Steering the ship

A scene from <i>Life of Pi.</i>
A scene from Life of Pi.
Director Ang Lee, in Sydney to promote his new film <i>Life of Pi.</i>

Director Ang Lee, in Sydney to promote his new film Life of Pi.

When Ang Lee was nine years old, his parents abandoned him in a typhoon to go to a movie. The film was Liang Shanbo Yu Zhu Yingtai, a Chinese opera about doomed young lovers. Lee's family saw it nine times, but he understood the pull of cinema best on the night he wasn't allowed to go. ''The power went down, the wind was howling, but the theatre was still open. They said, 'Let's see that movie,' and left us alone in the dark,'' he remembers. ''We were very young. It was crazy.''

Each time he saw Li Hanxiang's film, he sobbed uncontrollably, but he kept going back, addicted to the rush of feelings. ''We were obsessed. You want to experience that emotional ride again and again.'' All his life, Lee has been chasing that thrill, trying to make movies that consume other people the way they consume him.

His latest, Life of Pi, is an ocean to dive into: a three-dimensional deep where astonishing, hyper-real images are commonplace. When a cyclone hits the ship carrying Pi and his family from India to Canada, it's terrifying to be on deck.

Most of the movie is spent at sea after the wreck, with the resourceful, zealously agnostic boy and his only companion, a Bengal tiger. Yann Martell's Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name is a spiritual journey. Nothing much happens and there is only one human character, prologue and epilogue aside. Directors Alfonso Cuaron, Jean-Pierre Jeunet and M. Night Shyamalan had all walked away before Lee took the project on.

''Very often I wanted God's help, just like Pi,'' Lee says. ''I felt adrift. Sometimes there would be a breakthrough, we'd survive, only to go to another dark place. It was a long time before I saw the shore and when I did I felt very fragile, just like in the book.''

The film took two years and $120 million to make. At one point, it almost fell through, as the studio panicked that it was taking blockbuster risks for an art-house return. ''For the first time in my career, I thought I was losing it because they were dropping it,'' Lee says.''But I just refused to let it happen.''

Lee is the first Asian to win a best director Oscar, for Brokeback Mountain. His Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is the second-most popular subtitled film in US history. His early movies Pushing Hands, The Wedding Banquet and Eat Drink Man Woman were box-office and critical hits. But to a surprising extent, failure has shaped him.

His father disapproved from the start. Lee Sheng was the only member of his family to escape the Maoist purges in China, by fleeing to Taiwan.

As the headmaster of a prestigious school, he was disappointed when Lee showed more interest in acting than academia, but reluctantly agreed to send him to the University of Illinois to study theatre.

All Lee's early movies feature children struggling to please their fathers in a modern, global society where patriarchy is under siege.

The relationship has been a source of anguish for Lee, but he likes to observe that after his biggest Hollywood flop, Hulk (at heart, a drama about twisted blood ties), it was his dad who roused him from depression and told him to make another film. Lee Sheng died two weeks later, meaning he never got to see Brokeback Mountain, or the ultimate validation it represented for his son.

Lee's career didn't take off until he was 37. After completing film school at New York University, he spent six years in the suburbs, living off his wife's salary, looking after their son and trying to have scripts financed. When he walked into film company Good Machine, in 1990, he told the owners, James Schamus and Ted Hope: ''If I don't make a movie soon, I think I'll die.'' Schamus has been his creative partner ever since.

Even now, as one of the most bankable directors in the world, Lee is ready to laugh at himself and is dressed to disappear, without a trace of Hollywood vanity. He hates promotional interviews - ''It can really grind you'' - but accepts them as necessary compromises.

''When it's low budget, you don't have the freedom to do whatever you want. With both Hulk and this one, I was in the zone of ultimate freedom: nobody knows how to control it, so they pretty much let you do what you want to do and you have money to go wherever your imagination can take you.''

Lee has summoned transformative performances from young unheralded actors including Tobey Maguire, Kate Winslet, Christina Ricci, Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, but he is notoriously hard to work with. His first note to Winslet on the shoot for Sense and Sensibility was: ''You will do better.'' Hugh Grant nicknamed him the Brute.

Partly, this stems from an obsessive desire to control every aspect of his films. ''I have to create that culture to own it,'' he told New Yorker critic John Lahr. For American Civil War epic Ride with the Devil, this meant filming in Missouri year round to capture the changing seasons. For The Ice Storm, he re-created suburban 1970s Connecticut to the last fibre of polyester. For Hulk, he donned the motion-capture suit himself, to map his rage.

The challenge for Life of Pi was to create a believable tempest in a 6.4 million-litre water tank. Worried that ''Hollywood know-it-alls'' wouldn't share his spirit of adventure, Lee insisted on making the movie in Taiwan.

He built a visual-effects studio near his home town and hired a team of young designers to go through the learning process with him, immersing himself in the film and its daunting technical challenges, to the exclusion of everything else.

''When you're in so much pain and frustration, you can fall into depression, but the next thing you know, something comes out of it,'' he says.

Lee doesn't read scripts or discuss his future projects while he's working. By all accounts, he barely even sees his family. His next movie is likely to be in 3D ''if Pi is successful'', because it will have shown that the technology does not have to be reserved for cartoons and explosions.

''The technical side is so difficult that it can make you forget that it's in the service of emotion, but I never really worry about that because I know it's what drives me,'' he says. ''You're so exhausted, so devoted, that it feels spiritual. Every shot seems to have meaning.''

For a couple of fleeting moments - flying fish inundating Pi's raft and a breathtaking swim through the pools of his father's youth - his visions are made manifest.

Life of Pi is in cinemas on January 1.

Life of Pi (2012)

Brokeback Mountain (2005)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

The Ice Storm (1997)

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)

The Wedding Banquet (1993)

This story Steering the ship first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.