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Indian actor Suraj Sharma, who played the protagonist in Ang Lee’s adventure drama “Life of Pi”, has been nominated for the BAFTA EE Rising Star Award.
The 19 year old is …
[dropcap]Ang Lee[/dropcap]’s Life of Pi has created waves. Literally, (in a self wave-generating tank located in Taiwan- more on that later!) and figuratively, across the hearts and minds of film professionals and lovers alike. The survival story of a shipwrecked boy and a Royal Bengal Tiger is a journey told on screen like never before. Add to it Lee’s extraordinary vision and sense of direction and what followed is sheer cinematic genius. And it left us wanting more.
And so, on the occasion of the movie opening the International Film Festival of India 2012, Pandolin caught up with the cast and crew to find out what went into making this film, and working with the genius that Lee is. We promise you, the behind-the-scenes is as fantastic a journey as Pi’s was onscreen.
[pullquote_left]I remember a security guard in New York. He was looking at me intently, and there was so much in his eyes, I asked him if he’d watched the film. His reply was like a flood that was just waiting to come out. Why did it work for him? He told me that it was because he felt he was the boy (Pi), who isn’t in control of his life. He’s not disciplined, and he survives. He wants to experience, and he survives. The rest were all disciplined, and they perish. This makes me wish to have the gift of storytelling in my next birth.[/pullquote_left]
Irrfan Khan (Actor/ Older Piscine Patel)
On the journey of the Life of Pi …
The journey (of the film) is long, and I can’t really sum it up in words. To me, it could be the story of the Tiger, of innocence and existence on the planet. It could be the story of the boy, of human spirit, struggle and victory. It could be the story of the boat. That’s the greatness of the storyteller (Martell and Lee). It works from all angles. It could be the story of God. In the age of shortcuts, belief is like fast food. Religion sums up God’s existence. However, God is a personal journey and you have to discover him on your own, in everything.
It’s amazing how a master creates a story from different angles that it fits and works for everybody. I remember a security guard in New York. He was looking at me intently, and there was so much in his eyes, I asked him if he’d watched the film. His reply was like a flood that was just waiting to come out. Why did it work for him? He told me that it was because he felt he was the boy (Pi), who isn’t in control of his life. He’s not disciplined, and he survives. He wants to experience, and he survives. The rest were all disciplined, and they perish. This makes me wish to have the gift of storytelling in my next birth.
The story reaches the audiences the way we want, but they add to it and it becomes an enriching experience.
On working with Ang Lee…
It’s great to be part of such a team. Avy (Kaufman, the casting director) met me, and she was so passionate about the story. The script, being a visual description of action doesn’t make such a good read, so when Avy was gushing about it I was wondering what’s this that Avy’s telling me. However, when you’re part of a team where everyone’s passionate, it’s amazing!
In a way I’m still discovering (the movie). It takes a lot of people to achieve something of this scale. Ang (Lee) is the leader. What the film does is unique, as it involves both the heart and mind.
It triggers and reads your emotions. Ang leaves something for your mind to ponder.
I thought I didn’t need much preparation to play Pi, but the director’s vision decides the journey, and I can say it wasn’t an easy one.
On his interpretation of the story…
Whether Pi goes through the grueling experience or is Richard Parker a part of his imagination? This is what the film is about. You can’t define it. We have a tendency to make formula of things. Irrfan and Tabu in an Ang Lee film? Oh, so now is a good time for Asian actors in International movies. We’re always looking for formulae. But the idea is not to find definitions. The tiger or Pi is for you to live with the experience. Don’t be in a hurry to define.
After reading the story I realized that for author Yann Martell, this must’ve been a great journey. To have found a story that put his life on the path. That defines his life.
For Ang, the story was already there in form of a book. He had to translate it from a book to something audiovisual. I feel this is more challenging, trying to be faithful to the book and himself.
I’ve been a part of many books to movie adaptations, but Life of Pi is definitely a landmark.
Tabu (Actor/ Piscine Patel’s mother)
On being part of Life of Pi
I’m extremely proud and happy to be a part of this project. Professionally and personally, this has been a great film for me. Ang is instrumental in bringing forth a great story.
I’m a huge Ang Lee fan, and I did this film for the opportunity to work with him. I don’t care about what people say about my role not being a huge or a big one. Pi’s mom is very important in his life, and I was very happy to do the role
Avy Kaufman (Casting Director) and David Womark (Producer)
On casting Irrfan and Tabu
Avy: Casting them was easy! I’d known about Irrfan for a while and watched many of his films to familiarize myself with his work. I kept going back to him as I thought he’d make a good storyteller. He looked honest. Tabu and Irrfan were the only options I gave Ang for their roles. I got many for the father, and Ang chose Adil Hussain.[pullquote_right]As a casting director, I have to be able to read the director, and what he wants. I’ve worked with directors who rarely want to meet the talent, some don’t even see all the auditions. With Ang, he pays so much attention to detail, he even selects all the extras himself![/pullquote_right]
On searching for Pi
Avy: Searching for Pi was an absolute thrill, putting together the whole puzzle together.
The first thing I did is read the script, and gather all that I needed to know about Pi. I started my search in India and was working with people from 7 different states. I hired 6-7 casting directors- some were even line producers- and I sent them all a package, telling them how to audition, which scenes to read, etc. I put together a reference audition, so that we got the exact same audition videos from all 7 places. I opened up an account online, and we’d download thousands of auditions a day. We put flyers across all venues where there were boys, looking for boys in the age group of 14-20 years.
I started my search in Mumbai. I watched a lot of Indian movies, and looked at the credits and contacted the casting directors. I found some people via producers. I’d like the cast of their films and asked them who’d helped them with the casting. My search for Pi took me to Chennai, Bangalore, Pondicherry, Delhi, Pune, etc. One thing led to another and I found Dilip Shankar in Delhi. I trusted him immensely, and he gave me a few more leads in different states I hadn’t hired yet.
I expanded my search in America, Canada and London after 4 months, but my focus remained India.
David: What was unique about Avy’s challenge was that Pi, the character, was on screen for almost 100% of the movie, 2/3rd of which he was alone. So Avy had to find someone that Ang was comfortable with, and the studio was comfortable with. It became more than just the creative aspect.
Avy: A major difference in this movie was that most movies in America and Europe, whether big or small budget, the finance people look for a big name to carry the weight of the film. This was unique, as we all knew that he wasn’t going to be famous, or we didn’t think that he’d be famous. And now he is. (smiles)
David: Ang would call this a leap of faith.
On casting Suraj Sharma
Avy: Ang is very particular about what he wants. When we began casting, I sent out a booklet to all the casting directors specifying that the boy should be between 14-20 years, we were looking for someone approximately 16. He should be of a particular height, must be a good swimmer and must speak French.
Suraj didn’t know how to swim, did not speak French and was much taller than Ang had wanted. But he did have everything else that Ang had wanted. So the description, some directors stick to it, others appreciate going around that.
David: [quote]Ang and Avy would sit together and watch hundreds of tapes, and every week list their favorites. And each time in these sessions before they’d finish, Ang would say, “Put the guy with the glasses”. That was Suraj. He made it till the end. It was like it was meant to happen.[/quote]
Avy: So over a period of eight months, I received hundreds of auditions a day online, and I’d go through them with another person from the office. I had a big book to keep track of which actor was from where. When Suraj came in, he did wear glasses, and he stood out. But there was another boy, whom we’d call ‘The Green Sweater Boy’ and he took your breath away. He was a combination of charm and innocence, and from his auditions you could tell he was quite good. I kept bringing Suraj in there because he was so different, but in the back of my team’s mind it was the ‘Green Sweater Boy’. So when the 12 final boys came in from India, Green Sweater was lovely and wonderful. In fact, all the boys were so good, I was so impressed by the Indian actors. They did the same dialogues, and I’ve cast a lot of people of the same age group in America, but there was something about the actors from India. They’d find something to do for every word. They wouldn’t just go, “Come to my house,” they’d make you feel like they’re really inviting you over. It was extraordinary.
Suraj was the last one and I was behind the camera, and he just- did. He nailed it. David was with me and I got emotional while he auditioned.
David: Ang also had him read the long 4-page speech at the end of the movie. So when he came in to audition with Avy and Ang, he had to deal with a scene that was so emotional and difficult and it was amazing to watch.
On casting Gerard Depardieu
Avy: When I read the role of the cook, well, who else would you think of? I don’t really like spot-on type of casting, and there were a lot of people on our team and the studio who saw this character as very good-looking and very thin. I gave a list to Ang and he said he really liked Gerard and I was like “Oh my God, that’s great!” I know David loved him. He was on the list and he was perfect. I thought it was cool to get him; he’s an icon.
David: That’s the thing about really good directors like Ang. The studio might want something else, but sometimes you can just say this is it, this is what we’re doing.
On working with Ang Lee
Avy: After Sense and Sensibility (1995), someone called me and asked if I’d meet with Ang for The Ice Storm (1997). I knew I was one of many, and I was so nervous. I thought he’d done a fantastic job with Sense and Sensibility. Luckily, I got the job and have since worked on many films with Ang. (Brokeback Mountain, Taking Woodstock, Hulk, Ride with the Devil) Every time I watch Life of Pi, there’s something in the film that talks to me, similarly with every film I do with Ang, I find something else, a different kind of connection. I have to connect with him. It’s what I have to do to do my job.
As a casting director, I have to be able to read the director, and what he wants. I’ve worked with directors who rarely want to meet the talent, some don’t even see all the auditions. With Ang, he pays so much attention to detail, he even selects all the extras himself!
On the experience of casting in India
Avy: There’s a story behind every single actor that I cast from here. For example, the role of the helper in the zoo, who works for Pi’s father. (He’s the one who brings the goat in for Richard Parker.) Ang told me that people are darker in Pondicherry and he kept explaining the character to me. I’d been in Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, and I was thinking to myself, “What is Ang talking about!” I don’t see it on the streets, don’t see it anywhere. I went to Pondicherry to do some casting and I stepped outside for some air and I see this man, and he looks exactly like what Ang had described to me! I started to talk to him and he didn’t know what I was saying, and I had no clue what he was saying. He was very shy, so I asked him to wait, ran into office and came out with someone who spoke Tamil. The office boy explained that I needed him to audition, but he refused. So I asked someone from the office to roll the camera over my shoulder, so that even if he wouldn’t audition, I’d try to get him to talk through the translator. Ang could hear and see him speak and know that he could do the job. Ang fell in love with him. Now, this man didn’t have a passport and they were unable to even locate his birth certificate. No drivers’ license. Nothing. He lived with his mother and wife, and had no interest in coming along. He didn’t want to come along! David worked his magic and he can now finish the story for you. (laughs)
David: It was a difficult process, but we did finally get him to Taiwan for the shoot. The scene had to be shot there for technical reasons. It was difficult for even us, the world travellers, to adjust to the climate in Taiwan, and here was this man who had stepped out of Pondicherry for the first time in his life and had landed in Taiwan. What was beautiful about it is that he spoke only Tamil and Suraj’s dad, Gokul, took him around to the restaurants and showed him around. Ang was very nervous that he’d lock up in front of the camera as this was his first time in front acting, but he did a beautiful job. So what you hear in these crazy Hollywood stories is really true. You find somebody on the streets, and three days later, he’s in front of the camera in a foreign land.
—– End of Part 1—-