As the opening night film for the New York Film Festival, all eyes were on “Life of Pi,” the big-budget studio adaptation of Yann Martel’s best-seller from A-List director Ang Lee. And while some were focused on the spectacle of the film, from the enormous cost and logistical issues of filming to the colorful 3D that frames this story of survival, the one element that drove the filmmakers was the idea of faith.
Speaking to a New York Film Festival audience, Martel talked about the origins of this very peculiar story, about a religious Indian child raised in a zoo and stranded at sea with a small ship, a Bengal tiger, and his faith. “I started writing the book when I was in India,” he says, adding he in the midst of writing an entirely unrelated other novel. “I was hitchhiking for six months. This novel just wasn’t coming to life, so I had to put it aside. For the first time in my life, I finally noticed the abundance of religious expression in India. There’s more religion expressed per square mile in India than everywhere else on Earth.”
Adds director Ang Lee, the architect of Martel’s onscreen world, “You don’t know the strength of your faith until it’s been tested. The zoo to him has a paradise. He’s innocent. And he has all these imaginative stories in his head, all these spiritual things, and in the ocean he can’t even rely on organized religions, it’s just the will of God. Eventually he embraces faith, because there’s no way he would survive."
“I was intrigued not so much by the anthropology of it, how religion is manifested, but how it’s lived, how it’s felt,” Martel says. “I was interested in the phenomenon of faith. So it’s this very deeply unreasonable capacity to believe something that is fundamentally unreasonable. I didn’t want to focus on one [religion] in particular, I wanted to look at what’s common to all religions, which is that phenomenon of faith. Each religion has a different view of the universe, but at the core they have that leap of faith, believing something that is not rational, not material in front of you.”
Of course, faith alone would not be enough to bring this colorful story to the screen. Admits Martel, “When I was writing it, it was very cinematic in my mind, because of the contract of colors, the blue ocean, the white lifeboat, the orange and white tiger. But I never thought I’d see it on the screen, it would be too complicated to do.”
Lee had similar reservations, even if he was immediately captivated by the book. “I read it when the book came out, found it fascinating and mind-boggling,” Lee says. Though he concedes, “I thought, nobody in their right mind would make this. Because it’s literature, it’s philosophy, regardless how cinematic it is. It would be very very expensive, nearly impossible to do, and how are you going to sell this thing? I thought the economic side and the artistic side would not meet.” As Lee said before the screening, with a twinkle in his eye, “There is classic advice in film business: Never make a movie featuring kids, animals, water, or in 3D. I ignore all the vices because ‘Life of Pi’ is a great story, an incredible story. It only comes to life when one person passes it to another.”
Fox 2000 president of production Elizabeth Gabler knew almost immediately the potential for the project, even as it languished in development with a sea of filmmakers uncertain how to tackle the material. In the end, the solution was to embrace the mutli-cultural aspect of the picture. “For us, we always saw this film as an international adventure for all ages,” she says. “So the multi-national cast and the universal story was something we addressed, because we are a global world as far as cinema goes. This film, because of the imagery and lack of dialogue in the scenes, it transcended language and cultural barriers.”
It was Ang Lee who solved exactly how to shoot the film, citing the need for a more global approach, and his deep global connections. “The movie’s set in India, but it’s in French India,” he says. “And when I get onto it, it has to have American money and technology. So I decided to take the movie to Taiwan, which hasn’t hosted a movie since some movie in 1965 or something. But it’s not that crazy, since Taiwan will do anything for me!”
Lee describes a hectic, colorful set, where there were, “Indian boys, an international crew, and people from 23 countries working on this movie.” But Lee found all the resources he would need in his home town. “I occupied this abandoned airport in Taoyuan City, it was like a utopia for filmmakers. We used the hangars and built a large tank and discovered what could be done. Taiwan is like my floating island. It’s my home town, it’s who I am. I feel quite at home.”
Lead actor Suraj Sharma, who got the attention of producers while accompanying his brother in auditions, faced a difficult task as well. Though it wasn’t what you’d expect: while he spends most of his screen time acting against a tiger on a small boat, the truth is the tiger was not even there. “The boat was pretty empty, there was no tiger,” he laughs. “They made me see all these videos of tigers in all these moods and scenarios, and I would watch the tigers be trained. At the end of it, it’s almost like the tiger was really there.”
Four tigers were used to play the tiger, named Richard Parker in the film. “Three from France," Lee adds. “Two of which are female. The male tiger we modeled from a seven-year-old, nearly 500-pound gorgeous tiger named King, the most magnificent animal. And some of the fear scenes have to be done by the ladies, they’re sisters. They’re more aggressive than King, King just poses like a King. Some of the more docile stuff, we have a Canadian tiger. He’s pattable, you just want to hug him.”
While the tigers themselves give command performances, a lot of it’s performance is derived from CGI. “We have nearly thirty shots that are real tiger,” explains Lee. “This has two uses for me. One is when we do digital like this, to humanize them, you need good references, they cannot be invented. Secondly, I raised the bar for the digital guys. You need to match that in 3D.” Lee, who envisioned the film in 3D before he even understood the format, laughs, “So that’s very intimidating, but it’s a good kind of intimidation.”
Still, you can expect nothing went the way as planned, even after Lee extensively mapped the film out during a lengthy pre-production period. “I spent a year going over every detail,” says Lee, claiming, “I have a one hour, seventeen minute pre-vis, animated.” But he concedes, “For a movie like this, nothing worked the way you planned it. I got through one eighth of my shot list. I don’t believe in storyboards. Sometimes I act out the action sequence so they can see it. But shots are so expensive, you have to be so concise and precise. Of course, you can only do so much.” Much like the lead character’s ordeal, Lee sums up the experience of shooting the film by saying, “I wouldn’t call it improvising. It’s survival.”
"Life of Pi" opens on November 21st. Watch video of the entire Q&A.