When the phone rang at 5:30 a.m. to celebrate his film The Blind Side, producer Gil Netter was asleep.
"I thought someone had died."
His 2009 hit movie had been nominated for an Academy Award, and he wasn't expecting it. Yesterday morning the calls flooded-in again, but this time he knew exactly why. Eleven nominations for Life of Pi, including for Best Picture and Best Director, Ang Lee.
Mr. Netter is smiling. I can hear it through the phone. Today's a good day. For the moment he'll take a breath and reflect on what it took to build a realistically proportionate novel adaptation that floated, raged and devoured carnage all the way across Asia. The journey began with a fantastic book of the same name from 2001. A boy named Pi and a Tiger named Richard Parker get tossed on a spiritual quest of survival so biblical in scale and metaphor that the Pacific Ocean becomes a central character. There were multiple attempts at screenplays, and many visions of how it could be done but the budget, all agreed, would be large. Especially by literary novel standards. Some passed, others honored prior contracts, the movie sputtered and died.
2009 brought director Ang Lee as a possibility. He'd take about a year to finalize his decision but said, yes, he could envision the boy's journey. Mr. Netter hired David Magee to do the adaptation and Claudio Mirando became the cinematographer. Suddenly there was new life for Pi.
"It was Ang's vision," Gil said. "He's so talented. He commits twenty-four-EIGHT. My job as producer was to take care of him. I made sure he was happy."
Along with co-producer, David Womark, Netter joined a film crew of 2,600 people from 23 different countries. They shot in India then Taiwan for five and half months and concluded in Montreal. The last American film shot in Taiwan, Gil says with pride, was The Sand Pebbles with Steve McQueen in 1958. Mr. Netter not only brought jobs to the area, but four Bengal Tigers (the meanest named KING) and built a Titanic-like 1.7 million gallon wave-tank to emulate the undulating landscape. Ang Lee chose newcomer Suraj Sharma to play Pi from over 3000 actors. It was time to shoot.
The task at hand; turn a literary achievement into a profound and technologically innovative film for the ages. The story would offer glimpses into the trauma of a boy and his will to stay alive at sea. But more crucially, as the book made clear, Pi's journey is a mental struggle between his truth and the fantastical, between the reality he must endure and the strength to forgive himself. For being human. For living. For crimes untold. The power and apathy of the ocean is crucial to the tale, as is the existential relationship between the boy and a tiger. Aside from the stunning visual aerobics by Rhythm & Hues Visual Effects, (The Chronicles of Narnia, 2005) the human element of the film pours from the screen, reminding me of experiencing Yann Martel's superb novel.
For anyone who thinks being a Hollywood producer is the best job on earth, Gil Netter wholeheartedly agrees. He has produced The Blind Side, Water For Elephants, Marley and Me, and about 20 more, including the hilarious, Dude, Where's My Car?
In the wake of 11 nominations, I asked if the term "Dream Job," could be applied to him.
"Yes. I have a dream job."
Nothing like the hunt for a great tale. The man loves waking up everyday to the task of an artistic collaboration with so many gifted, visual minds. Inspired by the films Lily of the Valley and Bonnie and Clyde, Gil knew he'd follow his father, Douglas Netter, into the movies. Douglas Netter was the Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at MGM Studios for seven years of Gil's childhood. Today, Jake Netter, Gil's 26 year old son is a filmmaker as well, and shot much of the behind-the-scenes reel for Life of Pi.
How does Gil Netter Productions top 11 nominations? No problem. You just have to wake up with a smile, and go find the right story. But for now, the Golden Globes are two days away. I ask about winning the award, beating Lincoln and Les Miserable in an artistic and subjective foot race. Gil reflects on the crew in Taiwan instead, the size of the family that formed for so many months.
"I'll be thinking of them during the award shows," he says. "The great community that formed. We went on quite a journey."