“At the end of the day, the best movie is the audience’s head,” Ang Lee offers, patiently and poetically, in the midst of a day packed with 15-minute interviews that probably follows similar days all over the country for his holiday offering, Life of Pi. The movie, the book, he says, they are simply meant to provoke a process that’s already begun in each individual viewer. Hit or miss (and the hits have outweighed the infrequent misses) Lee’s work has provoked, from its inception with the Taiwanese-American indie family dramas Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman through to his Civil War box-office failure, Ride with the Devil and gay-romance Western Oscar-nominated feat, Brokeback Mountain. His latest leaps into purely philosophical terrain with higher-profile imagery and special effects, including 3-D, that prove Lee is a director in constant motion, expanding his approach, broadening his subject matter, surprising his followers. The film was warmly received upon arrival at the New York Film Festival. I spoke with Lee during a stopover in San Francisco in October.
Keyframe: Life of Pi is a beautiful film. Though religious in theme, the way the ‘leap of faith’ resonated for me was as a leap of faith into believing a story. What attracted you to the story? Was it religious themes, or something else?
Ang Lee: No, it’s the story. It discussed the power of storytelling. It questions it. It puts doubt in it. It’s thought provoking. Storytelling; creating illusion is not only my job—it’s my life: I’m a filmmaker. So it’s really at the core of what I care about. But we’re so busy creating illusion, we don’t think about the essence of it all that much. So the book does both. It has a fascinating adventure story; it has the first part that has the kid go over three religions and all his philosophical search as a youngster for a deity. Then he’s thrown to the disorganized place where he has no organized religion of his own, so he creates his own. He has the abstract idea of god. It pulls a rock under your feet and you gotta think about it. It’s a very inspiring book; it’s haunting. I’m not going to say it’s the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s a very inspiring book. And very cleverly written, too. It feels like this is something I can dig into, something fresh for what I do, which is filmmaking.
The book discussed the power of storytelling. It questions it. It puts doubt in it. It’s thought provoking. Storytelling; creating illusion is not only my job—it’s my life: I’m a filmmaker. So it’s really at the core of what I care about. But we’re so busy creating illusion, we don’t think about the essence of it all that much.
Keyframe: The work of your production designer, David Gropman, is very impressive in this film, what he was able to do in a water tank. Is there something in particular about his work that you like?
Lee: He came from a stage background. I like that; I came from the same background, stage, before cinema. I worked with him on my last movie, Taking Woodstock. He did a wonderful, wonderful job. Reliable. Hard-working. Friendly. Great design. It’s a department I don’t have to worry about. I brought him along to this journey. It’s a very long job. Very, very long job. I had a good time with him. Details. In some ways I think 3-D is closer to stage than movies. Because of its depth. In some ways I like his theatrical background: stage design. It depends on where I put the camera. Even though it’s an open ocean, it’s vast, but when you come down to a character, a boat and a tiger, it’s a set. So I like his background as a set designer.
Keyframe: Whose job is it to create the incredible reflecting/refracting sky, ocean?
Lee: I envisioned it. Visual F/X team helped me realize that. I did previsualizations, proposals to the visual design team. We had back and forth; feedback to and from them.
In some ways I think 3-D is closer to stage than movies. Because of its depth.
Keyframe: On the story of being a filmmaker: Your own journey to become a filmmaker from the family that you came from sounds itself very dramatic. Could you talk a little about the urge to become a filmmaker and meeting James Schamus, and those early collaborations on The Wedding Banquet, Eat Drink Man Woman.…
Lee: I grew up a docile, shy kid. I was designated at the desk all day, at school, studying, and I didn’t really have much fun. But I think I was brooding to be a filmmaker without realizing it until I was 18, and I stood on the stage for the first time. That’s all I wanted to do. Something theatrical. I always loved to watch movies. But after that stage experience, that changed my life. I know that’s where I belonged, too. It was a long journey pursuing the knowledge of it. I went to the Taiwan Academy of Art, also University of Illinois at Champaign theater; I went to film school for directing. Then I had six years of fruitless development hell, raised children, cooking at home, looking scripts, pitching. Then I had the chance to do a small Taiwanese film, and took it. Only the Mill Valley Film Festival showed it. It’s called Pushing Hands. It was a hit in Taiwan but it didn’t go outside of Taiwan or Hong Kong. In making that movie, I met James Schamus and Ted Hope, they had just formed this small company called Good Machine. They had nothing. I had nothing. We hit it off. I’ve had a relationship with James ever since. I didn’t bring him along to do this movie. But James produced and worked on scripts for all of my films before this one. It was a great growing-up-together-as-filmmakers relationship. Ted I worked with him until the sixth movie, and then Good Machine became Focus and they went different ways, and I worked with Focus and James more than with Ted.
Keyframe: Ted is now here (in San Francisco, where the interview is taking place) again. I heard you say on the radio this morning: ‘Good filmmakers are looking for failure, not success. You want to feel the edge. Look for the fall, and that’s where you get the thrill.’ I thought that was really interesting. James Schamus won an award from the San Francisco Film Society a few years ago and gave a really great speech that also said something along those lines: ‘The best thing you can do as an artist is to fail.’
Lee: [Laughs.] He said that too?
Keyframe: I can tell you guys are friends!
Lee: He shouldn’t say that; he’s the head of a studio now.
Keyframe: He could get in trouble.
Lee: [Joking:] His pitch to filmmakers: I’m looking for a failure: Could you help me?
Keyframe: One of the films I think is most interesting of yours is the Civil War film Ride with the Devil. On the radio you said the film failed at the box office and didn’t talk much more about it. But … people talk about your cinema as about outsiders. Is this film misunderstood? My friend from Taiwan always made the argument that it had something to do with Taiwan and China; had resonance in that relationship.
Lee: I grew up in Taiwan, the losing side. I always have my heart on the losing side. Which in this case is the South. Where the big trend is going somewhere, you have to go with that, but your heart stays with your own original root. I wasn’t brought up as American. So I don’t have the cultural context in my head: Who’s right, who’s wrong. I took sympathy with that Tobey Maguire character because he’s confused. He’s split. He’s an outsider, any which way. He seems to take the wrong course, but his heart is there, his relationship is there. What are you gonna do? I think I took that on largely because of that, and by doing that, I believe I was very authentic to that time period. I did my research. I think I did the right thing. That’s why I didn’t want to talk too much about it as the movie came out, it seemed like I did the wrong thing by doing the right thing. Because maybe everybody else is wrong. It’s the cultural combination I didn’t know. I am the camera. I just capture whatever is real to me.
I think the son’s job is to prove father wrong. I really love my children, I love my father. I proved my father wrong. I don’t want to give my kids pressure. I really would love to be proven wrong. That’s our job.
I did another one, but that was a successful one, and offers a contrary example: Brokeback Mountain. I think I hit the sweet spot. Because the Western is a phony thing. It’s not realistic. I did a realistic approach to the genre, a ‘realistic’ Western, but I hit the romantic nerve and the movie works. You never know. Sometimes you hit, sometimes you miss. In the case of Ride with the Devil, I missed it, but for a reason I’m very proud of, that’s my two cents on American history, the place I live in and the place I choose to raise my children. Those issues really matter to me, and I think a lot of the Southern people. But it worked against the convention. So it didn’t do well.
But the movie, there are people who caught it.
Keyframe: The other thread that’s often talked about regarding your films is the shape that father figures take in your cinema. Now, of course, your kids are grown. The father in this film, The Life of Pi, is interesting: confrontational, but benevolent, wise. It was interesting to hear the advice you were giving your son the actor, on the radio. Are you finding you’re identifying more as the father than the son in your creative work these days?
Lee: Unfortunately yes. When my son told me he wanted to be an actor, I talked exactly like my father: ‘Don’t!’ I’m telling you! He said,’ You didn’t listen to your father.’ I said, ‘My father was a high school principal, what did he know?’ If I know anything, I know actors: Don’t do it. But he earned my [approbation]…. He took it seriously, went to college. Dove into being an actor. I think the son’s job is to prove father wrong. I really love my children, I love my father. I proved my father wrong. I don’t want to give my kids pressure. I really would love to be proven wrong. That’s our job.
The long story, you have abundant material, but you work against something and you have to shrink it. In this case, the ship that sinks, TsimTsum, in Kabbalah, that means ‘shrinking.’ You have to bring it down to earth.
Keyframe: Adaptation: Your pieces are masterpieces of adaptation. When Brokeback Mountain came out, I told everyone, well, clearly, short stories make better movies. But while this one is not an epic…
Lee: I had to shrink it.
Keyframe: Words of advice for those doing adaptations? What’s your secret?
Lee: There’s a saying in the industry. Either you can make a bad movie that is loyal to the book or make a good movie that ruins the book. I think my advice is it’s better you leave the book as an impression and find your own way. The book is the starting point, not the finish line; don’t be a translator.
Short story vs. long story? Short story you have a lot of rooms for your own creation, to express your take on the material. The bad thing is you have to fill a lot of spaces. The long story, you have abundant material, but you work against something and you have to shrink it. In this case, the ship that sinks, TsimTsum, in Kabbalah, that means ‘shrinking.’ You have to bring it down to earth.
The greatest idea if it’s up in the air, it’s no use. You have to bring it down to earth to become communicatable, manageable. You have to shrink it in order to expand it.
At the end of the day, the best movie is the audience’s head. The movie, the book, they’re all provocations. You can never make the movie that is as good as what’s in their head. You’re provoking people to make up their story, you’re not telling them their story.