TER MARK

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story - Life of Pi

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 Award­win­ning 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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