With Life of Pi,’ director Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain; Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) creates a groundbreaking movie event about a young man who survives a disaster at sea and is hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery.  While cast away, he forms an amazing and unexpected connection with another survivor…a fearsome Bengal tiger. Based on the book that has sold more than seven million copies and spent years on the bestseller lists, ‘Life of PI’ takes place over three continents, two oceans, many years, and a wide universe of imagination.  Lee’s vision, coupled with stunning 3D visuals, has turned a novel long thought unfilmable into a thrillingly audacious mix of grand storytelling and powerful and provocative themes. ‘Life of Pi’ arrives in cinemas on November 21st in the US and December 20th in the UK. The film stars Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall and Gerard Depardieu.

The is a deeply metaphorical and symbolic story. One of the things that struck me was how you used the water and sky, can you talk a little bit about that?

Ang Lee: The water is like a stage. In this movie I have to treat water and the sky as my backdrop, that’s my stage. So to me, water performs like a desert to test the strength of his faith, Pi’s faith. The lifeboat, the colour, the shape, the raft, the tiger, the boy – it’s all highly symbolic. But the water and sky was my stage. I like to see water as something that’s transparent and reflective, that represents the mood of Pi. And the emotion, underneath the water there’s a lot of life. So water, although it feels deserty because of how vast it is, it’s lively and moody. That’s how I treated it. The sky is heaven, it’s abstract… God, death, all of those abstract things. Sometimes they’re blurred, sometimes they’re separated by the horizon, sometimes they echo each other. With every scene, it depends on the purpose of the scene, I had a different rendition of water and sky. Hopefully, eventually I reached the internal picture of Pi’s journey in the story with those things.

Books and movies are very different mediums. What would you like people who love the book to take away from the ‘Life of Pi’ film?

Ang Lee: I had my take from the book, and that’s a gut feeling, it’s not a literal one, it was a gut feeling, a visceral feeling. I would like to feed it back to the world through cinema, because like you said, cinema and books are very different mediums, they work in very different ways. I hope the book reader watches the film thinking that I’m, in spirit, very loyal to the book, but the movie stands on its own – it’s a new experience. It’s the same subject matter, but it’s a different take on the subject matter. There’s different sensations because one medium is very interactive, while the other is direct, movies are very direct.

Whenever there was a “books that are unfilmable” list, this would often be featured – regularly near the top! How did you figure out a way to bring it to the screen?

Ang Lee: (Laughs) Oh yeah. When I first read the book, I thought it was unfilmable, like many thought so – especially filmmakers (laughs). But it took me a long time to figure out. First I thought I had to break the story down into a script form, I had to find a structure. I found a storyteller to give a first and a third person perspective, inside and outside, to examine and to feel it. So that was the first thing and that helped me think I could have a crack at it. Then secondly I thought if I use new technology, 3D, visually maybe that new media can open up peoples mind – because it is new, we don’t know much about it. Then it was the question of, “How do I do water?” You have to create a tank, so I had to previsualize the whole ocean part, all 70 minutes of it in animation. It was a long period of efforts, it was a big endeavour (laughs). There was not a particular day where it just clicked in my head, “That’s how I’m going to do it!” (Laughs) It was a process for nearly four years, going through every detail, thinking how I can represent the themes and story in cinematic form.

Given the challenges presented by filming in 3D, how did the cameras and technology facilitate your vision for ‘Life of Pi’?

Ang Lee: I wanted the experience of the film to be as unique as Yann Martel’s book, and that meant creating the film in another dimension. 3D is a new cinematic language, and in ‘Life of Pi’ it’s just as much about immersing audiences in the characters’ emotional space as it is about the epic scale and adventure. When I first thought about using the 3D, it was before I had even wrote the script. I thought, “This is an impossible project, but If I added another dimension – this is a silly and naive thought (laughs) – maybe it’s possible with 3D? Maybe the new media can open up the audience to the movie?” So I did my research. From my research Vince Pace was the best choice, and right before we were shooting Martin Scorsese was using the same camera and the same rig for ‘Hugo.’ So from the research it looked like that was the way to go, I did a lot of research, I was very hands on (laughs). But shooting in 3D for anybody is still new, we still have so much to learn, we’re all novices – including Vince Pace. So the user and the manufacturer has to work together with what problems we have and how to improve it, they need our experience and feedback to make all kinds of updates and improvements. There were times when things would happen and we just didn’t know what to do, we’d have to make phone calls (laughs). Shooting is difficult, but it is doable. I hope in the future it gets a lot cheaper and a lot easier, and more filmmakers – especially young filmmakers, get their hands on the 3D.

I’ve heard that the final shot during the filming of ‘Life of Pi’ has an emotional story behind it, can you tell us a little bit about that?

Ang Lee: Suraj, he was overburdened, but he always gave his best. On the surface, for months he was the only subject we would shoot, every shot. And we shot this film in order because he has to lose weight and he has to go through the same journey Pi goes through – both physically and spiritually. Eventually he became the sort of spiritual leader to all of us, just because of how he behaved and how he looked even. He really lead us into making this movie. His innocence and his effort was pure, it really reminded all of us as experienced filmmakers why we wanted to make movies in the first place. And we all took on this journey with this movie, but he was the center of attention. So the last shot, we were shooting and he found that fruit thing at night, so everything’s glowing green. We put him up on the tree two stories high. When I finally wrapped it I didn’t give him a ladder (laughs), I wouldn’t let him down so that everybody could gather and praise him and tell him how much we loved him. It was a very touching moment for him and for everybody, a lot of people were crying.

What qualities did you see in Suraj Sharma that made you would think he would be right to play Pi?

Ang Lee: We searched for a young man who had the innocence to capture our attention, the depth of character to break our hearts, and the physicality needed to embody Pi on his journey. During his audition, Suraj filled the room with emotion, much of which he conveyed simply through his eyes. His natural ability to believe and stay in the world of the story is a rare treasure. Suraj’s investment in the story made us really believe that whatever challenges we faced, the film was really going to happen. When we saw Suraj, we saw the movie.