From Pi's raft to the peaks of Alberta, the life of Ang Lee follows the thread of a cinematographic odyssey. Fourteen stages and a multitude of genres and themes: Ang Lee masters traditional wuxia in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and comedy in Taking Woodstock, just as he lets rage loose in Hulk or stirs the passion of cowboys in Brokeback Mountain. In 2012, he received the Oscar for Best Director for his dream-like story of initiation, Life of Pi. A conversation with a globetrotter director.
Ang Lee © AFP
You have made cinema about western, superheroes, wuxia, history… How do you choose a subject for a film? Are you a globetrotter director travelling through cinema?
I don’t really have a plan or a checklist. But sometimes, I would like my career to be forever a film school. I’m an avid filmmaker. I like to play different roles and I have a lot of curiosity, I would like to touch and learn all kinds of filmmaking. In different places, people teach me how to make movies. I write the movies myself. I just see what I’m curious about. I keep thinking about something. Sometimes when I put off a material, four or five years later, it keeps haunting me.
What are you exploring? The world, cultures, you?
The material has to connect with me so that’s me. There’s definitely some part of me, either the subject matter or the characters that I can relate to. But in terms of characters, stories and cultures, the further away from me, the easier for me to make art.
What character of yours looks like you the most?
From movie to movie, I think most of the lead men and elderly women are some part of me like in Lust, Caution that girl was a kind of like me. Li Mu Bai, in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The leading man is a better looking version of the director!
How do you choose a subject and characters?
If something connects with me, I find the way to make the movie. Like Pi. It did intrigue me. When I read the book I didn’t think that was a makeable movie. But when I was asked, years later after I’d read it, I couldn’t stop thinking about how do I brave this tale. So that is one of my motivations: curiosity, from the first day of student filmmaking to Pi.
When we watch your films, we can think everything is possible in cinema. What are your own restrictions?
I have to be obsessed, always be afraid. I don’t forget about that. I’m afraid of repeating myself. If I do, I’m afraid something really bad may happen. It’s my superstition. I guess I’m afraid of a ghost story because I sort of leave my movies.
You won the best director Oscar for Life of Pi. You worked four years on this film. You never wanted to give up?
Three times a day! You call upon people, they believe in you and you have something in you. It makes people believe in it and yourself believe in it. It has to get done. That sort of motivation everybody pushes you and in the meantime you’re pushing everybody… so you always feel something bigger than you are. Now of course it ups and downs.
Pi said “Animals have souls... I have seen it in their eyes.” Do you think so?
I don’t know, I’ve heard a lot of people saying that, especially people into wild animals. I always have doubts whether they do exist or it’s just a reflection of yourself.
You like working with animals?
No, it’s difficult! I love the animals but working with them is not fun.
Interview by par Tarik Khaldi