Movie Feature

Ang Lee: ‘I felt that I was Pi’

By Zaki Jufri from TaipeiMovies - 20 November 2012 7:00 PM | Updated 4:09 PM

Ang Lee: ‘I felt that I was Pi’

In 'Life of Pi', Ang Lee pushes the boundaries of cutting-edged motion picture technologies. Photo: Zaki Jufri

Still waters run deep. To film buffs, Ang Lee’s quiet, unassuming behaviour belies his renown as an auteur and unparalleled passion for conjuring up some of the most breath-taking works on celluloid –from ‘Lust, Caution’, ‘Sense and Sensibility’, ‘Brokeback Mountain’ and his latest outing, ‘Life of Pi’.

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Ang Lee and Suraj Sharma at 'Life of Pi' press conference in Taipei. Photo: Zaki Jufri

‘Life of Pi’, Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel about a 16-year-old boy who survives for 227 days in a lifeboat in the Pacific, will make the even the biggest cynic believe in god. Pi (played by Suraj Sharma) is lost at sea after the ship he boarded with his family—along with the animals from their zoo—capsizes during a violent storm. Everyone is killed but Pi, who ends up on a lifeboat with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Fantastical and metaphysical, the story was thought to be near impossible to translate into a movie—so many were surprised when Ang Lee chose to undertake this challenge.

“Each time I choose a movie, I feel that a higher power drew me to it. I like to see myself as a vehicle of the movie; that the movie directs me and not the other way around. You do become the movie you’re making. I felt that I was Pi,” Lee explained to inSing.com.

Although he once said that ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ was one of his most physically demanding shoots, ‘Life of Pi’ took that to a whole new level—it was cinematically challenging, an epic art house film given the big studio treatment. “Sometimes I felt lonely; I faced adversity like shooting in a new medium (3D), and the studio environment could be hostile one day, merciful the next. After a long while, the process felt spiritual. But it wasn’t not like there was a voice telling me what to do; unfortunately, the spiritual aspect was mostly related to pain,” he said. After four years of pain, Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’ provides the best example of blending of digital technology with traditional film-making as well as the art of storytelling.

'Life of Pi' trailer

“I was initially worried about the difficult elements (children, animals and water), but I thought we could resolve them by adding another dimension—3D. I was sceptical at first but now I think it is a masterstroke. I think the movie would not have been possible if it were not in 3D. We would not have been able to have the water effects or pull it off with the animals,” Lee explained.

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Suraj was the anchor of the movie - Ang Lee

Lee also said he could not have made the movie in Hollywood. “The movie couldn’t have been done in Los Angeles,” Lee added. “Because I think the tech people there are stuck in their ways. So I had to look back home, and, luckily, the mayor of Tai Chung is a good friend and let me use a section of an abandoned airport to house the big water tank that I needed for the movie.” This wave-generating tank measures 70 by 30 meters and contains 6.4 million litres of water. About 70 per cent of the movie ended up being shot in Taiwan (Tai Chung and Kenting), while the rest was shot in Pondicherry, India and Montreal, Canada.

Lee also suggested that fate brought him to shoot in Taiwan. “In the book, the ship—Tsimstum—sank in the ocean to the right of Taiwan and Pi’s route across the Pacific is along the Tropic of Cancer which runs across Taiwan. Everything is tied together—the weather, the oceanic phenomena, the marine life … everything you read in the book can be found around the ocean here, making this the perfect place to shoot the film,” he shared.

‘Life of Pi’ veers significantly away from Lee’s usual visual style. The opening credits scene at Pondicherry zoo is stunning, while the deep with luminous jellyfish, whales and all sorts of marine life are surreal and fantastical.

“The movie sort of tells me what it needs. After a while, it’s like Pi surviving on the ocean. Before he got to the ocean, he has all kinds of references like society, the zoo and organised religion. And when he’s stranded in the ocean, he’s facing the abstract idea of god. Although he has an emotional connection to it, he doesn’t know what to do. Making a movie is just like that. When you start out, you take in all these references but once you get to the creating stage, everything that you brought along goes out the window,” he said.

Perhaps Lee’s greatest discovery was 19-year-old Suraj Sharma who was chosen out of 3,000 candidates during casting sessions across India. Sharma, then 17, had almost no acting experience—and had just followed his younger brother to the casting call.

For someone who has never acted in a movie before, the 17-year-old delivers a moving performance that would put most veteran actors to shame. “Suraj was the anchor of the movie; I would not have shot the film if it weren’t for this person and his talent," Lee said. “It was uncanny that sometimes when I was directing him, I wasn’t really teaching him but more like reminding him what he knew from his past life—like a ‘Little Buddha.”

‘Life of Pi’ opens in theatres 29 November 2012