When Ang Lee was awarded with his second Best Director Oscar during the 85th Annual Academy Awards, it marked the end of more than five years of work on “Life of Pi,” his 2012 3D adventure epic. With the film taking in almost $600 million worldwide and becoming the most awarded film at this year’s ceremony (it won four Oscars), it seems fair to say that the investment paid off. At a recent event celebrating the film’s upcoming 3D Blu-ray release at New York’s Crosby Street Hotel, Lee spoke at length about the film with his editor and longtime collaborator Tim Squyres and writer David Magee, covering almost every aspect of its’ production, going back as far as 2008, when the writing process first began.
While it was clear that Lee was prepared to move away from the project and towards the next stages of his career, he still had much to say on the notoriously “unfilmable” project. Lee commented on the long, difficult writing process, the artistic possibilities of 3D filmmaking, and briefly discussed the recent controversy surrounding the closing of the film’s VFX studio Rhythm & Hues, among many other subjects. All the while the director, who had won the Oscar just one week earlier, remained jovial and engaged while reflecting on easily the largest project of his career and moving away from a film that consumed the last half-decade of his life.
Our time with Lee, Magee, and Squyres was split between a panel discussion moderated by Village Voice chief critic Scott Foundas and a roundtable interview with all three. Here are seven highlights taken from both discussions. (“Life of Pi” is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.)
Moderator Scott Foundas began the panel discussion by asking about the novel’s classification as “unfilmable,” and how the process of adapting it first began.
Ang Lee: “10, 11 years ago I read the book when it first came out. I think David did too, but we were like everybody. This is unfilmable for obvious reasons. First, a boy is alone with a tiger in the ocean. Small compound, big backdrop. Also the movie is a very actualized image. It’s very hard to do one kind of actualization of what you see. Secondly, it’s a philosophical book, and I think that’s even more difficult. It’s very hard to actualize philosophical essays almost into emotional flows and storytelling and all of these things where you rely on images and then go to a theater to watch it. It’s very expensive, obviously. So that makes it pretty much unfilmable. I think philosophically, that’s harder — how to deliver emotion and philosophy. But five years ago when I was asked, it was very tempting and I was seduced. I realized lately that the project I chose, I could not stop thinking how to make it. I was possessed. So after about a year of hesitation, I thought let me give it a try and see if I could come up with a story. I thought of a framing device. The hardest thing is examining what you are seeing, so I thought that if I could have the third person perspective and the first being the same person then maybe I could have Pi telling the story to a writer.”
“It’s a long process. We travel to India, get our ideas, fashion a script, and I think finally we did over 400 drafts in 3 years. It’s a long process and there’s a long story… but I think the whole journey was really worth it.”
“I think Pi is enigmatic. To me the biggest satisfaction in making this movie is that I did a movie with an ambiguous ending that’s open for interpretation. Making a movie is a lot like playing video games. You can go this way or that way for as many ways as you can think of. I try to make it so they can all wrap up, they can find their own system, as many as I can think of. That’s the hardest and most fun part of making the movie is while dealing with the studio and the pressure, you want an obvious flow. If not an interpretation, a flow. You have a beginning, middle, and end, the obvious three acts of a mainstream movie structure that has to exist too. I use the word hiding, because that’s the biggest hide and seek. I think audiences have done that for thousands of years. We didn’t only do that this century. From the beginning, I think a big part of artistic creativity is about repression; about things you cannot express publicly. So if I tell you what it is, I really limit it and make the movie smaller. It becomes standard and doesn’t come from me. I think that deprives the pleasure that people see.”
All three chimed in on the use of “visual art” in adapting the text for the screen, and the perception of the film overseas.
Lee: “I think that it’s encouraging not only that we got a good response. Here’s another thing, it’s quite unusual that we use visual arts as a language for translating literature and we’re successful. I think that’s got to be encouraging to use it differently. I think it’s also encouraging that maybe over 80% of box office comes from the world and not domestic. I think that’s something very unusual. So this is kind of a success not only in the mainstream territory, and I think it’s encouraging to use the visual effects differently. But they’re still expensive, still scary, and we took a big challenge to try it. My real model was ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ It’s a very expensive movie. I guess it was successful in the wrong reason maybe. People take it as an acid trip, I don’t know for what reason it was successful. But you spend a lot of money on something that’s so artistic and a pure visual and psychological journey, you cannot explain why it is, it is so rare. That’s my hero.”
David Magee: “We were talking in between the break about how this film did so well internationally. I’m hoping it changes the attitude in studios towards what kind of films you can make on a larger budget. It doesn’t have to have an American star. It doesn’t have to have a lot of explosions. It doesn’t have to be about the special effects or going out to space. It can actually be a really good story and well told.”
Lee: “Here and there cumulatively you find an audience that will support the visual art and I think movies can be more pure, instead of just storytelling or what have you that we normally rely on. It can be an externalization of internal feelings. It can be abstract. It can be psychological. It can be all of those wonderful things that takes visual art to represent.”
Tim Squyres: “Hopefully the studios, you know, everyone in the business, will see that the studio took a huge chance on an artistic project and it paid off. And hopefully that will have a positive effect on their thinking on future projects. Not just Ang’s, but everyone’s.”
Lee and Squyres discussed the film’s reliance on Rhythm & Hues’ visual effects contributions and the need for change in the current state of the visual effects industry.
Lee: “A movie like this, it’s very common that half of the budget goes to visual effects, so normally they don’t get to do art. I think they’re artists, but normally they have to do blow-ups and action movies basically and I want to do visual art with them instead of visual effects. So they’re very happy about it and they’ll go way out to make things happen. This is a business that is very hard to make money, and it’s at the end in post-production so everyone is getting down on them. Each time you see visual effects you want to see something that has never been done before, so their research and development fees are so high. You don’t see many survive. It’s a really tough business. I’ve only done it twice, with “Hulk” and this one. With both I want to do artistic work with them, and they want to drop everything to work on this kind of thing. I think they’re artists. In they’re guild award, they gave them a visionary award. That was a very touching moment for me and I tell them in my recipient speech. I describe how that’s artistic and actually the most enjoyable part of making this movie. I called them artists and it was a very lovely event for me. Normally when something is very expensive it’s very hard to be personal, and I think I had a personal experience with hundreds of people helping me working together on those images. I think it was a precious experience for all of us. I don’t know about Rhythm & Hues financial problems; it’s a tough business. It’s expensive. It costs everybody to make those images and it’s very hard to do artistic works.”
Squyres: “It’s a very tough business. I mean, I’m not a business person, but if a company like Rhythm & Hues who can do work like this can’t make their cash flow situation work then there is something really wrong with the business plan. I don’t mean Rhythm & Hues’ business plan, I mean the whole industry. The way that the studios interact with the visual effects. Because I think this movie has done a good job to show that audiences really appreciate when these things are done well and I don’t have a solution to propose but its very hard for any visual effects company. I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with how the studios interact with the visual effects companies and I hope they get it fixed because we really need these guys and the amount of work and love that they put into these guys was astounding. I hope that the business can sort itself out in such a way that we can continue doing this type of work.”
On the possible artistic uses of 3D, and how Hollywood may use it in the future.
Lee: “One of the very first solutions I thought of as to how to physically how to do it was I thought if I add another dimension thinking-wise and also just visual-wise, maybe I could solve the problem. Of course I thought with the visual effects I would have to do a great job; raise the bar and all that. So I thought of 3D, another dimension. And so the first thing I saw about 3D when I learned it was that it did particularly well with water.
“I think the movie is encouraging for the industry to watch 3D. You just saw the deleted scenes, they’re not that comfortable to look at because Tim hasn’t really done it carefully, and I don’t think everybody is really doing it carefully yet, but we’ll get there pretty soon. It gets better every month. This is a new cinematic language we are all trying out. Whether eventually people think of some other ways or if it will take over we do not really know. I can’t tell, I just made one. But I know I’m just in the beginning of learning that language. It’s very different how we stage things. How we give volumes. How we deal with the things that we used to compensate in our heads for the lack of depth in the flat screen. All of that is changing and how do you build a language and a trust in that media. I think it will still have a way to go. Where it’s going to go I don’t know. I see positive things to it. I know I want to try it again to get to know it better. I’ve just began to look at this media. I think it’s got to get better and cheaper, more filmmakers would like to try it then the projector system will get better too. Then we’ll see. It doesn’t matter what you think, how the critics are viewing it, or how people come at it. It’s just going to take its own way whether it rises or falls. It’s going to take its own route.”
Squyres: “I think that data shows that the audiences worldwide that are least enthusiastic about it are American audiences. In other parts of the world, it’s much more popular. I think that one of the things we did in this film that most other people don’t do is that we did everything in 3D. We never watched it in 2D. Very often 3D is kind of an afterthought, and since we had never worked in it before we didn’t want to have to think, “well this looks good in 2D, but I bet in 3D we might want to hold this a little longer.” And have to intellectualize it that. So we avoided that by just working in 3D the whole time. This is a 3D movie, and the 2D can take care of itself. And that’s important, because when you start to see it every day, after a while you start to see that this could be better, and this could be more comfortable, and we could do something here with the 3D for dramatic effect. It’s not somebody else adding it on at the last minute, it’s part of the filmmaking process. So I think that was a decision we made from the beginning and looking back it was very worthwhile.”
Lee additionally spoke about his interest in continuing to shoot on 3D, and how we would tackle it in the future
Lee: “I think I’d envision it differently. Like the per-visualization is in 2D, but in the future I think starting from here, I’ve got to think 3D. Actually thinking in 3D I think really helped me make the movie. And when I see the 2D version, I still think it’s a good movie, but I’m so thankful that I actually went through the trouble to make the 3D. A lot of happenstances need to be changed and I don’t know what to rely on, but I think that put me in a position to conceive and make the movie somehow differently. 3D is still expensive. If I want to make an independent, I can go from high budget to low budget, I want to have that freedom. If I cannot afford it, then I will not do it. I still enjoy doing 2D, and when I get the chance I’m going to do it.”
Finally, Lee spoke about winning his second Oscar, in addition to the now notorious photo of him eating a cheeseburger following the ceremony.
Lee: “To tell the truth, I didn’t know what to expect. I’m the captain of the ship and I have to carry on. So, I was thinking least about myself, and each time we had somebody win I would scream. I had somehow in my head prepared a speech just in case but not too well prepared because I didn’t know really what to expect. So when the name was mentioned, there was sort of a little bit of that involuntarily. What really moved me is unlike the first time, where I was sort of expecting to me, but for this one, I don’t know, they all screamed. A big portion of the audience screamed. And as I got up and stage, they all started to stand up. I was quite overwhelmed and I was very touched, so I guess I didn’t do too well in the speech. That was totally unexpected. From my perspective, which is different from I guess everyone on television’s view, I was looking at them and they were all standing at me and going ‘AHHH.’ So this seems to be quite happy, so it was quite memorable, more so than the first time I think. But I tried to enjoy it, tried to be proper, and by the time I got to the Vanity Fair party, I was hungry and they were offering In N Out Burger. That picture reminds me of this Disneyland kind of a moment.”
Squyres: “(laughs) I just won the Oscar and I’m going to Disneyland!”