The Oscar season is heating up quicker than Kate Middleton’s bun in the oven. Several films have already been touted as lead contenders in the race to become the most talked about film of the year. One of these films is an epic masterpiece that was brought to life by Brokeback Mountain’s ineffable director, Ang Lee. His latest Oscar contender, Life of Pi, has gone from a $15 million idea to a $120 million 3-D masterpiece.
The film is based on the best-selling novel of Yann Martel and deals with an epic adventure of self-discovery, friendship, and man’s reconnection with nature. According to IMDB, “[The film,] based on the best-selling novel by Yann Martel, is a magical adventure story centering on Pi Patel, the precocious son of a zoo keeper. Dwellers in Pondicherry, India, the family decides to move to Canada, hitching a ride on a huge freighter. After a shipwreck, Pi finds himself adrift in the Pacific Ocean on a 26-foot lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a 450-pound Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, all fighting for survival.”
The film almost never happened, because after 20th Century Fox acquired the rights to the film in 2002, it lost steam and stalled in the archives of Fox Studios. It was an unfilmable masterpiece that no director wished to touch. Five years ago, Ang Lee came on board and the film was set into motion. However, even after Lee’s addition to the project, the film still experienced regular ups and downs. Lee luckily prevailed, although he had a very important need and vision to shoot the film in 3D.
According to the director, “I thought of 3D, that maybe with another dimension I could take a leap of faith. That was way before I knew what 3D was. It was a naive thought. Then of course I did my studies and thought about the possibilities. You know this is a water movie, a kid’s trip across the Pacific (it stars remarkable newcomer Suraj Sharma who had never acted before). I’ve got to think about something special,” he said. “I give Fox credit. I know they’re very nervous. It’s been way too much for a literary property. Studios will let you shoot in 3D but those are usually action movies. They didn’t know why I insisted on shooting in 3D because at that time it would add $25 million more to the budget. I said water makes a big difference and I spent a whole year doing animation and I pre-visualized the whole water section. I went to numerous meetings with technical people and I think out of the box I didn’t think it could be done here so I suggested Taiwan. We took over an abandoned airport and turned the hangar into shooting stages and built a big wave tank … so I can imitate an open ocean. I had to shoot a wave on one side and a dissolve on the other, something that has never been done before. So it took a year and a half before they agreed on the budget but they took a leap of faith and said ‘we want to work with you’ … But they did take a leap of faith and of course we worked very hard.”
Life imitates art, since Life of Pi is finally opening today after an arduous 10-year journey to the silver screen. The $120 mil budget is still a massive gamble for 20th Century Fox, especially during this tougher holiday release period. It might not be one of the most expensive films ever released, but this tent-pole production is an expensive gamble on a fickle film release period. If it weren’t for the Oscar hype and soon-to-be-post-Academy glory, this film would have never broken the surface of the Hollywood ocean. Life of Pi has since its pre-release hype received standing ovations at screenings, including the influential Screen Actors Guild Nominating Committee. The film also enjoyed a massive marketing plug on television spots, in trade newspaper advertisements, and at important festival showings. Time Magazine called it “The New Avatar”, and many critics have referred to it as one of the greatest films of the new decade.
At a recent media event, Fox Chairman Jim Gianopulos explained the studio’s decision to take a gamble on Life of Pi, “Well, some movies will themselves to be. This is a movie that’s gestated for 10 years. Several filmmakers tried it, but then Ang Lee came aboard. Then there comes a point where you say ‘Okay, there’s no way to make this movie, there’s no way to do a CG tiger that dominated most of the film, that doesn’t cost you enormous amounts of money, and do you really want to walk away from that opportunity? So some movies just will themselves to be and you’re part of the process that sometimes enables it. We say, ‘let’s just go with it and let’s see what happens’. Unfortunately, a movie that’s not execution dependent inarguably takes balls to execute, but we’re proud to be part of it. But we couldn’t not make it.”
Come next Monday, Life of Pi will be water cooler talk at every office in the world, and come next month at the Academy Awards nomination ceremony, Ang Lee would be glad he sacrificed five years of his life to this unfilmable masterpiece.
Image credit to FOX studios