David Magee interview: ‘A Man Called Otto’ writer

David Magee started his Hollywood career with a level of success that has eluded even some of the most successful screenwriters in the business. His debut film, 2004’s “Finding Neverland,” not only landed among the year’s Best Picture nominees but also netted Magee an Oscar nomination in the Best Adapted Screenplay category.

“The first time was surreal,” Magee tells Gold Derby in an exclusive video interview about his early success. “The first time, I just wrote one movie, and I got to go [to the Oscars]. That was a whirlwind that still if I think back on those days, I’m a little dizzy.”

But it wasn’t long before Magee was back at the Academy Awards, again as a nominee for 2012’s “Life of Pi.” That film received 11 nominations in total, including in the Best Picture category, and won four awards – the highest profile of which went to Ang Lee in the Best Director category.

“I knew that there were some great films that year. I wasn’t really expecting anything in terms of winning – I was grateful to be on the ride,” he says. “I had a much better time getting to know the other nominees and feeling more like a part of the community. The first time, I felt like I was a high school student who had been invited to a frat party and I didn’t know anybody. I was kind of batting out of my league. But the second time was a lot more fun. It was an easier ride.”

In the years following “Life of Pi,” Magee wrote blockbusters like “Mary Poppins Returns” and this year’s lavish Netflix feature “The School for Good and Evil.” But for his latest film, the writer has gone back to the start. Magee reunited with “Finding Neverland” director Marc Forster for the new film “A Man Called Otto,” an adaptation of the best-selling Swedish novel “A Man Called Ove” that was previously turned into an Oscar-nominated feature film in Sweden.

“We were still finding our way in this industry. I was just grateful they were allowing me to show up and that they hadn’t replaced me after I wrote the first draft of the film,” Magee says of that initial collaboration with Forster. “It’s very different coming back almost 20 years later, having much more experience and having a shorthand with someone that feels almost automatic. He’s the nicest man, the gentlest man to work with. It’s always a very welcoming environment to work with him and we just understand each other and so much.”

Based on the 2012 book by Fredrik Backman, “A Man Called Otto” is a comedy-drama about an older man whose life changes for the better when he reluctantly allows the young family across the street into his regimented existence. It’s the kind of heart-warming feature in which Hollywood once specialized, and the film and Magee’s script give star Tom Hanks a showcase role as Otto.

“Tom Hanks is Tom Hanks, it’s very hard for you not to love Tom Hanks, even when he is at his most curmudgeonly,” Magee says of the film’s star. Otto is a character who says and does things that border on unpleasant – but his tragic personal history and Hanks’s touch with Magee’s material never villainize him. “We’ve seen so many movies [with Hanks] that as soon as I started writing, I would hear his voice saying the dialogue and I knew what I could get away with very easily – and I knew he’d call me on it if I didn’t.”

“A Man Called Otto” is out in limited release on Christmas Day before expanding nationwide in January.

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UPLOADED Dec 14, 2022 12:30 pm