Film versions of popular books always generate debate, but the general consensus regarding Ang Lee's film of Yann Martel's Life of Pi is that it's done a brilliant job of evoking the widely-read 2001 novel.
I haven't read the book, but I absolutely loved the film, which confidently fused beauty; wonder and drama in a manner far too rare in modern cinema. It's especially impressive considering the rocky road the project had to the big screen, with previously planned adaptations from M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense); Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men) and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie) all aborted along the way.
Chronicling the amazing story of a young man stuck on a liferaft with a Bengal tiger following an epic shipwreck, the film was written by Oscar-nominated screenwriter David Magee (Finding Neverland). Magee was recently in Wellington, where I got a chance to talk to him.
Before we got into Life of Pi, I asked the genial Michigan-born fifty-year-old how he got into screenwriting. He gave one of the coolest answers I've ever heard to this oft-asked question:
"I began as an actor and I narrated audiobooks to make a living," he told me. "They do the full-length and the abridged versions of those and I realised one day that one of the abridged ones I was working on was awful and said 'I can do better than this' to the producers and they said 'Would you like to try and we'll pay you?'. So I got a job as an abridger of novels. I abridged over 80 novels over the course of five years. It's taking a book that's 100,000 or 200,000 words and trimming it down to 29,500 words and three hours running time. Focusing on the action, focusing on the dialogue, trimming away the stage description and streamlining the plot. That was my training. It was wonderful training and I couldn't have planned it in a million years."
How could you not be a great screenwriter after that?
"I would go into meetings with studio people and they'd say 'Well, what do you want to write?' and I would say 'I want to write anything I can, but here's how I got started', and they would stack novels in front of me. It was a wonderful way to get into the business to just work on adaptations and I'm more than happy to keep doing it."
Magee became involved in the efforts to adapt Pi relatively late in the book's long development history, but he was already familiar with the source material.
"Ten years ago I was on the set of Finding Neverland and [director] Marc Forster was there and I had just finished the book and said 'You know, that's a good book'. He asked: 'Is it a film?' and I said 'No, I really don't think you could do it. It's just a boy in a boat in the water, I don't see it.' So I didn't give it any thought for the next six years. Then my agent called and said 'Have you read Life of Pi' and I said 'Oh yeah, that's a tough one, I gotta tell ya' and he said 'Ang Lee wants to do it' and I said 'I'm in! If anyone could do it it would be Ang, I'm dying to work with him, I'd love the chance.' So Ang and I met the next night for Japanese food and talked about it and we agreed that the big theme that was most important to us was the power of storytelling and how stories get us through the chaos of our lives and things like that. We were on the same page and at the end of the meal we said 'Alright let's do it!'.
"For the next several months I would write pages of notes about religion and philosophy and the possible structure and sketch out some scenes. I would send that stuff over to him and then we'd get together for lunch in the city and we'd hang out in his apartment and just talk through ideas and shuffle them around. And then I would take whatever we got from that meeting and go back and type some more."
Was it scary adapting a book so many called 'unfilmable'?
"I was fortunate because everyone said this couldn't be done, so what did I have to lose? Ang is also very generous with ideas. So I didn't feel intimidated working with him because he's very open and generous in the way he works. There came a point very early on when I was a little nervous, I saw how intimidating the project as a whole was going to be and I told Ang that I didn't know how to write it. And he shrugged and said "Neither do I!". And I thought 'Well, if the both of us can't figure it out, let's just try!'"
Life of Pi balances notions of literal reality against metaphorical truth with a deftness few big films achieve, was this aspect of the adaptation tricky for Magee?
"Well, yes. We had the advantage that Ang is a very meticulous director and his method of approaching this - while there is a hyper-realism to the quality of Pi's memory of the past, so the colours are more beautiful and vibrant and everything - he was very meticulous about grounding it in reality, so nothing is used on the boat that we couldn't actually find on those boats. We did incredible amounts of research into the behavior of tigers and all of that. So even when things seemed unbelievable on some level, because it is kind of magical realism, it was grounded in a reality so the audience could go along with it."
"The point for us was we get it to read as a realistic story so that you buy into it, and get those moments in and of themselves as believable as possible. And then allow for the possibility - by the order in which we tell it - for you to buy into it as allegory or myth. My dream is everyone goes out after the thing and disagrees about the movie."
The film is full of epic, expensive-looking set-pieces - I asked Magee how much he had to factor in the practicalities of shooting such things when writing the script.
"You can't think about it. The studios say this too, they always say 'Just write it and we'll figure it out.' They don't want you to limit your ideas on the page. And I don't have any real practical knowledge of how much something's going to cost. There's a particular shot that comes to mind whenever I talk about this: In the film there's a moment where Pi brushes aside meerkats with his legs. I had written a couple of moments when you see his legs in the script and the special effects supervisor asked if we could cut it down to just one shot or remove because everytime Pi's leg touches the meerkats, it's tens of thousands of dollars. It had to do with the way fur is generated in a computer and the way it touches a leg. I could never have guessed that. So we wrote whatever we wanted and then we started looking at realities and budgets and then we might have to cut X amount of money."
The young Pi in the story embraces a whole bunch of religions, a topic that doesn't often play well in mainstream cinema. Was this a concern for Magee?
"That was probably the hardest aspect for me going into the project because I wanted to do justice to the philosophical argument and the set up of this boy who embraces all these different stories, but I didn't want it to become a class in comparative religion. I didn't want it to feel like we were going to be lectured to. So we had the find the right tone that was humorous, playful and that you enjoyed meeting this kid because he had all these wide interests, without ever making you feel like we were forcing you to put on your scholars hat or your religious belief hat. That was a real challenge. "
All of Magee's works have been adaptations, but he is keen to write something original.
"I will be writing my own things coming. For a lot of years it was 'Do you wanna go off for six months to a year and write a spec script?' or 'Do you wanna take this project that's already set up?'. Now I'm getting more of an itch now to do my own thing."
His next projext is for TV though: "I'm working right now in television on a pilot that is based on some characters in a novel, but it's inventing the world and changing it dramatically. I'm excited about that. I can't tell you too much about it, but I hope you'll be seeing it a year from now. I'm hoping that goes, we'll see."
I ended by suggesting that Game of Thrones has opened up a whole new way to adapt novels.
"Yeah. I wish I found the Game of Thrones book before everyone else. But I didn't."
Life of Pi is in cinemas now. Seen it? Did you think it effectively evoked the book? Comment below!