Director Ang Lee doesn't like to make the same kind of movie twice, as he proved with films like Sense and Sensibility, a period drama, The Hulk, an action film, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a martial arts movie, and Brokeback Mountain, a love story between two cowboys.
Lee wants to do projects that scare him, and his latest film, Life of Pi, fits that bill nicely. The film contains big philosophical questions about God and faith, and a big chunk of the story centers on a teenage boy, the sole survivor of a shipwreck, on a boat with a tiger.
Life of Pi, based on Yann Martel's best-selling novel, was considered pretty much unfilmable. That challenge, and the question of faith the book explores, drew Lee to it. In San Francisco for the Mill Valley Film Festival, he talked with SF Weekly about the film, taking advantage of the innocence of new actors, and the haunting aspects of philosophy.
What kind of familiarity did you have with India?
Not much before this movie. I grew up in the Chinese culture. India was the idea land for us -- that's where Buddha came from. India was always fascinating. But in making this movie I got to know it. I'm more familiar with southern India than northern because the story happened in Pondicherry. I also went to a lot of Tamil temples in the south to soak up the culture, the color, the texture, whatever I could. This is a movie about faith, and religion is part of it, so I sought a whole lot of that. And India has a lot of stories, so that's all fascinating. The thing that impressed me most was the smiles from school kids. They're the best in the world anywhere you go, from big cities to small towns.
Your movies are so different from each other. What was it about this story that made you want to make it into a movie?
It's advertised as a story that makes you believe in God. Of course, no one is going to buy that. It's actually the aspect of believing and also the story. I'm a storyteller and that's what I do. This challenged the essence of what I do, the illusion I create. How that affects our lives and how we take that for real. To some people that's more important than reality. To me that's the truth. I make movies about people who take false situations and devote so much emotion to it they get lost, such as Lust, Caution. That subject matter really haunts me.
I also wanted to make the movie because the middle part, the voyage part, is really vividly written -- it's wonderful movie material. And the parts about India, even though there's a lot of material before the ship sinks, are very colorful. And then it has a philosophical ending -- that's the tough part, that's a challenge. I looked forward to it, but I cannot say I enjoyed doing it. Philosophical questions haunt me. I wanted to do what the book does but with cinema. Adding my opinion is hard. It's harder doing cinema than a book because cinema is more direct. It's right there on your face. How do you discuss illusion in cinema? That's a great challenge to me, and that's a reason to do it. That's a big dice to roll. For me and for everyone involved. But I think at the end it's worth it.
All of your films seem to have some metaphysical element to them like The Hulk and Taking Woodstock. Here you're actually dealing with an overt dialogue about religion. Did that lure you to it or push you away because the vehicle is so obvious here and in other places it wasn't.
Nobody is going to watch the movie or read the book and start believing in God if they don't already. The metaphor is, well, if it's metaphor, I'm not supposed to tell you. The biggest challenge I have is making a mainstream movie and giving people hope and faith because that's very important to us. But then there's the unsettling part too -- there's his frustration and anger and confusion. I think they coexist in the movie. I think there are many ways to look at the movie, and my job is to provide chances for everybody -- faithful or unfaithful, atheist, younger kids who can take the adventure story, or people interested in the philosophical questions. I don't know if I reach there but that certainly is the goal. It's no different from any other movie I've made. I think a movie should have that.
How familiar were you with the book?
Somebody recommended it to me, and I recommended it to my family, my wife, my kids. I didn't think I would want to make it into a movie, but it haunted me because it talked about illusions and how people take them for reality. The images haunted me, but I thought it would be too expensive. About five years ago, they approached me. It was an interesting idea in the back of my head, but I had never thought of pursuing it.
What were some of the stories you first remember hearing that made you want to be a storyteller?
I've never given that a thought. Probably movies. My mother is not a particularly good storyteller, and my father never told me stories except what happened to him. I went to Catholic kindergarten and my mother took me to church. I think there are a lot of stories there, but I think movies probably, stories told by images. And when I was 10 years old, I had a brother three years younger, and for years I told him stories every day. I would make up stories and he would listen. That's how we spent our childhood. I don't know why we did that and I don't know why he would listen, but I guess I just liked to be a storyteller.
What was it like filming the scenes and being in a wave tank with Suraj Sharma (Pi), an inexperienced actor who doesn't know about marks and all that. Was he acting in a void?
Yes, that's why he's such a talent. There's a blue man there who's the tiger, and you have to react this way and that way. And the water part is all real. And the tiger part and when he faces God spiritually, he has to put himself in the situation. If I don't see it, he has to try again. In that way, it's no different than any experienced actor. In some ways, fresh actors with less experience have more innocence, and you can take advantage of that because they don't know another way to make a movie. They don't have cynicism. When they're in, they're in. He's a gift. He's convincing, and he invests his belief in the situation and so we believe it. I'm a talented filmmaker so if I see it, I know if he believes or not. There are no short cuts; you just keep trying. The scene where he's holding the tiger's head, it's heartbreaking. We gave him a big tiger head sandbag, so it doesn't look like he's holding nothing. So it's a blue sandbag he's performing to. He did it on the third take. It was so effective -- the makeup woman was like his surrogate mother, and she was like, "I'm a proud mother." He's a talent.
Life of Pi opens Nov. 21 in the Bay Area.