Pi has taken out his pencil and now writes on the back page of his survival manual …
—David Magee, screenwriter of “Life of Pi”
Why isn’t David Magee British?
Between his Oscar-nominated screenplays for “Life of Pi” and 2004’s “Finding Neverland” — and one for the underrated “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” (2008) — you could be forgiven for expecting to hear out of Magee the plummy tones of, say, the very English Tom Stoppard.
Far from Stratford-on-Avon, Magee is a son of Flint-on-Flint, a Michigander in the Jeff Daniels mold. He’s approachable, sincere, proud but self-deprecating. Just listen to him talk about his previous ticket to the Oscar steeplechase with “Neverland”:
“I consciously didn’t write a speech, because ‘Sideways’ had consistently won absolutely every single award. And so in the week leading up to the Oscars, the thought of standing in front of a mirror practicing my speech felt icky.”
“Sideways” took home that night’s prize too, so at least he wasn’t caught off-guard, but the success of “Finding Neverland” — a film about Peter Pan creator J.M. Barrie, starring Johnny Depp — led, by Magee’s reckoning, to his transatlantic typecasting and his comfortable if narrow Hollywood box. A former audiobook abridger, he comes by the art of refining a screenplay naturally. Other early jobs included that ever-reliable metaphor for screenwriting, carpentry:
“I built theater sets, primarily, and it started as just a job. But any career begins with craft and moves toward something a little more … I always hate to use a word like ‘art.’ A screenplay has as much craft in it as it does self-expression and flights of fancy. We’ve thought very carefully and hard about how it’s constructed, just as you would think about how something is built.”
“Life of Pi’s” middle act, the evolving relationship between an orphaned boy and a Bengal tiger, plays out in a drifting lifeboat. The picture’s structure is picaresque. The story advances episodically, with the pair’s ever more visible rib cages the closest we come to a ticking clock.
Magee remembers reshuffling these sequences endlessly with director Ang Lee. Sequence itself — the placement of one scene after another in just the right order — consumes him. So much so that, when asked, he considers neither visual thinking nor dialogue the most important part of his job:
“I wouldn’t answer either of those. I would say the structure, the shape. Some people tell a good joke. They know how long to go before getting to the punch line. They don’t tell it out of order.
“This is not a great joke, so it may be a horrible example, but: Horse walks into a bar. Bartender says, ‘Why the long face?’ Now if a bad joke-teller tells that, he says, ‘A horse with a long face walks into a bar.’ You’ve killed it. Or it’s ‘A horse walks into a bar, it’s a Shetland pony, he’s got a nice brown coat ....’ If they tell too much information, they’ve ruined it.”
Different storytellers can tell the same story and still succeed, of course. The 1955 and 1978 versions of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” for instance, are both great movies. The screenwriter Jonathan Latimer may have made the original about the Cold War, whereas a confirmed San Franciscan like Phil Kaufman turns the remake into a parable of gentrification. But each screenwriter has brought something of himself to the material. Likewise, Magee sheepishly cops to a thematic signature common to all his films so far: imagination as the key to survival.
“When I first began with ‘Life of Pi,’ if you had said it was very like ‘Finding Neverland,’ I would’ve said, ‘You’re nuts. I have no idea what you’re talking about.’ And it wasn’t until we were very well into the writing period that I said, ‘Wait a minute. This is about a writer using stories and imagination to confront the ordeals that he’s facing’ — and it became kind of ridiculously obvious that I was doing a similar story.
“Now Ang may have had the foresight — I’ve never asked him — to go, ‘That’s why Magee’s the right one for this film.’ It wouldn’t have been beyond him at all to have seen that well in advance. But for me, it was a surprise. And I do think your voice comes out. At a certain point, it’s like getting used to looking at your face in a mirror: It’s still me. I can change the hair all I want, it’s still me.”