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Writing ‘Life of Pi’: David Magee Talks the Mother of Adaptations

Writing 'Life of Pi': David Magee Talks the Mother of Adaptations

After ten long years of painstaking development, “Life of Pi” finally made it to the screen. And there were many times that Fox 2000 chief Elizabeth Gabler, who optioned it right after it was published, did not think that it would happen. Only when Ang Lee came along four years ago did it become possible. The device of using the older Pi (Irfann Khan) as the window into the story came from screenwriter David Magee, who was hired on the basis of his moving Oscar-nominated screenplay for the J. M. Barry biopic “Finding Neverland.” (See also our interviews with Ang Lee, rookie actor Suraj Sharma, and the VFX supervisor.)

“Finding Neverland,” Gabler explains, “was a really good sample of the kind of work we needed to look at for this kind of screenplay. First of all, it was a good adaptation, it had adult and child protagonists, it was mystical to a large degree, very dramatic and emotional. So I said, ‘What about Dave Magee?'”

It turned out that Lee and Magee had almost worked together two years before on a project. After the rights fell through it never happened, but Lee had wanted to work with Magee ever since. Lee lived in SoHo and Magee in New Jersey, so the hands-on director had easy access to his writer.

So theater-grad/actor-turned-screenwriter Magee took on the challenging adaptation. He credits his work as a voice actor on books on tape for turning him into a screenwriter adept at adaptations. He’d often record both the full-length and abridged versions of books, and began to feel he could do better. So he wound up abridging 80 books over five years. “That became training in structure,” he says. “I worked on some great books and truly awful books, which all had to be cut from 100-300,000 to 29500 words to be read in a three-hour period.”

Most screenplays boast about 35,000 words. These shortened scripts were stripped of their descriptive passages and heavily reliant on dialogue, says Magee: “They focus on good action.” His transition came at a professional workshop where actors, writers and directors tried things out. They mounted workshop member Allan Knee’s play “The Man Who Was Peter Pan” in the Hamptons. (That play spawned not only the movie adapted by Magee but a new musical version of “Finding Neverland,” which recently opened in the UK.)

Miramax was tracking Knee’s play and acquired Magee’s adaptation. Harvey Weinstein spent a year and half looking for director until  after Marc Forster’s film “Monster’s Ball” hit big, only then did Weinstein approve the director, who was one of the earliest people interested in “Neverland.” The film scored seven Oscar nominations including picture, screenplay and actor Johnny Depp. The writer has been busy writing TV and movies, including “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.”

Lee first met with Magee 3 1/2 years ago at a sushi restaurant. “We had a great conversation,” he recalls. “He ended the meal by saying, ‘okay then, let’s do it.’ He can say that.” They’d hang out at out at Lee’s Soho loft and throw around ideas and talk through scenes.

Anne Thompson: What is the source of the movie’s emotion?

David Magee: “The entire second act of a boy on a boat with a tiger is not just dealing with the conflict between them. We had to find a way to express what’s going on with Pi’s inner journey. We used voiceover of him looking at journal  We tried a number of different things. We wrote the second act silent, with ouches and grunts and groans. But it was apparent that certain things were not coming out, the emotional and physical strain of it, we were not getting his coming of age, the realization that his relationship with the tiger changing who he was, so we had to find a way to do that.”

Steven Callahan wrote the book ‘Adrift’ about his true experience 69 days at sea in a lifeboat. We tracked him down in Maine and talked to him about what his experience was like. We learned that he was a sailor; for him the only way to stay sane was to focus on the details of his journey even though he couldn’t control where the boat was going: measure speed, latitude, the part of ocean. He kept a meticulous journal in his survival manual, writing with the smallest letters. That became a jumping-off point, the writing notes in the survival manual. Without words to hang onto he was lost, he would lose his mind. Reading aloud became Pi’s secret voiceover.

AT:  How did you come to using the book-end structure?

DM:  We could potentially have done without the book ends. We debated endlessly leading up to preproduction, shifting things around and trying different ways see if another way would work better. In our first dinner Ang and I had agreed on one thing immediately: this was a story about storytelling, it’s about religion, how stories get you through life. When we settled on that, it was important that Pi is telling his story to a writer. If we had young Pi relating to investigators, everything he told had an emotional context. He had just survived this, had just undergone this ordeal, and it would still be the same story. We wouldn’t have the story told by the man who has had years to reflect on it, has distant perspective, but still tells it with this ornate detail. That was important to both us.

Ang came up a conceit for the way we developed the first and third act. We split the page down the middle, everything going on in the apartment as he’s telling the story, and on the other side everything going on in India ages ago. We rearranged both sides of the page find in different ways to play the imagery off the narration and go back and forth freely. The second act was silent, while the first act we flow back and forth between the two worlds and return to that to some extent in the end. Further into production, certain visuals weren’t necessary and were dropping off, the same thing with the voiceover of less important narration. We tried to pare it down to essentials. In the second act we use as little dialogue as possible. In the first act essential things in the modern story begin the journey.

AT: How did you find the right balance for the spiritual themes in the story?

DM: Spiritual things in context were very difficult to lay out simply. We wanted the film to be about that, but we didn’t want to turn it into a lecture about comparative religion. It was important to us, as Martel says in the book, that an atheist has a story he believes in too. We weren’t taking sides on which religion, not trying to prove God exists, or what we care about. Everyone uses a different narrative to get through life. The ending is a Rorschach test asking you to respond to the movie. It says more about how you view the world than how Pi does. He is religious character but that doesn’t mean you have to accept the story the way the writer does.

AT: Did you change Cannibal Island from the book?

DM: Cannibal Island is among other strange things in the book that we worked hard to accommodate. Movies tend to vanilla down. Some of the more difficult scenes in the book were tempting to ignore. We tried the island 900 ways. There is a scene of meeting a  French chef who goes blind on the ocean, the chef climbs aboard to attack Pi, the tiger devours the chef. We could not fit that into the movie, it was too jarring. We didn’t want to give away the ending of the movie via the commonality of the two stories, also cannibalism was not a PG-13 moment.

We felt as though Pi’s journey and becoming unhinged as a result of what he’s been through made it entirely possible for an audience to accept a world that seemed to be getting stranger and stranger, with bizarre characteristics. We didn’t worry about the audience accepting him on the journey because he had gone through so much, it was about gradually finding yourself in this world. By the time we got to Cannibal Island we felt the audience could stay with us as things got really strange in the third act.

AT: Were you on location during filming?

DM: I was intimately involved in Taiwan during preproduction as Ang did scene work with Suraj Sharma and did rewrites up to when production began. There were 100 days of shooting; it was a great machine that had to roll forward with lots of shots in the wave tank, there was no need to be there for that. I disappeared during actual shooting. I came back for the rough assembly, screenings, and rewrites as we were trying to shape the film into what it became until it played at the New York Film Festival.

I did a lot of work with editor Tim Squyres, it’s astounding what he did with the tiger, it was hard to know which shots were the tiger and which ones were made-up. I forget someimes that there was a stuffed animal on board. They replaced it with the CGI.

AT: (SPOILER ALERT) Why is the moment when the tiger leaves him so moving?

DM: We talked about this for months. We were careful not to say anything that cheats the audience. We don’t want to give it away. Pi’s journey is about being raised in a zoo in a safe environment where everything is taken care of, and he believes in God, he goes on a journey that tests his will and his strength. The closest parallel you’ll find is his relationship to that tiger is much like his relationship to God over the course of journey. The beast that was safe and majestic in the zoo becomes frightening. Pi has to come to terms with his relationships. His father taught him that the tiger is not your friend no matter what you see in his eyes. The tiger is your enemy, the tiger is of a different nature, because you build a relationship with a tiger doesn’t mean the tiger is your pal who hangs around you. That is the journey he has.

Pi says, ‘God brought me to this island, when I had begun to give up, at my last, God took me to this place and saved me. And he told me go on my way again.’

The story Martel told invites people who don’t believe in God, if that’s the better story, that’s what happened, what’s most important is to take from this. We’re all different. We’re all creating narratives to come to understand that larger universe we can never know fully. So we come up with imperfect stories to try and express it.

AT: How did the movie change over test screenings?

DM: We saw that audiences didn’t understand this or that nuance of things, or we hit this too hard or not hard enough.  We tightened it, which of Pi’s adventures on the seas to include. Some were fun but didn’t serve the purpose of furthering the story. Gradually it got tighter and took shape after two or three test screenings.

AT: What cultural sensitivity did Ang Lee bring to this?

DM: He’s capable of such a wide range of storytelling, from ‘Sense and Sensibility’ to ‘Brokeback Mountain’ to ‘Lust, Caution.’ It’s not the genre question, he’s capable of working in any one of those genres. What made him good for this story is his sense of heightened reality and wonder. It has to be grounded in meticulously believable reality. There’s an incredible amount of detail he thinks about when putting together his films. We had worked with Steven Callahan to figure out the wind speed on any given day, where the sun would be, what the waves would look like, where in the Pacific Ocean. The audience doesn’t need to know any of that. The accuracy that brings to the project as a whole gives it a believability you’re not going to find when someone is concerned with flash first and reality later.

He has the perspective of someone who is not quite an outsider but stands at the edge of the crowd. He was raised with the Christian faith in Taiwan, but by the same token he has an understanding of Eastern culture including Indian culture, relationships between men and women going from religion down through daily custom, the formality in the way people speak to one each other. I had to break myself of my westernisms.

AT: Were you trying to make the film accessible to a global audience?

DM: This wasn’t so much about trying to appeal to audiences as it was to make sure a complicated story seemed effortless. There are those people who are fundamentalist in their faith and their atheism, who have trouble with film because it opens up the door of possibility that other faiths have validity. In that sense it’s a very open movie, it accepts a wide range faith and no faith.

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