Ever since Life of Pi was published in 2001, readers from around the world have written author Yann Martel to say how they were inspired by the survival story of an Indian boy lost at sea in a lifeboat with a hungry Bengal tiger. “A lot of people took something from the novel and made it significant to their lives, often to do with adversity — cancer, a violent attack, the death of someone,” Martel says. “I’ve had people say, ‘I have cancer, and the cancer is the tiger, and I have to overcome the tiger.'”
Numerous filmmakers were also drawn to Martel’s best-seller, thanks to its dramatic life-and-death conflict and florid imagery, though they tended to see only adversity in any attempt to bring it to the screen. M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense), Alfonso Cuarón (Children of Men), and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie) each mounted efforts to adapt the novel before eventually bowing out. Finally, Twentieth Century Fox approached Ang Lee. The Oscar winner for Brokeback Mountain admits he had a lot of hesitation about adapting the book. “I thought it was unmakeable, even though it’s very inspiring,” Lee says. Even now he sounds doubtful. “We don’t have big stars. All we have is difficulty: water, kids, animals, and 3-D. Everything you should avoid in the movie business, it’s all put together.”
But Lee tends to have good luck with the impossible, having turned Brokeback Mountain‘s gay love story into a mainstream hit and lured legions of action fans to the subtitled Mandarin-language fantasy Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. After fighting Fox for the budget he wanted (Lee won’t say what he got, but sources peg it at around $80 million), the Taiwanese filmmaker took a leap of faith and climbed aboard.
Lee hired South Delhi-based newcomer Suraj Sharma to star as teenage Piscine Molitor Patel, nicknamed Pi, whose wealthy family is emigrating from India to Canada on a freighter that’s also ferrying animals from the zoo they owned. When the ship founders in a storm, Pi ends up spending 227 days adrift in the Pacific Ocean, sharing a lifeboat with not only the tiger but — for a time — an orangutan, a zebra, and a vicious hyena. (Slumdog Millionaire‘s Irrfan Khan plays an older version of Pi.)
One of the things that attracted Lee was the book’s exploration of faith. “I tried my best to maintain that. It’s about God, not necessarily religion,” the director says. As in the novel, the movie’s first act features young Pi dabbling in various organized faiths, seeking answers about the Almighty. “Then we throw to the ocean and face the abstract idea of God — the ultimate God, into chaos and irrational nature — and Pi goes through a test,” says Lee. “Without faith, there’s no way to make it through a journey.”
Lee’s own journey included shooting in 3-D for the first time — and risking his high-tech cameras in the churning water tanks of a Taiwan soundstage used to simulate the open sea. “Nobody takes 3-D cameras and bangs them around like we do,” Lee says proudly. The gamble could pay off. In April, Fox screened roughly 10 minutes of footage at CinemaCon, astonishing the gathered theater owners with both the film’s technical prowess and the emotional pull of a helpless boy watching his family’s brightly lit ship slip below the clear waves.
Life of Pi is now generating awards buzz in major categories as well as in the visual-effects arena. Though Lee used a real tiger in some scenes, the more complicated sequences that take place on the small boat — which means most of them — required an animal that was entirely digital. “Of course, the two have to match perfectly because if you see the real one and the CGI one looks fake, it will completely destroy the credibility of the movie,” says Martel. Plus, given all the other complexities Lee & Co. had to overcome during the production, the last thing they needed was one costar devouring another.