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Why 'Life of Pi' Screenwriter David Magee 'Was Absolutely Terrified' (Q&A)

The twice-Oscar nominated scribe, appearing at Sunday's WGA Awards, spoke to THR about his unique collaboration with Ang Lee, which included Chinatown lunches and trips to India.

Life of Pi in Calm Sea - H 2012
Twentieth Century Fox

David Magee spent decades knocking on the door of the movie industry, working to figure out his best path of entry; he was an actor, a novel abridger, and finally, took a crack at screenwriting. That he was on hand at the WGA East Coast Chapter's Awards ceremony in New York on Sunday, just the latest stop in a whirlwind winter that will culminate in six days with his second Oscars ceremony, makes it clear that he's found his place in Hollywood.

The 50-year-old writer's latest hit is more than an awards mainstay: It's a work thought to have been impossible, the against-the-odds big-screen version of the novel Life of Pi. Borne of a close collaboration with director Ang Lee, the screenplay made visual the intangible, translating Yann Martel's book about a boy and his tiger simultaneously lost at sea and exploring the cosmos in search of dry land and a spiritual haven to save body and soul.

Years after Magee initially thought it couldn't be done, Life of Pi is considered a technical 3D marvel, has made $564 million worldwide and has earned eleven Academy Award nominations, including one for best adapted screenplay. Magee, nominated for that same award at the WGAs, lost to awards juggernaut Argo.

STORY: WGA Awards: 'Zero Dark Thirty,' 'Argo' Take Top Screenplay Honors

The Hollywood Reporter: This was a book that they said couldn’t be adapted to film; were you terrified at the beginning of the process?

David Magee: I was absolutely terrified when I started it, except I had the luxury of working with Ang Lee. And my feeling was, if I couldn’t work it out with Ang Lee, who’s going to blame me? Who’s going to say, "Oh, they tried, they failed, they’re losers?" So about three or four weeks into the writing process, I did say to Ang, "You know, I’ve got to tell you, I don’t know how to do this." And he said, "Well, neither do I." And that was immensely freeing; I kind of felt, well look, we’re both just figuring this out, no one knows how to do it, so we just figure it out on our own. And if it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, I’ve had a chance to work with him, I’ve worked with a really great novel, and we’ll see.

THR: How closely did you work with Ang during the writing process?

Magee: I live in New Jersey, and he’s got an apartment here in the city, and what I would do is I would go off for a week, and I’d write notes and I’d write ideas and I’d do research and sketch out some scenes, and then I would send them to him the night before we met. And I’d come into the city, and we’d go down to Chinatown and have lunch together and we’d talk, and then we’d go back to his flat and we’d talk and we’d talk and we’d come up with new ideas. He’d say, "I like this, let’s go further with that, let’s work on this next week," and then I’d go away and I played. And that happened for several months. And then we went around -- we went to India together, we went to meet a survivor of a shipwreck together, we did all of that. It was a very close relationship throughout the entire process, from writing to production throughout the editing.

STORY: The Making of 'Life of Pi'

THR: How do you put down on paper something as visually grandiose as what this movie became?

Magee: Well, the advantage I had is I would take a scene, say when the shipwreck happens, and I’d say, "Okay, what I think happens is the zebra lands on the boat, and it breaks the davits and lands in the water." And he’d say, "Great, now what happens is the boat gets caught by the waves and gets turned over once, but because he’s holding on, he’s fine, and then he falls off and we see him floating underneath the water," and I’d type that up and say, "Okay, that’s great." And one of us would realize that we could do something else with the scene. Because we were going back and forth, I was in control of the action, the things that had to happen, and he would say, "That’s great, here’s the visual for it, here’s what I see happening to that." And I would type it up, and we would just keep rewriting it and rewriting it as we went.

THR: So did it not look like a traditional screenplay?

Magee: Well, when we originally wrote it, we decided we would do the modern-day scenes on the left-hand side of the page, and the past scenes on the right-hand side of the page. And we split the page down the middle, which was nightmarish, unless you’re really good with Microsoft Word columns, which is what I spent my time doing ... and that way, we could film both sides of the page in their entirety, and we could flip things around and try things in different places. As we refined the script and refined the script, it became very clear to us which things we were going to focus on as we went, and gradually the split page scenes got smaller and smaller. When we went into production, though, Ang continued to use the split-page script. But for production, you have to number scenes, and you have to tell the production team, what are we shooting today?

THR: What was the first screenplay you wrote, whether it got produced or not?

Magee: It was about a guy named James Barrie, who had these kids who became the inspiration for Peter Pan. It was called Finding Neverland.

THR: That was the first thing you ever wrote?

Magee: My first screenplay, yep.

THR: That’s a pretty good first effort.

Magee: It worked out. Worked out really well. I had been an actor for years, I had been an abridger of novels for years. I got the chance to write a film, and dumb luck, amazing luck -- I mean, I think I did a good job, but it was also everything happened in the right place at the right time and it became Finding Neverland.

THR: So you never had just sat down at a computer years before and wrote stuff you threw out?

Magee: Oh, god no. I’ve wanted to be in this business, I’ve wanted to be a storyteller or an actor or something since I was five years old. But I didn’t know if I wanted to be an actor or a writer or a director. I just wanted to be involved in some way, and I did it all the way through, and I was an actor for years, and I kept doing it and finally got that opportunity to write a screenplay. And it’s kind of like pushing on doors and saying, "Is this what I should be doing?" And then no, next door down. And I kept doing it until I finally found the writing, and it’s gone well for me.