Why Fox Gambled $100 Million on Ang Lee: The Making of 'Life of Pi'
Ang Lee Honored by 3D Society
This story first appeared in the Nov. 23 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
Visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer won't ever forget the night he rode out a storm on a Taiwanese coast guard cutter with Ang Lee. The sturdy craft, buffeted by 9-foot waves, thrashed about relentlessly. Venturing into the storm surge was intentional -- Lee wanted his team on Life of Pi to experience the ocean's personality firsthand -- even though the movie was shot entirely on dry land inside elaborate water tanks in Taichung, Taiwan.
"It was very rough," says Westenhofer. "But it goes back to one of Ang's chief qualities: authenticity. He's also incredibly artistic and very symbolic."
For all involved, the making of Life of Pi -- which opens Nov. 21 -- was a long, painstaking odyssey. The film pushes the boundaries of 3D technology and visual effects as well as cinematic storytelling. It is Lee's first 3D movie and his most ambitious technical endeavor since 2003's CG-heavy Hulk.
Many thought it would be impossible to adapt Yann Martel's Man Booker Prize-winning 2001 novel about an Indian boy named Pi (played by Suraj Sharma) who is lost at sea after the ship he's aboard with his family -- along with the animals from their zoo -- capsizes during a violent storm. Everyone is killed but Pi, who ends up on a small dinghy with an orangutan, a zebra, a hyena and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.
There also was near-heartbreak. At one point during preproduction, Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler received word from higher-ups that the studio wanted out -- the risk was simply too great. Movies shot on water are notorious for coming in late and over budget. Plus, the film had no major stars.
"I had to call Ang in Taiwan and tell him we were giving the movie back to him," recalls Gabler, who had long wanted to work with the filmmaker. "I thought he'd say, 'I'm so sad.' It was midnight his time, and he told me he was getting on a plane and coming to L.A.
"He arrived, and we all went into a screening room -- [Fox co-chairmen] Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos included -- and Ang showed us previsualizations of the entire shipwreck sequence and the audition tape of Suraj. At the end, they said that if Ang could get some money out of the budget, we'd go ahead."
The budget was trimmed to just north of $100 million, and the soft-spoken 58-year-old filmmaker -- who was nominated for a best director Oscar for 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and won for 2005's Brokeback Mountain -- flew to his Connecticut home, approval in hand. "It's the hardest movie I've ever made," confesses Lee. "I worked on it for nearly four years."
For Gabler, the journey began a decade ago when she was on maternity leave. Producer Gil Netter and screenwriter Dean Georgaris had discovered the book and wanted a meeting.
Says Netter: "I called her at home and convinced her to let us come over and pitch her. That was a Wednesday. The deal was closed by Friday."
Georgaris worked on the adapted screenplay before M. Night Shyamalan came aboard to write and direct. But wooed by other projects, including 2008's The Happening, Shyamalan eventually fell off. Two more directors, Alfonso Cuaron and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, would come and go before Lee signed on.