These days, it seems like 3-D is an afterthought thrown onto just about every movie. But sometimes, it makes sense — and Life Of Pi is one of those times. This is one of the most visually stunning movies you'll see this year (or maybe even this decade), to the point where you'll literally be jumping out of your seat during the more intense scenes, of which there are many. If you've read the book, you know it's a whirlwind of a story, and it's actually very surprising how well it translates to the screen. Ang Lee, as usual, combines just the right amount of all the ingredients to make a wonderful final product. Seriously, we dare you to remain calm while watching this movie.
But eventually, we did manage to calm down — just enough to interview screenwriter David Magee and Irrfan Khan (who plays the adult Pi and narrates the film; you might recognize him from Slumdog Millionaire) about the process of making this incredibly sweeping, heart-wrenching cinematic event. No blatant spoilers here, but if you're a stickler, maybe bookmark this until after you've seen it.
Irrfan Khan, actor
How closely did you work with Suraj Sharma [younger Pi]?
"I was called to the set after his parts were all done, so we didn't see much of each other. If it had been necessary, Ang would have told me."
Are you surprised by how well the younger and older character flow together, despite you two not having worked together during filming?
"Yes! We even look alike! It's all Ang's doing; he chose us and he put the film together so well."
Why were you drawn to this film in the first place?
"Just the name Ang Lee is enough, and the book, as well. But as the narrator, you're not playing just one part of the book, you have to make the whole book your own, including the philosophical questions — questions that seem to have nothing to do with you at first. But when you're playing a part, you start investigating those issues and identifying them. The book, and the script, nudged me to look at God in a different way."
How has this story changed your view of religion?
"It hasn't changed; it can't change because it wasn't so different from the one in the story. But the thing is to realize that we, as humans, have a tendency to create our own cages. That's a kind of confinement that somehow makes us feel secure. It can be physical, intellectual, or spiritual confinement. Human beings want to explain the intangible, they want to understand, and they don't feel safe until they do. But that understanding can become a cage, it can limit your reality and the truths of life. Human understanding and perception is limited, we've been created by nature but we have this faculty to look back at nature and try to define it. It's such an absurd and interesting thing! The whole universe has created less than a speck on this planet, and that speck is trying to understand the mystery of the whole universe."
Did you ever feel, as the narrator, that you wanted to convince the audience one way or another regarding the two possible stories?
"You always have that weakness. It's a trap. Animal instinct means that each person wants to convert people, to make his or her group bigger. But as an artist, as an actor, I realize this and I don't want to do that. I want to allow both sides of the audience to draw conclusions for themselves. If I start pushing them to believe one thing or another, my experience doing the film is less fun, and there's less exploration. It almost becomes propaganda. As a storyteller, you must be able to live both sides of any story. A person who is a believer, or a non-believer, or a person who just believes in destiny — everybody can find the story working for him. All these things are left mysteriously in the film. It's up to you how you look at it."
You seem really enthusiastic about this film...do you enjoy talking about it?
"Sometimes, when you have a film that you like to talk about, you never get bored in the interviews. But, just like acting, if you're playing a part that you don't feel connected to, you have something to explore. I'm not a very good talker. I can't formulate my thoughts that well, but with a really great movie I manage."
Photo: Courtesy of Fox 2000 Pictures.
David Magee, screenwriter
How did you get involved with this project?
"Somebody had given the book to me, just to read, and I enjoyed it so much that I was talking to [friend, coworker, and director] Mark Forrester about it, and he asked if it was a movie...I automatically responded, 'No, it's too hard. but it's a good story.' I didn't give it much thought after that, until three or four years ago, when I found out Ang Lee was interested in doing it and working with me. After that, it happened fast. We spent the next few weeks meeting in Chinese restaurants and in Ang's loft talking about the big ideas."
What kind of research do you do for a film like this?
"Well I read up on India, watched a lot of documentaries, researched various religions...one fun experience was when Ang Lee and I went up to visit Steven Callahan, who wrote a book about when he was adrift on the Atlantic Ocean for 76 days in a 5-foot rubber boat. Originally, Ang thought it would be best if Steven took us out into a lifeboat and just left us there for a few hours while we bounced around, which sounded like a thoroughly horrible idea to me. But we ultimately did go out with Steven on a sailboat in choppy water, we bounced around like we were in a washing machine for a few hours, then we came back. Ultimately, Steven became our survival consultant on the film."
What was the hardest part about adapting the book into a two-hour screenplay?
"A book has that ability to go in all sorts of different directions and tell different, small aspects of the journey. You just don't have time to do that in the film. There was one major scene in the book, where Pi hallucinates that he's talking to the tiger. We wrote that dozens and dozens of different ways to see if we could pull it off. Ultimately, that scene did not stay in the film, but things we wrote for that scene made their way in...as Pi starts losing his sense of reality, we incorporated some of those hallucinations into other parts of the film."
There's so much silence in this film. Was it hard to work around that in the script?
"Actually, in the early drafts, we tried very hard to write the entire time at sea — without dialogue. Partly, it was just to see if we could do it, as a challenge. But we wanted to focus on the action and the visuals — it would be very easy to have to find yourself cheating, having Pi turn to the tiger and say, 'Well, I guess we'll have to find ourselves some more food then, won't we?' We didn't want that kind of exposition, we had to force ourselves to avoid that. I wrote as much as I could without any dialogue, then we started adding small things like, 'get back, get away!' or other things you would really say to an animal. From there, there were still things we wanted to express about his emotional journey and his changing sense of self. We couldn't quite capture that in action and visuals, and that's when we started using the logbook entries of what he was going through. The use of dialogue evolved a lot throughout the process, and I'm very happy with where we ended up."
Were you tempted to foreshadow the twist at the end with hints along the way?
"We wanted the two stories to intersect at certain points. There are a lot of different ways that you can interpret what happened on that boat, but we really wanted to have people walk out at the end and choose for themselves which version they preferred. It's a Rorschach test for how you see the world, and ultimately this film is about the different narratives and ideas people use to cope with life. What you take away from this film says a lot about you as a person, and we didn't want to force viewers into one interpretation."
Photo: Courtesy of Fox 2000 Pictures.