05.08.13 | Erin Hallagan
Wednesday, May 22nd, join Austin Film Festival for A Conversation with David Magee, writer of LIFE OF PI and FINDING NEVERLAND. The conversation will focus on adaptation, writing for imaginative worlds, and using language to articulate enchanting stories that have been so beautifully translated to the screen. Following the conversation will be a retrospective screening of FINDING NEVERLAND and post-screening Q&A. We sat down with Magee beforehand for a pre-interview about how he broke into the industry and his advice to screenwriting students. To hear more from David Magee and to join us May 22nd, click here.
AUSTIN FILM FESTIVAL (AFF): What did you do professionally before you became a screenwriter and how did you break into the film industry?
MAGEE: I started as a theatre actor, having a great time and earning no money, and I supported myself by doing voiceover. I narrated several audiobooks, which are usually recorded in full length and abridged versions. One day I went in to a recording studio with an abridgment of a novel that was horribly done – it was unfair to the original writer to record it – and I said to the producer offhandedly that I could have done a better job abridging it. She asked if I wanted to give it a try. It turned out that abridging was a perfect job for an actor who needed time to go to auditions and to regional theatres, and in the next five years I wrote abridgments of 85 books. Without intending it, I got incredible training in story structure. Toward the end of that period I began writing for the stage, which led to my opportunity to write FINDING NEVERLAND.
AFF: How does your experience as a theatre actor influence your writing style?
MAGEE: When I write dialogue, I am essentially performing the characters in my head, and thanks to my acting background, I know when a bit of dialogue gives an actor something they can sink their teeth into and when something sounds good on paper but can’t be said with a straight face.
AFF: On LIFE OF PI, what was your collaboration with Ang Lee like? How closely was he involved in the adaptation/writing process?
MAGEE: I worked very closely with Ang throughout the writing process. In the initial stages, I would write notes, sketch scenes, and so on. Once a week or so send what I had over to Ang and then join him in New York for lunch and an afternoon of throwing ideas around, then I’d head back home for another week of writing. Once we had a first draft, Ang began working with computer animators to plan out the filming of the sea adventure, essentially designing the film shot by shot. As I watched his visual ideas unfold, I revised the script to reflect what he was doing, and he changed the animation as the script evolved as well. I was in Taiwan for all of pre-production. Once the filming began I headed home – the script didn’t change at all during filming, which was a highly technical process that took place primarily in a wave tank – but when the editing process began, Ang invited me back regularly to tweak voiceovers and throw in my two cents worth on the process.
AFF: Initially you thought the novel was not filmmable. How did you make it work and how much research did you do?
MAGEE: Well, all of us made it work. Ten years ago, when the book came out, I couldn’t imagine how you could possibly film a real tiger and animals in a boat with a teenager, and the technology to create such amazing visual effects simply didn’t exist. I also didn’t imagine a studio would have had the guts to take on what I knew would have been an expensive and difficult film to make with no stars and an ambiguous ending. And if Ang hadn’t been directing, I don’t think I would have ever taken on the project myself four years ago – without a director of his caliber I don’t think it would have mattered what I wrote. My challenge was to tell a story about religious and philosophical issues that took place primarily in the mind of a teenage boy as he floated across the ocean in a lifeboat, and finding the actions that made his internal struggle visible onscreen, and the short answer to how I made my part of the process work was through a lot of trial and error, constant rewrites and input from a team of incredibly talented filmmakers.
Research was an essential part of the writing process. When I began I knew next to nothing about India, Hinduism, and even lifeboats for that matter. Early on, Ang and I met with Steven Callahan, a sailor who wrote a book called “Adrift” about his real life experience floating across the Atlantic in a five-foot round inflatable lifeboat. His stories about the ways in which the journey changed him physically and emotionally became an essential part of the story, and in fact Steve became our Survival Expert on the film, charting the exact journey through the ocean Pi would have taken, where he would have landed on the beach, where the island would have been located and so on. We also traveled through India to all the locations in the book before I had begun writing, and one of our associate producers, Jean Castelli, became our research expert on religious issues, prayers, different forms of Indian dance and the like. In a film with so many wondrous elements, you have to fully ground your story in the real to make the journey believable.
AFF: How did you decide what went into the film’s interpretation of the open-ended conclusion?
MAGEE: From the very beginning of the writing process, Ang and I saw this film not so much about religion as being about how different narratives help us get through the ordeals of our lives. A Hindu, a Christian, and an atheist can watch the same events unfold and come to different conclusions about the hidden forces at work beneath it all – but they all rely on a narrative to understand what they’ve witnessed. We didn’t want to force any one conclusion upon our audience, we simply wanted them to see the ways in which different views of the same story can add up to a larger view of our journey through life. Ideally, you own interpretation of what really happened to Pi on that boat says more about your world view than it says about what conclusions we wanted you to take from the ending.
AFF: Who are some of your favorite playwrights or screenwriters?
MAGEE: I’m going to stick with dead writers, because while I love a lot of writers working today, I also know a lot of them, and I don’t want to forget anyone or offend someone by not mentioning them. So… Shakespeare, Harold Pinter, Arthur Miller, Joe Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder, Ernest Lehman, Preston Sturges, Philip Barry, Tennessee Williams, Frank Capra, Frank Pierson and while he wasn’t a screenwriter, exactly, Buster Keaton. And I still feel bad that I left dozens of others off the list.
AFF: What do you find yourself telling your screenwriting students most? Any advice for up-and-coming writers?
MAGEE: The number one bit of advice I have is that if you keep showing up, if you keep working at your craft, if you always do just a little more than you’re asked and take your work far more seriously than you take yourself, eventually you will get your chance. It may be a small chance, and it may take many more chances along the way to get to your ultimate goal, but a door will crack open somewhere, and all that matters then is whether or not you’re prepared to step through it.
Austin Film Festival’s “Conversations in Film” program was created in 2007 and is sponsored by The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences®. It is a year-round series of film seminars and script readings that provide the public with the unique experience to meet and work with local and visiting filmmakers.