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Director Ang Lee on Life of Pi, Petting Tigers, and His Hulk Regret

Ang Lee. Photo: Corbis

For those who haven’t read the book, Life of Pi is about a boy named Pi who is shipwrecked in the Pacific, his only company for a long time a companion called Richard Parker — a Bengal tiger who was being transported with other zoo animals and shares Pi’s lifeboat. At least, that’s the better version of two possible stories about Pi’s survival, which hits the big screen in a wondrous 3-D rendering courtesy of director Ang Lee, who is already garnering Oscar buzz for the film. Lee chatted with Vulture about surviving at sea, petting tigers, and where he thinks he went wrong with The Hulk.

Yann Martel thanked you for being “crazy” enough to take on his book. Do you think you were crazy?
No, I was just possessed. [Laughs.] The book is inspiring, fascinating, and mind-boggling, and I read it when it first came out and talked about it with my wife and my sons. But when I was first approached to direct it, it seemed like a crazy idea — and the book seduced me into it, because it was a puzzle to crack. It’s an intellectual book, and you have to make it emotional and visual, and without Tom Hanks to help you! [Laughs.]

There are the old adages of never work with children or animals, never shoot on water …
I did all three! [Laughs.]

Plus you worked with a child — a teenager in this case — who couldn’t swim at first. When did you discover that?
After I casted Suraj Sharma. He said, “Oh, yeah. I probably won’t drown.” [Laughs.] So I tested him to see how long he could hold his breath, and it was only for fifteen seconds — and we had shots planned that would require him to do that for a minute long! So he had to learn. But everything else, you look at him and you see he is Pi. I remember, when we were testing him, I asked him to tell the second version of Pi’s story, and to make it real, and about halfway through, he started to tremble and cry. It was heartbreaking.

How deep was the tank? Was Suraj ever in danger of drowning?
About eighteen feet? Four, five meters deep. The wave tank could create long surges like the open ocean, so his raft could act and interact with water before it was digitally extended to the horizon. But he wasn’t going to drown. [Chuckles.]

You consulted with real life shipwreck survivor Steven Callahan. Apparently you asked him to leave you out at sea so you would know what it felt like?
I asked him a couple of times, but he wouldn’t. The first time I visited him, David Magee, the screenwriter, and I went out to Maine to go on the ocean with him, and I asked him to take the sail down so we could go up and down for a while. And then we consulted with him a few more times in Taiwan, and at the time, he was fighting cancer, but he still went. And this time, we sailed out to see the north tip. We went out on a motorboat, just to go up and down on the big ocean for quite a while. I sat at the water level on a step. But we weren’t allowed to be left out there on our own, with no sail, because the waves were too big and it turned out to be too crazy of an idea. The marine guys wouldn’t let us, so we took the speedboat.

Were there ever any Crouching Tiger jokes on set because you were now finally working with actual tigers?
[Laughs.] Yes, and even just last night we were talking about that! I guess the tiger means something to Pi, because it’s his inner self. I see the tiger now as not just his opponent, but also the serious beast side of himself. And the tiger is quite fascinating, because you see yourself in his eyes. You somehow relate to the animal, or it’s an emotional projection. It’s like in the movie — Pi can’t prove it, but he sees something.

Suraj said he wishes he got to pet a tiger. That’s his one regret.
Which one did he want to pet?

Ah, yes. He’s more pettable. Our main tiger was King, who does all the posing and all the swimming, and then some of the scenes when he’s hungry. And when King was sick, we had Jonas. The other two tigers were female — Themis and Minh — and they did the more ferocious scenes, because they’re actually more aggressive than King. But we kept Suraj away from the tigers. There was no tiger on the boat! We did a digital tiger for the shots next to him.

How did doing The Hulk prepare you for this? And what did you think of Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk in The Avengers?
I learned quite a bit about CG from The Hulk, and I wouldn’t have been able to do Life of Pi without that. But it’s easier to create an animal, because there exists a good reference — so a tiger or a hyena is easier than a 2,000-pound rage monster. The hardest thing to do is the weight, not the skin, because there’s no reference for something that size that is agile. And the technology’s improved, so you can have more details with Mark’s Hulk. My problem is that I took the whole thing too seriously. I should have had more fun with it, instead of all the psychodrama! [Laughs.]

What did you think of your son Mason’s turn as Teddy in The Hangover Part II? Do you give him any advice about films to do next?
He’s a Method actor. [Laughs.] I just told him, “Relax! It’s a broad comedy. Just enjoy it.” Because that’s something we have in common — taking things too seriously. He’s trying to make it on his own, and he doesn’t want any of my influence, so he’s suffering like the rest of them.

Ang Lee on Life of Pi and His Hulk Regret