A boy, a tiger and a big gamble. Can director Ang Lee's
Life of Pi be profitable?, asks John Horn and Ben Fritz, of
the Los Angeles Times.
Many people in Hollywood considered Life of Pi to be
Indeed, Director Ang Lee's $120-million adaptation of Yann
Martel's 2001 book, which has sold 9 million copies
worldwide, is precisely the kind of movie that many complain
the big studios don't make anymore: an ambitious and highbrow
creation that is not a sequel and is not based on a comic
book or theme-park ride.
Marketing the movie is no easy task either. A boy's spiritual
journey across the Pacific Ocean on a lifeboat with a tiger
does not easily translate into a 30-second commercial.
''It's the biggest gamble I've ever taken,'' said Elizabeth
Gabler, the veteran 20th Century Fox executive who oversaw
There is a reason studios prefer to make movies such as
Star Wars and Transformers. Eight of the top-10
films at the box office this year have been sequels or
adaptations of child-friendly books such as The Hunger
Games. Last year, all 10 fell into those two categories.
When show-business executives dare to invest in sophisticated
material, they generally keep budgets low and make sure they
have a recognisable star (such as Daniel Day-Lewis in
''I read the book shortly after it came out and I remember
thinking, `This shouldn't be made into a movie','' Lee said.
''The artistic and the economic sides didn't meet. If you
spend too much money, you have to be mainstream. But if you
don't spend the money, you are not doing justice to the
''I do think it's a specialised movie,'' Lee said of Life
of Pi, using the industry jargon for an art-house film.
''But I hope it reaches out to the mainstream in some way.''
Life of Pi features a menagerie of animals, including
a Bengal tiger and thousands of flying fish. To replicate
Pacific storms, the production crew built a 6.4-million-litre
water tank in Taiwan that generated capsizing waves.
The four animals stranded on the lifeboat with Pi, the only
person to survive a cargo ship's sinking, are a zebra, an
orangutan, a hyena and the tiger. To ensure that lead actor
Suraj Sharma would not be ripped to shreds by his co-stars,
the realistic animals are almost entirely computer-animated
But that was the least of the film-making challenges. Life
of Pi's journey to the big screen was nearly as
miraculous as the technology behind it.
Gabler's Fox 2000 label acquired the movie rights soon after
Life of Pi was published in 2001. But one film-maker
after another proved unable to adapt the book, more moving
spiritual allegory than compelling page page-turner.
Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life and The
Manchurian Candidate remake screenwriter Dean Georgaris
do not manage to deliver a script. The Sixth Sense
writer-director M. Night Shyamalan expressed interest in
directing the movie in 2003 but ended up backing out.
Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet in 2005 pitched his idea
to make Life of Pi entirely with live animals. Fox estimated
he would need some 300 days of filming, about four times as
long as typical big-budget productions, and torpedoed his
The Oscar-winning Lee, whose diverse resume includes
Brokeback Mountain, Hulk and Crouching Tiger, Hidden
Dragon, came on to the project in 2008, drawn by its many
He arranged to shoot much of the picture in Taiwan and
planned to use a mix of cutting-edge CGI and 3-D effects to
bring the book's emotional intensity to the big screen.
Before filming was to commence in mid-2010, though, Fox
pulled the plug on the production.
''It was too much money and too scary,'' Gabler said.
Determined to save the movie, Lee flew from Taiwan to Century
City and showed top executives the screen test of Sharma (a
novice picked from more than 3000 hopefuls) and plans for
staging the ship's sinking. By the time the presentation was
over, Fox's top brass had reversed their decision.