In Like Flint: Adapting Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

An Interview with Screenwriter of Life of Pi David Magee

When it comes to screenwriting, there are no set boundaries for age. Cameron Crowe was a teenager when he began writing. Nikki Reed wrote Thirteen when she was fifteen. And at twenty six years old, Josh Schwartz became the youngest screenwriter to ever create and run a network series when he wrote about The O.C.

On the flipside, Horton Foote, Oscar winning scribe of To Kill a Mockingbird, continued to write well into his 90s (Main Street).

Simply put, no two writers have the same DNA. Nor do they become screenwriters in the same manner.

David Magee

For Academy Award nominee, David Magee, the transition to screenwriting didn’t happen as a teenager, like Reed, or in his 20s like Schwartz. It evolved after many years as an actor, a voice over talent, a writer, and a playwright. And it all began in Flint, Michigan, in the 80s, where a teenaged Magee took tickets for film enthusiast, Michael Moore, at the East Village Cinema.

“Some weeks, we had a full house; especially if it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Other weeks, he would run a six-hour documentary, and it was just us!”

Upon graduation from high school, Magee left Flint to pursue acting as a career, attending Michigan State and subsequently, the University of Illinois for his MFA. He participated in Community Theater, like his father, and began doing voice-overs for English language books on tape, which gave way to a prolific career as an abridgement writer.

“I abridged over 80 books – fiction, non-fiction, best sellers, famous authors, obscure authors, romance novels, potboilers, bodice ripping ridiculous stuff – everything!”

During this time, Magee began experimenting as a playwright. Following the performance of his debut play (Buying the Farm) at a workshop in New York City, he met a local producer who was struggling to convert an optioned play into a feature length film. Impressed with Magee’s work, the producer asked if he would take a shot at adapting the play. The project was Finding Neverland (2004).

“From that very moment, I broke my acting habit,” recalls Magee.

The adaptation of Allan Knee’s play about the life and times of J.M. Barrie earned Magee Academy Award recognition, and it propelled him instantaneously into a full time, screenwriting career.

Afterwards, he went on to write the film version of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (2008) with Simon Beaufoy (Slumdog Millionaire), starring Amy Adams and Frances McDormand. Now, he takes on Yann Martel’s award winning novel, Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee.

“I’ve always been open to whatever helps a person put their life into perspective and whatever helps them on their journey,” says Magee. “Martel’s book is about that kind of openness, i.e. finding a narrative that puts your life into the correct perspective.”

For Flint native, David Magee, that narrative couldn’t be clearer.

SM    How did you first come to know Michael Moore?

DM    Well, when I was a  junior or senior in high school, he was running The Flint Voice and at the same time, running a local, independent movie theater called the East Village Cinema.

Every weekend he would run a Bergman or a Fellini or a documentary and charge three dollars a ticket. And a few of my closest friends and I would take tickets. He would literally bring the movie reels into the theater about a half hour before the film would start and we would stand outside and use the gray tin boxes to collect three dollars from everyone that came in. Some weeks, we had a full house; especially if it was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Other weeks, he would run a six-hour documentary and it was just us (Laughs).

But after high school, I didn’t see him for ages. I went off to college, became an actor, and did lots of other things. And it really wasn’t until Finding Neverland came out and I found myself at one of his events that we were able to reconnect.

It’s one of those strange crossings. I’m sure people who grew up in the same neighborhoods in New York and Los Angeles crossed paths similarly. But not many people in the industry come from Flint, Michigan.

SM    When did your love for the performing arts begin?

DM    It’s funny. My father was a lawyer who loved to do Community Theater. And I would go to the shows and sit back and be wowed by them. I remember thinking, ‘This fun thing that grownups do? I bet I can do it just as well!’

So, when school plays came up, I signed up for all of them. I was acting and wanting to direct and write from the time I was very young. But I didn’t know whether I was going to make it a career until sometime in my high school days. I went to Michigan State for undergrad and the University of Illinois for grad school to focus on acting.

SM    How did you transition from acting to writing?

DM    People always told me that I was a good writer. But it didn’t really sink in until one day, I wrote a scene for one of my classes. I remember I was so embarrassed I had written it myself, I didn’t want to make it known. Then, when we performed it in class, the teacher said to me: “You obviously have no idea what this writer is trying to say.”

At that moment, I took it as a sign that maybe I was a better writer than I was an actor?

I began to support my writing habit by doing voice-overs. I narrated audio books. English language books. And one day, I went into the studio and began reading one of the abridgements. It was really, really terrible. I felt so bad for the author and thought, I could do a much better job. So, when they asked if I wanted to give it a try, I said sure.

Over the course of the next 4 or 5 years, I abridged over 80 books – fiction, non-fiction, best sellers, famous authors, obscure authors, romance novels, potboilers, bodice ripping ridiculous stuff – everything!

In the meantime, I met my wife and realized I didn’t want to travel as much. So, I started writing plays just to see if I could do it. I tried out a play (Buying the Farm) at the 42nd Street Workshop and met Nellie Bellflower, who produced/directed it at a theater in East Hampton. Afterwards, she told me she had optioned someone else’s script from the workshop, but they didn’t know how to turn it into a movie. I said I could give it a try. And that turned out to be Finding Neverland.

From that very moment, I broke my acting habit. And have been working ever since as a screenwriter.

SM    In just a few sentences, how would you summarize Life of Pi?

DM    Life of Pi is an amazing story of survival and the power of storytelling. It’s about the stories we take from our experiences that help us get through life.

SM   What was your first impression upon reading Life of Pi?

DM   I thought it was a tremendous book when I first read it. In fact, I actually read it while we were filming Finding Neverland. And told the director (Mark Forster) I just read this wonderful book. But when he asked if it was a film, I remember saying: ‘No way. It’s too hard!’ (Laughs).

I just couldn’t see how to make it into a film. But I was completely fascinated by it.

SM    What changed your mind?

DM    It’s funny. When Ang Lee contacted me years later and asked if I’d be interested, I immediately said, ‘Yes, of course it’s a film!’ (Laughs).

But a few weeks into it, I told him ‘I’m not really sure how to do this.’ And he said, ‘Neither am I.’

That gave me the comfort to go on. And three years later, I’m happy to say, we’ve made it to completion.

SM    What specific challenges did you face adapting it?

DM    So much of it takes place in the mind of Pi as he goes on this amazing journey. And the greatest challenges were finding ways to communicate what he’s going through emotionally through action and his relationship with the tiger.

In a novel, you can have episodes from a person’s life that sum up who they are and what the character is all about. You can go through their head and listen to their thoughts as they go through things.

But in a film, you have a much shorter time to tell the story. The events have to thread together as a series of actions that take a person on a journey.

So, the first part of the story when Pi is in India became much more challenging, i.e. setting up who Pi is in a dramatic way.

It’s easy to flip through the book and set it aside when the pace is not right or you want to reflect on the emotions of a certain scene. But we had a limited amount of time to tell audiences who he was so the journey would have an impact, and we could get him on this boat. Introducing his world (India), the religious themes, and launching him on that journey, provided the greatest challenge.

SM    The book reminds me a little of The Old Man and the Sea. When writing, were you influenced by other maritime novels and films? Did you think of Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball?

DM    I was really afraid I would end up doing a volleyball scene! I did my best to avoid that. No slight to that movie; it’s a wonderful film, but you don’t want to rely on the solutions that other people have come up with; especially when they are very familiar to everyone. I wanted to avoid the obvious comparisons, even to The Old Man and the Sea, which is a brilliant book.

So, we did a lot of reading and research. The greatest influence was Steve Callahan. Right from the beginning, my nephew mentioned there was a book called Adrift by Steve Callahan about the real-life experiences of a man who was ship wrecked or set adrift in a life raft for 76 days, floating across the Atlantic.

Steve had gone to Europe for a sailboat competition with a woman who was more of a companion than an actual girlfriend. But they had a bit of a falling out. She decided to travel back on her own. So, he got in his boat and headed back to the States. As he was sleeping one night, he awoke to a loud thump and a crack. He thinks a whale surfaced and rammed the underside of his boat. So, as water gushed inside, he grabbed his supply bag and his inflatable raft just as the ship sank and floated across the Atlantic.

SM    And you met with him?

DM    Yes. Steve was more than willing to meet with us. Ang and I went up to Maine and went out on a boat with him. Then Ang got all these crazy ideas that Steve should take us out on a boat and leave us floating out on the ocean for a half a day or so, which I thought was a perfectly horrible idea! But Ang loves to experience things directly (Laughs).

SM    Did Steve work on the film during production?

DM    Yes. Steve became our marine consultant. And he was a tremendous help. Ang relied on him for very specific things like the look of the sky at different times of the day, the direction of the current, the types of things you would see on your journey, etc. And Steve actually mapped out everything on a great big chart in our offices.

Ang is very concerned about bringing as much truth and fact to the creative process so that when you go on the flight to fantasy, it’s grounded in something. Steve really played a big part in making that happen.

SM    Ang Lee is one of the finest directors around with a very elegant style. Very intimate, very honest. How close did you work with him on the script? And why was he the right director for this film?

DM    Ang is amazing, and he has a remarkable ability to be the right director for any genre. He was not necessarily designed to make this film. He did an amazing job with Sense and Sensibility and Brokeback Mountain – two films that couldn’t be more different.

At the heart of all of his films is a deep honesty about human emotion. He never takes the easy choice in approaching his subject matter. This film, in particular, would not have worked if someone came in and did a quick job of it.

His visual sense and ability to communicate with imagery is unbelievable. We would come up with ideas for how to play a scene in terms of action and then when I saw what he did with it, it took it to a whole new level. I was constantly astounded.

I feel like I’m saying he’s the most wonderful this and that, but it’s true. He’s an intensely dedicated director who lives with the material day and night while he’s working on a film. And we’ve been at it for three years.

No doubt, he will continue to tinker with it up until the last possible minute before the film goes out because that is the level of dedication that he brings. I’m sure there are other directors who are like him. It’s a personality trait that I certainly do not have, but all of the great directors do.

SM    What changes did you have to make to the story for the novel to come alive on screen?

DM    In the novel, Pi is younger. Not substantially younger. But he’s more or less twelve years old when he goes on his journey. In the film he’s much closer to seventeen. It was not convenient as a casting choice. We just felt that in order to complete the narrative of his life in India, you needed to see and think about a boy who had exposure to different religions and had a moment to realize that he had grown up in a zoo in a very isolated, safe environment. Then, he needed to have that first moment of disillusionment so that his emotional journey in dealing with his relationship with the tiger, his relationship with God, his relationship with everything around him was more of a process of discovery rather than a given.

If you’re an innocent child who believes from the very beginning that all gods are wonderful and everything is to be believed in without question, then there is no emotional journey for that character. For the book, it worked fine. But for us, we had to create that first taste of adolescent doubt so that there was something for him to overcome on the journey and confront in himself as he made his way across the ocean.

SM    Pi considers himself a convert to Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism. What can you tell me about the religious themes and the impact on your beliefs?

DM    I’ve always been open to whatever helps a person put their life into perspective and whatever helps them on their journey. Martel’s book is about that kind of openness, i.e. finding a narrative that puts your life into the correct perspective.

Interestingly, in the book, even an atheist perspective is a valid perspective. I think Martel has more trouble with the agnostic view because an agnostic doesn’t have the courage to choose a path.

When I say that storytelling is a major theme of the film, I think that openness about everyone finding the narrative that helps them on their journey is an interesting one. And it does reflect my own views as to how you should respect others’ beliefs and how you should find your own way on this journey of life.

SM    What is the main goal in adapting a novel?

DM    Everyone is familiar with Life of Pi. It won the Man Booker Prize and has been in lots of reading groups. So, you have to remain true to the major story. Of course, we added things and took some things away, but ideally, you want to create a film that feels like that same experience people had when they read the book for the first time. And they can’t remember whether it happened in the book or not.

For instance, you don’t really want to end the film differently, although years ago, they did an adaptation of The Scarlet Letter where Hester Prynne and the Reverend ended up getting married and lived happily ever after (Laughs).

But it doesn’t work out that way very often. The critics and the audience don’t want that. The people who are originally attracted to the movie are coming because they loved the book. And you have to be true to the essence of the source material.

Mark Sells is a nationally recognized film and entertainment journalist for The Reel Deal. In addition to Script, he has contributed to The Oregon Herald, MovieMaker Magazine, Moving Pictures, 303, Denver Magazine, and Film International, and can be heard weekly on 100.3 FM The Sound (Los Angeles), providing the latest in movie news and reviews. Check out ‘The Reel Deal’ on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

 

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2 thoughts on “In Like Flint: Adapting Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

  1. JenNodine

    I can really identify with a large amount of what Magee reveals in this interview…I, too, became enamored with acting during my late childhood & teenage years as a result of my mother’s involvement with community theater. I used to help her learn her lines, and because she was a single mom I attended all the rehearsals – and learned EVERY character’s lines from hearing them repeated about a thousand times. (I also used to pretend I was in the play and rehearse various roles using her Playbills.) The people we met through theater were some of the best human beings I have ever known, and that was another factor that attracted me to it, too. Eventually, she acted with Yale Repertory Theater and from that venue, moved onto other roles involved in production, “behind the scenes”. Oh what magic happens in a live performance! Unfortunately, I found out in college that I could not overcome my own stagefright to perform before an audience. I was great throughout the semester and throughout the class play’s rehearsals (for which I had been given a significant supporting role). Opening night, I was so terrified to perform that I lost my dinner backstage right before I went on – and that feeling did not subside. I almost blew off the 3 remaining nights’ shows after it, but forced myself through them, and after the final performance i promised myself never to act again. Then I spent 20 years in mortgage banking – talk about a 180!
    I have also received many compliments about my writing abilities but never really thought much about it until recently, when I decided that mortgage lending would never again give me the sense of purpose and benefit to others that it once did. There was just no going back after I realized recently that I had unknowingly participated in a system designed to enslave people to a lifetime of debt under the guise of “The American Dream”, and worse, that what I sold to good, hard-working people as the pursuit of this dream, in reality turned out to be some of my clients’ most horrific nightmares to endure.
    The other similarity between us is our reaction to reading “Life of Pi”. The book had been a birthday gift from my mom about 8 – 10 years ago and became my immediate all-time favorite from my lifelong love affair with reading. I, too, thought it would be very hard to make into a film but at the same time, some of the book’s imagery was so beautiful, and the story so compelling, that I knew it could be masterful if it ever were. BUT – I never thought it would happen since no one else seemed to hear of it! When I would try endorsing it to friends they would look at me funny when I told them the title; and even funnier when I told them it was about a boy and a tiger lost at sea in a lifeboat.
    I’m thankful that a small group of people who were in the position to adapt this book into a film brought this unique and fantastic story to the masses. It really is a story worth sharing & knowing.

  2. Daniel Delago

    This is one of the best interviews with a screenwriter that I’ve read in a long time. Why is it so good? You really get a sense of David Magee’s unique journey to becoming a successful writer. From his early days tearing tickets at Michael Moore’s art house theatre in Flint, Michigan to his job abridging over 80 books. You also discover that Magee doesn’t have one pretentious bone in his body like so many younger screenwriters who hit pay dirt early in their careers. His success didn’t happen overnight, he learned the craft of storytelling from being a playwright first. And lastly, when he got the ‘Life of Pi’ writing assignment, he did the necessary research to make his script pop and be unique.

    Thank you, Mark Sells.

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