Oscar-winning director Ang Lee has turned his attention to 3D and the results are spectacular. Kate Whiting hears about bringing Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi to the cinema screen.
While city life bustles on relentlessly outside, there’s a sense of calm inside this particular hotel room and it’s due to one man: Ang Lee.
The Taiwanese director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain is in the UK to discuss his first foray into 3D, the ambitious adaptation of Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize-winning Life Of Pi.
“When you’re obsessed by the material, it does feel like God told you [to make it], if not God, a film god,” he says, smiling. “It always feels like the movie wants to meet the audience and you’re chosen – I belong to the movie and the movie belongs to me.”
At first, though, Lee didn’t believe the book would make a film. “When I read it 10 years ago, I didn’t think there was a movie,” he admits of the story about an Indian boy called Pi who is shipwrecked and spends months at sea in the company of an adult Bengal tiger called Richard Parker.
But five years later he was approached by Twentieth Century Fox about making it. It was a time when 3D as we now know it was still in its infancy, James Cameron had not yet released Avatar, and Lee had to teach himself a whole new way of film-making.
“There’s no school – I wish there were schools! The only reference we had was cheap horrors, so that didn’t really inspire me,” he says, chuckling gently. “The first important lesson is that you can’t let anyone tell you what 3D is, you just have to ignore them and find what works for your eyes.
“And then I learned I can’t trust my eyes any more because it’s a new illusion and your eyes keep adjusting to it. Whatever you do is groping in the dark.
“But I was a trailblazer, I would say. I give myself some credit. Most people probably don’t know we’re groping in the dark.”
While Avatar broke box office records for its immersive tale about blue aliens, Lee believes Cameron was still fairly “conservative” in his use of the ground-breaking technology.
“At that time, [he] had an important point to make: 3D is not about this,” he says, swirling his hands towards me, “so very conservatively, he put everything behind a screen. I think the biggest difference is that now we’re more daring to put things out of the screen.
“It’s very exciting, because you establish a new cinematic language between yourself and an audience. But it’s progressing so much – a year from now, people will look back [at my film] and say, ‘Oh they were too timid’, and do something else.”
Life Of Pi is arguably more spine-tinglingly incredible than Avatar and will no doubt earn Lee his third Oscar nomination for best director, after Crouching Tiger in 2001 and Brokeback Mountain in 2006, for which he won.
But it also presented him with his biggest challenge so far. Those who have read Martel’s book will know that it’s about reality, the power of storytelling and faith.
Pi’s family runs a zoo in Pondicherry and they decide to sell their animals in Canada, embarking on a treacherous voyage in a Japanese ship which capsizes in a storm. The boy finds himself in a lifeboat with a zebra, hyena, orang-utan and Richard Parker the tiger. The hyena kills the zebra and orang-utan, then Richard Parker kills the hyena.
Pi survives by teaching himself to fish and training Richard Parker to keep his distance. But when the Japanese authorities later question him over the ship sinking, they don’t believe this version of events so Pi tells them another tale in which the animals are all human.
“It’s scary in so many ways, because you’re stuck with a second story. There’s no way I could just tell the first story as a triumphant adventure and not tell the second,” says Lee.
Most of the film features just Pi and Richard Parker in the middle of the ocean, so conjuring vast waves, creating a tiger and casting Pi were Lee’s most pressing concerns.
After a gruelling six-month audition process, involving an exhaustive search, he found 18-year-old Suraj Sharma, who lives in Dehli with his parents and had never acted before.
“Directing him, it’s such an uncanny experience, he’s such a talent, like he’s done this all his life. He reminds me of those little Buddhas where you just remind him what he used to know in a previous life,” says Lee.
Sharma had to learn not only how to act, but how to swim, as well as lose weight to play the starving Pi.
Lee’s sense of responsibility was further heightened when Sharma’s mother appointed the director as her son’s guru in a Hindu ceremony.
“I was shocked,” he says, laughing. “It was one day after I cast him, his mother said, ‘There’s something we have to do, can we go to your room?’ And she lit candles and had flowers and put something over my shoulder while Suraj was lying flat on his face and touching my feet to show submissiveness – it’s a pretty serious deal.”
Rather than a hindrance, working with a novice actor was a blessing for the 58-year-old director. “The good thing about starting from zero is you don’t have to reduce any bad habits,” he says.
While Sharma in character as Pi was on his own odyssey, the cast and crew went on a journey with him.
“In the first part, everybody’s telling him what to do, from getting good sea legs to technical stuff like continuity.
“We were shooting in order, so in the last month or so, Pi’s losing his sanity and he’s really skinny and he has a really spiritual look on his face.
“I forbade anybody to talk to him, so he had to live in silence. The last part is a strange journey, it’s kind of holy to me. He sort of became the spiritual leader of the group, there’s a certain innocence and heart to it, he reminds you what film-making’s about in your heart.”
Director Ang Lee’s Best Films
Sense And Sensibility (1995): Emma Thompson penned the screenplay and starred in the Austen adaptation, which won a Bafta for Best Film.
The Ice Storm (1997): Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver starred in this adaptation of Ricky Moody’s novel.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): Famed for slow-mo martial arts, won a best director Bafta.
Brokeback Mountain (2005): Known as the gay cowboy film, Brokeback Mountain sparked controversy with an intimate scene between Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal.
Life Of Pi is released in cinemas on Thursday, December 20.