The Hitchcockian photographer and Purchase College graduate Gregory Crewdson once observed that every artist has one story to tell and spends his life telling variations on it. For Ang Lee, that story has been the conflict between head and heart as played out in such cinematic tone poems as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Sense and Sensibility” and “Brokeback Mountain,” for which he won the first of two Oscars as best director. Now Lee, a longtime Larchmont resident, has brought his sense and sensibility to “Life of Pi,” recently released on DVD.
Based on Yann Martel’s best-selling novel, “Life of Pi” is another head-versus-heart tale, that of a young Indian boy caught between the rationality of his father, a zookeeper in French India, and the romanticism of his mother.
“Science can teach us more about what’s out there but not what’s in here,” she says, pointing to her heart.
What’s in Pi’s heart is a love of God that transcends the Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam he explores as a child. That faith – which the older, narrator Pi calls “a house with many rooms” – is tried when the freighter carrying him and his family to a new life in Canada sinks, ultimately leaving Pi and the tiger from the family zoo, improbably named Richard Parker, as the only survivors, adrift in a lifeboat on the Pacific.
For Lee – whose versatility has embraced foreign and domestic films, indies and blockbusters – the movie’s tempestuous sea was not just a technical challenge in a work that had to blend live action and special effects seamlessly. It is a mirror of Pi’s inner torment.
“He’s lost his family,” Lee says in the DVD’s accompanying behind-the-scenes feature, “and he’s spent a long time on the sea and he’s seen the inner beast of the tiger, suffering, scared and not being able to see the inner light of God.”
Though Pi and Richard Parker share a bond – they were, Pi observes somewhat wryly, both raised in a zoo by the same master, Pi’s father – there’s a gulf between them that is never more dramatically realized than in the film’s second storm, where the clouds part, the sun breaks through and Pi experiences the presence of God. He wants to share it with Richard Parker, but the tiger is spent, terrified. He represents only the physical, the visceral, the emotional. He has no higher consciousness. Instead, he is just how Pi’s father had described him years before – an animal, not a friend. And yet, Pi – blending the analytical and intuitive in the beautiful performance of Suraj Sharma – finds the connection between man and beast that is the path to their survival.
Lee and his crew maintained the connection between mind and heart by using 3D technology to serve the story’s emotional richness. The film was first mapped out in previs, or previsualizations – essentially digital storyboards that look like a video game.
“It’s a tour of the virtual set that helps me figure out how the movie would go,” Lee says.
Though much of the live-action stuff was shot in a water tank against a blue screen – with four towers, weighing 80,000 pounds, mounted on gimbals to simulate the shipwreck – most of the menagerie and the special effects were computer-generated.
Lee did use a real hyena in some scenes, but she never interacted with Sharma’s Pi.
“By bringing in a real animal, you set the standard for CGI,” Lee says of the special effects folks. “That’s what they have to match.”
In the end, Lee believes he met that standard. Audiences and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agree. The film has made roughly $584 million and earned Oscars for visual effects, Claudio Miranda’s phosphorescent cinematography and Mychael Danna’s haunting, otherworldly score, along with Lee’s direction.
Clearly, “Life of Pi” has become what Lee says he hoped – “a beautiful movie that moves and entertains audiences around the world.”