Ang Lee’s remarkable journey with ‘Life of Pi’ is coming ashore Oscar Sunday

When Ang Lee first read Yann Martel’ “Life of Pi” he didn’t think it was a movie let alone a global blockbuster.  Speaking to the Oscar-winning director of such classics as “The Ice Storm,” “Brokeback Mountain” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” back in November 2012 before “Pi” hit theaters Lee was, as always, incredibly honest about his creative process.

“I didn’t think it was a movie,” Lee said.  “I introduced it to my wife, my kids.  We talked about it.  It was a very inspiring book, fantastical and mind boggling.  I don’t think it’s movie material.  It’s too expensive to be made, to justify what it is.  It’s a philosophical book.  It’s not emotional.  It’s not like how you go about a movie, normally.”

However, when he was asked to direct the movie version of novel Lee was intrigued, admitting,  “I got seduced.  How do you crack this thing?  I know it’s good material.  How do you convince this to be possible?  Then, about a month later, after asked me, I thought of some solutions, if I can invent a structure that has both first and third person, so I can [communicate] the illusion of the story, the power of storytelling, within a story, within the frame of the movie illusion [then it could work].”  

It was the film’s bookends structure featuring an adult Pi (Irrfan Khan) and a “writer” (Rafe Spall) telling Pi’s story that convinced Lee it could work.


“I thought I found a structure for the movie.  Then, 3D, I thought 3D might pull it off,” Lee says. “That was four years ago, way before.  I didn’t know what I was thinking about.  I just thought maybe another dimension, like those cartoons.  I saw maybe it was real life, maybe that illusion like a 3D illusion, like give another dimension.  Maybe I had a chance.  Once I started thinking that way, there was no stop to it.  I just got hooked.  It has to be done.  So like four years later, here we are.”

Fast forward three months to January 11, 2013 and an impromptu post-Oscar nominations announcement cocktail reception at the Four Seasons Hotel.  20th Century Fox and Lee are jubilant over “Pi’s” 11 Academy Awards nominations (second only to “Lincoln” and far more than “Argo,” “Silver Linings Playbook” or “Zero Dark Thirty”).  In the brief time since we’d first spoken about the movie, “Pi” has gone from the expensive drama and expected box office bomb that helped steer former 20th Century Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman (a huge supporter of the project) out the door to an absolute worldwide phenomenon.  At publication, “Pi” has grossed not only a striking $109 million domestically, but a jaw-dropping $564.8 million worldwide (it’s found $44 million in the UK alone). That makes the epic the highest grossing picture of any of this year’s nine nominees and the undisputed comeback kid of 2012 (well, at least to the naysayers in the industry).  Startling, the only solem moment of the evening came when Li remarked “I wish Tom was here” during the toast to celebrate the nominees among crew.  Rothman is long gone, but “Pi” now stands as a frontrunner in the cinematography, original score, visual effects and, quite possible, best director races.

In many ways, the remarkable story of “Life of Pi’s” shocking success has been one of the more under-the-radar stories of this awards season.  The perceived comeback of”Argo’s” these past few weeks is one reason why, but it’s also been embarrassingly easy for the media to ignore a movie with an unrecognizable star and a story set mostly in India and the Pacific Ocean, even if its all in English.  But, as Lee himself noted from the beginning, the odds have always been against and “Pi.” At this point, the great filmmaker isn’t pinning for another best director Oscar (although he certainly deserves it).  Instead, he is hoping his hardworking crew gets recognized for their own impressive achievements.

Lee spoke to Cynthia McFadden for Nightline Thursday night as the studio continues its full-court press to make sure Academy members don’t forget about “Pi.” McFadden stated the obvious when she noted the studio had to take a big gamble on a $125 million (+) budget for the picture as it wasn’t a sure thing.

“We didn’t know. We carried that anxiety for a long time,” Lee replied.  It was like the movie itself. “We are going through a journey across the pacific with a tiger and you have to believe it’s going somewhere.”

And on Sunday, February 24 that journey may find Lee and some of his dedicated crew taking home Oscar as “Pi” finally comes ashore.