David Magee: First of all, I’m kind of perversely attracted to a challenge and I haven’t always been. At first, I just wanted to work, but then when something like Life of Pi came up and I got the chance to work with Ang Lee and everyone said, this book is unadaptable and it’s too hard, everything. My feeling on that one was, well, I’m doing it with Ang, so if we can’t crack it’s not my fault alone and I’m not going to look too bad. I tried to crack an uncrackable book with Ang, so, all right, let’s do it. And it was fun and I thought it was a very successful movie, and I had had a great time with it. So by the time I got around to Chatterley, Larry Mark, Laurence Mark, the producer called me up and said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea for you. What do you think of Lady Chatterley’s Lover?”
And at first, I didn’t know if I could even take it seriously because when I was very young, Lady Chatterley’s Lover was this kind of salacious title that was more associated with kind of a showtime at night vibe. There were very kind of scandalous versions of it made along the way and sequels of those Lady Chatterley Goes to Rome or whatever, I don’t know. So I thought, “Come on, is this real?” And he was like, “No, have you ever read it?” And I said, “Well, no, I haven’t.” But I had read Women in Love and I had read one of the other D. H. Lawrence titles, Sons and Lovers I was blanking on, and those were really good books. So I thought, “Well, all right, well, I’ll read it.” And then I read it and I thought there’s a really good romantic heartfelt story here with a lot of social relevance and political resonance and things that I could draw upon to tell a good story.
And I thought, well, maybe it’s just that it hasn’t been told well that often. The 1970s version, the early 1970s version was good. There was a French version just called Lady Chatterley, I believe, that I thought was quite nice, very small, very intimate story. And I started to think, “Well, there hasn’t been a really good telling of the story.” And the interesting thing that has changed in the years since I first became aware of it is even nine years ago, when I started working on it, Game of Thrones was on television, and you were seeing more scandalous scenes in one episode of Game of Thrones than in all the different versions of Chatterley put together. And so the emphasis was not so much on, “Oh my gosh, is this a shocking story?” It was is it a good story? That’s then I thought, “Well, I think I could tell a good story with this. I don’t think it’ll be judged anymore in terms of whether it’s scandalous, which used to be the kind of metric for this story.”
Alison Herman: Yeah, I mean, as part of your adaptation, one of the changes that I noticed a lot of reviewers were picking up on were specifically to the character of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Oliver Mellors, who I think comes across slightly differently on the screen as played by Jack O’Connell than he does on the page. But I did want to ask how you thought about changing that character and why you decided to alter him in the specific ways that you did.
David Magee: Well, I didn’t go into it with a thought that I’m going to change this character. I don’t think so much. I was aware when I first started reading about of the backstory to Lady Chatterley, I felt as though all of the characters were variations on D. H. Lawrence and his wife. And that Mellors was one version of D. H. Lawrence, and Clifford was another version of D. H. Lawrence, and so I was trying to concentrate on what he was trying to convey about the positives and negatives of both of those characters in himself. And D. H. Lawrence was like 28 years old. Now I know I’m going to screw up some of these details folks, so forgive me. He’s like 28 years old when he died, and he was very angry. Bitter about the war, bitter about tuberculosis, the breathing problems. The breathing problems probably led to impotence within his own marriage so this man who’s celebrating sexuality and this fullness of experience with another person was unable to perform with his wife.
They had a very tempestuous, volatile relationship. He loved her and hated her. And in the context of that, Mellors, I think came off in the book probably much more volatile in some aspects and angry and bitter in some aspects than it would be easy for us to relate to today. By the same token, a lot of people, early on, saw Clifford who is paralyzed as a result of his war injuries and unable to conceive, as some sort of comment both on the upper class, but almost a backhanded slight to people who had disabilities. Whereas what I think what was actually happening in D. H. Lawrence was he was trying to express something about how it felt to be dissociated from yourself. How to lose that connection to your body and your sense of self when that was so important to him in love and in relationships and everything.
I think, well, I know my main theme in approaching all of this story was this is about three people who have been damaged by the war and have lost that sense of connection to themselves. Connie has lost a lover. Clifford has lost the use of his legs, and Mellors has lost almost everything in this sense. He’s lost his wife, he’s lost his title as a lieutenant in the military, and he’s gone back to becoming something that he’s already outgrown. So it’s about them trying to find a way to reconnect to themselves and to someone else and that became the overarching theme that I was working with.
Alison Herman: Yeah, I mean, you said you didn’t want to necessarily lean into the salaciousness that people have picked up on over the years, but of course, as a final product, it is quite sensual and sexual on the screen, and part of that is in the acting and the direction. But I did want to ask how you approached it as a screenwriter and how you scripted those scenes or thought about those scenes playing into the larger narrative.
David Magee: Absolutely, and that was something that I was a little nervous about when I took it on. That was one of those scary aspects that I was intrigued by. What I found when I actually started writing those scenes was that in a way, they’re not different than, or they shouldn’t be different than any other scene that you’re writing. You have to be focused on what does a character want in this moment? What isn’t getting in their way? What are they unable to communicate? What are they trying to communicate? What is the conflict? What’s holding them back in this moment or that moment? So yes, you might be describing sexual activity, you might be describing things that are more intimate than you usually do, but you’re still looking at a scene and saying, okay, in this moment, for example, toward the beginning when Connie is first saying, “All right, I need you.
I need to be held by another person,” and Mellor’s takes her and they get undressed and they’re about to have sex, she’s also wrestling in her mind with the fact that Clifford told her, you can go off and have sex with another person as long as it doesn’t mean anything. As long as it’s like taking a trip to the dentist is literally what he says in the book and in the script. At that moment when she’s trying to be intimate with another person, she finds herself pulling back and he starts saying, “Don’t pull away from me.” Put it in terms of character motivations and focus on that first and foremost, you can write the scenes without having any fear that … It’s like those action scenes in movies where you’ve been enjoying the movie and suddenly someone is on a 15-minute car chase where you’re like, nothing is happening. I mean, they’re just turning left, turning right. They’re jumping over each other in cars, but nothing’s happening with the characters.
But if you’re shooting an action scene where you do see someone wrestling with, how do I feel about this person? Should I shoot them or should I trust them? I’m engaged. So it’s the same thing with the sex scene in that sense.
Alison Herman: We forewarned everybody into potential spoilers. So I think I am now allowed to ask about the ending, which is another quite significant change and you said you didn’t go in necessarily wanting to alter certain characters or aspects of the story, but how did you arrive at the pretty significant, I would say, alteration to how the novel ends?
David Magee: Okay, with spoilers allowed, the end of the novel, the two lovers are separated, and then Oliver Mellors writes a letter to Connie basically saying, “The world’s a horrible place. The world is full of misery, and I see bad things coming down the road. It’s only going to get worse. But that said, the only thing that has ever made sense to me in this world is that little flame that burns between us, that little whatever that is, that burns between us doesn’t go out. And if you would be willing to tend that flame with me, I think we could find a meaning and a purpose in this world.” It’s about a three or four page letter in the novel. And when I read it in my copy of the book, there was an afterward and there were comments. I thought I was missing a chapter. I didn’t know what happened.
He finished it, he said, “So if you would, I’d be willing to … Yours, Oliver Millers,” and I turned the page expecting the next chapter where she responds and the book’s over. Well, I think this was just a process of sitting at home in my office thinking about it, but I’m sure I probably talked to about it with Larry as well. The book was written at a time when D. H. Lawrence was dying, he knew he was dying, he was angry and bitter, and he saw dark things coming, and dark things did come World War II. He was not wrong. So he almost deliberately wrote a story that didn’t hold any promise. Now, we didn’t add any substantial dialogue or scenes. I took the end of the film from that letter he writes where he says, “That little flame is out there, if you see any purpose and anything …”
But as he’s reading that letter, I have Connie going to find him, for a couple of reasons. First of all, what else is she going to do? She’s been essentially ostracized from society, and her current husband who refuses to give her a divorce, also wants nothing to do with her. She has nowhere to go. She has her own money, so it doesn’t matter. This is all in the book. If she were to get that letter, I think it would be obvious she would try and seek him out. Secondly, we’re writing a story at a time when we know that World War II happened. We know that this is a story about people trying to come back together and find purpose and meaning in life. I had no problem with seeing them for the 15 seconds at the end of the film actually finding each other, because it’s really not much more than that. You know, you guys can time it if you want, but it is essentially as she reads this letter, we cut to her looking for him.
He continues reading the letter and they find each other at the end. And to me, it would not have been a very fulfilling movie if I had not had that, and I don’t think I’d fully understand why it ended that way so that was the choice.
Alison Herman: It makes sense. I was so fascinated when you were explaining earlier how you came to be a screenwriter that you got started in these abridgments because it really is such a simulator of what happened next or a microcosm, and you’ve written all these adaptations over the years, and I guess I was wondering if there was a moment where you kind of realize, this is my specialty, this is what I like to do, or I know careers can’t always be planned that way. So did you just happen into writing so many adaptations as part of your collective CV?
David Magee: It’s interesting. I didn’t really have a plan. I wanted to try writing. I tried writing, and I wrote a play, and it turned into an opportunity to write Finding Neverland. And then I was, I don’t know, 29, 30 years old when this first started happening, maybe even older, maybe I was in my mid 30s, the point was I had a son and I was married, and I just wanted to pay the bills, and I would be happy to take any job you would offer me. And sure, I was going to try and write my own stuff, but what I found instead was I had an interesting story to tell about how I could adapt things, how I had written all these abridgments, and it became kind of what I was known for. I mean, I was also known for being British, which I’m not, so I was pushing toward the adaptation side of things, and it allowed me to kind of say, “Look, I’m flexible. I can do whatever you’re working on. I’ve probably abridged that kind of story before.”
So I think when you get out into Hollywood, people are trying to identify who you are, what you are, what your focus is and what your interest is, and that became what I could tell people. I was really good at looking at different stories and thinking how they would work as films as opposed to someone who can walk in and say, “I really love war films,” or “I’m really passionate about the films of, I don’t know, the films of Alfred Hitchcock. And so I love that kind of suspense.” I think that when you are out in Hollywood, if you have a focus and an interest like that, you should do that. I couldn’t walk in and say, “My interest is in feeding my son.” So what I was saying is essentially, this is what I figured out I can do and that became kind of my calling card. Sure.
Alison Herman: When we have guests on who have been around long enough to witness certain changes in the entertainment industry, it’s always interesting to ask them how it struck them or how it’s affected their careers. And I think one of the biggest changes that’s obviously happened over the last few decades is this migration onto streaming. And two of the three films that you’ve released this year are on Netflix. And I don’t know if it affects at all how you think about it during the writing process, but I’m sure it at least has some effect on how you see the work being released and perceived out in the world so I just wanted to ask how that’s struck you or affected you as you’ve seen that shift over the past few decades?
David Magee: That’s an interesting and difficult question because on one hand, there’s no question that streaming has affected how things are distributed, how they’re seen, what projects are going to be most likely bought. But when I started writing Lady Chatterley, it was for a studio when I started writing School for Good and Evil, I had no idea it was going to end up at Netflix because they happened kind of just before the transition into everything’s going to streaming, and then which increased over the COVID period because no one knew when anyone was going to do anything. You know, go to movies again. That said, it’s hard to plan what the market wants because by the time you’ve developed what you’re going to pitch, someone else will have come out with a version of it and they’ll say, “Oh no, we’ve already seen a period. We don’t do period, period’s not big.”
And then something like Downton Abbey will change the marketplace, and everyone will say, “Do you have period? Do you have anything?” Well, on one hand, I could talk endlessly about how I think the things have changed over the years. I think you should be writing with an idea as to whether or not something is marketable. If it has no chance of being made, you should be aware of that. But I think you have to write to what interests you and what you’re passionate about, because as soon as you start, well, let make it more personal. Anytime I have ever tried to write to the market or write what others tell me is going to be a big hit, it’s gone south, and it’s usually ended in misery on one degree or another, or sadness that, “Oh, this is never going to happen because no matter how hard I’ve worked on this, the time for this kind of project has gone.”
On the other hand, I recently not long ago, wrote a musical with Steven Schwartz, who did Wicked, and right now we don’t know where we’re going to sell it because there have been a couple of live action musicals that have not done as well. But of course, Stephen’s film version of Wicked is going to come out, and it’s just as likely that right after it comes out, we’ll have more opportunity to sell this one, and we had a blast writing it. It was fun. It was wonderful fun so I wouldn’t change that for anything, but I can tell you that there are four or five projects that hadn’t been doing it well for the paycheck or because I got convinced by someone that it was going to be a big deal, I would never have wanted to do it to begin with.
Alison Herman: Another shift that’s happened over the past few decades in screenwriting has, of course, been the tremendous boom in the amount of television that’s produced. And as a part of that, a lot of screenwriters, and directors, and actors, and what have you have kind of migrated to this other medium, and the boundaries between the two media have really blurred. But in the midst of all this, your work is primarily in features so I wanted to ask both whether you have a particular fidelity to features that’s resulted in staying primarily in the medium, or if you’re open to working in other formats or just how you thought about that kind of distinction over the years.
David Magee: No, I am more than wide open to whatever medium comes up. And in fact, I wrote a couple of pilots early on that didn’t end up going for various reasons, but I’ve had the luxury of being able to work on features for a while now, and so I’ve continued doing so. But I recently developed a project, I don’t want to go into great detail, but with David Ignatius, one of the columnists at the Washington Post, and we’ve developed something we’re very excited about, and we’re going to be trying to sell that in the upcoming year. I would be happy to work in television. Absolutely. I wouldn’t hesitate. I think if any hesitation has come, I’ve had any hesitation in the past, it was particularly back when it was primarily the major networks as opposed to things is the thought of 22 episodes or however many episodes of something puts me in a cold sweat in the abstract.
So the actual thought of doing that is a little unnerving to me having never done it before. That said, I’m wide open to the idea of it. I’ve just been fortunate in that I’ve been able to keep doing the movies.
Alison Herman: Sure. Well, I think we’re running a little low on time, but for a final maybe more forward-facing question, you’ve mentioned that you worked on The Little Mermaid, Disney live action version that’s coming out next year. I mean, as big as A Man Called Ove and Lady Chatterley’s Lover were, I don’t think they hold a candle to one of the most iconic fairy tales slash Disney animated movies of all time. But I just wanted to ask a little bit, no spoiler since it’s not out, obviously, but how that experience was for you and how you approached that, what I would imagine would be quite a daunting project?
David Magee: Yeah. First of all, I want to say I just saw a relatively finished cut of it just last week or week before last and I had not seen anything for about two years because of COVID, and then because they had to shoot on location, and then because Rob Marshall and his producing partner, John DeLuca, have been working together. They’ve been editing it off on their own without anyone seeing it. So I just saw it recently and it’s incredible. And I say that without talking about my work on it because, obviously, I didn’t write the songs, I didn’t sing them, and I didn’t do any of the absolute, it’s gorgeous to look at and I found it incredibly moving, and I’m very excited about it. My experience on that, Rob Marshall and I worked together on Mary Poppins Returns.
Rob and John and I, forgive me, worked together and had a great time. So when the opportunity to do The Little Mermaid came up, they asked me if I wanted to do that as well, and I was more than happy to dive in. What we had to think about in working on it most was when you take an animated film and you make a live action film out of it, certain ground rules about what can and can’t happen become obvious. There’s a scene in the animated film where a chef chases Sebastian the crab around with a meat cleaver, which is funny and it’s a whole song where he’s trying to cook him for dinner. That’s not funny, live action. And as soon as you start imagining it, you think this is going to scare kids. This is not amusing. This is terrifying.
So certain things automatically fall to the wayside as you’re trying to imagine the real version of it. And the Prince who is in this 90-minute animated film is not much more than a caricature. And I mean that it’s a brilliant film, and I don’t think the original creators would have, I think they’d agree because he’s supposed to be this guy she falls in love with, and then he’s spellbound by the sea witch to fall in love with someone else. So he doesn’t have much dialogue other than, “Hi, who are you?” And “Here’s my dog.” So we had to create a reason for these two people to fall in love in a way that you would believe it in a live action story so we had more time to explore their relationship, how they kind of come to know each other, and what their differences are, and how they come to recognize in the other person a kindred spirit, even when she isn’t able to speak. So that was a great deal of the challenge in and of itself.
Alison Herman: All right. Well, I’m so excited to see it. And in the meantime, congratulations on this very dense period of work being released into the world, and this was a wonderful conversation.
David Magee: It was great getting to talk to you. Thank you very much. I really do appreciate it.
Alison Herman: Thank you.
David Magee: All right.
Alison Herman: All right. Take care.
David Magee: All right, thanks. Bye-bye.
Alison Herman: Bye.
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