Oscars 2013: The 85th Annual Academy Awards
5:36 am
Sun February 24, 2013

Real-Life Shipwreck Survivor Helped 'Life Of Pi' Get Lost At Sea

Originally published on Sun February 24, 2013 7:06 am

In Life of Pi, one of the nine Oscar nominees for Best Picture this year, a boy suffers a shipwreck and is lost at sea. It's a fictional story, of course, based on a novel, but director Ang Lee nevertheless wanted the movie to have depth and realism. But how do you add a realistic edge to someone drifting alone in the sea? For most people, even those in the imaginative business of movie-making, it's hard to picture the perils and isolation of months without rescue.

Enter Steven Callahan, a shipwreck survivor whom Lee asked to serve as a consultant for the film. Thirty years ago, Callahan's boat sank, and he spent 76 days on a life raft. Like the fictional Pi, Callahan survived by harvesting rainwater and eating raw fish — and the story of his shipwreck and survival has Oscar-worthy drama of its own.

"I was on a small boat, just over 21 feet," Callahan says, "and was sailing along, pretty much in the middle of the Atlantic."

He was an accomplished sailor, on his way back from a solo crossing of the Atlantic, but he wasn't able to finish the return trip: His ship ran into a gale, and he suddenly faced increasingly large waves.

"There was a big crash on the side of the boat, and a lot of water came flooding in," he recalls. "So part of me was frightened and saying, 'You're gonna die, you're gonna die, you're going right down with the boat,' and part of me was saying 'Shut up! Do your job!'"

Callahan grabbed what supplies he could, jumped onto a 6-foot rubber life raft and tethered himself to the partially submerged boat to weather the storm.

"Just before dawn, something parted in the line and I went drifting off, and basically spent the next 21/2 months crossing 1,800 nautical miles or about two-thirds of the way across the U.S., learning to live like an aquatic caveman."

Callahan's aquatic caveman skills are an unusual area of expertise, and he used them on the set of Life of Pi to craft realistic props and help the actor Suraj Sharma convey the emotional ups and downs of a shipwreck survivor. Callahan joins NPR's Rachel Martin to discuss living through a shipwreck, consulting on a film and how survival experiences can contain hidden gifts.


Interview Highlights

On how the shipwreck affected him psychologically and emotionally

"Initially, sort of escaping the immediate threat, one's acting on training and instinct and all of those things, and its really afterwards, the second stage is probably one of the most difficult, having my life go by my eyes very slowly like a really bad B-grade movie, and regretting all my mistakes and errors, everything I failed, I failed my boat, I didn't have, in a lot of ways, a successful life. Even though I fulfilled these childhood goals of crossing the Atlantic in this small boat, it all just seemed pathetic, and slowly but surely I adapted. I tried to look at the voyage as a continuation, not an end, of the old voyage. I kept a log. I navigated."

On how the mini-ecosystem that developed around his raft saved his life

"Ecology started to develop — pretty much anything that floats in the ocean develops an island ecology. And fish would gather around it, and weeds and barnacles would grow. ...I've always felt spiritually touched when in wilderness environments, and this was that on steroids. I just got very attached to the fish which to me were kind of symbolic of the magic and mystery of life and the sea. They fed me, they became my friends at one point they almost killed me because they were big powerful fish and I was fishing for them primarily with a spear, and in an inflated raft, and they kept breaking the spear and at one point put a hole in the bottom of the raft.

"And in the final analysis they brought my salvation, because the fishermen had come out to that side of the island that day, which they had never done before, and they saw all these birds hovering over the raft, which were there because of the fish, and they came out to find fish, and they found me as well."

On how he felt when Ang Lee asked him to help make Life of Pi

"For me, it became quite the personal voyage because it's a continuum of my own experience 30 years ago. And to me, it's kind of amazing that the ocean that kept me alive would allow me to go down this path where Ang asks me basically to help him bring a kind of authenticity and believability to this film and always lobby for reality, and in that way, to make the ocean, as he said, a major character, which really it had never happened before as far as I know. I mean, most people set stories on the ocean but he wanted to bring out its diversity and its wonders as well as its horrors and scariness and trials and tribulations that it can place upon the human being."

On watching the movie's main character endure life at sea

"I have to tell you that there are a couple of scenes in particular where Suraj just really nails the feeling, like when the ship is going down and he's on the end of the lifeboat, and just desperate, and seeing his family go down with the ship ... It's hard for me. It just touches — touches that nerve again. It kind of takes me back to all that desperation and regret. And there are other places in the film, too, where I think he just really nails it. When he catches — he catches a dorado, actually — and at the point he's pretty desperately hungry, and that's just another thing that takes me right back to when I caught my first fish. ... So there are parts of the film that were really touching. But I don't regret, you know, having gone through any of this or those feelings coming back because they — I think they made me a better person in the end."

On his shipwreck 30 years ago and his recent diagnosis of leukemia

"To a large degree, you know, the survival experience has enormous commonalities. Initially, it's like, 'Well, you know, there's a very good chance I'm gonna die here pretty quickly and I'm not ready to die.' And ... I feel like I have fixed a lot of things in my life and ... I feel pretty filled with what my life path has been, which is quite different from 30 years ago. But I had my 30th birthday in a life raft, I had my 60th birthday right in a hospital bed, but through it all, the same as while adrift, my wife and I have always found reason for finding gifts within the experience. Just that preciousness of life that we seem to capture in the most desperate of times."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Academy Awards are being handed out tonight, and among the nominees for Best Picture is the adventure film "Life of Pi." It's an arresting portrayal of a boy lost at sea.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LIFE OF PI")

SURAJ SHARMA: (as Pi Patel) My name is Pi Patel. I have been in a shipwreck. I am on a lifeboat alone with a tiger. Please send help.

MARTIN: The movie, like the book it's based on, is fictional, but director Ang Lee wanted to add more depth and realism, so he got in touch with a man named Steven Callahan. Thirty years ago, Callahan was himself stranded in the ocean for 76 days. At the time, Callahan had successfully crossed the Atlantic and he was making the return voyage solo.

STEVEN CALLAHAN: I was on a small boat - just over 21 feet - and was basically headed home. Broke, figured I'd get a job in the Caribbean and was sailing along. It was pretty much in the middle of the Atlantic.

MARTIN: And that's when his ship ran into severe winds and the waves got bigger.

CALLAHAN: Then suddenly there was a big crash on the side of the boat and a lot of water came flooding in. So, part of me was frightened and saying you're going to die, you're going to die, you're going right down with the boat, and part of me was saying shut up, do your job.

MARTIN: Callahan grabbed what supplies he could and he jumped onto a small rubber lifeboat. He tethered himself to the partially-submerged raft to weather the storm.

CALLAHAN: Just before dawn, something parted in the line and I went drifted off and basically spent the next two and a half months crossing 1,800 nautical miles, or about two-thirds of the way across the U.S., learning to live like an aquatic caveman.

MARTIN: I mean, you were out there for 76 very long days. And there were obvious physical struggles - threat of starvation and thirst and exposure to the elements. But I'm wondering if you could describe some of what you experienced psychologically. I mean, dealing with that kind of profound isolation, how you were able to control or how you couldn't control your mind.

CALLAHAN: Initially, sort of escaping immediate threat, one's acting on training and instinct and all those things. And it's really afterwards, the second stage is probably one of the most difficult. Having my life go by my eyes very slowly, like a very bad B-grade movie, and regretting all my mistakes and errors, everything I failed. I failed my boat. I didn't have, in a lot of ways, a successful life, even though I fulfilled these childhood goals of crossing the Atlantic in a small boat. It all just seemed pathetic. And slowly but surely I adapted. I tried to look at the voyage as a continuation, not an end to the old voyage. I kept a log. I navigated. And then the ecology started to develop. Pretty much anything that floats in the ocean develops an island ecology. And the fish will gather around it and weeds and barnacles will grow on...

MARTIN: And you did get a little salvation from this particular school of fish.

CALLAHAN: Yeah. They fed me, they became my friends, at one point they almost killed me because they were big, powerful fish and I was fishing for them primarily with a spear in an inflated raft. And they kept breaking the spear, and at one point put a hole at the bottom of the raft. And in the final analysis, they brought my salvation because the fishermen had come out to that side of the island that day, which they'd never done before and they saw these birds hovering over the raft, which were there because of the fish. And they came out to find fish and they found me as well.

MARTIN: And media fever ensued. I mean, you were on "The Tonight Show" and profiled in People magazine, you were on NPR. You write your memoir "Adrift," and then fast-forward around 30 years later. Ang Lee, the director, asks you to help him out with this film based on the book "Life of Pi." What was your reaction when this very famous Hollywood director called you up?

CALLAHAN: For me, it became quite the personal voyage because it's a continuum of my own experience 30 years ago. And, to me, it's kind of amazing that the ocean that kept me alive would allow me to go down this path where Ang asks me basically to help him bring a kind of authenticity and believability to the film, always lobby for reality. And in that way to make the ocean, as he said, a major character, which really, it had never happened before as far as I know. I mean, most people set stories on the ocean. But he wanted to bring out its diversity and its wonders as well as its horrors and scariness and trials and tribulations it can place upon the human being.

MARTIN: I mean, was any of this strange? I mean, you're doing things, like, obviously, conveying your own experiences but you were helping to craft some of the props and working with the actors, the lead actor in particular, Suraj Sharma, on the psychological distress. I imagine that tapped into your memories in some very real way.

CALLAHAN: I have to tell you that there are a couple of scenes in particular where Suraj just, like, really nails the feeling, like, when the ship is going down and he's on the end of the lifeboat and just desperate in seeing his family go down with the ship.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "LIFE OF PI")

SHARMA: (as Pi) Mama, daddy, I'm sorry. I'm sorry.

CALLAHAN: I'm sorry, I'm sorry. And it's hard for me. It just touches that nerve again, it kind of takes me back to all that desperation and regret. And there are other places in the film, too, where I think he just really nails it. When he catches a dorado actually and at that point is pretty desperately hungry. And that is another thing that just takes me right back to when I caught my first fish and...

MARTIN: You remember hunger.

CALLAHAN: Oh, oh yeah. You don't forget that. You forget the actual pain, what it feels like, but you don't forget the emotion of it. And so, there are parts of the film that were really touching. But I don't regret, you know, having gone through any of this or those feelings coming back because they made - I think they made me a better person in the end.

MARTIN: You are going through another challenge, to say the least. I hope you don't mind me asking or broaching this. But since your work on the movie, you have been diagnosed with leukemia. And these are obviously such incredibly different experiences. But I still wonder if you see some kind of connection in a way between these two profound challenges you have had to face in your life.

CALLAHAN: To a large degree, you know, the survival experience has enormous commonalities. Initially, it's like, well, you know, there's a very good chance I'm going to die here pretty quickly and I'm not ready to die. And I feel like I've fixed a lot of things in my life and feel pretty fulfilled with what my life path has been, which is quite different from 30 years ago. But I had my 30th birthday in a life raft, I had my 60th birthday riding a hospital bed. But through it all, the same as while adrift, my wife and I have always found reason for finding gifts within the experience, just that preciousness of life that we seem to capture in the most desperate of times.

MARTIN: Steven Callahan. He was a consultant for the Oscar-nominated film "Life of Pi." He's also the author of "Adrift," a memoir about his 76 days stranded on a life raft at sea. Steven, thank you so much for taking time to talk with us and share your story.

CALLAHAN: Oh, thank you. Appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.