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Why 'Life of Pi' Will Win Multiple Oscars Next Weekend

Photo of Anne Thompson By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood February 19, 2013 at 1:32PM

Going into the final Oscar stretch, Ang Lee's "Life of Pi" has turned out to be a stronger contender--and box office juggernaut, at close to $600 million worldwide--than many had expected. Nominated for eleven Oscars, among the categories the movie is favored to win are best director, cinematography, visual effects and editing. Some weeks back I moderated a lively DGA panel with cinematographer Claudio Miranda (“The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”), producer David Womark, VFX animator and supervisor Erik Jan De Boer, visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer (of beleaguered Rhythm & Hues) and Lee's long-time editor Tim Squyres.

TS: He never had to say, make the scene a little more spiritual.  That sense of the spirituality in the story, everybody knew it was there in every department.  It just informed everything. I had a clear sense of what the movie should feel like emotionally.  By the way, it's a strong spiritual sense but it's not a clear spiritual sense.  People interpret it a lot of ways and that's important--we wanted the ambiguity that people find in the book in the movie as well.  The scene in the morning when the world is finally calm and it's beautiful, we talked about what that sky would look like and we spent a long time pestering Bill about that sky to get the right sort of magic.  That sense of spirituality came into everybody's work because we knew it was supposed to be there.

CM: Ang also felt that the entire process of making the film was parallel to Pi's journey.  He really thinks like that, and when you have a director that feels that way, it informs the audience for everybody.

Ang Lee and Suraj Sharma
Ang Lee and Suraj Sharma

Q: Suraj, the guy who played Pi, it was his first acting job?

TS: Yep.  And he couldn't swim!

Q: How did you find him?  And how did you make him feel comfortable enough to do the acting?

DW: Ang thought it was important to find someone that wasn't too tall, even though Suraj was a little taller than what he wanted.  Most importantly, he wanted someone who looked 16 and had the innocence. Without that element you can't green light the movie.  You don't really have a movie!  The search that Ang went through with his long-time casting director Avy Kaufman involved four or five thousand kids in six or seven different casting offices--London, Vancouver, Montreal, New York, LA.  Ang was always hoping to find somebody that was born in and grew up in India.  He narrowed it down to 10 people.  Ang tells the story that when Suraj did his initial rehearsals, he kept his glasses on.  Each time, Suraj would make each pass and each cut.  I was there in the background on the day Suraj performed for Ang and Avy and Ang immediately felt, somewhere, deeply, 'he's the guy.'  Suraj had to read the four pages in the hospital bed as part of his audition, and he was so good at the performance that we referenced video tapes of that audition during the takes!  It was one of those moments that just happened.

Q: When you find yourself overwhelmed as you make the film, do you have any tricks to find objectivity and approach your craft with fresh eyes?

BW: I do occasionally resort to my two boys.  I show them stuff, especially my youngest, who'll tell me when something stinks.  For instance, I was there with Ang and my boys watching the flying fish sequence, and there was a question whether one fish's tail should stick out into the edge, and everyone in the room said it was great but Thomas was like, 'well, not so much.' We kept it as is but it does help to get other opinions.  There is an arc when you start a project and you look at stuff.  One of the big unknowns for me was how to blend the digital water in 3-D and I knew that we would figure out a way, but I had to pretty much say, 'we're good, we'll get it' and then trust that we would.

DW: It is hard because in our case we figured out that we couldn't just build a wave tank, we had to build a swell tank.  Because in the middle of the ocean, there's no beach.  I give Bill a lot of credit too. Ang would turn to me and say, 'you know, I hope later on we'll get it.'

AT: Was there some sequence that you were never able to get right and Ang was just bugging you about it?

BW: Some took a lot longer than others, but we're all happy with what we got.

TS: Yeah.  Some sequences happened later in the processes than the others--the second storm was one of the very last things that we did.  That was a struggle because it came last.

Q: Can you talk more about the spiritual ambiguity, especially at the end.  Do you find that some of the earlier cuts had a more specific interpretation?

TS: The biggest issue we had that made us change the ending is that we weren't pointing enough at making people think about what the relationship between the two stories was.  It wasn't clear that these were variations on the same idea--and all that that means.  When you watch a movie or read a book, you don't think about whether something is true.  You know it's not; it's a movie.  So we had to bring up the idea of, we don't believe you or this story you just told.  Initially we hadn't done that strongly enough.  And those things combined to make people not think enough about the ending.  It wasn't so much that we were saying too much of either this or that, but that we weren't saying 'pay attention' hard enough.

DW: Ang always mentioned that for him, thematically, the movie is really about the power of storytelling.  And he's said that when you're done watching the movie, it's yours.  Do with it what you want.  That ambiguity was a goal.

TS: Pi didn't ask the writer which story he believed.  He asked which story you prefer.

This article is related to: Life of Pi, Ang Lee, Interviews, Interviews

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.