A chat with Ang Lee after a sneak preview of key scenes from the upcoming Life of Pi.
He’s severely jet-lagged. He has done over 50 interviews, two press conferences, two other public interactions in less than 48 hours during his whirlwind two-city tour of India to kick off the publicity for his upcoming release Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel’s bestseller about a 16-year-old boy who survived a shipwreck. And a tiger. We are promised 10 minutes with Ang Lee. Expecting to meet someone who is tired of repeating the same answers, we shuffle up the questions. And cut straight to the chase.
The footage, especially the ocean scenes and the shipwreck, look unbelievably real. You mentioned taking over an abandoned airport in Taiwan to shoot these scenes. How did you manage with all that water, computer generated animals and 3D?
I did some tests. I thought 3D would do very well in water. It’s very hard to sit through a movie where water is the main part, without Tom Hanks. So I thought 3D will really make you feel like you’re there — the adrift-in-the-ocean feeling. And 3D, especially in the water with a foreground that’s always moving, works really well. It’s an illusive tool, more illusive than 2D but you have a sense of reality. In order to do that, I had to create an environment — a surge tank — that carried the boat and the raft. I had to upgrade CG (computer graphics) to a level you had never seen before. And for the close shots, for practical shooting, I had to create a surge tank (roughly the size of three football fields) that would create and control a long wave surge. The tank shoots up water according to the size of the surge you require. We were able to get a wave not as long as the real ocean wave but enough to create an environment that’s as close to the different textures you find in the ocean, from ripples to blowing wind to stormy conditions. We spent a long time observing oceans and then went about it. There was a blue screen on side and one side left open to get real sunlight. It was the biggest shooting space you have seen.
Why did you do choose to shoot in Taiwan?
If Taiwan wouldn’t do it for me, nobody would. We found an abandoned airport at Taichung, the third largest city in Taiwan, to create the floor. Once you walk in, you feel you are in Hollywood, Burbank. It was a huge operation, we got a lot of incentives for shooting there — in terms of money, labour. It was a chance to show the world that Taiwan is as good as anywhere in the world and we brought the most sophisticated filmmakers to Taiwan so that the young filmmakers there can learn.
Did Titanic and Avatar weigh on your mind? Did you feel the pressure to do better than those films?
Titanic was a long time ago. So we knew we were going to do more CG than Titanic. We had the surge tank while they worked with still water.
This is a different kind of spectacle compared to Titanic. That was huge; this is more like drama within a small compound, a small prison in a vast space because the movement on the raft is restrictive. We did shoot a couple of storm scenes but the water works in different ways here. Avatar was inspiring in terms of how 3D was used. Before that, 3D wasn’t considered great for feature-length works. Hugo improved it, and things will improve from movie to movie.
What the studios considered literature has been turned into a mainstream film. Any compromises on the philosophical aspects of the book?
The film has inherited spectacle from the book, but in the end, it’s philosophical. I didn’t want to defy the book. That doesn’t do the book justice and it would enrage the readers who love it. It’s a bestseller. So I stuck to the point the book is making.
At the end of the day, with all the technical challenges, that is still the hardest thing to pull off. On the surface, you have to deliver a big movie that deserves that kind of cost. It has to have an emotional and structural flow that behaves like a big movie. But at the same time you have to deliver the goods, the essence of the book.
So far the response has been good. But it has only done film festivals. We haven’t yet sent it to the shopping malls (laughs).
There’s plenty of Oscar buzz after the festival screenings.
I hope that helps the movie.
If you have the opportunity to reach more people by spelling out a few things, would you rather do that? Where do you pitch yourself between populism and artistic integrity?
It depends on the material. I think I use a very common film language. I am capable of creating spectacle; I don’t need to be too modest about that. But I’m dramatically trained. Sometimes, we have to move out of our comfort zone a little. But I don’t want to make mindless movies that would be big commercial hits.
With Life of Pi, I would like to think that the spectacle would bring people in, given the budget, but still the content is no less than that of art-house endeavours. I happen to be one of those filmmakers who can do both. I’m mainstream in Asia, but my movies in America have mostly been a modest-platform release. I have had only two Hollywood experiences, one not that pleasant. I hope this is a more pleasant one.
Are you enjoying working in Hollywood?
Hollywood is a very vague word. It’s not necessarily an American film. I think the more accurate description of Hollywood is their distribution system. Mainstream filmmaking. You have a chance to do things like Life of Pi. There’s no other way to do it. It’s major league... like NBA. Nobody does distribution better than Hollywood. If you need to use that, go ahead. You will have a little adaptation to do. If you think you are special, you have to really put up a fight. But it’s worth it. It’s movie business. It’s fantasy, anything is possible.
Do you consider yourself a global filmmaker?
I’m an Asian filmmaker. Be it the emotions or themes and just the way I look at the world. And my vision. I was born in Taiwan. I was brought up in Taiwan but I have a universal film language. My state of mind is adrift. I have made a lot of adaptations from different cultures. And Asia has many kinds of filmmakers.
You did hire a dialect coach and a culture consultant when you were shooting in India.
I didn’t have to. But I think a movie needs to be realistic. It’s photorealistic images you are looking at. A fable. But still, when you’re looking at it, I don’t want anybody here to raise their eyebrows. I hope. I do my best.
Finally, what do you think your chances are at the Oscars?
I don’t want to think about it. I just want to keep pushing myself. I want to flow with the wave. Or go with the flow.