In 2005, Ang Lee became the first Asian-American to win the Academy Award for best director for “Brokeback Mountain.” His newest film is “The Life of Pi,” an adaptation of Yann Martel’s Booker Prize-winning novel about a young boy stranded at sea with a Bengal tiger. We talk to Ang Lee about adapting novels to film, and about his past works including “The Ice Storm” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
On His First Reaction to the Book "Life of Pi"
When I first read it, I didn't think it should be made into a movie. It'd be too expensive to do it justice. Just the economic side and the artistic side.It's like the irrational number pi, it would go on and on, they would never meet. But then I thought maybe if I add another dimension, such as 3-D, maybe it'll happen. That was kind of a silly thought. But I did think of that, I did think sometimes things are so unusual that nobody knows what to do or how to control it, and maybe you can think and work out of the frame. So that's one of those things. It's been haunting. I'm not going to say this is the best book I've ever read, but it's haunting, but it has elements that [are] very inspiring. It's mind-boggling, it's so unsettling that I feel I want to do something about it.
On Filming in 3-D
Like anything new, you don't quite trust it. I didn't know if I could trust the new illusion of 3-D. I thought, from my research, "I think it'll do water really well." You know it's very hard to sit through a movie with a boy and a tiger on the Pacific Ocean, and we don't have Tom Hanks…
I think a new media, a new sensation might bring you up to the state [where] you're thinking about the subject matter of faith and all that. After all, I think it's something new — it's a new cinematic media. I don't think it should be totally compared to 2-D. Is it better or worse? It's just it's own thing. I'm glad I [got] a chance to work on it. It's clumsy to work with, the projection's not perfect yet, but [we're just] in the beginning [of] learning about it. We'll explore it. I hope the audience [will] come along with us.
On What Attracted Him to "Brokeback Mountain"
At the gut level it moved me. There's nothing further away from my life experience than Wyoming gay cowboys, so why was I crying at the end of the short story when I read it? So that's a mystery, and that's the mystery in Brokeback Mountain, and again, that's haunting, and it's challenging. I really wanted to make that movie, so I cannot really rationalize why I wanted, you know — in an interview like this I have to rationalize, articulate why I do certain things, but when it happened, I didn't know, and at the end of making the movie, I didn't know either. It's just [that] I want to do it.
So that short story — even before I read the script, that short story made me want to make that movie. [It haunted] me for about three years before I [decided] to make the leap. I think it's just a human, very human story, very profound.
On the Range of His Films
I didn't have a master plan 20 years ago when I started, and I didn't have a checklist, but different things grab me, and I think in marriage we have to stay loyal, but in artistic media and approach — I don't think we need it. I like fresh things, I'm an avid filmmaker. I would like to go to a forever film school…
People will pigeon hole you, they'll give you [the] same material, and you have to fight against it, and every time you have to go out there to prove that you can do that genre.
On the Under-Representation of the Asian-American Experience
Very simply, we're the minority of the minorities, just the sheer number's a lot smaller. I feel like I want to talk to you the way I talk to my son who just graduated from college and wanted to be an actor. I told him how difficult it is. Asian film has Asian film thing in Asia, and here we're minorities, and this is what I told my son: if you want a good part, you have to write it yourself.I think we have many talented actors out there struggling to get a good part, but that's pretty passive if you're waiting for a good part, and that's not going to happen quite [often], just based on marketing, just the sheer number of our existence is smaller – a lot smaller than the African-American community, or the Latin-American community. That's just facts, you have to deal with that.
If you have to change it, if you want to change it, we have to create our own material. Not only our ethnic living experience… you have to create something that relates to the audience, to everybody, broaden your experience, make the humanity that speaks.
I think Asians actually right now have a good chance, because people pay attention [to] the rise of Asia right now, people are interested in the textures, the uniqueness that we can bring up, but you have to touch that universality to bring them in… I think we need more writers to change that, and we are minorities, we have to work harder to be seen — that's just life, and things will change in the future, I hope. It is changing. From my career, the last 20 years, I see huge changes.
On Common Themes in His Films
I think the subject matter of loss of innocence is always important to me. You have an idea when you’re young, and then you deal with real negotiations through real life, and something’s lost and you try, you resist to grow up, and things change. You try to adapt, and [try to determine] what is the right thing to do, what is the wrong thing, you know. That sort of debate is always in my movies. A sense of insecurity and missing, whether it’s a comedy or a tragedy, and I use family drama a lot because, in my personal life, that’s where I see things change in life. I see a beginning, middle, not necessarily end, but a process. So I’ve described that feeling quite a bit.
On Turning Books into Movies
Even though you want to be loyal to the book, you have to change [it to] make it happen. They're by nature, very different.
Ang Lee, director of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," "Brokeback Mountain," and most recently, "The Life of Pi"