Life of Pi was as good as dead.
The film adaptation of Yann Martel’s 2001 novel, about a young boy stranded at sea with a ferocious Bengal tiger, had been on the shelf for a long time. 20th Century Fox had already approached three directors, who tried and failed to get an adaptation onscreen before bowing out.
The last best hope was Ang Lee, but while the Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon director spent eight months developing the project, it was the executives at Fox who began to have second thoughts.
This would not be a cheap movie – the budget was estimated around $120 million, and when the studio took a hard look at the project, they realized they had no idea what they were getting in to.
That’s when Elizabeth Gabler, President of Fox 2000 Pictures, called Lee to tell him that it was off. Fox was backing out, and he was welcome to shop the project elsewhere.
It wasn’t the last time he would have to fight for Life of Pi. Here, in an article originally published as the Oscar contender hit theaters, is how he brought this epic tale of survival back to life, over, and over again.
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For Elizabeth Gabler, calling Lee to tell him that her company couldn’t do the project was more than business as usual. She says she desperately wanted this movie to get made.
Gabler had been one of the project’s biggest champions alongside producer Gil Netter. It was a risk, but that’s what she liked about it. “I’m one of those people who’s always looking for something new,” says Gabler. “I feel like we can always subsist on sequels and things we’ve seen before, and that’s great - I think everybody needs something that they can feel really comfortable with.”
“But once in a while, there’s something that comes out and people say ‘that was a new experience for me.’ And the idea of this young man and this animal on this boat alone, trying to survive in the world, was something that I thought could reach all audiences around the world,” she added.
When she made that difficult phone call, she expected Lee to say something along the lines of “thanks, I’ll take my little project and go around and see who wants to pay for it.” Instead, he said he was getting on a plane to Los Angeles to talk to her.
He arrived willing to compromise on the budget (sources at the studio said the film ended up with an $85 million pricetag) but he brought a lot more than that. He’d already prepared a pre-visualization of the crucial shipwreck sequence, edited and scored, and a taped audition of Suraj Sharma – the first-time actor that would ultimately be cast as Pi.
Gabler says “it personalized who Pi was. We knew he had found this actor. And he wasn’t even an actor, he was just a boy from India. But seeing him read those scenes and that monologue that you see at the end when he’s in the hospital. It was impossible to say no.”
Life of Pi was back on track.
The struggles didn’t end there, and Gabler described the entire experience as similar to being in the storm that sends the ship Pi was traveling on with his family to the bottom of the ocean – a metaphor echoed by many who worked on the film. It wasn’t that the movie was out-of-control, it was just immensely complicated and pushed nearly everyone involved to the breaking point. “For a production, it was amazingly planned. We were on schedule and we were on budget, despite everyone just killing themselves under insurmountable odds,” Gabler said.
The first challenge was finding a way to take Martel’s novel off one page and put it onto another.