It’s rare to meet a real-life Renaissance man. Cue Gary Whitta, professional screenwriter whose writing career began when he was just 15. Later he spent time as the editor-in-chief of PC Gamer then pivoted into the film world. Since then, he’s penned multiple screenplays — including The Book of Eli and After Earth — overseen story direction on some of the biggest video games around (The Walking Dead) and has even penned Abomination, a medieval fantasy novel. Whitta has spread his writing talents across various media while telling highly engaging stories. Recently he was tapped to adapt the uniquely angled World War II film The War Magician, set to star Benedict Cumberbatch, while also working as one of the original screenwriters of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Where did you start as a writer? Have your roots always been in screenwriting?
I actually started out writing about video games for various magazines. That was my first career before moving into screenwriting. As a kid I grew up loving movies and video games, so to have had the opportunity to pursue both of those passions professionally has been a real blessing. I worked as a writer and editor in the games field for about 12 years and during that time I always had the itch to pursue the screenwriting thing, but never enough time. About 15 years ago I figured I was running out of time to take a serious crack at it, so I took a year off and just wrote a ton of stuff.
Tell me about the first screenplay you ever wrote and the first screenplay you sold.
The first one I ever wrote was at age 15, I was heavily influenced by Die Hard which had come out that year and so it was kind of a cheesy knock-off of that but on a spaceship with mutinous robots. The first one I actually sold, about a dozen scripts and 14 years later, was called Reaper, a supernatural detective noir. We set that up back in 2003 and since then it’s been in and out of development hell so many times I’ve almost lost track. But I’m told it’s actually getting made later this year! One thing you learn in the film business is to be patient. Very, very patient.
Is the screenwriting industry a vicious one?
I don’t know if “vicious” is the right word but I’ve been doing this for long enough to know that the film business is often brutally indifferent toward writers. They’re by far the most disposable and replaceable of any of the key creatives on a film production. I can’t think of any long-serving writers, even the super-successful ones, who haven’t been fired and replaced a bunch of times. On a work-for-hire job that can be easy enough to take, but on something you created yourself the emotional fallout can be devastating. I was replaced briefly on The Book of Eli, a movie I conceived and felt very deeply personally attached to, and when that happens, when something you love is taken away from you and given to someone else, the emotions you go through are weirdly like losing a wife or girlfriend you love to another guy. You ask yourself a lot of the same questions: I wonder what they’re doing together right now? What’s this new guy got that I haven’t? Is he better than me? Is he making her happier than I did? It sounds silly but it’s true. I think in that regard any creative endeavor is a lot like love — you have to make yourself vulnerable in order to truly engage in it, and with that vulnerability comes the risk of being hurt. But even after we do get hurt we wind up jumping back in again and again, because ultimately the rewards outweigh the risks, even if it doesn’t often seem that way.
From video games to feature films to novels, what’s your favorite writing medium?
Well screenwriting is certainly the one I’m most fluent and practiced in, my first language so to speak, but I really really enjoyed writing the novel. It was an opportunity to approach a story in a totally different way and free myself from a lot of the commercial and creative restrictions that often accompany writing something as a spec screenplay. Video games are by far the hardest medium to write for in my experience because you have all the traditional challenge of a linear medium — creating compelling characters, crafting a story that holds the audience’s interest — but with the added and massive burden of writing it in a way that allows the audience to interact with and change the story. It’s tremendously complex but when you get it right — as I think we did with The Walking Dead — it’s really satisfying.
Is the process for writing a spec different from the one for a studio deadline?
When you’re writing for yourself, without any external deadline, it’s a much more open-ended process. You’re under no pressure from anyone but yourself. For writers who often struggle to self-motivate that can actually be a problem, it’s why so many of us have that book or that screenplay that they’ll never quite finish. I find I often write better under a deadline because it keeps your feet to the fire and prevents you from procrastinating. But it really depends on how much the material compels you to stay at the keyboard. I was under no time pressure to write the first draft of The Book of Eli, but I was so in love with the story I was unable to think about anything else, so I wrote it extremely quickly, in about a week. Abomination, on the other hand, took a couple of years. Not because I loved the story any less, but because life and actual paid work kept getting in the way.
Why were you chosen to pen The War Magician?
I’ve actually been involved with it for many years. I’ve known the producer, Tony Eldridge, for my entire career. He’s had the rights to the book forever and when he first showed it to me I instantly fell in love with it. It’s such an amazing story I could barely believe it hadn’t already been turned into a major film. When Sherlock appeared on the BBC and I saw Benedict Cumberbatch for the first time I immediately called Tony and said, “This is the guy, he’s going to be a huge star and he’s the only person to play this character.” It took several years from that point and we jumped through a lot of hoops, I wrote Benedict a personal letter urging him to take the part and eventually took some time out from working on Star Wars in London last year to pitch him the movie at the offices of his production company, but we eventually got him and that’s when the movie became real.
Can you tell us anything about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story?
Your top five films. Go.
What are your top five screenplays you’ve read?
Again, off the top of my head the ones that stick out are Hard Wired by Jeff Vintar (that’s the spec script that eventually became I, Robot), Passengers by Jon Spaihts, Story of Your Life by Eric Heisserer, Steve Jobs by Aaron Sorkin, and Argo by Chris Terrio.
What other screenwriters, current or old, give you inspiration as a writer?
Pretty much anyone who has managed to survive in this business and remain in demand and maintain their enthusiasm for the creative work in spite of all the frustrations and vicissitudes of the screenwriting trade is an inspiration to me.