Screenwriter Gary Whitta talks ‘Eli’ and ‘Akira’

Screenwriter Gary Whitta on The Book of Eli and the live action version of Akira.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Screenwriter Gary Whitta talks 'Eli' and 'Akira'

Gary Whitta and I go way back. When he was running the short-lived magazine Total Movie, I covered his launch party for the website Daily Radar. Nearly 10 years later, he is an A-list screenwriter and hasn’t forgotten where he came from. We reconnected over The Book of Eli when I did a one on one interview with him. 

Crave Online: This is the ultimate screenwriter story, isn’t it? You wrote a spec script and it got made with big stars and directors. 

Gary Whitta: It happens. In this day and age, especially when so many movies are remakes and adaptations and it’s harder than ever to convince the studios to make something original without any pre-existing material, yeah, it’s quite a rare thing. 

Crave Online: So how did you do it? 

Gary Whitta: I don't know. I’m still trying to figure that out. I had been working in the business. I’d become a screenwriter. I’d sold an earlier movie, small movie, to an independent company and I was jobbing around, kind of in the middle tiers of Hollywood doing assignment work and things like that. I wrote Eli and it got put out into the world. Warner Brothers bought it, the Hughes Brothers became interested. The next thing you know, Denzel’s interested. It just kind of snowballed. It all happened so quickly, I still haven’t really taken inventory of it all. 

Crave Online: Still, 10 years is a rough road to pay your dues, right? 

Gary Whitta: Oh, but it wasn’t 10 years where I was spending my whole time doing that. After Total Movie, I continued to work. Future brought me back and I went back to the gaming side, worked on Next Generation magazine for a while. I worked on Daily Radar for a while, did some other jobs and then got into writing on the game side. So I was on the gaming side, I wanted to get into the movie side. Gaming’s become more cinematic. That was kind of the stepping stone for me. I did some work for video game companies doing screenwriting for games. That kind of segued into me having more time to do screenwriting. I wrote a bunch of scripts, sold my first thing in 2004 I think. At that point, I felt like I was broken in and I was taking meetings. That was the first year I got to write Screenwriter on my taxes. That’s what I did and I earned a decent living but it was clear that I was still very far from anything like A list. A lot of the jobs that as a geek I might be excited about, “I want to go and pitch on the Batman movie,” stuff like that, they wouldn’t listen to me on those jobs. Then the amazing thing was Eli completely changed that. Having the right script at the right time changes the industry’s perception of you literally overnight and suddenly the phone is ringing and you get to go and pitch on all these jobs that just the previous week were out of your reach, so it’s kind of crazy. 

Crave Online: Still, it’s Joel Silver and Warner Brothers, so what changed from your original script? 

Gary Whitta: You know, remarkably little. I just saw the film for the first time a couple of weeks ago. You’ve seen the more finished version than me. I only saw the 98% finished version where there were still visual effects to go, but the cut was finished. It was the movie and I was really thrilled with it. Especially someone like me, I’m always going to nitpick a million different things but I can comfortably say that’s the movie I wrote up there on the screen. I honestly got kind of choked up at the end a bit, going, “Oh my God, they made my movie.” You hear so many horror stories in Hollywood about you sell a script, but by the time it gets to the screen, something’s happened to it. It’s unrecognizable. It’s turned into something homogenized and market tested. That never happened here. We were really fortunate that all the people, the family of people that surrounded this film, the Hughes Brothers, Denzel, everyone was someone on board with what this film was. No one ever came and said, “We think there’s a good idea here but we see something different.” They got that this was a movie that they could make. Denzel believed in it from the beginning, was incredibly protective of it and shepherded it through production to make sure that the vision that we shared for the film was the one that wound up on the screen. 

Crave Online: You didn’t get any studio interference since it’s more of an intellectual climax, like let’s put in one more shoot out? 

Gary Whitta: First of all, I’m very glad to hear you say that. It was all about intellectual stakes, the idea of what if what they were all fighting about was knowledge, was a book, was a belief. It was something intellectual. Seriously, to hear you talk about that as an intellectual climax means that that came across, which is really good. The thing that we set out to do, we always said we want to make a thinking man’s action movie. That actually was something that one of the critics wrote. That came back to me, someone said, “Someone just came out and said it’s a thinking man’s action movie.” I was like, “We did it!” I’m so pleased because that’s exactly what we wanted to do. 

Crave Online: Now the Hughes Brothers have said it’s okay to say that the book is the Bible. How did they keep the bible out of the press? Should it be a secret or surprise? 

Gary Whitta: I think at this point, certainly there are spoiler elements at the end of the movie that we absolutely want to keep out of it. What the book is, you can tell I’m kind of hedging around even saying it in as many words, but they did a glimpse of it in the trailer. They made a decision that they were going to hint at it if not kind of put it all the way up front. I think the studio’s been very aware that they’re walking kind of a tightrope here where they want people to get a sense of it but they don’t want to feel like that’s what the movie is. I’ve said all along that this is not a religious film. This is not a preachy film. I think anyone can enjoy this and hopefully people will take from this film whatever they bring to it. I think there’s a number of different ways people can respond to this film.

Crave Online: Just saying it’s not religious should give away what we’re talking about. 

Gary Whitta: The funny thing is, even though it’s been in the trailer, it’s only a quick shot. You see it’s clearly a cross on the front of the book. You see a couple of shots of pages from Genesis but there are still people online going, “What’s the book? What’s it going to turn out to be?” 

Crave Online: Once they start quote it about a half hour in, you’d have to have no culture whatsoever not to get it. 

Gary Whitta: Just in the trailer it’s blink and you’ll miss it, there’s a couple of shots. I feel that kind of put the cat out of the bag. They wanted to do it but not in an overt way. I still feel like that was the right way to go and even in the development of the film. It was shown in the very early draft of the script, it was shown very early on what the book was. In that early scene when he’s reading the book in the house, we showed what it was. We made a decision in development, let’s not tip that right away. Let’s have the book be a secret and kind of tease it out. Reveal what it is, then reveal what’s unique about it later in the film. So even just in terms of the experience of watching the film, we didn’t want people to get it right away. 

Crave Online: Do you expect it to be controversial to say that this book is so important to society? 

Gary Whitta: Yes, that is absolutely what I think people will say. I think any time you go into this area of philosophical thought about faith and spirituality and is there something greater than us and different belief systems, then people are going to pile in. Everyone’s going to have an opinion. That’s why I said I think people will take from this film what they bring to it. Whatever your worldview is, whatever you believe I think will color what you take from the film. And honestly, that’s what Allen and Albert responded to when they first read the script. They were saying this is exciting to us that this is a film that’s about something, that has a message. They don’t even have compatible views on faith. Just as brothers they believe different things, so that didn’t affect what they brought to the film. They don’t feel like they’re pushing any particular “this is what you should think or this is what you should believe” one way or the other. What excited them was they knew that it could be controversial but in a good way.


Crave Online: Are you working on Akira now? 

Gary Whitta: I did that. I’m done with that. Like I said, the door opened a lot after Eli. There was a couple of things that came my way that again, literally the previous week they would not have put me in the room, but after Eli, suddenly you’re on all these lists. You’re the hot writer of the week. The script wound up on The Black List that year and it was a big thing for me. Akira was one. They came to me almost immediately with that. I was a big fan of the original and wanted to get involved, so I worked on that for about six months, did a number of drafts for them. The script is with them now. Now I go on the internet to find out what’s going on with it like the rest of everyone else. Once you’re done, you’re kind of done. There’s no courtesy calls to keep you updated or anything. I also worked on the Warcraft movie for some time. I did several drafts of that. That was before. I did a bunch of different drafts and then they hired Sam Raimi who had a different vision for the film so I think they’re probably going to go with a different version than the one I wrote, but again I come from the video game universe originally. I played Warcraft to death so when they asked me if I was interested in working on the movie, that was something I kind of really threw myself into. 

Crave Online: As a game fan, what was the way you thought you could make a good game movie? 

Gary Whitta: With Warcraft, it was more of a sense that unlike a lot of video game movies where there’s a narrative that you have to try and copy, Warcraft is not so much any one single story as it is an entire universe. It’s just a canvas in which you can tell many different stories. It was one of the big questions, like what story do we want to tell? There are so many different corners of this universe and so many different mythologies that we could really do anything. To be honest with you, as much as it’s interesting, what I have to say about Warcraft is really not that interesting in a real sense because they’re going in a different direction now anyway, so what I’m saying may well be yesterday’s news now. 

Crave Online: But in the context of they keep trying, and there’s been no great one, it’s a constant issue. 

Gary Whitta: They’ve never had a lot of success with it. I think part of the reason for that is because in the past, they just picked the wrong projects. In the old day when they were doing Mario Bros. and stuff, they were just picking games that were big hits that had a lot of global awareness that weren’t necessarily stories. What’s the story of Mario Bros. if you turn it into a movie? You end up with the movie that you got which was awful. But now I think what’s happening, as games are evolving and games are trying to be more like movies and they’re becoming more cinematic and sophisticated in their narratives, they become more fertile ground for adaptation. For example, I think the Prince of Persia movie will probably be the first really good one, like this is a good movie that stands on its own. 

Crave Online: That was a good choice and Halo was a no brainer, but they couldn’t figure that out. Tomb Raider should’ve been good. 

Gary Whitta: Could’ve been good although I always felt the difficulty they had with that was when you take something that’s basically cloned from a movie, like Tomb Raider is basically just a contemporary Indiana Jones. When you reverse engineer it back into a movie, it’s hard for it not to seem derivative in some way. But I think they took the right attitude with Prince of Persia. They took a game that has a rich world and a strong narrative and interesting characters and they kept Jordan, who created the games, on. He wrote the script and remained involved in order to make sure the fidelity to what made the game special stayed true on the screen. Plus, they just went all out. They hired the best people. They did the full Pirates of the Caribbean. I think that’s part of it as well. A lot of times we’ve seen these movies kind of done on the cheap. They don’t hire the best people. They’re just kind of thrown out into the marketplace. You look at something like Prince of Persia, which is the first time they really went all out, top director, top talent across the line and you see the result. 

Crave Online: What was the 2010 update of Akira? 

Gary Whitta: Oh, I really can’t speak about it. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about what we were doing and I presume that still holds true so I have to honor the confidentiality that I said I would go into that project with. 

Crave Online: But it was live action? 

Gary Whitta: Yeah, it was for a live action version and I guess what I can tell you is some people were misinformed when they reported that it was a remake. It wasn’t a remake of the anime film. We went back to the source and were doing an adaptation of the original manga graphic novels, the six books that told the full story, of which only half was told in the original anime version. So we wanted ours to be the full epic version. It was going to be two movies because there was no way to do it all in one film. I don't know if that’s still the plan. I haven’t worked on it in a long time. 

Crave Online: Have you done The Defenders? 

Gary Whitta: That’s actually what I’m working on now. Masi Oka had this idea for a video game inspired movie about a bunch of kids who play a video game. They get kind of propelled into the real life version of that game. He knew me from Eli was going around and he was a big World of Warcraft fan. Actually, he and I are in the same guild. We play in the same Warcraft guild now because we kind of bonded over that being game geeks. He knew the Warcraft script so he knew that I knew that online video game world, so brought me in and we worked with Kurtzman and Orci to develop it, took it into Dreamworks and set it up. That’s going to be the next thing I do. 

Crave Online: You got to invent your own game? 

Gary Whitta: Yeah, it’s not based on any existing game. It’s kind of like a hybrid version of things you see today but it’s our own original thing. 

Crave Online: Can you tell us anything more? 

Gary Whitta: No. I know there is a plan that they actually want to make the game and have it be something that you can play the game that you see in the film. I remember when The Last Starfighter came out, I went to the arcade because I wanted to play the game. Then I found out years later that it was just a mockup. That game never really existed. The idea is that we’ll actually build the game as well, like EA or someone would make the game and put it out there and you can feel like the movie has come into the real world a little bit. 

Crave Online: Would that be an intellectual perspective or pure action fun? 

Gary Whitta: For me, you can tell tonally there’s not going to be an R rated movie like Eli. It’s going to be more of a family fun thing. I always wanted to write a movie where you can imagine going to Disneyland, like they build the theme park ride version of it. I go to Disneyland, go on their rides and go, “I want to make a movie that could be this, that’s just fun, that sense of childlike wonder.” The whole thing with Kurtzman and Orci was they wanted to make a movie that harkened back to those old Amblin movies, that tapped into the sense of childlike imagination that you don’t really see so much anymore. So I was totally on board with that because I grew up with all those movies in the ‘80s as well. That’s the plan tonally but the thing for me, you certainly see it in Eli and you’ll hopefully see it in this and anything else I do, is that the movie delivers on one level. With Eli, the movie delivers in terms of car chases and these cool martial arts fights and things explode and gun battles. On the popcorn level, it’s going to deliver that entertainment, but there’s something else going on underneath that will stay with you, hopefully like an idea or a message or a theme or a question that will linger in the mind of somebody who sees the movie, after the sound of the explosions has kind of faded out. We want to do that with the next movie too.