Though the film itself is a completely original story, “The Book of Eli” is the post-apocalyptic brainchild of a self professedly geeky imagination raised on comic books, video games and sci-fi television. Screenwriter Gary Whitta spoke Friday at WonderCon about the genesis of the project and what the film will mean for his own genre work in the future.
“I would say that my path into [screenwriting] was fairly atypical,” said Whitta, “but I guess there’s not really any ‘typical’ path into it.”
As a longtime writer for magazines PC Gamer and ACE, Whitta knew from a very young age that he was going to transform his creative loves into gainful employment, saying, “It was very satisfying when I got my first job writing about video games and could go to my mother and say, ‘See, I told you!'”
It was a mixed blessing, then, when Whitta lost his job and finally made the decision to push his dreams one step further, aiming to become a writer in the style of a personal hero, “Dark Knight” and “Blade” screenwriter David Goyer, bringing a cinematic weight to genre pieces.
“They gave me just enough redundancy money that if I ate nothing but ramen noodles, I could survive for about a year. That’s how long I thought I’d give myself.”
Quickly cranking out a half dozen screenplays, “each one slightly less awful than the last,” Whitta knew he was in the right place when he paired with the same creative management company as Brian Michael Bendis. Backed with a bevy of scripts (including some “so bad no one will ever see”), Whitta made his move on Hollywood.
“The first thing anyone else asks you is, ‘what else do you have?’,” said Whitta by way of advice to aspiring writers, “You have to have five or six other ideas that are even better than the one that got you in the door in the first place.”
The idea for “The Book of Eli,” however, came from a somewhat unusual source; A friend of Whitta’s held annual Halloween party, going with a theme one year of post-apocalyptic films.
“I asked myself, ‘What post apocalyptic character would I go as?’ and realized there weren’t that many that I liked all that much… What are you gonna do? Go as ‘The Postman?'”
Describing himself as a prototypical “Fat Eli,” Whitta donned a priest collar and went as machete-armed, Bible-wielding warrior. Post-party, he enjoyed the idea so much that he worked on toning down the pulp and bringing out the humanity in Eli. To this end, he concentrated enormously on finding the story’s real theme.
“If you really know your theme, that will be the lighthouse that will always guide you back to what the story is about,” Whitta said. “With ‘Eli,’ the idea was that faith is what you make it… once you have that, the narrative is just a way to deliver those ideas. If you’re writing from a formula, all you’re going to get back is a formula.”
Turning the first draft in to his manager, Whitta laughed that the first question was immediately, “When did you become a Christian?,” something that he’s been careful not to answer during all the interviews that he’s done for the film for fear of tainting the audience’s interpretation of his story.
Unfortunately for Whitta, the studio continuously asked him to tone down the religious aspects of his script to the point that he no longer felt comfortable with the film he was making and was, ultimately, replaced with a different writer. Thankfully, Denzel Washington, who was attracted to the project for those very elements, came to Whitta’s rescue and demanded that he be brought back aboard, allowing him to see the script through to the very final stage.
Many of the elements that weren’t fully developed, Whitta managed to flesh out with Washington, with the actor finding the voice in every character and actually acting them out to the one-man audience.
“Denzel kept saying, ‘I took the wrong part. I think I want to be Carnegie. I want to play a bad guy.”
Carnegie’s own character really manifested through Washington’s interpretation, intentionally stylizing himself after the not-yet-cast Gary Oldman.
“It got to a point,” laughs Whitta, “where he had used Gary Oldman as an example so many times we thought, ‘Let’s just get Gary Oldman to do it.'”
One major turning point in the script to screen process came about in discussions with Washington over the film’s twist ending. Originally, Whitta had intended Washington to have visually blind eyes, wearing sunglasses to hide them for the entire film. Washington refused, preferring to play the character as blind with his own brand of subtlety.
“Without even thinking, I said to him, ‘Are you sure you can pull that off?'” Whitta said. “He didn’t say anything. He just looked at me as if to say, ‘B—h, please!’ Later that day, he gave me a tour of his house and he’s got his two Oscars. He said, ‘I just thought you’d like to check those out.’ The look was, ‘Don’t ask me if I can pull this s–t off again.'”
Whitta also joked that, with his video game background, he’d love to see “Book of Eli” get adapted. His pitch: an all black screen.
“We’d save a ton on graphics,” he laughs.
With work finished on the script stage, Whitta found that one of the hardest parts would be in giving the film up to competent hands, likening the experience to sending a child off to college.
“There comes a point to step back… You realize that, at one point, not only are you not the most important voice in the room, you’re actually the least important. You’re very conscious of the fact that you’re the only person on the set with literally nothing to do. And everyone else is super-busy and really stressed out.”
Whitta’s first glimpse of the final on-screen look for Eli came as an unexpected surprise during President Obama’s inauguration. Washington took to the podium with his “Eli beard,” filling the screenwriter with glee.
After that, Whitta consciously avoided the set until the final film was ready and says he couldn’t be more proud of the result. Working to be approachable to his fans on Twitter and Facebook, Whitta cherishes the compliments he’s received.
“A lot of people, particularly people of faith, contacted me and I got so many touching messages. Some people said, ‘I haven’t picked up my Bible in ten years and this movie made me want to do that.’ Not to sound grandiose, but I feel like if I never wrote anything else, I will have left behind something that people really, really like and that means the world to me.”
Though the film is left open-ended, Whitta insists that it’s not his wish to personally continue the story, though would be open to scripting some prequel chapters in comic book form, explaining that, “The very first draft of the script, like in ‘Star Wars,’ opened on a card that said ‘Chapter 28.'”
Outside of the world of Eli, Whitta has been hard at work contributing to a draft of “Warcraft,” a job that he desperately strove for but had been turned down until days after the script to “Eli” had sold.
“You go back to the same studio lots and the same buildings but you’re like, ‘Oh! I didn’t know this building had a second floor!”
He’s also at work on a top-secret project and was completely mum on details, though said that it was a chance to work with two people that he’d long dreamed of working with.
“I’d like to go back and do ‘Star Wars’ properly,” Whitta laughed, imagining the ability to do any project in the world, “I’m not saying I’m the right guy to do it, but neither is Lucas.”
“The Book of Eli” hits DVD and Blu-Ray on June 15th.