Others had taken a crack at the intimidating "Pi" and backed off - reportedly M. Night Shyamalan, among others.
But Lee said he was haunted by the Yann Martel best-seller and felt destined to make it, so close was the movie (and its title character) to his own experience as a man poised between East and West, absorber and interpreter of cultures.
"I found the book fascinating and mind-boggling and charming. Everything Pi tells you is fantastic, but you're willing to believe it, even knowing that it is not proven and never could be, and that there is a chance the whole thing is a grand illusion," he said. "There is the idea that we believe the illusion more than we believe in real life, because the illusion is more powerful. This was personal to me - I'm into that kind of thing. The Chinese negative."
"The principle of existence. The yin and yang. Existence hides - what we think is real is just a reflection of reality, so we are living in a false world."
"It haunted me," Lee said. "Even though I knew [the book] probably could not be made into a movie, when the chance came for me to make it, I felt that I had to do it. I felt the book belonged to me, that I should be the one to make it go ahead."
The movie's budget is a big secret, but it's reputed to be one of the most expensive outside-the-Hollywood-system projects ever, estimated at more than $100 million, thanks to expensive digital animation and 3-D presentation.
The animation was necessary to manage one of the three aforementioned hazards of filmmaking; by using digital animals, Lee eliminated on-set problems. Digital backdrops created the illusion of open water in a big water tank in Taiwan.
The story follows an Indian boy who survives a sinking ship only to find himself adrift on a lifeboat with a tiger. It's an action spectacle that evolves into a spiritual journey. It also contains not a single Hollywood star, all of which explains why it kicked around the studios for years.
The closest thing it has to a bankable name is Lee, who made it happen, drawing on his bona fides as the person who turned the Chinese-language "Crouching Tiger" into a movie that topped $200 million internationally, north of $100 million in North America.
Hollywood support from the studio was critical but so was international financing from some of Lee's associates overseas. I asked him if this cost-sharing and multinationalism (the movie contains several languages and actors from many countries) is the future of movies.
"It's happened already in the global art house cinema, where it's been going on for a while. I think it's going to happen in the mainstream movies more and more. Hollywood still has the clout, but as distribution changes and becomes more global, I think movies will change."