It was the ''un-filmable'' film.
For almost a decade, several of Hollywood's finest had tried but failed to translate the Booker Prize-winning novel Life of Pi for the big screen. Even Academy Award-winning director Ang Lee had grave doubts about the viability of the project as he contemplated taking the reins nearly four years ago.
''I just thought it might not happen, because it was just technically very difficult, very expensive and … based on a philosophical book,'' the Taiwan-born director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain tells Metro in New York in his quiet, forceful way.
And as if cinematically visualising the magical realism of Life of Pi wasn't challenge enough, when Lee came on board he opted to shoot the movie in 3D and cast a first-time, teenage actor to carry the $100 million-budget feature.
''It was a long struggle, quite painful, actually,'' the 58-year-old US-based director says.
''There is this constant insecurity of 'How am I going to do this?' It was very draining.''
The ''silly idea'' to do it in 3D, according to Lee, was a source of angst even as the movie made its debut on the film festival circuit, generating awestruck critiques, many praising the multidimensional visual beauty of Pi. ''I had to learn new ways of cinema in terms of mise en scene,'' Lee says, ''and there were times when I just couldn't get what I felt I needed to get. Even the editing process … I struggled to make it more accessible.''
While the complicated and expensive 3D process was a technical and creative tussle for Lee, there was no such concern over his then-17-year-old acting lead, Delhi's Suraj Sharma, who scored the role after a casting process vetting 3000 people. ''He is an incredible talent,'' Lee says. ''It could not have happened this way without him.''
Sharma, the son of mathematicians (an economist and an IT engineer), plays an Indian boy, Piscine Molitor Patel or Pi, whose effervescence and odd youthful grace lead him to uniquely embrace a variety of organised religious doctrines while growing up amid the family business of zookeeping in Pondicherry, India.
When the family packs up the animals and seeks to emigrate to Canada on a freighter, a storm catastrophe leaves the boy adrift on a lifeboat with several beasts, among them a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker. Via the survival story, we witness Pi's exploration of faith. God and nature are both real and imagined from the desperate Pi's perspective and there are few certainties other than the desire to live.
''I was saved,'' the delightfully unaffected Sharma says of his unlikely casting in the movie. ''I was just a high-school senior, wasting time, doing nothing.''
The soccer-loving Manchester United fan only got in the sights of the film's producers because he accompanied his younger brother - who has acting aspirations - to an audition for the film on the promise of lunch at a sandwich store afterwards. ''Before this, I think I would have been lost; doing something very dumb … I'm just so happy this movie came around and saved me in the nick of time.''
He trained for three months to develop survival skills, working with rats, survivalists, and a huge multinational crew. He gained 7.5 kilograms, then immediately lost 17 kilograms, while developing acting chops under Lee's guidance. But the biggest physical challenge was learning to swim, as much of the story action takes place in the Pacific Ocean - in a 6.4 million-litre, purpose-built tank in Taiwan.
''It was gruelling,'' he says. ''He [Lee] really makes you work but by the end of it, I came out a better person, a more aware person.''
Even though many of the most stunning scenes in the film feature Pi sharing a liferaft with Richard Parker, the young actor never came in contact with a tiger in filming, with the vast majority of his work done against a blue screen with the large animal performances added in editing. ''That was why he is so special,'' Lee says. ''He has this ability to stay in the premises you give him. He has a great imagination and can assimilate the situation so his body will react to it. He is a great talent.''
Seemingly still under Lee's kind spell - Sharma's grandmother had performed a ceremony to pronounce the director the boy's ''guru'' - the now 19-year-old is studying philosophy at university with a view to working in film again in the future, although, in the midst of his first visit to New York, he admits it is hard focusing on anything in particular.
''Everything is in flux right now; it's like I'm sitting outside my head and watching things happen,'' he says. ''I'm trying not to think about things. I don't want to get pressurised. I love acting now, but everything after the movie - that part is strange and scary.''
Lee says Sharma's enthusiasm during the shoot invigorated the world-weary crew and helped him quash doubts he had about the task of delivering a film worthy of Yann Martel's beautiful novel.
LIFE OF PI
CRITICAL BUZZ Amazing visual achievement with plot holes that might just not matter and philosophical meanderings that probably do.
STARS Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Tabu.
DIRECTOR Ang Lee.
RELEASE January 1.