Screenwriter David Magee

The Life of Pi writer reflects on the film’s 11 Oscar nominations, including one for best adapted screenplay.

David Magee found a unique pathway to screenwriting. The Michigan native began his career as a theater actor, doing voiceover work to support himself. He then took advantage of opportunities to narrate audiobooks and later jumped at the chance to do abridgements (eliminating more than 80% of the content of 200,000-word books, which he did for more than 80 novels and all sorts of nonfiction over the course of some five years)—wonderful training for becoming an award-winning screenwriter. Magee earned an Oscar nom for his first screenplay, Finding Neverland, and is once again nominated for his adaptation of the novel, Life of Pi.


Tavis: David Magee is now a two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter, thanks to his latest project, “Life of Pi.” The Ang Lee-directed film is up for a total of 11 Oscars this year, including one for best picture. Here now some scenes from “Life of Pi.”


Tavis: So everything readable is not filmable. When you walked on the set I congratulated you on doing the impossible. A number of folk had taken a look at this and tried to figure out how to take this wonderful book, what is an acclaimed, best-selling, international best-selling book, and turn it into a screenplay. After 170 iterations, I’m told – is that accurate?

David Magee: That’s accurate, yeah.

Tavis: A hundred and seventy –

Magee: But not full drafts, let’s be clear.

Tavis: Yeah, okay. (Laughter)

Magee: There’s a difference between an entire draft and a couple of pages here and there.

Tavis: A hundred and seventy is 170.

Magee: That number has gotten a lot of play, (laughter) and I wanted to say sometimes it’s just a few pages got changed to make it work.

Tavis: I take that. But even with that caveat, it still underscores the point that this wasn’t easy.

Magee: No, it was a challenge, and I was happy to be a part of it. When I first read the book I didn’t think it was a film. I enjoyed it. I read it back when I was on the set of “Finding Neverland,” because I was pretty much hanging around backstage with nothing to do, and I went up to the director and I said, “I just read this really good book.” He said, “Is it a movie?” I said, “No, I don’t really think so. But it’s a good book, you should read it,” and I didn’t give it any more thought after that.

It wasn’t until I got a call asking if I wanted to do it with Ang Lee that it suddenly sounded like a great idea, so that’s how it worked out, yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: So how much does – and this isn’t a kiss-up to Ang Lee, although he’s a great director.

Magee: Oh, yeah.

Tavis: But how much does hearing the right name in connection with your work empower you, propel you, inspire you to find a way to get the impossible done?

Magee: Oh, I wouldn’t have taken the project if it wasn’t a name like Ang’s or Ang specifically in that case, I think, because I knew it was that hard a project, and I don’t think I would have seen how it could have been done without someone of his patience and his caliber and his ability to give advice on the project.

Because the advantage of working on a film with a director from the beginning is that you are discussing the scenes as they evolve. He’s confronting the problems that you’re having with it when you say, “This can’t play this way. We can’t do this this way because we can’t pay it off in the right way,” and you’re learning how he’s going film it.

So it’s a collaboration from the outset. If I had been off in the fields by myself trying to figure out how to make this into a screenplay, I just think I would have picked up a much easier book.

Tavis: Yeah. Let me ask, if I can – it’s not often I get a chance to talk to Academy-nominated screenwriters – but let me pick your brain, if I can.

Magee: Sure.

Tavis: Particularly your process. So I’m not a screenwriter but I’ve written a number of books, and for me, at least, there is that point where you have to find – my word, not yours – you have to find the hook. Once you get that one thing, then it really starts to roll.

Magee: Absolutely.

Tavis: That’s the best way I can describe my own writing. I find that one thing and when I hit that, I’m in my stride and then the stuff almost starts coming out of me. It just starts to flow in that way. Is screenwriting the same way? This is an adapted screen, so obviously you’re working off of a book.

But is there a point where you’re trying to find that something, and once you find it, it starts to open up for you?

Magee: Absolutely. A screenplay has got to be a very tight document. You’ve got to compress a lot of ideas into a very tight space. So first of all, you have to have that kernel of what this book means to you, what you want to focus on, because a book could be 300, 500 pages, and it can explore a lot of different things.

But first of all you have to find that one notion, that one idea that excites you when you get up each morning to work on it. But then you have to find that rhythm, that tone – I think what you’re talking about. In the case of “Life of Pi,” there’s a lot of talk about philosophy, religion, Indian culture in the first hundred pages of the novel, which is fascinating if you’re reading it leisurely on Sunday morning in your house with the chance to get up and get a cup of coffee or something.

But when you’re watching a film, you have to get to the essence of that really quickly, and what you don’t want to do is have the audience feel like they’re being lectured on something.

So we were trying to find the right tone, that right sound to the dialogue, and it was when Ang and I were traveling through India together, going to the locations of the various scenes, and we had been trying – we’d gone back and forth a hundred times.

He said to me, “It’s like a young adult or a children’s adventure story told by a really great storyteller, like a ‘Treasure Island’ or something.” Now, I don’t think anyone who sees the film is going to go, “Yeah, that’s ‘Treasure Island.'” That was not the point.

But that hit on something for me, that feeling that we’re not talking down to our audience and trying to simplify it. We’re telling a great adventure story. That clicked with me and I understood the humor of the opening and the rhythm of the opening, and what kind of character the older Pi was when he was going to tell us this story.

Tavis: When you read this book and you told your director friend it’s a great book, I’m not sure it’s a good film, Ang Lee’s name is attached to it, all of a sudden it is a great film.

Magee: It’s a great film. (Laughter)

Tavis: But it’s the same book.

Magee: And no insult to my other director friend. He could have been –

Tavis: I got you, I got you, I got you. That’s why I didn’t call any names.

Magee: Yeah.

Tavis: But it is the same book, though, obviously.

Magee: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Tavis: So I’m curious now, getting back inside your process.

Magee: Sure.

Tavis: What was the part of the story – we’ve seen the film, but what was the part of the story that when you got past that first hundred pages of history and other important details for the reader, what was that part that you put your finger on and you said, “This is the story. This is the part that I’ve got to figure out a way to tell as a screenwriter.”

Magee: Right. Well, first of all those first hundred pages were a challenge because for both Ang and for me, the wonder of this book is it’s about storytelling. It’s about the power of stories to kind of transform your life, whether they’re spiritual stories or great adventure stories.

Movies, stories have that power to help you figure out how to get through the chaos of your life, and that’s essentially what Pi learns as the result of this journey. So finding the storyteller was the challenge, and the first part of the film was the greatest problem, I think, for us to solve, to get the right tone of that.

But then the book is also written in a hundred chapters. For 300 pages, 100 chapters, three pages a chapter, you can hear how it’s kind of broken up into thoughts and ideas and reflections, and then on this day I learned to fish.

So I think the big challenge for us after that tone thing was finding the narrative, the journey that this character went on, rather than just finding him out at sea, and today this happened, and today this happened.

Tavis: How much effort did you have to give, attention did you have to give, to not offending? Because as you mentioned earlier, there is so much in here. There’s religion, there’s so much here. Was that a consideration at all?

Magee: Sure. We talk about several different religions in the course of this, but we’re nothing but respectful in our treatment of them. There are references both in the dialogue and in the various scenes, kind of the way we relate to them, to Hinduism, to Islam, to Christianity, to Judaism.

If anything, we were worried we were going to offend by not being inclusive enough, and saying these are all different traditions that have their narratives that inform people’s lives, that get people through their day-to-day lives, and in fact even one of our characters, the father in the story, is an atheist, and he has his own narrative about how things work, the way the world works, the way the world should be seen.

So if we offended anyone, I would think it would be someone who believed that only one of stories was the only one and true story, and the others shouldn’t be listened to, in a sense. I hope that we were respectful to all the religions by finding those aspects of each religion or each viewpoint that people in the religion themselves could be most proud of or would want to see reflected in a film.

Our point was not to proselytize; our point was not to say that you should believe in a faith. Our point was to say everyone has these different narratives that help us get through the chaos of our lives. Everyone has something that when they’re down, when they’re at their low point, they look at this and they say, “I understand what’s happening to me, and as a result, I know how to get through,” or they have nothing to fall back on.

Tavis: Yeah. So one more inside baseball –

Magee: Sure.

Tavis: – inside David Magee’s process question, if I can. So there’s no Simba in this movie, where – there are no talking animals, there’s no (laughter) Mr. Ed here.

Magee: Not at all.

Tavis: But these animals are characters in this story.

Magee: Absolutely.

Tavis: They play a very important role.

Magee: Absolutely.

Tavis: This kid’s father owned a zoo, as we know, and so they’ve got these animals on this barge, trying to get to Canada. When you’re screenwriting and your storytelling but some of your characters are animals, how does that challenge you, or is that a turn-on for you? You tell me, I don’t know.

Magee: Well it was interesting, because we wanted to make very sure that we didn’t turn these animals into mini-humans, that we didn’t anthropomorphize them into a loving child or some character from your past. This was a tiger, and if you got too close to this tiger, this tiger could hurt you. That was the goal of our writing.

So in order to research the film, we met along the way with an Indian tiger trainer who was 105 years old who had worked on the old jungle movies back in the old days of cinema, and we had a French tiger trainer who was an expert, probably one of the greatest tiger trainers in the world right now.

We talked to them when we’d write a scene, how would the tiger behave? What would a tiger really do at this moment? But we also had real tigers, and in some scenes a real tiger is in the boat doing things, and they do things you don’t expect, and that becomes a part of the narrative too.

Most of the time we had incredible special effects artists who had been watching these tigers for weeks upon end, who created that tiger in the boat for us. But there are a couple shots of a real tiger in there who surprised us.

Tavis: What kind of angst does a screenwriter experience when you’ve done your part, and at this point there ain’t a whole lot for you to do, respectfully.

Magee: Well, that’s funny. No, but in a very good sense on this particular film, Ang was very trusting and brought me into all of preproduction, right up until the first day of shooting. Because of the nature of such a big film, he had to pre-visualize all of these ocean shots in an animated form before we ever shot in order to plan where the camera was going to be and everything.

So I actually knew what everything was going to look like. I knew it was going to look much better than the animated version that I was looking at, but I already had a sense of that.

Then when shooting finished and the assembly of the film began, he brought me back in and we continued to work throughout the whole process. So unlike some films, you hear the stories of the screenwriters who kind of thank you for the script and nice to have met you, this was very collaborative.

He was very generous in allowing me to be a part of the whole thing, so I was actually both grateful and just blown away by the result. I was not worried when I went away that they were going to come back with something that I didn’t expect, because I knew the story was being told. But no one can anticipate how spectacular that film looks, and I take no credit for that.

Tavis: As I said earlier in this conversation, this is your second nomination; first was for “Finding Neverland.”

Both, though, as I said, adapted screenplays.

Magee: That’s correct.

Tavis: So you know what the next question is, right? You can guess (crosstalk).

Magee: I can kind of figure you’re asking me where my original stuff’s going to come.

Tavis: Wow.

Magee: Yeah, absolutely. (Laughter) I am –

Tavis: You’re not just a screenwriter, you’re a mind-reader.

Magee: I am darn clever, too.

Tavis: You are a mind-reader. (Laughter)

Magee: Well no, the truth is I have written many things that I’m developing and working on on my own. I have had the tremendous good fortune that after “Finding Neverland,” I was able to get work with the studios, and they generally bring something to you that they’ve already purchased, and I’ve been able to work fairly regularly.

I have three kids and a mortgage, so it seemed like a good idea to stick with that. It’s a lot more challenging to say, “I’m going to go disappear for six months and write something and bring it out, and then I’ll ask you what you think of it.” It’s a lot more challenging to do that than it is to have someone come and say, “Would you write this for me?”

So I’ve had that advantage, but I’ve got my ideas that I’m working on. They’ll come out.

Tavis: I’m glad we’re into this now, because I’m wondering whether or not there is any sort of pressure that you feel, either pressure you put on yourself or pressure from some other outside entity or source once you’ve done a really good job of a number of adaptive screenplays.

Let’s put it this way – if you can keep doing adaptive screenplays for the rest of your life and keep getting Academy Award nominations, at some point win one or two of these –

Magee: It wouldn’t be bad.

Tavis: – it wouldn’t be the worst life, that’s my point.

Magee: No. No, no.

Tavis: That would not be a bad life. So is there a pressure that you feel, either from yourself or from others, that “I’ve got to do an original screenplay?”

Magee: I put pressure on myself to keep trying new things, and yes, I’m the one who puts the most pressure on myself in general in this life. But I intend to do an original at some point, but I also don’t – I’m more concerned that I not repeat myself, and to credit Ang, who has a reputation for never doing the same thing twice.

I would love to say that I always stretched myself and did something a little different each time. That doesn’t mean that I can’t do things that are set in the same city or that have some of the same themes, but I want to make sure that I’m doing something that stretches me, and yes, I do want to give my original things out there someday to say that I did that.

Tavis: Yeah. So when a studio, should a studio come to you and say, “David, we want you to work on this,” if David doesn’t want to do that, how does David tell the studio, “I’m not really feeling this.”

Magee: As nicely as possible. (Laughter) They’re looking for the right match too, and if I read something and I say, “Listen, I’ve got to be honest, that subject matter does not appeal to me,” or “I just don’t know how I would do this. This does not work for me,” they don’t take offense.

They may have a project they really want me to take seriously, but I have made the mistake, and I certainly won’t say which screenplays, because these have never been made, of being convinced to do something when I didn’t feel it, when I didn’t have it in my system. You can’t spend eight months writing something that you’re not passionate about.

Tavis: But does having it in your system mean that you have to be emotionally, spiritually, socially, psychologically connected to the material to do it? Because what you have is a gift. You’re an artist in your own right, so one doesn’t necessarily have to be –

Magee: No, I think you have to find the –

Tavis: – but maybe that’s your process.

Magee: No, no, no, I don’t disagree with you. I don’t have to be connected on every single level to something, but there has to be something that makes me want to get up in the morning and go back to that.

There has to be something that when I first read that material or when I first heard it I said, “Oh, yes, I want to explore that idea,” or “I want to show that to my kids,” or “I’ve felt just like that,” or that really moved me when I read it.

It could be anything within it that makes me excited about seeing that project through. If I don’t have it or if I read the project – again, without saying names, there was a book that was presented to me. I read it and I said, “This doesn’t work logically. I have a lot of problems with the way – and I think if I cut it down it’s even going to become more obvious.”

So I told that to the studio and they said, “You’re so right. That’s why we need you to be the writer,” and I said, “Yeah, but there’s this problem too,” and they said, “You’re brilliant,” and I got snowed into doing it. (Laughter) It was the worst. They were lovely people and they saw the same problems I did, which is why I thought oh, we’re all so smart, we figured out what’s wrong. But we didn’t have a solution.

Tavis: But I assume you learned something from that experience.

Magee: Yeah. To be polite and say no. That’s the answer. (Laughter) That’s what you have to do.

Tavis: So what was it then about “Life of Pi” that you connected to? Because again, by your own admission, once you read it, not sure this is a film.

Magee: Yeah.

Tavis: So even when Ang Lee’s the name attached to it, there’s got to be something there that motivates you –

Magee: Oh, absolutely.

Tavis: – to get up every day. So you admit it was a great book, but what was it that you connected to that made you want to endure the challenge of writing this screenplay?

Magee: I absolutely connected with the ending of the book, and I don’t want to give away the ending of the movie, obviously.

Tavis: Sure, sure.

Magee: But I found the ending of the film very powerful, surprising, and very moving, and for me, it summed up a lot of what I felt about the power of stories, be they religious stories, spiritual stories, whatever those are.

The power of those two get us through life, and that really resonated with me. I also thought it was a great ripping yarn once he gets out onto the ocean and he has to deal with this tiger. When I say I didn’t think it was a film, I wasn’t saying, “Ah, I don’t think that would make a good film.” I was saying, “I don’t know how you’d pull it off.”

Tavis: Right.

Magee: Ten years ago when I read the book, the technology to even do what they did with that tiger, I don’t think it was out there.

Tavis: It didn’t exist.

Magee: Or it was just at the beginning, and it was prohibitively expensive. If you did it with real animals it would be even more expensive. The ocean, you can’t put a real boy and a real tiger in a boat together, unless it’s the last day of shooting. You’re not going to end up with two of them at the end of the day. (Laughter)

So you need to find these solutions, and I didn’t see how they could possibly do it. So the question just kind of went right out of my mind back then. But when you get a filmmaker as powerful as Ang and he says he can do – if he says he can do it, let’s do it.

If for some reason the two of us went on that journey and after months of working we said we can’t do it, well, who’s going to blame us? I was working with Ang Lee and they had tried several other times. I had the chance to work with a great filmmaker. I wouldn’t have passed that up for anything.

Tavis: So I warn you, here comes the ultimate, slow-pitch, softball, (laughter) underhand –

Magee: Right, yeah.

Tavis: – right down the plate.

Magee: This is what I’ve been waiting for.

Tavis: What you’ve been waiting for the whole interview, right down the middle.

Magee: Yeah.

Tavis: I’m asking you this, seriously, because I want to get your take on it, and I know that you can articulate this better than I can, even though I feel this.

Magee: Okay.

Tavis: I can’t imagine life without storytellers, without these griots, without these narratives. It’s the best part of Hollywood when they get it right.

Magee: Absolutely.

Tavis: At Hollywood’s best there are narratives, there are stories that are told that empower us, that enlighten us, that encourage us, that inspire us. How fortunate do you feel to be, whether nominated or not, and certainly you have been and are now for “Life of Pi.” But how fortunate do you feel to be among the best storytellers in this business?

Magee: Well, you threw in a compliment at the end. I thank you for that.

Tavis: But I meant it, though.

Magee: But when I was a kid, this is what I wanted to do. When I watched “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and I saw Paul Newman and Robert Redford up there, and I felt that adventure, and going along with them, and I felt terrible when they got – I don’t want to give anything away, (whispers) but they get shot at the end. (Laughter)

When I saw all of that, I was a part of this. When I watched movies going through high school and I’m struggling with trying to figure out how to talk to a girl and I see movies that explore that same subject, I was learning.

I was learning that we all suffer through those things. Stories help you get through. Of course, there are more profound stories, there are big, spiritual stories, but even just the stories that explain to you what it’s like to live in the South during the Depression, or what it’s like to be an Okie trying to get out to California, those things can really widen your view of the world.

I knew a lot more about Europe from films until I was age 25 or 30. I didn’t get over there somewhere. I didn’t get a chance to see it. But I learned about cultures, I learned about people and places that were far from me, and it’s all I ever really wanted to do.

I wanted to be an actor for a while and then I wanted to be a writer, and I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I always wanted to be a part of this.

Tavis: And you are.

Magee: And I am. Very proud to be.

Tavis: An Academy-nominated part of this. (Laughter) The project is called “Life of Pi.” The screenwriter is David Magee. Congratulations on the nomination. Have a great time.

Magee: Thank you so much, Tavis.

Tavis: Nice to have you on.

Magee: A pleasure.

Tavis: Glad to have you on our program.

Magee: Good talking to you.

[Montage of scenes from “Life of Pi”]

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. You can download our new app now in the iTunes app store. I’ll see you back here next time on PBS. Until then, good night from L.A., thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

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Last modified: February 3, 2013 at 2:04 pm