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Ang Lee Discusses Filming the Unfilmable, the Practicality of 3D, and Winning the Oscar with Tim Squyres and David Magee at 'Life of Pi' Event

By Cameron Sinz | Indiewire March 12, 2013 at 10:33AM

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.
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All three chimed in on the use of "visual art" in adapting the text for the screen, and the perception of the film overseas.

"I think movies can be more pure, instead of just storytelling or what have you that we normally rely on."
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."
"The Life of Pi"
"The Life of Pi"

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."

This article is related to: Ang Lee, David Magee, Life of Pi, Interviews