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Life of Pi Production Designer at COM Tonight

Oscar-nominated David Gropman screens film, talks shop


When Yann Martel’s fantasy novel Life of Pi was published in 2001, many said it could never be turned into a movie. The gripping story of a teenager and a Bengal tiger struggling to survive on a raft in the middle of the ocean for 227 days was believed to be too difficult to adapt for the big screen.

Even after the film got a green light in 2002, it appeared doomed after several big name directors, among them M. Night Shyamalan and Alfonso Cuarón, dropped out. Eventually Oscar-winner Ang Lee (Brokeback Mountain, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) agreed to take the project on, and decided he had to make the movie in 3-D. He called on production designer and former collaborator David Gropman to help design Martel’s fantastical world.

Gropman and his team created most of the film’s vast sets on an abandoned aircraft carrier in Taiwan. One was the largest self-generating wave tank in the world, which was needed to float Pi’s lifeboat. They also painstakingly re-created the Piscine Molitor, a famous Parisian swimming pool that had been in disrepair for two decades, as well as an entire island. When the film was released in 2012, it was a huge critical and box office success, grossing $609 million worldwide and winning four Academy Awards, including Best Achievement in Directing for Ang and Best Achievement in Cinematography for Claudio Miranda. Gropman was nominated for Best Achievement in Production Design, sharing the honor with Anna Pinnock, the film’s set decorator.

In a film career that began with Robert Altman’s Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean in 1982, Gropman has been a production designer on more than 40 films, among them Doubt, Of Mice and Men, Hairspray, and The Cider House Rules, for which he received his first Oscar nomination. His work on Life of Pi won him the Excellence in Production Design Award from the Art Directors Guild.

After a screening of Life of Pi on campus tonight, Gropman will talk about his work bringing the film to the big screen, as part of the Cinematheque series, the College of Communication program that brings accomplished filmmakers to campus to screen and discuss their work. Both are free and open to the public.

BU Today spoke with Gropman recently from India, where he was on location preparing for his next film, The Hundred-Foot Journey, starring Helen Mirren. His latest film, August: Osage County, with Meryl Streep and Julia Roberts, opens Christmas Day.

BU Today: How did you become a production designer?

Gropman: I started in theater and studied stage design, first at San Francisco State University and then at Yale University School of Drama. From there, I went to New York and started a career in designing theater on Broadway and off-Broadway, as well as some dance and opera. In 1980 I did a stage play with the film director Robert Altman called Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, which had a brief run on Broadway and then was made into a film. After that, I became a film person, and that’s been my career ever since. I’ve been working with a lot of directors who also come from theater, so those experiences and relationships from many years in theater paid off.

How did working in theater prepare you for a career in film?

A lot of people ask me what the difference is between film and theater. As a designer, I find it’s very much the same process. You start with a piece, and you have an emotional response to it. You have an analytical response in terms of making sure that you are fulfilling the needs of the literature, and you create the world for the story to unfold in. So for me, it’s exactly the same process; it’s just that in film, you usually work on a larger scale, a larger canvas.

What’s your first step when you begin work on a film?

It’s different on each project. First I read the screenplay and then I start my research at the New York Public Library Picture Collection, which I’ve been using since I began as a designer. I start pulling images that I find inspirational in terms of material, and I put together a little package that I give to the director and see how he responds, and then I start designing.

The first time you read a script, it’s impossible to not start forming ideas in your head as to what this world looks like. Sometimes you’ll find that your first idea is exactly where you are at the end of the process, and other times you find a completely different road inspired by the research you’ve done and by talking with the director. You never stop designing.

Are you ever able to change a director’s opinion about what a scene should look like?

That’s a good question. There’s no question that there are times that you present something to a director and they might disagree with you. But you might need to convince them that the research you’ve done is correct, and there are historical or factual reasons for your suggesting these things.

My job is to bring the director’s vision to the screen, so it’s very important for me to listen and to be sure that I’m completely understanding where the director is going to go. If I’m not serving his vision, then we’ll never be a complete thought. From an aesthetic or emotional point of view, there would never be any hesitation on my part once I knew what it is that a director wants.

You worked with Ang Lee previously on Taking Woodstock in 2009. Is that how you came to work with him on Life of Pi?

Ang told me that one of the reasons he wanted to work with me on Life of Pi was the fact that I had been a theater designer first. He had a notion in his head that his first 3-D film, in a way, should look very much like theater, that the audience is not only “listening” to your image, but when the curtain goes up, that image is in three dimensions. He loved the idea of working with a designer who knew theater.

Had you ever designed a film with 3-D or computer-generated imagery before?

I’ve certainly done films where we’ve used 3-D visual effects.

How did you prepare for the extensive use of 3-D in Life of Pi?

Well, it was very important to Ang that as a director of a 3-D film he completely understood the mechanics of 3-D. We went to a lot of 3-D films together, and I took a one-day master class on 3-D film work.

I found the process of designing a 3-D film exactly the same as I would for any film. Obviously, when designing an environment or set, a designer is thinking in terms of depth and movement and the components of foreground, middle ground, background. So I didn’t feel that there was much I had to do in reevaluating my process for the way I design scenery.

Were you overwhelmed at any point by how much you had to create?

No. One of the amazing things about Yann Martel’s book is how he convinces you that the facts and information that he’s using, that these worlds and moments, are actually real. The island is probably the biggest stretch in terms of storytelling, and it’s at that point in the novel where you say, ‘Wait, I’ve bought everything you’ve told me up till now, but should I believe this?’ So for me, it was trying to find a way to express that this world was not only amazing, but also had a reality to it.

Most of the film was shot in Taiwan. All the stage sets we built were built in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Those included the sections of the ship, both the interior and exterior, that Pi’s family was traveling on when they hit the storm. Ang took me to scout to the southern tip of Taiwan, where there was a beautiful banyan tree. We used that tree as the basis of the island setting.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in designing the film?

Probably the greatest challenge was the lifeboat, because so much of the film takes place there. Being historically correct was important, even when choosing the lifeboat’s orange interior and white exterior. I worked with Ang’s oldest son, Han, who is a wonderful artist, early on in New York. He started doing some early illustrations, and then we sent him off to start thinking about what a boy like Pi would do when faced with the elements that are in this lifeboat. So Han started playing around and came up with that initial design for the raft that Pi ends up on, which is a triangle created by the ship’s boards, with a life buoy in the center. It was a really beautiful graphical triangle, which was both practical and had a very, very spiritual feeling.

From there, we began to play with how the raft would evolve. At that point, we enlisted the help of Steve Callahan, a sailor who was adrift at sea for 76 days. He was a huge asset and gave critical advice for the film. He helped us think about Pi’s journey, things like how the currents would affect that journey, the weather conditions, making sure that the waves we created were appropriate. And he helped us figure out how Pi might have taken the elements and the supplies he had in the lifeboat and adapted them for other uses.

What is the best part of being a production designer?

My favorite part is when I first get a script and start to research and put together images. Usually that goes hand in hand with scouting locations and immersing myself in new and different worlds and finding the place, both the physical place and inspirational place, that defines the film.

What advice would you give to students interested in production design?

This is going to sound like a dad talking, but it’s very important to have the ability to draw so that you can represent your ideas to others. Start with a basic understanding of drafting, painting, architecture, and history. You don’t have to be an engineer, but you have to have a sense of what can work and what can’t work physically. And then you just need that piece of you that sees things in those terms, sees things as a designer, and that’s something I think you don’t learn. That’s something that is just in you.

I’m aware that a lot of what I’m doing as a designer is trying to create a kind of iconography for the film, a sort of vision or quality that makes the audience believe from the beginning to the end that the film is all one complete world, one environment. The audience shouldn’t be seeing the sets; they should be seeing the emotion that those sets are meant to evoke. You want to try to make the production and the sets take a backseat to the story itself.

You don’t want it to take center stage. And that’s what makes a successful design and a successful designer. If the first thing the audience sees or responds to is your design, then you’re not doing a good job. You’re there to enhance the story and performances and do it in a way that is absolutely correct and beautiful, but that shouldn’t be the first thing the audience notices.

Life of Pi screens tonight, Friday, December 6, at 7 p.m., followed by a talk by David Gropman, at the College of Communication, Room 101, 640 Commonwealth Ave. The event, part of the BU Cinematheque series, is free and open to the public.

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Amy Laskowski, Senior Writer at Boston University Marketing & Communications editorial department
Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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