Ang Lee's Spiritual Quest to Bring 'Life of Pi' to the Screen

Suraj Sharma in 'Life of Pi'/Photo by Peter Sorel © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
Suraj Sharma in 'Life of Pi'/Photo by Peter Sorel © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation

You'd be hard pressed to find a group of moviegoers less inclined to embrace woo-woo spiritualism than the New York media establishment. But amid all the dazzling technical innovations and feats of cinematic transcendence unveiled at Friday's New York Film Festival debut of Ang Lee's "Life of Pi," the audience of professional skeptics was most interested in discussing the metaphysical ideas saturating Lee's lush ode to faith and perseverance. To wit, one journalist even opened his remarks with a reference to the heavenly downpour taking place outside the Walter Reade theater. Talk about a suspension of disbelief.

Nobody was more impacted by the story's spiritual underpinnings than Lee himself. The filmmaker's decision to undertake an adaptation of Yann Martel's bestselling novel about an Indian boy (played by newcomer Suraj Sharma) stranded at sea and forced to share his life raft with a Bengal tiger required a major leap of faith. For starters, the book's fantastical journey -- a love-among-the-shipwrecked-ruins tale taking place almost entirely on a small boat in the middle of the Pacific -- was hardly camera-ready. It violates the three cardinal rules of filmmaking: Thou shalt not make a film involving animals, water, or children. This story combines all three and even Martel knew that any director willing to attempt an adaptation of his novel would be courting the filmmaking gods' wrath. "I knew it was very cinematic because of the contrast of colors between the blue ocean, the white lifeboat, and the orange and black tiger," Martel says. "But even the most ardent cinemaphile would realize that to turn that story that was on the page into a movie is an enormous technical challenge. I never thought I’d actually see it on the screen."

Lee had his doubts as well. "I thought it was fascinating and mind boggling. But I thought nobody in their right mind would try and adapt it, because it's about philosophy," Lee explains, with typical self-effacing deadpan. "It’s about philosophy. So regardless of how cinematic it is, I knew it would be very expensive and complicated." He waits a dramatic beat. "And then it started to become my destiny and my fate."

Ironically, it was not divine intervention but rather technological innovation that ultimately convinced Lee it was possible to solve Pi's complex cinematic equation. "I didn't think this was possible in 2-D but I thought maybe, just maybe, this would be possible if I had another dimension," says Lee, who began contemplating the project shortly after the novel was published in 2001, some eight years before James Cameron revolutionized the digital domain with the heightened realism of  "Avatar."

Once the technology caught up with Lee's vision, he decided to take the plunge into Pi's murky waters and embarked on an ambitious quest to make a film that merges feats of cutting-edge technological derring-do with the intimacy and realism of the most bare-bones indie drama. The result is nothing short of revelatory, particularly for those who have yet to be sold on 3-D's added value to the moviegoing experience. Lee uses the technology judiciously and nearly imperceptibly to viscerally envelop the audience in such otherworldly experiences as being swarmed by a school of flying fish or communing with a large feline predator.

Because of the obvious risks involved in placing a tiger on a small boat, Lee was determined to create a digital version of the animal that was as lifelike as possible. "We used four tigers for forty real shots in the film and primarily for research," says Lee. "When you do digital like this, you need really good references. We left a great library of tiger behavior at an almost cellular level. We were basically trying to imitate god’s work. I really raised the bar for the 3-D guys. It was really intimidating for them to try and match the tiger's behavior, but intimidating in a good way."

Lee held himself to the same high standards throughout the production, which took place in India, Canada, and Taiwan, where Lee constructed a massive wave tank to shoot the bulk of the picture. He even enlisted a real shipwreck survivor, Steve Callahan, who spent seventy-six days drifting at sea on a plastic raft before being rescued, to act as the film's reality check.  "Not only was he a technical consultant to me, but on the spiritual side, about what you go through [surviving at sea]," Lee says. "And at the same time he was a spiritual leader for us ... because he’s fighting cancer in the hospital. He’s a man we all cherish. Faith is deep within his struggle to fight cancer and everything you go through. There are other spiritual stories as well."

To begin with, there's the book itself, which was the product of Martell's investigation of faith while hitchhiking through India. "I grew up in a secular household and studied philosophy, which is a very good way of turning into an atheist or agnostic," the author says. "But when I got to India that changed. There’s more religious expression in India per square mile than anywhere on earth. I was intrigued not so much by the anthropology of it, but by how faith is felt as deep desire to believe in something that’s unreasonable. The reason there are three religions in this story is that I wanted to focus on the one thing common to all of them -- which was faith. You can’t say they’re all the same. But at the core they all have that leap of faith of believing in something that is not rational or right in front of you."

Lee worked hard to strike the delicate balance between the practical and the profound, technology and transcendence. There is one pivotal scene in particular in which Pi's father tries to disabuse him of his magical thinking about tigers (and, by extension, religion) with a shocking reminder of the real danger they pose. "Pi has all these spiritual things in his head, but when he’s thrown out into the ocean, he cannot rely on any organized ideas of religion," Lee says. "So the journey begins with that disillusionment. Without his father's lesson he wouldn’t have survived. But without [faith] he couldn’t have survived. That's both sides of the equation. I think both sides are equally important. And all tests of faith, leaps of faith start with that. First you have to have doubt."

The tests and trials involved in making this film turned out to be Lee's most unlikely and valuable assets in bringing "Life of Pi" to the screen.  "In making the movie, all of us were tested," says Lee. "At times I wondered, 'Why am I making this movie?' It didn’t make sense. Now that we're done and looking back, it seems like destiny. I think that’s the first lesson for the reader, for the movie viewer, and for me personally."