Adapting Yann Martel’s acclaimed novel Life of Pi to the screen may seem like a daunting task. David Magee, the Semel Chair of Screenwriting at Emerson, said he felt the pressure.
“It’s like you’re waiting for everyone to say ‘This can’t be done,’” said Magee, 50, who teaches this semester’s Advanced Screenwriting Workshop.
But it was done—Magee’s Life of Pi script has been nominated for the Academy Award in Writing (Adapted Screenplay). Magee had already been nominated for an Academy Award once for his work as screenwriter for 2004’s Finding Neverland.
Life of Pi follows an Indian zookeeper’s son who, after surviving a shipwreck, is forced to spend 227 days on a boat with a newly freed tiger. Magee said projecting this bestseller to a movie-going audience was difficult at times.
“It’s tough because people are often familiar with the original material, and they expect it to mirror the book they remember,” he said.
To foster the same appeal of the original piece, Magee collaborated heavily with director Ang Lee on the production of the script.
Even before Magee was catching the eye of the Academy with his scripts, the Michigan native, who holds a degree in Theater Directing and Design from Michigan State University and a Master of Fine Arts in Acting from the University of Illinois, always had a fervid interest in writing. Upon completing his education, Magee said he adopted a lifestyle very common to newly graduated performing arts majors.
“I went out into the world and did theater and had a fantastic time but earned no money,” he said. Since regional theater and local acting jobs couldn’t pay the bills on their own, Magee made up for the difference by working as an an audiobook narrator and booking occasional voice-over jobs.
It was during this time in the artist’s life that he was still cautious about sharing his writing with others, Magee said. His apprehensions quickly faded, however, after he stumbled into a job as a non-fiction and novel abridger that he maintained for five years, during which he said he wrote approximately 85 abridgments. The constant exposure to literature proved to be pivotal for the young Magee who began sharing and receiving attention for his plays and screenplays
“After dealing with the work of so many writers, you can’t feel precious about your own work anymore,” Magee said.
He studied dramatic literature extensively in school and said he read nearly every play he could get his hands on.
“I always had a knack for writing, but I never studied it as a craft with teachers or experts. I just dove into all the books I could,” he said. Magee also said his experience as an actor helped him craft realistic dialogue.
Magee joined the visual and media arts department this semester. He first developed a relationship with Emerson through a program run by The Writer’s Guild, which provides college film students with mentors who have expertise in screenwriting. Using Skype and email as a virtual classroom, Magee has formed a strong connection with his Emerson mentee, and the college’s interest in Magee snowballed from there. He now serves as a screenplay instructor for 12 upperclassmen, all of whom had to submit writing samples in order to gain a spot in the class. Magee said that he benefits as much from teaching the class as his students do from attending.
“The reason I teach and do workshops and seminars is that it forces me to articulate why I do things the way I do by revisiting the same lessons over and over on a deeper level,” he said.
Dan Kahan, a junior visual and media arts major, said he elected to take the class specifically because Magee was instructing it.
“If you have the chance to work with an Academy Award nominee, do it,” said Kahan, whose screenplay focuses on zombies. “I had read Life of Pi when I was in high school and I thought it was a difficult book to get through. … It was said for a while that making Life of Pi into a movie was impossible —and David Magee did that, and I think to do that takes a superior level of screenwriting ability.”
Senior Luke Durett said he was only vaguely familiar with Magee when he enrolled in the screenwriting class. However, he took it upon himself to check out Magee’s work.
“I had seen Finding Neverland before, and decided I should probably see Life of Pi, even though I hadn’t read the novel,” said Durett, who is writing a “raunchy teen comedy.” “I was really impressed with how he was able to get you into the mind of Pi.”
Woods can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.