A perilous journey for 'Life of Pi' director Ang Lee

Bringing epic to screen a test, but he says he couldn't resist the challenge

Ang Lee

"Life of Pi" director Ang Lee. (E. Jason Wambsgans/Chicago Tribune / November 16, 2012)

The critics and reporters assembled to watch the new “Life of Pi” a few weeks ago weren't expecting a filmmaker introduction, but in stepped the ever-soft-spoken Ang Lee to inform them that this had been his hardest film to make and that they shouldn't be put off by the 3-D because it's "gentle and reasonable."

Mind you, the 58-year-old director has faced his share of cinematic challenges before. Having grown up in Taiwan, been introduced to the U.S. as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and attended film school at New York University, Lee has accumulated a resume that spans the globe, eras and genres.

His creative restlessness is apparent in his Chinese-American family comedies ("The Wedding Banquet," "Eat Drink Man Woman"), a Jane Austen period piece ("Sense and Sensibility," his acclaimed Hollywood debut), a dark 1970s East Coast drama ("The Ice Storm"), a spellbinding Chinese martial-arts movie ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"), a superhero flick ("Hulk"), a gay Western ("Brokeback Mountain," which earned Lee a best director Oscar), a sexually explicit thriller (the NC-17 "Lust, Caution") and a comedy-drama about the Woodstock music festival ("Taking Woodstock").

Over lunch the next day, Lee admitted that "Crouching Tiger" had been his most physically difficult shoot because he was filming drama during the day and action at night — and "Hulk," his attempt to bring psychological complexity to a popcorn mega-movie, was no picnic either. But "Life of Pi" is the one that has raised his blood pressure the highest.

Before the movie's rapturous reception at the New York Film Festival in September, he said he didn't know whether it even worked.

"That's why it's so exhausting," he said. "I carried an anxiety for so long."

Lee has many masters to please with "Life of Pi," based on Yann Martel's novel about an Indian boy nicknamed Pi who winds up adrift on a lifeboat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger. The novel has sold 7 million copies since its 2001 release, and if you've been in a book group, you probably read it. Those readers will come to the movie with some firm preconceptions, though those folks don't top Lee's worry list.

"Even the readers, they want to see a movie," he said. "You cannot be just a translator of the book to images. A movie works in certain ways. You just have to do a movie."

There's the studio, Fox 2000, which is giving "Life of Pi" a wide release befitting its reported $70 million budget. Lee knew he needed that money to make the movie that he envisioned, but "Hulk" aside, he's not used to the pressure of scoring a commercial smash.

"I'm very proud of the movie, but it's up to the audience to decide," he said. "I really hope that in a broader distribution that it actually works. I think that's the biggest challenge."

And then there's that little matter of figuring out how to make this long-considered-unfilmmable story work on the screen. Directors such as M. Night Shyamalan ("The Sixth Sense"), Alfonso Cuaron ("Children of Men") and Jean-Pierre Jeunet ("Amelie") were previously attached to it, and Jeunet not only had written a screenplay but clay-animated the ocean sequences to demonstrate how they'd look, Lee said.

Lee came aboard after Jeunet and Fox parted ways after two years, and Lee enlisted David Magee ("Finding Neverland") to write the screenplay rather than his most frequent screenwriting collaborator, Focus Features CEO James Schamus ("He's not a fan of the book").

Lee wasn't initially sure how he would adapt the book, but the material had gotten under his skin.

"It haunted me," he said. "It just triggered something very deep inside of me that I feel I want to express. I'm not going to say it's the greatest book ever written" — he laughed — "but it did trigger something, and I would like to give the audience my take on the book."

Although he knew he couldn't be beholden to readers' expectations, he did feel the need to be true to the novel and its core ideas. He wanted to present the philosophical issues and questions of faith as well as the adventure. And he wanted that tiger to remain a tiger, as his team mixed 23 actual tiger shots with much computer-generated imagery to bring the animal to life on screen.

"You don't want to make the tiger a pet, which a movie is very likely to do, humanize it," Lee said. "I think that will make the readers angry. That's not good. I wouldn't do that."

He also made sure to include a fanciful scene that takes place on an island and involves many meerkats, even though that point in the book irritated him so much that he had to persuade himself to keep reading. "When I read the book, I didn't like the island," he said. "But somehow I had to protect it even though I didn't like it."But the trickiest part was dealing with an element of the narration that involves considering multiple versions of the same story.

"It did something a movie should never do — examine your illusions," he said with a laugh. "It's mind-boggling because I create illusion. I'm a storyteller."

Lee said he made two important decisions right off the bat: He'd have the older version of Pi tell the story to give it a "cinematic structure; otherwise you cannot do a philosophical book." And he'd use 3-D.

For one, he said he thought the 3-D would transform those vast expanses of water. Also, he said, the project seemed impossible already, so "if I add another dimension, maybe it's possible." He laughed. "This is like half a year before 'Avatar' was on the screen. I didn't know what I was thinking about, but I thought with new media maybe you have the innocence of making something new, and maybe the audience would open up for more possibilities."

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