The premiere of Ang Lee’s 3D spectacular Life of Pi kicked off the 50th New York Film Festival Friday night at Lincoln Center. To a packed audience that included Sopranos creator David Chase, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Peter Sarsgaard, Sting and wife Trudie Styler, Lee said from the podium, "I am a New York filmmaker. It doesn’t get any better than this."
To that he added some "classic" pieces of advice in the film business "like never make a movie featuring kids, water, or 3D." Yet he defied all the rules and said, that was because, "I had to tell this story. I had to take the challenge."
Lee introduced Yann Martel, the author whose 2001 bestseller -- about a young Indian boy who is marrooned in a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger in the Pacific Ocean for 227 days -- inspired the film. He also introduced the film’s 19 year-old star, Suraj Sharma, who is making his film debut.
Although Lee said he was still "tweaking the film" and that he still was "two weeks from delivering the final cut," it was hard to see how the 3D film could be improved; the audience gasped at an opening scene when hummingbirds seemed to come out of the screen and beat their wings above their heads.
The day after the premiere, the Taiwan-born director appeared at an HBO Directors Dialogues and talked about his career, the making of Life of Pi, and working with Heath Ledger, who starred in Mr. Lee’s Oscar-nominated 2005 film, "Brokeback Mountain." (In a controversial upset, the film lost to Paul Haggis’ Crash although Lee received the best-directing Oscar.)
Lee said of the previous night’s premiere of "Life of Pi," that his overriding feeling was that he "was relieved." He added, "I didn’t have time to really enjoy it."
Asked what gave him confidence to feel he could tell the story, Lee explained, "I was never confident."
He recalled reading the book when it first came out. "I remember thinking nobody in their right mind would" make a movie from it. "It’s a philosophical book, cinematic even, fascinating, mind-boggling, but too expensive. There wouldn’t be enough money to do it."
"It’s a project that haunted me," he said. Four or five years later Fox 2000 Pictures producer Elizabeth Gabler approached Mr. Lee about making the film. Even then, he had to work out logistical problems, like "the right narrator," let along the technical challenges of recreating an ocean and putting a boy on a lifeboat with a tiger. He thought about making it in 3D although he knew nothing about the technique. "It’s a long decision process," he said about finally tackling the film.
Looking at his work, the 57-year-old director said, "I built my career like a prolonged film school. I just love to learn how to make movies." He learned from all the great filmmakers he said. "Hong Kong has some of the smartest filmmakers, and how about England with their dry sense of humor?" When he was 18, he considered becoming an actor. "The first time I stood on stage I was electrified." He came to the U.S. to attend the University of Illinois in Champaign in 1979 and later he went to NYU Film School. He couldn’t speak English – and said he wasn’t a good actor – so he decided to direct. He found that "to tell a story with a camera was so easy." Something clicked.
Mr. Lee’s first three terrific movies were in Chinese: "Pushing Hands," "The Wedding Banquet" and "East Drink Man Woman." His fourth film, "Sense and Sensibility" in 1995, put him on the map.
"When I did ‘Sense and Sensibility,’ I spoke broken English," Mr. Lee said. "After that movie I thought if I can do this I can do anything."
Mr. Lee noted that making movies takes a long time. "It’s a long process of learning, of adapting" but that "I don’t need to be an expert on anything." As the director, he "just needs to act like I know" when he’s asked to make decisions. "The movie wants to go certain ways and you have to listen to that." He added, "I pray to the movie god."
Although Mr. Lee will go anywhere to make a film, he considers himself to be an independent New York filmmaker, since he lives and does post-production work here. "I’m in kind of a strange place," he said. "I’m main stream there in Asia - not just in Taiwan- and art house here."
He chooses his film projects for different reasons. "Ride With the Devil," his 1999 Civil War movie, had a subject that interested him. "America is a country that did not come together by history or blood," he said. "It comes together by an idea, so that’s something very special. I like that idea, so I think all my American films, even ‘The Hulk’ is a study on how I feel about America"
Mr. Lee broke into the mainstream with "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," which won four Academy Awards, including Best Foreign Film. He grew up with those movies he said when asked why he wanted to make the film. "I was 45 when I made the movie, so it was like I was dealing with my childhood fantasies and real-life crisis. "
Later in 2003 he made "The Hulk." He was asked if he was amazed at the overwhelming success of what Marvel has done with the superhero movies like "The Avengers." He said he respected the comic book, but "when I made ‘The Hulk,’ it wasn’t a genre movie. I made the movie like a psychodrama."
He considered his successful 2005 film "Brokeback Movie" as strictly an art house, indie film. "I just wanted to make a movie about love," he said. "When I saw it at the shopping mall I started getting nervous."
Mr. Lee recalled shooting in the beautiful Canadian mountains of southern, Alberta. "It was a wonderful shooting experience for me," he said. He described Heath Ledger, the Oscar-nominated star of the film, as an "intense actor, superb."
In one scene Ledger had to hit a wall with his fist. By the third take his fist was bleeding. The director needed to make an adjustment and do one more shot but he was concerned about Mr. Ledger, who was not only bleeding but also "heaving." The actor wanted to reshoot the scene. "Let’s do it," he kept saying. "The fourth take, that is one of my favorite shots in my whole career," Mr. Lee said. "Tumbleweeds in the background. It’s a perfect shot."
As to what his next project would be, Lee said he’s open to almost anything, except "a movie that doesn’t have any meaning."