A self-described Midwestern boy from Michigan, screenwriter David Magee is frequenting Hollywood these days. Magee, who actually started as an actor and later honed his writing skills doing novel abridgments, scored both Oscar and Golden Globe nods for his “freshman” feature-length script, Finding Neverland. Now he awaits the release of his “sophomore” effort, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, starring Amy Adams and Frances McDormand, which he calls a lovely, light comedy.
He recently met with MM at the Border’s cafe where he first tapped out cinematic yarns on his laptop, and spoke about his quick success, doing adaptations and the creative challenges faced by today’s screenwriters.
Julie Jacobs (MM): How did you come to write Finding Neverland?
David Magee (DM): I was doing a workshop that was a collective of actors, directors and writers. People would bring in new scenes they were working on and, as an actor, I would read them. After a while, I wondered why I wasn’t writing my own scenes, so I wrote a play called Buying the Farm. I performed it originally as a monologue, and right afterward Nellie Bellflower, who was in the audience [and would ultimately produce Finding Neverland], approached me. At the time, Nellie was transitioning into directing and producing. and she had optioned another play at the workshop by Allan Knee, which covered the whole span of James Barrie’s relationship with his adopted son. She described it to me, and I knew it was an amazing story. I said, ‘Let me look at it,’ and that night I typed out 14 pages of ideas. I had to condense the time frame, so by the time it was done five-and-a-half months later, it didn’t resemble the original play. But the spirit was still there.
MM: Did you have any trepidation taking on a potentially major film your first time out?
DM: (laughs) Well, fortunately, I have a healthy dose of self-confidence. And I had practical knowledge from writing a lot of abridgments and studying play structure for many years. You also have to bear in mind that we had no idea it was going to be Johnny Depp, Dustin Hoffman and Kate Winslet. Nellie was just developing a screenplay. It had no weight of writing for big stars.
MM: The film went on to receive seven Oscar nominations, including one for Best Adapted Screenplay. How was that experience?
DM: It was amazing. I knew I had written a nice script, but I didn’t know it was Oscar worthy. The morning of the nominations, it was surreal hearing my name. I didn’t anticipate the rush of adrenaline and trembling that hit me. For the first hour, I just had to sit and calm down.
MM: Your upcoming adaptation, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, is also a period piece. Are you drawn to such settings?
DM: I’m drawn to any project that tells me something interesting about characters I didn’t know before and takes me out of the world we’re in. Nellie is the producer and she brought me the book, but I didn’t look at it for several weeks. Normally I read something as soon as I get it, but this was going to be a period film set in Britain about a spinster woman and a flapper, and I thought it had to be too sweet and charming. When I finally picked it up and started reading it, however, I fell in love with it. It’s incredibly modern in its viewpoint and slightly bawdy without being cute, yet it has the feeling of a 1930s screwball comedy.
MM: McDormand’s character undergoes a major transformation. Are you more attracted to character or story?
DM: I’m probably more attracted to character, but to me what’s interesting about characters is how they change and evolve. What they’re doing defines them, so you have to have a good story.
MM: Have you ever written specifically for actors who were already cast?
DM: I did that for Miss Pettigrew. Frances McDormand was in place from the very beginning; she’s a producer on the film.
I suppose you take actors into account when you imagine the action taking place, because you’re seeing and hearing them. But I don’t think you want to impose restrictions on characters based on who you think the actors are or what you think they’re capable of. I don’t think actors want that.
MM: What’s your process for doing adaptations?
DM: I’ve worked on several of them, and I think because I did abridgments for so long, I can tell what the essential scenes of a book are and then build out from there. I know how to find the turning points of character and action, and when the midpoint of the film should be. There is a mapping that takes place in your mind, so you know when you have to reach certain milestones. It’s all about holding on to the writer’s intent, but not necessarily the writer’s language.
MM: You’re currently working on an original script for a Julia Roberts project?
DM: Yes, but it’s actually based on a Vanity Fair article about [conservationist] Joan Root, who was murdered in Kenya a few years back. Working Title Films gave me a binder with 400 pages of research, and I went to Africa to do additional research. I met with her ex-husband and other people who knew her.
MM: What impact has your success “right out of the gate” had on your career?
DM: I think I had the benefit of trying out other scripts during the six years that Finding Neverland came to fruition. I wasn’t under the performance pressure I might have been if it had come out the moment after I’d written it and everyone was asking what I was going to do next.
MM: What’s the greatest creative challenge faced by today’s screenwriters?
DM: I suppose all writers get to the point where they feel they want to get more involved with the actual making of the film. I really like a quote from writer-director Peter Hedges (Dan in Real Life). He said, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘Writing is a lot like planning the party and not getting to attend.’ I think there is a little of that feeling, even in the best situation.