Director Ang Lee's latest film was such a late entry into the 35th Mill Valley Film Festival that it didn't make it into the festival program.
But with Life of Pi, his Closing Night, eye-popping take on Yann Martel's 2001's novel, Lee left no doubt which film left the biggest imprint on the 11-day event that featured a slew of likely Oscar contenders. For his work, Lee was presented with Variety's inaugural International Filmmaker of the Year award after the screening.
Shown in 3-D at both the Cinearts at Sequoia in Mill Valley and the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael, Life of Pi tells the story of an Indian boy who survives 227 days after a shipwreck while stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger. In doing so, it touches on religion and larger issues of faith and spirituality.
"Faith is a subject matter we don't normally talk about," Lee said. "It's hard to convey."
Although he doesn't practice a religion, he "prays to a movie God a lot," and one of the biggest charms of The Life of Pi is that "it makes you believe," Lee said.
"I hope you have a taste of faith when you watch the movie," he said.
Lee has also said he doesn't take on a project he's not afraid of. He needs his films to be new, to be fresh, to feel like each one is the first one. Not stale, "like I'm going to fake an orgasm or something," he told a packed theater after the screening in San Rafael.
He was joined by Fox 2000 Pictures President Elizabeth Gabler, who worked for a decade to keep the project alive. It took her eight months to convince Lee to direct it.
"We knew it required a filmmaker of extraordinary vision," she said.
Lee was able to tell the intimate, personal journey of Pi, while tackling the technological challenges of producing such a film.
The tiger, for instance.
Protagonist Piscine "Pi" Molitor Patel says in the film, "My fear of him keeps me alive, and tending to his needs gives my life purpose."
Twenty-three shots in the film, including the swimming and training sequence, featured live tigers. They brought in three from France and one from Canada. King, a 450-pound cat with "a bad temper and a lot of dignity" served as the model for the digital tiger.
"I wanted to raise the bar for the visual effects people," Lee half-joked.
The set, built on an abandoned airport in Taichung, Taiwan, featured a giant wave-producing tank crafted specifically for the movie.
Suraj Sharma, who plays Pi, had no acting experience. Agents went to schools all over India, chose 3,000 kids, and narrowed it down to 12 for Lee to interview. He asked Sharma to tell the story like it was really happening to him, and halfway through the actor was in tears.
"When I saw him" Lee said, "I had a feeling we might have a movie."
Sharma is just one of thousands of people from around the world who contributed to the project.
"It's a gigantic independent film, actually, he said.
For Lee, the four years that went into it where often frustrating and draining, and it can feel like you become part of the movie that you're making, he said. Lee appeared prior to the Mill Valley screening and told the audience that he had finished the film just days earlier.
"I had this aching feeling, no joy, I was collapsing it was that bad," Lee said of the strain in finally completing the film. "I felt like something got sucked out of my body. I felt like Pi in many ways."
He said he was grateful for MVFF's support throughout his career, dating back to 1992's Pushing Hands - "My first little film for a Taiwanese audience," Lee said.
MVFF Director Mark Fishkin noted that Lee has had more opening night films at the festival than any other director.
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