Spinning Platters Interview: Ang Lee on “Life of Pi”

by Jason LeRoy on November 26, 2012

Ang Lee on the set of LIFE OF PI

They said it couldn’t be done: a movie version of Yann Martel’s bestselling novel Life of Pi, an intensely visual parable that consists almost entirely of a teenaged Indian boy named Pi lost at sea on a tiny rowboat with a wild tiger as his only companion? Bah, said some. Blergh, exclaimed others. Bloop, said NeNe Leakes. But clearly the naysayers hadn’t considered the possibility that Ang Lee, the Oscar-winning 58-year-old director of such contemporary classics as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, would consider taking the helm. But take it he did, choosing the spiritual allegory as his follow-up to the modestly received Taking Woodstock.

Lee is a man who clearly gets off on massive challenges. Not only did he choose an actor with no previous experience (Suraj Sharma) for the lead role, but to tell Martel’s intimate yet larger-than-life story, he pushed film technology to the most cutting of edges by creating an almost entirely digital visual wonderland for the film’s various fantastical settings (and in 3D, no less). The resulting movie combines astoundingly gasp-inducing visuals with an uncompromisingly spiritual and philosophical framework, anchored by Suraj’s remarkable performance. It is difficult to imagine any director other than Lee realizing this challenging material on such a grand and meticulous scale. Below, Lee sits down with Spinning Platters to discuss the root of his passion for storytelling, which of his Crouching Tiger characters he channeled for Life of Pi‘s tiger, and getting to take advantage of new actors.

Each new film you make seems so different from those you’ve made before. What was it about Life of Pi that appealed to you?

It’s advertised as a story that will make you believe in God, but of course no one is going to buy that. It’s actually about the ideas of believing and stories. I’m a storyteller; I make movies. So it’s really changed the essence of what I do, the illusions I create: how they effect our lives, how we take them as real, how they are even more important in some ways than reality. To me, that’s the truth. I make movies about people in false situations who devote so much emotion to it they get lost, such as in Lust, Caution. That subject matter really haunts me. I wanted to make the movie also because of the voyage part, which is really vividly and visually written. If you could make it happen, it would be wonderful movie material.

The part in India, even though it’s a lot of material and you have to narrow it down before you sink the ship — it’s challenging in terms of length, but it’s very colorful. And then it has a philosophical ending. That’s the tough part, that’s a challenge. I looked forward to it and I cannot say I enjoyed doing it. [laughs] But it’s haunting. It’s philosophical questions that haunt me. I like to put in my own two cents. I want to do what the book does, but with the cinema. In my opinion it’s harder doing cinema than a book, because cinema is more direct. It’s a photorealistic image right in front of your face. What you see is what it is. How do you do that? How do you discuss the illusion you’re watching inside of an illusion? That’s a great challenge to me. That’s enough reason to do it, isn’t it? Except it’s a big dice to roll, for me and for everybody else involved. But I think at the end it’s worth it. [laughs]

Many of your previous films have also been about people throwing themselves into extreme situations, and they all seem to feature some sort of metaphysical element, whether most obviously in The Hulk or even the psychotropic drugs in Taking Woodstock. But in Life of Pi, there’s a really overt dialogue about religion and faith. Was that something that lured you toward it or pushed you away? Because here the vehicle is so obvious, while in your other films it hasn’t been.

As I said, nobody will watch the movie or read the book and start believing in God if they don’t. It’s not that. That’s the overt part. If there’s a deeper metaphor, I’m not supposed to tell you. [laughs] Of course there are other parts that are not so obvious. The biggest challenge I have is making a movie that gives people hope and faith, because that’s very important to us. But there’s also Pi’s frustration, his anger, his confusion; and not to mention, there’s a second story. I think that’s the provocative part, that they coexist in the movie. I think it depends on how people take things away from the movie, whether they go for the first story or the second story. There are many ways to look at the movie, and my job is to provide chances for everybody [to connect with it], not particularly the faithful; atheists, younger kids who can take the adventure story, or people who enjoy philosophical thinking or metaphorical contemplation. They can all do that. I don’t know if I reached it, but that certainly is the goal. And that’s no different than any other movie I’ve made. I think good movies should have that.

What was your familiarity with the book prior to signing on?

Somebody recommended it to me and I read it, then I recommended it to my wife and kids. I didn’t think I would want to make it into a movie, but as a filmmaker it haunted me. As I said, we talk about illusions and how real you can make them, and if that is actually the essence of reality. That really haunts me, and some of the images haunted me. But I thought it would be too expensive to do justice to the book, and technically I didn’t think we were ready. Even today it was very challenging. So until they approached me with the project about five years ago, it was an interesting idea in the back of my head but I never really thought about pursuing it.

One of the main changes from the novel is having Pi recount the story directly to Yann. How did that come about?

That’s one of the first ideas I had. It’s a weird book! How do you make that into a structural movie? That’s the first thing I thought when I was deciding whether to do this: it doesn’t matter how fantastical the voyage is. Unless you find a structure, you cannot tell the story or go about making the movie. I noticed in the prologue, this Indian guy tells Yann, “There’s a guy in Canada with a story that will make you believe in God.” That’s pretty funny, and he went [to Canada], so I thought, “Okay, that’s a joke from Yann Martel, so let me take it seriously like it really happened.” I get a kick out of it! I thought that was a good way to structure the movie.

Even though the book is a 16-year-old boy’s journey, I found that it was told in a very mature voice, so it has to be told by a mature person rather than a kid. The kid can fill in the blanks with voiceovers from his diary, but the majority of his explanation has to come from an older voice. And this is material that deals with the power of storytelling and sharing and listening, so I thought, “Well, that’s a good tool. Pi will tell the story, then the writer will take over the story and create the book.” I’m using fiction as a reality.

Since this is so much about the power of stories and storytelling, do you remember any of the first stories that inspired you to become a storyteller?

[pause] Movies, probably. My mother is not a particularly good storyteller, and my father never told me a story except something happened to him. But they have story elements in them. I went to Catholic kindergarten and my mother took me to church, so there are a lot of stories there. But I think movies probably the most, stories told by images. I had a three-years-younger brother, and for years every day I would tell him many stories. I would just make up stories and he would listen. That’s how we spent our childhood: me telling stories to my younger brother. I don’t know why we did that and I don’t know why he would listen, but I guess I just liked to be a storyteller. More so than a listener, probably.

The tiger is such a pivotal character in the novel. How did you approach realizing it for the film and conveying its personality?

I learned about tiger behavior, and there’s only so many things a real tiger would do. I didn’t want to go outside of that. I’m not gonna have it talk or stare at you like it loves you; I’m not gonna humanize it. But as a character, it’s not like building with an actor because I never actually see the tiger. It’s either some real tiger who’s trained to do something and you’re scared of him, or it’s entirely digital and you just create him out of your imagination. So when I go about it personally I think I’m dealing with my Crouching Tiger insides, something I’m creating and imagining. I have a few experiences with such characters.

The closest I could think of, even though it’s a human being, is the Jen character in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the part Zhang Ziyi plays. If I see something I’m familiar with, if I know such a person, I wipe away that idea. I want to create something. I’m imagining something totally fascinating to me, for her to go the complete opposite of what I want her to do and be totally rebellious. And that girl will fly, and they couldn’t catch her; Mu Bai to his death couldn’t touch her, except as the Hidden Dragon. So I worked with Zhang Ziyi and created that character I think quite vividly. I don’t know anyone even close to her, and that’s my idea of a character. I went about the character of the tiger like that, except I worked a lot harder and thousands of people assisted me in digitally creating it over a year and a half. In principal they are similar, but this one was a lot harder. [laughs]

In addition to the myriad technical challenges, you have a first-time actor playing your lead. And not only is Suraj a first-time actor, but due to the digital nature of the filmmaking, was he essentially acting in a void for most of his scenes? 

That’s why he is such a talent. You sit, there’s a blue man there who’s supposed to be the tiger, and you just act this way and that way. The water part he had to negotiate with himself. That’s all real; if he fumbles, he fumbles. For the tiger part, the situation where he faces God spiritually, he has to put himself in the situation. If I don’t see it, I don’t see it and he has to try again. In that way he’s no different than an experienced actor. But in some ways, a fresh and less-experienced actor has more innocence that you can rip off and take advantage of. [laughs] They don’t know other ways to make movies and they don’t have cynicism; when they’re in, they’re in. In some ways it’s easier than an experienced jaded actor. He was a gift from God in making this movie. He’s convincing; he invests his belief in the situation and then we believe in it. I’m a talented filmmaker, so if I see it I know whether he believes or not. I could tell, so I would just tell him to keep trying.

My direction to him was very direct. “You don’t look like you’re scared.” Old tricks like if you breathe harder you’ll sense it more. But eventually he has to believe the thing. He’s a talented actor and has no trouble believing things. Sometimes he cries and it’s heartbreaking. The scene where he’s stroking the tiger’s head in his lap is so heartbreaking, but all he was holding was a big sandbag. He’s performing to a blue sandbag! He said he might not be able to do it because we were near a crowded schoolyard and he was very distracted by the noise, but then he did it on the third take. People were very affected. The makeup woman was like his surrogate mother on the set, and she was like, [sobbing] “I’m a proud mother!” He’s a talent.

So what’s next for you?

Nothing. I’m going to collapse after I’m done promoting this movie. [laughs]

Life of Pi is now playing in the Bay Area.

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