Life of Life of Pi: 5 Reasons the Movie Was Deemed Unfilmable

A cast of unknowns, working with animals and lots of water made Ang Lee's adaptation more challenging than most flicks

By Matt Stevens Nov 21, 2012 8:30 PMTags
Life of PiTwentieth Century Fox Film

Yann Martel's 2001 novel Life of Pi has sold more than seven million copies and spent years on the bestseller lists. Bringing any beloved book to the big screen can be a daunting undertaking, but this particular story—about a young shipwreck survivor who shares a lifeboat with a hungry tiger—was long considered "unfilmable." After several directors (including M. Night Shyamalan) got on board and then jumped ship, Ang Lee agreed to helm the project. The Oscar winner for Brokeback Mountain has crafted a beautiful, faithful adaptation, though the filmmaking journey was hardly smooth sailing. Check out this tsunami of challenges, any of which could have sunk the production:

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1. No Stars to Guide the Ship: For this risky venture, Lee has selected mostly unknown actors, except for Gérard Depardieu in the small, but juicy part of the chef. Not even Spider-Man himself could make the cut! Yep, Tobey Maguire shot several scenes as the writer who interviews the adult Pi Patel. But according to insiders, the director decided Maguire (who appeared in Lee's The Ice Storm in 1997) was "too famous" among the cast of no-names and recast the role. That's going to make any Ice Storm reunion awkward!

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2. Finding the Perfect Pi: After an exhaustive talent search throughout India, during which 3,000 young men auditioned, Lee and his team picked 17-year-old Suraj Sharma to play the titular hero. New to the world of acting, Suraj prepped for the demanding role by learning to swim, fish, build a sail and gather fresh water. To match Pi's physical transformation, the skinny teen first gained some 17 pounds of muscle, and then during filming, dramatically dropped 37 pounds to depict the character's starvation. Safe to say, no pie for Pi.

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3. Tony the Tiger, This Ain't: As the old adage goes, never work with kids or animals, yet Pi features both—in the same small boat. Passengers include a zebra, hyena, orangutan and a 450-pound tiger nicknamed Richard Parker, who becomes Pi's main companion on his oceanic odyssey. Although ferocious Richard Parker is largely a CGI creation, the digital beast feels as real as the four actual Bengal tigers that served as physical and performance references. You'll believe Pi is in serious danger of becoming a kitty snack.

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4. Breaking the Waves and the Bank: Shooting on water can drown a production in problems, delays and cost overruns—just ask Kevin Costner, who belly flopped in Waterworld with its reported $175 million budget. To pull off Pi's extensive aquatic sequences, including a harrowing shipwreck and massive "Storm of God," the filmmakers spent months in Taiwan, where they built the world's largest self-generating wave tank. And they reportedly had only $100 million, a drop in the proverbial ocean.

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5. A CGI-Heavy Movie With Weighty Themes: Ang Lee may not seem like the perfect fit for a special effects-laden spectacle (case in point: his poorly received Hulk). Plus, Pi represents the director's first foray into 3-D filmmaking. But even as he and his digital wizards create exquisite 3-D visuals, Lee never loses sight of the depth that really matters: the emotional kind. His Pi is an immersive, exhilarating experience that does justice to Martel's book and its explorations of spirituality and faith. Amen for that.