I had the pleasure to go back and forth with master screenwriter (yeah, he’s covered the gamut) Gary Whitta about his roots in video games, his shift to writing for the screen and, now, his third pivot to the novel.
JB: Your roots are in video games. From journalism contributions to heading up entire publications; I point to PC Gamer here. Obviously, you had a passion for this lane, but did you find it to be a good medium for storytelling?
Gary: Yeah, growing up my two big loves were movies and video games, so I’ve been really fortunate to have been able to pursue both of those passions professionally, in two separate careers that have now to some extent intertwined. Video games have matured immensely as an art form in the past several years, and a big part of that has stemmed from a desire – and, really, a need – to tell better stories, to try to catch up with film and television and the other major narrative forms as a real medium in which to tell compelling and emotionally engaging stories. We’ve come a long way from “Thank you Mario, but our princess is in another castle!” You only need to look at games like Mass Effect, Journey, The Last of Us, and Telltale’s adaptation of The Walking Dead – which I had some involvement with as a consultant and writer – to see just how great the opportunities to tell stories in an interactive format are right now, and yet we’re still pretty much in the silent-movie era in terms of the medium’s overall evolution. We’re still only just starting to really figure out how to give the player true agency, but as we get better at doing that, at allowing the audience to really assume the role of protagonist in a story and to influence that story with the choices and actions they take, I think we’re going to see the emergence of a really exciting new way to tell stories, one that might make the stories we’re used to being told in film and television, where the audience is just a passive viewer and not a participant, to seem quite primitive by comparison.
JB: In the same breath of gaming, when moving into Story Consultant roles (like with The Walking Dead games), what’s the process like here? In short, how exactly do you execute a story / script / storyboard for a video game?
Gary: It’s a massively complicated and exhausting undertaking. I think it’s by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done as a writer, but also one of the most rewarding. It’s hard enough to tell a compelling story even in a conventional form like film, but once you take your audience and invite them to become an active participant in the story, it requires you to build a story that’s so much more robust and flexible, one that can adapt to suit the actions of the player while still allowing you as the author to take them where you ultimately want them to go. Simply as a matter of volume, writing all the different narrative branches, conversational paths, endings, and optional side stories that a player might choose to follow requires so much more than when you’re writing a film where the audience only sees one set version of events. But when you pull it off and it works, and you’re able to give the audience an experience that feels uniquely their own because they in a sense helped author it with their own choices and actions, it’s hugely satisfying.
The process, at least on The Walking Dead, is not unlike working on a television show. There’s a writers’ room where we all sit around and break story, but again, with the added difficulty of not just coming up with an interesting story but also figuring out all the ways in which the audience – the player – can influence and change how the story develops. The actual process of writing involves the use of a proprietary scripting tool that allows for all the narrative branches to be viewed in parallel and give an overview of all the different ways in which the story can unfold. It’s incredibly complicated and at times very frustrating – but again, when it works, as it did so well with The Walking Dead, there’s nothing quite like it.
JB: And here it is, The Book of Eli. I’d love to know the entire A-Z of how this went down. Where did the inspiration come from to pen this unique story? Do you mind juxtaposing the final product with what you wrote in the beginning (ie. What changes were made in production and on the cutting room floor?)? What was the optioning process like for this screenplay? Did you see Denzel in the lead role?
Gary: The Book of Eli came out of my love of classic westerns and samurai movies and wanting to write an old-fashioned “wandering hero” fable. I’ve always loved the romantic notion of the warrior-prophet, the nomadic warrior on a noble mission. That’s a pulpy, popcorn genre itch that I always wanted to scratch, but I was also looking for a way to give my version of it some thematic depth, to make it actually about something that might spark a conversation. Originally the character was kind of a crazy post-apocalyptic preacher with a bible in one hand and a machete in the other, but that felt too broad and schlocky on its own. The idea that it might actually be the last bible in existence that he was carrying was what unlocked it for me, as it led to the idea of the movie having intellectual stakes – the preservation of knowledge, of a historical artifact that, whether you believe in it or not, deserves to survive simply to be studied, as one of the most influential works of human civilization. And that also led to a broader conversation about the benefits and dangers of religious faith, and particularly of organized religion, which I felt was interesting enough to carry the story thematically.
I was incredibly lucky that the script as I wrote it was so well liked by the Hughes Brothers and by Denzel in particular as he was a great protector of it through the development process. A movie like Eli, an original piece with potentially difficult and controversial subject matter, one that’s very violent, is very likely to get homogenized and softened before it gets to the screen – or perhaps abandoned and never made at all – but Denzel was a big believer in it and saw it through to the final edit pretty much unscathed. It’s an extremely rare example of the finished film being extremely faithful to the original spec script. I wish every writer could be as lucky as I was on that film.
JB: You’ve been attached to the Star Wars standalone film coming up with director Gareth Edwards, any way we can get any insights into this?
Gary: As you can imagine there’s virtually nothing I can say as the secrecy on those films is taken extremely seriously. What I can say is that it was by far the most thrilling creative experience I’ve ever had. Having the opportunity to help contribute a new chapter to a series of films that has meant so much to me, that were a big part of my inspiration to pursue a career as a writer, was just phenomenal. And working with Gareth was a joy. He’s incredibly smart, incredibly talented, and he’s going to make an incredible film. I can’t wait to see it.
JB: I understand you have a new book coming down the pike. Mind giving us the skinny on what it’s about?
Gary: I really wanted to try something different for my next original piece rather than going the typical route of a spec screenplay, because – especially these days – it’s incredibly difficult to even sell a piece of original material to Hollywood, much less see it made into a finished film. I had an idea that I really wanted to do, and decided to write it as a novel knowing that once I was done writing, it was done. A screenplay is only ever a blueprint for what you hope hundreds of other people will then spend a small fortune turning into something that can actually be presented to an audience, and so many things can go wrong along the way. With a novel, the writing is in itself the finished product, and so it was an opportunity for me to tell a story directly to an audience.
“Abomination” is a kind of interesting hybrid of historical fiction and fantasy. It’s set in England during the Dark Ages and the reign of Alfred the Great, at a time when he was desperately trying to defend England against Viking invasion. The twist is that it’s an alternate version of that history in which magic and monsters are real. I don’t want to give away too much about the story but, much like Eli, I’ve had a lot of fun combining pulpy, fun elements – cool magic, gnarly monsters and epic battles – with some deeper emotional and philosophical themes that hopefully will resonate with people.
JB: You have successfully crossed pretty much all the planes of writing a writer can cross: gaming, film and the coveted novel. What’s been your favorite medium? What’s been the most challenging?
Gary: I think film will always be my first love, even though it’s by far the most challenging medium to survive and find satisfaction in as a writer. It’s a business that is often brutally indifferent toward writers, far more so than any other. That’s part of the reason I experimented with writing “Abomination” as a novel, I wanted to see what it was like to write something where the buck stopped with me.
JB: Do you read screenplays ever? If so, what do you like? If not, what would you like to read?
Gary: Yeah, I try to read as many as possible as I find them incredibly inspirational and instructive. I tell people who ask me for advice on becoming a screenwriter not to read how-to books but to just read great scripts. When I was first starting out in the early 90’s there was no internet to speak of and finding scripts to read was almost impossible. These days there are so many great resources online to find those scripts and learn from them.
JB: What are some of your favorite films?
Gary: Off the top of my head: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Midnight Run, Die Hard, Master and Commander, Big Trouble in Little China, Time Bandits, Children of Men.