Ang Lee interview

Time Out talks to the director about his adaptation of Yann Martel’s 'Life of Pi'

He’s made films as diverse as ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’. Now Ang Lee has turned the novel ‘Life of Pi’ into a 3D meditation on life and cinema. Tom Huddleston meets him

Ang Lee has achieved something remarkable with his new film, an adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker-winning 2001 novel, ‘Life of Pi’. The 58-year-old New York-based, Taiwan-born director has transformed this whimsical magic-realist fiction – about an Indian boy, Pi, who spends weeks in a lifeboat with only a Bengal tiger for company – into a sprawling, family-friendly visual spectacular, while retaining all the complex themes of love, death, religion, ecology and existential uncertainty which made the book so satisfying.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised: this is, after all, the director who exposed the cold heart of the American family in ‘The Ice Storm’ (1997), who reignited the Western audience’s love of martial arts movies with ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000), who turned a comic book into a bizarre Oedipal fable with ‘Hulk’ (2003), and who gave the gay rights debate added momentum with ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (2005), the film that won him a Best Director Oscar in 2006.

He’s a genre-hopping jack of all trades, and now he’s invented an entirely new kind of film: the philosophical special-effects-driven coming-of-age religious adventure movie. In 3D. With tigers.

When did you first read Yann Martel’s novel?

‘A friend introduced it to me. It’s the kind of book people introduce to each other. I gave it to my wife and my kids, and we talked about it for weeks. I thought it was fascinating and mind-boggling. It examined the power of illusions and storytelling and God. But I didn’t think it was a movie. I read it, and I put it aside.

‘Then four years ago, Fox approached me. I was busy making another movie, but I kept thinking about that offer. I thought: How do you structure a script that excites you but also examines the story it tells you?

‘Then, out of nowhere, I thought of 3D. It didn’t really exist for artistic endeavour back then, before “Avatar”. I thought: Maybe with this new dimension, there’s some kind of chance. New avenues might open up. Maybe I can treat water more immersively… And I started to get hooked. d I travelled to India, talked to tiger trainers. One thing led to another and I was actually doing it.’

Do you think the American film industry is becoming more global? I can’t imagine a movie with such an international angle being funded by a Hollywood studio a decade ago.

‘It’s just the natural route for globalisation. There’s a global market, but nobody makes movies like Hollywood. That sophistication of industry, infrastructure and distribution is still the best. But Los Angeles is becoming so expensive, so established, that it cannot really do anything new. So, for something this big and innovative, I chose to go to Taiwan, my hometown. I had to bring a piece of Hollywood there.’

You use both CGI and practical, in-camera effects. How important was it to get the balance right?

‘The best use of effects is to mix real elements with CGI. If a shot is all CG, even if it’s scientifically accurate, it doesn’t look right to our eyes. More often than not, I had to mess up the shot, make it worse, because that’s how film looks. Psychologically, it’s more believable.’

How was working with a live Bengal tiger?

‘We had four tigers. The main character was King, seven years old, 450 pounds, gorgeous animal – we modelled the CG tiger on to him. We scanned him, shot a lot of references: how every hair catches the light, how every muscle moves, how the tail curls around. Another important thing is the weight distribution of a tiger on a rocking boat. That is very hard to get right.’

Were there things you wanted to say with ‘Life of Pi’ besides what is expressed in the book?

‘It starts with the book. The book is a bible. But when you struggle with something, you forget the book, you just try to make the scene work.

‘I wanted to examine not so much the literary imagination, but cinema. Because that’s my world, that’s my illusion-making. I also wanted to examine what we call God, which is, to me, our emotional attachment to the unknown. We want to know, we want to connect, but you cannot prove it.

‘More than the book, I think I treat Richard Parker – the tiger – not as an obstacle, a fierce companion, but as Pi’s path of growth. The loss of paradise, of innocence, how you deal with the inner beast, all this is more evident than in the book.’

You work in many different genres. What do you think connects everything you do?

‘It’s hard to answer that question, because I don’t have a plan. When I try different things and people feel it’s still an Ang Lee movie, I cannot deny it, but I don’t know why. I have to be analytical like everybody else, trying to figure it out.

‘I want to learn different kinds of filmmaking. I want to explore the world and myself. I can’t verbalise it. It’s emotional, something that matters to me.

‘I think I always search for something to believe. I want that security, but I never really find it. So that subject – the loss of innocence, finding yourself, the realisation that there’s no such thing as security, I think I portray those things a lot. But at the end I always try to find a balance, like a true Eastern person.’

Why do you think you have been given this extraordinary freedom that few filmmakers seem to achieve?

‘I fought very hard for it. After my first few movies, up to “The Ice Storm”, I had to be careful not to be pigeonholed: family drama, ethnic drama, domestic social satire. So each time I took half a step.

‘The next movie was another American study, “Ride with the Devil”, but I expanded the canvas to the Civil War. That gave me some experience with action, so I went back to my old culture and did “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. After that I could do “Hulk”. Without “Hulk”, I could not possibly have made “Life of Pi”. Each movie piggybacks on the one before.’

Do you have any idea what you’re doing next?

‘No. I’m a little lost, to be honest. This has been a big endeavour, nearly four years of my life. The movie is an examination of illusions, of storytelling, a philosophical expression, but to me it was also very introspective. So I’m a little at a loss. Should I go here or there? Should I take a break? But I’m afraid of every direction, even taking a break – will I lose touch?’

You never know, something amazing might come out of this period of doubt and reflection.

‘I hope!’

Read what we thought of 'Life of Pi'

  • Life of Pi

    Rating: 4/5

    It all comes together in a blunt but forceful finale, as the scales fall from our eyes and all our doubts are cleverly addressed. It’s here that Lee stamps his claim on Martel’s work most forcefully, and all that rampant visual excess comes into sharp focus.