HIGH up in the Ritz-Carlton New York, director Ang Lee slumps sideways on a sofa, like an inflatable yard decoration with a sudden puncture. He gently laughs while miming the relief of finishing Life of Pi, the most challenging film of his career to date. “I feel a little deflated.”
Watch Life of Pi Online Free It’s the day after the premiere of his storm-und-fang movie at the New York Film Festival, on opening night of the festival’s 50th anniversary. Lee saw the final cut only a few days before. “I started sobbing,” he admits. Although the critics’ raves buoyed him, he awaits the public’s reaction anxiously. Will he pull off a blockbuster with philosophical, art-house themes?
The source material was daunting enough as it demanded that Lee break the cardinal Things to Avoid rule of filmmaking: steer clear of water, animals and children. Life of Pi, Yann Martel’s best-selling Man Booker Prize-winning 2001 novel, sets a teenage hero adrift on the Pacific Ocean, trapped in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger.
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Watch Life of Pi Movie When 20th Century Fox approached Lee to direct the film in 2008, he didn’t baulk at those three challenges. Instead, he upped the stakes by insisting the film be shot digitally in 3-D. He had never shot in either of those formats before and 3-D’s capabilities were only just catching up to his vision. (James Cameron’s Avatar was released in December 2009, several months after Lee signed on to Pi.
“We had never conceived of Pi as a 3-D movie,” recalls Tom Rothman, Fox’s outgoing studio co-chairman. “But Ang’s reason for it was emotional, it wasn’t visual … Ang’s genius was using the 3-D to enhance how Pi felt and how the audience feels being with him on that journey.”
Watch Life of Pi Movie Online Now Rothman has an even loftier goal: “If we’re lucky enough and the film succeeds, it may open a new willingness, a new understanding about 3-D,” so that moviegoers will see the format as a conduit for emotional intimacy, not just swaggering spectacle.
The 3-D technology was also crucial for the ocean setting. “It’s very hard to sit through a voyage movie without Tom Hanks,” says Lee, so he wanted viewers to feel immersed, awed by lifelike waves and a vast expanse of water.
Enter the world’s largest self-generating wave tank, built at an abandoned airport at Taichung in Taiwan, the director’s home country. With 7.7 million litres to splash in, Lee’s team created more than 50 kinds of realistic wave patterns, and the lifeboat moved as though it were on the open ocean. The tank was so big, at 70m long and 30m wide, they had to shoot with a Spydercam system, rigging cameras over the tank with cables.
Then Lee had to teach his leading man how to swim. Suraj Sharma, a 17-year-old student from Delhi, auditioned for the title role of Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel as a fluke, to keep his younger brother company during a casting call. He had never acted before, but Lee believed he had the emotional openness to carry the film.
For the shoot, Sharma travelled outside India for the first time and learned how to swim, meditate, eat raw fish and handle a boat. He picked up survival skills from consultant Steven Callahan, who endured a castaway ordeal in 1982, and even performed his own stunts.
Download Life of Pi Full As filming began, Sharma performed a namaskar, a ritual asking Lee to accept him as his student; during the shoot, they’d start each day by doing yoga together.
Sharma is the latest of Lee’s long string of newcomer stars. Throughout his career, Lee has chosen first-timers for prominent roles in his films, including Winston Chao in The Wedding Banquet, Tang Wei in Lust, Caution and Demetri Martin in Taking Woodstock. While Lee must build their technical skills, he finds their inexperience results in a more realistic, emotionally true portrayal.
“I capture their youth, their innocence, their effort,” he explains. “The effort is compelling. You watch it and you’re moved. It’s like watching a reality TV show. Spiritually, they should be very close to the part … but most of all they have to be a talent, their body has to tune into what they think and believe.”
Download Life of Pi Movie Lee’s preference for fresh faces prompted him to jettison the film’s one bankable, internationally famous actor during shooting. Tobey Maguire was originally cast as a writer who interviews the adult Pi, but Lee felt that the residual celebrity glow from the Spider-Man franchise would distract viewers. Lee scrapped the footage and replaced Maguire with lesser-known Rafe Spall.
For the lead role, the director was determined to gradually develop the character with a new or unknown actor. “Ang used to talk to me so that unconsciously I would build Pi in my head,” says Sharma. “You talk to him, look him in the eye and you end up feeling what he wants you to feel.”
In the spirit of authenticity, Lee took Sharma out to sea with Callahan, the real-life castaway who Lee calls the guru of the production. Callahan outlined the patterns of his time lost at sea, from the long lulls of boredom to the moments of ecstasy, to help Sharma imagine the experience.
Sharma faced the extra difficulty of acting opposite an imaginary co-star. The tiger, named Richard Parker, was created largely through computer-generated imagery, as were other key animal characters. Sharma watched videos of tigers, and the four real tigers on set, to become familiar with them. “By the end of it, the tiger was there without being there,” he claims.
Lee, meanwhile, discovered that shooting in 3-D influenced acting styles. Just as film actors played down their technique when silent movies made way for talkies, actors filming in 3-D are learning to soft-pedal their performances.
While coaching Sharma, Lee would often check his 2-D monitor during a scene, only to go back and adjust his acting notes once he’d reviewed the take in 3-D. The illusion of depth magnified every nuance of expression. Together, they forged a more restrained, subtle acting style as Lee realised “you have to do a lot less because the 3-D picks up more”. A curling lip or widened eyes quickly tip into exaggeration when seen with a Z-axis.
Lee and Sharma weren’t alone in their steep learning curve. The rest of the crew also grappled with new techniques and equipment, from lighting to lenses. The cinematographer, Claudio Miranda, had 3-D experience from his work on TRON: Legacy, but Pi involved constant uncertainty. “You don’t even know if you can trust your eyes,” Lee says.
The director credits Taiwan’s co-operation and his “international cocktail” team for their perseverance, open-mindedness and creative problem-solving. He believes it would have been impossible to shoot the film in Los Angeles – not only because of the prohibitive cost, but also because of the prevailing Hollywood attitude. “Too many people would tell you what has to be done,” he says firmly. “But they don’t know what they’re talking about because it’s never been done before.”
Working in Taiwan gave Lee and his crew the latitude to experiment. “It really did have a utopia feeling,” Lee adds. “We were inventing new ways of doing things … and that’s what movie-making should be.”
For instance, Lee finally indulged a wish he’d had for decades: to shift aspect ratios to heighten a scene. During Pi’s flying fish sequence, when silvery fish seem to leap straight towards the audience, he glides from a standard aspect ratio to widescreen. It’s an inconspicuous yet powerful effect.
Even Pi’s makeshift raft, which is towed behind the lifeboat, was something of a happy accident. For a lark, Lee’s son Haan came up with the triangular design and knocked together a working prototype.
With a whopping studio investment behind him, though, Lee had to manage the shoot as carefully as possible. (The budget reportedly topped $US100 million, including the production cost of building the tank.) Breaking with his usual practice, he created a previsualisation, or animated storyboard, for the shipwreck and ocean sequences. This acted as a virtual set, so he could plan shots before embarking in the tank. Even with this precise preparation, though, only about an eighth of the tank shots worked out as planned. The previsualisation also helped save the project when Fox studio heads got cold feet during preproduction. After seeing the animated sketch, they stuck with their gamble.
Lee drew on his experience directing The Hulk (2003), his last big-budget effort, to steer Life of Pi. Hulk gave him a foundation in elaborate CG visual effects as well as high-stakes studio politics. Between the financing and the executives, “you almost have to be a hack,” Lee says. “Free will becomes diminished.” But make no mistake, he retained creative control. Lee may speak gently and dress like a suburban dad, but he will grab a tiger by the tail.
Like the superhero drama, Life of Pi doesn’t fit easily into a familiar film genre. With Hulk, this genre-bending became a stumbling block and critics and audiences baulked at the dark, psychologically driven adaptation. “[Universal Pictures] freaked out; they don’t know how to sell it,” Lee says. “I don’t think the movie gets a fair shot.” He remains proud of the film and considers it a crucial forerunner to Pi.
With Pi, Lee fought to capture the novel’s blend of adventure, magical realism, faith and philosophy. While it can’t be easily categorised, the film is rooted in the power of storytelling. He and his scriptwriter, David Magee (Finding Neverland), largely kept the book’s structure intact, including Pi’s alternative version of his ordeal.
While audiences may hesitate over that abstract second tale and the movie’s ambiguous ending, Lee felt it carried an essential theme. “The two stories, the elusive one and the proven one, reality, which one you value more – I did that since The Wedding Banquet,” he says.
Lee often describes his films in terms of pairs or siblings. For example, he sees his effervescent 2009 comedy Taking Woodstock as the flipside of the bitter-pill 1970s tale of The Ice Storm, released 12 years previously. He calls Lust, Caution (2007) and the Academy Award-winning Brokeback Mountain (2005) “sister works” for their tandem explorations of identity and forbidden passion.
In his previous films, Lee dug into the rich mulch of family or romantic relationships. While he hopscotches through varying genres – period drama, comic-book adventure, cowboy romance, espionage thriller – certain elements surface again and again. Characters struggle with their fathers, with rootlessness or with a loss of innocence, through their dynamics with families, friends or lovers. But Life of Pi requires a different kind of character development.
Pi is alone for much for the film, with only Richard Parker for company. Once they’re adrift, there’s no dialogue, no talking-tiger slips into anthropomorphism. Nor does Pi indulge in soliloquies to his lost family.
Instead, Lee and Sharma must reveal Pi’s solitary spiritual growth alongside a fight for survival. The smaller moments are often the most moving, such as Pi’s grief when he kills a fish for the first time. Nature becomes a character, a force for Pi to learn from, most dramatically in the “storm of god” sequence when Pi shrieks, “what more do you want?”.
Lee identifies with Pi’s spiritual journey, explaining that he is fascinated by questions of faith and human existence, whether approached from a position of religion or philosophy. “Reason only goes so far,” he exclaims.
While he doesn’t follow an organised religion, Lee does perform a “big luck” ceremony on the first day of every film shoot. He assembles cast and crew to burn incense, make a ritual offering of fruit and flowers, and send up a general prayer or wish. Everyone bows to the four points of the compass and Lee bangs a gong, to symbolically chase away evil spirits.
He appreciates moments of spirituality in daily life. “Like the tiger trainer – when he’s in a cage, he’s with god,” Lee explains. “He’s in that zone [where] nothing matters; he exists in what I call ‘god zone’. That’s the same thing as when I make movies … in that zone, I feel I’m faithful.”
In this, he echoes a belief voiced by Pi in the novel: “That which sustains the universe beyond thought and language, and that which is at the core of us and struggles for expression, is the same thing.”
Now, the 58-year-old director admits, he’s at a crossroads. He hasn’t yet come across a book that inspires him for his next movie.
Since his 1995 adaptation of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility, all Lee’s feature films have been sparked by something he has read, ranging from the Hulk comics to the wuxia (martial arts) novel by Wang Du Lu that became Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), for which he won his first Oscar and Australian Film Institute awards.
He doesn’t actively seek out such an eclectic reading list, though. “I’m more like those hippies, just go with the flow,” he says. Case in point: In 2007, Lee met Elliot Tiber in the green room of a San Francisco talk show and Tiber gave him a copy of his memoir, Taking Woodstock. It was a stroke of good timing, since Lee was looking for a sunnier idea after filming a long series of tragedies. Two years later, Lee’s cheerful, mud-spattered version hit screens.
While he waits for fate to bring him the next riveting book, Lee has turned to another creative project of sorts. In mid-November, he unveiled the new Rhythm & Hues VFX Centre in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, an offshoot of the renowned Hollywood visual effects and animation company Rhythm & Hues Studios.
Rhythm & Hues was the lead effects house for Life of Pi, creating the incredibly realistic CGI animals, bioluminescent ocean water and shimmering reflections of Maxfield Parrish skies. The company already had a few overseas branches, and Lee saw an opportunity to boost the movie industry in his home country. Before Pi came along, no major studio film had been made in Taiwan since 1966.
Lee connected the Los Angeles-based R&H executives with local government officials in Taiwan, hoping such a celebrated company would help establish Taiwan on the global filmmaking stage. His matchmaking paid off and the new production facility plans to hire up to 200 digital film artists.
Lee is particularly excited by R&H’s investment in training the next generation of filmmakers and technicians. He says it represents “goodwill for both sides, for the movie industry and for young filmmakers”. He has a personal affection for Kaohsiung, too, since he did his mandatory two-year military service in that coastal city just before moving to the US for college.
After 20 years of directing, Lee continues to select projects that make him uneasy, even downright uncomfortable, as with the love affair in Lust, Caution. “I feel a bit jaded,” he concedes.
“There are things that might be easy for other people but difficult for me, so whatever’s difficult for me … I’ll take the challenge.”
In the meantime, he’ll circle the globe on his promotion tour and possibly, slowly, the accomplishment will sink in. “It’s like Pi,” he reflects. “You don’t know where the shore is, [but] I feel I begin to see it.”
Is there anything Lee would not do? “I can’t think of anything,” he replies, looking genuinely stumped. So if you run into the director in an elevator or in a green room, tell him a story you’re passionate about – he’s open and waiting for inspiration to strike.
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