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Ang Lee on ’Life of Pi’ :: Surviving at Sea (with a Crouching Tiger)

by Sean Au
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Wednesday Nov 21, 2012
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The barrage of 3-D films that we see in the theaters these days can be traced to the phenomenal success of James Cameron’s "Avatar." Not only did it gross some $2.7 million worldwide, it also displayed a quantum leap in 3-D technology, creating a demand for films to be made in that process.

Yet, for the quantity of 3-D films that followed, few have yet to fully capitalize on the nature of the medium to immerse the audience in the film.¬†In fact, only Martin Scorsese’s "Hugo" rose to the level of "Avatar" in its mix of technology and artistry.

That all changes with the release this week of "Life of Pi," Ang Lee’s visually intoxicating adaptation of Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel. Already the recipient of incredible word-of-mouth, including praise by none other than Cameron, who told the Los Angeles Times that the film "breaks the paradigm that 3-D has to be some big, action fantasy spectacle, superhero movie."


"The movie is visually amazing, inventive, and it works on you in ways you’re not really aware of," he continued. "It takes you on a journey, and unless you’ve read the book -- which I hadn’t -- you have no idea where that journey is going. It does what good 3-D is supposed to do, which is, it allows you to forget you’re watching a 3-D movie."

What makes the film so special, says Cameron, is that it is "a spiritual story." It is one that takes the viewer on an adventure involving a shipwreck, a teenage boy named Pi, a Bengal tiger, and the vast Pacific. For the bulk of the film, Pi is adrift in a life raft with only the tiger as his companion. To survive, he must make peace with the tiger (given the human name Richard Parker), as well as contend with the ocean that’s both serenely beautiful and deeply dangerous.

The project stymied three other high-profile directors (M Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet), to the point that it was considered impossible to be filmed. Enter Ang Lee, the Taiwanese director, whose eclectic career ranges from social comedy ("The Wedding Banquet"), 19th century fiction ("Sense and Sensibility"), martial arts action ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), domestic drama ("The Ice Storm") and the modern western ("Brokeback Mountain," for which he won the Oscar for Best Director.) If he couldn’t film it, no one could.


When I met the soft-spoken Lee three years ago, he was promoting "Taking Woodstock," a genial comedy/drama about a gay man, Elliot Tiber, who helped create 1969’s Woodstock. At that time he told me that "Life of Pi" would be his next project, and, with the film, the promise of "Avatar" would be be unleashed. (To do that, Lee enlisted some of the same technical team that put together Cameron’s film.)

His decision to film in 3-D was a bold one, not only because of its high budget ($70 million; "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" only cost $17 million); but also because of the demands of time and technology could easily allow for the film’s cost to balloon. ("Avatar" was budgeted at $237 million, but its final cost is said to be closer to $310 million.)

Filming "Life of Pi" was so daunting that, initially, Twentieth Century Fox turned Lee down. With no star power, save for Tobey Maguire who was hired to play the Canadian writer to whom the story is told, it appeared to be a project doomed to development hell. Fortunately, Fox’s independent unit Searchlight Pictures green-lit the project, which was largely cast with unknown actors (including newcomer Suraj Sharma as the teenage Pi). As it neared completion, Lee made the daring move of taking Maguire out of the final print, deeming him "too jarringly recognizable." Instead British actor Rafe Spall (seen this past summer in another 3-D spectacular "Prometheus") took the role of the interviewer.


Even before it hits theaters this week (in 2-D and 3-D versions), Lee’s gamble paid off, at least in buzz and enthusiastic reviews. Rated PG-13, the film is likely to reach as wide an audience as possible, appealing to children and adults alike in the tradition of the great adventure films. Todd McCarthy of The Hollywood Reporter describes it as "an unusual example of anything-is-possible technology put at the service of a humanistic and intimate story rather than something that smacks of a manufactured product."

And A.O. Scott in the New York Times wrote the film "unfolds in a setting that is one of the great achievements of digital cinema, and a reminder that the eclectic Mr. Lee is, among other things, an exuberant and inventive visual artist. (In this respect it is an apt companion to¬†’Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ speaking of tigers.) There are images in ’Life of Pi’ that are so beautiful, so surprising, so right that I hesitate to describe them. Suffice it to say that the simple, elemental facts of sky, sea and animal life are captured with sweetness and sublimity."

EDGE sat down with Ang Lee to learn how he made the thought-to-be unfilmable novel into one of the most anticipated adaptations of the year.


EDGE: Let’s talk about the challenges in bringing Yann Martel’s spiritual novel to life.

Ang Lee: The challenges have been tremendous. As this is a story about a boy drifting in the ocean, we have to simulate what happens in the sea. Water is the most uncontrollable element.

In the filming industry, we avoid working with children because they can be unreliable. We avoid working with animals, but there is a tiger, a hyena and many other animals. I already decided to shoot the film in 3-D. To me, 3-D is a new medium. I want to bring a certain freshness to the story.

Where to make the film? How to make the film? It was a difficult process so much so that I did not think that I could make the film in the United States because it would have been too expensive. I decided to make the film from scratch in my native home of Taiwan, creating a new way, a new concept to shoot the film.

This is an expensive film, so it has to be for a mainstream audience. However, the concept and the idea could also be rather abstract. How to tell the profound story in a simple way? This, to me, is the biggest challenge.


EDGE: It has been a long time since you last made a film in Taiwan. How do you feel about bringing your Hollywood experience back to your homeland?

Ang Lee: It was a very good feeling. The Hollywood system has its strengths but that comes with certain constraints which can be inflexible. So to combine the resources from Hollywood, that includes the capital, manpower, the knowledge and the experience, and bringing them to a new location to make the film, there is much more room for creativity.

However, this also comes with the process of re-adjustment, communication and struggles. So making the film in Taiwan is a great opportunity, especially for young filmmakers, they get to see and experience how a Hollywood film is made. I found all that I needed and assembled the film in Taiwan. I got to train local young filmmakers. It was an ideal combination and a great experience.


EDGE: I understand that you only managed to capture a fraction of what you have envisioned for the film.

Ang Lee: That is right. It is very typical when you are making a film. You imagine this is how you want the film to be but there is a gap between your ideal and reality. To narrow this difference, you also need to acknowledge that it is there, but the process of eliminating this gap can actually even inspire you with new ideas.

It is a very organic process. It is not a process where you reduce and trim from your idea in the beginning, while you are cutting down, you are adding new materials as well. Every film has a life of its own. You cannot force it. You have to listen to it. It will be different from what you thought in the beginning. This is also what makes it interesting.


EDGE: This is the first time you are working with 3-D technology. What is your learning process in using this technology to make ’Life of Pi?’

Ang Lee: It was a hard process. I do not mind hard work, but without a strong foundation in it can be terrifying. As 3-D is a new medium to me, both the audience and I may not be familiar with the technology and need to make our adjustments. While we are learning and adapting, there is a huge investment behind a 3-D project that comes with it, the psychological barrier is a big one to overcome. I needed to realign my expectations, not just as a student who is learning something new and expressing yourself through your work, you have to be responsible for its outcome as well.

You want the audience to like the film. Learning the technology is relatively simple. What is difficult is how you use this new medium as a way to express yourself in your artistic creation. You hope that the audience will accept what you do, how you use this technology and medium to express your thoughts, that is the most challenging of it all. There is no formula to it. You do it step by step, with some guidance from your audience. I feel that we are just at the infancy stage of this technology.

"Life of Pi" is in theaters.


Watch the trailer to Life of Pi:


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