Ang Lee Deconstructs Cross-Cultural Cinematic Feat ‘Life of Pi’: “don’t let them tell you, it’s your film language”

Ang Lee Deconstructs Cross-Cultural Cinematic Feat 'Life of Pi': "don't let them tell you, it's your film language"
Ang Lee Deconstructs Cross-Cultural Cinematic Feat 'Life of Pi': "don't let them tell you, it's your film language"

Life of Pi” marks a high degree of difficulty flight off the diving board for Ang Lee, who took a decade to get it made. And given the technology required to achieve the visual effects–including a Bengal Tiger–the film couldn’t have gotten made any sooner than it did. I grabbed Lee for a mere 22 minutes. (We last talked about “Brokeback Mountain.“) Here’s our conversation. (Still to come: my interview with Fox 2000’s Elizabeth Gabler and screenwriter David Magee.)

Anne Thompson: Besides the fact that it’s a gorgeous technological achievement in 3-D, why does ‘Life of Pi’ move people so deeply? What was in the book that you felt you had to capture on film, in this emotional way? I see this as a movie that is about everyone on this planet, and wondered if you do too?

Ang Lee: The book is open to everyone. My editor and I joke about it, because people react so different from the book to the movie. It feels like it’s a weird book that people brought in all kind of weird ideas, and that’s kind of intimidating when we make it. But I’m glad that so far a lot of people were moved, or disturbed. But that’s the mystery, you know. What worked for them? It’s a chemistry with their own life, their own experience, or their expectations. So it’s very hard for me to say what it is..that really narrows down the possibilities. But that’s the beauty of the book. In making this movie, the [things] taken from the book should be like, when people watch it, I should be like the video game programmer. And you gotta play. Because it talks about the strength of storytelling. God is just a red herring, or even faith for that matter. It’s different than religion. The book didn’t take religion that seriously, takes God more seriously.

AT: There’s a big difference.

AL: So what is God? How is God at work? Is it his fatherness? I think that the book treats God more as this otherness that creates us– then we have a conversation. But I come more from the East, and how we talk about that is different. It could almost be the most introverted, sub-mystery that we look in, that we don’t know what is at work. This might not be in the book, [which] hit me in some ways. I want to make a movie, and when the audience sees it, something hits them. I hope it’s the provocation. I think the biggest difference is [that] the book is not emotional, it’s thought-provoking. But for the movie, you have to make emotional connections, and I think religious thought, or your relation to faith, can be emotional. It’s not just a thought process. 

AT: It’s deep inside of you.

AL: Yeah, it’s not so spiritual, it’s detached from the emotional.

AT: And it’s not conscious.

AL: It’s not. At least in the movie that’s how it comes to big images, with human expression. It has to be emotion. So my biggest change– it’s not from the book–is when I make a movie, how the emotional connects to the process. In the beginning, middle and end, all three parts, I have to make emotional connections. In the first part of the book, it’s spread out to all kinds of points he wants to make. Every point he makes, there’s a character. I consolidated to father and mother, and his family. I have to do that, otherwise –

AT: It’s very concise, what you did at the beginning with the writing. You barrel on through that and you get away with it through the expositional narration.

AL: The narration. Otherwise the boat thing is an hour and fifteen minutes into the movie. The second part is Pi. I have to develop emotion with him and the tiger, without internal narration like the book. So their relationship, so to speak, is to be emotional, and progress. I have to make changes. For that I think Pi’s emotion to the tiger is like to God. It’s unrequited. I think that can be really heartbreaking. It’s not like a beast and a man, it goes both ways. But it’s unrequited. Because the tiger has tiger’s emotions, he’s not a human being. He has feelings, but it’s not a human view.

AT: Yes, but you did manipulate us a little, when they think they’re dying. 

AL: It could happen. Scientifically, when [animals] are dying they can be weird. I learned that from a tiger trainer. So it’s not all stretched, like at Disney. They can look spiritual, or something attached to you, when they know they’re dying. It happens to him, it’s a mystery to him.

AT: But the tiger also represents uncontrollable nature. It’s our relationship to the world.

AL: I also see the tiger as the most inner self. It’s the beast.

AT: The primal beast.

AL: Yeah, that’s not in the book. That’s a little Greek: between beast and God. So that is internal and I think that’s the difference for me and the book. You can call me Greek or call me Asian, everything is reflected internally, even the water is the visualization of internal feelings. That’s how I treat that part. The third part is the hardest.

AT: And the most controversial.

AL: But the third part is, like, tough as hell. People talk about water, kids, animals, 3-D, but that was the hardest. How we pulled that off.  How we pulled the rug [out from under] audiences’ feet. You throw them a story, you can do the book easier because the book is more intellectual in direct symbol s as you read it. You know it’s been two weeks, two days reading – not two hours. The movie is totally illusion. How do you examine the illusion within the illusion? In a movie, you can’t take people out, you can’t pull a rug from under them.

AT: Did you consider not doing it?

AL: That’s not an option. It doesn’t matter if I consider it or not, it’s not an option. That’s the book, you have to do it. You get stuck.

AT: I don’t know, movies are the illusion and the fantasy and the creation of something that isn’t real. That’s what they are. Why can’t you get away with it?

AL: Yes, I struggled and I couldn’t move for a year and a half. It was most painful experience to make the movie, how to pull that ending off. How do I bring on the second story –

AT: Because you’re soaring, right? You’re soaring on this extraordinary thing, and you bring everybody plummeting back down to earth.

AL: People, like, give you a tear as well. And then they say, ‘Wait a minute, do you believe that?’ Like you’re fooling them or something. You can get them so pissed, how do I not do that? And at the end, I think my solution is just technically, we try so many ways, I found both stories need to have emotion. You have to treat them equal, so people can make a choice. So I make the second story even [more] emotional, that’s a big decision I make later in the movie. I chose to take early on my editing process that it was just dry and angry, [when] the young men tell the story. So it’s different from the first one. And the first one wasn’t so emotional, and I put emotion in when [Richard Parker?] is leaving at the very end. I did a little flip-flop.

AT: So how did you do that? Because that is the most important moment. (ENDING SPOILER ALERT)

AL: The story ends. He left the island, the story ends, and the writer’s not believing it. So he brought out a second story. ‘Which one [do] you like?’ He said, ‘the first one.’ Then he asked, ‘So how did the first one end?’ Then we go back to the beach part, and that’s the part when we talk about the father. So it’s the very end of the movie, I thought that’d be emotional. But once you take them out, it just doesn’t work. And I tried so hard. So I flipped the order. I finished the first story, I give [emotion] to this, totally emotional, and then I brought out something really tricky, to bring out the second one. It seems to be working though, but it seems to be snapping out of it. And then [in] the second story, I make it equally emotional. That’s actually confusing but it’s a good kind of confusing. People seem seem to stay in the movie, and then I bring out the question. A lot of people will think I changed the book: ‘so you’re the tiger instead, you’re the tiger who ate the cook.’ That’d be totally expository, like in the book, ‘you’re the tiger’ and then it stops there. That seems to have the magic touch. I bring everything together. That’s why he made up the story, the whole thing becomes internalized. That might be the magic, but all I did is not so much interpreted, but try my best to keep everybody still staying in the movie. And I was like, ‘God, it’s so hard to do.’ I make movies for a long time. It doesn’t get easier.

AT: Well this was a challenge.

AL: You just have to be humble.

AT: You would have to be the mature you, who you are now, having done everything you’ve ever done before, to pull this out.

AL: I think so. Five years ago I don’t think I could do this.

AT:  And your position as a crosscultural filmmaker made it possible as well. Because your understanding of not just philosophy, but being able to recognize how audiences all over the world will respond – somehow you do communicate in a different way.

AL: Just recently, days ago, I got this feeling [of] what you’re talking about. What you’re saying is quite true because I just witnessed it, too. The Chinese audience they reacted to the movie, [possibly] even more enthusiastically than people here. But they see something very different.

AT: Can you explain it?

AL: They’re so matter-of-fact – here I see a few people talk that way, but there it’s like common sense. They found it sad, disturbing, but they just loved it. It fades, it’s not even in their mind. They all ask me about, from laymen to journalists, everybody, ‘What is that tiger doing? Why the beast?’ Not only did [I do] ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ it’s like, they just know I’m after that tiger. It’s like, so matter-of-factly, from laymen to journalists. It’s weird.

AT: All right, let’s get into some of the technological stuff. What made you believe that you could pull that tiger off? What told you that it was possible? You had to have confidence.

AL: It was impossible for a long time. But I know I have to. When you have to, you have to. You kill yourself to make it work. If by release date it still doesn’t, [then] I don’t know what I could do. Three days before the New York Film Festival, for the first time, I had all the images rendered, music done, and mixing. And I see it put together, I started to cry. I think it worked! It’s emotion, you know?

AT: Were you being like a tough taskmaster, too? Were you saying, ‘Send it back, send it back, send it back’?

AL: Every expression, the water –

AT: But also the sky –

AL: It’s visualization of mood.

AT: Did you see it in your head, these dreamlike images? Of the whale, of the flying fish – was it like waking up in the middle of the night with an image?

AL: Not only that. After I made them so intensely, it gave me nightmares. Because it’s punishing, actually. Nightmares are the worst. Some images – it was ‘The Hulk’ that was so intense.

AT: Which was in some ways a bad experience. Because the visual effects weren’t there yet?

AL: Yeah, my friend James [Schamus] said the same thing, that ten years ago, technology wasn’t ready for you to do what you wanted to do. Now it’s right, but thank God I had that experience, so I could guess what could be done. And I just have this hunch against everybody, including Fox, that 3-D might pull this off.  I don’t think it could be 2-D. They were like, ‘It’s a literature property!’ Usually studio directors do 3-D, this is the opposite. They said, ‘Why do you want to spend that money?’

AT: Did ‘Avatar’ help them make that decision?

AL: No, this is way before ‘Avatar’ even hit the screen. It was like four years in the making. I didn’t know what I was talking about. And they were not even sure about ‘Avatar’ back then, so they were like, ‘Why? If it was an action movie, we’d push you to do it, but it’s like $25 million more dollars! What are you talking about?’ I said, ‘I just have this feeling, with this movie.’

AT: Especially the spatial relationship on the boat. They had to engage with each other.

AL: [I thought that] it might open up the space. Your mindset is different. Because 2-D is so sophisticated, you’re so used to it, it doesn’t open up the imagination and it doesn’t bring the extra innocence or whatever. And also I have to wow the audience because there’s this talk about the power of God. When you talk about God, the first thing that comes along is not love, it’s fear. You have to fear, and be in awe. You have to be scared. Any religion, it’s like first thing…

AT: Zeus! Zeus with the thunderbolt.

AL: Yeah, like you have to be scared. So because I had that need, it just naturally happened. The other thing Fox said was, ‘Why does the first ship-sinking scene need to take so long?’ I just need to see the power it has! And very early on I had – I don’t know if it was a dream or [my] imagination – when he sees the sinking boat in the water, I just [had] to do that. And it has to be 3-D because when you put him on the screen, you’re with him. It’s over his shoulder and point-of-view at the same time, you cannot do that 2-D–that’s the over-the-shoulder shot. But there’s both point of view and over the shoulder, that’s how you dream how to do things, it has to be 3-D.

AT: Well it has the power of dream, surreal –

AL: Surreal and overpowering. Maybe ten years from now, 3-D doesn’t do that anymore, but right now, it overpowers you. Because it’s something [that’s a] new sensation.

AT: When you were talking with Scorsese at CinemaCon about this, was that an exciting conversation for you? Because I’d never heard two people talk about the aesthetics of 3-D in the way that you two did. As if you each saw something different in it.

AL: Right. He told me [that] he still thinks in 2-D ways, and in many ways I do too, because we’re trained, everybody’s trained in 2-D when it comes to the movies. So this is something new, you tend to forget. So in action, when in these 3-D moments, you design [but] otherwise you just shoot like it’s 2-D with depth. I have to keep reminding myself, ‘this is a new deal, don’t be that lazy.’ Because it’s so easy – half of the time I forgot I’m doing 3-D. You still [do] all your regular things because that’s how we’re trained.

AT: So you have to be much more conscious about it, and much more thinking it through?

AL: You have to remind yourself, ‘don’t let them tell you. It’s your film language.’ It’s like you don’t let your cinematographer choose the lens for you, you choose your own lens. It’s the same thing, but you forget. You’re like, ‘OK, I used the lens, and then… wait a minute, how do you set the depth? What are you trying to say here?’ I made them ask me, because if they don’t, I forget.

AT: So you kept working on the movie after New York [Film Festival]?

AL: Yeah, for two more weeks. In New York, there were 90 shots that I had not signed off.

AT: So it was mostly a question of finishing the visual effects?

AL: The visual effects, I had just barely done the first round on mixing. It’s passable, but I did two more rounds. The sound’s better, the color’s better, more accurate color timing.

AT: The Tobey Maguire decision must have been very difficult and emotional for you.

AL: Yeah, that’s a mistake.

AT: Casting him, in the first place?

AL: Yeah, I thought it was good for him because he’s in transition. I love Tobey, I did two movies with him. He’s like Suraj with me. It started the same way. And I just love him so much. And I thought it’d be good for him, because he didn’t have to carry the movie, it’d be good for the movie because he’s a movie star. I underestimated just the power he had, [of] the star.

AT: So it was when you tested it that you knew? Or you knew yourself?

AL:  No, I shot a little bit and it’s… Yeah, it’s unfortunate. He was very good…

AT: And Suraj, you had to really work with him, direct him carefully and teach him?

AL:  It’s like awakening him, like someone’s teaching him. Like the Little Buddha, just reminding him [of what he already] knew so well. It feels like it’s uncanny.

Daily Headlines
Daily Headlines covering Film, TV and more.

By subscribing, I agree to the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.

PMC Logo
IndieWire is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 IndieWire Media, LLC. All Rights Reserved.