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Ang Lee Talks 'Life of Pi,' Scoring Creative Control From Fox

NYFF - Life of Pi - Ang Lee and Suraj Sharma
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Suraj Sharma and Ang Lee

"I think we need more freedom in making personal movies and movies that don’t fit genres or certain markets -- it’s not an event or it doesn’t require big movie stars," the director tells THR.

In Life of Pi, the spiritual adventure of a shipwrecked teenager stranded in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger lasts 277 days. However, the long journey to translate the 2001 bestseller into a visually exceptional 3D adaptation directed by Ang Lee came to an end on Friday. The film kicked off the 50th New York Film Festival in Lincoln Center, with six screenings across its three theaters.

Compiling the vision was a journey in itself for the award-winning director. Though critically acclaimed for Brokeback Mountain, Sense and Sensibility and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Lee awaited years for 3D technology and computer-generated imagery to catch up with the intricacies he wanted to include.

REVIEW: "Life of Pi"

There’s a fascination in my head,” Lee said. “If I don’t know how to do it, I’ll describe it -- I’m a very visual person too -- I’ll describe it and go about it. I previously visualized the whole journey – 17 minutes of previsualization before I even start production. I spent a year doing that. It’s a long preparation so [that] I can discuss and do meetings with all heads of departments so I can find a way to do things."

Lee noted that the visual innovations in Life of Pi weren’t possible unless production companies Fox 2000 Pictures and Rhythm and Hues trusted him with creative control – a request rarely granted in Hollywood today.

“It’s harder and harder -- a movie gets dumbed down quite a bit, it becomes industrialized and business-oriented and globalized as well. In a way, there are more sources to get money to make movies, but on the other hand, it’s very hard to be special,” said Lee. “Economically, it’s more expensive to make movies. I hope digital movies change that. I think we need more freedom, so to speak, in making personal movies and movies that don’t fit genres or certain markets--it’s not an event or it doesn’t require big movie stars.”

He added, “Of course, most of them are bad movies, but some of them are really inspiring. We really need that. That should never die.”

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The production was also a test for Suraj Sharma, who beat out 3,000 others for the lead role of Pi. He prepared for the challenge with Lee daily.

“I had Ang working with me -- he would train me in acting, we would do yoga together every morning, he would talk to me about spirituality, about faith,” Sharma told The Hollywood Reporter, who took a break from his college assignments to kick off NYFF. “In the first three months of preproduction, before we started shooting, he built this character in my head of Pi. It was something new, like I’d never done before. I really realized that I was capable of a lot more than I thought I would be.”

The person who is the most difficult to impress with any film adaptation is arguably the one who first wrote the book. However, Yann Martel was struck by how the technology brought his characters to life on the big screen – especially the Bengal tiger, Richard Parker.

“I have to say, in the movie, he’s incredibly stunning,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s that first scene in the zoo when he’s walking on the tunnel toward little Pi holding that piece of meat, and he just looks there – so unbelievably beautiful.”

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Martel agreed that Fox’s faith in Lee’s vision and screenwriter David Magee’s script is what made Pi’s journey possible (and one surrounded by Oscar buzz).

“It’s because of Ang Lee, and the studio -- though it’s a brilliant director, if he doesn’t have the means, he can’t make his movie,” said Martel. “And Fox, because of Tom Rothman and Elizabeth Gabler, he had the means to pull it off.”

Rothman felt “proud” to be opening the NYFF with Life of Pi.

“Geez, we’ve been working on this project for over ten years,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “Fox 2000 bought the book years and years ago and really believed in it, and when we were able to bring Ang Lee onto the project, it began to become a reality.”

STORY: Tom Rothman Leaving 20th Century Fox

Lee expressed his wishes for Rothman, who announced his Fox departure earlier this month.

“It’s sad, I’m sure he’ll find good things to do. He really knows movies; he’s a very smart guy. He bought my first movie here in the States. He keeps saying I started his career, but he kinda started my career too! So we know each other from way back.”

The film was screened simultaneously at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, Alice Tully Hall and Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center for a total of six showings throughout NYFF’s opening night.

“We were really surprised, amazed and delighted when we saw the extraordinary brilliance and creativity, innovation of Life of Pi,” said Film Society program director and selection committee chair Richard Pena while introducing the film. “It’s just an extraordinary work, we’re enormously proud to open the 50th New York Film Festival with it.”

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“As a New Yorker myself, for the last thirty-something years, nothing gets better than this – 50th anniversary, opening film, yes!” said Lee to the theatre of attendees. “Good advice in the film business: never make a movie featuring a kid, an animal or water or 3D -- and you’re gonna see all of them here!”

After thanking Pena for the introduction, Lee expressed his motivations for taking on the film project in a big way.

“I did it because Yann Martel’s story, Life of Pi, is such an incredibly story that I just had to tell it. I have this feeling that a story doesn’t [come] to life until it’s passed along from one person to another; I think Yann Martel passed that to me, and I would like to pass that to you, and I hope you like it and pass it along. I think the story that we share that bring us together and also bring us the meaning of life.”

Lee then brought Sharma onstage and thanked him for bringing Pi to life.

“When I tested him, I asked him how long you can hold your breath; he tried and it was 15 seconds. And I said, ‘There are some shots that take a minute -- you better hold your breath for a minute and a half!’”

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Life of Pi split production between shooting on location in India and in a giant tank of water in Taiwan, simulating the Pacific Ocean.

“In three months, we did it -- three months drilling, six months of shooting, three of which every shot is him,” Lee said. “Everybody is yelling at him, teaching him what to do; eventually, he led all of us. He reminded us why we want to make the movie in the first place. And I hope, in some ways, the movie reminds us why we watch movies.”

“We’re still two weeks away from delivering the film, so I’m still tweaking it, but you’re the first ones to see it. I hope you like it.”

Once the screening ended, Lee and Sharma received a standing ovation that continued well into the credits. Filmmakers and guests then finished the evening at the Harvard Club.

Life of Pi opens on Nov. 21.