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THE BIRTH OF PI

Over the past two decades, Ang Lee has done it all — English period drama Sense and Sensibility to the ground-breaking martial arts love story Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, big-budget Holly remake Hulk to the Oscar-winning love story Brokeback Mountain. His latest, Life of Pi, is based on what many considered an ‘unfilmable’ book — Yann Martel’s award-winning, fantastical effort, which charts Pi’s journey across the Pacific Ocean and his struggle with faith, despair and a ferocious tiger.

Lee took almost two months before saying yes to the project. “I loved the book,” he says, “but it’s very hard to crack. I thought you can’t make a movie about religion but it can be a movie about the value of storytelling and how that brings structure and wisdom to life. This is a coming-of-age story. It’s about taking a leap of faith.”

t2 met the 58-year-old, who grew up in Taiwan and now calls America home, in Mumbai to talk about Life of Pi. Over cups of masala chai that he first got addicted to while shooting in Pondicherry (“It’s so tasty and then there is the sugar rush,” he giggled), Lee thanked the Movie Gods for his Pi (actor Suraj Sharma), spoke about his repressed childhood and about tackling taboo subjects.

What fascinated you about Life of Pi?

The ocean part was very fascinating. It’s a philosophical journey that examines the power of storytelling, our imagination and our quest for god. It has a great story within the story. I am a filmmaker. I create illusions; so, this was fascinating and challenging for me. When someone asked if I wanted to do it, the tiger inside me... (Lets out a roar, followed by a giggle!)

This was a tough one to get off the ground. Was there ever a point when you thought, ‘This is not going to get made’?

There were times when the studio thought of dropping the film because it was too expensive. I kept convincing and pushing them to make the film. I even did an animation film to explain how I imagined the film would shape up. Fortunately, I found Suraj. So I presented him before them (the studio) and said, ‘I even have the boy!’

I got it off the ground very slowly. It’s very expensive for the kind of subject it tackles. The fact that I wanted to shoot in 3D just added to the cost. The 3D costs came to a quarter of the budget. It took me about a year-and-a-half from the time that I wanted to make the movie to getting the script in place and getting the project greenlit by the studio. I went to Taiwan for nine months where we built a studio and started pre-production and location scouting in India. We shot for six months and then spent a year-and-a-half in post-production. I have given this film nearly four years.

Suraj Sharma in Life of Pi, releasing this Friday

Like many of your previous films, this one is also an adaptation....

I am not a good writer! I wrote my initial films Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman but I was young then and no one knew me. I understood Chinese family dramas, so it was easy to write them. After those films, I wanted to concentrate on improving as a director. So, I focused on that. I am happy that once I was established, people kept pitching adaptations to me. I did make an effort to not do the same kind of film over and over; so, I am not pigeon-holed. All the stories and books I have adapted have layers and textures I couldn’t have ever imagined. I would have never been able to write these stories even if I spent years writing them. So, I am very grateful for the opportunity to work with those stories.

The book is open to many interpretations literal and metaphorical. What was the biggest challenge of bringing it to life?

It was the physical production. How do you create those images? It seemed impossible to be able to film this book but that to me was the fun element. I really enjoyed seeing the tiger come to life. It’s all CGI but it looks so real. The most frustrating and difficult part of the book to translate on to the screen was the third act. The book gets pretty philosophical towards the end and the challenge was to interpret that on screen. People watch my films for the emotional content and I struggled to maintain that towards the end. The audience needs to be moved and be thinking at the same time. Normally, that doesn’t happen.

How was it working with someone like Suraj who didn’t have any acting experience and really put himself in your hands for this role?

I just got lucky! This kid is a blessing. After you work with him for a while, you realise that god has some mercy on you. It’s like god thought, ‘I know you are making a difficult movie so let me make things a little easier by giving you this kid.’ He is a true talent; the camera likes him. He has an amazing face which is also very international. He will be identified as Pi, who is like every man. The good thing about young talent like him, who has never acted before, is that his innocent effort to make something work is really compelling. He appeals to your heart right away. In the course of training, he became a very good actor. Sometimes when I was instructing him, it didn’t seem like I was teaching him but more like helping him recall what he already knew from previous lives.

Ang Lee with Irrfan Khan and Kamal Haasan at the Life of Pi media meet in Mumbai

You have worked with the likes of Chow Yun Fat, Heath Ledger and Eric Bana. What was the difference in how you directed them as opposed to Suraj?

Experienced actors come with their knowledge which could be a plus or minus. For me, everyone is equal. The only thing I am concerned about is that they should be talented. With Suraj, I didn’t have to erase any previous ideas that he had about acting. For me, the toughest aspect of directing is reducing the baggage that established actors come with and then adding to it.

You came back to Asia with Lust, Caution a few years ago and now you are here with Life of Pi. Are stories with an Asian theme more personal for you?

Yes. They are more painful too. I do dramatic stories. I want to stir up the pot. So, my films have lots of drama and conflict. If it’s a Chinese film, I have a deep connection to the story, so it’s more disturbing to me. Non-Chinese films are easier for me to work on.

Your body of films is certainly eclectic. Is there a thread there? Is there something that says these are all Ang Lee films?

I hope that when the audience sees my films they would feel a vibe, a connection between them all. There are things that I care about that are naturally there in all my films, like humanity, purity, security and growth. How we deal with each other and ourselves... how do you keep a balance between what is the proper thing to do and what is it that you want to do. The emotions in my films are along the lines of disappointment or missing something. It’s deep, profound and, I think, very Asian. I like to always examine why we exist.

With Brokeback Mountain and Lust, Caution you tackled fairly taboo subjects. Pi revolves around spirituality and existence of god, subjects that are taboo for most big-budget Hollywood films. Did that worry you at any stage?

I think what is taboo in the case of Life of Pi is that it’s an adventure film that talks about the existence of god. I was worried about it but it didn’t stop me from making the film. I was more worried about making a film about American gay cowboys (Brokeback Mountain). I had thought that it was strictly an art-house film. I was scared that people would lynch me on the streets.... I think my film that took on a taboo subject was Lust, Caution. It explored female sexuality and patriotism.

Do you believe in god?

(Long pause) I am still thinking about it. I was raised a Christian till I was a teenager.

Eric Bana said you were a philosophical director. What’s your take on that?

Am I? (Laughs) I remember when I was Suraj’s age, around 19-20, I was very much into philosophy. But I don’t think about it very much anymore. But I still like to go beyond the physical story.

Whether it’s the very British Sense and Sensibility, small-town America in Brokeback Mountain or Pi’s south India, you have always managed to capture the essence of where your story is set. How does a Chinese man, who grew up in Taiwan, manage that level of authenticity?

If you want to be authentic, you can. Authenticity in written material is easy to translate. You can do the necessary research, cast the right people and have consultants on the set. What’s difficult is to get the ‘smell of a place’ right. People who grew up in Wyoming, after watching Brokeback Mountain should feel like they can smell the crisp mountain air or fresh cowdung! After Life of Pi, people should be able to smell the Pondicherry of the 1970s. This is my higher goal. I don’t know how it’s done but I try to do it. I don’t even know why this is so important to me. Maybe because I never had a place I could fundamentally call home. I like to reside in a deeper place. There are times when I see a landscape painting and wish that I could live on the edge of that cliff or in that valley.

Going back, what was your childhood like?

Boring. If my childhood was any different, I probably would not have been a filmmaker. Not unlike India, children are expected to go to good schools, get good grades and then go to the US for further studies. No matter what, you have to get a degree. You have to study all the time and there was no time for fun. Watching movies was the only fun we had once a week. Of course, in the weeks and months before exams even that stopped. We were expected to memorise everything. At heart, I was interested in the subjects but I was not good at taking exams because I couldn’t focus. My imagination took me places.

Were you a storyteller even as a child?

Ya ya. I would tell my younger brother stories all day long. I told him stories for years. I like creating things in my head and that wasn’t good for my education!

You studied to be an actor, why did you switch?

One day when I was 18, I stood on stage in front of an audience for the first time and it was electrifying. I thought to myself that this is my life’s calling. I wanted to be in theatre. When I moved to the US, I couldn’t speak English, so I couldn’t act. That’s when I got interested in direction. Making movies is my performance. When I am on the sets, people watch me perform.

Karishma Upadhyay Will you watch Life of Pi? Tell t2@abp.in