How Ang Lee Took a Tiger by the Tail to Create ‘Life of Pi’

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Ang Lee took on a book-to-film project people said was unmakeable and turned "Life of Pi" into a worldwide box-office sensation

It would have been foolish to predict what “Life of Pi” — has become: a box-office phenomenon that has swept one country after another, a game changer in its use of 3D and computer graphics and a critical darling with 11 Oscar nominations including best picture, director, screenplay, cinematography and two for composer Mychael Danna.

“It still comes as a surprise,” director Ang Lee told TheWrap. “But a wonderful surprise. For a long time I felt that it’s a privilege to even make this movie. So we’re very happy.”

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Everything about “Life of Pi,” based on the bestselling novel by Yann Martel, represented an uncommon risk. A pensive drama without a single movie star or, for that matter, a face vaguely familiar to American audiences, the project cost $130 million, highly unusual in today’s Hollywood. (Even “Les Misérables” cost just $60 million.)

Further, the movie takes place almost entirely on the ocean, in 3D and with a CG tiger, factors that required technological machinations not guaranteed to work. Beyond that, given its ponderous price tag, the movie had to appeal to a very broad audience to pay off.

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And it has. An uplifting story about the survival of the human spirit and the power of imagination, Life of Pi” has been embraced across cultures and nations around the globe, with the movie setting new benchmarks in China, sweeping Latin America and taking in $450 million worldwide while still in release.

“The pattern of how this movie plays is kind of strange. I’ve never experienced it before,” Lee said of “Pi’s” overwhelming international appeal. “It was made to be a big movie, with lots of commercials everywhere. But it’s a philosophical movie — an Indian boy, a digital tiger, an ambiguous ending. I didn’t know if it would work or not.”

The novel tells the story of a shipwrecked Indian boy, Pi, adrift on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, and adds a twist at the end to make you question everything you’ve read. “Pi’s” journey to the screen took the better part of a decade and began conventionally enough. Producer Gil Netter sent Fox 2000 veteran producer Elizabeth Gabler the book shortly after it was published, and they optioned it for Fox in 2002.

She commissioned a script from Dean Georgaris for director M. Night Shyamalan, but Georgaris never completed it. Director Alfonso Cuaron (“Children of Men”) signed on and then left. Jean-Pierre Jeunet (“Delicatessen”) picked up the project, then he dropped out, too. 

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Finally she approached Lee, whom she’d admired for years. “He told me I was crazy,” Gabler said. “I told him he had to do it.”

The problem was, most people considered the story of young Pi to be unmakeable. You couldn’t film it with real tigers. Could a computer-generated tiger be believable? For Lee, who was revered for such movies as “Brokeback Mountain” and “Sense and Sensibility,” but who had also learned a lot making the tech-heavy but unsuccessful “Hulk,” the impossibility of the challenge was part of the appeal.

“That’s a small part,” he confessed. “That’s ego. But that’s not a good enough reason. Artistically, it’s a philosophical book. The movie has an unfriendly ending. It pulls the rug out from the audience’s feet. Your attention is mandatory.”

And those difficulties, to Lee, were irresistible. “It’s challenging, but it’s a thrill. If you can do it, you can swagger around. When people say, ‘How the hell did you do that?’ there’s a certain amount of satisfaction.” The night before Lee spoke to the TheWrap, he had been at a critics’ award ceremony where he was approached by Steven Spielberg. “He said to me, ‘I tried to figure out how you do that,’ Of course, that’s nice!”

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But back to the movie: Lee dove into making the story his own, conducting intensive research on tigers and computer graphics, and investigating the logistics of creating a set where the ocean would seem like a real character. He decided to do the film in 3D. The price continued to rise — and with it the anxiety of then-Fox chairmen Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman.

Gabler recalled: “Tom and Jim said, ‘We can’t make this movie. It’s too risky. Give it back to him.’” Lee got on a plane to Los Angeles. At a meeting with the studio chiefs, he showed an animated mock-up of the shipwreck scene, complete with swimming zebras. And he showed them a 12-minute tape of an unknown actor, Suraj Sharma, reciting the monologue from the end of the movie: Pi, in a hospital bed, recounting an alternative, grisly fate that could have befallen the survivors of a shipwreck. “When we saw it, the lights came up, and they said OK,” said Gabler.

So the studio, in Lee’s words, “sweated it out” with him over four years, gambling on the notion that the film just might be the international hit it would have to be to make back Fox’s investment.

FoxThe time included three months of rehearsal with the inexperienced Sharma and another seven months shooting. The Taiwanese government gave favorite son Lee an abandoned airport where the filmmakers built a series of soundstages, saving the production millions.

One studio was used to build a massive water tank, where the challenge was to simulate the waves of a vast ocean and not see the water that bounced off the sides of a tank. They built 12 machines to suck in water and shoot it out, creating two-story waves and endless ripples.

“Water is the hardest element, and with an ocean movie with a large quantity of water to deal with, you’re just humbled,” said Lee, the week Oscar nominations were announced. “The ocean has to be a character, but I needed some control.”

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Another studio was used to house four real tigers, which were studied in minute detail by visual-effects specialists in order to create the fearsome CG feline named Richard Parker, for reasons explained early in the film. The tiger’s scenes are mostly CG, but the computerized cat is indistinguishable from the sparsely used footage of the real animals. This part had to be believable, said Lee.

“I didn’t know if the [CG] tiger would perform like a tiger and not a human. If it didn’t, the whole thing would fall apart.”

The work in post-production went on for over a year, as layer after layer was added to the initial footage by the Rhythm and Hues Studios, to create the menagerie of animals and the spectacular effects in scenes like one with thousands of flying fish, or the elegiac image of a bioluminescent sea overtaken by a whale breaching the surface.

FoxAs for Sharma, Lee took the 17-year-old novice under his wing, teaching him method acting and guiding him in yoga practice. The two became inseparable, and Sharma watched as Lee increasingly took on the qualities of the character Pi.

“He himself is a very intense person,” Sharma told TheWrap. “Ang moved toward Pi right through the movie. It was really intense. And in many ways I feel like he was a little like Pi; the way he thinks is similar. The aura is similar. He has that similar patience with things but a certain perseverance to it. But nice at the same time — I can’t explain it. It’s the way his back is bent … Ang is a lot like his work. It’s very simple from the outside but it has a lot of complexities on the inside. Kind of like Pi.”

For Lee, the result was one that both exhausted and exhilarated him. The story of Pi, he says, is the story of the essence of filmmaking.

“It’s a project that examines illusion. The power of storytelling. The importance of illusion — is it more real than what we can prove?” he reflected.  “I’m a storyteller. I create illusions. I believe in that more than in things I can touch. And this gets to the bottom of it all.”