As Ang Lee tells it, he was destined for the difficult task of turning Yann Martel's philosophical novel Life of Pi into a film.
"I read the book when it came out and found it mind-boggling," Lee says after a screening of the film at this year's New York Film Festival. "But I remember thinking that no one in their right mind would make a film of it, as it is literature, it is philosophy. Although the book has some cinematic elements, I thought it would be very expensive to adapt and very difficult to achieve, technically speaking. But about four years ago, Fox 2000 Pictures approached me, and said it would be their dream to work with me on it. Little by little, it started to become my destiny, my fate."
It's a good thing the fates were with Lee: the movie stands as one of the thoughtful director's most interesting works. If good cinema, as Jean-Luc Godard said, is defined as research in the form of a spectacle, then Life of Pi is a resounding success. Clever use of 3-D technology makes for spectacular viewing that rivals James Cameron's Avatar, and careful attention to the literary source, by Lee and screenwriter David Magee, means the philosophical nuances of the novel remain. Equally impressive is that the 3-D effects, while big, are never distracting. Instead, they open up the book's confined setting and augment the story.
The story of Life of Pi is essentially a tug of war between a young Indian boy called Pi (played by Suraj Sharma) and a character called Richard Parker. The spin here is that Richard Parker is not a man, but a ferocious Bengal tiger originally captive in Pi's father's zoo in Pondicherry, India. Pi's father decides to relocate the zoo to Canada, and packs all the animals, along with his family, into a ship, Noah's ark-style. But the ship sinks in a storm, and Pi finds himself adrift in a lifeboat - with the hungry tiger as company. The bulk of the movie describes the mental battle that ensues between boy and beast as they try to survive.
Filmmakers don't like constrained locations. Unless you're a master like Alfred Hitchcock, who was adept at opening up small spaces in films such as Rear Window and Rope, they don't usually result in good cinema. Most directors will likely baulk at the idea of shooting a full-length feature set almost exclusively in a small boat. That's where the 3-D technology comes in, says Lee, who uses 3-D to add an extra dimension to expand the setting, so that it never gets boring. "I didn't think the film would be possible in 2-D," he says. "I actually thought about using 3-D before I understood [the technology behind it] properly. I thought it would be a way to add another dimension. We just couldn't have done this as a regular story set on a boat."
The 3-D technology provides the spectacle necessary for a modern Hollywood release, but Lee says he also paid attention to the tiny details of surviving disasters at sea. Martel, the author of the book, used an account called Survive the Savage Sea for his research. That book by Dougal Robertson tells how, in 1972, the Scotsman, his family and a Welsh hitchhiker survived 24 days marooned at sea in a dinghy after their schooner was holed by killer whales.
Lee went one better and found his very own survivor to consult for the film: Steven Callahan, a naval architect who, in 1982, spent 76 days adrift on the Atlantic in a plastic life raft. (Interestingly, Callahan had a copy of a survival manual written by Robertson with him in the life raft.) "Steve wrote a pretty great book about his experiences, called Adrift [ 76 Days Lost at Sea]," says Lee. "When we started thinking about the script, I visited him in Maine with screenwriter David Magee. We talked for days and I ended up taking him to Taiwan with me to act as a consultant. I asked him if what we were doing was right, and if it had the right look.
"He was also our spiritual guru. He told us the details of what you go through when you are adrift at sea, and he was able to give guidance on what happens to your spirit when you are marooned. He was also battling cancer at the time of the shoot. We all cherished him."
In spite of the special effects, Sharma manages to steal the show. The first-time actor, the son of a mathematician, performs way beyond the range of most amateur actors. But he is given a run for his money by Richard Parker, the tiger, whose slyness and ferocity are sometimes balanced by a fear for his survival - although Lee makes sure that anthropomorphic qualities such as compassion are never part of his psychological make-up.
Richard Parker is actually four real tigers, plus some CGI creations. (Lee says he knows a lot about tigers now: he'd even been on a call with a tiger trainer while his film was screening at the New York festival.) "We had four tigers, three of them from France," says Lee. "They had a great trainer, and I learnt a lot from him. Two tigers were female, one was male. The male tiger was called King, and he was a magnificent, gorgeous tiger. Some of the more frightening scenes had to be done by the females, as they were more aggressive than King. King carried himself like a king - he did all the posing and swimming.
"The darker side of the tiger, the one we used to show his hunger, or when he was feeling sick, was a Canadian tiger. You could pat him, you just wanted to hug him."
A vicious hyena also provides some shocks - but Lee says she seemed to like him. "If I touched her she would squeal with delight. It was horrifying," he says, laughing. One of the themes of the film is the unswerving hostility of the wild, so Lee used real creatures to depict their brutal, animal natures. "We wanted to use real tigers as we didn't want to humanise them. We were really trying to recreate God's world here. It also raised the bar for the digital guys - they had to match the real ones in 3-D."
Taiwan-born Lee began his career directing Asian-themed movies such as The Wedding Banquet (1993) and sophisticated drama Eat, Drink, Man, Woman (1994), which was set in Taipei.
Since moving to Hollywood, his imagination has ranged far and wide with films such as Sense and Sensibility (1995), The Ice Storm (1997), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Brokeback Mountain (2005).
Lee was pleased to return to Taiwan to make Life of Pi. "Taiwan is my floating island, my home place, who I am. The film was expensive, so we needed to have Hollywood money to make it. But even with that, it would have been too expensive to make in Los Angeles.
"So I took it to Taiwan. It seemed like a crazy idea, but it wasn't. It was actually a wonderful experience."
Life of Pi is screening now