HIGH-WAT

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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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