Gary Whitta gun

How is writing movies different than writing video games?

I think writing for games is much harder, which is not to say writing movies is easy – it’s anything but – but hopefully illustrates just what a challenging medium games are to write for. It’s great that games are finally making a real effort to mature as an art form and tell compelling stories, but figuring out how to do that well has been a huge challenge for the industry. We’re still very much in the silent-movie era of video games as a storytelling medium, still figuring out what’s possible and what works, and I think we’re going to see a huge leap forward in the next several years. Games like Brothers, Journey, The Last of Us, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead (which I had a small part in writing) have really given a glimpse of what’s possible in the future. It’s so incredibly compelling to feel like you’re really playing an active part in shaping a story rather than just being a passive observer.

Duke Nukem Forever

So did your involvement in writing for video games come after Book of Eli?

Kinda before and after? After I left journalism I wrote for a few video games, like Prey and Duke Nukem Forever, but just small jobs here and there. I’ve been doing a lot more consulting and writing for games in the past few years because I’m better-known as a writer and also because there’s more of a desire to do good storytelling in games, and I’m a good person for that because I have backgrounds in both.

You became one of those screenwriters who is sought for all the geek film projects. It sounds like that may have been your goal, or did that somehow become your genre of specialty because of your background?

I never went into screenwriting with a goal of having that kind of career, honestly I’m usually more happy working on my own original stuff than trying to adapt someone else’s work. Obviously there are exceptions and it’s a huge thrill to have the opportunity to work on things that have meant something to me as a fan, be it Star Wars or Akira or Warcraft or Escape From New York or whatever. But I’m proud of the fact that the films I’ve had made so far were based on original ideas rather than being adaptations or remakes. It’s increasingly rare to be able to do that these days.

29 jump street

As a fellow geek, I’m sure you are also annoyed at the abundance of sequels, adaptations and remakes and the growing lack of original features — yet you’re in a space where you get offered to work on such projects and see positive creative excitement in trying to develop them for the big screen. I’m interested to hear how this affects what you get involved in.

Most of the work I get offered as a screenwriter is some form of adaptation or remake of an existing property and frankly I find it a little depressing sometimes. Unless you’re someone like Chris Nolan it’s extremely difficult to get big, expensive original ideas through the system. But people seem to forget that every big franchise started with someone taking a risk on an original idea. Star Wars was at one point just a spec script that someone had to take a risk on making. But the industry has become so risk-averse that these days the only big movies that are getting made, for the most part, are based on something that’s already been proven popular with an audience in another medium. I think we really have to get back into the business of taking risks and embracing big ideas if Hollywood is going to get back into a position of creative leadership in popular culture, and not just a factory that recycles the original ideas developed in comics and literature and films from twenty years ago.

cowboys and aliens

Cowboys & Aliens (a movie Gary was not involved in)

It seems like the current trend is for filmmakers, screenwriters or actors to now go and make a book or comic book as a backward way of pitching their movie idea as an adaptation. Even you have now written a novel… Do you think that having filmmaking creatives prove their original ideas in the marketplace is a positive step?

I think there’s a difference between people choosing to develop their ideas in media like literature and comics because that’s how they want to tell their story and others who do that simply as a stepping-stone to getting a movie made. I think that latter approach is very cynical. I look at something like Cowboys & Aliens, where it really seems like the comic-book was little more than a glossy brochure for a potential movie project. With my novel Abomination, and Oliver, the comic-book I’m doing with Image, the endgame for me is just finding an audience for those stories. With the difficulty of getting big original ideas through the Hollywood system I wanted to at least experiment with trying to find an audience for some of my story ideas by different means, through other media. If those projects are successful in their native formats and readers enjoy them, that’s enough for me. That’s a win. And that’s far more satisfying than being paid a lot of money for a spec script which then sits on a studio’s shelf forever and no-one ever gets to see. If down the road someone wants to make a movie out of Abomination or Oliver I’d welcome those conversations but it’s not the endgame, it’s gravy.

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