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This story first appeared in the Nov. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer won’t ever forget the night he rode out a storm on a Taiwanese coast guard cutter with Ang Lee. The sturdy craft, buffeted by 9-foot waves, thrashed about relentlessly. Venturing into the storm surge was intentional — Lee wanted his team on Life of Pi to experience the ocean’s personality firsthand — even though the movie was shot entirely on dry land inside elaborate water tanks in Taichung, Taiwan.
“It was very rough,” says Westenhofer. “But it goes back to one of Ang’s chief qualities: authenticity. He’s also incredibly artistic and very symbolic.”
For all involved, the making of Life of Pi — which opens Nov. 21 — was a long, painstaking odyssey. The film pushes the boundaries of 3D technology and visual effects as well as cinematic storytelling. It is Lee’s first 3D movie and his most ambitious technical endeavor since 2003’s CG-heavy Hulk.
Many thought it would be impossible to adapt Yann Martel‘s Man Booker Prize-winning 2001 novel about an Indian boy named Pi (played by Suraj Sharma) who is lost at sea after the ship he’s aboard with his family — along with the animals from their zoo — capsizes during a violent storm. Everyone is killed but Pi, who ends up on a small dinghy with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
There also was near-heartbreak. At one point during preproduction, Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler received word from higher-ups that the studio wanted out — the risk was simply too great. Movies shot on water are notorious for coming in late and over budget. Plus, the film had no major stars.
“I had to call Ang in Taiwan and tell him we were giving the movie back to him,” recalls Gabler, who had long wanted to work with the filmmaker. “I thought he’d say, ‘I’m so sad.’ It was midnight his time, and he told me he was getting on a plane and coming to L.A.
“He arrived, and we all went into a screening room — [Fox co-chairmen] Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos included — and Ang showed us previsualizations of the entire shipwreck sequence and the audition tape of Suraj. At the end, they said that if Ang could get some money out of the budget, we’d go ahead.”
The budget was trimmed to just north of $100 million, and the soft-spoken 58-year-old filmmaker — who was nominated for a best director Oscar for 2000’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and won for 2005’s Brokeback Mountain — flew to his Connecticut home, approval in hand. “It’s the hardest movie I’ve ever made,” confesses Lee. “I worked on it for nearly four years.”
For Gabler, the journey began a decade ago when she was on maternity leave. Producer Gil Netter and screenwriter Dean Georgaris had discovered the book and wanted a meeting.
Says Netter: “I called her at home and convinced her to let us come over and pitch her. That was a Wednesday. The deal was closed by Friday.”
Georgaris worked on the adapted screenplay before M. Night Shyamalan came aboard to write and direct. But wooed by other projects, including 2008’s The Happening, Shyamalan eventually fell off. One more director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, would come and go before Lee signed on.
Screenwriter David Magee was on the set of director Marc Forster‘s Finding Neverland when he was handed Martel’s book. “I spoke with Marc the next day, and he asked if it could be a movie. I said no. How could you sustain the story? I set the book aside, but then, 3½ years later, my agent called and said Ang Lee was interested in making the film,” says Magee. “It’s every screenwriter’s dream to work with one of the most talented directors in the world.”
Magee and Lee met at a sushi restaurant in New York and together set about trying to figure out how to reframe the book’s story, which initially is set in India and opens with Pi studying various religions.
Not long after, Magee’s nephew told him about Steven Callahan, a naval engineer and inventor who was lost at sea for 76 days. Callahan chronicled his survival in the best-selling book Adrift, which Magee immediately read. Magee tracked Callahan down in Boothbay, Maine, and asked if he and Lee could visit.
“We met Steve at his home, and Ang had this idea that we should go out in a lifeboat and bounce about for a few hours,” says Magee. “I thought it was a horrifying idea, and I quietly told Steve we shouldn’t do it. Instead, Steve took us out on his boat. At some point, Steve took the sails down, and we lurched about. It was about 40 degrees and freezing with the wind.”
Their initial travels didn’t end there. Lee and Magee went to India and visited every place described in the opening part of the book. “It was then that we found our framing device,” recalls Magee. “We would have the adult Pi telling the story of what happened to the young Pi. I wrote some scenes right away. This is a film about how stories get us through life, so that life isn’t just chaos and mystery. And when Pi is out on the boat, it’s the stories that help him survive.”
Lee originally cast and shot Tobey Maguire — who first worked with the director on 1997’s The Ice Storm — as the journalist who comes to interview the adult Pi about his adventure. But midway through, Lee decided it would be too jarring to have a big star, and Rafe Spall replaced Maguire. “Tobey was very nice about it. We just didn’t need someone who was that famous in that role,” says Lee.
More important, Lee held an open casting call in India for the role of Pi, seeing more than 3,000 teenage boys. Suraj Sharma, then 17, never intended to try out for the role when accompanying his brother but ended up auditioning and was called back.
“I asked him to take his glasses off,” remembers Lee. “I did a reading and gave him some direction. He’s one of those rare talents, a gift from God — as if God was saying, ‘Go ahead and make this movie.’ “
A vast majority of the film was shot at an abandoned airport in Taichung. The government of Taiwan, where native son Lee is a national hero, refitted the property with a large tank, a smaller deep-water tank and a large enclosure for the four Bengal tigers used in the movie. The hangar became the production office, and another building was a soundstage.
“The best way to achieve the effects we wanted was to build our own tank, in terms of size and the number of wave makers,” says production designer David Gropman, whose credits include Doubt, Hairspray and Lee’s Taking Woodstock. “Our tank was 200 feet-by-100 feet and 9 feet deep. There were walls on three sides made up of five stories of shipping containers and a movable wall.”
Adds Netter: “We could make over 50 kinds of waves. We put sandbars and rock piles at the bottom of the tank, and we had pilings at the end that could absorb water.”
As for the tigers, most of the shots are CG. “We broke new ground with this movie,” says Westenhofer, who had worked on The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, “because the animals didn’t have to talk like they did in Narnia.” Westenhofer says he collected 100 hours of reference video of the real tigers so as to replicate their expressions and behavior.
But 24 shots did involve the actual tigers, and their compound was a curiosity for all involved in the production. Three were from France — King, Minh and Themis — while Jonas (by far the most mellow) was from Canada. “The French tigers were not nice,” says Gabler.
The production also had a hyena on site. “Hyenas are very dangerous, but Ang said he scratched her chest once,” adds Gabler. “I would go and talk to her. She was so weird and would pace back and forth. She once chewed a metal can when she was mad.”
The animals provided relief from an intense and arduous shoot. Water is notoriously difficult and, combined with wave machines and 3D cameras, can slow the process to a snail’s pace.
“We had one day which I’ve never had — we didn’t get a single shot,” says Netter, who also produced The Blind Side, Eragon and Flicka, among others. “There haven’t been many movies on water that have been on time and on budget. In the end, we were.”
Adds Lee: “Many days, it was the worst. The 3D lens would keep fogging up because of the weather we were creating. Nobody could figure out how to fix it.”
Sound also was problematic on Life of Pi, thanks to the cacophonous wave machines used in the water tanks. According to supervising sound editor Philip Stockton, nothing recorded live on set was usable, forcing Sharma to ADR everything.
Sharma had his own challenge: His role called for losing 30 pounds during the course of the shoot. Lee didn’t want to break for the weight loss, so the movie was shot chronologically. The young neophyte had gained the weight beforehand by feasting on dumplings, noodles and bagels lathered with Nutella.
“The hard part was losing the weight. It was intense. I would eat lettuce and tuna and work out,” says Sharma, whose father lived with him during the Taichung shoot. He also had to learn to swim — something of a prerequisite for a shipwreck movie.
Today, Sharma is studying philosophy in Delhi and doesn’t have immediate plans to continue acting. The first time he saw the finished film was at the New York Film Festival.
“I was quite speechless,” says Sharma. “When we shot the movie, everything around me was mostly bluescreen. There is so much going on now, and it’s really quite something to see.”
For editor Tim Squyres — who also worked with Lee on Taking Woodstock and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon — the hardest task was solving some of the tricky story’s structural issues.
“There’s a scene, late in the voyage, when Pi is starting to become unhinged. Richard Parker is on the boat washing himself, and Pi starts imitating him. He gets annoyed and chases Pi off. It’s a really fun scene, and it was heartbreaking to cut it,” says Squyres. “There were a lot of smart reasons to take a scene like that out. The film started to feel like it was drifting. That’s the inherent difficulty of a shipwreck movie: Whenever you have a character that’s bored, it’s hard to portray that to the audience without the audience feeling bored. There’s no cause and effect.”
Lee and Gabler understand the inherent challenges in selling Life of Pi to audiences but believe Pi’s journey and survival is a mainstream theme that will resonate with all age groups.
“Special effects and 3D are very expensive, but they are great tools for artistic endeavors and expression,” says Lee. “But many of the moments when I worked with Suraj were the best. I learned about surviving — how does Pi survive with his sanity and not go crazy? The personal journey and the filmmaking journey became one.”
HOW LIFE OF PI RELIED ON A SOLE SURVIVOR’S TRUE STORY
In 1982, Steven Callahan‘s sloop Napoleon Solo, which he designed and built himself, was damaged severely during a storm seven days out from the Canary Islands. He abandoned ship and escaped on an inflatable six-person raft, drifting for 76 days, subsisting on fish, birds and rainwater until he landed on the tourist island of Marie-Galante, south of Guadeloupe. His tale of survival during the long journey — chronicled in Callahan’s Adrift — would end up playing a key role in Life of Pi.
Sought out by Ang Lee and screenwriter David Magee at his home in Boothbay, Maine, Callahan served as a consultant on the movie, spending months on set in Taiwan. Callahan writes on his website: “Many people have noted similarities between Adrift and Life of Pi, both in details of the marine environment and of Pi‘s and my experiences within it and more broadly in terms of overall themes. I had always considered Adrift to be an allegorical tale, so perhaps the author Yann Martel and I have written mirrored images from fictional and nonfictional views about the spirituality, power and grace of the natural world.”
POOL RESOURCES: Hollywood’s Love Affair With Water Tanks
The Perfect Storm: Stage 16 on the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank houses a 22-foot-deep tank. For the $140 million production, director Wolfgang Petersen’s crew built a gimbal-mounted mockup of the Andrea Gail that could be pitched, tilted and rotated.
Titanic: In 1996, 20th Century Fox built a 360,000-square-foot tank in Playas de Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico, for James Cameron’s $200 million-budgeted film. When filled, the ocean side of the tank forms a 420-foot infinite horizon with the Pacific behind it.
Runaway Horse: The 2007 German production shot at Mediterranean Film Studios in Malta, which houses a shallow tank that’s 400-by-300 feet but only 6 feet deep. Built in 1964, the tank has been used for such films as Orca, Cutthroat Island and White Squall.
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