Taiwan-born director Ang Lee has one of the most varied and impressive resumes of American directors working today. He began with the indie success of his "Father Knows Best" trilogy: Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet, and Eat Drink Man Woman. Lee broke into the mainstream with Sense and Sensibility, followed by The Ice Storm, Ride with the Devil, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (for which he received an Oscar nomination), Hulk, Brokeback Mountain (for which he won the Oscar), and Lust, Caution. Now he's filmed Yann Martel's bestselling, award-winning novel Life of Pi—in 3D. When Lee came back through town for the Mill Valley Film Festival, I sat down with him at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel to discuss Pi and filmmaking approaches.
Groucho: I appreciate your stamina.
Ang Lee: Yeah. (Laughs.)
Groucho: Doing all these interviews. So I think with this film, smart is "in," as they say, but I wonder if you've ever been made to defend smart filmmaking, ever made to feel that it's a liability.
Ang Lee: Liability, in Hollywood?
G: In terms of, I guess, the box office and the audience.
AL: To be honest with you, that's the biggest challenge of making this movie. It's pretty impossible to make. Once you get the money, you start to collect your images; still how you put together—how you present it, that's the biggest challenge yet. I realized, in making this movie, [it] is an expensive movie for what it is. It has to be a mainstream [movie]. Not only is it expensive; they have to now reach the shopping mall and big release date and all that. But just the anticipation: it's a big pressure. It has to be mainstream. But it is smart, as you said. You know, it's philoso—it came from a beloved philosophical book. (Laughs.) How do you do the balance? In some ways, the economic side and the artistic side seems like their relationship is like pi: considered irrational, they don't meet. I did go through a lot of that; it's actually the hardest, yeah. How do you see the circle? How do you invite everybody to take the leap of faith? And forget about proving this or that, restrictions of friends. Let's forget about all of that and see that it'll work.
G: Well, if that was at any point a struggle, it seems like you won that struggle.
AL: We'll see. (Laughs.)
G: At least you made the film you set out to make; isn't that correct?
AL: Yeah. But, y'know, just to be really honest with you? I think the real—the movie's a provocation and an invitation, such as the book. You can never do it as well as how people put up in their minds. So if it works or not, it's a little bit of luck, too. It's not about how sincere or how hard you work, or how smart you are, how skillful you are; it's really a fate of its own. Like, two and a half weeks ago, I didn't know with the movie how it's going to hit; I don't know! For all the wisdom I have (laughs), which I believe I have more than anybody—
AL: I could see in the studio everything. But still it's a big, dicey roll. But at some point, you just: "Whatever happens." I think it will bounce back and forth. It's not an easy, settled movie. It doesn't follow any particular pattern, so it's very hard to predict. I like what I see so far, but I still have a long way to go.
G: I think it might help that the film, like the source material, is this sort of Rorshach test, right? Audiences are invited to see what they want to see in the story.
AL: They have to really make it up in their head. If they're into it, then the CG works, 3D works, your format works (chuckles), your wisdom works. If they don't take that leap of faith, it's not even it works in our house, not in a massive—it's just like, they're the same, actually. That's the strange thing about this. It's no such thing it just works in our house and doesn't work outside of it. I don't know how to explain it. Some movies are, but this is not the case. You have to win—in the ballpark, people have to be willing to go in. Enjoy that: not only the adventure story, but the whole premise—they're willing to go that [far] with you. Unless they do that, you don't have a movie. It's quite scary.
G: The film and the source material leave room for the rationalist or atheist or agnostic, I guess, viewpoint, while also perhaps tipping in the direction of faith as a preferable choice, right? And that agnosticism is a sort of delicate balance. What did you see as your role, or your thinking, in maintaining that balance?
AL: My role, I think, as much as the book, is provide a platform so people can talk about the irrational. (Quietly:) Yeah. We can escape to the story. I'm a storyteller. I have to offer the power of storytelling. And then take it from there. And then challenge you, with the second story. Which is also a story told. And then, you know, people take away, or (chuckles) they want to talk about any which way. But I think my role is provide a believable platform. And that platform needs a surface. It needs legs, pretty solid ground: realism. And the platform—I need to provide a space. Not so full of ourselves. There's a space for people to stand on the platform and talk. And I think if that happened, it'd be a beautiful thing. What movies can do for us, you know? What stories can do for us, or religion. But, ultimately, I don't think any religion can argue that religion's organized. It's artificial, such as art. (Laughs.) There's a god inside here or up there, we don't know. And our emotional attachment to it and feel a need to rationalize it, reason about it, talk about it, it's like Pi's love to the tiger. It's a one-way street. It's unrequited. We can only guess, we can devote, we can do whatever we want. (Laughs.) The tiger doesn't look back at you. (Laughs.) You have to take that premise.
G: I wanted to ask, too, about the breaking of the frame, which I thought was such a clever device.
AL: Breaking the frame? Oh!
G: Sorry—when you change the aspect ratio [and figures break out of the "frame" and into the black space].
AL: Ahhhh, I'm glad you noticed that. Most people didn't notice. (Laughs.)
G: Well, it's such a clever idea for the use of 3D, for one thing. But also, you have that graphic sensibility that you got to exercise in Hulk, and other films. It does sort of resemble what happens in a comic book, where the art sometimes breaks out of the frame. Or you choose the size of the panel that's suitable for the moment. Like the other shot that's Academy ratio [1.37:1].
G: Can you talk a little bit about how you came to that?
AL: I think probably from the first day I learned filmmaking, in film school. There are two things, two first lessons I had, impressions about cinema versus real life, or what I think cinema is...that it's much faster. The visual cues go really fast; you cannot take it literally. And the second thing I noticed as I started to put [the] camera is, it's really small. It's not life. You cannot gulp it in, like how you perceive life. It's, like, really restrictive: you have to break it down to manageable sizes to do it. It's like...it means shrinking: when God creates, he has to shrink first. (Laughs.) Belittle himself even to begin to create us. So you have to shrink. And then I feel like: why [do] we have to stick to one ratio? From student days I have that dealt. We're not—some things that look better when [they]'re widescreen. Some, like the vaulting in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I really wanted to use "standard," 'cause the, y'know. But then when I went to the desert part, I have to do this. So I had to decide one over the other. So I've been wanting to do that for a long time. After Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, I did the Hulk, and I thought I could—I was at a stage I thought I could do anything. (Laughs.) Plus, I had the excuse of the comic-book panels and stuff, so I really exercised that. That movie wasn't really a hit, so it got overlooked a lot, I think, in terms of what I tried to do. My inner Hulk: artistically what I tried to do. But this time, I think, with 3D, actually I have a better chance. Even though there's no excuse; it's not a comic book. But, y'know, like the fish jump out of—... It's a great, actually, device: I thought I had an excuse to do that, with that, because it looks like the book cover. You know, so sometimes, you could take the audience out from the movie, for time passage, or just being contemplative, I want to take them out of the movie. So I used those, but really I feel: why [does] a movie [have] to stick to one ratio? (Laughs.) I don't understand. Who says so, and why do we obey that? They never explain. So I don't know; it's a convention. I think if the filmmakers in the first ten years—ten, twenty years—all do that, then we shouldn't have—not innovative. But, y'know. (Laughs.)
G: You told me once that you used to give your actors homework, always, as a matter of course, and then you sort of gradually not so much. But now that you have a seventeen-year-old star here [Suraj Sharma], it made sense to give him homework. I know he learned to swim, of course—
G: And some other requirements like that. Survival: he learned about survival.
G: Did you give him any philosophical homework? How else did you prepare him?
AL: Well, he was seventeen. I didn't want to ruin his—y'know. Y'know. And also, not only he's young, but the philosophical thinking can hurt acting instinct. He's a raw talent, a real talent, so I don't want to mess him up. And not just for him, for the movie! (Laughs.) I don't want to mess him up. So the philosophical part, I really saved it to the shooting. I took a big bet. So I have him prepared. Being available for the shooting. And the last two months of shooting, after he conquered the tiger and everything, he's into a spiritual journey, that he's fighting his insanity. So the course of the acting required that. Then I went serious on that part. But not so much giving him philosophical books to read. I did give him a couple. Because Pi read those books—
G: Oh right.
G: The Stranger.
AL: When he was young, so he has to prepare that. we didn't talk about that: Stranger, when he read Stranger, what do you—I didn't force him to write any paper on that. (Laughs.) Which I probably should. But the last part, a month and a half to two months, I went through a journey with him. Nobody is allowed to talk to him, near him. So that he is kept to silence. I gave some—I call it "spooky God music," the modern liturgical (laughs) music: 2001, Hungarian, whatever. The modern choir work, or orchestra, that's querying or talking about, in God-related, to him. Along with church hymns and Gregorian chanting, all those things. Just feeding with those music. And he did get into a mental space that looked philosophical. He has that spiritual look. And I go along with him. So that's a pretty special one and a half months that that leads to when he tells the second story. That's toward the very end of shooting. and he's just naturally there. He's not too much of an experienced actor, so the natural course really helps what he goes through in the movie.
G: Well, thank you so much for talking to me. It's been fantastic.
AL: Thank you.
G: I enjoyed it.
AL: Wonderful questions. (Laughs.)