Ang Lee, Reflecting on Life and Career, Wants to Win Best Director as 'Captain of Ship'

And Suraj Sharma should have been nominated, "Life of Pi" director said.

February 14, 2013, 12:45 PM

Feb. 14, 2013— -- Enter the world of Oscar-winning director Ang Lee, and be prepared for an incredible ride. Lee is nominated this year for his 3-D epic, "Life of Pi." He spent four years on the film -- a year of it in post-production, obsessing over every detail.

The cast includes a teenager who had never acted before and a tiger -- both real and digital -- the two woven together so expertly that it is impossible to tell the difference.

Watch the full story, including Cynthia McFadden's interview with Ang Lee, on "Nightline" TONIGHT at 12:35 a.m. ET

The movie is the spiritual journey of a 16-year-old Indian boy hurtled into an epic adventure when a shipwreck leaves him to fend for himself on a raft with the only other survivor, a Bengal tiger. The two drift through the Pacific with only each other and God for company. Not exactly blockbuster material, it would seem.

"I was more than hesitant [to do the movie]," Lee told "Nightline" co-anchor Cynthia McFadden. "[The book] was a great read -- very inspiring and mind-boggling -- just, as a filmmaker, I didn't see it as [a] movie."

"Because of that, it kept haunting me," Lee added with a laugh.

The gamble was well worth it. Not only is the movie nominated for 11 Academy Awards, it has made over half a billion dollars at the box office.

Lee himself was nominated for Best Director. He won that award eight years ago for his stellar work on "Brokeback Mountain."

That Oscar capped off a string of hits, from the tender British period drama "Sense and Sensibility" to the finely observed rendering of 1970s suburbia in "The Ice Storm." His masterpiece, "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," swept the Oscars in 2000 and ranks as the highest-grossing foreign-language film ever released in America.

Lee even dabbled in action films, with "The Hulk."

How could one man present all these different worlds?

"I had the chance to talk to Daniel Day Lewis, and he asked the same thing," Lee answered. "He said, 'You know, you're really an actor."

"I want to act different parts," Lee explained. "The camera is my way of acting, performing, and it's a theatrical act. ... Most of the actors, if you ask them, I think they want to play many parts."

Growing up in Taiwan, Lee's parents wanted him to be a teacher.

"Yeah, that's more acceptable than filmmaker," he said with a chuckle.

Lee admits to not having been much of a student and to the humiliation that came with failing his college entrance exams twice, especially since his father was the principal of the school he attended.

"I was always in shame that I could not focus on books. And I failed the college examinations. My father was my high school principal. ... That was bad. And I failed twice, 'cause I was so nervous. I just sweated through the whole two days of exams. So I failed -- I really failed him."

He ended up in acting school while waiting to try the exams again..

"Then I stood on stage for the first time. I fell in love with it. And my life was transcended."

But his English wasn't good enough for acting, he said. Directing called.

Even with all his success, Lee's father has withheld his approval.

"['Sense and Sensibility'] got seven Oscar nominations, without me," Lee said. "But my father was saying, 'At this rate, I think at your age of 50, maybe you'll win an Oscar, maybe you can be satisfied and start to do something real.'"

Lee said "Life of Pi" originally had a $100 million budget, but then he had the idea to do it in 3-D, which added $25 million.

Why did Fox take such a big gamble?

"I think it's in human nature. If you have a hint that maybe it'll work, just maybe, you could not help but go ahead. It's very seductive," Lee said, laughing.

"At some point, once you get to the journey, you become the movie you're making," Lee said. "[I felt] like Pi himself. We're going through a journey. We're adrift across the Pacific with a tiger ... but we're still living ... and you have to believe that it's going somewhere."

Lee said that journey took the casting people to just about every high school in India, searching for just the right actor who could play Pi. Three thousand auditioned. Lee homed in on one.

"When I saw Suraj [Sharma]," Lee said, "he [looked] like Pi. These deep, soulful, smart eyes. And just the demeanor. ... And, of course, I tested him, and it's good news: The kid is a genius."

Suraj Sharma had to learn a lot, starting with how to swim. He had never acted before; He wanted to be an architect, Lee said, adding that Sharma had only accompanied his brother to the audition. The casting director noticed he was a better age fit and invited him to read.

Lee didn't let anyone talk to Sharma during the last month of filming.

Lee said, "The final thing he has to fight for is his sanity. ... We're going to a state of mind that's very unusual. Let's say he's with God. So yeah, I didn't let anybody talk to him. He had to live in solitude."

Lee said Sharma should have been nominated for an Academy Award.

"People forgot how naturally he blended into the movie. He is Pi. To me, that's the beauty. That's the purest form of acting. It's precious."

Lee confirmed that, because the computer-generated tiger looks so real, he had to prove to the Indian government that he hadn't abused a tiger.

"The tiger's emaciated, and Pi puts him on his lap," Lee said. "You cannot do that to a real tiger. ... We didn't drug the tiger or anything." It was all computer-generated imagery, he said.

"It's very hard to imitate God's work," Lee said with a laugh, "whether it's a tiger or the water, it's impossible. We try to get as close as we can."

How much does Lee want the Academy Award for Best Picture?

"I want it, because I'm the captain of the ship, you know, for the 3,000 people [in the credits]. For what the movie stands for. There is no star. It's an unusual movie. [For] what it meant to the world. For the people who spent four years of their life devoted to this grand illusion."

Watch the full story, including Cynthia McFadden's interview with Ang Lee, on "Nightline" TONIGHT at 12:35 a.m. ET

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