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.