Inspiration. Ambition.
Passion. Process. Technique.

By: Alison Herman

Promotional poster for LADY CHATTERLEY'S LOVERPromotional poster for A MAN CALLED OTTOPromotional poster for THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVILHost Alison Herman talks to David Magee about writing three films that were released in the same year, adaptation as a form of translation, exploring the deeper cause of pain and bitterness in both Chatterley and Otto, and much more.

David Magee is the Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of FINDING NEVERLAND, THE LIFE OF PI, MARY POPPINS RETURNS and many more.

His credits in 2022 include an impressive three feature films: THE SCHOOL FOR GOOD AND EVIL, now streaming on Netflix; an adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s LADY CHATTERLEY’S LOVER, also streaming on Netflix. And finally, A MAN CALLED OTTO, and an adaptation of the Swedish novel and film, A Man called Ove, which is now streaming in theaters.

Alison Herman is a staff writer for The Ringer, where she writes about culture in general and television in specific. When not fighting a losing battle against Peak TV, she tweets at @aherman2006.

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Thanks for listening. Write on.


Speaker 1: Hello. You’re listening to OnWriting: A Podcast from the Writer’s Guild of America East. In each episode, you’ll hear from the writers of your favorite films and television series. They’ll take you behind the scenes, go deep into the writing and production process, and explain how they got their project from the page to the screen.

Alison Herman: Hi, I’m Alison Herman, a staff writer at The Ringer, a member of the Writer’s Guild of America, East and host of this episode of OnWriting. Today, I’m joined by David Magee, the Academy Award nominated screenwriter of Finding Neverland, the Life of Pi, Mary Poppins Returns and so many more. This year, David is credited on no fewer than three feature films, the School for Good and Evil, now streaming on Netflix. An adaptation of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, also streaming on Netflix. And finally, A Man Called Otto, an adaptation of the Swedish novel and film, A Man called Ove, starring Tom Hanks now showing in theaters. I’m so excited to talk to David about his wide-ranging work and a heads-up that you may hear spoilers for some of these films. David, thank you so much for joining us.

David Magee: Very happy to be here. Thank you for having me.

Alison Herman: Well, from the outside, it certainly seems like it’s been a very busy year with a lot of projects coming out, and up top I just wanted to ask you if it’s felt that way from your end and just how it’s felt to see so much work come out this year?

David Magee: Well, the last couple of months have very much felt that way. I wrote all of these films in completely different years, at different times, and some took years to come out and some came out, well, A Man Called Otto we shot at the beginning of this year and we were racing up to the end to get it ready in time to come out this year. Whereas I wrote School for Good and Evil seven or eight years ago, and I started on Lady Chatterley’s Lover nine years ago. And on top of that, The Little Mermaid is coming out in May, and I wrote that five years ago. So all of these things were written at different times, but COVID both slowed them all up at a certain point and then they were rushed. They were trying to get them out afterwards, and it was an incredible coincidence that all these things are coming out within a six-month period.

Alison Herman: Well, I’m sure it feels very gratifying. I wanted to start with A Man called Otto, since it kind of marks this reunion of sorts with director Marc Forster who directed your first feature Finding Neverland.

David Magee: Yes.

Alison Herman: And I actually wanted to maybe rewind a little bit just to the experience of writing Finding Neverland and how it came about, if only because I’m sure getting an Oscar nomination for your first credited feature must have been a total whirlwind.

David Magee: It was a total whirlwind. It was overwhelming and exciting, and I was grateful that I was actually going to have a movie made. I mean, that was a big day for me. The reason it came about, I had started as an actor and I had, in New York, done little plays here and there, bit parts on soap operas, and regional theater, but I never really got a start with anything. And then I had the opportunity to, I was doing voiceover, which led to reading books on tape, which led to very long story, very short, the opportunity to write the abridgment of those books for audio. And I ended up writing the abridgments for around 80 novels over the course of five, six, I don’t know exactly how many years. And writing an abridgment of a novel is like taking 180,000 word novel down to 29,500 words and a screenplay’s around 25,000 words.

Whether I knew it or not, I was getting training in structure, in focusing on dialogue and character and pairing away anything extraneous. And so when I had the chance to write Finding Neverland, well that came about in a whole nother way. Someone I was working with was talking about trying to adapt a play into a film by someone we both knew. And I said, “I’ll do it.” And they said, “Well, have you ever written a film before?” And I said, “No, I can figure it out though,” then. And so they paid me a dollar, they paid Alan Knee, the writer of a play about James Berry a dollar, that was Nellie Bellflower, and she was one of the producers on what became Finding Neverland. I was writing a screenplay for a dollar when I started and I ended up at the Oscars so it was an incredibly overwhelming ride and dumb luck, good dumb luck that someone at Miramax had heard about Alan’s play and thought it was an interesting premise and asked to read the script at the end.

So that’s how all of it came about to begin with. But it took another five and a half years, I think, for it to actually end up out, because there was a long director search at the time that Marc first became aware of the script. He had not done Monster’s Ball, he was not really enough on the studio’s radar. But then when Monster’s Ball came out, basically they said, “What do you want to do next?” And he said, “I want to do Finding Neverland.” And that’s how the two of us came to work together. But we were very different people back then, obviously. I was happy to be there and hoping I wasn’t going to get fired, so it’s a very different period.

Alison Herman: Well, could you talk a little bit about your initial collaboration and relationship with Marc and what made you essentially willing to do that again?

David Magee: First of all, obviously he’s an excellent director. He’s also a very kind, thoughtful, soft spoken person who makes it a goal in life to keep as much tension off the set as humanly possible. Neither of us is a fan of working under pressure or in stressful environments so it was a very easy process working with him on that first film. Although obviously, at the time, I was an absolute newcomer and Neverland was essentially his third film, although he had done a smaller film for college and everything like that. Monsters Ball was his first big introduction and then Finding Neverland came along. So we always working with the producers around early on in that going, and they were all lovely, but by the time, 17 years later or whatever it is, we got to working again together on Otto.

We both have a lot more experience at this point. We both are still fans of keeping it calm, and quiet, and friendly, and we knew each other, so it was easy to just step back into. It was almost as though time had not passed and he doesn’t look any older either, which helps, so we just rolled right into it and we had a wonderful time together.

Alison Herman: Have you kept in touch in the intervening years and told each other about this project or did it just sort of serendipitously come about that you reunited for this particular film?

David Magee: We hadn’t really kept in touch, but we just both got busy with other projects and it’s amazing how fast time can pass. I live on the East coast, as you know from this podcast, and he’s a West Coast guy who spends a lot of time over in Europe as well, so we just hadn’t crossed paths much in the intervening years. But Rita Wilson reached out to us to see if we’d be interested in doing it and I was immediately interested because I had seen the original film, the Swedish film, A Man Called Ove, and I had read the book, and I loved them both having no idea I’d ever have anything to do with it. And so when she called and said, “Would you be interested in developing this as a possible project for Tom Hanks?” There was no question. I was interested. And then she told me that she was going to talk to Marc Forster about being involved, and I couldn’t have been more on board so it worked out well.

Alison Herman: In your sort of civilian capacity, before you knew you were going to be working on an adaptation, what drew you to the original film and book? What did you enjoy about them?

David Magee: I think the character of Ove in the original, and Otto in our American version of it, is a very familiar character to people. The older person who’s a little cranky and disillusioned about life and finds things to nitpick about that you just don’t understand why it’s such a big deal. And what I loved about the book and then the film as well is that as you come inside and get to know Otto from the inside better, you start to realize that he’s in a lot of pain, emotional pain. He’s suffered a lot of loss. He’s not picking at things for inconsequential reasons. He’s had a lot of reason over the years to find fault with the way people handle situations and things happen. And so the more you start to look at it from Otto’s point of view, the more you start to really feel for him and take his side in a lot of these things.

I thought that was beautifully written and I really wanted to find as many ways as I could to enhance that so that you would start by looking at someone from the outside and going, “Oo, what a character,” and then almost immediately start to get little ins into who this person was and realize, “Oh, I know someone like that and I feel for them and I want to help them,” which is really the journey to the film.

Alison Herman: If you were approached initially about this film specifically as a potential Tom Hank’s vehicle, I’m curious how that affected both just your own process as a writer, but also to what extent Tom would’ve been involved throughout the writing process, if at all.

David Magee: Sure. Well, first of all, I don’t begin by trying to imagine what actor’s going to play a role. I have to just kind of listen to the way I would say things and how I think they would work and what I would not sound stupid saying if I were an actor. That said, Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks. You know what his voice is. Everyone does. You can play lines in your head from things he’s done and most of us have probably seen him in 20, 30 movies. So it’s a given that you’re going to be picturing him doing the scene. But Tom didn’t get involved in the nitty gritty of it. He kind of let us go off. We went and we talked to him about what we wanted to do. He was lovely about it. He listened. He encouraged us to think about a few things.

I couldn’t tell you right now what those were because it’s a blur now, but he was interested in certain aspects of the story and others, and we listened to everything that he said. And then I went off and started writing and I talked to Marc about what I was thinking of doing. And one of the big differences beyond the change of location, our adaptation was we wanted to try and find ways to make it much more fluid moving from the present to the past and not feel like we were just doing flashbacks for the sake of doing flashbacks and jumping back, let’s go back 30, 40 years. There is a scene in the Swedish version, which I loved. There’s obviously no disparaging going on here, but where we get to a certain point in the film and then it jumps back for 10, 15 minutes to examine life for Ove when he was young.

And we didn’t want it to feel like we were just jumping back to explain how he became the person he is now so we experimented a lot with how we might move kind of seamlessly from a present day scene to seeing Tom reflecting on himself when he was younger and just catching moments and then maybe gradually a little more of that moment and kind of going back and forth the way we all do when we’re alone in the house and we’ve had something momentous happen in our lives and we find ourselves reflecting on it and even talking to that person. We did a lot of experimenting with Tom, actually talking to others from his past or watching himself as a young person playing something out and then repeating it to himself.

I did a lot of experimenting while I was writing, and then Marc, when he shot it, frequently had scenes where he said, “Tom, just go, let’s shoot you saying all these lines that your younger self says, and maybe we’ll use them, maybe we won’t, but it’ll give us that flexibility to kind of play with a sense that this is all happening in you at this current moment that it’s not a flashback.”

Alison Herman: You mentioned the change in location being part of the adaptive process, and that is something I wanted to ask about the challenges and opportunities of transplanting the story from Europe to the United States.

David Magee: I think anytime you do an adaptation, you are translating it to film, which means certain aspects get left behind, you have to find certain other solutions. So a part of that is just a given aspect of an adaptation. In the case of this, we were moving from Sweden, which has socialized medicine and socialized housing, and it is a reflection a little bit on, as people get older, how they end up kind of losing control over their own decision-making because they are forced to move out of socialized housing to assisted living because that’s how the government runs it. Even the best meaning governmental people end up creating a system that takes away control and obviously we don’t have that here in the United States. A lot of the logic puzzle solutions that we had to come up with were what is the parallel to the United States? What would that be?

In the case of the United States, obviously it’s not governments moving you out of your house, but we did realize that if you’re not an owner of an apartment or a home, but you’re renting, they can rebuild them, they can get rid of your lease and everything. But if Otto was one of the few who actually held onto one of these houses and was causing a wrench in the works for the people, some big corporate entity that wanted to move you around, he could be a huge pain in the neck to them. So we created Dye & Merica Realtors a kind of huge corporation that dabbled in assisted living and owns apartment complexes and the only face of that kind of faceless company is a relatively low level guy who works for them, who really has disdain for people like Otto.

So that was one of the first things. And then when you start talking about the people who move into the neighborhood in the Swedish film, it is an Iranian woman and her husband who move across the street. And when we started translating it over to the U.S., we wanted to have an immigrant from South America of some sort to come in or a family of immigrants because we thought that was a more interesting and a common experience in the United States. We created Marisol and Tommy and their kids, and we gave Marisol a background where her father was from El Salvador for various reasons that had to do with the story. And the more you start creating specifics, the more you settle on, okay, we’re going to put this in Pittsburgh and we’re going to have Marisol, her father’s from El Salvador, and she’s from this part of Mexico.

The more you start adding those things up, the more those specifics inform how those characters behave, where they come from, what they react to. So at a certain point, it starts generating the ideas on its own. That definition going to take you away from that original story.

Alison Herman: You alluded earlier to the fact that you were on set during the production of A Man Called Otto. And I was wondering both whether that was unusual for you as part of your process and how it allowed you to add to your contributions in the film in that capacity?

David Magee: It was wonderful fun to be on the set during the actual shooting. I have had the luxury of working with people more than once, on a couple of occasions, and working with people who I get along with quite well. So I have been involved in the absolutely the pre-production, the rehearsals, everything right up until the day of shooting with Rob Marshall, with Ang Lee, on several different films. But generally speaking, once they start shooting, especially these big budget films that rely on special effects and everything has already been thought out and figured out in animatics, I’m not necessary at that point. So even though I’m always welcome to hang around, I found myself a bit of a third wheel on those larger productions because there are so many other things to be concerned with on the director’s part that it becomes a motor that moves on without you.

But in the case of Otto, Marc and I worked together through all the pre-production and rehearsals, and then he just said, “Why don’t you stay around, keep staying.” He kept telling me, “Stick around another week or so.” And at first I was a little reluctant to, because I thought, “What am I doing here? I’m not going to actually be able to do anything.” But in fact, on a smaller film, we could watch rehearsal in the morning, figure out, do a camera rehearsal in the morning, and as we were doing it, Marc would say, “God, it’d be great if he had an extra line here,” or “Tom has a great idea, what if he did this?” Or “We don’t have the coverage to do this in and out of the car. Can we just have him walking down the street when he says this?”

And pretty soon you’re solving problems on the fly and that became a lot of fun and so I was around for most of the shooting originally because I have a very, very brief cameo on the film, and I was just waiting around for my cameo, but after a while I was having fun and Marc and I just work well together, as did the whole company. We all just knew we were making the same film.

Alison Herman: Yeah, it sounds like a great experience. If you don’t mind, I’d also like to ask a few questions about Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which is also a wonderful film and also came out this year.

David Magee: Yes.

Alison Herman: I mean, Lady Chatterley’s Lover is almost as much as, even if not more than A Man Called Ove, is such a towering classic and I imagine it could maybe be intimidating to approach as a writer, but I was just wondering both how you originally decided to tackle it and just if it was overwhelming kind of entering into this classic that’s had many adaptations before.


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.

Speaker 1: OnWriting is a production of the Writers Guild of America East. This series was created and is produced by Jason Gordon. Our associate producer and designer is Molly Beer. Tech production and original music by Taylor Bradshaw and Stock Boy Creative. You can learn more about the Writer’s Guild of America East online at You can follow the Guild on all social media platforms at WGA East. If you like this podcast, please subscribe and rate us. Thank you for listening, and write on.


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