NYFF Press Conference: Ang Lee Talks Logistics and Spirituality Behind 'Life of Pi'

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by Sheerly Avni
September 28, 2012 2:25 PM
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'Life of Pi'
"You don’t know the strength of your faith until it’s been tested." --"Life of Pi"

This morning's near-biblical rain storms in New York City – complete with torrential downpours, black skies and an “Aerial Flood” warning on this reporter's iPhone weather application – did nothing to discourage attendees from queuing up nearly an hour before the 10:00 o’clock screening of NYFF's opening night film in the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center. Those of us at the tail end of the line were ushered across the street to an overflow screening, and after a few minutes, director Ang Lee stopped by to assure us that the weather was appropriate for a film about water and survival.

The thematically appropriate deluge was a topic at the post-screening press conference as well, where Lee, actor Suraj Sharma, producer Elizabeth Gabler and novelist Yann Martel answered questions which focused primarily, as one would expect, on the sheer logistical challenges of a production that, according to Lee, involved participants from 23 countries, a year of pre-production that included a 70 minute pre-vis, and 3-D animation modeling based on the meticulous observation of four trained tigers, including a majestic male named King (again according to Lee, King was a “poser” and for the more menacing, aggressive tiger scenes, the filmmaker relied on the performances of two females.)

Most of the story unfolds in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, where Pi, the film’s teenage protagonist, is stranded on a lifeboat with a fierce tiger named Richard Parker. Pi knows the tiger well – his father owns a zoo, the Bengal tiger is its fiercest inhabitant, and the story of how the two find themselves together, alone and at sea, makes up most of the first act. But most of the audience questions focused on the spellbinding special effects.

 Sharma spoke about his own early discomfort with storm sequences, Martel recommended a book he relied on for his research ("Sea Survival: A Manual" by Dougal Robertson), Gabler politely evaded queries about budgets, and several gentle jokes were made at the expense of Martel's home country of Canada. The most interesting moment of the conference, however, came when Lee was asked about a scene early on in the movie, when we are first introduced to Richard Parker’s savage nature via a harrowing confrontation between young Pi, his father, the tiger himself, and a doomed sacrificial goat:

"Right before that scene, you hear the line “you don’t know the strength of your faith until it’s been tested.” ... It’s about disillusion, coming of age. In many movies I do, there is a loss of innocence -- I would call it the bar mitzvah scene – a father and his son. The zoo to the boy is a paradise -- he’s innocent. He has all this imagination and all these stories and spiritual things in his head. And then he is thrown into the ocean, where he can’t rely on organized religions, he is faced with the abstract idea of God.  So the journey begins with that early disillusionment  [at the zoo]. Without that disillusionment, he wouldn’t have survived… All stories about the tests of faith start with that: Before you can take a leap of faith, you have to doubt…In making the movie I feel like the character in the book. All of us making the movie were also tested…we had moments when we thought why are we doing this? But once you overcome the obstacles and you look back, it seems like there was a reason, seems like there was a destiny, and you learn something. I think that’s the first lesson, for the reader, for the viewer, and for me personally.”

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