Taiwanese director Ang Lee has amassed a diverse array of Western film credits. Everything from the Jane Austen classic Sense and Sensibility to an unflinching look at American social mores in The Ice Storm. Lee’s arty take on the martial arts genre, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, earned two Oscar nominations, and his adaptation of The Hulk would never be confused with the standard Hollywood comic book franchise. Even his promotional film for BMW (a segment of The Hire series of Internet shorts) revealed a uniquely spiritual type of filmmaker, setting choreographed car-chase mayhem to baroque music as the film’s Driver (Clive Owen) becomes enchanted by his encounter with a Golden Child (played by Lee’s own son.) To realize Yann Martel’s celebrated novel, Lee searched tirelessly to find the film’s lead, a non-actor with whom he worked exhaustively to fashion a credible portrayal of the spiritual-minded young protagonist. Martel says that Lee “exudes a calm and soulful air” despite his relentless work ethic. “He’s unassuming,” Martel offers, “with none of the negative aspects one might associate with a major Hollywood film director.” Kevin H. Martin talked with Lee about East/West and the great divide in between that is 3D.
ICG: There’s always been a great tradition in Western art and literature of heroes going down to the sea in ships to prove manhood. Did you want to make Pi’s experience basic and elemental? Lee: It all came out of the novel, but I felt the boy’s experience had to be less specific, more universal or abstract. That grew out of the first part of the book where he finds appeal in a variety of spiritual beliefs, rather than embracing a single religion. Later on his experience at sea with the tiger is where Pi deals with becoming a man. I think the author let his readers free-associate how they themselves would deal with these kinds of challenges, and like any reader, my version came out of thinking about all that.
You often collaborate with the same screenwriter, but not this time. My past association with James Schamus involved both his writing and his producing. Our last two projects [Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution] came from short stories, so in addition to working toward an honest adaptation, we had to embellish and extend the narrative. The film is really about me out on the sea alone with a tiger (laughs.) David Magee is a talented writer – Finding Neverland is a good example – and a good man who has written 300 or 400 drafts (laughs) of Pi for me over the last few years.
You’ve been successful with adapting best-selling novels. Why are you drawn to that source material? I don’t see any logic about what draws me. It is often just how something might come to haunt my thoughts over a long period of time. There’s also the distance a story’s setting is from my own experience; the life of a cowboy in Wyoming is (laughs) not anything I’ve lived. So that can provoke my curiosity. When writing inspires me to capture the feeling from the page, it becomes a process of figuring out the way to relate it cinematically.
How does that process begin? Usually with me pitching it to [the writer] and getting his thoughts on how it might be integrated into the narrative. It can at times be painful, but then again so is much of filmmaking, when dealing with locations and casting. For me it’s never a matter of solving all the questions up front, since I don’t believe in making the movie in advance of actually shooting it. That would eliminate the process of discovery, which continues during the shoot and well along into post. In fact, I just filmed another pick-up shot yesterday.
And Pi was a similar process of discovery? When I first read the book, I found it inspiring, fascinating, even mind-boggling, but didn’t see any way to make it into a film. The technical issues apart, it resisted me in cinematic terms. Years later others approached me about doing it, and I still resisted. So, ultimately, it was a case of the material choosing the filmmaker.
This is your first experience with native 3D. Did [cinematographer] Claudio Miranda make you fully aware of what was possible? Shooting in 3D was a challenge, but I always thought of it with the potential for new breakthroughs, visual possibilities not yet considered. This is a rather philosophically minded book, with many visual possibilities, but it is, to some degree, still perceived as an art-house picture. So 3D could help reach a different audience, and at the same time it allowed me the opportunity to explore this new tool. Claudio had already explored some issues on Tron and found that traditional cinematic approaches to limiting depth [of field] could be respected, which was not the accepted thinking for 3D at that point. I hope that we can expand the visual language of storytelling with 3D, that it can become more than just a depth tool.
Was it a large learning curve? I spent a long while learning, and still am learning about the process. I try very hard, but I sometimes fail to grasp it – yet I find the experimentation worthwhile. Deciding to expand the story via 3D, in a dimensional way, was to me like looking at pi – not the character, but the mathematical number – something that isn’t finite like a theater screen, but goes on and on. I really think there is something about 3D that hasn’t yet been realized, and it may take many attempts, many failures, but my thought is that it can expand the medium, offering an alternative method to what we’ve gotten used to over the last century. In the telling of a story, choosing the right media to present that story is very important. I still think all kinds of media, 2D film, black-and-white film, should have their place.
And the same, obviously now goes for digital capture? Very much so. I’ve always been a film diehard and love shooting with it, preferring the idea of photochemistry to electronic dots, but the look with Alexa is also a very good one, not quite the same but with qualities that appeal. I didn’t find this to be the case ten years ago when I was asked to use digital and resisted; now the look is much more natural and organic. For me, it represents not a replacement for film, but simply an alternative to how we’ve been working.
So did you have any trepidation on day one of shooting? When beginning this film, I thought I would be very sad to see no film going through the camera, but that was never the case. In fact, the low-light advantages on this picture were quite startling. One of the biggest scenes in the movie was a water ceremony shot at night in an Indian temple. We had 1,600 extras carrying candles, which were the sole sources of light. It looked gorgeous in a way you could not have achieved using conventional film lighting techniques. I had a world-class still photographer with me that night, another die-hard advocate for shooting film. But nothing was useable from that still shoot, because there wasn’t enough light to capture on film.
You dealt with the need for heavy-duty VFX when you made The Hulk. Has working with VFX houses become more streamlined? It’s a better situation now, since we are getting results back faster. Through previs, I can communicate ideas to Visual Effects with greater clarity; there’s less margin for misinterpretation. But our situation here represents a different challenge, to do real-looking animals based on good reference. Putting a live tiger on a raft with a hyena, zebra and orangutan just isn’t going to happen, something you know when you start. But we can capture what is true and real about the animals; our trainer aided us immensely with this aspect, in terms of how they respond to one another and how a man could tame the tiger via dominance techniques. I felt as long as we resisted humanizing them in the animation, they would remain true to their nature and credible. On Hulk, even if you got it right from a physics and scientific standpoint, he still might not look or feel correct. There’s no existing reference for that huge green head (laughs.) Though the first time I saw 3D imagery with a big IO [interocular] distance on screen, I realized that maybe this was what Hulk needed, for me to see that big head in closeup coming out of the screen to capture my intention.
For Life of Pi you had many other issues to address beyond the mix of live animals and digital ones. Yes, virtual set extensions for the ocean and sky had to meld with tank photography, which was done using real daylight as well as stage lights. We were in effect having to set up the rules and looks for Pi’s whole universe. Let me tell you, creating such a universe shows to me that being God could never have been an easy job (laughs.) In our mind’s eye, objects are not all uniformly clear, but defined by subjective impression. The challenge with capturing Pi’s reality or anything else in digital is that sometimes things look too present to be perceived as “real” in that mind’s-eye way. More real than real sounds like a good thing, but not if it distracts away from the reality you’re trying to maintain for the movie. The 3D camera also sees differently from the human eye; let’s not forget that our eyes have been trained to view 2D movies and believe in the truth of that flat image on the screen. It’s a huge obstacle to overcome. Perhaps, in time, younger audiences who aren’t so indoctrinated with the old thoughts will be more receptive to 3D – you know, “Why were these people watching a flat image on the wall?”
So audiences may one day look back at this era as a time of pioneering a new cinematic language? They’ll look back and laugh – at some of what we do. I hope they’ll look back with kindness.