Ang Lee, 'Life of Pi' Director, Talks Culture Shock, Anxiety And Why His Films Fit Together

Is Ang Lee The Most Diverse Director Of All Time?
This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows director Ang Lee on the set of "Life of Pi." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox)
This film image released by 20th Century Fox shows director Ang Lee on the set of "Life of Pi." (AP Photo/20th Century Fox)

NEW YORK -- Ang Lee's best films begin with an initial calmness, a tranquility, which inevitably breaks open and gives way to desire and explosive emotional revelations. In "Brokeback Mountain," two soft-spoken sheep herders unearth a much deeper connection on a quiet mountainside, while in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the characters speak solemnly, before an epic fight takes them soaring up into the trees like birds.

It's a quality that likely lives within Lee, as well. Meeting with The Huffington Post at a hotel bar in midtown Manhattan on a recent Tuesday morning, the acclaimed director was running on only a few hours' sleep following a press tour of Asia, but he was still immeasurably quiet and patient, happy to answer questions.

"We're about to have some very full days," he said softly, smiling. "It will be very intense."

If Lee and his films possess a rare balance, it may be because he has so much experience reconciling extremes. After a conservative upbringing in Taiwan, he was transformed by his encounter with fast-paced, conflict-oriented American culture. The tension between those two realities has animated every one of his films, starting with 1992's "Pushing Hands."

Since then, Lee has taken on everything from Jane Austen, to the Hulk, to dark family dramas, to Kung Fu, to gay cowboys, to a comedy about the origins of Woodstock. Now, with "Life of Pi," he has adapted a bestselling and beloved book about a boy lost at sea with a live tiger. The film serves up cutting-edge special effects, developed over the course of 10 years, and is already generating awards buzz for the Oscar-winning director.

Lee knows his unorthodox oeuvre is hard to pin down, but he says there's one unifying factor: him.

"No matter how widely spread out the films are, how different, you still are you," he explained. "You still give every bit of you to a movie."

Holding his hands out wide, he described his filmography in autobiographical terms. "It's like drawing a giant mural. There's different story lines, different things in there, but it's your growth. It's your life."

Lee admits that he has grown significantly since he first arrived in the US more than 30 years ago, fresh from his mandatory military service in Taiwan. He was 23 then and wanted to be an actor. He studied theater at the University of Illinois, but his self-described "bad English" and feeling of culture shock made it difficult to find his footing.

"Studying here was eye-popping to me," Lee said. "I grew up pretty peacefully, in that Eastern way. You easily solve problems, believe in harmony. Reduce conflicts, take orders until one day you give orders."

But in American theater classes, he was trained to focus on the conflicts -- to "explode" them out. "Exert your opinion and then clash," he said. "I feel like all of my characters now take this congested situation, they clash, and from there you purge yourself."

Lee remembers reading about communism as a student and seeing it from the American perspective for the first time. Everything he thought he knew seemed backwards.

"After all these years, to read this book, and we're the bad guys?" he said, laughing. "That really turned me upside down."

He spent his first few years in America being turned "upside down." Since acting was no longer an option -- he says he couldn't speak his lines believably in English -- he turned to film directing, where he could make "sight and sound" his primary vocabulary. He submitted a few Super 8 films to the graduate film program at NYU and was accepted. One of his classmates turned out to be another acclaimed director with a unique style (and identical last name): Spike Lee.

At NYU, studying film, Lee says he finally felt comfortable. He had a voice, and knew immediately he was meant to be a filmmaker. But upon graduation, he again struggled to find his place, and it was six "anxious" years before he scored his first big directing job.

"My wife worked. I didn't. I was cooking at home, writing, taking care of the kids," he said.

He knew he wanted to be a director, so he avoided taking another job that could trap him forever.

"Most of the time I didn't do anything," he said. "I was just waiting, with anxiety. I guess I couldn't invest my full energy in anything else besides directing. I was a PA, the worst PA. I'd do assistant editing, terrible. Waiting on tables, terrible. I believed directing was only thing I could do."

No directing projects fell into his lap, so he wrote a few screenplays himself. "Pushing Hands" and "The Wedding Banquet," Taiwanese films that Lee shot in America, got the attention of American producers, who then entrusted him with Jane Austen's "Sense and Sensibility," even though his own grasp of English was still far behind his cast and crew's.

"I don't think any English directors wanted to do Jane Austen," Lee joked. "So they gave it to me."

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Lee. He started fielding more offers than he could handle, and he was able to get his pick of the litter. Now, having seen his share of disappointments (see 2003's "Hulk") and spectacular successes (see "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Brokeback Mountain," for which he won his Oscar) Lee can safely say he never knows what he's doing until it's done.

"You'll always turn out something unexpected," he said. "If there's something that can be formulated, regulated, give you security, then nobody would lose money. Every movie would be successful. And that's certainly not the case."

Now, with "Life of Pi," he has taken on a project that at least two other major directors couldn't manage to reel in. Both M. Night Shyamalan and Alfonso Cuaron tried and failed to tackle Yann Martel's bestselling 2001 novel. Lee's approach was "more expensive than anyone else proposed," he said, but it earned the trust of the studio and producers, giving him a chance to helm his most intricate, CGI-laden project to date.

Despite the film's technical wizardry, he insists it's as "handcrafted" as any of his previous projects, and that he went through each element of CGI "pixel by pixel." But he says that while the effects were clearly important, even moreso than the actors at times, he had to remember that "Life of Pi" is just the story of a boy and a tiger. If the movie doesn't work on a narrative level, he said, the effects won't work either.

Thus far, the reviews have been largely positive, with many praising the film as a leap forward both for CGI technology and for moviemaking in general. Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter wrote that "meticulous care is evident in every aspect of the film," and Justin Chang of Variety called it "exquisitely beautiful."

Lee said he still has no idea if what he's done is award-worthy or even how audiences will respond. The movie is what it is. More importantly, it's done.

"I don't think anybody can ever say they're comfortable. Even the most confident there is, you go into a movie, and you never know how people will respond to your heart and soul," he said. "So for me, I might as well take the biggest risk."

Clarification: An earlier reference to Lee's military service has been amended.

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