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Ang Lee.

Of all the major directors working today none is more adventurous, more versatile, more voracious for new challenges than Taiwan-born American master Ang Lee.

In a remarkable career that began in 1992 with the Chinese-language Pushing Hands, Lee has made one of the best Jane Austen adaptations (Sense and Sensibility), a study of upper-class family dysfunction (The Ice Storm), two westerns (Ride with the Devil and the Oscar-winning Brokeback Mountain), a ravishing martial arts epic (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and an unjustly underrated comic-book movie (Hulk).

To each of these genres Lee brought rare intelligence and sensitivity, imposing himself on the material but never flexing directorial muscle for its own sake.

So with that dazzlingly diverse CV and a commitment to upping the ante every time he gets behind a camera (his 2007 erotic thriller Lust, Caution faced major censorship issues), you'd think he would jump at the chance to adapt Yann Martel's 2002 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, Life of Pi.

Indeed, Lee's passion for cross-cultural stories would make him a natural for Martel's fable about an Indian whose faith in God and passion for all the world's great religions is sorely tested when he finds himself in the middle of the Pacific with a hungry Bengal tiger.

But when Lee was approached by 20th Century Fox to adapt Life of Pi after failed attempts by M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) he was reluctant to climb on board.

"I loved the book but I could not see how it could be made into a movie," Lee says by phone from Sydney ahead of its release today.

But it wasn't the dilemma of putting an actor into a boat with a tiger that most concerned Lee because as anyone who has read Life of Pi might expect - the sheer cost of filming a real tiger was what ultimately defeated Jeunet. Big advances in digital animation since he made Hulk would take care of that.

Rather it was the very literary nature of the book, which opens with an Indian youngster named Piscine (or Pi) from the Indian French enclave Pondicherry meditating on, among other things, the nature of religion, the relationship of man and animals and the error of anthropomorphism.

And then there is the famous postmodernism rug-pull ending which forces the reader to question everything that has gone before. "There were a few moments on the ocean that I thought were very cinematic but as a whole I couldn't see a movie in it. The beginning is too sprawling and the ending is not movie friendly. It is mainly a philosophical novel," Lee says.

And, of course, there was the challenge of shooting a film that mostly takes place on the Pacific after a ship carrying Pi and his zookeeper father's animals to Canada sinks, leaving the youngster in a lifeboat with an orang-utan, a zebra with a broken leg, a hyena and, of course, the 200kg Royal Bengal tiger that Pi has named Richard Parker (you'll learn why during the film).

However, rather than rejecting the project out of hand, Lee let it linger, finishing another movie, the lovely and sadly neglected Taking Woodstock, and letting Life of Pi gradually get under his skin. "I allowed myself to be seduced by it," Lee laughs.

If telling a story involving a shipwreck, a boatful of wild animals who gradually get eaten until the last two standing are the boy and the big cat, encounters with a dizzying variety of sea life and a magical island overrun with meerkats were not enough, Lee stunned the studio by telling them he wanted to shoot Life of Pi in 3-D.

The very expensive process of digital 3-D, which has mainly been used for animation or action-fantasy movies such as Avatar, Clash of the Titans, the Harry Potter finale and Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, appeals mostly to young males.

In contrast, that key demographic would struggle to distinguish Martel's novel from a YouTube sketch about baked goods so it is an enormous risk spending more than $100 million on a film without a ready-made audience - Martin Scorsese's similarly artsy foray into 3-D, Hugo, lost a packet.

"I argued with the studio for a long time," Lee says. "I told them that I could not do the movie in 2-D. It would not be filmable. The only way to bring the situation of a boy in a boat on the ocean to life was in 3-D, to make water a character in the story. Otherwise it would be very boring."

It is difficult to underestimate Lee's challenge to Hollywood, which believes that the appropriate use for 3-D is spectacle - Avengers- type mega smackdowns.

Lee, on the other hand, thinks that shooting action films in 3-D is redundant because it is doing little more than amplifying what the film is already doing - cranking the volume up to 11, to use Spinal Tap parlance.

A more effective use is for intimate stories such as Life of Pi, for poetry instead of pummelling an audience into submission.

"Using 3-D in action movies can be too much, too overwhelming. But when used with smaller stories, it can bring the audience into a world and heighten the drama. I can't wait to use 3-D to make a straight dramatic story," Lee says.

The solid box office, rave reviews and slew of awards for Life of Pi (with a likely clutch of Oscar nominations to come) means that Lee probably will get the chance to make a straight dramatic story in 3-D, one without any elements of spectacle.

He might even get a tap on the shoulder from a smitten James Cameron, who says that Lee's movie "does what 3-D is supposed to do - it allows you to forget you're watching 3-D".

One of the reasons Lee was able to convince 20th Century Fox to allow him the extra millions needed to shoot in 3-D was moving the production to his homeland of Taiwan, which he left decades ago to train as a filmmaker and pursue a Hollywood career.

In Taiwan he could use the cheaper labour to keep the already massive budget down.

Lee and his team took over an abandoned airport, using a hangar as a soundstage and digging a 6.4 million litre tank in the runaway to replicate the ocean upon which Pi (who is played by newcomer Suraj Sharma) spends months drifting in the company of Richard Parker.

While Lee is now floating on an ocean of praise, the experience of shooting Life of Pi encompassed both the giddy highs of big-budget movie- making and the appalling lows.

"At times I thought this was the utopian of filmmaking. We had people from all over the world, including Australia, living and working together, holding hands and singing Kumbaya," Lee laughs.

"At other times we had such big technical problems we didn't know what to do.

"I spent millions to dig this huge hole and build a tank and I didn't know how to use it. I thought 'Oh my God, what have I done here'," he says. While Lee was exhausted by making Life of Pi, the overall experience has proved so positive and the film so well received that he is reluctant to leave behind the world of mega-scaled 3-D movie-making.

"I thought I would do something a little more intimate but I've learned so much on making Life of Pi that it would be a shame to put it aside," Lee says.

I ask him if he is open to offers to join one of the big franchises, perhaps do a Sam Mendes and sign up for a James Bond movie.

"Absolutely," Lee says. "That has been my dream since childhood."