Ang Lee’s journey to make Life of Pi echoes the leap of faith at the heart of the film’s source novel.
21 Dec 2012 - 12:58 PM  UPDATED 21 Dec 2012 - 12:58 PM

Ang Lee's Life of Pi is wildly ambitious in scope, style, and new technologies, insisting its audience suspend their disbelief and embrace its story of human resilience and make-believe. The Academy Award winning director (Brokeback Mountain) has made Yann Martel's Booker Prize winning novel into one of the most anticipated films of the year. The story follows a young Indian boy named Piscine Molitor 'Pi' Patel, the son of a zoo keeper, who becomes stranded on a boat for 227 days with a tiger named Richard Parker.

Lee told an audience at the New York Film Festival earlier in the year that he read the book when it was first released but never believed it could be translated into film.

“I found it fascinating and mind-boggling but I remember thinking to myself that nobody in their right mind would put up money for this because it's literature, philosophy,” he says. “Regardless of how cinematic it is, it would be very expensive, nearly impossible to do, and how do you sell this thing? I thought the economic side and the artistic side might not ever meet until Elizabeth [Gabler, President of Fox 2000] approached me four years ago and said it would be a dream to work with me. Little by little it started to become my destiny, my fate, so to speak.”

Lee scoured India in the search for his lead, testing more than 3,000 teens to play the role of Pi. Sharma, in his first film role, had to successfully embody the character's central struggle to survive through seemingly impossible odds. To coach him, Lee engaged shipwreck survivor Steve Callahan who himself had survived 76 days on a plastic raft. “I visited him with the screenplay writer, David Magee,” Lee reflects. “We talked for days and then I brought him to Taiwan to make the movie with me. A lot of the details were supervised by him; he was a water consultant — he knows how the waves function and how to deal with it — and he's a great spiritual leader. Faith is indeed the thing that helped him make it through the voyage,” says Lee.

Life of Pi is Lee's first foray into 3D filmmaking — a format that he felt was crucial to realise the intellectual and visual scope of the production. “I didn't think it was possible in 2D,” the director explains. “I thought about 3D before I knew what 3D was. I thought that if I added another dimension maybe, just maybe, it might happen. In a regular way, the way we go about movies, this could not have been done.”

Life of Pi is the first major Hollywood production to be filmed in Taiwan since 1965 and the production team was tasked with creating a functional working movie studio. “Taiwan is like my floating island,” says Lee. “It's my hometown but it's also rootless, international.”

The airplane hangars of Taichung's Sui Nan airport were transformed to host the production and house the world's largest self-generating wave tank used to reproduce the Pacific Ocean. “You're basically imitating God's work; it can't be done, so with digital you really need good references,” Lee says.

In post-production, live action footage of four actual Royal Bengal Tigers served as physical and performance references for the visual effects team. “The main tiger we modeled from was 70-years-old and weighed nearly 500 pounds. A gorgeous tiger named King — a most magnificent animal. The two tigresses do the more ferocious scenes while King poses, with some of the more docile scenes done by a Canadian tiger,” he laughs.

For Lee, the captured footage served as a reference for authentic reproduction in the digital realm and “raised the bar for the digital guys to match [the references] in 3D”.

With an aim to transcend language and cultural values, Lee sees Life of Pi as a continuum of his own cinematic legacy. “Many movies I do look at the loss of innocence,” he says. “The zoo to Pi is a paradise. It's his innocence. Eventually he comes around and embraces faith. Otherwise he could not survive.”

Life of Pi arrives in cinemas January 1, 2013.