'Life of Pi': How the 'unfilmable' survival adventure was saved
Life of Pi was as good as dead.
The film adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, about a young boy stranded at sea with a ferocious Bengal tiger, had been on the shelf for a long time. 20th Century Fox had already approached three directors, who tried and failed to get an adaptation onscreen before bowing out.
The last best hope was Ang Lee, but while the Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director spent eight months developing the project, it was the executives at Fox who began to have second thoughts.
This would not be a cheap movie — the budget was estimated around $120 million, and when the studio took a hard look at the project, they realized they had no idea what they were getting in to.
That’s when Elizabeth Gabler, President of Fox 2000 Pictures, called Lee to tell him that it was off. Fox was backing out, and he was welcome to shop the project elsewhere.
It wasn’t the last time he would have to fight for Life of Pi. Here’s how he brought this epic tale of survival back to life, over, and over again.
For Elizabeth Gabler, calling Lee to tell him that her company couldn’t do the project was more than business as usual. She says she desperately wanted this movie to get made.
Gabler had been one of the project’s biggest champions alongside producer Gil Netter. It was a risk, but that’s what she liked about it. “I’m one of those people who’s always looking for something new,” says Gabler. “I feel like we can always subsist on sequels and things we’ve seen before, and that’s great – I think everybody needs something that they can feel really comfortable with.”
“But once in a while, there’s something that comes out and people say ‘that was a new experience for me.’ And the idea of this young man and this animal on this boat alone, trying to survive in the world, was something that I thought could reach all audiences around the world,” she added.
When she made that difficult phone call, she expected Lee to say something along the lines of “thanks, I’ll take my little project and go around and see who wants to pay for it.” Instead, he said he was getting on a plane to Los Angeles to talk to her.
He arrived willing to compromise on the budget (sources at the studio said the film ended up with an $85 million pricetag) but he brought a lot more than that. He’d already prepared a pre-visualization of the crucial shipwreck sequence, edited and scored, and a taped audition of Suraj Sharma – the first-time actor that would ultimately be cast as Pi.
Gabler says “it personalized who Pi was. We knew he had found this actor. And he wasn’t even an actor, he was just a boy from India. But seeing him read those scenes and that monologue that you see at the end when he’s in the hospital. It was impossible to say no.”
Life of Pi was back on track.
The struggles didn’t end there, and Gabler described the entire experience as similar to being in the storm that sends the ship Pi was traveling on with his family to the bottom of the ocean — a metaphor echoed by many who worked on the film. It wasn’t that the movie was out-of-control, it was just immensely complicated and pushed nearly everyone involved to the breaking point. “For a production, it was amazingly planned. We were on schedule and we were on budget, despite everyone just killing themselves under insurmountable odds,” Gabler said.
The first challenge wasfinding a way to take Martel’s novel off one page and put it onto another.
For screenwriter David Magee (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Finding Neverland), it wasn’t Pi’s experiences on the boat that were the most challenging for him to write, it was the opening, where the audience sees his family, learns of their history running a zoo, and dive into Pi’s preoccupation with religions of the world and the question of whether God exists. “So much of that was about philosophy and religion and getting a lot of backstory and exposition in, and we knew we had to use some narrative voiceover to some extent to get through that. But we didn’t want it to sound like a documentary or a history class,” Magee says.
Whenever he struggled to adapt the beloved book, Magee credits Lee (who shares screenwriting credit) with pushing him to find the right solution. “I had Ang at my side from the beginning and he was the driving force behind this. When it’s just two of you sitting in a room together trying to come up with solutions, it’s daunting enough. But if it was just me and I was trying to write this myself, I probably would have given up,” Magee says. “We had a nice balance of ‘that’s working,’ ‘that’s working,’ and ‘keep going down that road David,’ or ‘stop doing that David.’ We went back and forth and it worked beautifully for that reason.”
And though the movie as-written already had a lot of challenges, Lee willingly took on another one — 3-D cameras.
Visual Effects Supervisor Bill Westenhofer was on the defensive about the choice to shoot a literary adaptation in 3-D from the beginning. Westenhofer says “when I first told people I was working on this and that it was 3-D their first question was ‘well why is that 3-D?’ Everyone assumes its explosions and spaceships and all that.”
Westenhofer was convinced of the transformative power of 3-D after filming the ocean in heavy swell and storm surge. It was an amazing sight for him in person, but the still photos from the day at sea looked flat and unimpressive. “With 3-D,” Westenhofer says, “you see all the undulations and I knew it would really show the desolation of Pi’s plight.”
The cinematographer, Claudio Miranda, had always wanted to work with Lee, and he jumped at the chance to join Life of Pi. No stranger to the ambitious production, having shot TRON: Legacy and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Miranda was excited. “Ang came to me because I do a lot of jobs that are kind of complicated,” Miranda says. But he only found out after he’d agreed to do it that Lee wanted to shoot the entire film in 3-D.
The logistics of shooting in and around two 12 x 6 feet tanks of water were nightmarish enough. But add in cameras and equipment that hadn’t been put through the test of a shoot where extreme weather is integral to the story, and suddenly the production is in danger of grinding to a halt. One day, of course, it did.
Lee says during one of the storm scenes “we had big waves we created, you know wind, rain, thunder, and it fogged the lens. So we kept cleaning it.” But it wasn’t working. Things got desperate quickly. “We tried everything,” he says. “We called everywhere in the world. We woke people up saying ‘what are we going to do?’” The team worked for 12 hours overnight trying to solve the problem of the foggy lenses, and it was, Lee says “the first time in my career that nothing gets done in 12 hours. It was very frustrating.”
Miranda remembers the day well. They were trying to capture Pi landing in the water while the ship is sinking. A camera was supposed to circle around him as he fell. “It was a lot of coordination,” Miranda says, adding later that the scene didn’t even make it in the movie. In retrospect, Miranda can now pinpoint why things went so wrong that day. One of them was simple: The water in the tank was too hot. But he counts that day among many when things didn’t go as planned with the equipment. Everyone was still learning.
Some had to learn more basic lessons, like their lead actor — who was the star of a movie set mostly on water, but didn’t know how to swim.
Yes, Lee was even responsible for teaching Sharma to swim.
For someone who had never acted in a movie before, Sharma found himself with not just the massive responsibility of not only carrying this fantasy-survival tale, but also doing his own stunts. Many of them involved swimming, so Lee and Co. had to make sure he knew what he was doing.
Among the most complicated shots required Sharma to swim underwater through a submerged hallway in the steamer ship while it was sinking. Sharma concedes that he had many points where he was close to breaking, but says it was the expectation of Lee and the crew kept him going.
“There were so many people involved in this and so many people who are so good at what they do, they all genuinely became like a family to me,” Sharma says. “And when you’re with your family there’s no pressure, there’s no pressure. When I did feel like I was going to break down, I would hold it, hold it till there would be a crying scene, and then I would just cry. That worked!”