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Interview: Ang Lee, Life of Pi

Academy Award winning director Ang Lee chats to MiNDFOOD about his Oscar-winning cinematic masterpiece, Life of Pi.

Interview: Ang Lee, Life of Pi

You have many challenges in this film, not the least of which is such an inexperienced leading man.  How did you mentor him through the making of the film?

Well I saw him as Pi; that’s why I cast him. To me, he looks like Pi, so I was teaching him how to become Pi – not so much about performance ability.  The two went hand in hand. He didn’t swim, so we taught him how to swim. He didn’t have sea legs, so we built his sea legs. Acting happened the same way.

The whole shooting schedule was shot in [story] order, so what was happening in shooting was parallel to what was happening in Pi’s life, drifting across the Pacific with the tiger.  I think that in some ways, performance and acting happen best way in the purest form; that’s when the person believes what he’s in.

Suraj is an incredible talent. I tested him, I trusted him, and I trusted that if we followed him, we could find the movie.

What was in him initially that made you think of Pi?

It was [those] soulful deep looking eyes; he looked very smart. And then I tested him – I asked him to tell a long story, the second story in the movie.  I asked him to tell it as if it was really something that happened to him.  Halfway into the storytelling, he started to cry. He couldn’t pull himself out of the situation; he was obsessed by the situation.  He’d never acted before… I couldn’t believe it.

The challenge for him was keeping his energy up physically and emotionally – how did you deal with that?

I was coaching him along the way, and whatever was the most important task during this period of time, we tried to hit it.  It’s about survival, so genuinely, we were going through that.  If it was about maintaining his sanity, (that’s where he gets spiritual towards the end) then we would shoot in order so he could lose weight along the way… and that’s not easy.   But he went along with that.

Then he had to have a look that was spiritual – gaunt and hollow, but very alive. I stopped people talking to him – nobody was allowed to talk to him.  He had to live in silence.  I gave him a lot of spiritual music to listen to, and he just transcended into a different state. Of course, I watched him very carefully, charting him, so he was not going crazy.

But when I think about it, Suraj is such a tremendous talent – I think that in his previous life he must have been a good actor. So I just sort of awakened him to what he used to know already. The whole process is spiritual; when you believe something, when you put so much trust in one person, and him to himself, things will happen naturally. You just have to embrace that.

It’s a stunningly beautiful film, with great 3D, and it can now be enjoyed at home on equipment that provides just a fine a viewing experience. How do you feel about that?

At home you probably don’t need glasses, which is a good thing. Of course, when you watch it at home you’re more private – it’s not the same thing as sharing it with a crowd in the theatre.  But it’s a very private, more contemplative experience. Hopefully, more emotional also.

Are there any deleted scenes that will be a part of the home entertainment package?

Oh yeah – there are five or six deleted scenes and sequences. Even the tiger in the water was already done. But there were significant scenes that got deleted for the flow of emotion, for one reason or another.  I think they’re significant. I won’t put anything in that I think is redundant. But something that is significant to the whole movie that might not have made it into the movie, I’ll put in.

Was the movie changed greatly by taking them out in the first place?

Well, most of them belong to the voyage; it’s a longer voyage and when you have those scenes in, it’s more of a survival story. But the movie is not about the survival story.  It has a philosophical twist to the end, so you have to treat it more like a story-story instead of a survival experience.  But I think a lot of the details are wonderful details in life, as experienced on the sea. Not so much for the sake of telling a story.

How much pride do you take in the performance of Richard Parker?

I’m very proud of it – I’m proud of the effort we put into it. The computer can do a lot for us, but it’s still our heart, our projection of ourselves, and our respect for nature; it’s artistic work. I’m very proud – not of me having the heart, but hundreds of artists working along with me. We all devoted our lives to creating this character, and I think he came to life, and we’re all very proud of it.

How has Blu Ray changed your viewing and collecting habits, as a film fan?

I totally embrace Blu Ray – it’s just better quality.  In some ways it doesn’t have that rough feeling as when you watch a regular movie; it’s very defined. But I enjoy the fine details. A lot of the movies I’ve seen in the movie theatre, or on a regular TV screen, I will then find new things in when I watch on Blu Ray, and I think that is wonderful.

Life Of Pi out now on 3D, Blu-ray and DVD.

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