For his adaptation of Life of Pi, Ang Lee opted to work in 3D for the first time and returned to shoot in Taiwan. The film-makers speak to Jeremy Kay about tackling the epic story of a boy and a Bengal tiger

Ang Lee had serious reservations about adapting Life of Pi when Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler approached him, along with Lee’s old friend, the former Fox Filmed Entertainment co-chairman Tom Rothman. “It was very movie-unfriendly,” says Lee.

That was in 2008 - seven years after the publication of Yann Martel’s bestselling novel. Fast-forward a few years and after starting its rollout in November 2012, Life of Pi had taken a huge $454m worldwide by Jan 13, 2013. The film also bagged 11 Oscar nominations, nine Bafta nominations and won a Golden Globe for best original score. (Lee won the best director Oscar in 2006 for Brokeback Mountain, while Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon took the best foreign-language film Oscar in 2001.)

Lee’s initial reservations are understandable. The novel is set mostly at sea and tells the story of a shipwrecked boy with only a Bengal tiger for company. Thematically, the story ebbs and flows between episodes of physical hardship and prolonged periods of philosophical reflection. This was not going to be easy to make. “For me, it started in 2002 after the book had been published,” explains Gabler. “We had optioned it several months before it was published. I loved the book and it stayed with me and I wondered if it would be an easily identifiable film. As the months went on and it became a bestseller, there was something very identifiable about the story.

“I was approached by one of our producers, Gil Netter, who had got a writer and got Yann Martel to agree to be open to optioning the rights. We went ahead and optioned the material in November 2002. Many years passed. Four to five years ago is when Ang Lee came on [board] and that’s the beginning of the life of the project.”

Prior to this, Life of Pi had been in limbo. The first writer, whom Gabler declines to name, never delivered a script. She adds: “The only person that I did talk to who was attached, but never did anything, was M Night Shyamalan. Never a word was written.”

Around the middle of 2005, Gabler hired Jean-Pierre Jeunet. The French director of Amélie and Delicatessen wrote a script but it was not quite right. “He had a vision for the movie that was very different, but the technology we would have needed didn’t exist at that time, so from a logistical and financial standpoint it was very risky.

“The CGI that Ang had at his disposal to render furry animals was not available [back then],” says Gabler. “So we would have had to use live animals and nobody could wrap their heads around how to make it happen. There was a lot of research and development at Fox and with [Jeunet’s] team, but we parted ways. There was no way to do it the way we wanted.”

After Jeunet left in 2007, everything changed: “We heard Ang was interested,” says Gabler, who flew Martel to New York to help enlist the film-maker, who was then in post-production on Taking Woodstock. In a recent piece in The Times, Martel wrote: “Whatever I said, he must have been pleased. He signed on to the project.”

Lunch may have sealed the deal, but the process of whetting Lee’s appetite had taken nigh on eight months. Rothman and Gabler had gone into full recruitment mode and their force of personality and passion eventually prevailed. “We held our breath,” says Gabler, who has shepherded such hits as The Devil Wears Prada, Walk The Line and Unfaithful.

“I knew Tom [Rothman] from way back,” says Lee. “We started our careers together. He bought my Chinese movies at Samuel Goldwyn and I did The Ice Storm when he was at Fox Searchlight. He told me this was a family film. I was afraid he meant it would be a teen adventure when he said that, and that the tiger would look back at Pi [as a sentimental gesture of farewell in their final moment of parting].

“I told him I’d introduced the book to my family. I told him I thought it would be too expensive to make. He believed it was a movie for everybody and I said, ‘Ah that’s the kind of family film you mean.’

“When I came back with the budget I started to chase him [Rothman]. I wanted to go to Taiwan to make it and he was the first one to see it was a smart idea and not [just about] my patriotism.” Reports have put the budget in the region of $120m.

When Lee came on board he chose David Magee as the screenwriter. Martel offered minor notes. “David worked hand-in-hand with Ang and the screenplay is very close to the movie you see,” says Gabler, “although it was a very rudimentary version of the movie that it would become.”

Transforming Martel’s story for cinema was a daunting task and so in mid-2009 Lee decided to make his first foray into 3D. “I felt there was no solution, like the number of pi,” says Lee. “I felt this could add another dimension.

“There are a lot of elements in the book that are chasing each other, parallel, conflicting. I just had this strange feeling there was no solution to this thing in terms of conventional movie-making and there had to be something new. “I knew it sounded silly back then because I didn’t know what 3D was. And then I did my research and realised [using 3D] on water would make people feel immersed. It’s a new cinematic language and when you have something new you open up to more chances and more unconventional thoughts.”

Third eye

Lee met with the Fox hierarchy and relayed his decision. He told Gabler and Rothman that while 3D was a risk the film would look worse in 2D. The director has subsequently declared himself happy with the 2D version of his movie, but it is clear where his loyalties lie as far as Life of Pi is concerned.

To their credit, the Fox top brass allowed Lee to run with it, although they exercised their authority on certain 3D decisions - after all, this was the studio that was moving ahead with Avatar. In fact James Cameron’s partner Vince Pace would be a regular face on the set of Life of Pi.

“Ang is the most collaborative person in the world as much as a master film-maker can be,” says Gabler. “So much of his vision is in his mind so you have to give him the liberty to let it unveil itself.

“He gave me the screenplay early and showed us early cuts and was collaborative in that way. He led the team - he produced the movie and was in charge of every decision on the film.”

Everything was epic in scope on Life of Pi. The film-makers looked at approximately 3,000 young men from around the world to play the shipwrecked Pi. The coveted role would eventually go to 16-year-old Suraj Sharma, an Indian newcomer who had been coerced into accompanying his brother to a local casting session with the promise of a Subway lunch.

Sharma had never acted and could not swim. “He was this geeky kid with glasses,” says Gabler, “and you wouldn’t have thought he would command the screen. Ang saw something in him.”

Of all the candidates, Sharma was the only one who Lee presented to the studio. “His audition was spectacular,” says Gabler.

Lee had scouted both Pondicherry and Munnar in India and had elected to return to Taiwan in what would be his first shoot in his homeland since Eat Drink Man Woman in 1993. “It was great to be hosted by them and to reconnect with Taiwan,” says Lee. “They had so much to offer and so much passion.”

The crew converted an abandoned airport in Taichung into the production hub and took three months to build a state-of-the-art water tank, complete with wave machines, 4,000-gallon dump tanks, a 75,000-pound rig to replicate the doomed Tsimtsum cargo ship and an armada of rowboats and gimbal devices to mimic water motion.

The film-maker took a year to conduct his pre-visualisation. Production ran from January to June 2011.

“It is a credit to Ang that he embraced the process,” says visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer. “What we pre-vised is what we shot. Because it was such a technically challenging movie being on the water and working with tigers, we had to map it out and show everybody what we were going to do.” The film-makers were adamant they needed real tigers on set. “If you just used an animator, it would be hard not to anthropomorphise things,” says Westenhofer. The production brought in four real tigers under the auspices of trainer Thierry Le Portier. King was the star animal and served as the foundation for the digital model of the tiger in the story, Richard Parker.

Only 14% of the tiger shots in the movie were of the animals themselves - Westenhofer and his team digitally constructed the remainder. “Certainly nothing would be possible with the tiger and the kid in the same shot,” says Westenhofer. “A real tiger could not come out from under the tarp because it would rip it to shreds.

“As far as realising the tigers went, we made advances in how we rendered the fur. We were able to ray-trace [individual] hairs.” This was the first time anybody had used the process, Westenhofer explains, which allowed the team to follow the path of a beam of light as it bounced off fur, boat, sky and water.

A near-complete version of Life of Pi premiered at the New York Film Festival in September, followed several weeks later by the finished product at AFI Fest. Within four weeks Life of Pi had overtaken Lust, Caution to become Lee’s biggest hit in Taiwan. The film recently finished its spectacular run in China where it grossed $90.8m to become the fifth biggest foreign release of all time in the territory. By Jan 13, international box office had reached $359m, while the North American tally was $95m.

“I always believed in it and had the feeling in my heart that it would be embraced by all audiences around the world,” says Gabler. “I never looked at it as a strictly domestic movie… I felt it would transcend borders.

“When you take this goal on it’s very risky and it’s hard and you question your sanity. The truth of it is, this entire company from every level stood behind me on this movie. The reaction we have had so far is a validation of Ang’s vision and all the hard work of everyone who was involved.”

Will Lee make more movies in 3D? “Yes, if I can afford it,” he says with a laugh. “I will do it if the movie needs it but if I can I would love to learn more and explore more.”