His first three films, all in Mandarin and revolving around Chinese families, were followed by a distinct break with "Sense and Sensibility," his Hollywood arrival. But it was 1997's "The Ice Storm," an adaptation of Rick Moody's novel about a Connecticut family's disaster in the swinging '70s, that Lee says changed his perception of filmmaking and set him on a new path.
"A movie is really provocation," says Lee. "It's not a message, it's not a statement. Before I thought: I have a story to tell, not even thinking of myself as an auteur. But that is a precious lesson to me, to take a step back — a respectful step back."
"Something about cinema, how it works in wonders, you just have to respect it," he adds. "You should never believe fully like you know."
"Life of Pi" was certainly full of its own lessons and trials. Lee spent a year making a 70-minute pre-visual animation of the middle chunk of the film set at sea. He had a giant water tank built in an abandoned airport in his native Taiwan, ("Taiwan will do anything for me," he joked at the NYFF). Still, because of the considerable technical challenges, he says he only got an eighth of his planned shot list.
He was led to 3-D not by James Cameron's "Avatar," which was released after planning on "Life of Pi" began, but by searching for "another dimension" to tell such a story. The results, achieved with cinematographer Claudio Miranda, are perhaps the best 3-D work since "Avatar," including a memorable flying fish scene and the glorious visuals of a whale surfacing in moonlight.
For the film's young star, the gentle, humble, self-deprecating Lee was a mentor.
"He makes you so calm that you just let him mold you into whatever he wants to mold you into," Sharma says. "He really showed me that I could do a lot more than I ever thought I was capable of doing."
Lee may be "a Zen master" like Sharma claims, but his tranquility won't abide one thing: Anyone who doesn't cherish the precious chance to make a movie. "If you don't give 100 percent, I get mad," he says.
It's enough of an all-consuming process that Lee doesn't contemplate his next film until he has seen through the present one.
He says: "I'm still surviving this one."
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