'Life of Pi' Director Ang Lee on His Greatest Balancing Act

Mike McGregor / Contour by Getty Images

Many times when you make a movie, it feels like your biggest mistake. But even if a film isn’t a hit, you shouldn’t view it as a mistake. My mistake is having two sides to my character. When I’m not working, I get very down, but when I am working, I get very immersed in it.

For six years, from 1985 to 1991, I felt pretty weak and useless. I was at home, working on scripts and cooking and taking care of the kids, while my wife, who’s a very strong woman, steady and pragmatic, really stabilized the family. She was working as a medical researcher. I didn’t have much self-esteem, because I’d pitch so many scripts and get back rewrites. It was just endless frustration. I got moody and fell into a near depression. But then I became an older, more mature person who was much more prepared to direct a feature-length film.

Years later, when I was making Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk, I was hardly at home. I spent two years on Crouching Tiger and then another year promoting it all over the world. After the Oscars, I went right into working on Hulk, which took two years. This meant that during my son’s teenage years, I didn’t spend a lot of time with him. I grew up in Taiwan, where those years are all about academics, so I didn’t feel as though I had a lot of life experience to share with him while he was in high school. American high schools are psychologically more complicated. When your children are little, you educate them and share your experiences, but when they’re older, it’s harder, and I wasn’t home enough to give him guidance. There was a level of detachment and a lot of sparse phone conversations. “Work?” “Fine.” “Girlfriend?” “No.” By the time I finished Hulk, he was 17 and already preparing for college, so I had missed out on a lot. I should have made more of an effort.

After that, I tried to be there more for my second son. My next film, Brokeback Mountain, involved just two months of shooting, and I did the editing in Rye, N.Y., near my then-hometown of Larchmont. I also did postproduction on my next film, Lust, Caution, near my home, so my son would come to the editing room and watch. He wanted to play football, and I tried to talk him out of it because he was so small, but I was there for every game. When he made his first catch, I was so beside myself, I screamed louder than when I won my Academy Award. Once he got to high school, it seemed suicidal to play football, so I finally talked him out of it, and he went into drama. I went to every performance and came home every night to cook dinner. He had a good time working as a production assistant on my film Taking Woodstock and then played Teddy, the boy who gets lost in Bangkok, in The Hangover Part II. He recently graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, just like I did.

My wife is now retired, and we’re normal people with good kids. Thinking back to those earlier days, I felt I was weak when I wasn’t making movies, and then when I was, I thought I was weak as a family member. It’s more of a big regret, because I truly, honestly wish I could do better as a father and a husband.   

Interview by Marlow Stern

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