Ang Lee, the 58-year-old Oscar-winning director of “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” was understated and thoughtful recently as he settled into a velvet couch at the L’Ermitage hotel in Beverly Hills. He had arrived to discuss his new film, “Life of Pi,” the story of the journey of Pi, a religious teenager from India whose entire family and the remnants of the family’s zoo sinks in a shipwreck, leaving Pi alone and adrift in a small boat, along with a tiger.
Lee brought up his memory of the last time we spoke, before the release of his 2009 film “Taking Woodstock,” a tale of hippies descending upon a Jewish resort in the Catskills to attend the legendary 1969 rock music festival. “That film was very Jewish,” the soft-spoken Lee said, with a quiet laugh. “And this new one, ‘Life of Pi’ is somewhat, a little bit Jewish as well.”
Based on Yann Martel’s 2001 best-selling novel, the film draws on imagery and motifs from the three religions Pi practices simultaneously — Hinduism, Catholicism and Islam — but its worldview is also influenced by the Old Testament and the Jewish mysticism of kabbalah. Lee said he specifically researched Rabbi Isaac Luria’s 16th-century concept of tsimtsum: how God, the infinite, created the world by opening up a vacuum within Himself. “In tsimtsum, God shrunk part of Himself in order to create the world,” Lee said. “God is perfect, but he had to shrink back to create as messy and imperfect a life as ours. It’s the essential energy of the universe.”
In the film, the sinking of the freighter, aptly named the Tsimtsum, literally and figuratively represents the stripping away of Pi’s sheltered previous life in his family’s Pondicherry zoo, as well as of the comforting religious concepts he had been taught, respectively, by his imam, priest and Hindu pandit. “On the lifeboat, Pi has no organized religion, no society, no priest or monk or any human being to tell him, ‘This is what is supposed to be.’ He is on his own,’ ” Lee said of Pi’s spiritual journey. “He’s always had faith in the abstract idea of God, but he has to be cast away to be tested, to test the strength of his faith.”
“It’s kind of like the story of Job,” the film’s screenwriter, David Magee, said during an interview at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza Hotel. “Pi finds himself questioning at every turn, why has God put these impediments in front of him, and not only through his suffering on the ocean, but then to put a tiger on the boat along with him. Yet the fear of what he must confront forces Pi into action that he might not have done otherwise. And, in the end, he comes to realize that without the tiger he probably would not have survived.”
The Old Testament power of the Divine is on display in some of the transcendent images in the film: Pi and his lifeboat are dwarfed by the stars shining above and reflecting in the water below, creating an immersion in a bowl-like universe; phosphorescent sea life glimmers magically on the vast night ocean, and, at one point, Pi loses all his supplies in a maelstrom worthy of Noah.
Director Ang Lee
Rabbi David Wolpe, who attended an early screening of the film, described the mythic character of the moment: “That scene reminded me the chaos of creation, and the tohu vavohu, the unformed void,” he said. “In the middle of nowhere, all of nature is intent on both displaying itself to [Pi] and destroying him.”
The filmmakers also were inspired by Steven Callahan, whose book “Adrift” chronicles Callahan’s 76 days as a castaway, and who became a consultant on the film. “Steven talked to us not only about the mechanics of survival but also the humility brought on by his journey,” Magee said. “It put him into both a profoundly awed respect for the universe and his very tiny place in it.”
Lee — who was raised as a Christian but now incorporates Buddhism and Hindu concepts into his personal faith — identifies with Pi’s journey because for much of his life he has felt proverbially at sea. The Chinese, like the Jews, have the concept of Diaspora, he said: “My parents escaped the Chinese revolution to Taiwan, and while we still felt we were authentically Chinese, we were outsiders there,” he recalled. While Lee considers himself an Asian filmmaker, his current home is in Larchmont, N.Y., and, “When I go back to China, I’m an outsider, too. So there’s a sense of being alien, adrift.”
“Life of Pi” merges Aesopian fable, varied religious motifs and wondrous 3-D graphics, but tackling the complex metaphysical film proved daunting for Lee, who signed on after the directors M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet dropped out of the project.
To write the screenplay, Lee turned to Magee (“Finding Neverland,” “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day”) who first read Martel’s novel on the “Neverland” set about 10 years ago and described it as unfilmable. But he jumped at the chance, about four years ago, to tackle the movie when he learned that Lee would direct.
Lee and Magee began collaborating on the film in 2010, meeting daily for months in Lee’s Manhattan loft near Chinatown. Along the way, they embarked upon meticulous research not only into 3-D technology, which Lee believed would help viewers to “feel like an insider in Pi’s world,” but also on world religions — including mystical Judaism. (In the film, the middle-aged Pi, who serves as narrator, recounting his story to a journalist, reveals that he teaches kabbalah at a university near his home in Canada.)
The kabbalistic model of creation, the tree of life, with its 10 sefirot, was part of the research leading to the design of a tree that becomes Pi’s sleeping place when he and the tiger land on a lush island that appears to be an abundant Eden. “It’s there that God gives Pi some little, imperfect but closer insight into His nature, and of the nature of the universe,” Magee said. “It’s a very Judeo-Christian concept: ‘God giveth and God taketh away.’ ”
By day, the island is a nourishing land, filled with bounty, peace and comfort. By night, it all turns carnivorous and devouring — the other side of God. That duality plays out throughout the story, in the duality of the vegetarian Pi and the carnivorous tiger, the philosopher and the animal.”
The tiger, who has the unusual name of Richard Parker, becomes a metaphor for Pi’s animal nature, which he must embrace (and train) in order to brave the elements. “I don’t see the tiger as ‘the other,’ Lee said. “Even though on the surface, he is an obstacle Pi has to overcome, he is also the inner beast that must emerge for Pi to survive.”
Richard Parker, thus, is no cute and cuddly animal, but unabashedly vicious. “Ang was very firm about not wanting to anthropomorphize him,” said Magee, who drew from a real encounter with a ferocious tiger in India while writing the film. “I can’t describe the feeling of a tiger roaring at you from four feet away,” he said. “It goes through your body like a jet engine rumbling, and you feel it viscerally; you don’t so much hear it as you feel that beast touching you with its sound.”
Variety noted the film’s “warm-hearted plea for religious faith,” but Magee sees “Life of Pi” somewhat differently. “It’s more like a warm-hearted plea for faith in storytelling,” he said. “In religion, we tell stories to make sense of this incomprehensible universe, and we were writing about the power of different stories to help you connect to the world around you and how they can help you to organize the chaos.”
“Life of Pi” opens in theaters on Nov. 21.