Gary Whitta Talks 'Akira', 'Escape From New York', 'Warcraft' And Rumored 'Starcraft' Project

This week, we've been running portions of our extensive interview with screenwriter Gary Whitta (Book of Eli, After Earth) as a five-part feature we're calling "/Film's Week Of Whitta." Promoting the pre-order of his first novel, Abomination, Whitta talked to us not only about his career thus far, but the future and unproduced projects that haven't happened.

Today in the fourth part, Gary Whitta talks about the projects he's worked on that have not made it to the big screen, which include the American live-action Akira movie, an Escape From New York reboot, a big screen adaptation of Blizzard's popular MMORPG video game World of Warcraft. I also ask Whitta about the rumors that he may be working with Blizzard on a a Diablo or Starcraft project. I always love hearing about the movies that could have been, so for me this segment might be the most interesting. Read the Gary Whitta unproduced projects interview after the jump.

Interview Part 4: Gary Whitta Unproduced Projects

Note: The following interview has been split up into five parts. Some questions are being presented out of chronological order so that each post tackles a thematic topic.

If you missed our previous installments, here is what Gary Whitta talked about:

  • Monday: The past, present and future of Star Wars.

akira by tyler stout

You worked on early versions of a bunch of big film projects, so let's talk about those. You were hired to help write a westernized version of Akira. How do you even approach that knowing that whatever you do is bound to be criticized by fans?

Well I went into it because I was – and remain – such a fan of both the original manga and the anime. I would not have taken the job on if I didn't think there was a way to handle the original material respectfully and to do it some kind of justice. I personally reject the argument that AKIRA is necessarily a Japanese story and that it's somehow sacrilegious to set a new adaptation of it anywhere else. I think many of the themes in that story are ones that speak to the human condition and are therefore relevant anywhere in the world – if that weren't true the original versions would never have been a hit outside of Japan. Having said that, both myself and the director at the time, Ruairi Robinson, approached our version with a lot of appreciation for the story's cultural origins and we wanted to be respectful of that. The one thing that had been communicated to us from Katsuhiro Otomo (we never spoke with him directly) was basically to not be afraid to change things, that he wanted to see an original and different interpretation, not just a straight-up remake.

I think we hit upon an idea that would have allowed the story to play to global audiences while staying faithful to its Japanese roots. The idea was basically that in the future Japan had been forced to deal with an economic and population boom by essentially purchasing an abandoned Manhattan island in a massive land deal from the American government, which itself had been driven close to economic ruin by the destruction of the city of Manhattan in the original Akira incident. So what had once been Manhattan became Japanese sovereign territory as New Tokyo, with ten million Japanese living there; it just happened to be located on the east coast of the United States. I thought it was an interesting way to fuse eastern and western cultures in the movie, and allow a mix of actors from both, rather than just "white-washing" the film, which is what I think a lot of people were anticipating. Having said that the project has gone through several writers and directors since Ruairi and I left and I have no idea what approach they're taking now, or if it's even still in active development.

How was your version of Akira going to be different from the source material?

Aside from what we did to try to fuse the eastern and western worlds with the setting, the original plan was that the movie be split into two parts. This was back in 2007, long before the current trend of splitting movies up into multiple chapters. It's important to remember that we were not adapting the animated film that most people know and which is only a small part of the overall AKIRA story, but Otomo's original manga, which runs to six very fat graphic novels. It's a huge amount of material that goes way beyond what you see in the anime, and we wanted to tell that larger story, but the only way to do it was with two films – or three, I suspect, if the first one had been a big hit. The script I wrote took you up to the destruction of New Tokyo and the rebirth of Akira, and the rest of the story that plays out after that in the manga would have been told in the subsequent films.

Escape From New York

You were also hired to work on the Escape From New York remake. Under what circumstances did you come on board?

Well I wasn't hired as such since nobody paid me, but I was attached to it for a while when it was at Silver Pictures and I did a ton of work on it. Basically I heard that they were doing a remake and while I'm usually very cynical about remakes I thought there was a rare opportunity with Escape From New York to do a new version that could be faithful to the original and capture everything that people loved about it while still updating it in a way that would introduce it to a new audience. I usually turn down these sort of jobs but Escape From New York holds a special place in my heart from when I first saw it as a kid and I would not have taken a stab at it if I didn't think there was a way to do it without pissing off all the other fans of the original.

What was your pitch on Escape from New York? How was it different than the original?

The original plan, which came from within Silver Pictures, was to do it as a trilogy with the first film covering, to some extent, the origin stories of Pliskken and The Duke and how Manhattan came to be turned into a maximum security prison. You would have seen the fall of New York and its rise from the ashes as a prison, and how Snake and The Duke were tied into all that. It was pretty fun but once we had the outline of the story we took a step back and realized that it felt more like an appetizer when really we just wanted to get straight to the entree. So the prequel idea went away and was replaced by doing a more straight-up remake. We kept some of the elements of how Manhattan Island became the prison though, we got to do some really fun world-building there. I particularly liked what we did with The Duke, where he was re-imagined less as the kind of flamboyant dictator you saw Isaac Hayes play in the original, and much more of a quiet, brooding intellectual, a former college professor who had become a kind of revolutionary libertarian terrorist. I always imagined Bryan Cranston playing him.

They are now remaking Escape From New York with Carpenter as a producer, so is your work on the project being completely thrown out?

I think so? The work I did was when it was at Silver Pictures, and now that it's in the hands of a different production company there are chain-of-title type issues that make it impossible to use any of my stuff without inviting legal problems.

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Oliver never got made and is now going to be a comic. What are the chances of a company like Boom Studios adapting your prequel treatments into a comic series?

Oh snap, that is actually a really good idea! I gotta call my agent.

Another film adaptation you were a part of early on was a big screen adaptation of World of Warcraft. I'm sure it seems obvious that you'd be the guy to get many video game adaptation offers, why did you try to take on Warcraft?

I was a huge fan of Warcraft from the very first game and was in a serious hardcore raiding guild in World of Warcraft for way too long – seriously, that game can be like having a second job – and since everything Blizzard does is imbued with such great narrative and worldbuilding I always thought there was huge potential for a movie in that universe. I was hassling my agents to look into the rights long before it got set up at Legendary. Back then I was still something of a baby writer so the chances of me getting that job were slim, but as luck would have it it was around the same time that I sold The Book of Eli to Warner Bros, which raised my profile immensely and gave me the opportunity to go in and pitch on it. I wound up getting that job and wrote the first two drafts, which were different takes on the same basic story idea. Then Sam Raimi came on, and as is often the case when a director boards a project, it went in a different direction.

world of warcraft

Your ideas for the Warcraft movie were gone when Sam Raimi came on board to direct the film, which was before Duncan Jones actually made the movie. So I'm assuming the story you were working on was very different. What did it involve?

I don't know what Sam did with the version he developed, but mine was basically set around the central conflict between the Orcs and the Humans. There are so many stories to tell in the Warcraft universe but that conflict is really at the heart of everything so it made sense to me that that be the foundation of the versions I wrote. It was a really hard movie to write in that you have to introduce this massive, original, and very deep mythology to a worldwide audience that you have to assume knows nothing about Warcraft, while also appealing to players of the games who know every little detail and want an experience that's authentic. In the end I think I did a farily good job of balancing those things. There were a lot of really fun little Easter eggs in my versions that maybe two or three people at each showing of the film would have recognized.

What do you think of the pitch of seeing the story play out from both points of view, the humans and the orcs?

I think that approach makes perfect sense, it's the way I approached it when I was working on it. As soon as you start thinking about the Humans as the good guys and the Orcs as the bad guys you're on the wrong track. It's not as simple as that. It's always been a story with two sides to it.

Starcraft

I've heard rumors you have worked with Blizzard on something else, possibly a Diablo or Starcraft project. Any truth to these rumblings?

I've always had a great relationship with Blizzard, I absolutely love those guys, so all kinds of opportunities have come up over the years. I wish I could say more but you never know when something might come back around again and then I'd regret having given something away! I will say this – if they ever need someone to help them figure out an Overwatch movie, they know where to find me.