Pete Hammond

Finally opening wide today after a 10-year journey to the screen, director Ang Lee‘s epic and groundbreaking movie about the trecherous ocean voyage of two survivors of a shipwreck – a young man and an imposing Bengal Tiger – represents an enormous gamble for distributor 20th Century Fox. Even Lee who has won Oscars for equally groundbreaking fare such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain initally did not think this reported $120 million film based on the best-selling novel by Yann Martel was viable. “I read it 10 years ago. I thought nobody in their right mind would put up more than $15 million for this. It’s too risky, too philosophical a book although it has great adventure in the middle part, the ocean part, but it’s a thinking book. So I didn’t think it was artistically filmable or technically so,” he told me when he came to town last week for a series of well-attended promotional screenings for the WGA, PGA, SAG, DGA and the Academy which drew a strong crowd Sunday night.

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Lee wasn’t the only one who thought Life of Pi was unfilmable. Fox had been developing the picture with other filmmakers since aquiring the property in 2002 but until Lee got involved five years ago it was stalled. Even then it almost didn’t come together but the director prevailed in explaining his vision and the need to shoot it in 3D, his first time using that process. “I thought of 3D, that maybe with another dimension I could take a leap of faith. That was way before I knew what 3D was. It was a naive thought. Then of course I did my studies and thought about the possibilities. You know this is a water movie, a kid’s trip across the Pacific (it stars remarkable newcomer Suraj Sharma who had never acted before). I’ve got to think about something special,” he said. “I give Fox credit. I know they’re very nervous. It’s been way too much for a literary property. Studios will let you shoot in 3D but those are usually action movies. They didn’t know why I insisted on shooting in 3D because at that time it would add $25 million more to the budget. I said water makes a big difference and I spent a whole year doing animation and I pre-visualized the whole water section. I went to numerous meetings with technical people and I think out of the box I didn’t think it could be done here so I suggested Taiwan. We took over an abandoned airport and turned the hangar into shooting stages and built a big wave tank … so I can imitate an open ocean. I had to shoot a wave on one side and a dissolve on the other, something that has never been done before. So it took a year and a half before they agreed on the budget but they took a leap of faith and said ‘we want to work with you’ …  But they did take a leap of faith and of course we worked very hard”.

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Although Fox may be “nervous” as Lee says, particularly with the strong holiday competition, there is lots of Oscar buzz and Lee received standing ovations from the industry crowd at several screenings over the past week including the SAG Nominating Committee members who also stood for the young star, Sharma. They say never work with water, animals, kids, and in this case a first-time actor who had to do a highly emotional performance but Lee pulled it off. Top critics on Rotten Tomatoes have given the film a near-unanimous 90% fresh score so far. I would definitely venture to say whatever its fate in other categories Life Of Pi is emerging as the Visual Effects frontrunner and a strong contender across the board for Fox. Time – and boxoffice success – will tell. The studio has certainly put a lot of marketing muscle behind it, particularly with TV spots trumpeting Time Magazine’s declaration that it is the “New Avatar” and that probably has gotten voters’ attention.

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Sitting on the Moguls panel at Deadline’s November 10th The Contenders all-day event, Fox Chairman Jim Gianopulos explained the studio’s decision to take the risk and make the film after I pointed out it is not the kind of “safe bet” studios are often most comfortable with these days. “Well, some movies will themselves to be. This is a movie that’s gestated for 10 years. Several filmmakers tried it, but then Ang Lee came aboard. Then there comes a point where you say ‘Okay, there’s no way to make this movie, there’s no way to do a CG tiger that dominated most of the film, that doesn’t cost you enormous amounts of money, and do you really want to walk away from that opportunity? So some movies just will themselves to be and you’re part of the process that sometimes enables it. We say, ‘let’s just go with it and let’s see what happens’. Unfortunately, a movie that’s not execution dependent inarguably takes balls to execute, but we’re proud to be part of it. But we couldn’t not make it,” he said.

Here is a featurette on the 3D aspects of Life Of Pi featuring Lee and his 3D partners James Cameron and Vince Pace:

Awards Columnist Pete Hammond - tip him here.