NEW YORK -- With a career that has encompassed everything from period British romance to Chinese martial arts, Ang Lee has taken on some wildly different challenges. But even he acknowledges that he bit off a lot when he decided to film “Life of Pi,” an adaptation of Yann Martel’s bestseller that is set primarily on a small boat containing just a boy and a Bengali tiger.
“There’s some good advice in the film business: Never make a movie about kids, animals or water ... and you’ll see them all here,” Lee told an audience Friday night at the opening of the New York Film Festival. Then he unveiled his digitally enabled 3-D movie for the first time, drawing rapturous applause in what ranks as one the strongest opening-night responses the festival has seen in recent years.
Starring Indian newcomer Suraj Sharma and written by David Magee, the film tells of Pi Patel (Sharma), a boy growing up in India as the son of a zookeeper. When his father decides to move the family to Canada, they attempt to take the animals with them. But an ensuing shipwreck leaves his parents dead and Pi stuck on a tiny life boat with a Bengali tiger named Richard Parker.
Antagonists at first, the two form a relationship that’s built on mutual survival but that also avoids the Hollywood cliches about a boy and his beloved animal.
“Pi” features gorgeous cinematography — the desolation of the open water, jellyfish filling the night sea — but also genuine fear and other emotions of a boy abruptly stripped of his innocence. Themes of spirituality also run throughout.
With just a few exceptions, Lee avoids many of the cliches of the castaway picture, although one of its more powerful scenes, one in which Pi rails at the heavens about the situation he’s been thrust into, is a (deft) handling of a survivor-movie trope.
The film contains a frame story of sorts, as an adult Pi relays to a new friend what happened on the Pacific. How Lee made the movie is a tale unto itself. It’s not easy to create genuinely fearsome and authentic-seeming scenes using CG effects and water tanks, and the director took some extraordinary steps to ensure a real-life feel.
though the animals are all rendered digitally, for instance, Lee worked for months with trainers and actual beasts to study and then capture their every mood; there were four Richard Parkers of different genders and types, which he used to create different states of the character.
But he also had to be able to move on the fly. Lee said all rules about filmmaking went out the window when he began shooting. “I got about one-eighth of the shots in my shot list,” he told reporters at a press conference earlier in the day. (Lee is in fact still editing the film, returning to Los Angeles this weekend for a few more weeks of what he calls “tweaking.”)
Elizabeth Gabler, the Fox 2000 executive who championed the film through years of development (M. Night Shyamalan was at one point set to direct), told reporters at a press conference earlier in the day that she was very aware of the challenges of making a movie with this conceit that was compelling and also not wildly expensive.
“It was almost undoable, and for many years we didn’t think we could do it,” she said.
Fox will open the movie Nov. 21 in what is one of the most promise-filled but fraught campaigns of the season. Pitched skillfully, the movie could appeal to a broad swath of family moviegoers while also resonating in the art-house and awards worlds. It must walk a fine line; tilting too much in one direction could hurts its prospects in the other.
But it would hardly be the first time those involved with the movie faced daunting challenges. “At times as we were making it, I thought ‘Why are we making the movie?’” Lee said. “But there’s faith, there are patterns, there are lessons in the movie for me.”
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