When he first read the book, Ang Lee said the same thing that everyone else, including many other ambitious filmmakers, said of the philosophical novel: “Life of Pi is un-filmable.”
Last week at the Crosby Street Hotel in downtown Manhattan, director Ang Lee, screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland), and editor Tim Squyres (all films by Ang Lee except Brokeback Mountain) promoted the Blu-ray release of Life of Pi, which includes deleted scenes and bonus features such as those that reveal how the astounding, Academy Award-winning visual effects of the film came to be. Beginning with a panel discussion, the team explained the extensive pre-production process:
Magee: “This process is a lot different than my normal process because I was working with Ang from the very beginning. Ten years ago I had read it and didn’t think it was doable and four years ago my agent said Ang wants to do it and I said all right, let’s go. So I would go off an write in New Jersey for a week or two, and I would send pages over to Ang. He’d say ‘I like this let’s go further with that; let’s talk more about this philosophy.'”
Lee: (on coming up with a framing device) “If I could have third person perspective, and then first being the same person, maybe I could do it.” (on the development of the water tank) “I thought if I add another dimension–thinking wise and also visual wise–maybe I can solve the problem. So I thought of 3D. The first thing I saw about 3D is it works particularly well with water. So I thought water has to become a character itself.”
The first footage we saw was a behind-the-scenes look at the primary set of the film–a large pool that would later become an endless ocean. Suraj Sharma (Pi) is alone in the boat; Richard Parker, a Bengal tiger, will be perfected and placed into the scene later on in the editing and visual effects room. Construction of the right wave tank was vital. Lee explained that wave tanks usually create an unrealistic movement of water, comparing it to waves rebounding off of each other as if in a bathtub. Filming took place in Ang Lee’s birthplace of Taiwan, after he rejected Los Angeles (which would be far too expensive), Louisiana, South Africa, Australia, and Spain.
The second bonus feature we saw was the unimproved footage of the scene in which Pi comes out into the rain on the ship, swims through the flooded interior, and then ultimately falls off into the ocean in a lifeboat. They really did a fantastic job on putting this one together–you see the entire scene unfold, with several small fractions of it first as it was conceptualized in a sketch, then as it was shot (blue screens, cables, etc.) and then with the gradual transformation in “post-vis.” The zebra that swims through the hallway with Pi first looks like a computerized outline, then an unrealistic cartoon, and then a very realistic zebra. Because the film stage is so intricate, and the shots are so complex, everything had to be sketched out in perfect detail in “pre-vis.” And the comparison of those animations to the finished product is just remarkable.
David Magee wrote over 400 drafts of the script, and he joked that 380 of them were for just one scene with Gerard Depardieu, which ended up being cut from the final edit. Never being able to make out Depardieu’s face, much of this scene is from the point of view of Pi, who is in a daze from starvation and dehydration. Tim Squyres said that the blurry visual effects were used to provoke a question of reality.
In the roundtable discussion that followed, participants from the press were eager to know Lee’s thoughts on winning a second Oscar, and find out more about that famous picture of him celebrating with an In-N-Out burger. Lee won his first Academy Award in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain; he remembers, “I was sort of expected to win.” But this time, director Steven Spielberg was slightly favored for Lincoln, perhaps discouraging Lee from writing a speech. He said that he only put some thoughts together in his head, just in case he did win. If there’s any controversy over who was left out of his acceptance speech, there shouldn’t be. Lee said simply that “Everybody’s important. Everybody’s special.” Tim added, “I don’t think you can criticize anyone for what they fail to say in a 45 second speech when your brain is skipping gears. You can’t say 1/10th of what you need to say.” On winning his second Oscar, Lee said, “It was memorable, more so than the first time.” Why the In-N-Out burger? “At that time I’d gone to the Vanity Fair party, I was hungry, I ordered an In-N-Out burger. That picture reminds me of an ‘I’m going to Disneyland’ moment.”
Lee also would not directly identify any of the symbolism that makes Life of Pi so poetic: “If I tell you what it is I really limit..I make the movie smaller and it becomes a standard because it comes from me. That deprives the pleasure of people seeing the movie.” David Magee observed a fascinating difference between American audiences and Asian audiences. American audiences want to know the real ending, and Asian audiences are much more concerned about the relationship between the boy and his tiger. It wasn’t clear if this knowledge affected the making of the movie, or if it was realized only after its release. Regardless, the filmmakers did not underestimate the intelligence of their audience. Tim Squyres said, “You never wanna say this is really sophisticated but we shouldn’t do this because our audience isn’t that sophisticated. You can never start thinking that way.” Ang Lee agreed, “Because that’s not true.”
The journey that Ang Lee and his indispensable colleagues began years ago, and concluding with 4 Academy Awards and 7 other nominations (one belonging to Tim Squyres for Best Film Editing, and another to David Magee for Best Adapted Screenplay) was almost as extraordinary as the journey that Pi Patel took across the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with a fully grown Bengal tiger. Lee said of all of their efforts, “It was really worth it. I’m not just talking about the Oscar, but the whole journey was really worth it.”