David Magee
“Normally I'm sitting in a room by myself panicking, but this time there were the two of us panicking.”
God Is in the Details
David Magee recounts the incredible journey he took with Ang Lee from Chinatown to Maine to southern India to adapt the screenplay for Life of Pi.

Written by Denis Faye

(February 15, 2013)

You think the bestselling novel Life of Pi was a fantastical tale? Wait until you hear about the guy who adapted it for the screen.

“So often what I do as a screenplay writer, I thank the studio for their notes and then sit in a room by myself for weeks and weeks,” explains David Magee, detailing an experience most writers have been through many, many times.” It's very quiet and nerve-wracking and then finally you bring it out and you get more notes.”

But Life of Pi was different. Instead of months of freakish isolation, the scribe behind Finding Neverland and Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day found himself in constant collaboration with the film’s director, Ang Lee. “Each week we would go out to lunch in a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown and talk and then we'd go back to his flat and go through the themes that we were trying to capture, the possible story twists and turns that we could go through,” Magee says, “and I would go home and type up what we discussed and try my hand at sketching out a few scenes and then send them over to him and then the next week we would sit down again and go through it. The process was an evolution.”

If you think that sounds like fun, keep in mind that this powwowing only took place between the various field trips to, among other exotic locales, India.

Magee chatted with the Writers Guild of America, West Web site about a unique screenwriting experience that was, for once, way more fun than being trapped out at sea in a life raft with a hungry tiger.

The word “unfilmable” came up a lot when this book by Yann Martel came out. When you were pitching, did that come to your mind?

Photo: ©2012 Twentieth Century Fox
A scene from Life of Pi.

Absolutely. When I first read the book, I didn't think it was filmable. I read it on the set of Finding Neverland and mentioned to the director that I'd just read this really good book. The first thing he asked – because directors do – was, "Is it a film?" And I said, "No, I don't think it is." There were a couple of reasons for that. First of all, I don't think the technology existed back 10 years ago to create a believable tiger on a boat in the middle of the ocean with a boy and, unless it's the last day of filming, you can't put a boy in a boat with a real tiger.

Ten years ago we were just seeing the possibilities of computer animation. The ability to use real footage of a tiger and match it with footage of an animated tiger that was so perfectly done that you couldn't tell the difference is astounding.

On top of that, the opening of the book is very philosophical; it has a lot of religious themes; it's very lyrical and thoughtful and episodic, and it's very difficult to see what the narrative is of a film. What series of actions will reveal this kid to you so you go along on the journey with him without feeling like you're listening to a comparative religion lecture? So those two things made it very difficult to film. The entire second act is a boy on a boat with a tiger, which is very dramatic if you can do it on the big screen and see the majesty of the waves and all of that, but trying to convey the story, the action, the unfolding of this boy's inner thoughts as he goes on this long journey and how he changes over the course of that journey, became a real challenge.

And how did you go about making that happen?

I had the luxury of working with Ang Lee. Normally I'm sitting in a room by myself panicking, but this time there were the two of us panicking. No, he was not panicking but there were the two of us in conversation. I don't think either of us knew how we were going to structure it or how we were exactly going to tell the story, but as we talked, as we handed things back and forth to one another and discussed it, we started to find the tone of it.

The massive scope of what you were writing, was your personal process different from your previous, much smaller films?

Absolutely. The themes and the locations, the backstory of these characters, it was all much larger than what I dealt with on Finding Neverland or Miss Pettigrew. Just coming to understand the differences in the Hindu religion versus Islam versus Christianity and how those different things would be expressed involved a heck of a lot of research. We went to India and went to various temples to try and absorb as much as we could of the world of Hinduism. We went to zoos all over India to get a sense of the kind of world Pi grew up in. There was a lot of research to be done, not dry research, book research, but really trying to get a sense of what a Hindu boy's life would be like growing up so far from Western influence that it was almost unrecognizable when I first got there.

What about writing all the action and the boat sinking and all that business?

Oh, sure. The first field trip that Ang and I took came about when my nephew mentioned to me that there was a book by a guy named Steven Callahan called Adrift about his experience being shipwrecked in a sailboat and ending up in a five-foot circular inflatable raft for 76 days. He floated across the Atlantic in this boat. I found out that Steven lived up in Maine and Ang and I went up to meet with him and ask him what his experience was, what his thoughts were as he was floating adrift on the ocean and lots of questions about how it affected him spiritually.

He actually became our advisor on the film, one of our many advisors on the film when it came to survival on boats. Things that you should and shouldn't do, what your skin looks like when it's been exposed to salt water for days, what the sky looks like at certain times of day in different parts of the ocean. How the waves are affected by the seasons and the currents. He really knew all of that.

We also had other experts to bring in on that sort of thing. So as we were developing the script I was learning much more than I ever thought I would about what fish belong in what parts of the ocean and how they behave. I had no idea that fish congregate around floating boats out in the water. They actually form a little ecosystem underneath boats because things are growing on the boat which attracts smaller fish, which attract larger fish, which then becomes its own little ecosystem. So that was incorporated into the writing of the script.

How about the 3D aspect of the film, did that have any play in the screenwriting process at all?

It did to the extent that I was talking with Ang every week about how I thought a scene might play, and then he was saying, "That's wonderful," or, "We want to change that," or, "Let's adjust it because here's an idea that I have visually that we could do with that at this point."

I would come to him with, say, the shipwreck sequence and say, "Okay, here are the beats of the scene, here's how Pi changes from moment to moment” and Ang would say, "That's wonderful, now remember when Steven talked to us about how the water looks from underneath, like wrinkled bed sheets when there's lightning? Let's put that in."

And I’d say, "Oh, okay. Well since we have it from underneath, let's have Pi fall into the water, and he sees it."

Then he’d say, "Okay, that's wonderful and remember the animals are out there so let's imagine the animals swimming around him."

So we would be developing the visuals as we were writing out the story beats and Ang was certainly very conscious of the fact that this was all to be done in 3D, and he was learning the possibilities of that as he went along. It was new to both of us. I can't honestly say that I was being influenced to write in a different way because it was going to be 3D, but I know that Ang's ideas for visual moments were influenced by the fact that he was thinking spatially rather than on a two-dimensional picture frame.

Life of Pi is similar to Finding Neverland in the sense that it’s from a writer’s perspective and there's a kind of a distortion of reality. Is that a coincidence or is that something you're drawn to? Or is it something that the studios thought, “Oh, he's good at that”?

I don't know if anyone consciously went, "Hey, Magee's the guy for this because he does that stuff with writers and fantasy."

When I first started writing it, I thought of it as a wholly separate kind of story. As we got into the second draft or something, and I began reading what we were doing I realized that there were tremendous thematic similarities between Finding Neverland and Life of Pi. They're both very much about storytellers who shape the world in their own particular way in order to kind of organize the chaos of their lives. I responded very strongly to that in both of them. I don't know that that was conscious, but it certainly was something that attracted me to the material in both to begin with.

This is a bit of a spoiler question, but Pi tells two different stories about the events that unfold. When you were writing, did you view one as the truth?

I – we – very definitely didn't want to have one story win out. Now let me do the more guarded version of that, and that's to say that this is very much a film about storytelling and how different religions see the world in different ways. Atheists see the world different than Christians see the world. Hindus see the world different from Muslims. This is very much a story about a journey where Pi sees the world in a very unique way and he has trouble convincing people at the end that that's the way the world is. I hope that this movie is something of a Rorschach test for people where when they leave the movie theater they might come to their own conclusions about what Pi really experienced out there, but it reflects more their own worldview than it forces them to see the world the way we think they should.

Pushing that a bit further, did you have a way that you thought reality really happened on the boat or did you keep that open in your mind as you were channeling his character?

I'm sure Ang and I both have our own kind of personal take on this story just as we have our own personal take on spirituality or what we believe or don't believe, but as we were writing this story, we were writing Pi's story, and we wanted to keep as open an interpretation about what happened on that journey as possible. I very much wanted you to leave the theater as open to those possibilities as I was trying to be.

It really sounds like you got to go above and beyond writing this script.

Absolutely. It was a big journey for all of us.