Making of Life of Pi – Part 2
Life of Pi has been on a roll ever since it’s release, with an AFI Movie of the Year win, 11 Oscar nominations and 9 BAFTA nominations, this movie is going to just get bigger…
In our concluding article, Pandolin continues the conversation with the Oscar nominated Producer David Womark on what it took to make this movie come alive on-screen.
You can find the first part of this article here.
On why he chose to produce ‘Life of Pi’…
As a producer, I work independently, on different projects with different directors, and not with a studio. In Ang’s case, I’d spent two years working with him before on the movie, Hulk (2003). We’d attempted a more technically complex and visual effects heavy movie. What’s amazing about the script and book, and Ang, is that The Life of Pi is a hybrid. Unlike Hulk, which was a straight commercial movie, Life of Pi is a hybrid of a small movie and a big commercial movie at the same time. For those who’ve seen it, I’m sure you understand what I mean. There’s a size and complexity to it and at the same time it’s very intimate. And of course, working with Ang is the number one reason for me to produce it.
On the process of making Life of Pi…
The process started ten years ago. Ang and I had nothing to do with the film at that time. Sometimes it’s such a long journey for a film to get made. What happened is that our other producer, Gil Netter, had got the galleys of the book. He went to the head of Fox Studios and told him, “You have to read this book this weekend!” Before the studio even had the rights to it, Gil hired a writer and told the studio that they wanted to make Pi in a particular way. They got excited, spent a lot of money on a bidding war that weekend and now they owned the rights for a couple of years. Initially, they hired M. Night Shyamalan to direct Life of Pi. When Night came aboard, he started developing it and then at some point he got busy with something else. Popular commercial directors will usually have 3-4 projects, and in Night’s case he writes a lot himself, so he jumped off this project. Then for a couple of months, Alfonso Cuaron was involved, but he got busy with another project too. You have to remember that whether it’s this movie that’s 90 million dollars plus, or smaller movies, there’s a financial aspect involved, sometimes it’s a cast aspect. Somebody’s involved that helps the movie get made. So it’s lots of things jumping on a moving vehicle. After Cuaron came Jean-Pierre Jeunet, the director of Delicatessen (1991). He was on it for a year, year and a half. He did a complete script and at that point, the production plan that they had- and this was five to six years ago- they wanted to shoot on water with real animals. It would have been very complicated and the studio decided to stop it. That’s when they approached Ang.
On behalf of the studio I can tell you, that when you are approaching Ang with a book like Life of Pi, you know you’re making an international movie. This isn’t going to be a Vin Diesel Fast and Furious. You’re taking a leap of faith. Tom Rothman, who was the Chairman of the studio, had worked with Ang during ‘Ice Storm’, so there was a relationship. You need to understand how the behind the scenes work for making a film like this. It’s not like Ang just woke up one morning and said, “I’m making Life of Pi. Someone write me a $90 million cheque!” It’s very complicated, and when a movie actually gets made, it’s somewhat like a miracle. So many different parties have to line up; so many things have to line up. In our case, I always felt there were a couple of things that helped get the movie made. Element number one was the fact that they had Ang Lee. It helps that Ang and I are friends, but when I took this big effects movie, I was happy that he is also a rational person. It’s a big commitment and I looked up to him. Ang had done this movie called Lust, Caution (2007). It’s a very good movie, but not too many people have seen it. In America they released it unrated, so it didn’t do a lot of business because America stands by its puritan ethics. However, in Asia, it made $60 million. So I said to myself, it’s Ang, it’s this spiritual script, it’s going to cost a bundle, but with Lust, Caution, a movie that’s very different from a commercial stand point, he made all this money in Asia, somebody must have done their homework. Here we already had a studio that had the stance that they were going to try and make an international film.
[box_light]By the time the movie was complete, Ang had worked on it for four years. I’ve spent 3 years on it. Ang spent 9 months developing the movie, then a year and a half of pre with a small staff. We filmed the movie for roughly 95 days and the Post, with the entire complex VFX took around a year and four months.[/box_light]
On the challenges of shooting the film…
This movie has what we call the ‘Unholy trinity of production’. Water, animals and kids. So that’s already complicated. Ang in general, and myself too, we usually go for the creative choice first and I also enjoy challenges. Then we also had 3D. If you look at water movies over the years, like the Pirates of the Carribean (2003) or Master and Commander (2003), the main difference is that most of the water work can be done on a deck. We could put a deck with a blue screen, have a couple of hoses and we’re shooting a water movie. The difference in Life of Pi is that for 70% of the movie, the lead character has his rear end in the water on the raft or on the boat. So we have to actually physically shoot in a body of water. That was a big challenge.
On making the film…
Ang focuses more on the development and creative side, and my job as a producer is to help Ang create his vision. When we started, one of the things we did is watch a lot of water movies. What we noticed is that in traditional Hollywood movies, they have bathtub water. The challenge in Pi is that you’re literally seeing the ocean for 70 minutes. So that was one issue we had to address.
We found an obscure Hitchcock movie called Lifeboat (1944) and showed it to Ang. It also had a making of segment, where Mr. Hitchcock basically said, “I’m screwed! I’ve got 7 actors in a lifeboat for 2 hours. Visually, it’s going to be pretty boring.” So one of the ways Ang addressed that is by doing previs (pre-visualization) in 3D. Which means we bring in animators, and he starts designing just the water segment of the movie into a small, animated movie. As he prevised, taking a note from Hitchcock, he decided that each scene would have different water, different lighting and different clouds so it gave you a sense of Pi’s journey and also emotionally differentiated each of the scenes.
After Ang figured all that out, we had to figure out how to build the tank and how to shoot it.
All this had been the easy part. This is a process we have to go through, and we were lucky because this project was so ambitious, it had been around in the studio for 10 years. We had a lot of extra time and we worked with a very small group for a year and a half, before the movie even began the pre-production, so we had time to figure things out.
The ocean was shot in a self-generating wave tank in Taiwan. One of the things we noticed when we had to build the wave tank is that in the middle of the ocean there are no waves. You have waves on the beach; in the middle of the ocean we have swells. There are water parks everywhere in the world with wave pools, so we hired a design team and they reverse engineered their machines so that we could get swells, and when needed for the storm, waves. That’s how we tackled that problem. So we basically had a boat and a raft, and a big tank with these massive machines and then we surrounded that whole area with big containers and covered everything with cloth. The reason we did that is essentially we created an outdoor sound stage, where if we pull the set back and have real light, pull them back if it was cloudy day or if the weather was incorrect, we could create our own weather inside the tent. We had what we call the BFL, which in English is quite simply the Big F*$#ng Light, and that’s what we would use as the Sun.
We also designed a tank so that the doors on the western side of the tank could open, and it was facing West, so in some of the sunset scenes we had real sun coming into the tank.
Figuring out the size of the tank was another challenge because the bigger you make the tank, the more water you have to move around. So we sat by ourselves first, without engineers, and figured out what is it that we need for filming. At this point Ang had done some of the previs, but I have to admit- and that this is what I do love about filmmaking- that it came down to no engineers, no special effects. I sat there with the assistant director and we said, “Ok, the lifeboat is 24 feet, the rope goes to another 35 feet, the raft is 14 feet, so roughly around 90 feet. Let’s call it a 100. So a 100 to the right, a 100 to the left, it came up to 300 feet, roughly a 100 metres. Here we had the width. We needed 50 metres on either side. We had a 30-metre tank. The engineers determined the depth, as they needed a specific depth to create the waves and swells. That’s how we decided the size of the tank.
Here I have to share a little anecdote about Ang, as this is how Ang directs. [box_light]There’s not an element of an Ang Lee movie that he doesn’t touch. The day we decided to start digging the hole for the tank, our cinematographer Claudio was there with his compass to make sure we were designing the tank due West, the contractor was there and Ang came down and actually caught the mistake that for whatever reason, we were off by one degree![/box_light]
On the importance of previs…
The budget allocated, etc, are decisions made on the basis of the project. In our case, we knew that the 3D water work was critical as we had to get the camera in and out of the water, and not just shoot from the deck. Around 75 minutes of the film, ie the entire water portion of the film right from the freighter going down, was prevised. Ang put a lot of detail into it. It’s like basically making your own animated movie. It was very interesting to watch and we used it as a selling tool. Even when we did casting, or when meeting Fox Studios India, etc, we’d show the freighter sinking as a selling tool. It helps everyone understand how Ang sees the movie, it helps the studio to understand what Ang’s vision is. Especially in a visual effects movie, it’s a very handy tool.
On creating Richard Parker…
We had probably one of the best tiger trainers in the world, Thierry le Portier, to help us with Richard Parker. He actually informed the script, in other words, Ang got inputs from him on some sequences in the movie to figure out how to do things w.r.t the tiger. If you have to work with tigers, you really have to listen closely, which is what Ang did. Your trainer will have a lot more insight. In Thierry’s case, he’s been training tigers since he was 12.
On another note, I was very impressed with the level of protection India has when it comes to working with tigers. We shot with them abroad, finally. Hopefully by seeing the film, people will take something away about the tiger and will help in conservation too.
One of the things that happened early on in the production, which I had to slam through to the studio, was that Ang and I decided that it was critical to have real tigers on set. When you look at the animals, the tiger really is the other character in the movie. The studio, of course, because you’re already dealing with water and kids, when you tell them you want to work with animals was like what is this, you need to compromise somewhere. So you have to come up with a justification to the producer, artistic, and in this case, production-wise, as to why you need the animal. And that’s my job.
So basically I started explaining to them that first and foremost, by having a real tiger with us on the set, it informs the actors how dangerous a tiger is, what it can do. Secondly, by having the tiger on set, working with him, shooting him, you set a quality bar with the visual effects house (Rhythm and Hues), has to hit, so it makes the movie better. So when they deliver the material, and this is a financial thing, you get charged shot-by-shot, so the more you do passes and say it’s not done yet, the more you spend.
And here comes the most important part. In the movie, 90% of the tigers shots are digital. There are roughly 300 shots of which 23 are shot with real tigers, mostly close ups and the scene of Richard Parker swimming in the ocean. But when we worked with the tigers, and we were very close with PETA, the humane society and all these elements, what we did is we found an area where we put a boat. Our boat was on this thing called a gimbal, that moves the boat a little bit so it feels like the sea and you can control it, so all the training was done in the same area and through this we got tons and tons of video references. So what happened was in post, when you’re editing the movie and Ang wants to know what it looks like when the tiger scratches the wood, if we didn’t have those videos, the animators would work for months, with15 to 20 people just creating the paw scratching. Then you come back, Ang will watch it and say, “I don’t know, will his fingers move like that…?” so then they go and change it again and on and on and on.
We had the luxury of having these video references. Traditionally, many times in these movies, the VFX budget is something that tends to go a little over. In our case, not only did it go under-budget, but more importantly, it’s hard to tell what’s digital and what’s not. Which is another thing about a big effects movie, you have to have a suspension of disbelief. You have to fool the audience. Otherwise you’re too busy watching the technical elements and you’re not watching the movie.
On the importance of actors promoting a film…
There are different types of movies. If I give you the example of those I’ve worked on, take G.I. Joe (2009) for example. It’s an independent, artistic movie, but more importantly, it’s a concept film. Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and all these people were involved, but content is first. Artist promotion is usually not that vital because there are toys, merchandise, there’s a concept.
When you’re doing something like Life of Pi, you need to know Suraj, or you know Tabu here. You have to put the actors forward because people want to get a sense of who they are, how they’re going to be in the actual movie itself. So they become a more important part of the package. To be perfectly honest, in this case you also have Ang, because a big, core group of people who are going to see this movie are people who’ve either read the book or people who like Ang Lee movies. That’s where it starts.
So in this case, actors are important, but maybe not as important if you did something like The Master (2012) where Philip Seymour Hoffman really promotes the movie. What the focus is going to be in the market depends on the project.
On whether extensive promotions help a movie…
Again, it depends on the movie. With something like Pi, the marketing is held back to later because you really need to build up some critical reviews. If you start showing the movie before it’s ready, especially when there are lots of VFX, people may not understand it. So usually the window for marketing such movies is small.
Going back to big, commercial blockbusters like Transformers and G.I. Joe, there are elements you can start promoting two years in advance. So you’ll be in theatres in 2010 and they’ll tell you about the movie coming up in 2012, and the breakfast package will be in McDonalds in 2011. It all depends on the type of product.
What’s interesting is that after Avy and I finished working on the movie, Ang at some point knew that the studios you’re dealing with are now MNCs, so it does become a product. He knew when marketing something as artistic as Pi, you need to be careful to market it right, so you don’t lose the element that’s so unique to the product. Something like Pi is a shorter way down but much more complicated marketing process, as you have to figure out how to position the movie.
On his relationship with Ang Lee…
I met Ang in 2002 on Hulk. It was a very different movie. It was one of the first movies Marvel made, and they hired Ang after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). At that point in Ang’s career he hadn’t done a big effects movie. The Hulk was a digital film and when he arrived Ang said, “I really don’t like doing storyboards.” He prepares meticulously, but did not do much storyboarding. We knew in order to get the movie green lit the studio needed to have some idea about the costs. When it comes to VFX, you need to have an idea as to how much work needs to be done. So what we did with Ang, since he loves art, is that we had him do the key frames. We’ve done this in a lot of movies, especially the expensive ones, where early on in development the production designer and artist start designing the key frames of the movie. That helps in selling and helping the studio understand what the movie will visually look like. Even with smaller movies, 20 million or 30 million, the studios need to put a lid on expenses with marketing, etc, so you have to give them some kind of visual elements. So in Ang’s case, we started giving him the key frames to design. Then we told him, how about drawing a couple of frames in between, and slowly he started storyboarding and he fell in love with it. So that’s my first experience with him.
He’s such a great filmmaker. I’ve been with him on two films now and there’s a very unique element to working with him. The amount of research he does in detail is amazing. Matthew Samuels was the head of the tourism office in Pondicherry, but it so happens that like Ang and myself, he’s born in the mid-50s. So if you look at Pi and Matthew, they’re almost the same age. He lived in Pondicherry in the 70s, the period when the film happens, and thus Matthew became our Pondicherry expert. We also had an expert for architecture in Pondicherry.
At some point Ang figured that Pi’s parents were in Delhi but moved to Pondicherry, so will the accent be Tamil with a mix of French, and how much should the mix be. He goes to those levels of details himself, not just the actors.
With anything on with the water, we had hundreds of consultants. One of the consultants is a gentleman called Steven Callahan. He was a sailor who was adrift at sea for 75 days when on a race in the Atlantic Ocean. So everything you see in the movie, the building of the raft, little pieces from the boat, etc, Steven was there to help us. He’d say, “You know on Day 35, this is what I felt. I didn’t know if I had enough energy to break a piece of wood…” It’s funny. Sometimes these details don’t make it to the final movie, but just the fact that he collects all this information, and that the producer, designer, assistants we share all this information, it ends up on screen in some way or the other.
[box_light]The screening we did at IFFI (Life of Pi was the opening film, making us the first audience to watch it) was eye opening. Ang had spent so much time with the actors, Tabu, Irrfan, Suraj and the others, focusing on these issues. It was critical for Ang that the film works here in India. So I noticed in the screening, there were so many moments with the audience, I realized that the Indian audiences got so much more from the film than what I got when I saw it two weeks ago. I know he’d be very proud if he were here.[/box_light]
On writer Yann Martel and his reaction to the celluloid Pi…
Yann has seen the film, and he liked it. In fact, sitting in one of the benches behind the writer and older Pi, near the shipyard, the writer even has even done a cameo in the film.
On Indian cinema…
I saw Samsaara the other day at the festival (IFFI) and it was a mind trip, so spiritual. I think many times in Western cinema, these elements get commercialized. With Pi, to some extent, Ang knows to keep that in. I’m already talking to some producers here, the ones that helped us in Pondicherry, about doing more projects here. On a personal level, I’m hoping that The Life of Pi pushes Hollywood to embrace more international subjects.