Thursday, October 18, 2012

Words As Water: Ang Lee

Water plays an important role in director Ang Lee's new film (Life of Pi). I remember gazing at the ocean when I was sixteen and wanting to paint the waves, so I understand his impulse to render the sea on screen in 3D. It's a mystery why we desire to take nature and recreate it. Perhaps, as Lee discussed when he was interviewed on October 15, 2012 by KQED Forum host (and SFSU English professor) Michael Krasny, we try to capture our awe of things that are larger than us. The filmmaking process, like other artistic processes, explores that interpreting of one medium to another: nature to art, words to images.

Adapting one genre to another always presents a challenge. How do you retain the flavor of the story or the intention of the author? In a recent conversation with book art colleagues, one was worried that we were expected to embrace the next technology. The main argument was that it just wouldn't be the same. But it doesn't have to be exactly the same. A translator decides whether to accurately depict the words and literal meaning, or if the work would be stronger if the mood and intention are embraced instead. Or a combination of all of these. It is possible that one medium will present the content even better than another. Sometimes the film is stronger and more memorable than the book or vice versa.

Film already shifts media. In the interview, Krasny asked if it was "more of a challenge" to work from a book rather than from a screenplay (15:30). Lee explained that he was "not a translator to the words" (17:04), that it was not his job to move the same words from place to place. Lee said:
 …nobody really studies it [movie scripts]; they're the blueprint…words…[are] only a suggestion…Even though you want to be loyal to the book, you have to change that to make it happen; they're by nature very different. (16:05-16:54)
Lee was speaking specifically about the difference between published fiction and the screenplay. Fiction is studied, analyzed, critiqued, and it gathers a history and weight around it. The screenplay is only seen by the filmmakers; it is malleable and can be tossed and rewritten at any time. For this particular project, he was more interested in the mood and intention of the story than in the specific words.

When we think of words as a "suggestion" we suddenly find ourselves on water. It can be helpful to think of words as fluid rather than rock-carved. I used to write a story and to believe it had to remain exactly how I wrote it. But the story can flow in different directions as you change the words. You could probably write several stories out of one if you use the words as a suggestion for action. It is overwhelming, at times, to realize that there are so many choices. The task, then, is to find the most compelling way to tell the tale, the storyline that really grabs you and makes you want to keep writing. In reading Life of Pi, Lee found the book "haunting" (3:07). Even though he indicated that it wasn't the best book he had ever read, the haunting quality compelled him to make the film. 

As storyteller, you get to be the creator. How do you stay humble about it? Krasny quoted a past interview and asked Lee about "tenderness and humility," noting that they are not the usual words associated with directors. Lee's answer shows his awe at the process: 
Even though you have this ego, you have this desire to stage something, to put out your vision, but when it happens, along with real people, it still shocks you and humbles you. …You are not dictating some image to happen you are actually allow[ing] something to happen. (13:53)
Lee spoke of his desire to keep the process "organic," to keep learning, and to be flexible— useful suggestions as approaches to life and art—and all the qualities of water.


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Ang Lee presented his 3D film Life of Pi at the Mill Valley Film Festival. It will be released nationwide on November 21.

The audio interview:

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