Director Ang Lee says he broke every rule in “Life of Pi,” which premiered Friday, bringing the best-selling novel into stunning 3D life with a production featuring an unknown Indian actor, four tigers and the world’s biggest wave machine.
“There are a few classic advices in movies: never make a movie featuring animals, kids, water or 3D,” the Taiwanese-born American director quipped at the premiere, which was the opening screening of the New York Film Festival in Manhattan. “We ignored all (of them).”
The filmmaker, who won Oscars for “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” had to pull out all the stops to get Yann Martel’s 2001 novel of the same name on screen.
The story, centered around a shipwrecked Indian boy called Pi who survives in a life raft with a Bengal tiger, posed obvious casting difficulties. The overriding theme of the search for God was also not standard Hollywood fare.
“I remember thinking to myself that no one in their right mind… How do you sell this thing?” Lee recalled.
His first solution came in the guise of Suraj Sharma, a hitherto unknown 17-year-old from Delhi who tagged along with his brother to the audition, then found himself being picked out of 3,000 others.
“It was my brother. He had to go to the audition and I went with him,” Sharma said at the premiere.
For the movie’s other key ingredients, Lee cast his net even wider, creating a Hollywood-financed, but international production that sounds almost as fantastical as the story itself.
The first part of the film was filmed on location in Pondicherry, India, the picturesque former French colony where some 5,500 extras were hired for the sumptuous scenes of Indian street life and religious ceremonies.
Then, because the entire second half of the two-hour movie takes place at sea, Lee went to Taichung in his native Taiwan to film in a specially designed wave-generating tank that measures 230 by 100 feet (70 by 30 meters) and contains 1.7 million gallons (6.4 million liters) of water. “We created our own Hollywood,” Lee said.
The results are spectacular scenes that lend themselves especially well to the 3D experience, with flying fish shooting out of the screen, and surrealist trips by the camera into a deep populated by luminous jellyfish and whales.
Having secured his human star and a number of backups, including a rude French cook played by Gerard Depardieu, Lee needed only to fill the main supporting role: the tiger.
The animal, who goes by the name Richard Parker, is mostly the creation of CG special effects. But the all-important physical references that provide a base for the wizardry were provided by four real tigers.
Animal trainer Thierry Le Portier, a veteran of big cat scenes in “Gladiator,” found three of the animals in France and one in Canada.
According to Lee, a big male named King was the main model for Richard Parker, while two females, also from France, were used to model the movie tiger’s more aggressive movements.
The “more docile” episodes, such as when Richard Parker is seasick, were modeled on the unusually cuddly Canadian tiger, Lee said.
Sharma, playing Pi, said the water tank in Taiwan “began to feel like my home” and that his research into being a castaway included consulting with shipwreck survivor and author of “Adrift,” Steve Callahan.
But his portrayal of the intimate connection between his scared character and the hungry tiger was all acted in front an invisible beast.
“The boat was pretty empty,” he laughed. “There was no tiger.”
Early reviews described the film as Oscar potential thanks to its beauty and artistic use of 3D.
“Summoning the most advanced digital filmmaking technology to deliver the most old-fashioned kind of audience satisfaction,” Variety said.
But there were thumbs down over what some critics saw as the story’s over-earnestness. “Torpid, preachy, faux high-minded and ‘prestigious,’” said the Village Voice.