Interview: Ang Lee on the Journey of Bringing 'Life of Pi' to the Screen
by Alex Billington
December 18, 2012
"I'm just an avid filmmaker." Now playing in 3D in theaters everywhere is one of my favorite films of the year, Life of Pi, directed by Oscar winning Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee. I gave the film a 9/10 in my review, and Jeremy went all out with 10/10, because it's really about the wonderful magic of cinema, and what filmmakers can do with the right storytelling tools, including even 3D. Ang Lee is a diverse filmmaker, of many acclaimed hits like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Sense and Sensibility, Brokeback Mountain, Lust Caution and even Hulk. I was lucky enough to be given a chance to sit down with Ang for 20 minutes in New York City a few weeks ago for a discussion on bringing the wondrous story Life of Pi to the big screen.
This was taped at a hotel and could not be recorded on video, so here's the full transcription of my Ang Lee interview on Life of Pi. I wrote about the film: "There are minor lulls and downtime as we follow Pi and his struggles on the lifeboat, but they're worth getting through for moments of sheer fascination and celluloid joy. The kind of moments that remind us 'this is why I go to the movies' and also 'this is why I love them.'"
How did you know how to approach this story as a movie? Did you read Yann Martel's book and immediately think, "this is exactly what I want to do?" Was it an evolution?
Ang Lee: I read the book when it first came out. I was fascinated by it. It was also mind boggling and all of that. It's not even close to making as a movie. That's pretty obvious. And then four or five years ago Fox approached me. Then I started thinking, "How do I crack this?" Then I started to gradually get hooked. I thought if I had a structure… ’cause this is a story that examines the power of storytelling, which is what I do, examine illusion. The movie relies so much on illusion—how do you give the audience an emotional ride?—Which is not what the book is about. It's a philosophical book. How do you give them an emotional ride and then examine the illusion within the illusion of a movie? I think that's kind of unsolvable.
Then I thought Older Pi [will] tell the story. So you have the third person and the first person. So maybe that will work. Then I thought of 3D, which is a very naïve idea, because like four years ago I had no idea. I just thought maybe with adding another dimension, maybe, just maybe… maybe things will open up. Then I got hooked [laughs] little by little. It's a long effort. The script took about a year, and then I took another year to do pre-visualization. Then I did my homework. Then I had to think out of the box, because to do a water movie you have to create a water tank, because I've never seen a movie do a water tank well. It's like I have to top it. I've got to dissolve it and I've got to come further along with that surge. How do I do that? I thought, "There's no way I can do it in LA." Then I thought of Taiwan. It's a long process.
But I did my study. I thought 3D would look really good with water. Just little by little. Still, I think after all the problems were solved, the first thing I mentioned was still the hardest thing, is how do you wrap it up, without throwing your audience off the track, so to speak? That's really hard—how to bring up the second [half], how to conclude.
Speaking of the ending, I wanted to ask about why you felt it was important to include the modern-day book ends with the third person author telling the story.
Ang: Because the third person, it gives meaning. He had 30 years to think about it, chew on it, gnaw on it, spit it back in a weird way. And you don't know what is coming. Because the book is mostly told by a mature voice. I don't know, a 35 year old Canadian; I don't know what that is, but it's quite mature and philosophical. That doesn't belong to a 16 year old Indian boy. So I thought an older voice is necessary. Then because of the thinking book, but you want to stay in the feelings, so it has to be the same person, not another writer or just some weird voiceover. And you cannot do a voice about a young… there is another way to do it - Young Pi tell the first story in the infirmary, in the hospital, to the Japanese. And naturally, that's how you would go about it, but the voice wouldn't be right. And because it's him, it's the same person, emotionally you cannot really detach to examine the story he is telling. You won't do that trick.
So I thought—a third person, sort of an omnipresent objective point of view, but at the same time it's the same person, will be the solution. That's how I came about the framework. That's just the beginning and then it gets more complicated [laughs] as you go about it.
That's what was exactly what I wanted to get into…
Ang: Yeah, what if he wants to hide, what is this, what is that, what if the second story is real, what if the first is partially real, and what if both of them end up bullshitting? However people take it, it has to work at the end. How is the actor going to deliver it so everybody can find that trace? That's a long story, but to me, cinematically, it's a hard one.
How do you know what from the book you needed to include? How do you know what you can throw out and change but still keep the spirit of the character of Pi?
Ang: Well, gut feeling. Gut feeling in terms of scene, to scene, to scene what it means most is what the book is about—what kind of takes I got and how I want to give that take to the audience cinematically. That first. Then I go about selecting my scenes—what will work for the end. It's pretty much everything to the end. And then I have to choreograph the thing. If I go about the book it will take 15 hours to play the movie. Can't do that. And the first part of the movie, as you know, it's probably harder to get through. Every aspect of his life, there is a character. There is a math teacher who is the atheist… Everything has a character. You cannot go about that. So I have to consolidate it. I come up with all the atheists go to the father…
Same way with the voyage. Whatever will give a clear storyline that he goes through different stages. We cannot go about things here and there throughout this movie. It has to have some flow. Movie kills a lot quicker once people get an idea they want to move on. So how do you consolidate and pick the best, and the most visualized, too? And there are things I added, like the whale. It's not in the book. But if I want him to lose something, all his belongings, the supplies, I wanted to make it the most magnificent, because Pi's story has to be magnificent. So I came up with ideas like that. And [in the book] the island goes on forever [laughs], for maybe months. I have to shrink it down to one day.
It seems tough to be able to tell a story that can appeal to a wide audience; appeal to atheists as well as Christians, as well as Hindus and so on. Was it tough to find the balance between that without alienating the audience?
Ang: I feel at different phases that's not really a problem. But it's hard to balance the faithful and the atheist. The first thing I talked about, because there are organized religions in the beginning—that's his childhood thing. Then he went through a period he lost the illusion of paradise, the zoo, so to speak. Then he went existential. Then he gets cast away to the ocean to face the abstract idea of God. And that's the real test. So whatever religions, wherever you come from, when he faces the idea of God, you are just social worker. [laughs] And we talk about faith; the God that we don't know. I think that part is okay. But for atheists, they probably tend to believe in the second story. You have to work something for them. And for the faithful you have to work it out so it's a faithful story.
My idea — anybody who sees the movie has their take, and it will work. I think the nature of the two stories demand that kind of result. That's hard. And then there's an art house and the broader audience. That's even harder [to appeal to], to fundamentally make the movie differently. The challenge I need is not a challenge in art house, but it's a very expensive movie. The anticipation is also very high. It has to appeal to be a broader movie. So that I struggled with [that part] the longest.
Do you think 3D helped achieve the broader appeal? Not only with the idea that it's popular, but what you were saying earlier about adding depth, too.
Ang: I thought so, but it turns out—give or take movie, doesn't matter 2D or 3D. If they like the story, if the invest in or believe in it, that… I thought it makes a difference. That's one of the reasons I started. But then, ideally, it's not the main effect. However, I think 3D makes it seem more like you are together with Pi, especially the ocean part. I think in that respect it helped. I think for all audiences, not just for art house or for the broader audience, it's something new. And also, you literally feel like you are there with him. I think that really helped the movie.
I don't think I can make you fall in love with 3D, not in significance, like what the movie means, but just visually to sit through it and go through what Pi goes through. I think that would be pretty impossible in 2D.
That's why I called it a 3D masterpiece in that it made it easy to become close to Pi, believe in his story and feel what he felt throughout this experience.
Ang: And also, 3D has this thing… take the shot when you see the ship sinking [seen above]…
Right - that's an amazing shot.
Ang: And so many times I found myself wanting to shoot the shot behind him. I think that's how we imagine us doing things, whether it's in a dream or imagining doing something. It's always - you are involved, but it's also point of view. You are seeing something. Unless you see your head you don't see it, but you feel you are there. So it's kind of an over-shoulder and point of view at the same time.
If you are doing 2D it is just an over-shoulder shot. It's not a point of view. It's not subjective. But with 3D, somehow, if you pull the character outside of the screen, he is on your side. And therefore, you are experiencing more, especially the over the shoulder shot sometimes, you really feel like you are him, or he is you. That's just one aspect…
How did you find Suraj Sharma and cast him as Pi Patel? I heard it was a tough process, but he's impressive. By the end of the movie, I believe his journey, it really feels like he's been through those 200 days on the boat.
Ang: It literally took that long. It's 10 months, the same thing as Pi goes through. I found him through regular casting procedural, which is carpeting India high schools. [laughs] Do you want this? Do you want to test? We have a handful, maybe two handfuls, of agents we just ask, and we tried out about 3,000 kids, I saw their tape. And after three rounds we narrowed it down to 12, Suraj was one of them. I saw them and tested them in Mumbai.
Suraj stood out right away. Just looking at him, I began to see the movie. It's a very soulful look. He looks like Pi—smart and witty and sort of… you know, it's a vibe. I think camera and audience will like him. I just have that feeling. The casting director agreed with me there. And I tested him. I did a scene. I had him tell the first and second stories. And then I give him a situation and make him believe that's a real story that happened to him, like an equation, the mother is his mother, so on and so forth. And he just stayed there, it was heart wrenching. Toward the end he started to cry. It was a great audition piece and the guy never acted before. Toward the end of the take, sure, not only he is the kid, but it feels like you have a movie. It will be hard, but you start to feel you have something to rely on. The movie is all image; like - that kid is Pi.
And then he couldn't swim. He could hold his breath for 15 seconds. [laughs] So, intense physical training, swimming, working out. Physical. He has to get used to water. Boat work, sea legs. I had him take serious yoga lessons just to transform him. Because a lot of acting lessons took from yoga. And I gave him personal acting lessons outside of yoga. A lot of reading materials, watching… And also participating in part of preparation. Every shooting day over five or six months there are training days. And we shoot in water, which is very unusual for a movie this size with these kind of difficulties. It's miraculous that for the last three months every shot is him and we shoot in water.
If he gets sick, if he gets injured, we don't have a movie, or if he melts down or gets cranky, we are screwed. But every day he is available. And that itself is like a journey. And the last month or so he is getting to this weird insane kind of spiritual, mental place. And I forbid anybody to talk to him. He has to live in silence and only listen to the music I gave him. That was spiritual. And his eyes, you just see him change.
That's what I mean. You really did put him through the complete experience in the movie.
Ang: And he has to lose weight. So lunchtime is crunch time. He did that for 2 1/2 months, just to gradually lose weight. So everything sort of worked together. It doesn't feel like acting even though he is acting. It's quite unusual. I've done movies for 20 years. This is pretty unusual, I would say.
Yeah. But that's why I love seeing it. I think it works geat and makes for a more honest, genuine performance. But you are almost saying it's not a performance, in a way.
Ang: In some ways that's what acting is about. An experienced actor, regardless of what they have to go through to act like that, they have that innocence, the genuineness. But for him he probably doesn't know that film is not made this way normally. [laughs]
What were the biggest challenges you didn't think would be challenges? And what worked out easier that you thought would be harder?
Ang: Well, kids. Of course we got lucky. It turns out they were the easiest. Tiger, second. It turned out they were great. Not only… Some of the shots made it into the movie - we have four tigers. But what we shot of the [real] tiger become good references for [CGI] animation. That's why they behave like tigers. People are saying they couldn't tell the difference.
Yea, I couldn't either.
Ang: That's the main reason, because we shot endless videos of how tigers behave. We really learned from the tiger. So that was easier than I expected.
Harder - water is harder. 3D is mixed. It's less of a deal than I thought and in some aspects it's bigger of a deal. So its got plus and minus. But water it's always… however you prepare it, however you expect it, it is always harder than you can prepare, like really hard.
It's uncontrollable, right?
Ang: Yeah. You just feel helpless.
You've had a very diverse, very exciting career that continuously progresses in fascinating, brilliant ways. How do you continue to keep yourself evolving as a filmmaker? Where do you see yourself going from here, and how do you choose the stories you make as movies?
Ang: After Sense and Sensibility, the first four movies were about same tone, that was just scary if I kept doing that. I'd reach the end pretty soon… Plus, I think I'm an avid filmmaker. I'm just curious to explore all kinds of filmmaking, all kinds of genres and types of people. Like in Sense and Sensibility, the English has certain ways of doing things. A Hong Kong martial arts choreographer, the most brilliant filmmaker, there's always something you'll learn. And when you do Western where it's about boys with guns and horseback. There's always something that made me fascinated.
So, I think I'm just an avid filmmaker. [laughs] I'm curious. I don't have a lot of life experience. Growing up I never had much fun. So I just want to make different movies and go to different places. There's a certain center, the core, of me that I cannot avoid. When you make movies sincerely there's always something about you that doesn't change that much.
In terms of material, well that's the part that hits me. When I read some material that hits me at the gut level, but on the surface it has nothing to do with me, it's a strange place that if I have a lot of curiosity, I might fall for it. Cause making movies is my life. That's how I want to live my life for the next year or two… I have to dig it, otherwise I cannot convince people around me to follow along with me.
Thank you to Ang Lee for the time, it was honor to talk with such a humble, talented "avid" filmmaker. Thanks to 20th Century Fox and Slate PR for arranging the interview. Ang Lee's Life of Pi is now playing in 2D/3D in theaters almost everywhere - check your local listings.