For a director who's worked almost exclusively in adaptations, Ang Lee has rarely visited the same ground twice. With Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, he made wuxia epics a national phenomenon. With Brokeback Mountain, he made a film about gay lives that crossed over to a mainstream audience, winning an Oscar in the process. With Lust, Caution, he embraced the NC-17 rating wholeheartedly and asked for another. With 2003's Hulk, he made the finest comic book film yet, creating a dialogue between art forms as yet unequalled by Hollywood. But where exactly do you go from there?
If there hadn't been a book like Life of Pi, you could see Lee willing something like it into existence. Yann Martel's best-seller is a touching story about the spiritual and physical endurance of man, spanning countless theologies and nations and finding a place beyond divisions in its tale of an Indian boy trapped in a lifeboat with a shipwrecked tiger. The book's protagonist is pushed beyond the brink by life, yet comes away transformed. It's a rapturously ecumenical novel, particularly inspirational given how divisive so much of contemporary society reveals itself to be.
"I read it when the book came out," Lee said at last month's New York Film Festival, where Life of Pi was the opening night film. "I found it fascinating and mind-boggling. But I remember thinking to myself that nobody in their right mind would put up money for this [as a film]. Because the literature is philosophy, regardless of how cinematic it is. It would be very hard to do. And how do you sell this film? The artistic side and the financial side have to meet.
"But about four years ago, [Fox production executive] Elizabeth Gabler approached me and said it had always been their dream to work with me. Little by little, it started to become my destiny and my fate."
Lee came to the press conference directly from talking on the phone with a tiger trainer, which is exactly the kind of witty pragmatism you'd expect from the director. The movie opens this week in theaters; the Scene spoke with Lee after its triumphant NYFF screening.
How did you plan such a meticulous, effects-heavy film?
I got one-eighth of the shots in my shotlist ... I have a dramatic background, I don't believe in storyboards; sometimes I would do them for action sequences. But on this film, I had to go beyond storyboards. The shots are so expensive, you have to be very precise. So I spent a year before we made the movie and animated the whole journey ...
This is the time Pi spends on the raft?
Almost 70 minutes of CG pre-visualization. Then we made the movie.
So much of the film is spent in the space of that escape raft, and the small adjoining float that Pi constructs. How were you able to work in such taxing circumstances?
When I got involved with the project, I realized it had to have American money and technology. You have to make it with Hollywood, but you could not make it in L.A. — it would be too expensive, just impossible. To make this unusual movie I had to create my own frame. So I decided to make it in Taiwan, which hasn't hosted a Hollywood movie since The Sand Pebbles in 1965. I occupied this abandoned airport in Taichung, so we used the terminal as our community — it was like a utopia of filmmakers. We used the hangars to build our own Hollywood, we made our big wave tank, and we discovered just what all could be done. We were there on our own, which is unusual.
How did it feel to be able to bring this grand work you were creating, and the economic and artistic opportunities that came with it, how did it feel to bring that home?
Taiwan is my hometown and my floating island. It's who I am.
Outside of the book's blend of philosophies, what else did you use in shaping the film during production?
I talked with a man named Steve Callahan [author of Adrift], who also happened to be a good writer. In the '70s he was in a shipwreck and was left for 76 days, by himself, on a plastic raft. I brought him to Taiwan to make the movie with me, because he's a remarkable source for the spiritual side — what you go through — and he's also a great guy. A lot of the details were supervised by him. He was a great help, and he was a great spiritual leader for us.
Did you ever let yourself drift as part of preparation?
We (Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi, and I) went out to where the freighter was supposed to sink, four days out of Manila, towards Canada, and we went out in a little boat and just drifted there.
There's a certain amount of endurance that we associate with the character of Pi, both in the time he spends at sea and in his youth in Pondicherry, growing up in the zoo and also dealing with many of the other children. But there's one very specific scene that stays in the viewer's mind, when Pi's father feeds a goat to the tiger Richard Parker. It's fairly confrontational, and it signals a shift in the story, thematically.
Right before that scene, you hear the line, "You don't know the strength of your faith until it's been tested." It's about disillusion, coming of age. In many movies I do, there is a loss of innocence — I would call it the bar mitzvah scene. The zoo to the boy is a paradise; he's innocent. He has all this imagination and all these stories and spiritual things in his head. And then he is thrown into the ocean, where he can't rely on organized religions, he is faced with the abstract idea of God. So the journey begins with that early disillusionment.
A sense of wonder may not keep you alive ...
Without that disillusionment, he wouldn't have survived. ... All stories about the tests of faith start with that: Before you can take a leap of faith, you have to doubt. ... In making the movie, I feel like the character in the book. All of us making the movie were also tested ... we had moments when we thought, why are we doing this? But once you overcome the obstacles and you look back, it seems like there was a reason, seems like there was a destiny, and you learn something.
How early in the development process did you decide to shoot the film in 3D?
I didn't think it was possible if I did it in 2D. ... If I had another dimension, maybe — just maybe — it might happen. Because in the regular way we go about making movies, it just could not be done.
The film really is an exceptional use of the technology. I remember when Prometheus came out this past summer and had the flying fish scene from Life of Pi attached to it — it seemed to demonstrate how important the technology was in bringing this story to life. And more so, that scene marks an aspect-ratio shift. Life of Pi is a standard 1.85:1, but for the flying fish, it becomes a wider CinemaScope ratio. Where did that decision come from?
I've always wanted to do that ... since film school, and no one allowed me to. Why do we have to stick with one ratio? It was like that with Crouching Tiger. When we were in some scenes, I want it to be standard. When we're in the desert, it should be wide screen. I felt that 'Scope was the only way to see this [flying fish] scene, and with the black areas [at the bottom of the frame], I could pull fish out of there; I think that's a great tool in 3D filmmaking. I think it's very exciting.
And then there's that exceptional overhead shot of all the various luminescent creatures below the raft, and that's a standard Academy ratio [1.37:1].
Now, with digital ... I hoped I'd done something that nobody noticed. But you noticed ... I thought it looked best that way. And it looked like the book cover.
I have to ask you about one of the most important parts of the film, the tiger Richard Parker. How did you assemble this creature?
We have nearly 30 shots in the movie that are real tiger. When you're creating them digitally, you need really good references. They cannot be invented. So whether it made it into the movie or not, we'd shoot with them to get real tiger behavior, every step of it. ... We had four tigers. Three were from France, with one of the greatest trainers [David Faivre] — he totally respects the animal — and most of the tiger scenes were with him. Two of them were female, one of which was the sister of the main tiger that we modeled from, a 7-year-old, nearly 500-pound gorgeous tiger named King. ... And for some of the scenes where he is more docile, hungry or sickly, we had a Canadian tiger. I raised the bar for the digital guys — I said, "You have to match them in 3D."
That's really intimidating, but it's a good kind of intimidation.
And with the zoo, sea and island sequences, you had all sorts of real and virtual creatures running through your film. Butterflies, elephants, meerkats, jellyfish ... which made the biggest impression?
My favorite was the hyena — she had the oddest smile. She was very neurotic; I think I was the only one she would let touch her, and then she would squeal with delight. ... It was really horrifying.
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