It was Ang Lee who solved exactly how to shoot the film, citing the need for a more global approach, and his deep global connections. “The movie’s set in India, but it’s in French India,” he says. “And when I get onto it, it has to have American money and technology. So I decided to take the movie to Taiwan, which hasn’t hosted a movie since some movie in 1965 or something. But it’s not that crazy, since Taiwan will do anything for me!”
Lee describes a hectic, colorful set, where there were, “Indian boys, an international crew, and people from 23 countries working on this movie.” But Lee found all the resources he would need in his home town. “I occupied this abandoned airport in Taoyuan City, it was like a utopia for filmmakers. We used the hangars and built a large tank and discovered what could be done. Taiwan is like my floating island. It’s my home town, it’s who I am. I feel quite at home.”
Lead actor Suraj Sharma, who got the attention of producers while accompanying his brother in auditions, faced a difficult task as well. Though it wasn’t what you’d expect: while he spends most of his screen time acting against a tiger on a small boat, the truth is the tiger was not even there. “The boat was pretty empty, there was no tiger,” he laughs. “They made me see all these videos of tigers in all these moods and scenarios, and I would watch the tigers be trained. At the end of it, it’s almost like the tiger was really there.”
Four tigers were used to play the tiger, named Richard Parker in the film. “Three from France," Lee adds. “Two of which are female. The male tiger we modeled from a seven-year-old, nearly 500-pound gorgeous tiger named King, the most magnificent animal. And some of the fear scenes have to be done by the ladies, they’re sisters. They’re more aggressive than King, King just poses like a King. Some of the more docile stuff, we have a Canadian tiger. He’s pattable, you just want to hug him.”
While the tigers themselves give command performances, a lot of it’s performance is derived from CGI. “We have nearly thirty shots that are real tiger,” explains Lee. “This has two uses for me. One is when we do digital like this, to humanize them, you need good references, they cannot be invented. Secondly, I raised the bar for the digital guys. You need to match that in 3D.” Lee, who envisioned the film in 3D before he even understood the format, laughs, “So that’s very intimidating, but it’s a good kind of intimidation.”
Still, you can expect nothing went the way as planned, even after Lee extensively mapped the film out during a lengthy pre-production period. “I spent a year going over every detail,” says Lee, claiming, “I have a one hour, seventeen minute pre-vis, animated.” But he concedes, “For a movie like this, nothing worked the way you planned it. I got through one eighth of my shot list. I don’t believe in storyboards. Sometimes I act out the action sequence so they can see it. But shots are so expensive, you have to be so concise and precise. Of course, you can only do so much.” Much like the lead character’s ordeal, Lee sums up the experience of shooting the film by saying, “I wouldn’t call it improvising. It’s survival.”
"Life of Pi" opens on November 21st. Watch video of the entire Q&A.