Gary Whitta On Growing Up With Star Wars, Prequel Disappointment And Writing A Spin-Off

Screenwriter Gary Whitta (Book of Eli, After Earth) is about to release his first novel, Abomination. To promote the pre-order of the historical fantasy novel, Whitta sat down with us for an extensive interview spanning his career thus far. Over the course of this week we will be posting all of the parts of this interview broken up into digestible thematic bites — we're calling it "/Film's Week Of Whitta".

In the first installment we wanted to cut to the chase and present the meatiest Gary Whitta Star Wars comments. As you know, Whitta wrote for a year on the first Star Wars spin-off film being directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla), which will hit theaters on December 16th 2016. We talked to Whitta about growing up with movies, which includes the original Star Wars trilogy. We also discuss the controversy over comments he's made about the Star Wars prequels and special editions. (I'm not sure how the comments are controversial, considering most everyone I know shares a similar viewpoint.) And, of course, we talk to Gary about working on the upcoming Star Wars spin-off film, and while his Lucasfilm NDA prevents him from revealing any details, its worth reading. Read the Gary Whitta Star Wars interview after the jump.

Interview Part 1: Gary Whitta Star Wars

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.

Time Bandits

Okay I wanted to start off by asking you about when you first fell in love with movies?

I know it sounds like a bit of a stock answer, but I think more than any other film it was Star Wars. I was five when it came out, and I remember vividly having a VHS copy of it that I had recorded from commercial television in the UK and watched so many times that the tape was noticeably starting to degrade. The other really big one for me was Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits. As a kid that movie just absolutely blew me away, it was by far the most wildly imaginative thing I had ever seen in my life. This of course was many years before the internet when it was practically impossible to find screenplays for films, but Time Bandits had an illustrated script book that was published and which I studied more than anything I was supposed to be studying at school. While Star Wars was the first film that made me fall in love with movies, Time Bandits was probably the first that really sparked my interested in writing them.

What were your favorite films growing up?

Aside from the ones I just mentioned, the big ones for me were Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Last Starfighter – which to this day I maintain is a criminally under-appreciated film. It's easy now to make fun of the cheesiness of it and the visual effects, but for me it's right up there with the best of the sci-fi/adventure movies of the 1980s.

Gary Whitta X-Wing

You were a child in the 1970's during just the right time when Star Wars must have been seminal...

Yeah, I'm definitely of that generation for whom the original trilogy was pretty much a defining event. I cried at the end of Return of the Jedi, not just because it was such a perfect emotional ending to the saga but because I knew that the story was over. I spent every spare penny of my pocket money on the toys and action figures. I think my generation was really fortunate to have Star Wars when they were growing up, it's certainly no accident that it inspired so many of today's biggest film-makers and storytellers. I know there's been a thousand books and articles written about it but I really think it's impossible to truly gauge just how big an influence those movies have had.

Die Hard

What is the most important movie experience you had before breaking into the business?

Aside from watching them all the time instead of going outside, mostly trying to figure out how they worked and how I might be able to write them for a living. Again, this is all long before the internet so it was not easy to find resources to help you figure out how to write a film or how to break into the business. And growing up in the UK, where the kind of big, imaginative genre films that interested me simply weren't made, it all felt like a very unlikely and remote prospect. But I read a couple of how-to writing books and started bashing out scripts in 1988, when I was 15. In the absence of any screenplays to read, I would watch movies on VHS and try to reverse-engineer them. I would sit with my copy of Die Hard, reset the VHS timer and make notes of the big story beats and when they happened, trying to figure out how the mechanics of the story. Die Hard is a really great one to do it with because it is an absolute masterpiece of action movie structure and storytelling, that thing is a goddamn Swiss watch. I learned a lot from it. And the first spec script I ever wrote was basically a Die Hard clone.

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You and I are both from a generation of people who discovered the internet as it evolved, and not being born into it I think we've both been outspoken online in various forms — and every so often I'm reminded by readers of something I said online years ago. After you signed on to Star Wars, people found a bunch of opinions you posted about the Star Wars universe, and particularly your dislike of the prequel trilogy and the special editions. You probably never could have expected that comments on a podcast of forum in 2010 would eventually be picked up by blogs. So I'm wondering what are your thoughts about the Star Wars prequels today?

Somebody once told me that each generation thinks the best era for pop music was whichever one they grew up with. I think that's true of movies too. I'm a child of the 80s so I have a particular fondness for the movies of the 80s that had such a formative impact on me when I was a kid. So I totally understand that we have a new generation growing up now that loves the prequels in the same way that people of my generation love the original trilogy. And soon there will be another generation that will no doubt love the new films that are being made now the most. I just urge anyone who is coming to Star Wars for the first time NOT to watch the films in chronological order. DO NOT I REPEAT DO NOT watch the prequels first. Watch them in the order they were made. When I first met my wife she had never seen a Star Wars movie so I thought it would be an interesting experiment to show her all six films in chronological order. She has still never forgiven me for that, and rightly so. Not only does it blow the Darth Vader reveal in Empire, it also blows what I think is often forgotten as just as great a reveal – that Yoda is not just some annoying little swamp creature but in fact a great Jedi Master.

[On the next page, this installment of the interview wraps up with Whitta talking aboutthe future of the Star Wars franchise and working on the first spin-off film]

Star Wars The Force Awakens logo 700

You once joked that"having seen 1-3" maybe its "for the best" that we would never see Episodes VII-IX. I'm guessing you're of a different mindset now?

Well it's impossible not to be excited about new films guided by JJ Abrams and Rian Johnson. It's hard to imagine this new trilogy in more capable hands.

Gary Whitta Star Wars

Can you talk about the pressures coming into Star Wars, a franchise that is, well, the biggest movie franchise of all time and has had a strong personal influence on so many people including yourself?

I think any time you're dealing with something that has some personal significance to you, you instinctively approach it with a great degree of appreciation and respect. I grew up with Star Wars, it played a pivotal role in setting me on my lifelong course as a writer, so to have the opportunity to contribute a new piece to the ongoing legacy of that is both humbling and daunting. I don't think I've ever worked harder on anything or with more conviction and commitment, and that includes my own original projects, which I never thought I'd hear myself say. If you ask my wife she'd tell you I was not the easiest person to live with while I was working on it because I was unable to think about anything else the vast majority of the time.

How is working on a Star Wars movie different than all the other movie projects you've been involved in?

Well they say that golf is the only sport where as a professional there is actually the chance that you'll get to play alongside your heroes, and that's true of film too. Certainly in this case I got to meet and work alongside people I consider legends in the movie business and personal heroes of mine, so it was certainly unique in that aspect.