“Life of Pi”
Roger Durling with Director Ang Lee and Screenwriter David Magee
Durling: This project has been in the works for many years. Can you tell us a little bit about your involvement and what was it about this novel that wanted you to take on this project?
Lee: Well it is a wonderful novel. It is very mind blogging and it also stays with you and inspires you to think about faith and spirituality. It is a very inspiring book however when I read it about ten years ago, I didn’t think there was a movie there and I just put it aside. I didn’t pick it up again until about 4-5 years ago, when Elizabeth Gabriel from the Fox 2000 came to me and offered me the job. I didn’t know if I should take it because it was very daunting and when I take a daunting project I get really hooked and I thought about it for like 8 months. Finally I thought of a couple things. I thought I might break it, one of them is on the script front, I make movies that are totally reliant on illusions and the book is about examining illusions and things you cannot prove. How do you do that in a movie though? So that really beats me so I thought that if I could create a third person sort of voice the older Pi you saw, which is the same person that is experiencing it as a younger Pi and maybe I can crack into in that way. I had a vision of how the animals could look but I wasn’t sure about water and then I thought about 3-D, if I add another dimension then maybe things will open up. It was just wishful thinking then I starting doing some research and about a year later, I promised Elizabeth that I would do it. Once I started thinking about it there was no stopping until I showed the movie. About 3,000 people worked with me for four years on it so it was a big endeavor and we made the movie in twain and I didn’t think that I could don’t it in L.A. Plus I thought I needed to think out of the box and come up with new methods to accommodate what needs to be really creative because it is a very unusual movie.
Durling: The film, to me plays like an adventure, but I felt like the 3-D brought us to a very personal and emotional connection to the characters. What was it about 3-D that you felt that it was necessary to tell the story?
Lee: It has the z-axel, you usually only have the y and x and I think it is more elusive. For a long time I didn’t trust it, with a flat screen you can touch it but once you have this elusive thing that has the depth and also comes out at you and the density is different from the front to the back something new comes. I thought that it would open a lot of chances and new expressions that we have never went before. To say the least I would say the water worked very differently. You really feel like you are adrift with Pi. Otherwise regularly in a movie you have the ocean, adrift across the pacific without Tom Hanks, it’s pretty hard to sit through. With the 3-D the water is really expressive with the mood and emotions. It can be daunting; basically in itself it can be art. I thought of it as a great tool to relate his relationship with the tiger and I thought it was just something new. When I decided I didn’t know what I was thinking, maybe something is there that I can explore. It was big dice that the studio was rolling on with me because nobody knew if it was going to work out or not. It was a huge investment on a philosophical book although there is a big adventure aspect to it and a children part as well. How do you pull that off and why do you want to invest money to do 3-D. Normally, if it is an action movie the studio wants you to do 3-D and the director usually fights it but this was the opposite. It was literature property, why do you spend that much more money to do 3-D? I just imagined something might open up.
Durling: David, for those who don’t know he wrote the screenplay for Finding Neverland, which is an amazing film and you write the screenplay for Life of Pi too. This was a very tricky adaptation, what was your secret to perfecting it?
Magee: I read the book like he did ten years ago and I didn’t see it as a film but I really enjoyed the book. I actually talked to people about it and said ‘I really love this book, but I don’t think that it is a film’. My agent called me four years ago and said ‘have you ever read Life of Pi?’ and I was said ‘oh yeah that is a tricky one, I don’t know’. And he said that Ang Lee wants to do it and said well that sounds like a great idea. Let’s go! I met Ang the next night and we moved forward. The challenges of the book, beyond the technical challenges, which I don’t think you could have done 10 years prior to now with the tiger or done such amazing things with the sky, water and the movement on the ocean. Beyond the technical challenges the book is very philosophical, very introspective, and reflexive and is very much inside the head of this kid and the man who is telling this story about what he went through as a kid and it gives you a sense of his personal spiritual journey. The biggest challenge I think for the screenplay was to hold onto enough of that. We understood the purpose of this story that we got to go on this journey with him without turning it into a lecture about comparative religion or something like that. We instead could have a kid’s adventure story and something of the heart of this character while still getting an insight into why this has affected this man.
Durling: You touched on something that both of you could chime in about. I am constantly aware of the filmmaker is telling a story of somebody telling a story to us and that dynamic is so exciting while watching the movie.
Lee: I think it is very important because obviously no book or movie can advertise it or make it truth for people to believe in God. I think this material really shows the power of storytelling. The movie is about storytelling, allusions, what to believe in and those which aren’t provable. That is some ways is the essence of our existence. It is spiritual but how do you examine that in the movie, which is an emotional ride. It is all imagery at work. I thought somehow it is able to have that third person look as be able to examine it at the same time. You’re inside of it and that is why I think 3-D does so well here. I pull the character outside the screen he’s on your side at the same time over his shoulder you see his point-of-view, which is how we in vision ourselves doing it with/ as the character. I think to examine storytelling is important in this project because I think the reason we read books or come to see a movie is because life doesn’t make sense. We don’t know where God is, and the story which has a structure of a beginning, middle and end, the ending seems to have some kind of meaning or structure. There is wisdom to it and when you pass that along you don’t feel lonely or lost and you have to do it as a group so that fact that a story is passing along is very important. Somehow the author got it inside his head and needed to tell this story which is passed onto me, his reader and I passed along to you. I think that it is very important that it is playing in your head that it is a story, while in the end you are really examining what it is about. So, I think feeling and thinking has to constantly co-exist especially at the end. Where, we are examining the power of the storytelling and sharing stories.
Magee: This is something we talked about from the first conversation, from the first dinner that we had, that was the themes that we were interested in were not just faith or trying to convince someone of a particular belief or that faith in itself was something that you had to subscribe but the storytelling itself was the way to get through the chaos in our lives. Whether you believe in atheism and you see the world in terms of science, predictability and numbers or whether you see it in terms of an unseen hand guiding you on your journey. Your faiths in the narratives that you have taken with you on your journeys are what help you to get through. That became very important to us, we make it a little larger than just a film about do you believe or should you believe this is prove. We wanted you to walk out with your own opinion which story may be true or not or which point of view you believe in. In the ideal world, you got off and have your own debates about it.
Lee: I think it is important because we devised a plan to allow this to happen. I think that is the number one thing for us so you don’t just watch a narrative but you’re also aware of it.
Durling: There are some amazing visual paintings on the screen that of course, the mise-en-scene and composition tells you the story. Like when Pi is on the boat and the reflection of the sky onto the ocean. Where those inspired by the book or were they your way of telling us a story?
Lee: The shots you are talking about are not in the book, I think that they are in the head of Pi and somehow I had to visualize that. I am dramatically trained not visually, so normally we would rehearse the scene and I know what the scene is about, how he should feel, what the conflicts are, and what points that need to be emphasized; then I decide. That is how I normally go about movies, but with this it would not have worked, because the tiger is not there. When I shot the film the tiger doesn’t show up until a year later. Digitally, so I have no references, I have to pro-visualize it. So technically it is very difficult and very expensive to go about things. I have to see it first so I can present to the company it is what I want to do and give me the budget for it. On the other hand, I have to go about meetings with different crew members asking how we go about this task. Most of the images came about because of a certain dramatic need. To display this is how a character feels or the mood he is in. I need to express this, how do I visually express it. Some are literary like he is lost in space; I need to show space, what I could show space with. The reflection of the water I have to make it a mural, some are philosophical thoughts. Some things just came to me visually like when he watched the sinking ship in the water, it was something early on that I knew I wanted to do. I created a whole ship sinking sequence so that I could get to that point. The studio was curious as to why it took 8 minutes to show that he lost everything especially when it is so expensive. I don’t know what drove me to want to have that image. I can’t remember if it was when I was in the shower or daydreaming or dreaming when I was asleep. Very few of them actually happened naturally that way, I mostly incorporated them when I want to say something and somehow in the middle of production I saw a picture of scenery that reminds me something that I could do visually. A lot of the key scenes happen quite early in the process and I forethought them and discussed how we could make them happen.
Durling: David, was Matel the novelist involved?
Magee: No, there had been earlier drafts of the project and of course Yann had been involved in some of those and not I others. When I came on, Ang especially asked me if I wanted to talk to Yann and I said ‘no I think I just want to work on this myself for a while.’ If you come with scenes and ideas that have already been chewed on and tried out and didn’t work all the time; and those become part of your baggage as you go into the project you’re not as free to find your own messy way through it. It is also a kind of cruel thing to do to an author, to take his book apart in front of his eyes. It is much nicer to go off and write a draft or two and find your way through it and then show it to him; which is what we did. He was very helpful and gave us quite a few notes.
Durling: Casting Suraj, who has never acted before and here you have this massive project and you trust this first time actor. What was behind the decision?
Lee: People kept asking me when I saw him why I decided to take him. I said semi-jokingly though I was really serious, that he looked like Pi. There are no 16 year old Indian stars, so forget about that. You have to find someone new, for me somebody a little be trained is worse to me than someone who knows nothing about the business because there is a certain purity that can be developed. Normally when I deal with actors I have to reduce so much to take down his habit or what have you. So fresh talent to me is good news. I just have to work on him. We went through about 3,000 kids who auditioned in India. We narrowed it down to 12 and I meet them in Mumbai. So when I saw him I just got a feeling that he could do the movie. He had a very soulful face, smart, compelling and he could hold your attention. He also has a very good sense of focus. That is all good. I did this for a long time, so when I spot something like that it is encouraging. I tested him, I had him tell the second story which is a two page monologue and he didn’t do too much with it because he didn’t really know what he was doing. Then I asked him to imagine that the mother is talking about his own mother, and then I gave him equations. The sailor is his brother and so on and so forth. I talked to him for a minute or two and had him try it again and he stayed in that position and functioned accordingly to the set up I gave him; which is incredible talent. Trained actors take years to be like that and here you have a talent and toward the end he was crying. Toward the end of that take the casting director was there and saw the potential. I sent a tape back to the studio to get a little bit of security in the decision to choose him. The rest is hard work, the kid stayed with me for 9-10 month, he didn’t swim. In three months we had to make him a world class swimmer and he held his breath for at least 15 seconds. I told that for some shots he was going to be underwater and would need to perform virally for over a minute, so we better start training you. It is an ordeal to take him out of Indian school, because they are very serious about education but we brought him to Taiwan anyways to make this movie. For 3 months we went through intense physical training and I gave him personal acting classes and a lot of things to read to learn. Yoga classes and other more intense training techniques. Very day in the 6 months of filming, everyday was training. With this there is something unusual for big budget filmmaking. For the second half there was a shooting order just for him. Not only did he have to lose weight but we do prepare a journey. This is what happened to him little by little, whether is it getting used to water work or getting to his spiritual state in the end of the film. It is all parallel to what is happening on the shooting. He is an incredible talent. I have directing many types of actors but to him it is uncanny because I’m not teaching him I am just waking him up. It is like he is a little Buddha acting, reminding of what he used to know very well. He is doing promotion now and is a pro at it. It is uncanny. You would think that he would be freaked out because it is a very difficult task at least that was my feeling in regard to him.
Durling: You filmed most of the film in Taiwan but you shot the town of Pondicherry in Pondicherry itself. Did you recreate the Zoo used in the film?
Lee: the first I was researching there, a guy told me ‘ it’s funny after that book people keep coming here for the Zoo’. So there was a botanical garden in the book but we made up a story that there was instead a Zoo. The Zoo is Pi’s paradise. So I have to create it like a paradise for him, so we used partly the botanical garden but India is very strict in filming animals so other than birds and domestic animals we couldn’t really shoot there. So most of the animals you saw, we had to shoot in Taiwan. Then we had a couple of days in Montreal.
Durling: How did you go about using animals and how did you humanize them?
Lee: We did not humanize them it’s very important to note that a tiger is a tiger and you can have a relationship with it, condition and train them. However you cannot tame them because they are not human. They have their own things and I think that it very important to bring in real tigers and we couldn’t do it with just one. We brought 4 tigers to Taiwan; the leading tiger is the one we modeled in CGI. His name is King and he was gorgeous, 450 pounds and we had I think the best French trainer in the world. He is a main guru for me in terms of learning about tigers. So I spent a lot of time with him and he should share a little credit with you, with blocking all the shots because he would coach me with what might happen what might happen and this is what I want for the scene. Some of them we shot for real with a tiger. Bringing a tiger on set brought two or three good things because Tigers are much cheaper than CGI and secondly you learn from them and thirdly, the CGI images they get good references when shot and real with real tigers. So the tiger is not humanized they behave like real tigers. Of course it was difficult to work to bring life to them, with all the details and twists. Some shots take three months or 6 to see them come to life. It is a character all on its own.
Durling: Two questions for you David, were you involved throughout this whole process collaborating with Lee? Second, if you could talk about the big scene where Pi questions the heavens.
Magee: Yes I was very fortunate to be able to work throughout most of the production. Ang and I worked about a year on the first draft and a couple months after that on a second draft. Then they were already rolling into pre-production and I was staying around making adjustments to the script as we closer to Taiwan and I went over to Taiwan for 3 months and watched as they converted an airport into a shooting studio. They had abandoned this airport in the terminals were our offices and we could look out the window where they were digging a 300 ft trench that was going to become a water tank to shoot all the ocean scenes. Thousands of people were starting to arrive and the first day of shooting I disappeared and let them do the hard work while I went back and worked on other things during the 105+ days of shooting. Then when they came back and started doing the editing and putting it together, I came back and helped out with transitions and things like that. So I had a wonderful journey from a screenwriter’s viewpoint because they are usually forgotten as soon as the printer stops printing, but that is not at all the case on this one. As far as the scene where he is calling out to God asking him why he is going through this. We wanted it to be a journey for Pi, there were storms in the book but the book is very episodic with the things that happen to Pi along his journey. We had to find a type of arc to his emotional development and that becomes a kind of combination between stripping away the things that he loses, right after another until he is virtually left with nothing. And Ang has that beautiful shot just after he says that his journal means so much to him, and he journal is then ripped out of his hands and he is not even able to hold on to the words that has kept him from losing his mind. So that is really a moment where he has to pass through that I order to understand more of what he has gone through; in order to face God on that journey.
Durling: I loved the boat and everything we can interpret from it. Plus that it is divided in half visually by that tarp was that also one of your visual inspirations?
Lee: Yeah very early on, it just so happened that it was white and the tarp as well and the bottom is orange and tigers are orange. I knew what that is what I wanted to do very early on, for many reasons, not only the division but it hard to explain it to you what the Tiger means to him. I had to read in the book and put my own take on it with my certain psyche. I think part of that was my dramatic training, people think about this as an ocean movie but really it is more of a boat movie. The backdrop is vast, the ocean is like deserts and his fate is being tested. Over the vast environment it made the boat look like a small raft with a beast of a tiger, so there is an outer and inner meaning to that and fills a dramatic space. It is like a stage, like Weston, vast landscape but is really a great stage for a very compact and dramatic environment.