Listening to Life of Pi Screenwriter David Magee
Lifting a Surreal Novel to the Big Screen
Nine years ago, screenwriter David Magee was on the set of Finding Neverland, the movie he wrote about J.M. Barrie and the uses of enchantment. “In the best of worlds, a writer doesn’t have anything to do on a set,” said Magee, “so I read this book a friend recommended called The Life of Pi. I liked it.” When asked by Neverland director Marc Forster if it could be a movie, Magee responded, “God, no,” feeling it was too strange, too episodic, and too much set on the water. He didn’t think about it for five years until his agent asked if he knew the book. “He said, ‘Ang Lee is interested in making it,’” recalled Magee, “and I said, ‘I’m in.’”
Of course, the process was fraught with difficulties springing from the book’s odd popularity, its densely philosophical opening pages, and all the expected challenges mentioned just above. But Magee was aided by Lee’s passionate involvement and the fact that no deadline hovered over the script-making. “People told him, ‘Whenever you’re ready, Ang,’” said Magee. After an hours-long sushi dinner conversation, the duo began a weekly process of meeting in Manhattan, comparing notes, and then retreating into sullen corners. They were still daunted. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to do this,’ and Ang said, ‘Neither do I,’” said Magee. “Curiously, that gave me a kind of courage.”
Traveling to India to scout locations, Lee made an almost casual remark that he saw protagonist Pi as a young adult telling larger-than-life stories. “It was something we both said a number of times, but that was the moment where everything clicked, and I started writing right there in the van,” said Magee.
Another huge problem lurked in the text’s ending, which twists in a way that makes many people scratch their heads. “We both always wanted this to somehow seem both a literal story and at the same time a kind of allegory,” said Magee, who believes that the book’s main point is promoting the power of storytelling. “Whether you are an Atheist or a Christian or a Buddhist, you always tell yourself stories when times get hard,” explained Magee. Other than that, their take on the god-or-no-god theme is neutral.
Nonetheless, he still gets people asking what his script meant, including some who even argue. “Most of the violent bad reactions have been when people believe the ending means something opposite of what they want it to mean,” he laughed, noting that the ambiguity is the point. “I’m not getting in the middle of a fight like that.”
Thankfully, most people like it, including the Oscar voters. “It’s crazy wonderful to get all these nominations,” he said. “We always believed in this film, but we are thrilled with the way the rest of the world has responded to it.”
David Magee is part of SBIFF 2013’s screenwriting panel on Saturday, January 26, 2 p.m., at the Lobero Theatre.