Life of David Magee

Life of David Magee

The actor-turned-screenwriter talks about the challenges of adapting Life of Pi on screen and how Bollywood screenwriters should focus more on developing an idea.

The actor-turned-screenwriter talks about the challenges of adapting Life of Pi on screen and how Bollywood screenwriters should focus more on developing an idea

Making a film on the ocean is difficult. Making a film with a boy at the ocean,very difficult. And making a film with a Bengal tiger is impossible,” quipped David Magee,when he first got a call from filmmaker Ang Lee to write the screenplay for the bestselling novel Life of Pi. Lee,however,convinced him over a couple of dinner meetings and Magee came on board.

Given that it is one of the best-selling books of our time,it was important for Magee — the writer of Finding Neverland (2004) and

Miss Pettigrew Lives for A Day (2008) — to capture the emotional quotient of the book in his screenplay. He wrote the first draft,after which he visited India to meet survivors of an actual shipwreck. Over time,he polished the draft and made several additions and subtractions. “It took me one and a half years to present it in totality,” says Magee,whose favourite portion of the book is the ending.


Life of Pi is a fantasy adventure novel by Yann Martel,in which the protagonist Pi Patel,an Indian boy from Pondicherry,spends 227 days stranded on a boat in the Pacific Ocean with a Bengal tiger,after a shipwreck. Magee’s biggest challenge was to decide on the narrator in the screenplay. He says,“In the book,there are Japanese investigators who question Pi on his survival and there is also an author who interviews Pi. Initially,I was thinking of narrating the story from their point of view. But eventually,I decided to narrate from the older Pi’s point of view. I thought his reflection on the event after several years would have the right perspective.”

Magee also made sure that the first part of the screenplay,much like the book,would be high on spirituality but not preachy,while the second part would focus on the emotional bond between Pi and the tiger. “There are very few times when Pi actually talks to the tiger.

I had to make the silence work,” says he.

Magee,who has been a screenwriter for almost eight years,started out as an aspiring actor. “I was a stage actor who earned very little money. To supplement my means,I took to doing voice-overs on the radio. During that time,there was a trend of recording abridged versions of popular novels. I took it up and I thought I was quite good at it,” says he. This led to Magee also writing his own scenes in plays. One day when he was performing on stage,producer Nellie Bellflower was in the audience and soon after,he approached Magee to write for Finding Neverland. “Acting was perhaps the wrong profession for me,” he smiles.

Looking at Magee’s filmography,one gets a sense that he loves to explore period settings through his writing — be it exploring the life of JM Carrie,the creator of Peter Pan in Finding Neverland,or Miss Pettigrew (based on a 1938 novel of the same name) that talks about the life of a British spinster. “I love to write on anything that moves me and on many occasions I translate my real-life emotions into the screenplay. For instance,while I was writing Finding Neverland,a story of a family who had lost a father,I was going through personal turmoil where my father was unwell,” says Magee,who is currently working on a film about Jim Hensen,the creator of Muppets and an animated film on whales for Dreamworks.

Currently in India to conduct screenwriting workshops,Magee seems happy with the way Bollywood has grown over the years. “In Hollywood,we work on the script much before the actors and directors are finalised. There are times when a whole script is junked. Bollywood works a little differently. If I had to make a suggestion,it would be to spend a little more time on their ideas,” he says.