How “Life of Pi” Went From Book to Movie

While Pi Patel might have spent 227 days trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, executive Elizabeth Gabler and producer, Gil Netter spent 11 years bringing the impossible story from page to screen

Life of Pi was published on September 11, 2001, perhaps the worst day to have a book launch. Nevertheless, it sold over 10 million copies and won author Yann Martel, the prestigious Man Booker Prize. It was a huge success. 

Yet, it was deemed an impossible movie to make — and the 11 years in between publishing and the release of the movie directed by Ang Lee is a story about the complexity of adaptation. 

Life of Pi is arguably my favorite book. I remember reading it as a teenager and feeling like I had a choice in what to think. Not often a case for a high school student. I remember my teacher asking me: which story did you think was real? The one with the animals, I responded. 

I loved that book, because it wasn’t tarnished by a movie. My imagination wasn’t skewed. It would not have been my favorite book, if I saw the movie first. Yet, it might have became my favorite movie. This is the first in a series about adaptations: the story of how a book becomes a movie. It’s not about which is better, it’s about how such a feat is even possible.  

In 1990, Yann Martel read a review by John Updike for a Portuguese book that has recently been translated into English. This book was called Max and the Cats by Moacyr Scliar. It was a negative review and Martel never read that book. Still the premise stayed with him: a boy trapped on a boat with a man-eating jaguar. 

Reeling from the disappointing reception of his first two published books, Martel in the midst of quitting a work in progress about Portugal, travelled to India for inspiration. This was 1996 — five years before Life of Pi was published. It was during this trip that it all came together. 

By 2002, Yann Martel had become a household name. Winning one of the biggest prizes in literature will do that. In addition, Life of Pi spent 61 weeks on New York Times BestSeller. While Martel received criticism for not acknowledging Scliar, eventually all that faded, when he stated it could not be plagiarism of any form, if he had never read Scliar’s book. When put side-by-side, most critics failed to see many similarities between the two: structurally and thematically. 

In the same year, at the height of Life of Pi’s popularity, 20th Century Fox Pictures Executive, Elizabeth Gabler was on maternity leave, where she saw the novel everywhere. All the other studios had passed on Life of Pi, so when producer, Gil Netter called her and pitched the project — she recognized the complexity of the story: it takes place predominantly on the Pacific Ocean, it’s highly spiritual, it’s not a superhero sequel and it’s not easily summed up. These were all concerns.

Still, Gabler saw a lot of potential in the story, so she made the deal for the film rights with Yann Martel a little over a year after the novel hit the shelves. 

When an author options their story to a production company, it is not always clear how much they will make. They may make a deal for as little to nothing with a promise of a percentage of the budget of the film (if it ever gets funding), or they may get an upfront payment for film rights all at once, perhaps $500,000. It’s hard to predict how much exactly Martel made from optioning the rights for Life of Pi, but one may wonder if the lengthy duration it took to make the film and the trouble it will soon have with the budget work for or against him monetarily. 

In February of 2003, Gabler had officially acquired the rights to Life of Pi and pre-production began. Screenwriter, Dean Georgaris, known for Manchurian Candidate, Triston and Isolde, and Laura Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, was hired to write the script. 

M. Night Shyamalan — yes, M. Night — was first to partner with the project as the director in 2004. He had just finished with his movie The Village and Life of Pi was tempting, after all, Shyamalan grew up in the very city, the character Pi did, Pondicherry. However, he would back out of the project worried that the twist ending in Life of Pi would be affected if he was to direct it. People will be anticipating the twist the moment it began. That would hurt the story, and so, Shyamalan would sacrifice himself and begin work on his next movie, Lady In the Water. 

The project went in and out of limbo at this point. As of March of 2005, Alfonso Cuaron was rumored to have signed on to direct it — but stepped down to work on Children of Men. 

In October of the same year, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of Amelie was hired by 20th Century Fox to take on the job. Jeunette jumped on the opportunity — after backing out of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix not long before — and began working on the screenplay with his partner from Amelie, Guillaume Laurant. Things were working great, Jeunet had a script that the studio liked, he built miniatures of the lifeboat, and even started location scouting in India.    

Then a major problem materialized: the budget. For an Indian boy in open waters with a lion, the project would cost an excess of $85 million. According to Investopedia, the average cost of a major studio movie in 2007 was $65 million. So the mission was to get the budget to $60 million, however, that simply wasn’t going to happen for Jeunet. In frustration, the heads of Fox told him to produce the movie himself. 

For 2 years, Jeunet had been working on Life of Pi. Suddenly the movie was at a standstill as the producers sought new solutions. Then time ran out for him. Jeunet did not want to spend the rest of his life working on Life of Pi and four months later he had a script for a new project, MicMacs. Life of Pi was once again without a director. 

At this time, Life of Pi was getting a reputation as being an unfilmable movie. It was getting riskier and riskier for 20th Century Fox. With no marketable star and every money-sucking challenge imaginable for a filmmaker, the adaptation of Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize winner seemed impossible. 

In early 2009, almost eight years after the novel was published, the fourth director for this film was hired, academy award winner, Ang Lee, best known for his diverse resume including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, and Hulk. 

Screenwriter, David Magee, known for Finding Neverland, was personally hired by Lee to write the screenplay, working closely together. Writers, if you ever feel like giving up on a project, remember everything Life of Pi went through… In three and a half years of working on the movie, Magee and Lee wrote 170 drafts of the script

Life of Pi was a story that is told primarily from the mind of the character. Pi alone on a lifeboat with a tiger. How can they translate it to the screen? Lee and Magee dove deep into the project: speaking with those who have survived at sea, visiting holy locations in India, and even setting out in a boat during harsh weather themselves to gain the personal experience. 

Once again, it felt as though the movie was back on track. Yet, there was still the issue of the marketable lead. Finding a young Indian boy to play the role of Pi — a huge responsibility — was challenging and lengthy. It required a worldwide search with Lee auditioning 3000 actors. In the end, he found Suraj Sharma and placed him in a setting as daunting as a lifeboat with a tiger, his first impossible Hollywood movie. 

Lacking a familiar name on the bill continued to be a concern for the studio, at least for the North American audience. At a time, Tobey Maguire, the original Spiderman himself, was cast as the author interviewing a much older Pi Patel, but Lee later felt that having a recognizable face would be more of a distraction than a benefit — much like having M. Night direct the movie.

On top of that, there was another worry for the studio. Yes, the same concern that troubled them a few years ago: budget.  

In 2010, Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman, two chairmen of 20th Century Fox called Elizabeth Gabler letting her know that they were going to withdraw from the project — ending funding completely. Life of Pi the movie was on life support about to have its plug pulled. The proposed budget was simply too big of a risk for the studio. 

Gabler called Ang Lee to deliver the bad news. Fox is off of the project and Lee was free to shop the film to another studio, a mammoth task to say the least — which may stall the film for another decade. Gabler was as disappointed as Lee. There was nothing else like it. Yes, it wasn’t the conventional movie with heartthrobs and superheroes, but that was what made it worth fighting for. 

To her surprise and admiration, Lee did not give up. Before the call ended, he told her he will make his way to LA to discuss the matter in-person. With him, he had Suraj Sharma’s audition tape and a pre-visualization scene of the shipwreck, the pivotal moment in the story that left the character Pi stranded at sea. In addition to those two selling points, Lee was willing to accommodate with the expenses. Gabler was impressed and she bought it to Gianopulos and Rothman. Together, they cut $25 million from the proposed budget. This was helped by filming many portions of the movie in Taiwan. 

In 2012, Life of Pi was released to rave reviews, earning the film 11 Academy Award nominations, including a nomination for screenwriter, David Magee for best-adapted screenplay and producer, Gil Netter for Best Picture, along with Ang Lee and David Womack. The film ended up winning 4 Oscars, including one for Ang Lee as best director. Not only was it well received by the critics, to the delight of the studio, the movie turned out to be a commercial success, grossing over $500 million worldwide, with a final budget of $120 million. 

Ang Lee claims it was the hardest movie he had ever made, taking him nearly four years. 

Not every adaptation will be deemed impossible or receive critical acclaim and be a commercial success. Yet, every adaptation will have their own unique story. Is there a movie based on a book that you are curious about how it got made? Let me know in the comments below. 

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Can hypocrites save the world?

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via The Wolf of Wallstreet

DiCaprio gets heat for extravagant privileges while preaching eco-friendliness

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formally published in the Other Press. March 9, 2016

When Leonardo DiCaprio won his long-awaited Oscar for his role in The Revenant, we all cheered for his deserved award. But it was the subject matter of his long speech that caused some people to roll their eyes. DiCaprio has been a long-time activist. Time and time again we see him appearing on screen—not dressed in a tuxedo, but in a “regular” jacket or sweater, in boots, with a rugged beard—talking about the destruction of our environment.

His most notable cinematic contribution to that cause is his producer, narrator, and writer roles in the environmental documentary—an unofficial epilogue to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth— The 11th Hour.

We don’t need movies or movie stars to tell us about the environment. We all feel the change. This has been one of the warmest winters of my life. I’m concerned, but I don’t have time to be both an advocator and fulltime employee, making money to live. Many people feel the same way and are insulted when big shot celebrities rub it in. And when the Best Actor winner, some big shot multi-millionaire, is only talking the talk instead of walking the walk, people have the right to be angry.

DiCaprio was specifically called out for having a 16,000-horsepower private yacht, the Topaz. For someone who cares so much for the environment, sailing the seas on a luxurious, diesel-gas-guzzling vessel is surely counter-productive, right?

Now, I could go on about how DiCaprio is a hypocrite—and how the movie The Revenant did nothing to improve the lives of First Nations people, the very people DiCaprio sought to empower, but in fact marginalized them more—but I won’t. Because, as rich and arrogant as I’m sure Leo is, he is at least putting his free time into advocating good. Is he good? No. He’s a hypocrite. But I would rather take a hypocrite actor over one who is a woman-beating bigot. What can I say? I have low standards for my celebrities.

There are many bad traits in the world, and being hypocritical is a minor one. With that being said, is there any more DiCaprio could do without giving up his fortune? Probably. But why should he? He’s not God. He’s just a servant of God. Sure, in the grand scheme of things, he is doing very little, but he is still doing it. When you are one of the most powerful actors in the world, you can merely sit back and accept awards, or you can use your clout to announce a concern. Some people choose racial equality, other chooses gender equality, but Leo chooses nature conservation.

DiCaprio is not committing to his cause 100 per cent, we can all agree on that, but he is dedicating some of his time to it. That is more than what I can say about me… or even you. How much have you committed to saving the world, or any other cause?

Take a look at yourself the next time you criticize someone for wanting better in the world. The old idiom “Do as I say, not as I do” is one every parent has once evoked if not said. If the heart is in the right place, then the person is moving in the right direction. We humans are not perfect, and that is the very reason why the world will end with a hopeful whimper, or like The Departed.

White is the new black, yellow, brown, and all the other hues, really

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It’s 2015, and still whitewash casting in movies exists

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. Dec. 9, 2015

Ethnicity in the film industry has always been a problem. In an attempt to reach the broadest American market, the film industry often omits the idea of diversity and simply casts well-known (white) actors. Think of an actor, any actor—odds are, that person is white. The Jake Gyllenhaals, the Johnny Depps, and the Christian Bales dominate the industry. It’s not a bad thing. They are phenomenal artists and they deserve to work. However, when they are taking the role of some Middle Eastern, Asian, or Aboriginal actor, then there is a clear problem.

I would also understand if these actors were stretching their acting chops. But they aren’t. They are just wearing a costume. So a movie that depicts Egyptian gods now has American actors with spray tans. And it’s all because the studios fear people of ethnicity with power, even when it is in the fantastical realm of film.

This problem is rotting the core of entertainment. It eliminates whatever artistic value the film actually has, discredits all the hard work thousands of people do, and makes it a power move that keeps the minority outside the gates of legitimacy.

There are so many struggling ethnic actors working their asses off for minor roles. They are as skilled in the craft as any Academy Award nominated actors. All they need is a break. Change cannot happen from the outside. Criticisms about casting choices have almost zero effect on the overall decision of the film.

In Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, he perfectly illustrates the fight ethnic actors have with the industry, and how powerless they feel. In an episode entitled Indians on TV, Ansari’s character, Dev, combats the decision to take on a role that would further his career, while also furthering the stereotypes that hold other Indian actors back. It’s a conversation about race, but more prominently, it’s a conversation about money and success. If he doesn’t do it, someone else will.

So it goes in the film industry. Someone else will always sink low enough for the scraps, and they’ll call it luck. It doesn’t matter what race the actors are, the studios will follow through with their plans. It’s not the actors that need to change. It’s the overall way of thinking. But the movement needs to happen internally. White actors need to stop accepting roles that are clearly not designed for them. And ethnic actors need to stop being swayed by the power of money. They need to band together and condemn stereotypes with the same discrimination the industry has shown for them.

Don’t tease me

Opinions_trailersWhy I prefer to not see trailers, previews, or teasers

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. Sept. 9, 2014

First things first: I understand that movie trailers and television previews are marketing tools, used to create hype, excitement, and anticipation. They’re a hook to get viewers like yourself to engage with the entertainment, to let it into your home, and allow it to consume anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours of your life. Movie trailers are essential to the industry, but I don’t care for them.

How many times have I been suckered into watching a movie strictly based on the appeal of the movie trailer? I’m looking at you, Cloverfield,and every Superman movie ever. You got me! And how many times have I disregarded a movie based on its uneventful, lacklustre trailer—or one that essentially gave away the whole story.

But how will I know what the story is if I don’t watch the trailer or see the preview? My answer: a movie or television show should unravel as you watch it—you don’t need snippets here and there to propel the plot forward. The plot can do that all by itself. If you are engaged in a show, say, The Walking Dead, I don’t need to know which characters’ lives are jeopardized in the next episode. I can naturally assume that they are all in danger. The same way I would not want someone telling me the ending to a book, I don’t need someone highlighting aspects of the movie for me before I even grab the popcorn.

I get it. Your time is valuable and you want to be in control of your entertainment. Fine. But know this: some of the best movie/television experiences of my life began with absolute unfamiliarity—no hype involved, just brilliant storytelling. Trailers are misleading. They sell celebrities, special effects, and dramatic performances, but they don’t prove the worth of the movie, the same way a commercial does not prove the worth of a product.

For comedies, trailers ruin the jokes. For romance, trailers cram the key relationship into two minutes. For action flicks, trailers showcase spurts of explosions, car chases, and fight scenes that only someone with severe attention deficit disorder would find alluring. For dramas, trailers present a potential Oscar nominee crying out of context over a soft melancholy soundtrack. Gee, I wonder what to expect. Commonly the trailers tell you how to feel before you even buy the ticket. And I believe it’s that no-surprise marketing philosophy that is hindering the movie experience.

The fewer trailers you see, the less likely your perception will be altered when you watch the movie or show. You’ll be surprised to see a familiar actor appear on the screen. You’ll be surprised by the plot twists as the story unfolds before you. You wouldn’t want a magician describing the result of their magic trick before it’s performed, right? So don’t be angry because the theatre experience lacks the movie magic you expected. It might be impossible to avoid trailers altogether, but don’t get too hyped or disenchanted by them.

Sacred cinema

The bible shouldn’t be Hollywood’s only source for religious inspiration

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. April 8, 2014

I belong to a growing demographic of non-religious North Americans. Although I came from a Buddhist heritage and live in a country with a large Christian population, my curiosity stems further than my beliefs, my family’s beliefs, and my neighbour’s beliefs.

I have always been a sucker for stories, even if they have a moral at the end, and some of the greatest stories ever told are locked within sacred text: the Bible, the Qur’an, Sanskrit, Torah, etc. Tapping into these ancient texts will open our eyes to a world we are often ignorant of, and I believe that will be a significant step toward global tolerance.

We North Americans enjoy watching comforting movies, stories that we’re familiar with. But exploration is equally as entertaining. Noah offers a lot of epic scenes that make the job for the marketing team easy, but I also know that there are millions of other stories based in other religions that could contain the same amount of drama, special effects, and even Russell-Crowe-in-sandals scenes. As someone who has no defined religion, I’m more inclined to see a movie about an unfamiliar story than one constantly used in analogies.

I don’t believe religious movies are meant to convert someone’s beliefs. I believe that they’re simply created to entertain, earn a profit, and start a conversation about something that is losing effect in Western culture.

Religion turns a lot of people off these days, which is upsetting since religion is a significant part of the human identity. We should embrace it. Not just one religion (Christianity), but all of them. If we want to be a global community, we should explore all cultures, heritages, and of course, religions.

Harmony needs to start at home, and movies have always been a medium to bring people of all classes and beliefs together. Hollywood has made many weak attempts in telling stories from foreign sacred texts; that’s because they always try to find a Western perspective. It’s true, casting Keanu Reeves in a story about Buddhism is a recipe for chuckles. The key to adapting a story properly is honesty. Instead of catering to an audience, the filmmaker needs to simply tell the story the way it’s meant to be told, while finding the cinematic appeal.

Hollywood needs to team up with those of other cultures to create these impactful movies. They have to find the soul of it—the heart of the religion. By communicating the essence of those stories, the audience will be able to see how unique tales can shape so many different people from all reaches of the world. In our own comfortable way, we will be enlightened. It might not change our mindsets, but for a brief moment we can see from another’s point of view, and isn’t that what filmmaking is all about?

How the Sacred Movie-watching Experience Survived the First Round of Extinction

When I graduated from film school in 2008, the landscape of the entertainment industry was changing, morphing with the technology and trying to catch up to new innovations.

Young filmmakers, like myself, anticipated the expiration of television and were just starting to accept all that YouTube had to offer. Meanwhile, grand cinematic spectacles were calling attention, i.e. Avatar in 3D. Yes, it seems as though there was going to be a whole spectrum of viewing habits.

But will movie watching experience be as sacred as church? Or was it going to be a secular pastime, one we try to catch up on like talking to an old friend at a party or a novel on our nightstand?

Inspired by the recent Oscars, I give you the five nominated movie-watching experiences as voted by me—nope, not movies, but movie watching experiences.

NETFLIX

For a while Canadians were reluctant to subscribe to Netflix, mostly out of envy—subscribers from the States were getting more than three times the content—but the on-demand-movie-and-television service suggested that if more people join Netflix, the more content it can generate, both by hammering out legalities through traditional licensing models and by producing their own shows.

House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Arrested Development won many viewers over, and once they got hooked to the binge watching lure of Netflix—it’s not so easy to quit.

TORRENT/STREAMING

The pirated movie and television distribution market is competitive market, albeit an illegal and risky market. With memories of Megaupload still fresh in many downloaders and streamers’ mind, this well-known paradigm is still one that most are treading lightly on.

While many consider this method to be a hassle, others consider it the most reasonable. Viewers are paying by sending traffic to the hosting sites, dealing with pop-up ads and the occasional glitches in download and streams. “Just let it buffer!”

The “no honour among thieves” mentality lives on in this movie watching experience that have existed since the dawn of the digital era. As long as the leaches and seeders continue feeding off of each other, this category will not disappear anytime soon to the chagrin of the big media companies.

APPLE TV and WEB-ENABLED TELEVISION

Bridging the gap from your phone and computer to the television—this relatively new all-in-one model is bringing viewers back to the couch. At least that was the plan.

Unfortunately I don’t know many people who use Apple TV, or even consider getting it. The living room battleground is a tough one to win, even for a trusted brand like Apple. After all, just look at all the different boxes and consoles you have under the television. Needless to say, there is still a lot of convincing needed to prove that cable is obsolete and that the video game consoles won’t suffice. But I think that is just a matter of time.

REDBOX

Since the closure of many video rental stores, Redbox have been the alternative. Standing tall, proud and unobtrusively at a grocery store, the video vending machine offers hot new DVD releases the same way ol’ Blockbuster used to. Comforting to many and laughable to some, Redbox fulfills a service that is still in demand.

As a result of having a secret Santa that no longer cared for the physical medium, I received an arm full of DVDs and BluRay last Christmas. I still relish the nostalgia of DVDs. Seems like just yesterday my family was arguing whether to buy a HD DVD player or a BluRay player, I’m still not sure if we made the right decision. Unlike VHS, DVDs have a bit more to offer in terms of bonus features. And they are compatible enough to remain an impulse buy. But being compared to VHS is never a good thing.

MOBILE

We watch movies everywhere: in bed, at work, on the bus, at a coffee shop, on the john and even in the movie theatre waiting for the movie to start. Personally, I can’t watch a three-hour movie the same way I check my Tweets. But content on the go is what the public wants.

Last year’s study by Motorola Mobility’s Fourth Annual Media Engagement Barometer showed that 55% of smartphone or tablet owners have downloaded and stored movies and TV shows onto their devices. There is so much content in the world that if we were to spend every living moment watching something new, we would not do anything else. Mobile devices are fostering that challenge and allowing people to consume on the go, in addition to hoarding content.

As much as filmmakers want to get people into the theatre, they must also consider the other audiences, and choose to whether nurture the new platforms or not. We’ve come a long way in five years—who knows where we’ll be in another.