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Capone climbs into a lifeboat to chat with LIFE OF PI director Ang Lee!!!

Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.

Simple and beautiful. Those are the words that keep sticking with me when I consider Ang Lee's cinematic take on the Yann Martel novel Life of Pi. They aren't the most original word to choose, but they seem the most accurate, especially when you consider the wholly original use of 3-D in the film, which takes full advantage of the sense of depth the story provides us with. Very often the shot composition consists of Pi in the foreground in a lifeboat, a tiger at the far end of the boat, and a horizon of vast ocean behind it.

I've read some complaints with the film about the metaphors of the original novel being too spelled out in the screenplay by David Magee. Having never read the book, it didn't bother me in the slightest. The film plays like a fable that I'm not sure we're ever supposed to take literally, but since the film has a PG rating, I'm guessing a whole lot of younger audience members are not going to get the metaphors at play here and simply take the story of a young man and some animals adrift on the ocean after a horrific storm at face value, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Taiwanese filmmaker Ang Lee has long been one of my favorites, since I was first introduced to his simply told stories of finding a place in a society that might not accept you, with works such as PUSHING HANDS, THE WEDDING BANQUET, and EAT DRINK MAN WOMAN. Although even his early films featured characters speaking English, he kicked the door to his career wide open by tackling Jane Austen's SENSE AND SENSIBILITY for his fourth film, and two unique American stories with THE ICE STORM and I RIDE WITH THE DEVIL.

He his something of a creative peak with his martial arts epic CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and the groundbreaking BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (with moviedom's first crack at a HULK story tucked between them--reaction to which was decidedly mixed; I happen to like it). After the virtually ignored LUST, CAUTION and TAKING WOODSTOCK, Lee is back strong with one of his most visually arresting and ambitious (and supposedly unfilmable) work in LIFE OF PI, starring newcomer Suraj Sharma as young Pi and the great Irrfan Khan as the older Pi, who tells us this incredible story.

Ang Lee arrived in Chicago just minutes before the press screening of LIFE OF PI was set to begin. Just before the movie began, he came into the theater, out of breath, to welcome us. Lee is a soft-spoken but eloquent man, and one of the cinema's great thinkers who seems to go out of his way not to make the same movie--or even the same species of movies--twice. Please enjoy my talk with the great Ang Lee…

Capone: Hello, it’s great to meet you. That was very nice of you to pop in last night.

Ang Lee: I almost fainted.

Capone: I know. It sounded like you were winded. Everything has s been this whirlwind since New York it sounds like. I know a lot of people have been asking you about how you found your actor for young Pi, but I’m more interested in your older PI. Irrfan Kahn is one of my favorite actors in anything, so any time I get to see him in anything I get very excited.

AL: I’m so happy that somebody knows of him.

Capone: Oh yes. What made you think of him? He seems like a very obvious choice, after seeing him in this.

AL: For precisely that reason. He’s the obvious choice, so I talked to him and talk him I had to put him on hold until I found the young Pi, pretty much carries the movie. So I confirmed that six months after I met him, because if I found someone who looked remotely like Irrfan somewhere down the line, the role was his. If I found somebody who didn't, forget it.

[Both Laugh]

Capone: So it really came down to looks?

AL: He was one inch taller than the boy I found, both lean in their bone structure. Of course, the look is different, but most importantly, their voice is similar. So once I cast Suraj, I called him right away and had him meet us in Bombay, and I cast him the next day, that night we had dinner together. I put the two of them together and was like “Thank you, God.”

Capone: But he wanted it, right? Was he familiar with the story?

AL: Not when I talked to him. Then he read the book and said he loved the book.

Capone: Tell me about finding him Suraj, because I’m guessing that was a much longer process.

AL: Oh yes. I wanted somebody authentic, since I’m not going to get a movie star who's a 16-year-old Indian. There’s just no such movie star, so I had a few agents in India just go out to every school in a major city, high schools particularly, and anybody from 15 to 19 years old was told to come in if they were interested in acting. So we had about 3,000 that read, so after three rounds, it came down to 12. I flew to Bombay to meet them in person and work with them. So Suraj, when he walked in, I said “Take off your glasses.” He had goofy glasses. He’s a gift, a real find.

Capone: Without a doubt. So you’ve taken on this story that Barack Obama has said is proof of God, and even in a movie it’s brought up that it’s going to make us believe in god. How do you make a movie that makes us believe in god?

AL: No, the theater is not a church, so we don’t do that actually. [laughs]

Capone: Well for some of us it is.

AL: It opens the thinking and the conversation about God, about what we call God, which is our emotional attachment to the unknown, to the creator, to things that seem to be running the universe, about the essence of our existence. We don’t just eat, drink, and go about things we can prove exist; it’s the abstract, the thing that runs the principle of existence, that we call spiritual faith. That we cannot lose. We cannot survive or keep our sanity without having it. But the paradox about it is if you can prove it, it’s not faith. You have to take a leap of faith to get there.

I think the book provides a lot of thinking. It provides a platform for discussion and it’s a wonderful book in terms of providing… It’s not going on about a specific religion, but it talks about God and your relationship with it, whether it’s an introspective look or something you worship and listen to. I think the movie follows that rule from the book. I think that’s important. I could not make this movie or any movie without a strand of believing in something.

I think the book and the movie discusses and provides the thinking on the power of storytelling. That seems to have a wisdom to it, a structure. Otherwise life can be meaningless. When we share a story, we bind together, and there’s something positive, something meaningful to us that we can hold on to and hold on to each other. I think those are the great things in the material. I think when he was young, he goes through different practices, different religions, he develops his own recipes, so to speak. But when he’s lost everything--when he’s on the ocean--he has no organized religion to rely on, and he’s facing the ultimate god. It’s an abstract idea, and that’s really a humbling experience and the ultimate test to the strength of his faith. Pi always has faith. It’s not like he gained faith during the journey, it’s not. He’s being tested during the journey. His faith is solidified.

He has a taste of why God's plan is for him, and I tried translate that with visuals and drama and even fear, with surviving with a tiger. But it eventually becomes a spiritual journey. I think this is valuable to our lives. It’s not like if you cannot prove it, we can disregard it or belittle it. I think it’s the most important thing for our existence.

Capone: Although Pi studied all of these religions up to that point of the boat sinking, it's more his physical abilities and science to a certain degree that save him. Although there is something keeping him alive, and that’s where the faith comes in.

AL: But to survive, it takes a lot of dimensions, not just that. He did build his new society with Richard Parker [the tiger's name], the lifeboat and the raft he created, it was a society. He organizes, and then to a point he called out to God, “What more do you want?” And God just went, [makes blowing noise to approximate a second storm], “Now start all over again.” Then he sort of began to get he idea. It was very interesting. He just had to be humbled.

Capone: You mentioned storytelling before. This is a movie that’s celebrates the oral tradition. This is a story that we are being told. This is a person actually telling another person the story.

AL: Only when it’s passed along does it have a meaning. It has to be orally. If you write it down, it would kill it.

Capone: This is a PG-rated film, do you want families to come and see this? Do you think there’s value in it for younger people as well as older?

AL: Yes, yes, very young children. They might not get the whole part, but they get adventures. I think young children will love this. Like my kid is five years old, and one day he started crying: “Where do we go after we die?” We deal with these questions from kids. We deal with this on a spiritual level. It’s good. Just because they are smaller people doesn’t mean that they don’t have the need. I do think there is good advice in the film, and you can bring children to see it with their parents. I will bring my children to see it. I recommended them the book when I first read it.

Capone: They might have to cover their eyes a few times. It’s kind of scary some time, even for adults.

AL: Only a few times like this [he hold up his hand to his eye and peeks between his fingers].

Capone: How long did you experiment with 3-D before you decided that was the way to go on this film?

AL: Actually thinking about 3-D helped me decide to make this movie.

Capone: The 3-D is gorgeous in this movie, I mean I’ve never seen it used this way, and I think it looks great.

AL: It’s still new. It’s new to all of us in live action; it's just beginning. When I thought about 3-D before I started this movie, I didn’t know what I was talking about. My thought was quite naïve. I thought, “Since this is an impossible movie to make, maybe take one more risk.”

Capone: Why not?

AL: “If I take another dimension, maybe people will open up for the possibility of making this movie.” Then I did my research and I found this is very good for water. I think if it’s 2-D, it probably becomes burden to sit though and see a boy and a tiger in water, but with 3-D you actually feel that you are there. I think the experience should be extraordinary, and also just simply as a filmmaker having anything new seems to bring new meaning and inspires us to think in your mind’s eye, what seeing is, because it really challenges what looking is about. 2-D went about for so long, and nothing is fresh anymore, because viewers are really sophisticated. We’ve lost that naiveté to take it in, like how a movie should be seen. So for that, I jumped in and I learned a lot during the course and I’m still I would say a novice to the medium; so is every body. I think it’s a new medium and it’s an artistic form, but right now it’s so expensive, that only big action movies can do it. When it’s cheaper, I think it will be a different story, and you'll see a lot more interesting things happen.

Capone: I was particularly impressed with the way that you dealt with the visuals of the sky and the sea and sometimes you lose the horizon, so that the blue of the water mixes with the blue of the sky or the scene where the boat looks like it’s floating in stars, because we can’t see where that divide is. Some of those colors you use look like watercolors; they don’t even look like colors in nature. You're very deliberately choosing your backgrounds.

AL: Because of the book, I wanted everything to have a realistic look. You cannot say they are'nt realistic. Nature created those pictures. [laughs] On the other hand, I would like to show the reflection of mind or what seems to be God’s mind or how your mind echoes with God’s mind. So it’s externalizing internal feelings to visualize mood. So in that way, it’s no different than watercolors.

Sometimes I would choose particular moments where that could happen just to remind people that everything exists for emotional reasons. It’s mood and reflects your mood the way you see it and also maybe your whole existence. Why did God create it? Like the book suggests, God has to degrade himself to have emotion, to create something, to relate to something, otherwise why bother? Why go about listening? Everything must have emotions and our attachment to God is emotional. So I liked to make an emotional journey, that’s why I created those pictures.

Capone: There’s an old saying about “directors shouldn’t ever work with children or animals”…

AL: Or water. [Laughs]

Capone: We'll add that to the list, but especially not all three together. Some of the animal creations are CG, but a lot of them are not. Is it any easier working with CG animals than real animals?

AL: Nothing was easy in this movie. [Laughs]

Capone: I have no trouble believing that.

AL: Well I started out with a real tiger… Well no, I animated the film first. I pre-vizualised it. Then based on pre-viz, there’s motivation for the animals. So they tried to get the animal to do what I planned for it to do; if they don't we take it or not take it.. But bringing in real animals resulted in two good things for us: one is you have real animal shots, the other is the visual effects team has a match, because they have to cut together with the real animals, so the bar is raised. I think it’s really good for the movie that we bring real tigers into the picture. Also I don’t want to do animals like some Disney movies and try to make them look human. So bringing in real animals, even if we don’t get them to do exactly what we want, we can at least get the angle we want and record a lot of references as a good beginning for the animator to copy, to get ideas of what an animal might be doing.

Capone: What scene did you pre-visualize first?

AL: Just in order. Just that ocean part from the boat sinking, that took a long time. It took me a year to do that. It’s a long process.

Capone: That’s unbelievable.

AL: “This is an ocean part, we’re going to do that,” and once you do that there are numerous meetings based on that with and how to go about certain things. These are the ways we're going to try to do, and this is the budget…

Capone: With each of your films, you go out of your way not to repeat yourself in terms of the kind of film. Is that important to you or is that just luck that it’s turned out that way?

AL: I think after my first few pictures--p to SENSE AND SENSIBILITY--it became apparent that people would pigeonhole me, because I would get he same script of a certain nature. So I really had to find that and do something different.

Capone: What was the pigeonhole you'd been dropped into?

AL: Family drama, social satire, somewhat comedic that gives you a tear at the end, and then you take home some thinking to do, that sort of thing. I think first of all, continuing to do that would have bored me, and then I probably wouldn’t do my best work. So I really made an effort and it's become a habit, to find the goodness in work that is scary, where I don’t feel secure. A lot of the time, I don’t know what I'm doing, but the good thing is that it gave me a fresh version of the material. It’s like Pi facing Richard Parker, you can never assume that he would do certain things. So it keeps you in perspective and fear and respect. Also, I get to do all different kinds of movies. I still feel like I’m a film student. I like learning all different kinds of filmmaking, so that’s wonderful. But then I cannot do everything. Life is limited.

Capone: What was Yann Martel’s reaction to seeing the LIFE OF PI? He saw it in New York, right?

AL: He said he liked it, and he seemed to be thinking, so I didn’t dare to keep asking.

[Both Laugh]

AL: I think he passed the movie to me and I passed it along to the audience. It’s really an audience movie. So far, I have not heard people say it was different from the book. They have to take it as a movie and then take off from there to their own imagination.

Capone: I will say that one way at least the 3-D worked is when you are watching that lifeboat bobbing up and down in the water, and characters are talking about sea sickness. It certainly was doing its job on me.

AL: Were you sea sick?

Capone: A little bit, especially when we are in the boat and we are watching the horizon go up and down.

AL: We tried to reduce that as much as we could.

Capone: I think it’s great. I wouldn’t change a thing.

AL: We kept the horizon not moving, so people don’t get too sick. It just goes up and down, but you don’t get disoriented. We were very careful that we don’t need to put the throw-up bag behind the seats. [laughs]

Capone: Well there’s enough of it on the screen. I don’t think I’ve seen more throwing up in a movie as a result of sea sickness than I have in this movie, between the animals and the actors. Well, thank you so much. It was really wonderful to meet you.

AL: Thank you.

-- Steve Prokopy
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