else kind of dropped in and out for 1-3 weeks here and there, but we were literally there for Boot Camp until the end in Morocco.
This cast is full of so many acclaimed actors. Did they give you any advice for making your first film?
I don’t think there was any soundbite of great wisdom, but I didn’t ask for one. Maybe I should have. They were all – I think the fact that they had all done it so much and were so supportive. I was lucky that I really got on with them. Just being on set with them, they made it very comfortable. I spoke to Kristen a lot, she was in the same boat. This whole thing was an experiment so she couldn’t answer most of the questions I asked her in terms of making the film. But I would ask her a lot about, “Is this normal? What’s going on here?” I was trying to soak up what I could.
Ang told a story before the press screening about a scene he couldn’t use. It was supposed to be a cold Thanksgiving Day, but since you shot it on a hot day the camera kept picking up the sweat on your face. What was that like from an acting perspective, knowing you couldn’t hide those minute details the camera picked up?
On one hand, I’ve only done this film, but you’re trying to do the same in any film or any performance, theater or TV – you’re trying to be honest and truthful and in the moment. But I think because of the clarity of the image, anything that’s pushed or forced will come through. Because it sees so clearly into your eyes, you need to have the thoughts there and the layers there otherwise it will be seen in a way a lower resolution maybe doesn’t pick up. Just because it’s so much more focused and intense and all-seeing.
Both the war sequences and the halftime show are pretty intense in psychological and emotional ways. What sequence was the most challenging for you to film?
I loved filming those bits. They were just a lot of fun. They were really intense, but in some ways because – I mean, they built this halftime show for us. When you’re in Morocco running around in the heat with the weapons on, the more of that that is created, the less you have to do. The size of those moments kind of lend themselves to jumping into it. I really love those bits. I love some of the quieter scenes too. I really like the scenes I have with Kristen.
What was it like to watch the final film projected on the big screen at 120 FPS?
It was a trip. I’m not used to it, and I guess maybe you never get used to it. But I do watch it at times thinking, “I like that or I would have changed that. I wouldn’t have done that or I know what scene is coming next. Oh, they’ve cut that bit out.” It’s strange to detach yourself from it, or detach yourself sometimes from the experience behind it. Like, “Oh I remember that day and what we were doing, that’s when that happened.” It’s very strange. I think it will take a few viewings. The more you see it, the more you’ll be able to hopefully have some more perspective on it.
How do you think this experience of working with Ang will inform the rest of your work and how you approach other roles?
I was just so lucky to work with him for this film. Obviously it’s such a great character in such a great cast that I just want to continue doing that and find projects that I’m passionate about.
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is now playing.