Editor’s note: This story about Academy Award-nominated screenwriter and University of Illinois alumnus David Magee was one of several vignettes about U. of I. alumni who work in the film industry that appeared in the 2016-2017 “On Campus” magazine.
Screenwriter David Magee started working in the entertainment industry as an actor. But while studying acting and earning a master’s degree from the University of Illinois Department of Theatre, Magee was laying the foundation to write.
“I was learning how to speak other people’s words and perform them, but unknowingly I was learning how to write. I was learning how find the voice of a character and put it on the page,” he said. “When I’m writing, I’m really improvising in my head and writing it down and figuring it out.”
Magee did a lot of theater, and he supported his acting with voiceover work, narrating audio books. That led to work abridging novels that would be recorded as audio books – his first work as a paid writer.
Magee abridged 80 novels and became skilled at reading story structure. He began writing plays and tried out some scenes at the 42nd Street Workshop in New York City, a venue for developing new plays.
An audience member, Nellie Bellflower, encouraged Magee to turn the scenes into a full play. He did, and after the play’s run, Bellflower asked Magee to write the screenplay for a story for which she held the rights – the story of J.M. Barrie, who wrote “Peter Pan.”
“After years of hanging out in the entertainment business, I happened to be talking to the right person at the right time,” Magee said.
The screenplay became the 2004 film “Finding Neverland,” and Magee was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Magee wrote the screenplay for “Life of Pi” (2013), which gave him the opportunity to work with director and U. of I. alumnus Ang Lee and earned Magee another Academy Award nomination.
“I did worry that it was going to be a difficult novel to turn into a film because so much of it is philosophical reflection that takes place on a boat,” Magee said. “There’s not a strong narrative structure. It’s someone sitting on a boat suffering. We had to find that narrative structure that would compel you to wonder what was going to happen next.
“It had a lot to do with his relationship with that tiger as he goes on his journey, and escalating attempts to come to terms with the tiger and master the tiger. It’s about the power dynamic changing over time, and you have to find a way to show the victories and defeats,” he continued. “Through that, you can show what he’s dealing with and how his emotions are changing.”
Magee would rather be writing screenplays than a novel.
“I started as an actor, which is not only extremely collaborative, but as a theater actor, where you get feedback as you perform. You’re performing for an audience and hearing what the audience is responding to,” he said. “To put myself in a room for half a year while I wrote a book sounded abysmal. The collaborative nature (of film and theater) is much more appealing to me. I enjoy what I do very much.”
Among his current projects is writing the script for a new Mary Poppins film, set 20 years after the original, as well as the script for “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Silver Chair,” the fourth film in the Narnia series.