When Ang Lee was nine years old, his parents abandoned him in a typhoon to go and watch a movie. The film was Liang Shanbo yu Zhu Yingtai, a Chinese opera about doomed young lovers. Lee’s family saw it nine times, but he understood the pull of cinema best on the night he wasn’t allowed to go. “The power went down, the wind was howling, but the theatre was still open. They said ‘let’s see that movie’ and left us alone in the dark,” he remembers. “We were very young. It was crazy.”
Each time he saw Li Hanxiang’s film, he sobbed uncontrollably, but he kept going back, addicted to the rush of feelings. “We were obsessed. You want to experience that emotional ride again and again.” All his life, Lee has been chasing that thrill, trying to make movies that consume other people the way they consume him.
His latest, Life of Pi, is an ocean to dive into: a three-dimensional deep where astonishing, hyper-real images are commonplace. A breath-taking swim through the pools of Paris and Pondicherry immerses us in his imagination. When a cyclone hits the ship carrying Pi and his family from India to Canada, it’s terrifying to be on deck.
Most of the movie is spent at sea, after the wreck, with the resourceful, zealously agnostic boy and his only companion, a Bengal tiger. Yann Martell’s Booker Prize-winning novel is a spiritual journey in which nothing much happens and there is only one human character, prologue and epilogue aside. Directors Alfonso Cuaron, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and M. Night Shyamalan had all walked away before Lee took the project on.
“Very often I wanted God’s help, just like Pi,” Lee says. “I felt adrift. Sometimes there would be a breakthrough, we’d survive, only to go to another dark place. It was a long time before I saw the shore and when I did I felt very fragile, just like in the book.”
The film took two years and $120 million to make. At one point, it almost fell through, as the studio panicked that it was taking blockbuster risks for an art-house return. “For the first time in my career, I thought I was losing it because they were dropping it,” Lee says. “But I just refused to let it happen.”
Lee is the first Asian to win a Best Director Oscar, for Brokeback Mountain. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the second most popular subtitled film ever in the USA. His early movies Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat, Drink, Man, Woman were all box office and critical hits. But to a surprising extent, his career has been shaped by failure.
His father disapproved from the start. Lee Sheng was the only member of his family to escape the Maoist purges in China, by fleeing to Taiwan. As headmaster of a prestigious school, he was disappointed when Lee showed more interest in acting than academia, but reluctantly agreed to send him to the University of Illinois to study theatre.
All Lee’s early movies feature children struggling to please their fathers in a modern, global society where patriarchy is under siege. The relationship has been a source of anguish for Lee, but he likes to observe that after his biggest Hollywood flop, Hulk (at heart, a drama about twisted blood ties) it was his dad who roused him from depression and told him to make another film. Lee Sheng died two weeks later, meaning he never got to see Brokeback Mountain, or the ultimate validation that it represented for his son.
Lee’s career didn’t take off until he was thirty-seven years-old. After completing film school at New York University, he spent six years in the suburbs, living off his wife’s salary, looking after their son and trying to get scripts financed. When he walked into Good Machine productions, in 1990, he told the owners, James Schamus and Ted Hope “if I don’t make a movie soon, I think I’ll die.” Schamus has been his creative partner ever since. The Wedding Banquet, which had been rejected as too Chinese for American audiences and too gay for China, turned a huge profit on both sides of the Pacific.
Even now, as one of the most bankable directors in the world, Lee is ready to laugh at himself and dressed to disappear, without a trace of Hollywood vanity. He hates promotional interviews – “it can really grind you” – but accepts it as a necessary compromise.
“People think that making a big budget movie is a sell-out and independent films are noble and you’re in control. That’s not true,” Lee says. “When it’s low budget you don’t have the freedom to do whatever you want. With both Hulk and this one, I was in the zone of ultimate freedom: nobody knows how to control it, so they pretty much let you do what you want to do and you have money to go wherever your imagination can take you.”
Lee has summoned transformative performances from young, unheralded actors including Tobey Maguire, Kate Winslet, Christina Ricci, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, but he is notoriously hard to work with. His first note to Winslet on the shoot for Sense & Sensibility was “You will do better.” Hugh Grant nicknamed him The Brute.
Partly, this stems from an obsessive desire to control every aspect of his films. “I have to create that culture to own it,” he told New Yorker critic John Lahr. For American Civil War epic Ride With The Devil, this meant filming in Missouri year round to capture the changing seasons. For The Ice Storm, he re-created suburban 1970s Connecticut to the last fibre of polyester. For Hulk, he donned the motion-capture suit himself, so that computers could map his rage.
The challenge for Life Of Pi was to create a believable tempest in a 1.7 million gallon water tank. Worried that “Hollywood know-it-alls” wouldn’t share his spirit of adventure, Lee insisted on making the movie in Taiwan.
He built a visual effects studio near his hometown and hired a team of young designers to go through the learning process with him, burying himself in the film and its daunting technical challenges to the exclusion of everything else. “When you’re in so much pain and frustration, you can fall into depression, but the next thing you know, something comes out of it,” he says.
Lee doesn’t read scripts or discuss his future projects while he’s working. By all accounts, he barely even sees his family. He will say that his next movie is likely to be in 3D “if Pi is successful,” because it will have shown that the technology does not have to be reserved for cartoons and explosions.
“It’s new, we’re not used to it, so it’s a fresh experience. That reaches for innocence and opens up the chance for examination of what you’re seeing, which is what the book requires,” he says. “When you pull the character out of the screen, you have the sense that he’s with you, so you have the feeling that he’s with you too.
“The technical side is so difficult that it can make you forget that it’s in the service of emotion, but I never really worry about that because I know it’s what drives me,” he says. “You’re so exhausted, so devoted, that it feels spiritual. Every shot seems to have meaning.”