Life of Pi: Interview with Ang Lee

With LIFE OF PI, director Ang Lee (“Brokeback Mountain”; “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) creates a groundbreaking movie event about a young man who survives a disaster at sea and is hurtled into an epic journey of adventure and discovery.  While cast away, he forms an amazing and unexpected connection with another survivor…a fearsome Bengal tiger.

Based on the book that has sold more than seven million copies and spent years on the bestseller lists, LIFE OF PI takes place over three continents, two oceans, many years, and a wide universe of imagination.  Lee’s vision, coupled with stunning 3D visuals, has turned a novel long thought un-filmable into a thrillingly audacious mix of grand storytelling and powerful and provocative themes.


Since Lee came aboard the project almost four years ago, he has worked to create a singular vision of author Yann Martel’s unforgettable tale of courage, perseverance, inspiration and hope.  The film takes us through a young man’s incredible adventure – at turns thrilling and spiritual; harrowing and triumphant; humorous and inspirational.


Pushing the boundaries of cutting-edge technologies, Lee has made a new kind of picture, in which the scientific and artistic elements of filmmaking are so advanced and sophisticated that they blend into a coherent and unified vision. When the history of motion picture technology is recorded, Fox should get a special mention for it was the very studio behind the innovative visual effects of “Titanic,” the 3D revolution of “Avatar,” and the CGI work in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which brought unprecedented emotion and depth to the character of Caesar.  Like Caesar, in “Life of Pi,” Richard Parker is such a fully-realized and accessible character that spectators would easily believe that he was actually on that lifeboat with Suraj Sharma, who portrays Pi.


LIFE OF PI is Lee’s first foray into 3D filmmaking, which he envisioned for this story long before “Avatar” hit theaters.  He uses that tool to expand the scope of the film, immerse us in Pi’s physical journey, and envelop us in the story’s emotional hold. “I wanted the experience of the film to be as unique as Yann Martel’s book,” says Mr. Lee, “and that meant creating the film in another dimension.  3D is a new cinematic language, and in LIFE OF PI it’s just as much about immersing audiences in the characters’ emotional space as it is about the epic scale and adventure.”


LIFE OF PI begins and ends in Montreal with a writer who, seeking inspiration happens across the incredible story of Piscine Militor Patel (Pi at 17 years of age is played by Suraj Sharma; the contemporary character is played by Irrfan Khan; and as a youngster in the film’s early scenes, by Ayush Tandon).  Growing up in Pondicherry, India during the 1970s, Piscine, known to all as Pi, has a rich life. His father (Adil Hussain) owns a zoo, and Pi spends his days among tigers, zebras, hippos, and other exotic creatures.  He develops his own theories about faith, belief, and human (and animal) nature – but after Pi attempts to befriend a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, the young boy learns a harsh lesson from his father about the relationship between human and beast.  “The tiger is not your friend!” thunders Mr. Patel at his son. “Animals don’t think like we do; people who forget that get themselves killed!”  Pi will never overlook that lesson, which impacts his insatiable curiosity about the world and, ultimately, the journey upon which he is hurtled.


The diversity of Pi’s world is shaken by sweeping changes occurring in his country, and when Pi is seventeen his father and mother (played by Tabu) decide that the family must emigrate to a better life.  The move promises new adventures in a new world, but it also means that Pi must leave behind his first love.


Choosing to relocate to Canada, Pi’s parents close their zoo, pack their belongings (including some of the animals from the zoo), and board a Japanese cargo ship, where they encounter a sadistic French chef (Gérard Depardieu).  Late in the night, deep at sea, Pi’s joy at the onrush of nature turns on a dime to cataclysm.  The ship sinks, but Pi miraculously survives. He is cast adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean aboard a boat with a most unexpected traveling companion – Richard Parker.


As they embark on their adventure, the ferocious tiger, whose true nature was seared into Pi’s memory at his family’s zoo, is Pi’s mortal enemy.  But as they learn to co-exist, Richard Parker becomes Pi’s best hope in his quest to find a way home.  Their bond is reinforced by another shared experience: both Pi and Richard Parker had little understanding of the real world, and both were raised by the same master – Pi’s father.  Now, nothing else remains for them of that past, except each other.


The two castaways face unimaginable challenges, including nature’s majestic grandeur and fury, which lash their small lifeboat.  One particularly monstrous storm becomes a spiritual experience for Pi, leading him to question God’s plan for him.  “I’ve lost everything!  I surrender!  What more do you want?” Pi rails at the sky. But through it all, he never loses hope.  Pi finds joy from something as simple as an old survival manual, as well as from the solace of the ocean’s beauty: the bioluminescent, rainbow hues of magnificent schools of flying fish; the shimmering blues of the ocean’s swells; and a radiant humpback whale that streaks to the surface of the ocean.


And through Mr. Lee’s use of 3D, we are there with Pi and Richard Parker, experiencing these extraordinary and visually stunning moments, immersed like never before in an epic movie adventure interwoven with an emotional and spiritual journey.


The film’s journey began with Yann Martel’s beloved book, one of the biggest publishing events of the past decade.  The novel won the prestigious Man Booker Prize, and was a New York Times bestseller for over a year.


Producer Gil Netter, who has had a long and successful relationship with Fox 2000 Pictures, brought the book to the company’s president of production, Elizabeth Gabler, who acquired the property for Fox in 2002.  Netter was immediately drawn to the story, which he says, “has everything you go to the movies for – and what you can’t get anywhere else.”  Together, Netter and Gabler developed and nurtured the project for several years, confident that the story for which they had such passion would become a major motion picture event.


Most significantly, they waited for the right filmmaker to emerge and embrace the project’s formidable challenges and opportunities.  As Netter explains: “Ang Lee is an artist with whom I’ve long aspired to work, and is one of those magical talents who could masterfully take charge of the material.”


Elizabeth Gabler adds, “The scope of the film is gigantic, and Ang is a visionary who won’t even consider taking on a project unless it frightens him and provides the opportunity to break new ground.  Like Pi and Richard Parker, Ang’s initial fear evolves into triumph over seemingly insurmountable challenges.”


Martel, another longtime admirer of Mr. Lee’s work, adds, “Ang was the perfect choice because he makes emotionally powerful movies. His projects run the gamut from the small and the intimate to the spectacular.  From ‘Sense and Sensibility’ to ‘Brokeback Mountain’ to ‘Ice Storm’ and ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,’ his work is incredibly varied.  And that’s what you want with LIFE OF PI because it is an intimate drama of a young man who loses his family and has to cope with unimaginable challenges set against a spectacular backdrop.  To pull that off cinematically and retain the emotional core is extraordinarily complicated and Ang and his team have the know-how, determination, and the creative chops to pull that off.”


Watching his book being translated into film was a heady experience for Martel, who notes that “Life of Pi has been translated into forty-two languages.  To see it translated on film as a movie is like the forty-third.  The language of cinema is a universal one and to see the story translated that way is a thrill.”


David Magee (“Neverland”) was tapped for the daunting task of adapting Martel’s rich, far-reaching work that married the profound and whimsical with epic adventure and deep introspection.  The screenwriter admits that while he read the book for pleasure some time before the assignment, now that he had the gig he wondered “how he could translate it for the screen.”  The key, he determined, was the idea of simply telling a story about a story.  “In the book, Pi is telling a story to the character of The Writer, just as Ang is telling us a story with his film,” says Magee.


“LIFE OF PI, on a huge scale, is a fable of faith,” adds Lee.  “In many ways, it is about the value of storytelling and the value of sharing stories.”