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Ang Lee: ‘I am not a master of filmmaking. I am a slave.’

Kai Magsanoc

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The Oscar award-winning director visits Manila and reveals plans of shooting a film in the country

AS CANDID AS IT GETS. Lee answers questions from the press during the 40-minute forum that was followed by cocktails at the SM Aura Skypark. All photos by Jory Rivera

MANILA, Philippines – “I grew up a neighbor of the Philippines. They say where I shot ‘[Life of ] Pi,’ that same beach, at the top of the hill on a clear day, you can see the northern island of the Philippines. The movie mentioned Manila twice, but I’ve never been here. It’s my first time here. I’m very excited…because I know most of you are filmmakers. I’m planning to do a movie here, I hope I get to make that movie. I’m really looking forward to be friends with you, we should have more communication.”

Taiwanese director Ang Lee was in the country this past week and met the press on Thursday, November 28, after a special screening of “Life of Pi” at the IMAX Theater of SM Aura Premier. The event was co-organized by the Taiwan Economic and Cultural Office in the Philippines, Republic of China, Film Development Council of the Philippines, 20th Century Fox, and the Film Cultural Exchange Program.

Film students and independent and mainstream filmmakers were in the audience, as were Filipino directors Brillante Mendoza and Tikoy Aguiluz.

Lee answered pre-selected questions from the press and talked about his own journey as the only Asian filmmaker who has won an Oscar Award for Best Director twice – first in 2006 for “Brokeback Mountain,” and second in 2013 for “Life of Pi.”

 WILL SHOOT IN THE PHILIPPINES. During his opening speech, Ang Lee reveals plans of filming a movie in the country

The filmmaker was frank and honest about his movie-making process, especially when he makes a film based on a book. He says, “The author has his book, I have my film.”

Here are 10 things we learned about Ang Lee:

  1. “Life of Pi” took 4 years for Lee to make, and he worked with 3,000 people on it. He read the book by Yann Martel 12 years ago. It was his first time to create a 3-D film, a “totally new cinematic experience” for him.

I would like to think my whole career is like a film school. I never stop learning about how a movie is made, I never stop learning about myself, I never stop learning how the world works. I’m a curious filmmaker. I never conquer anything, I’m just a curious filmmaker. Like most of you, I hope I get to explore filmmaking further into the unknown territory.

  1. Independence is important to him

I refuse to mix into the Hollywood [scene], to be called [a] Hollywood [filmmaker]. Even though I can make a very expensive movie, in some ways I still like to think I cannot be categorized. I wanna have my independence. To me, independent doesn’t mean cheap. I’ve done the cheapest movie, I’ve done the most expensive movie. I would like to have that freedom to express myself, [to] find my audience.

  1. He almost retired after ‘Hulk’ in 2003

I didn’t wanna retire after a big, unsuccessful, angry movie. I just grabbed anything. I thought “Brokeback Mountain” was a cheap movie, [about] two gay cowboys nobody would see – strictly art house. I could do whatever I wanted, I just didn’t want to be angry. It was one of my biggest commercial successes. All my big achievements, those that win awards, also do well commercially, except for “The Ice Storm” (1997) which was a commercial flop but was critically-acclaimed.

  1. ‘Life of Pi’ – that also won Oscars for cinematography, score and visual effects – didn’t do so well in the US

It didn’t work so well in America, which used to be the leader of the market. The whole world stood up for themselves. 85% of the income came of outside North America. Even Canada was better than America. I think that’s good news for all of us. You don’t have to follow [the Hollywood language.] You have the chance to make it, find your audience. You just have to be patient and you’ll find where your audience is. You’ll have more chances of making movies.

GAWAD LINO BROCKA AWARDEE. Lee is given the honor by Brillante Mendoza, 'Ilo Ilo' actress Angeli Bayani and Tikoy Aguiluz

  1. He believes in showing something different – always

American filmmaking – particularly Hollywood – is an establishment. Not just financially, but also film language, how things operate, the ideology. That bothers me, and movie after movie I try to break away, but I also have to negotiate with it. There’s a certain culture, a way of thinking and operating, that you have to adapt and deal with. You can work against it but you cannot ignore it. Know the operation, the film language and how to deal with it. You don’t want be a slave of that culture, that establishment. Have a good producer, a good studio that believes in your innovations.

  1. He was asked to make Richard Parker – the tiger in “Life of Pi” – look back in his last scene with Pi (Suraj Sharma)

“This is a sad ending, no way. Prepare to lose a lot of money. The tiger doesn’t look back. Can you somehow make the tiger look back?” Even if the tiger doesn’t look back, you can feel the tiger was thinking of Pi and of looking back. It doesn’t break the rules of the book but still give the Western audience some kind of satisfaction. I didn’t do it. I’m stronger now to fight the fight. It turned out, to Asians, we loved this. We love sadness. (audience laughs) Even Russia loved it, and I didn’t see Russia as a market.

  1. He loves to work with people, get inspired by them and learn from them

I don’t make movies by myself, overnight. A lot of them involve a learning curve. I just made an Indian movie for which the Indian audience feel ownership of, and I’m proud of that. I didn’t want to impose my way of thinking, I wanted to learn from them. At the end of the day, [creating] a movie is about inspiration, it’s not about a statement. I could never make a movie that’s as good as how people imagine. I do half of the job, with my skill as a filmmaker. The rest of the movie, you have to invite the audience to project themselves, their fantasies, their emotions, into the movie.

  1. He loves fear, and his biggest fear is repeating himself

Being scared is good. You tend to do your best when you’re scared. If I’m not scared, I could be lazy. I could lose my freshness and not do my best. Freshness is important. Every movie should feel like you’re making a movie for the first time. I have to somehow put myself in that position, to be scared so I will do my best. If the movie flops, you have still done your best, and I think that’s the wonderful thing.

  1. He is regarded as the “guru of magical realism” in filmmaking, but tries not to think about it

If I understand it, I probably won’t make it. I would like to think that every filmmaker has a special power so we could just do what we have to do, what we’re compelled to do. I think sight and sound in the movie language is not verbal. You can’t rationalize the experience. I wanna keep it that way. Through that escape, through pretense, you touch the truth. You make a different level, a truthful level of communication, it’s very satisfying. I would like to keep that level of mystery.

  1. He is currently inspired by Stanley Kubrick, but is inspired by a lot of filmmakers

It’s a long list. I cannot even give you a top 5. It changes. A couple of times, I was into [Alfred] Hitchcock, then Italian neo-realism. It shifts. I don’t know why I keep changing, to be honest with you. Maybe I’m afraid of getting caught. I’m a curious person, I like the adventure. I just keep moving.

After the forum, Lee received the Gawad Lino Brocka from Aguiluz, Mendoza and “Ilo Ilo” actress Angeli Bayani. “That film is wonderful, go watch the film,” he told the press while giving the thrilled actress a hug. –

Kai Magsanoc is the former editor of Rappler’s Life and Style section. She is back to freelancing, contributing to Rappler, and styling campaigns for her retail clients. Follow her live event updates on Twitter at @KaiMagsanoc. Watch out for her blog, Coffee with Kai, coming this December.

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