Photo: Reuters

Director Lee Ang has a reputation for perfectionism. In 2008, for his comedy Taking Woodstock, there was a scene set in a field dotted with cows.

The Taiwan-born film-maker reportedly drove his animal handlers crazy because he insisted on having the animals pose in specific ways, even though they appear only in the background. The handlers had to cajole the large and reluctant creatures into positions marked by him.

Lee’s demands during the production of new film Life Of Pi, opening here tomorrow, makes cow- wrangling seem like a walk in the park.

For the lifeboat scenes, the Oscar-winning director (Brokeback Mountain, 2005) built a multi- million-dollar water tank in an abandoned airport in Taichung, Taiwan, one that can create any kind of wave he likes.

That it was also far enough away from studio interference helped, he says, chuckling.

“There are too many restrictions in LA. When I am here in Taiwan, I can be the king,” he says.

After the scenes with Tobey Maguire had been shot, he cut the actor best known for playing SpiderMan out of the movie. Maguire’s star power would change the tone of a film cast using unknowns, said Lee at the time.

And rather than hire casting agents to scour Hollywood for Indian-American boys who can play Pi Patel, he insisted on doing a search in India, finally picking non-actor Suraj Sharma, now 19, out of 3,000 hopefuls.

The fastidious film-maker searched India, particularly in the south, because the character of Pi from Yann Martel’s bestselling 2001 novel is born and raised in the south Indian enclave of Pondicherry (now renamed Puducherry).

“Pi is an Indian kid, not an Indian-American kid,” he tells reporters at a press conference in Taipei this month.

In an industry that thinks nothing of passing off Caucasians as Asian characters (The Last Airbender, 2010; Dragonball Evolution, 2009; and the Kung Fu television series in the 1970s), having an Indian- American in the role of Pi would, by Hollywood standards, be a minor sin.

But not for the 58-year-old Lee, for whom authenticity is paramount.

“An Indian-American would look Indian but act American and I don’t want that,” he says.

He offers a clue as to why brand-name actor Maguire was replaced by relative unknown Rafe Spall for the part of the unnamed writer, the man who prods the older Pi (played by Irrfan Khan) into telling his story of surviving on a lifeboat with a hungry, untamed tiger for company.

This is a film of ideas, says Lee. He prefers that the audience enter it with no preconceptions about the actors, so that these ideas take centre stage.

“The book is philosophical and the film is philosophical. That distance and the mystique, of having a character that is not American, increases the viewability of the film,” he says in Mandarin to a crowd of mostly Taiwanese press.

While he sought to find an actor with the correct South Indian accent, he adds that he did work with Sharma to find a balance between authenticity and clarity.

“We made it so that the Indian viewers don’t find it irritating and the Americans can still understand what Pi is saying,” says Lee, who now lives in New York with his wife Jane Lin, a microbiologist, and two sons, aged 22 and 28.

The director who catapulted to global fame with martial arts romance Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) goes on to explain why the US$120- million (S$146-million) Life Of Pi is the most technically difficult one he has ever done.

“They say never work with children, animals or water, and I did all three in this film. And added one more – 3-D cameras,” he says, to laughter. He had entered the age of computer animation with Hulk (2003) but this project is his first using 3-D.

Richard Parker, the name of the tiger in the novel, is computer graphics in most scenes, but a few shots required real animals and four were brought into Taichung – three from France and one from Canada.

Photo: 20th Century Fox

Newbie teen actor, troubled waters
He believes that finding an actor with Sharma’s child-like innocence and charisma, “even when he isn’t doing anything, you feel so concerned for him”, was the stroke of luck that told him he was on the right track. There was a time when everything else, even the financing of the film, seemed in doubt.

“After the production company saw his demo tape and after I showed them some other things, I got the budget for this film,” he says.

Executives from Fox had got cold feet some months into the film’s development as previous films shot on water had failed to recoup their heavy costs. But after they viewed Sharma’s audition tape and looked at Lee’s sketches for key scenes, they changed their minds, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

Critics are generally warm towards the film and there is Oscar buzz for its technical achievements in cinematography and special effects. It opened to strong attendances in the United States last week, earning US$30 million, and looks on track to do well globally.

Speaking to the press in Taipei, Sharma says he was just another teenager who had tagged along with his brother, an aspiring actor, to an audition for the movie. Sharma spent the next 10 months in Taichung for the shoot, during which he went on a crash diet, losing 13kg, to look like a survivor lost at sea for 227 days.

The experience has changed him, he says. He is now in university, studying philosophy, but what he wants to do now is be a film-maker. “Before Pi, I was confused. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I thought I was going to study economics, but that would have been a bad idea because I wouldn’t be good at it. Now I want to study film and make movies,” he says.

He was born in Kerala, south of India, but raised in New Delhi and for the film, Lee hired a dialect coach to make sure that his accent resembled that of his relatives still living in the state of Tamil Nadu, where Pondicherry is located. But not too much.

“I can speak a kind of Tamil English that Americans can understand,” he says, to laughter.

That right speech pattern is the sort of detail that Lee notices, Sharma says. On many occasions, he saw the director’s attention to the minutest of things.

“He was concerned about how the tables and chairs were arranged in the cafeteria for the crew. He likes to find out the backstory behind everything,” he says.

Once, the both of them went out to sea in a boat. As the craft surged in the heavy chop, Sharma saw Lee reach out to touch the water. “He wanted to know what the small waves inside the bigger waves felt like,” Sharma says. Lee might be finicky but he is rarely wrong, he adds. “Sometimes, we will be ready to roll camera and he will say ‘stop, stop’. He will walk into the set and do this,” says Sharma, miming the director moving a small prop by one centimetre.

“And the shot will look better.”

Life of Pi is now showing in cinemas islandwide.

This article was first run in The Straits Times newspaper on November 28, 2012. For similar stories, go to You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.