Ang Lee has a great laugh. But it's a little nervous on this particular Monday afternoon, as he wonders aloud whether audiences will make the leap to his latest film, "Life of Pi."
Yann Martel's bestselling, award-winning novel charted an incredible adventure shared at sea by a tiger and a boy named Pi. It's an adventure that explores faith and the role of storytelling in understanding existence. As such, it is material perfectly matched to the visual and intellectual gifts that allow Lee to stand apart from his directorial peers.
An Oscar-winner for "Brokeback Mountain," Lee recently conceded to the Weekly that "smart" can be a liability.
"To be honest with you, that's the biggest challenge of making this movie. It's pretty impossible to make ... an expensive movie for what it is," he said. "They have to now reach the shopping mall and big release date and all that. But just the anticipation: It's a big pressure. It has to be mainstream."
"In some ways," Lee added, "the economic side and the artistic side seem like their relationship is like pi: Considered irrational, they don't meet." And while Lee frets about living up to the expectations of the book's admirers, his film is a dynamic but faithful adaptation that continues to pose big questions.
It's a challenge Lee embraced, with a healthy mix of confidence and humility. "My role, I think, as much as the book, is to provide a platform so people can talk about the irrational ... I need to provide a space. Not so full of ourselves. There's a space for people to ... talk. And I think if that happened, it'd be a beautiful thing. What movies can do for us, you know? What stories can do for us, or religion.
"But, ultimately, I don't think any religion can argue that religion's organized. It's artificial, such as art. There's a god inside here or up there; we don't know. And our emotional attachment to it and feel a need to rationalize it, reason about it, talk about it, it's like Pi's love to the tiger. It's a one-way street. It's unrequited. We can only guess, we can devote, we can do whatever we want." Lee laughed. "The tiger doesn't look back at you. You have to take that premise."
Lee gets the most out of 17-year-old star Suraj Sharma, who learned to swim, studied survival tactics and read Camus for the part. ("He's a raw talent, a real talent," Lee said.) But the real star of "Life of Pi" may be Lee's storied cinematic technique, which here takes a bold leap into 3D.
If the audience is "into it," he said. "then the CG works, 3D works, your format works, your wisdom works."
He chuckled. "After 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,' I did the 'Hulk,' and ... I was at a stage I thought I could do anything. Plus, I had the excuse of the comic-book panels and stuff, so I really exercised that. That movie wasn't really a hit, so it got overlooked a lot, I think, in terms of what I tried to do. My inner Hulk: artistically what I tried to do. But this time, I think, with 3D, actually I have a better chance."