First time lucky for Ang Lee

Passion plus: Ang Lee is full of praise for Life of Pi's star Suraj Sharma.
Passion plus: Ang Lee is full of praise for Life of Pi's star Suraj Sharma.

Accepting the challenge to direct Life of Pi meant a series of firsts for Ang Lee. The first time using digital technology to make a film, the first time at the helm of a 3-D movie, and the first time he has felt utterly unsure of the final product he has created.

"It had never happened to me before, that each time I watched it, it was unsettling to me; I wasn't sure if it worked. At the end when the audience clapped I suppose it must be OK, but as a viewer myself, it is still unsettling."

Anyone who has read Yann Martel's Mann Booker Prize-winning novel about a boy stranded on a boat for 227 days with a Bengal tiger will understand the anxious reaction.

Regarded as a spiritual book open to any number of interpretations, and described as "an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling" by one Barack Obama, the tale of Piscine Molliter Patel and Richard Parker the tiger has been picked up and dropped by a number of film-makers over the years. It seemed to many that the book-to-film adaptation just could not be done.

But Lee saw the idea of combining children, animals and a lot of water as an opportunity he could not pass up. After all, the Oscar-winning director has tackled subjects as varied as the love story between two cowboys in Brokeback Mountain, and epic martial arts action in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

This time though, things became tougher when Lee added in the then-unknown quantity of 3-D to the project.

"It occurred to me, very early on, this has got everything you are not meant to do. So I thought if I make it more difficult, that will make it better - if I do it in 3-D, add another dimension, then this thing will work. It makes sense to me, but as a professional, I can't help but think ‘that's silly'.

"But sometimes silly ways are the beginning of solving the unsolvable. I thought if I added that other dimension, maybe, just maybe, my mind would open up."

The only problem was, when he picked up the project four years ago, Lee had not seen anything more than a few animated films using the emerging technology - it was about a month before the groundbreaking Avatar was due to be released.

"The cartoons were evidence for me that something new was coming up. It's not fifties [3-D technology], it's about a new cinematic language, it's about how we place things.

"If you are going to do it, complement the impossible. What might have been a problem, can become your plus - you've got to turn it around."

Lee, 58, is a softly spoken man, full of broad hand gestures and quick to laugh. He is also clearly passionate about this film and its star, 17-year-old unknown Suraj Sharma who was discovered among more than 3000 Indian school kids who auditioned for the lead role.

"When I saw Suraj it was just all over. I said ‘take off your glasses' and when he did, he looked like Pi to me. Very deep eyes, smart, soulful, I just knew the camera would like him."

There was just one problem - Sharma could not swim, and much of the film was shot in the world's largest self-generating wave tank, built in Taiwan.

Teaching the teen to swim was just one of the tasks Lee took on, creating what he describes as a "Zen Master-pupil" relationship. But it was the teen's natural skills that lit a fire under the director.

"The good thing about raw talent, someone who's not afraid of acting, is he has no references of what's good or bad, and if he trusts us, and if he trusts the process, that's acting's purest form. Sometimes, directing him felt like I was awakening him, reminding him of something he knew from a past life or something - like a little Buddha.

"People would tell him what to do, but he would lead us, he is Pi and we were going on that journey together. I think inside he is a philosopher, and he wants to be a film-maker. He can be trouble at school - I was that way - but he's made for movies, I can smell it."

Lee should know. He was nominated for an Academy Award for his second feature film, The Wedding Banquet, but his success in Hollywood came only after years of toiling in both his native Taiwan and America, where he moved more than 30 years ago.

Movie-making, he says, is a never-ending journey that can't help but get under your skin, although he refuses to revisit any of his projects.

"Once they get out of my system, I feel done - the story is yours now, as Pi says in the film.

"But sometimes, like this one, it's for learning purposes. How can you make a movie and it's not done? How does that work? To me there is no end to a movie; it's like my whole career I'm doing a big movie, painting a big mural. Sometimes, you can not see that part of the mural when you are over here, but overall you have the feeling you are painting one big picture. I see myself as a student of film-making; people pay my tuition. How wonderful is that, to learn how to make movies?"

Life of Pi opens on January 1.

Sunday Star Times