Ang Lee films the unfilmable in 'Life of Pi'

Interview • Director talks about narrative and the 'naive' choice to shoot in 3-D.
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A lot of filmmakers have thought that Yann Martel's novel Life of Pi, a fantastic survival tale of an Indian teen shipwrecked in a lifeboat with a vicious tiger, was unfilmable.

Even the movie's director, Ang Lee, thought so.

"I remember thinking, 'This will never be made into a movie,' " Lee said in a recent phone interview to promote "Life of Pi," which opens in theaters nationwide on Wednesday, Nov. 21.

Lee — whose films range from the kung-fu spectacle of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" to the intimate heartbreak of "Brokeback Mountain" — said he found Martel's novel "fascinating, mindboggling. … It's vividly written, especially the ocean part. But I [thought] it will be technically pretty impossible. And it has an unsettling ending, which is not usually how a movie would go."

He put the idea aside, but "once in a while the movie would show up in my head," he said. "I kept thinking about how to crack this thing."

Lee and screenwriter David Magee ("Finding Neverland") worked to put a structure to the movie's narrative — in part by having the story of teen Pi (played by newcomer Suraj Sharma) told by his older self (played by the veteran Indian actor Irrfan Khan) to a journalist (Rafe Spall).

Martel's book speaks in "a very mature voice, even though it's about a 16-year-old Indian boy," Lee said.

To get the look right, Lee said he studied different ways to employ visual effects to create the tiger named Richard Parker onto the screen. He also found a water tank in his native Taiwan where he could film the ocean scenes of Pi's survival story.

And, to top it off, he struck upon the idea of filming the movie in 3-D, "which was very naive," he admitted. This was before director James Cameron had broken and rewritten the visual rules of 3-D with "Avatar." But even then Lee believed "maybe with an extra dimension, people would give [the fantastical story] more allowance."

Working with 3-D cameras proved difficult.

"It's like operating a refrigerator," Lee said. "The equipment is clumsy, the projection is problematic. … When you're shooting a winter movie, on water, it fogs up."

Also, the experts told him the 3-D equipment is delicate, and "we took it out, banging around, to make a water movie. And we took it through India," Lee said.

There's still the question of whether audiences — used to the illusion of depth in 2-D films — will adjust to 3-D images. "It's a film language that's not established," Lee said.

In the end, "Life of Pi" will rise or fall not on Lee's technical prowess (which is considerable), but on his ability to make viewers connect with Pi's story.

And while Pi's story often focuses on faith — the young Pi becomes a connoisseur of religions — Lee said, "to me, it is not such a story that makes you believe in God, but a story that talks about the importance of storytelling."