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

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 21, 2012 at 2:22PM

"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.
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'Life of Pi'
'Life of Pi'
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.

This article is related to: Interviews, Interviews, Interviews , Ang Lee, Life of Pi


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