“You become the movie you are making,” Oscar-winning director Ang Lee said by phone. Given that the movie in question is “Life of Pi,” based on the award-winning, fantastical novel about a boy and a Bengal tiger marooned on a boat for 227 days, Lee is feeling a bit more at sea than usual these days.
With this film Lee has not just defied the old showbiz adage “Never work with children or animals,” he has taken on a few more challenges — like water, 3-D, religion and the expectations of millions of rapt readers of the book by Yann Martel. Although “Life of Pi” was just a few months away from release (it opens on Wednesday), Lee was still in the editing room.
“I’m like Pi,” he explained. “I feel adrift over the Pacific. I haven’t locked the picture yet. There are lots of confusions, constant surprises. There are times you feel defeated. You feel like your faith is being tested. When you’re on the ocean, it’s spiritual. I look at God and ask, ‘Why?’ But it’s a happy why.”
Lee, who is gentle and soft-spoken in life, has always been fearless in his cinematic choices. In a career spanning 20 years he has continually jumped across genres. The Lee oeuvre includes a Jane Austen novel (“Sense and Sensibility”), a Missouri-bred tale of the Civil War (“Ride With the Devil,” from Daniel Woodrell’s novel “Woe to Live On”), a Chinese martial-arts epic (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), a comic-book adaptation (“Hulk”) and the deeply moving love story of two cowboys, for which he won the best director Oscar in 2006, “Brokeback Mountain.”
Still, it took Lee two months before he agreed to take on Martel’s complex book, which charts Pi’s journey across the Pacific Ocean and his struggle with despair, faith and a ravenous tiger. Not only are there long stretches during which nothing happens, but the book is open to many interpretations, literal and metaphorical. Adapting “Life of Pi” had been considered by others since Fox Studios acquired the film rights to the book in 2003 (including M. Night Shyamalan and Alfonso Cuaron).
“I loved the book,” Lee said, “but it’s very hard to crack. I thought you can’t make a movie about religion, but it can be a movie about the value of storytelling and how that brings structure and wisdom to life. This is a coming-of-age story. It’s about taking a leap of faith.”
This isn’t material that immediately screams 3-D, but Lee decided on that format before he started writing the script. His style has been described as “emotionally resonant (in human relationships) and visually splendid (in the natural world),” by Whitney Crothers Dilley, the author of “The Cinema of Ang Lee.”
The “Life of Pi” trailer features almost otherworldly visuals of animals, fish and starlit skies, but for Lee the key was to balance the spectacle with “the delicate moments.”
“There is a certain perception about 3-D, but just because nobody has made an intimate movie with it doesn’t mean it can’t be done,” he said.
The filming of “Life of Pi” began with a two-week shoot in India in March 2011. After 10 days in Pondicherry, where the story opens, Lee moved to Munnar, a sleepy small town in the hills of south India.
Indian filmmakers, especially from the Tamil- and Malayalam-language industries, often shoot in Munnar, but these were the first 3-D cameras to arrive there. They created such a flutter that one day the local customs officer dropped by for a look.
That day Lee seemed upbeat and smiling. He refused lunch (“This is war, I don’t need to eat”), then spoke intently of a “film god” who presides over every project.
“My ideas and not me are at the center of attention,” he said. “A movie seems to have a life of its own. You don’t create it, you initiate it because you get a call. It’s not about dictatorship. You have to be humble, you have to be tender, communicate sensitively, admit your shortcomings, share your dreams and allow them to be told.”
Lee’s actors seem to sense that for this director, making a film is almost a spiritual process. Irrfan Khan, who plays the older Pi, described that experience in an email as “a quest, a journey, an exploration.” He added, “Ang puts himself in the line of fire.”
The younger Pi is played by an unknown 17-year-old Indian named Suraj Sharma, whose parents just happen to be mathematicians — a coincidence that gave Lee a big laugh. “What are the chances,” he asked, “that two mathematicians give birth to a kid who plays the lead in a film called ‘Life of Pi’ ”?
Before the shoot started, Sharma’s mother performed a small ceremony that anointed Lee as Sharma’s guru. At the end of it, Sharma, in the traditional Indian way, touched Lee’s feet.
“There is no equivalent in Chinese,” said Lee, who was born in Taiwan but has lived in the U.S. for more than three decades. “I don’t have a superpower. I’m not a swami. But I took him in as my own son. I try to play the role of guru as best as I can.”
Sharma trained seven days a week for three months in Taiwan. This included learning to swim, because the film was extensively shot in a gigantic water tank built in a hangar in Taiwan.
As Lee tells it, the stress created a role reversal. Sharma became the “spiritual leader.” “The innocence, the effort,” Lee said, “we are all experienced and perhaps jaded a little bit. He reminded us about why we want to make movies. Every day was a miracle.”
Sharma said in an email that the process never overwhelmed him because “Ang was always there.” He added, “I knew he would take care of me.”
The challenges, for Lee at least, are not over yet. “Life of Pi” is an expensive film, which worries Lee. “We are doing something sensitive,” he said. “Normally you do it cheap. Sensitivity and money are like parallel lines. They don’t meet.”
In a landscape dominated by comic-book movies like “Marvel’s The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” will viewers put down money to see an Indian boy on a literal and spiritual journey with a tiger? That question “stresses out” Lee.
The film had already forced him to grow up, he said. “I’m like Peter Pan,” he added. “I was not very mature in many ways, but I learned a lot of things. I had to take decisions that were more responsible.”
Now, he said, like Pi, he just wanted the journey to end. “I just want to survive it.”