Screenwriter David Magee admits he initially didn't think 'Pi' could be filmed

By KAREN BUTLER, United Press International  |  March 18, 2013 at 8:25 PM
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NEW YORK, March 18 (UPI) -- Screenwriter David Magee says he worked closely with director Ang Lee as he penned their big-screen adaptation of Yann Martel's Indian fable "Life of Pi," which ultimately won four Oscars this year.

The story about an Indian teen who survives 227 days on a boat with a Bengal tiger, lost on the Pacific Ocean after a shipwreck, was nominated for 11 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director for Lee and Best Adapted Screenplay for Magee.

Lee won the directing accolade and the film scooped up the prizes for Best Cinematography, Visual Effects and Original Score. Although it lost the Best Picture and Screenplay prizes to "Argo," "Pi" earned more Oscars than any other single movie.

Newcomer Suraj Sharma plays the title character as a teen, while Irrfan Khan plays Pi as an adult. The tiger, which Pi named Richard Parker, is a masterful creation of computer-generated animation.

Asked how Lee's visual style matched what Magee imagined as he was writing, the scribe told United Press International at a New York press conference that took place before the film's release last fall: "That's interesting.

"You know, we had so many conversations along the way that I got a sense of what it was going to be as it evolved," Magee explained. "For instance, in the storm sequence, the shipwreck, my initial description of it stuck very closely to what was in the novel. ... But when Ang read what I wrote, he said: 'Here's what I want to happen. I want him to go under the water and hang there and he looks up and he sees a hippo.' And he would describe to me what he had in mind and then I would write it. So, I had the advantage of having him describe to me what would work in the scene. ... It was a back and forth process. So, by the time the actual shooting happened, there were, obviously, surprises. Things I thought were wonderful. But I had a sense of what the dynamic of the scenes were going to be, which isn't always the case."

Magee recalled reading the 2001 novel shortly after it came out, but he confessed he originally thought the beautiful, philosophical and spiritual book was unfilmmable.

"The first time I read 'Life of Pi,' I was still on the set of 'Finding Neverland' many years ago where I had no stake in [a 'Pi' adaptation] at that point at all. A friend gave me the book. I loved it," Magee told reporters. "And I said to Mark Forster, who was directing ['Finding Neverland:'] 'I just read a great book. You should pick it up.' And he said, 'Is it a movie?' And I said, 'No, it's too hard to do, but it's a good story.' And I forgot about it until about 3 1/2, 4 years ago when my agent called and said, 'Have you ever read "Life of Pi"?' And I said: 'Wonderful book. Kind of a hard one.' And he said: 'Ang Lee is interested in doing it. Would you be interested in talking to him?' And I said: 'Absolutely! That would be a great film to do.' So, that was how I got on board."

Magee said he met with Lee and as they talked they found common themes they identified with in the novel.

"One of the challenges of this book -- and there are many -- is it is a boy and a tiger alone on a boat for the second act and it is very important in film that you tell a story through action as much as through dialogue and, in this particular case, there would not be a whole lot of dialogue since the tiger is not responding to Pi," Magee noted.

"So, when we were thinking about the second act, in particular, we decided that what we would do is try to write it, first of all, without any dialogue and focus on the actions. What is it that Pi does that shows us what emotional journey he is going through? Because it can't just be a series of obstacles he overcomes ... We have to see how he changes as a person as a result of this journey."

"Life of Pi" is now on DVD and Blu-ray. The discs include a making-of documentary and slideshow of the film's storyboards, as well as a featurette about how the creative team worked with real tigers and their trainers to get the feline character of Richard Parker to look so real.

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