Ang Lee: The Illusionist

Movies Features Ang Lee

Lest it seem like a stereotype to explore the particularly Buddhist qualities of perhaps the world’s best known Asian director, perhaps it’s best to start with a story from Lee’s time filming The Ice Storm, his 1997 masterpiece starring Kevin Kline, Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Tobey Maguire and Elijah Wood. “We did a whole Buddhist ceremony before we started The Ice Storm,” Weaver recalls. “We stood on this clearing, on a hill. We all had incense, and the table was piled high with these red-wrapped fruits and whatever. Then we bowed to each of the four directions and he yelled ‘Big Luck!’ Then we all hugged each other and ate some of these—I ate an Easter Egg, but I know Kevin ate sort of an orange. I feel like that started our journey in a mysterious and profound way.”

So with all due respect to former Lakers coach Phil Jackson, it’s fair to explore whether Ang Lee might, in fact, be the true Zen Master. His new film Life of Pi, the long-awaited adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, delves into deeper waters.

“It’s in the book.”

Of course, the old-souled director himself brushes off the description. “We’re not philosophers; we’re filmmakers,” he insists. As for the heavy philosophical questions raised in Life of Pi, he simply points out, “It’s in the book. The philosophy of what the book is about is pretty easy to grasp. I don’t mean easy easy, but it’s incredibly clear to me. How you show that [in such a way as] to elicit great thoughts and discussions with your friends—that’s the harder part. To make it come to life. Unlike words, symbols are indirect stimulation. With movies, what you see is what it is, and it’s really large. It’s photo-realistic. You have to believe in it, so that’s our biggest challenge.”

Adapting even a short book like Life of Pi into a less-than-two-hour movie is an epic feat in itself. “You have to just bear in mind that there’s going to be a lot of book lying on the floor when you’re done,” says David Magee, the screenwriter. “Our job was to find those things that were most appealing to the audience—and most provocative, most interesting to us. And to find a way to thread through those [elements] a story for the screen. You have to have a certain respectful disregard for the text because the only way you can be faithful to it is to find those things that sum it up. That distill it. If you concentrate too much on capturing everything, you’ll get nothing.”

Lee was equally conscious of another danger: If you cut or combine too much, you run the risk of alienating fans of the book. He says the biggest challenge of Life of Pi wasn’t the 3D technology or working with a young actor or shooting on (and under) water; it was simply “to make a big mainstream movie out of a philosophical book that’s so beloved. The material really attracts me. It examines what I do, which is create illusions, so for me the hardest is to find the cinematic language that includes all the philosophy but on the whole is that of an adventure story. It is a movie about faith and hope, so to keep a balance, that is very, very challenging for a filmmaker.”

Still, even Lee himself waxes poetic when asked about the centrality of water as a symbol in Life of Pi. “On the surface,” he says, “because it’s a movie about faith, a young boy soaking all his innocence through organized religions and society, then he’s thrown into the, you know, big ocean. So in some ways, water is like the desert. It’s a test of his faith, of his strength and everything he goes through on the journey. As a filmmaker, I like to see the water that carries life. It’s a representation of nature and emotions, of anything that has to do with water. Even rain or mist or cloud formations that represents some kind of mood that Pi is going through. So, I like to use the mood, the transparency or semi-transparency of blocking and the reflection, which is a nightmare in 3D. It polarizes things, but we will overcome that obstacle. I use all of that as a way of explaining life. Where you look at the sky, the air—that’s heaven and god and death. To me, sometimes it’s blurry. You don’t see the horizon—they blur together. Sometimes they separate. Sometimes they reflect each other.”

“New ways to tell old stories”

Finding a cinematic language for such a fantastical story inevitably involves a great bit of artifice. But that didn’t bother Lee. “We always need to pretend to reach the truth,” he muses. “And technology certainly is a way of creating illusion; it’s a grand illusion. So I keep doing it. I keep finding new ways to go to the oldest place. To the youngest place.”

For this film, that meant 3D. It’s a choice that Lee wouldn’t have made as recently as five years ago, as the technology wouldn’t have existed to do what he wanted. “My vision? No,” he insists. “Some other vision, probably. And I’m still a novice in 3D. I did it very carefully. I learned very diligently. But after all, we’re just discovering about the new cinematic language. Not only effects, but dramatically where you put things. I think that’s just the beginning. Because it’s fresh, I think it’s a plus. Because that might open our mind.”

It wasn’t the easiest choice to make, however. “It’s a difficult challenge,” he says, “because we don’t know too much about it. The equipment is clumsy, and the audience is still learning to take that in. All our lives we train in 2D. When it comes to a motion picture, it’s flat. We create depth through a flat screen. That’s just something we’re used to, and it’s so very sophisticated already. But 3D is something different.”

Lee remains philosophical about his use of the new technology. “I’m an avid film student,” he says. “I would like to see my career as an extension of film school. Now I get to learn 3D. How good is that? Somebody’s paying my tuition, and since the movie is almost unfilm-able, I got this naïve, double-negative thought. Like, if I add one more obstacle, maybe it’s possible. Add one more dimension, maybe I can take that leap of faith. At least by giving it a new cinematic language, people might open up, [rediscover] the innocence of watching a movie and the theatrical experience.”

A Calm in the Storm
Telling simple stories that reveal philosophical truths and restore an innocent state of mind—it all sounds like a very Zen project. Those who have worked with him see him as a master, of sorts. “I call Ang ‘Doa Yan,’” says Suraj Sharma, the 17-year-old star of Life of Pi. “In Taiwan, you respectfully call a director ‘Doa Yan.’ It’s just how I call him—I just can’t call him anything else.”

“The set of Ice Storm was incredibly chaotic,” remembers Sigourney Weaver, who starred in the film. “And this was really as independent films were just starting so it was a funded film—we had a budget, but you wouldn’t think that it was that professional. It was just chaotic on the set. And usually you would hear a director off in the corridor meeting with a producer or something. And always on the set of Ice Storm, Ang would be standing there in his parka, kind of like a 10-year-old boy, just sort of looking a bit bewildered. Not looking at all like the person who was in charge of this whole creation. He just looked kind of, you know, kind of in limbo there. He wasn’t being the big authoritative leader. He was just waiting for the right moment to let everything happen and unfold like a beautiful flower opening.”

That turned out to be just the gentle guidance the star-studded cast needed. “I felt that that he was very protective of the material,” Weaver continues.” He wasn’t caught up in all this other crap that happens when you make a movie—talking to the studio and planning the release and this and then that overseas blah, blah, blah. He was pure. He was purely thinking about the scene and what have you. So he purely is aware.”

Michelle Yeoh remembers a similar in-the-moment quality during her work with Lee in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. “I love being an actor, and I love Ang as a director and as a friend. There is not a moment he doesn’t consider every possibility for every person in his frame. He is always engaged, always ready. From prep to production I watched, admired and tried to be close to Ang as much as possible because I wanted to learn, wanted to understand that passion, dedication, discipline and devotion to his creativity. There’s something so pure in Ang, in his talent, his commitment. He is engaging, gentle yet intense, and so, so intelligent.”

A Silent Guidance

Given such accolades from actors he’s worked with, it’s surprising to learn how little Ang actually speaks out loud. “He gives you these ideas or these vibes,” Suraj explains. “It’s really in his eyes, and in the way he talks to you more than what he says. But obviously what he says also really helps. Through the whole thing, it’s quite remarkable.”

Weaver had a similar experience. “He didn’t speak a lot during Ice Storm. He’s not a big talker. I doubt that even now that his English is, I’m sure, fantastic, that he’s a big talker. A lot of it is unspoken, and it’s one of the reasons he’s very careful about choosing his actors. I always felt he was giving me kind of, I don’t know, unspoken direction—with his eyes or with his demeanor.”

Sam Elliott, who appeared in Lee’s Hulk, agrees with Weaver’s assessment. “I don’t think Ang was verbally communicative on a major level at all. He had great faith in his actors. He certainly knew if you were on the right road or not. I think that’s a great way to put it. The way [Weaver] put it. I’m a fan of Ang. He’s a wonderful director, needless to say, but beyond that, he’s a great man.”

Yeoh remembers the impact of Lee’s soft-spoken words in those first days planning Crouching Tiger. “I think I was the first stitch in his tapestry,” she recalls. “In 1997, when I was in L.A. on the publicity campaign for the Bond movie, Ang was in town and explained a dream movie. He wanted to do Sense and Sensibility with martial arts. And as he spoke softly, it was like a Chinese water painting unfolding.”

A Heart So Large

Lee’s big heart extends from his relationships with people into his relationships with the characters that populate his films. His films are notable for their compassion for all their characters, whatever their faults or foibles. “He didn’t judge the characters,” Weaver agrees. “I felt he truly loved my character and empathized with her and with her search—mad as it was and empty as it was and disastrous as it was. That kind of unabashed love from the director who’s sort of the creator, especially in Ang’s pieces, really empowers you to rush headlong into the story in a way that you couldn’t otherwise. You know he’ll take care of you. It’s almost like you can forget what happens to the character; you’re just thinking about the moment.”

Weaver saw that trust rewarded in a small choice in one of the crucial scenes in the film. “My character goes down,” she recalls, “after she comes home from that night. The boy’s door is open. And I started toward the door, because I am a mother, and I started towards the door to open it. And he stopped me and just shook his head. I said, ‘Oh,’ and he said, ‘Too ashamed.’ And I said ‘Yes.’ And so I didn’t open the door. I just checked the door to see if they were both in—and I’m so grateful that he said it in such a way. We didn’t discuss it. It was so clear, of course, that I couldn’t. I couldn’t go in there.”

Sharma also found great comfort from Lee’s warm presence. “If you work with someone as great as Ang, it’s not intimidation. It’s comfort. You feel that if someone can trust you like Ang is, then you just give it all you can and trust him back. Everything will be okay. That’s how I saw it.”

Yeoh recalls a story of her own that reflects Lee’s heart. “I was calling Ang and Bill Kong to inform them with a very heavy heart that I needed knee surgery—I had a bad fall in the last action shot of the action sequence. After months of shooting and waiting two years to do the movie, it would be heartbreaking but I’d understand if he had to change his actor. There was no hesitation: ‘I’ll wait for you,’ he said. ‘Take good care of yourself.’ Ang had told me from the beginning, ‘You are the anchor, the roots of my story.’ Now you understand why I have such great admiration for this man. When we had the emotional scenes, I’d look across the ‘cave’ and see the anguish and tears in his eyes. You know he’s with you every step of the way.”

The Zen Master

In his humility and simplicity, in his calm and in-the-moment presence, in his silence, and in his benevolence, Ang Lee really does embody many of the best qualities of the Buddhist icons he embraces. What Weaver remembers about his approach to the Ice Storm could just as easily be applied to his work as a whole: “It would be so easy to judge these people and turn it into a kind of morality tale. But like a little clockmaker, he sets these people in place. He winds them up and sets them at each other. He knows that in the course of them moving through this landscape, that—I remember him saying—‘the universe will correct it. The universe will correct it.’ Which is a very Buddhist thing to say.”

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