Ang Lee was plagued by self-doubt after Hulk failed at the box office. He then decided to take up a small film ‘about love’ that he was certain would be his last. That film was Brokeback Mountain. The filmmaker tells Aniruddha Guha how he made it to Life of Pi
You went into depression after Hulk failed to deliver?
Yeah, I was like, “Why bother making movies? What’s the meaning of it all?” You could call it my mid-life crisis. I was having self-doubts. Hulk was a very violent film. Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon just before that, and then Hulk were action-oriented films that were also psychologically deep. It took a lot out of me. Not just physically, I was also mentally exhausted. Its failure made me angry and indignant. I decided to never make a movie again. My father asked me if I wanted to retire, and I replied in the negative.
He said, “Go ahead and make another movie then. Giving up like this would not set a good example for your kids”. About six months after that, he passed away. I decided to make a small film about a family, about love. I decided to make it independently, to go back to my roots. I was pretty certain that would be my last film. And that was Brokeback Mountain.
What do you think went wrong with Hulk?
In hindsight, may be I overthunk the material. Maybe I should have done something like The Avengers. I treated it like a drama, when it's supposed to be fun, comic-book entertainment. It was a culturally wrong thing to do. But then it was too good an opportunity to let go of. There are things only Hollywood can do — their resources make all the difference. So when I got the chance to make Hulk, I thought of it as a privilege. But I wanted to make something profound and meaningful. That kind of thinking doesn't work in the commercial space. Filmmaking is an event today. It's not the '60s or '70s anymore. People don't take risks; there's more pressure.
What made you take up Life Of Pi?
Life Of Pi is a philosophical book. For the West, India is spiritually inspiring. Everyone comes here to find their God. The book in many ways describes the power of our imagination, faith; what we call God. It starts in India, but really it's the middle path, where the nationality of the character ceases to exist, which is what the story is all about. It's where the character's faith is tested. That aspect of the story appealed to me. The other big reason was 3D. No one's used 3D in cinema in an artistic form yet. It's still a new technology. Avatar was the first legitimate attempt to make something spectacular with 3D. Then Hugo. But it's still not a regular part of artistic expression. When I chose the medium, there was no one to teach me how to use it. Where do you place things? What's the movie language you adapt? May be three years from now, all this will seem obvious. But right now, it's a challenge. And that excited me.
You have explored different cultures in your films. These stories are deeply rooted in, and portray, different societies. Is that something you deliberately look out for in your stories?
Culture is texture — it's an interesting colour for me. It's how we associate our crowd, our environment. It makes for good material in a film. However, there's no real effort to offer that kind of a subtext in a story – it finds its own way. At the heart of every movie I make there has to be a universal emotion – it has to always be about human conditions. How we deal with spirit, or God, our sanity, our sense of security, our emotions; how we deal with ourselves. Our cultures are a big part of our lives. We have to live with a group to be supported, be reliable, and to not feel lonely. We have to be agreeable. That's the important part. But essentially, that's not the core of what I do. It's storytelling at the end of the day.
You dabble in both eastern and western themes on a regular basis.
I let the material decide the setting. It's funny, I do films in both the East and West and the experience of both influences each other. My Eastern upbringing makes my English-language films different because they are from the perspective of an outsider. On the other hand, I develop my filmmaking skills in Hollywood and take some of that sensibility to my Chinese films. I find it more difficult to direct Chinese material because I'm too close to it. It's hard to see it for what it is; to create art out of it. As an artist, though, I prefer making English language films as there's detachment there. Another thing about making Chinese films is that people expect a lot from me, they look up to me to deliver something substantial every time. And that becomes a burden.
You were jobless for six years before getting a chance to make Pushing Hands. How do you sum up that time in your life?
It was pretty boring (laughs). On a serious note, I felt hopeless. I am not a good writer and since no one gave me scripts to direct, I had to keep writing. It was a slow and painful process. Once in a long while I'd get a new idea. At one point, I tried to attach myself to cheaper movies, kept trying to get them off the ground. It paid shit, but I had to keep trying. But mostly, I had to keep waiting. It was development hell (the period when a film is stuck between scripting and production). But the greatest thing that happened during those six years of no work is that I got a chance to grow. I learned technicalities at film school but I understood cinema in those years. I watched films, paid attention to structure, and to ingredients that make a good film and many things film school cannot teach you, like what the industry wants from you. I am a late bloomer (he debuted at 38), but that period prepared me for what I do today. Once I started working, I couldn't stop. I work faster now. I am older, more prepared. I still can't write, which is why I keep adapting (laughs).