When you’re a highly-respected, Oscar-winning filmmaker like Ang Lee, a lot of scrutiny is paid to every decision you make, particularly which projects you choose to direct. Lee is an especially interesting case since every movie he has made has been different from the one before, and he’s proven himself to be a filmmaker ready to take on new challenges, including ones that may scare any other filmmaker. For example, taking on a well-known comic book character like 2003’s Hulk, which may have not worked out that well, but he rebounded with a number of smaller and more personal movies, including Brokeback Mountain, for which he won his first Oscar as a director.
Hollywood may have thought Lee had finally gone over the edge when he took on the task of bringing Yann Martel’s bestselling 2001 novel Life of Pi to the screen, since much of Martel’s book revolved around an Indian teenager named Pi stranded in a lifeboat following the shipwreck of a large cargo boat carrying his family’s zoo. Pi’s journey has him trying to survive at sea alone with a Bengal tiger with the unconventional tiger name of “Richard Parker.”
The first hurdle was finding the boy, which he found in newcomer Suraj Sharma– you can learn more about that process here–and then he had to put him in the proper environment by creating the feeling of being out in the middle of the ocean, which involved building a giant indoor water tank and finding a way to create his feline companion with a combination of actual tigers and CG. Lee also decided to film the movie in 3D, which brought its own set of challenges.
Fortunately, the results are another gorgeous masterpiece from the filmmaking visionary, one we’ve already given a 9.5 out of 10 review, and a few weeks back, ComingSoon.net got on the phone with Lee for the following interview. The filmmaker sounded fairly tired after two days of answering questions–oh, and years making the movie–but he was in good spirits and was extremely humble and self-deprecating about the coup he’d achieved.
ComingSoon.net: I remember speaking to you back in April at CinemaCon. I hadn’t seen any footage at the time and having seen the final movie, it really delivered on everything you promised, and it’s really fantastic.
Ang Lee: Oh, thank you. (laughs) So I wasn’t boasting on stage.
CS: No, I think you were spot-on. To be honest, I still haven’t read the book, but I loved the movie as it’s own thing, and this is probably the biggest scale movie you’ve done since “The Hulk.”
Lee: Thank you. I wouldn’t have been able to do this without doing “The Hulk.”
CS: When you begin a movie like this, where do you even begin. You knew there would be a lot of challenges, so what was the first step?
Lee: Well, first of all, it was really intimidating, moreso than “The Hulk” I believe, because it’s not a franchise, it’s literature. It will be just as expensive and with technology that’s unknown to me and I didn’t know if it would work or not. Putting that aside, rolling such a big dice and not really knowing whether it would work or not in the mainstream, it was pretty scary. I felt at first I had to be practical and I had to find a structure in the script that could carry this book. I thought the book has something most interesting in that it provides you a grand illusion and it defends it. It’s very hard to do in movies so I thought of a narrator that has a first-person sort of feeling but also a third person perspective. So I thought that it could the older Pi telling the writer his story. That was a break for me. Then I thought if I do it in 3D, maybe people will be more open to something new. (chuckles) That was a naïve thought but when I studied into it, I thought it would do wonders to the water. This is a water movie and I thought I had a good chance there even though water is very difficult. 3D has no reflections so it may polarize how you see things and give headaches. There were a lot of difficulties I went through that I had to solve. And then I had to find the kid. Without Pi, you don’t have a movie, so little by little, getting closer and closer, it seemed to be more realistic to make this endeavor. I had to find where to shoot and Taiwan seemed to be the answer because it’s a challenge for a Hollywood movie, who haven’t really hosted this kind of movie since 1965.
CS: Did they already have the water tank in Taiwan or did you build that from scratch?
Lee: No, I built that, and we had to create our own studio there including the water tank and an underwater tank, too, and we took over an old abandoned airport and the hangar became the shooting studio, we had to convert it, and the workshops became our offices. We took over the airport and we shot in Taichung a lot, the third largest city in Taiwan, they hosted us. Every step was kind of a crazy idea, but it seems to be the most reasonable one to do, and then I did pre-visualization. I spent a year doing animation of the ocean part before I made the movie and got the budget down–I struggled with that–before actually starting the making of it.
CS: Was there a lot of overlap between this and your last movie “Taking Woodstock”? I noticed you used the same production designer.
Lee: A little bit, a little bit. I was halfway into editing when I start to think about how the crack this script. Right after wrapping up the movie, in post, when I was delivering the movie, I started doing research, going to India, visiting a sea survival expert, things like that.
CS: It’s interesting that you used the editor you’ve worked with for many years and the production designer from “Woodstock,” but this is the first movie you’ve done where James Schamus wasn’t involved. Was he too busy running his studio? Why did you decide to do this movie without him?
Lee: I just thought it was time to try something on my own and see what happens at least once. To grow up a little bit, so to speak (chuckles), just to see what it was like. I just felt like doing it, and he was very nice and encouraging about it and it just happened to be the most difficult movie I’ve made. (laughs) So I’ll go back to James – we’re good friends. We’ve been working for a long time so a change was good for both of us.
CS: I’m sure. I didn’t even think about it until I looked back over your entire career and James was always there. It’s funny because Tom Rothman also worked with you in the early days, which I didn’t realize before the Gotham Awards last year.
Lee: Yeah, on the distribution side, yeah, on three of them.
CS: I spoke to Suraj a couple of weeks ago and he told me some fascinating stories about what he called the “Ang Lee Boot Camp for Acting.” It’s interesting to get a person who has never acted before and you basically train him to do what you need for the movie, but that’s also a lot of work.
Lee: A lot of work, but it’s good that he doesn’t have any habits yet. I don’t have to get rid of anything. I just build the acting on him, just keep building. In some ways, it’s probably easier than dealing with somebody with a lot of habits. The difficult part was that when he had to deliver things with many layers, that skill he has to obtain. He really had to make a great effort, but sometimes young talent, they break your hearts easily because of their innocence; it’s pure and very effective.
CS: Have you ever had to do that with any other actor you’ve worked with? An actor that inexperienced that you had to train them?
Lee: Yeah, actually. I did three movies in a row. The one movie before this, “Taking Woodstock,” Demetri Martin never acted before even though he was 34 or 35. He was a comedian so he had some experience in show business. The previous one, the Chinese movie “Lust, Caution,” Tang Wei, that was her first movie, too.
CS: Do you generally work with your actors so in-depth in advance that when they get on set, they know exactly what you need and want and you can focus on other things?
Lee: Yeah, and not to be stiff and just obedient. In the process of rehearsing, we go through a lot of things and then on the days they’re prepared but they’re prepared to react, to improvise. I’m the same way. I don’t give the same direction over and over. I try to hit them in different ways to see what will come out from them. That’s the way I do it but I like them to be somewhat prepared.
CS: Suraj mentioned that making this movie was more “surviving than acting,” and I guess he didn’t know how to swim before, but you didn’t put him in with any tigers
Lee: He watched the tiger, but he wouldn’t stand next the tiger.
CS: How was it shooting those scenes when you had to pretend there was a tiger but he also was on water so he had to deal with that?
Lee Shooting the tiger or shooting him with the tiger?
Lee: Well, shooting the tiger is a lot of times somebody else’s job because it’s very time-consuming, day in and day out, so we have a splinter unit. I check with them occasionally, from time to time every day, but I wasn’t there always. I was with the first unit and I see what they get and I take it from there, so I shot in backwards order – I shot the tiger before I shot Suraj.
CS: Did you have any of that footage you could show Suraj for him to react to?
Lee: Yeah, “This is what the tiger does, so you have to do this and provoke the tiger to do that.” It was backwards most of the time. Then there’s the tiger alone. When the tiger jumps into the water and swims, that’s for real.
CS: It seems like every shot in this movie would involve some sort of FX.
Lee: Not every shot, not the scenes with Irrfan, but most of the shots with Suraj had FX, more then half of them. It was somewhat incomplete when we’re shooting him and imagination and experience played a big role.
CS: Were you able to start working on those FX while you were still shooting?
Lee: Not in a refined way. I pre-visualized everything before I went out there, so that was very helpful. I spent a year doing the animation for the whole ocean section, so I made a movie before I made it so I could show to the actors and every member of the crew working on it, “This is what happens, how do we do this?”
CS: I also enjoyed the spiritual aspect of Pi’s journey, which plays a large part in it, so was that something you could relate to or something you wanted to explore?
Lee: Yeah, especially whenever there was pain and suffering, you have to look up and go “Why? Why?” (chuckles) I think everybody can relate to that, and we’re filmmakers. We create illusions and we take it for real and yeah, I can certainly relate to that. I wouldn’t make any movie without deeply relating to it. Maybe they’re in different forms of expression, but yeah, I can relate to it. I think rationality only goes so far. Not everything that you believe in or they go about can be proved. Sometimes you have to take a leap of faith, you have to have a spiritual side to be able to get through some hardships especially, and it helps out in moments of confusion. Storytelling is a good way by the way. That’s what this material is dealing with, the power of storytelling, because life doesn’t always make sense. Making sense is an artificial and human way of putting it together. Story is one of them because it has a beginning, middle and end. It has wisdom at the end, it has meaning, and we share it with each other, and that’s powerful, that’s not nothing. It’s not just making illusion.
CS: It sounds like it was cathartic to take on this challenge, to get through making the movie and everybody generally loving the results.
Lee: Yeah, I want to take some time and just give a good cry and relax. (laughs)
CS: Fair enough. You’ve deserved to take some time off.
Lee: Yeah, I don’t know why I do this–somebody might have to tell me why I do this–but I don’t really have a reason why I’m so motivated to do this, but it does feel cathartic. (laughs)
CS: But at least the results were successful. Have you had anything else in development over the years you might want to tackle next? Are you and James writing anything?
Lee: No, not yet. Nothing has grabbed me yet and I don’t have anything lined up.
CS: Do you think you might do something smaller again, like you did after “The Hulk.”
Lee: I thought so. Many times when I’m making this movie, I think that the next thing has to be smaller, quick and improvisational (laughs) probably in 2D and black and white maybe. I was thinking about that. I don’t know. It has to grab me and nothing has grabbed me yet.
CS: Are you familiar with “mumblecore,” where they basically have an idea, get some actors together and shoot stuff, often without a script, and then figure it out in editing?
Lee: Maybe, I have not tried that yet.
Life of Pi opens on Wednesday, November 21.