Director Ang Lee specializes in filming "the unfilmable" and catapulting his productions into the Oscar race. So it is with Life of Pi, which defied Hollywood for a decade before Lee found a way to do it both elegantly and dramatically.
"Two things," Lee says in a telephone interview from New York when I ask how he solved the puzzle of Pi, which was created by Canadian novelist Yann Martel. "When I thought of these two things I decided to go ahead and make the movie," Lee explains. "But I wasn't sure. I was just guessing, of course."
Before we let Lee tell you about his "two things" -- because the concepts are complicated -- we need to explain about Life of Pi. It also has a complicated life history. Martel was born in Salamanca, Spain, from French-Canadian parents. His father was in the Canadian diplomatic corps and Yann was raised internationally, from Costa Rica to France to Canada.
Martel, who publicly acknowledged that "the spark of life" for his novel came from Brazilian author Moacyr Scliar's 1981 novella, Max and the Cats, found his own manuscript widely rejected. Major publishing houses in London, England, turned it down. Knopf Canada finally rescued the novel from the dust bin, publishing it in 2001. History will show the Knopf editors acted wisely. Life of Pi won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 2002, one of several prestigious awards the book would earn.
Life of Pi, opening Wednesday, is the fantastical story of a South Asian man named Piscine Molitor (Pi) Patel. As a middle-aged adult, he tells his story to a writer, re-counting what happened to him as a 16-year-old boy. In his comfortable youth, Pi's family ran a zoo in the former French enclave of Pondicherry, India. When the politics of the city change for the worse, Pi's father decides to emigrate to Canada -- with the animals. They book passage on a freighter.
During a frightful storm in the Pacific Ocean, a catastrophic shipwreck overtakes them, dramatically changing the journey for the survivors. Pi finds himself alone on a life raft with several animals. His furry friends all eventually perish, except for the ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. They will spend 227 days at sea together determining their mutual fates.
Many people have become fascinated by Martel's tall tale, with its profound undercurrents of spirituality and search for life's meaning. In a personal letter to Martel, U.S. President Barack Obama described Life of Pi as "an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling." That "proof of God" may actually be elusive in the novel, as it is to Pi himself, but the material certainly deals with Pi's anguished search.
With such a weight of meaning, Life of Pi was obviously not easy to "reduce" into a movie. "One thing is that I had to find a structure to make the material work from the book (to the screen)," Lee says of struggling with the adaptation of Life of Pi. "It was challenging because it deals with illusions, faith, all those abstract things."
Lee says that part of the structure was dealing with Pi in the first person "so you could feel it!" Pi is played by first-time actor Suraj Sharma as a youth. Irrfan Khan plays Pi as the adult, recounting his tale to a visitor at home in Montreal.
Lee says that he also needed a third-person perspective on the tale, "so you could examine from a distance, but without taking you out of the movie." With his characteristic sly sense of humour, Lee says this part of the structure of the film was critical. "More so than with the book, you have to keep people within the theatre. The illusion is something you don't want to break."
So, when Life of Pi does become fantastical, Lee plays it straight and lets the viewer decide to believe what they are seeing -- or not. This is all about "the power of storytelling," as Obama noted.
"I thought of the power of storytelling," Lee says, "which I think is the most important thing in the book. I like having older Pi tell his story."
The first thing he had to solve was to have all of these elements work together.
"Oh," Lee says he remembers thinking, "maybe I can crack this thing! Maybe there's a chance!"
The next thing was technical, although Lee refers to it in an odd way. "The other thing is actually a silly thought. I thought, if I could have another dimension, I could open it up." That meant shooting Life of Pi in 3D. "I thought, maybe that's the answer. With another dimension, maybe we can take a leap of faith."
Lee, who had never shot movies in 3D studied up. He realized that 3D would enhance scenes on and below the ocean's surface. "It think it did water really good. It does open up a lot of things because it's a new experience."
The format also supports fantasy. "You would think 3D is more realistic, because we look at things with two eyes (on a three-dimensional plane). But 3D is not real life. In 2D, reality is elusive. In 3D, it is more elusive. It is something quite phantom-like. We don't know it. We're not used to it yet. but I think it's wondrous."
With his two things in place -- structure and 3D -- Lee shot his film. He felt compelled. He felt a direct link to Martel's search for meaning in his own life. "From one culture to another, colonial or not, you have a sense of being adrift," Lee says. "I think Yann Martel grew up that way. I was the same way.
"My parents were from China. In Taiwan (where they fled during the civil war of the 1940s), we were kind of the outsiders. And then I'm in America (Lee moved to the U.S. for his education in 1979 and stayed). And yet I make movies everywhere. So the adrift feeling is not being able to root deeply into a certain culture or ground. It's my life, so I can identify."