Saving the ‘Life of Pi’

Elizabeth Gabler was warm, even motherly, as she ushered a reporter into her chintz-filled office in the cozy bungalow that houses the studio Fox 2000, the division of 20th Century Fox where she has served as president for the past dozen years. Dressed elegantly in an olive-colored dress and matching sweater, she insisted upon sitting in a hard-backed chair while her guest took an overstuffed armchair. 

But over the course of a 40-minute interview, Gabler exuded not only the graciousness but also the steely resolve that has made her one of the few women to head a studio in Hollywood — and which served her well as she has spearheaded her passion projects to the screen, including “Unfaithful,” “Mrs. Doubtfire” and, most recently, Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” a transcendental spiritual epic that was widely considered unfilmable until she took on the movie a decade ago. 

Based on Yann Martel’s 2001 best-selling novel, the film — which has been nominated for 11 Academy Awards — tells the story of the journey of a 16-year-old Indian boy named Pi confined with a tiger in a small lifeboat drifting across the Pacific Ocean after Pi’s family and the remnants of their zoo perish in a shipwreck. 

For Gabler, spearheading the adaptation of Martel’s novel was like taking the proverbial tiger by the tail. She fought ferociously to bring the story to cineplexes: “It is the biggest, riskiest gamble I’ve ever taken,” she said. 

And not just because the movie was shot in 3-D with lavish visual effects on a monumental $120 million budget and with unknown actors, including Suraj Sharma in the central role of Pi. While studios often eschew stories with religious undercurrents, “Life of Pi” draws heavily on the book’s spiritual themes — not only the three religions that Pi practices simultaneously (Hinduism, Catholicism, Islam) but also upon a perspective influenced by Jewish mysticism and the Old Testament, notably the story of Job.

Even Gabler, whose diverse work includes “The Devil Wears Prada” and “Walk the Line,” wasn’t sure “Pi” could be adapted when she first read the book in 2001. “I was fascinated by the subject matter of this boy adrift with an animal,” she said. “But at the same time, I was overwhelmed by the questions of, ‘How would you make it into a movie? Who would be that great of a filmmaker who could bring it to life?’ So I waited to see how the book took off with readers.”

In 2002, while on maternity leave, Gabler witnessed how the novel was displayed everywhere, as it remained a best seller week after week. “It wasn’t going away,” she said.

So Gabler was receptive when producer Gil Netter phoned her at her Santa Barbara farm to pitch the project. Netter has said that every other studio had passed on “Life of Pi” before Gabler said yes on that October day in 2002. “I knew it was going to be very tricky,” she said. Yet she believed the film, in the right hands, could be commercial — an adventure story appealing to all ages, even teenagers, who could relate to the young protagonist.

She saw the bold religious content as a plus, with spiritual connections that “transcended cultural, religious and language barriers,” Gabler said. Raised Catholic in Long Beach, she is married to Jewish TV agent Lee Gabler, a cousin of the famed novelist and pundit Neal Gabler. “The film tells of a communication between an animal and a person and nature. And I felt that it reached out to people of all religions because it doesn’t just embrace one faith.”

Nevertheless, three directors, including M. Night Shyamalan, signed on and off before Gabler found herself coaxing Lee, who won a best-director Oscar for “Brokeback Mountain,” to try his hand at the film. 

“I didn’t see it as a movie,” Lee said of his initial reaction during an interview with the Journal last year.

“I think Ang met with me because his curiosity was piqued, mostly because he thought I was crazy,” Gabler admitted. “But I told him I felt it could be the first international all-audience movie, that we saw it as a big commercial film and that he was the only person I thought could bring the book to the screen. Not only does Ang have the ability to tell a very large-scale story, but he is also a courageous man. Anything that scares him, he wants to do.”

Persuaded, Lee traveled to India with screenwriter David Magee, who adapted the book in an attempt to absorb the religious and cultural aspects of the story. But just as production was about to commence, in 2010, Gabler received a disappointing call from Fox co-chairs Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman: They were pulling the plug on the film. “It was just too much money and too daunting,” Gabler said. “I was saddened and just numb.”

With her heart heavy, Gabler waited up until midnight to break the news to Lee, who was traveling in Taiwan. “It was surreal,” Gabler recalled of that conversation. “It was pitch dark, and I was in the sunroom of our house, which is all glass, and just looking out over our farm in the night. I almost felt like Pi on the raft, surrounded by the vast skies. I thought Ang was going to say, ‘This is a terrible thing, but thank you.’ ” Instead, he said, “ ‘I’m getting on a plane and flying out to Los Angeles tomorrow.’ ”

Gabler pointed to the flowered armchair where Lee sat in her office the following day as he showed her a DVD of Sharma’s audition as well as a luminous previsualization sequence of the film’s shipwreck scene.

“I phoned Jim and Tom and said, ‘You’ve got to come to the screening room right away,’ ” Gabler recalled. “And they both saw it, and afterwards everyone was breathless, and our head of marketing leaned over the front of his chair and said, ‘We’ve got to make this movie.’ ”

The condition was that Gabler had to slash at least $25 million from the budget, which she did, in part, with the help of financial incentives from the country of Taiwan, where the production set up shop in an abandoned airport in Taichung.

Gabler’s gamble paid off when “Life of Pi” opened to good reviews, quickly earned $450 million at the box office and snagged 11 Oscar nods — only one less than Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” — including for best picture and director. 

“I was just floored,” Gabler said of the Oscar news. “I was so ecstatic to hear that almost every person who made such major contributions to the film was recognized.”