|Born and raised in London, Gary Whitta has lived in San Francisco for the past 14 years. He started his writing career as a videogame and entertainment journalist, editing such publications as PC Gamer, Next Generation and Total Movie before deciding to pursue a career as a screenwriter. Whitta has authored more than a dozen original screenplays, including Reaper, a supernatural thriller currently in pre-production. More recently he has written for several major studio productions, including Akira and Warcraft. He is currently writing the science fiction adventure The Defenders, with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci set to produce. Whitta is also a comic book author, having written Image Comics’ popular Death, Jr. series, named one of 2007’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens by the American Library Association. He wrote The Book of Eli, which arrives in theaters January 15, 2010.
You were born and raised in London. What was life like for you as a child? Were movies a big part of it? Writing?
Even though I was born and raised in England, I am definitely a child of American popular culture. We’ve always imported a lot of our pop culture from the U.S. and that was particularly true in the 80s when I was a kid, so I grew up on TV shows like The A-Team, Battlestar Galactica, Knight Rider, all that great pulpy action-adventure/sci-fi stuff. Movie-wise I was a big Star Wars geek, but the movie that was really my first love, the one I watched so many times I wore out the VHS tape, was Raiders of the Lost Ark. I thought it was just a perfect movie (and still do today), and that was probably the first movie that made me seriously want to do this for a living. I never seriously got into the idea until later in the 80s though, when I was in my late teens and I saw Die Hard, which absolutely blew me away. That was the first movie I saw that I watched on another level beyond just enjoying it. I became fascinated with how it was constructed because I loved how cleverly it all worked, so (because this was before the days of downloading screenplays from the Internet for study) I would work my way through the VHS tape watching the tape counter to see when key events happened and try to figure out the story structure. I wrote my first screenplay right after that, which not surprisingly was a Die Hard clone.
You wrote for the gaming magazine Ace. How did this come about? How long were you with them?
Not very long. I’ve worked on a bunch of different gaming magazines over the years, primarily PC Gamer, which I helped launch in the early 90s and went on to become quite successful, which is what brought me to the U.S.
Was moving to the States difficult for you? What were your goals at the time? Were you even thinking about writing scripts, or were you solely focused on journalism?
We launched the U.K. version of PC Gamer in 1993, and I moved to America to work on the U.S. version in 1996. It was definitely something I very much wanted to do. My ambitions were always based in America since I’d visited California several times and fell in love with it, and also because I knew that if I ever wanted to get serious about doing the kind of screenwriting I wanted to do, that was where I needed to be. I was so busy with PC Gamer though I never had a lot of time to focus on the screenwriting side, although I did manage to bash out a few more specs in my spare time—nothing good enough to show to anyone, just learning the craft by trial and error.
Do you feel writing about the world of gaming ultimately helped your writing as a script writer?
Not particularly, as they’re very different disciplines. But I did actually get my first manager from gaming in a roundabout way, as I was a big fan of the Tomb Raider games when they first came out and always thought they had movie potential. When I heard they were thinking about a movie I started writing a script on spec, and though it never went anywhere it did eventually find its way onto the Internet where it won a few fans (someone even adapted it into a comic book) and came to the attention of a small boutique management company which signed me and got me my first meetings in Hollywood.
Tell us about writing your first script. What was your approach like?
It was really just an effort to employ the lessons I had attempted to learn from watching and analyzing Die Hard. It was basically the Die Hard model but in a sci-fi vein, about an engineer who became stranded on a futuristic space battleship after the robotic soldiers on board had gone haywire and mutinied against the crew. So it was the basic “lone hero trapped in a location with a bunch of heavily armed bad guys” model, but the sci-fi setting let me do some fun stuff with it. My approach was awful though, I was basically so excited to just jump in and write that I did exactly that without any thought of outlining. So I learned about the need to do at least some basic outlining the hard way because I kept writing myself into corners.
In September 2004, you sold your script Reaper to Media 8. What was the inspiration for the story? What were your experiences in writing it? Setting it up? How did things change for your career once the deal was announced?
Reaper came from wanting to explore issues of mortality and life and death, which I think are fairly universal for audiences; I also love old-school noir gumshoe mysteries so I kinda married the two, so it was like a classic private-eye detective story but with a supernatural layer to it. I like the idea of the femme fatale being the ULTIMATE femme fatale because she is Death incarnate. It wasn’t an easy script to write because mystery stories are inherently very reliant on plot, which I’ve since come to think of as the least interesting part of a story and certainly the least fun to write. The more moving parts a story has, the more it gives me a headache. Reaper is a story with a lot of twists and reversals and surprises that all have to make sense like a clockwork mechanism, so I did a lot of rewrites to make that work. We sold it and set it up pretty quickly, and it definitely helped advance my career by getting me a lot more meetings and assignment work than I’d been able to get before.
You sold The Book of Eli in May 2007 to Warner Bros. and Silver Pictures. Where did the idea for the story come from, and what was writing the script like? What took place during the selling process? Were there rewrites?
The Book of Eli came from a number of different places. On a pulp level I’ve always been fascinated by lone wandering hero type protagonists; I love characters like The Man With No Name and those great old samurai movies like Yojimbo. There’s something quite mythic about the idea of the enigmatic warrior nomad, so I had been looking for a way to do my version of that character for a while. I’ve also always been fascinated by questions of faith and spirituality and was looking for a canvas that would let me explore those ideas. So Eli was really a combination of those ideas and wanting to create a story that would deliver on a bad-ass popcorn level but which might also leave people with something a little deeper to think about once the film was over.
The first draft of the script came together very, very quickly. It’s a very simple story that required minimal outlining (all I had was a one-page beat sheet and some longer essays I’d written for myself about who Eli was and what the theme of the film was), so I had a first rough draft finished in about six days, writing about twenty pages a day. I did some rewrites to clean it up, and we went out to studios shortly after and it sold to Warner Bros for Joel Silver to produce pretty quickly. We went into more rewrites after that, mostly working with the Hughes Brothers and Denzel to integrate their notes since they had very specific ideas about what they wanted to bring to the story. I have to say the development process with those guys was really fantastic and really helped make the script a lot better, but at the same time I have the rare privilege of being able to look at the finished film and absolutely recognize it as the film that I wrote; no compromises. I’m really happy with it.
Around this same time, you were also working on the comic book Death Jr. How did that project come about? What was it like writing a comic book versus a script? Easier? Tougher? Ted Naifeh did the illustrations. For those not familiar with the process of writing a comic book or graphic novel, can you describe the collaborative process? Is the development and creation part similar to writing a script for a movie? Lots of cooks in the kitchen?
Writing for comic books is a very different skill set and a different format which I had a difficult time getting used to at first, but fortunately Ted is such an amazing artist he was able to take pages that I gave to him basically in screenplay form and adapt them into a comics format. You still get notes when writing a comic book but ultimately less—there are far fewer cooks. I developed the story with the creative team at Foundation 9, who had originally created the Death Jr. characters for a videogame series, breaking down the story beats for each of the issues, and then I went off and wrote, submitting each draft for their notes and corrections. It was really a quite similar process to developing a movie. Ted was almost like the director as he had a lot of great ideas for how to present things visually.
I really don’t have much light to shed on how to write a comic book as I pretty much approached it no differently to how I would write a screenplay but broken down into episodic format; Ted did all the hard work of figuring out how to make it work in comic book panel form. I did find that I had a lot more creative license to do things that are generally frowned upon in screenwriting, such as “directing” on the page with specific details for how things should be presented visually, camera angles and such. In more traditional comics script writers typically lay things down for the artist in very specific visual detail, but perhaps due to screenwriting being my native form I’d rather work in broad strokes and give the artist room to come up with a visual interpretation of what’s written.
I’m currently developing a new original comics project with Darick Robertson (Transmetropolitan, The Boys) and I’m using that as an opportunity to learn a lot more about how to write specifically for the comic book form and to maximize the particular strengths of the medium. But I really don’t see them as that different; they are both visual storytelling forms that use many of the same visual and narrative devices. I thought Watchmen was a good example of where they were able to basically take the comic book panels as originally drawn and in many cases treat them as effectively the storyboard for the film.
You were hired in February 2008 to write Akira, an English-language remake of the Japanese anime. What’s the current status?
I wrote several drafts for the studio but that’s a project I haven’t been involved with for a long time. I hope they make it because I think it has a ton of potential.
In June of 2009, you were hired by DreamWorks to write The Defenders, based on an idea by Masi Oka. (Alex Kurtzman & Roberto Orci will produce, DJ Caruso will direct, and Oka will executive produce.) How has working with two writers-turned-producers worked out? What has the writing process been like? What’s the current status of the project?
I’ve been working pretty closely with Bob Orci and Alex Kurtzman and Masi and DJ. That’s really been a great experience. Bob and Alex obviously have incredible instincts, and developing this story with them has been a lot of fun and a great learning experience for me. I can’t say too much more about it because it’s so early and we’re trying to keep it all very hush-hush until we’re ready to show what we’ve been working on. But I can’t say enough good things about working with Kurtzman/Orci, it’s been a fantastic experience.
You’ve also written for TV, correct? What shows, and what were your experiences like? How was it different for you from writing a feature script?
I’ve specced some TV shows and have a couple of TV projects in development but nothing fully formed enough to talk about that. I love the episodic form as it’s an opportunity to develop really interesting story arcs that pay off over the long term. Back when I was starting out I specced episodes of Futurama and Star Trek Voyager, which were good practice but never really got me anywhere. I think the advent of long-form mythology shows like Lost and Heroes has really opened up TV as a creative medium, giving writers the opportunity to develop epic stories that can really evolve and grow over time rather than just procedurals that are effectively the same episode repeated over and over but with different details.
Circle of Confusion manages your career. How did they end up repping you? What is your relationship like with your manager, and how does it differ from your agent?
I wrote a spec and sent it out wide and it caught the attention of Circle of Confusion, and that was that! I love the guys at Circle, they are very nurturing and hands-on. Unlike the agent relationship, which is a lot more biz oriented, managers like Circle are a lot more focused on the creative picture; I run ideas by them, develop projects and get great notes from them when I’m trying to get a script in good shape.
You’re currently repped by United Talent Agency. Who is your agent? How did you find representation with UTA? And what’s your relationship like? Is there a lot feedback?
I have a whole team of people at UTA who take very good care of me; my main point-person is Charlie Ferraro. Circle of Confusion hooked me up with them after I’d been managed by them for a while. They keep me busy with a fairly constant flow of scripts and books to read with a view to adapt/rewrite and are always asking me when they’re going to see the next spec script. Over the years they’ve developed a pretty good feel for the kind of material I’m likely to respond to; generally if it has laser beams or robots or ninjas or zombies in it (preferably all at once) then I’m probably going to like it.
What about feedback on your writing? Who reads your work, and how do you sift through the various suggestions and ideas?
I rely a lot on my managers, who have great instincts, and a couple of trusted writer friends. At the end of the day though you’ve got to listen to your gut. With The Book of Eli, for example, I was concerned that the idea was not commercial and so would be shot down by my reps if I pitched it to them. But I was so consumed by the idea that I knew I had to write it, so I actually wrote it under the radar and only told them about it when I had a first draft. In that case at least it turned out pretty well.
A big question that comes up for many screenwriters, of course, is whether they must live in L.A. You live in the San Francisco area. Has this been a hindrance? Or have you found it not to be a problem, or even beneficial?
Living in San Francisco works for me because it’s close enough to L.A. that I can get there and back as often as I need to without much hassle, while being far enough away that I feel like I have a regular life that’s not totally defined by all the Hollywood stuff. I don’t think it’s a hindrance in my case. I certainly can’t complain about how my career has worked out so far, and my reps have never told me I need to move there. Once you’re established it becomes a lot easier. In terms of breaking in obviously it can’t hurt to be there and probably does increase your chances of success to some extent, but I would never advise anyone to just pick up and move there unless you have plenty to fall back on, because in most cases the odds are just too long. Your best bet for success is to write an amazing spec, and you can do that from anywhere.
What have meetings been like for you? Describe your experiences going in to discuss your writing and ideas.
It’s been great. I definitely noticed a big bump after selling Eli. Suddenly you find yourself meeting with more senior people in more richly appointed offices and talking about bigger projects. Obviously the more confident you are “in the room” and the more intelligently you’re able to discuss your own work in person the better, and always be prepared to discuss other ideas because that’s the one question execs and producers will always have for you, especially in a general meeting: what else do you have, what are you writing next? Never allow yourself to get caught out by that question and always have something to talk about and tease them with.
Do you outline your scripts first? Write treatments? Do index cards? And what’s a typical writing day like for you?
I do as little outlining as possible, at least where plot is concerned. It’s the least interesting part of story for me and I also think the least memorable part of the finished film. Look at Beverly Hills Cop; does anyone really remember what the specifics of the plot were? That’s not the part of the film that stays with people, what they remember is Axel Foley, who at the time was a totally fresh character, and that’s what really drove the movie. The plot was really just a vehicle for that character to entertain audiences, and I think generally plot is just a device that lets us explore the ideas and themes that the movie is really about. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the project I’ve had the most success with, The Book of Eli, is by far the most simplistic from a plot standpoint but the most fully realized in terms of character and theme. When I was writing Eli all I had outlined plotwise was a one-page sheet laying out 10-12 of the major plot beats, but I had pages and pages of essays that I had written about the character of Eli and what the themes of the film are. That for me was the most important stuff, and the plot was just something I needed to communicate that stuff in narrative form.
As for a typical writing day, I tend to write mostly in the afternoons and into the evening if I’m on a roll; I try to do a minimum of five pages a day, anything beyond that is gravy.
As someone who’s still intimately involved with the world of video gaming, how do you feel about seeing so many projects being set up based on video games, board games, and toy lines that seemingly have no real story to them? Do you feel Hollywood is simply latching on to a brand name, or there is something genuinely savvy about basing a film on a game or toy?
I think Hollywood is becoming much smarter about this stuff these days. In the old days they would snap up video games to adapt based just on how successful the game had been without any thought for story. Nowadays, as games themselves are becoming more sophisticated from a narrative/cinematic viewpoint they’re becoming much more fertile ground for film adaptation, as legitimate as books or stage plays or any other source material.
What things do you feel more writers need to recognize about themselves or the industry? What hard realities do aspiring screenwriters need to be aware of?
My most important tip: Be prepared to work collaboratively and accept the opinions of others. If you are precious about your writing you will not last five minutes.
Beyond that, understand that this is a brutally tough industry to break into and an even more brutal one to survive in, but don’t let that put you off. I think there’s a kind of in-built Darwinism with screenwriters; those who quit are the ones who are supposed to. The only common factor that all successful screenwriters share is that none of them ever gave up.
In terms of practical advice, I would caution writers to be very wary of the burgeoning industry of screenwriting teachers and “experts” who have never had anything produced or even sold anything but claim to have the secret to writing a blockbuster movie. As a writer who was mostly self-taught I am extremely skeptical of costly seminars and courses and basically anyone who says they know the formula to writing a successful movie. No such formula exists, and the more you try to write according to some formula, the more you are likely to wind up with a formulaic screenplay. I learned much more from reading screenplays by excellent writers like John Logan and David Benioff than I ever did from any “how-to” books, which I’ve found can actually be counterproductive in making you anxious that your script has to do x, y and z in order to be good. My best advice is to not get bogged down in making sure your script adheres to some kind of predefined formula and instead focus on getting to know who your characters are most importantly to write to a theme: Know what your story is really ABOUT beyond just the mechanics of the plot. If you can distill your screenplay down to a central message or question or idea, and if you know your characters well enough that you always know how they would react in any given situation, then you will never lose your way; those are the real guideposts that will ensure you write a film that feels consistent and true, not some bottled story formula.
What are you working on next?
Got a couple of really cool things in the works but nothing I can talk about yet. Watch this space!