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The Film-School Student Who Never Graduates: A Profile of Ang Lee, Part Four

Taking Woodstock

Ang Lee says of this film:

After making several tragic movies in a row, I was looking to do a comedy – and one without cynicism. It’s also a story of liberation, honesty, and tolerance – and of a “naïve spirit” that we cannot and must not lose.

Taking Woodstock is the story of Elliot Tiber, a young, gay Jewish man, who has repressed his sexuality and given up his creative and spiritual freedom in a seemingly hopeless attempt to save his parents’ failing, derelict, and debt-ridden motel in upstate New York. When the venue originally selected by the organizers of the 1969 Woodstock music festival rejects their proposal, Elliot steps in and offers the farm of a neighbour instead, hoping that the expected influx of visitors will transform his parents’ business. His expectations, along with the estimated number of festival-goers are exceeded beyond measure.

Elliot’s relationship with his parents, survivors of anti-Jewish pogroms in the Soviet Union, is difficult. His mother is paranoid, angry, and rigid; his father is frustratingly passive. The loving and peaceful vibes of the festival, overwhelming at first as thousands of sexually liberated and uninhibited young people show up more or less on a weekend, transform both Elliot and his parents.  

Taking Woodstock is perhaps the exception to the rule that has governed Ang Lee films since Sense and Sensibility; it is characterized more by the director’s handling of familiar themes – repression and family relationships – than by radical innovation and risk-taking. As always, however, his obsessive attention to detail and his empathy for and psychological probing of characters on the fringe or in distress encourage more than a single viewing of the film.



Life of Pi

Following the relative safety of Taking Woodstock, Lee again ventured into dangerous territory. In The Cinema of Ang Lee: The Other Side of The Screen, Whitney Crothers Dilley points out the many challenges Lee faced in turning Canadian author Yann Martel’s 2002 Booker-Prize-winning novel into a movie:

… long stretches during which nothing happens, as well as the fact that the book is open to many interpretations, literal and metaphorical. In addition, Lee chose to work with 3D technology for the first time, also using CGI, which had plagued him during Hulk. The story is also complex in the telling, involving Indian, French, Japanese, Taiwanese, Mexican, and Canadian cultural elements – the narrative concerns national identity as well as personal identity. Finally, there was the author Yann Martel’s own assertion that the book was “unfilmable.”

Piscine Molitor Patel, named after a Paris swimming pool, is an Indian boy living in the former French city, Pondicherry. Teased by his classmates because his name sounds like “pissing,” the boy shortens it to Pi, effectively ending the teasing by impressing both his peers and his teachers when he writes out the full value of the mathematical pi on several blackboards at school. Pi is fascinated with religion and adopts Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam simultaneously. The boy’s parents own and operate a zoo on city property, and Pi is fascinated with the Bengal tiger, Richard Parker, desiring to befriend the animal by making it an offering of fresh meat. His father, who believes only in science, attempts to show him the real nature of animals of prey by tying a young goat to the tiger’s cage in front of the boy and forcing Pi to watch as Richard Parker kills the goat and drags it away to be eaten.

Pi’s father decides to move the family to Canada and to transport the animals with them to be sold in the West. On the voyage their ship is sunk by a storm and the family, along with most of the animals, is lost at sea. The only survivors are Pi, a wounded zebra, a female orangutan named Orange Juice, a hyena, and Richard Parker. The zebra and the orangutan are killed by the hyena, which is in turned killed and eaten by the tiger, leaving Pi and Richard Parker to face each other off on the lifeboat.

Pi is an intelligent, thoughtful, and resourceful young man. Not only must he survive on a lifeboat adrift in the Pacific Ocean, but he also must deal with a ravenous, 450-lb. tiger with whom he shares the craft. He uses the resources at hand as well as cleverness to feed himself and Richard Parker, ultimately mastering his fear and training the animal to respect him. The two companions are no match, however, for the wrath of nature and come close to death on the boat before landing on a strange island inhabited with millions of meerkats and offering plentiful food for Pi and Richard Parker. Pi believes that he can spend the rest of his life on the island until he realizes that it is as dangerous as it is idyllic. He and the tiger set out on the boat again and they finally reach Mexico. Richard Parker jumps off the boat and walks into the jungle without looking back. Pi is rescued.

Lee says, “In some ways movie-making is the way I live my life, and many people – in this case, thousands of people – they spend nearly four years in an endeavour to tell a story they believe in. So it’s a big responsibility. We work very hard, day and night, soulfully. We take a leap of faith…. It’s a new movie, so it’s gotta be different from everything else I’ve done. I’ve never ventured so much: we got kids, animals, water, 3D – all the most difficult part of filmmaking.”

And the leap is four years long. It includes one year of pre-production just to sell the idea of the film, involving the development of a script from the novel, with the difficulty of translating the multiple layers of the story; of filming a boy alone on the ocean and showing what his thoughts are in the process of surviving; of making a book about ideas cinematic.” It includes using inspirational artwork, a photo essay of India, and a forty-minute animated “previs” to sell the idea to the studio. And employing “an army of agents” over a four-to-five-month period to screen 3000 to 4000 boys in the process of casting an unknown, inexperienced, undisciplined young actor to play the role of Pi. Taking over an abandoned airport in Taiwan and spending millions on sound stage, indoor pool, wave pool (overcoming the challenge of creating realistic swells found in the middle of the ocean). Taking on the challenge of making realistic animals, especially 450-lb tiger with CG; editor Tim Squyres says, “Our animals had to look absolutely, positively real, at a level that no one had ever done before, and I don’t know if anybody really was sure that it was going to get pulled off.” And there was even greater challenge in animating these creatures in 3G, with some shots taking six months to complete. There was the actual filming: shooting in water is difficult, and shooting in 3D is difficult, so Lee could not do what he usually does: take a huge number of shots and then edit down. “So we relied on very concisely managed master shots. That’s a risk. It takes experience to design exactly what you want to do. You don’t have safety. Whatever is there that will make ti into the film – you have to make sure that works.”

Lee’s great leap of faith landed him and his film in a field of clover. Life of Pi was a technical, artistic, and box-office triumph, winning four Academy Awards, including best director, best cinematography, best original score, and best visual effects, and earning a box office of over $600 million on a budget of $120 million.


Life of Pi is perhaps the richest jewel in Ang Lee’s crown of cinematic achievement. It is the avatar of his abiding view of filmmaking, that it is a process of learning through risk-taking. “I see movies as a way of learning about the world, about myself, and learning about my relationship with people and art.” But for Lee, making movies is also a way of learning about making movies. Pi’s production designer, David Gropman: “Ang is the ultimate professor, mentor, and student. He’s like the student trying to master the class. At the same time he’s teaching you and bringing you along the way and it’s wonderful combination, incredibly inspiring to work for a director like that.”

Screenwriter David Magee offers the finest assessment of the director’s philosophy of making films: “Ang talks about what it’s like to conquer a film essentially, to go on a great journey and finally get to a point where you have reached a moment where the story you’re trying to tell, in your heart and in your mind, and what comes out on the screen seem to coincide. That point of mastery is something that is beyond you and it reaches for something greater.”



Image Credits

“Taking Woodstock Poster” Wikipedia. Fair Use

“Life of Pi Poster” Wikipedia. Fair Use

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