For Gary Whitta, the writer of “The Book of Eli,” the journey from script to screen can be summed up in one word: miraculous. “It’s a small miracle to sell a script, it’s an even bigger miracle to get it made. It’s an even bigger miracle than that to get it made in way that’s true to the script that you wrote, which I certainly think is the case here,” he told CBR News in an exclusive interview. “And an even bigger miracle than that to get it made at this, the Denzel Washington/Hughes Brothers/ Gary Oldman level, where it’s just all the best people making a film of, I think, a really high caliber.”
“The Book of Eli,” which opens nationwide on January 15th, originally began to take shape in the writer’s mind roughly three years ago. “I had been carrying some ideas around for a long time that I wanted to do. I always wanted to the mythic, lone, wandering, travelling hero; a samurai, man-with-no-name type character. I think there’s something very classically heroic about that type of character,” Whitta recalled. At the same time, he was also pondering the idea of spirituality. “I’ve always been really interested in questions of faith, and the big thing in this movie is the belief in something greater than you. That kind of spirituality is the most powerful force in the universe. It can be turned for either good or bad, depending on how we choose to see it or use it,” he explained.
The two aspects came together at a Halloween party. “[It] had a post-apocalyptic theme; people came dressed as Mad Max and stuff. I went to that and it got me thinking about those end of the world type ideas. This was the right canvas to tell this story,” he remembered. “I never thought I’d sit down and write a post-apocalyptic film. I wanted to write a movie about belief; about the power of belief and the power of faith. Also, I love the idea of a movie with intellectual stakes. That what’s at stake in this film, is knowledge, the idea of how that should be protected and what should be done with it and the idea of an intellectual battle [over the book] was really interesting. As it turned out, the idea of setting the movie after the end of the world, where so much knowledge and so much culture – so much of what makes us who we are – had been destroyed, was appropriate.”
While Whitta never set out to specifically write a post-apocalyptic tale, he feels that the current popularity of the genre speaks to a sense of fatalism in the 21st Century. “If you look at the footage of 9/11, when it’s real, it’s deeply, deeply disturbing, and yet you can see a fictionalized version of that on a grander scale,” the writer explained. “In a fictional context, that’s all good. Even though it’s quite close to something from recent memory that we know is deeply horrifying.
“At the same time, it is almost too easy to classify films like ‘Book of Eli’ and ‘The Road’ under one banner. I think, in fantasy, there is something fatalistic about it. I saw some trend stories in the media about how Hollywood is back on the post-apocalyptic front with [‘Eli’], ‘The Road,’ ‘2012,’ even ‘Zombieland.’ These movies are nothing like one another,” said Whitta. In regard to “The Book of Eli” specifically, the writer never saw the film as being dominated by its setting. “This was about saying something about belief and the power of believing in something bigger than you,” he explained.
The recent run of post-apocalyptic films also reflects an evolution in the genre similar to the one that occurred in the western genre during its years of success in the 20th Century. “I think even the pulpy subgenres have to evolve. I don’t think Westerns were always Roy Rogers. You also had ‘High Noon’ and ‘The Searchers’ and movies that were somewhat elevated. As you try to keep that genre alive, you have to fine tune it more and find a new take on the material,” explained Whitta about the parallel between the two genres. “We were fortunate in having people like Denzel and Gary that, I feel, they elevated [‘Eli]. It’s easy to imagine the schlock version of this movie, where it got dumbed down and the message of the film got pushed into the background and it just became about car chases and action.”
In the case of “Eli,” Whitta believes that the evolution comes from the intellectual stakes and a conflict that goes beyond simple survival. “It’s not just enough to survive. We’ve seen plenty of post-apocalyptic movies where the object is just day-to-day survival. You need food, you need clothes, you need shelter. We have that in the movie, too, [along with] the idea of ‘what are you trying to stay alive for?’ There’s got to be something beautiful, something that’s bigger that we’re trying to protect,” he explained.
Ultimately, Whitta credits Washington with the preservation of the film’s themes. “[He] protected the movie all the way through production, and just because he is who he is, there’s a gravitas. You just take it all more seriously,” he said.
While the film certainly shares certain tropes with westerns, the writer was quick to mention the film is not really a part of that genre. “I think that brings with it a lot of baggage that I don’t think necessarily applies to this movie,” he said when asked about those similarities. “I never thought of it as a Western. Even though I love the man with no name character – that nomadic warrior – that, for me, as much came from those great Toshiro Mifune samurai pictures as [American westerns],” he explained. “That was all channeled into [‘Eli’] from many sources.”
In fact, the visual nods in “Eli” to the western genre come from the directors, who also picked up on the aspects of the nomadic warrior archetype. “I do know that Allen and Albert are huge Sergio Leone fans and, frankly, for them, they approached this like they were making a Sergio Leone film. That’s why there are times where it’s kind of luxuriously paced. The first ten minutes of the movie is going to immerse you very slowly into this world and not jump into action right away and have these kind of big vistas,” Whitta revealed.
Returning to the topic of genres, the writer said, “Stories go through different iterations. For a long time, the Western was the backdrop for classic stories to be told. And maybe now, this is a new way to tell those stories.”
Another miraculous aspect of “The Book of Eli” is its status as an original screenplay, not an adaptation of a comic book, game, novel, or television property. “It’s rare these days,” Whitta remarked. “The bread and butter of Hollywood is these big franchise movies based on pre-existing material, because everyone is so risk-adverse these days. Unless you’re someone like [James] Cameron, who can get ‘Avatar’ done because [he] is the brand. In the case of something like [Eli], yeah, it’s tough to sell someone on a completely original concept with no pre-built awareness. I don’t know if it’s luck, or… Allen [Hughes] talked about how this film was blessed in some way, like someone’s been watching over this movie and protecting it. It’s just insane that we came this far.”
The writer mentioned a moment at last summer’s Comic-Con during the Warner Bros. preview panel where the expectation of the film having come from another source caused a little confusion. “It was ‘Sherlock Holmes,’ ‘Jonah Hex,’ the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ remake; a whole showcase. We were the only film out of six or seven that they showed that was a completely original piece. All these movies are based on something, and when this came up, people didn’t quite know what to make of it,” recalled Whitta. “We actually had people come to the mic during the Q&A asking, ‘How did you adapt the graphic novel?’ And Allen and Albert were saying, ‘No, this is an original piece!'”
With the Hughes Brothers at the helm and Denzel Washington shepherding the project, the film was allowed to have a certain undercurrent of complexity not generally afforded to major genre productions. “I always prefer if, beyond the initial thrill of the explosions and all the crazy stuff, that beyond that, the movie’s actually about something. There’s some underlying message that, after your ears have stopped ringing from all the awesome on the screen, that the next day or the day after there’s an idea or something that stayed with you that kept you thinking about. It had a life longer than just the two hours it was on the screen,” answered Whitta when asked about genre pictures generally losing something on their way through production. “We always said we wanted to make a thinking man’s action movie.”
That said, Whitta also believes that the movie has the requisite visceral deliveries one should have in a major action or sci-fi film. “It delivers on a popcorn level. You see these martial arts fights and beautifully choreographed gun battles and shoot outs and cars exploding and heads getting lopped off and all that.”
Another aspect of the film that remained intact during the journey from page to screen is the relationship between Washington’s Eli and Solara, played by Mila Kunis. “It was never going to be romantic because I think that’s completely inappropriate for what the movie is doing,”the writer said of his intentions for the characters. At the same time, Whitta believes that there is a love story of some sort in the relationship between the two characters. “They grow closer together. It’s a friendship, though; a mentor/apprenticeship kind of thing. She learns from him to assert herself. In turn, he opens up. It’s the first time in thirty years that he’s spent time with someone who hasn’t tried to kill him.”
The film also marks the return of Gary Oldman, who had grown tired of playing villainous parts, to the role of the bad guy. “That’s what we remember, is that great scenery-chewing bad guy, where it’s very theatrical and a little bit over the top, but people loved those performances, ” the writer said of Oldman’s classic performances. “People who haven’t seen some of Gary’s earlier movies where he plays the bad guy will be surprised to see that. I think that people that remember it will be relishing it. I think why [‘Eli’] is the movie to bring him back to doing that – and I think this came across in his performance – is, this is a little more subtle, a little more ticking clock, slow-burning fuse kind of bad guy. He does the evil stuff, but it’s not all about [shouting]. There’s a little bit of duality, a little bit of layering to him that I think is what Gary responded to and why he said ‘I’ll do it.'”
To end the interview, Whitta returned to the unique nature of the film. “It’s a miracle this movie came to the screen in a way that is totally faithful to the original vision of it. When I first saw the final cut of the movie, I seriously got choked up. It was like, ‘My God, they made the movie that I wrote'” he recalled. “I can’t put into words how gratifying that felt, especially given that I felt like all along this movie was going to get whittled down and diluted and never see the light of day in its true form. And in the end, it did.”
Warner Bros.’ “The Book of Eli” hits theaters on January 15.
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