Finding Inspiration with Life of Pi producer Gil Netter
The best-selling 2001 novel Life of Pi tells the epic saga of the eponymous Indian teenager who survives a shipwreck only to find himself trapped with a Bengal tiger on a small boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean for nearly a year.
So it seems appropriate that a tale of such a tortuous journey would take an equally long and winding road from the page to the screen. One of the film adaptation’s real-life Pi’s in this journey is two-time Oscar nominee producer Gil Netter. Despite getting the project sold almost immediately when he pitched it in the early 2000s—to Fox 2000 Pictures’ Elizabeth Gabler (while she was on maternity leave, no less)—the film bounced from directors like M. Night Shyamalan to Jean-Pierre Jeunet before it found a home with Ang Lee in 2009.
And that’s all before Netter could even tackle the challenges of a $120 million budget. A film to be shot mostly at sea that would involve animals would need a hefty bankroll, for sure—and surefire casting. After an exhaustive search, Suraj Sharma was offered the lead. Netter says casting an unknown was a necessity for two reasons: “There isn’t the go-to young, Indian actor that’s going to sell tickets” and, even if there were, “if you had somebody too well known, it would feel out of place; it would take you out of the movie.”
Then came the news that Pi would be filmed in 3D—a decision that caused entertainment journalists to worry it might end up like Martin Scorsese’s 2011 animated film Hugo, a critical hit with little box office fanfare. But, like his film’s title character, Netter kept faith in his decision and persevered. The studio rolled the dice and Life of Pi was released in November, 2012. Since then, it’s gone on to gross more than $500 million at the international box office and received 11 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.
“I’m immune to ‘no.’ It doesn’t exist in my vocabulary,” Netter says now, when asked how he kept his cool during the ordeal. “I don’t get frustrated … I only think about the target that I’m focused on, and I stay on my optic focus on getting the event done … I always think things work out the way they’re supposed to, and I think probably, in this case, the technology needed to catch up to the subject matter or the content of the book. When I was doing it with Jean-Pierre, he was going to shoot all live animals on the ocean. And we would probably still be shooting.”
Inspirational stories are Netter’s passion. He’s also a collector of outsider art, a form of folk art often created by the mentally or physically handicapped living on the margins of society. While his wife, Lani, a former model, is a minister, Netter says he’s a devotee of “the church of surf.” Netter received an Oscar nomination for 2009’s The Blind Side, based on football player Michael Oher and his adoptive family and for which Sandra Bullock won a Best Actress Oscar. And he has helped produce such warm-hearted, relationship-centric films like 2005’s Fever Pitch and 2008’s Marley & Me.
“Originally I was kind of known for comedy; now I’m in my blue period,” jokes Netter, who early in his career worked for David and Jerry Zucker; Netter’s credits also include two of the Naked Gun movies and yes, even Dude, Where’s My Car? While he says he is grateful for that experience, Netter says that the 1995 Keanu Reeves romantic drama A Walk in the Clouds, “was the first of my movies that represented what I do or what I want to do.”
“I only want to do movies that are positive,” Netter says. “Hopefully, ones that either speak about how family dynamics work or the triumph of the human spirit. I try to make it so that spirituality is available to those who want to read into it, although I’m not bashing them on the head. But it is available to them and, ultimately, is entertaining.”
More specifically, Netter seems to look for films that tap into the nation’s zeitgeist. A voracious reader—and he prefers hardcovers over Kindles and iPads, thank you very much—it isn’t uncommon for Netter to tear through a novel and a dozen scripts in a week. He also scours city magazines and niche publications ranging from fashion to fly-fishing magazines.
And while he does hunt through these periodicals for story ideas (magazine stories and reviews are what tipped him off about the book Life of Pi, and he says he bought the rights to The Blind Side based on a New York Times Magazine article that ran before that book was even published), he also uses them as barometers for what’s going on in the world outside the film industry.
“You can get very insulated in Hollywood, so, hopefully, when you make any art form, you’re connecting to people emotionally,” he says. “And how are you supposed to understand what people are connecting to emotionally if you’re disconnecting from it?”
So how long does it take for Netter to figure out if a story idea will play well on screen? “When you get a screenplay,” he laughs.
“There’s a high, high, high attrition rate with me,” he says. “ I do read, but I don’t like much. So when I find a book that I suspect might work as a movie, it’s because I’ve found what I think is a universal thematic that other people will care about.”
Also key: finding creatives who can see this vision through.
“I’m very director-centric,” says Netter. “I really, really, really firmly believe you have no chance at a good movie without a great director driving the train. You have to have a great script to start with. You’ve never seen a bad script made into a good movie. But you’ve seen good scripts made into bad movies …”
This all means that, unlike Pi’s title character, Netter’s journey never really ends. Aside from working on adaptations of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book with Ron Howard and Disney as well as Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle with Jennifer Lawrence and Summit, he’s also giddy over—but won’t give many details about—a spec script by an unknown-to-him writer that he’ll soon be shopping. Will it take another decade of risk and adventure to reach fruition? Even Netter can’t say, but considering this admirable producer’s track record, the end will be worth the wait.