Sunday November 25, 2012
Bringing Pi into being
By ELIZABETH TAI
The journey of Life Of Pi from book to screen was as arduous as its main character’s journey through turbulent seas. Oscar-winner Ang Lee took up the challenge and finished the race.
IN a way, Life Of Pi is a simple story. It’s about a boy, a tiger and the temperamental sea where they are stranded. Yet, as readers of Yann Martel’s award-winning 2001 novel know, the book’s simplicity is deceptive.
There’s an amazing complexity to the story, which touches on themes of faith, survival and death, and is storytelling at its best. So much so that you do not know where truth and fiction start or end in Pi’s world.
Pi’s (or Piscine Militor Patel) incredible story begins after his family decides to move from Pondicherry, India, to Canada. After closing their zoo, the Patels pack their belongings (which includes the zoo animals) and board a Japanese cargo ship, the Tsimtsum.
The ship sinks en route to Canada, and Pi is cast adrift in the middle of the Pacific Ocean in a boat with a most unlikely companion: Richard Parker, a ferocious Bengal tiger. Pi has to not only survive the sea’s tempestuous moods, he also has to keep his travelling companion’s unpredictable behaviour in check – lest he end up as Richard’s breakfast.
“Here’s the attraction I feel about the story of Pi,” Ang Lee offered when met on the Taiwan set, a former airport at Taichung, last year. “Pi may be the biggest bullsh*tter. But you cannot prove him wrong. That’s the attraction. Everything he says is fascinating.”
It was early May, and the director, sporting a white T-shirt with the words “Life Of Pi” and the picture of a tiger running after a man in a dive suit, managed to spare half an hour to talk to reporters during a rare break from filming.
Lee was tasked to bring the book, which has been translated into 42 languages, to life.
“It’s a great book,” Lee said of Martel’s book. “I read it when it first came out and introduced it to my family. But I never thought it could be made into a movie because it’s too expensive (to make).”
This is probably what many thought as well. Studio executives certainly did when they put the movie on hold in 2010 after baulking at the movie’s proposed US$70mil (RM210mil) budget, the Los Angeles Times reported in 2010.
The movie went through an arduous development process which began in 2003 after Fox 2000 Pictures executive Elizabeth Gabler acquired the rights to the novel.
By the time the studio approached Lee about four years ago, the project had gone through several writers and directors, including M. Night Shyamalan, Alfonso Cuaron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of the French movie Amelie, who all had to drop out because of one thing or another.
Still, Lee was intrigued enough to take up the offer.
“I thought maybe I can crack this. Maybe I can make it work,” he said, smiling. “I think, philosophically, I was very attracted to (the story). And I could relate to the material a lot because it’s about being adrift. Identity problems and issues are very complicated for everybody.
“I think using a voyage, where you’re adrift and afloat, to portray the identity problem – that, I identify with very much.”
Lee officially came on board the project in early 2009, with location shoots in Taiwan and Pondicherry. The cast included Gerard Depardieu (as the rude chef onboard the Tsimtsum) and Indian actors Irrfan Khan (adult Pi) and Tabu (Gita Patel, Pi’s mother).
Depardieu was a blast, said Lee. “He was just here for a week. I told him: Just offer the worst your country has to offer to anybody. Just go there!”
However, selecting an actor to play the young Pi proved to be a challenge because Lee found the character to be a mystery.
“I could never imagine what Pi is … he’s like everywhere, everything,” he said ambiguously at one point.
Fortunately, after an extensive talent search in India involving 3,000 young men, Lee found then-17-year-old Suraj Sharma from Delhi.
Suraj wasn’t even supposed to read for the part. His brother, an acting student, was the one who was supposed to be auditioning. However, the casting director approached him and invited him to audition as well.
Working with actors – all actors, whether experienced or inexperienced, said Lee – is like climbing a mountain.
“I can smell if they like acting or not,” said Lee with a twinkle in his eye. “With Suraj, I could tell – even though he has never acted before – that he likes to act. That’s why I bet on that.
“I think Suraj has a great talent, which is ‘believing’. Because this is a story about religion, about storytelling, about the essence of life, which one is an illusion, which one’s the truth … it’s our yearning to understand the unknown. So, the person has to be very emotional and look intelligent, and he has to be handy – he figures things out,” he said.
Suraj, he believes, is all that. “I think he’s a thinker and he likes religions, which I think is very important. He’s a representation of the whole human being. He has that ‘big’ look: he looks up at God and he’s looking at God, not the statue of God,” said Lee.
After the selection came the tough work.
Since Pi spends much of his time in the water during the movie, Suraj had to go through intense aquatic training. Then, he had to transform his body – gaining weight and then dropping the muscle to mirror Pi’s weather-beaten, emaciated frame towards the end of the book.
During our set visit, Suraj still had a few more kilogrammes to shed.
“He’s our angel,” said Lee, chuckling. “Every shot is about him. And now his lunch hour is his work time: to lose weight!”
Life Of Pi readers would be interested to see how Lee interprets the book’s twisty ending. Bridging the mass audience’s desire for a satisfying ending and honouring the book’s open-ended one was another challenge Lee had to overcome.
“Everyone has their own interpretation (of the book). For many years, I didn’t believe anybody would go for that ending because it’s an uncertain ending and the movie looks very expensive. It’s a good idea, but these two elements are like pi (the mathematical concept) – they will never meet,” he said.
While Lee was not forthcoming about how he has interpreted the ending, he revealed that although there is some “alteration to detail”, the movie will follow the book quite closely.
“I think I’m more realistic than the book. In a book, you suggest something and you imagine it in your head. In a movie, what you see is what it is, so I have to land it in reality,” he said.
But Lee seemed confident that he has somehow bridged the gap between the tale’s artistic, open-ended finish with the financial demands of a big-budget blockbuster.
“It seems irrational, but eventually, I think we can make a very special movie. You just have to do interesting things, such as bring it to Taiwan and shoot it there!” he said, laughing.
A charmed life