I was a big fan of The Book of Eli before I realized its writer, Gary Whitta, was someone I’d love to cross paths with. He was once the editor-in-chief of PC Gamer magazine, has worked on numerous video game scripts (including Telltale’s fantastic Walking Dead series), spends his free time writing Iron Man meets Downton Abbey fan fiction and is, generally speaking, a big nerd.
He’s most recently been buzzworthy because he wrote the first draft of Disney’s first Star Wars spin-off film, directed by Gareth Edwards and scheduled to hit theaters in 2016. His next film project is an adaptation of the Mark Millar comic Starlight.
He’s now in the process of publishing his first novel, Abomination, through the relatively new, book-centric crowdfunding website Inkshares. The book was fully funded within a single day, but you can still pre-order it here. It’s an Inkshares exclusive until May.
I spent some time chatting with Whitta on the phone last week about the crowdfunding process, his thoughts on Hollywood’s recent comic book movies and more.
Tell me about Abomination.
I don’t think there’s anything out there quite like it. It’s an interesting mashup of dark fantasy and historical fiction — even though it’s a world of monsters and magic, rather than being set in a Middle-earth or a Westeros or some other imagined fantasy kingdom it’s set in historical England during the dark ages in the reign of King Alfred the Great at a time when he was trying to protect England from Viking invasion.
And I thought it was an interesting way to tell a fantasy story, to set it in a real historical time and place. We’ve got all these crazy elements like magic and monsters, so by putting them in a real world alongside real historical events and historical figures it was a way to kind of ground even the more fantastical elements of the book and make them feel a little more real, a little more believable.
I would think that if you said “I wrote a Star Wars movie. Give me a book deal,” you’d get one. Why did you go with this different publishing route?
Well first of all, you might be surprised. Whatever pedigree or profile or reputation I might have as a screenwriter doesn’t necessarily translate one-to-one in the publishing world. I suspect that if I had made a real effort to find a “real publisher,” a traditional publisher like a Random House or one of those kind of places, I may well have found one.
But I was very interested in what I had been reading and seeing as a reader myself about the advent of self-publishing. Back in the day the only way to publish a book was either to find a publisher or to use what they used to call these vanity publishing services, where you could basically pay to have your book published. And there was — quite rightly, I think — a stigma attached to that.
But a lot’s changed since then and the digital age has allowed us to break down a lot of the barriers that used to exist. … A lot of those institutional gatekeepers that separate people who want to create something from people who want to read or watch or listen to or buy something.
I think of it a little bit like an hourglass, where one bulb is the people who want to make things and the other bulb is all the people who want to consume things, and the little narrow part where the sand goes through in the middle is a handful of people in suits who decide what gets from one side to the other. And the Internet has really changed that.
… [Inkshares] is a new startup, it’s kind of like Kickstarter for books, in that they provide an outlet for people who want to write something, or have written something, to present that to an audience. The difference between Inkshares and Kickstarter is that with Kickstarter they basically just collect the money. Once you’ve hit you’re goal, they basically give your money to you, and then it’s your job to go away and figure out how to spend that money and make the product and deliver it to the people who backed it.
What Inkshares does is all of that Kickstarter type stuff, but then once the money is raised they then also produce the product. They do the marketing, they design the cover, they publish it, they distribute it and get in the hands of the people who ordered it. … And so it felt a little bit to me like the best of both worlds. All the services and benefits and leverage a “real” publisher has with the freedom of self-publishing.
Can you tell me a little bit about Starlight?
Hollywood likes to turn comic books into movies, but for every comic book out there that gets turned into a film there are hundreds of others that don’t. [Starlight creator Mark Millar], though, is kind of batting a thousand in that almost every single comic book that he’s created has been set up as a film. He did Kick-Ass, he did Wanted, and he just recently did Kingsman: The Secret Service.
Starlight is the next book he did after that, and they sent it to me and I just immediately fell in love with it. … It’s such a great idea, the idea of, “What if Flash Gordon got old?” Mark’s character is a Flash Gordon-type hero who years ago as an astronaut went into outer space, got sucked through a black hole and wound up saving an alien planet from an evil dictator. But then when he returned to Earth, nobody believed any of it had happened.
Years later, as a much older man, a spaceship lands in his back yard and it’s the same people as before saying, “Our planet’s been overtaken again, and you’re the guy who saved us 30 years ago. You need to come back and do it again. You’re our only hope.” But of course now he’s 30 years older and 30 pounds heavier and getting out of the chair isn’t as easy as it used to be.
My favorite movie last year was Guardians of the Galaxy, and I think there’s, hopefully, a sort of swing back now in Hollywood as a trend of making those unapologetically fun movies that we all grew up with as kids during the 1980s. Stuff like Goonies, The Last Starfighter, E.T. and all these great films that we don’t really seem to make anymore. I feel like Guardians of the Galaxy was the first real step back towards wanting to embrace pure old-fashioned fun, and I think Starlight is a movie that can be that can be part of that movement as well.
It definitely does seem like, even with comic book stuff, everything has to be so dark.
Yeah, and I’ve gotta tell you, it’s been a little bit exhausting.
Don’t get me wrong, I think what Chris Nolan did with the Batman movies was tremendous, but as a writer sitting in meetings in Hollywood, literally every single project that I would sit down in, if it was based on a comic book, what you’d hear from the other side of the table was, “We want to find the dark, gritty, edgy version of this.” And that’s not necessarily appropriate for every single kind of property.
Batman I totally get, because that is a dark and edgy world. It’s a world of crime and his parents were murdered. It makes sense to do the dark version of that. I don’t necessarily think a dark version of Flash Gordon would work. Flash Gordon is fun and colorful and kind of camp.
So one of the reasons I was so grateful for Guardians of the Galaxy, beyond it just being a fun film, is I think and I hope it’s been a part of breaking the spell in Hollywood of feeling like everything has to be done that way [like the Dark Knight trilogy] in order to attract an audience. Maybe the pendulum will start swinging back to doing the kind of fun movies we loved when we were kids.
You’ve done Star Wars, you’ve touched The Walking Dead. Are there any other worlds you’d like to play in if given the opportunity?
I say that I don’t typically like to adapt other people’s ideas and other people’s work, [but] there is actually a fairly long list of exceptions to that — things that I really love or feel like I could add something to. In my career I’ve worked on the live action version — and these are all things that haven’t yet or perhaps never will get made — but I’ve worked on Akira, I’ve worked on the Warcraft movie, I worked last year on a remake ofEscape From New York, which is a favorite movie of mine from the 1980s.
… If there’s a creative reason to go back and retell a story in a new way, that’s valid. And when I see that in a remake or an adaptation, I will engage in it. But when I get these projects that feel very cynical and are motivated purely by business reasons, it’s hard to get excited about something like that.
I know you can say almost nothing about Star Wars, but I’ve gotta at least try to ask how that process was for you.
I wish I could say more. I had a fantastic time. It really was a dream job for me. It was by far the most fun and rewarding creative writing project I’ve done in my life. Going from a kid who was a fan of Star Wars to being able to even get near that, let alone help contribute a piece to the ongoing legacy of it is just amazing. My mind was blown. So I loved working on it, I think they’re going to make a fantastic film, and I can’t wait to see it.
Do you have any advice for aspiring screenwriters out there?
People often ask me that question, and I tell them to not get too carried away in a formal line of inquiry. And what I mean by that is don’t read too many books, don’t go to too many seminars or read too many articles on how to write a screenplay.
Because the truth is very few people can really tell you how to actually do that. And a lot of people are out there who will tell you they can teach you who really can’t. There’s a very large and predatory business out there that thrives on the fact that there are people who really want to break into this business and really think that there’s a magic door or formula or secret to success, and there really isn’t.
You can talk to a hundred different screenwriters who are successful and hear a hundred different stories about how they broke in. The only common element between every successful screenwriter I know is that none of them ever gave up. And that’s all I tell people to do, is don’t quit. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it, least of all yourself.
But in terms of specific advice, what I tell people to do is read great scripts. … Study great scripts and watch the films that are based on those scripts. Look at how what happens on the screen was described on the page.
I think there are things to be learned from reading books about screenwriting, just don’t get too caught up in that, because it’s very easy to get turned around and go nuts trying to follow rules and trying to paint by numbers and follow some kind of formula to writing a hit movie.
What I believe is that if you write a movie according to some formula, the result is a formulaic movie, and that’s not what people are looking for in Hollywood.