Ang Lee, David Magee, and Tim Squyres at Crosby Street Hotel
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."
Lee spoke about the personal importance of creating a film open to interpretation, regardless of a desire for explanation.
"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."