Having heard horror stories about the “Meet the Filmmaker” event with Cameron Diaz and Alan Rickman that led to queues, commotion and hours of waiting, I made sure I was plenty early for the Ang Lee and Suraj Sharma event last night. Getting there ninety minutes before it began I managed to get a nice seat in the already half filled theater area and settled myself in to listen to one of the most intriguing filmmakers of the twenty-first century. From the illustrious beauty of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to the heartbreaking love story of Brokeback Mountain through the detour of Hollywood Superhero movie The Hulk, Ang Lee’s talent, vision and adaptability are undeniable. Epic sequences are dealt with the same finesse as intimate dialogue sequences and it’s this attention to detail that made Lee a fascinating choice to direct book adaptation Life of Pi.
So, back to the Q&A, ninety minutes later and having inadvertently had a man removed from the audience for harassing me (I tried to ignore him and fortunately security caught on: clearly I attract crazy folk!), met a friendly Russian gentleman who kept offering me champagne and briefly celebrated a Retweet from the interviewer; finally it was time for Ang and Suraj to take to the stage. Empire Magazine’s Chris Hewitt was the interviewer for the evening and he dived straight in addressing the complexities of adapting such an intricate novel. Lee admitted himself that upon reading the book around a decade ago he could not imagine the prospect of filming it and his first challenge was to structure the main events of the novel as a flashback. The decision to open on an older Pi, recounting his tale to intrigued American Tourist Rafe Spall gave the book a more manageable set up, allowing the filmmaker to dip in and out of the story as he saw fit.
We were treated to two separate clips from the film: the first of which introduces us to a young Pi as he approaches tiger cub Richard Parker for the first time at his family’s zoo in India. The second clip focused on the two characters again as they share a lift raft. Stunning visuals were displayed as a shoal of flying fish descend upon the boat and Pi and Richard Parker fight for their dinner. There’s no denying the use of color, composition and light is extraordinary. Having seen the trailers I wasn’t sold on the CGI saturated look of the film, but watching these clips and hearing Lee talk of the spirituality and beauty of the film and it’s messages, I found myself eager to purchase tickets!
The conversation soon fell to the relationship between Lee and his star, unknown Indian actor Suraj Sharma, who was picked out of obscurity after attending the audition to keep his brother company. After a rigorous audition process Sharma was chosen by Lee from 12 finalists and his tape sent to the producers who loved him. Lee commented that he could smell Sharma’s talent and “just knew” that he was Pi. Sharma seemed charming and is potentially a promising new talent in the film industry, although his discomfort and embarrassment at the interview situation was slightly noticeable. Still, his shoulders seem more than capable of carrying the burden of bringing Pi, a character who Lee defines as “all of us” to the big screen. Lee took the young actor under his wing, instructing him on the emotions and focus of the scenes and sculpting him for the physically demanding role that required him to gain and lose weight in order to play the young boy, lost at sea without food or water. Lee said towards the end of the shoot he even went to the extents of asking the crew to isolate and ignore the actor in order to help him convey the loneliness and desolation of Pi.
The main technical focus of the conversation went to the creation of the tiger and the filming of the underwater sequences. Sharma initially couldn’t swim, so one of the first tasks in preparing him for the role was to teach him and to expand his lung capacity. Lee laughed that when he first arrived on set he could only hold his breath for fifteen seconds, by the end it was nearly two minutes. A large tank was constructed on set in Taiwan so that all of the boat sequences could be filmed. Lee stressed that all of the shots of the boat are real- CGI is just used to expand the landscape. The tiger itself is a creation of four real tigers, three particularly aggressive and one ‘tame’ creature. Sharma stated he never came close to the real life animals, sharing the boat with a blue ball, blue man or an empty space through the filming process. His experience of blue screen seemed a troubled one; he stated he was far more comfortable imagining the presence of the tiger than he ever was imagining a blue man to be the ferocious creature!
The Q&A was reasonably short, running about forty five minutes in length, but I could have easily sat all evening and listened to Lee and his young star talk about their experiences on set. Lee is a charming, fiercely intelligent and gentle man with an extraordinary flare for filmmaking that is evident in the passion with which he speaks. Sharma, whilst clearly struggling to come to terms with the fame and acclaim thrust upon him, has the potential to become one of our brightest stars. When asked about making movies his response was simple. “Before, it never even crossed my mind. Now, it’s the only thing on my mind.”
Already released in the US and due for its UK release on 20th December 2012, Life of Pi looks like a strong swimmer in the ocean of beautiful, ambitious examples of filmmaking we’ve seen in 2012 and definitely of my ‘to watch’ list!
Apple Store, Regent Street, London
4th December 2012.
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