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.’’
It’s the day after the premiere of his stormund-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.
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.’’
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.
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.’’
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 lesserknown 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 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
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