Print Screen: From Print to Screen
The path from game journalist to game developer is well trod. As the gaming media has contracted over the last few years, some of the business' leading lights have moved into producer or public-relations jobs. But why do that when you have the talent to do something really cool? Like finish that screenplay, and see it turned into a major motion picture starring Oscar winner Denzel Washington?
Gary Whitta is the former editor-in-chief of PC Gamer magazine and was, therefore, once one of the most powerful game journalists in the business. Since leaving the industry he's turned his pen to fiction, writing for major game titles (Prey and Gears of War). Now his first original screenplay is in post-production.
"The Book of Eli" is described as a post-apocalyptic Western. Directed by Allen and Albert Hughes, the movie has one of those casts that makes people stand up and take notice. Yes, Washington's name is at the top of the marquee, but there's also Gary Oldman, Mila Kunis and Malcolm McDowell. The trailer was unveiled to an excited crowd at this year's ComicCon and the directors pointed out Whitta to the audience, giving it time to pay respect to the man with the vision.
Whitta agreed to answer a few questions about games, screenwriting and how he ended up with such a wonderful opportunity.
Crispy Gamer: Hollywood screenwriter is a much cooler job than game journalist. Any chance you'll lose that geeky side that has endeared you to readers and listeners?
Gary Whitta: I take issue with the idea that it's inherently cooler. Some of the best memories of my life came from my time as a game journalist. Getting paid to write about games, to see and play the latest stuff before it comes out, travel all over the world, and hang out with your gaming heroes ... it's nothing to be sneezed at. And that's part of the reason why I'm confident I'll never be any less of a geek than I've always been. I'm a gamer for life; it's in my DNA, although you'd never guess that from the way I play Team Fortress 2.
Crispy Gamer: These are, after all, two jobs that a lot of teenagers want but that few get the chance to do. You get to do both in one lifetime, and you're younger than me.
Whitta: I've been remarkably lucky on both counts. And very persistent, too. In both game journalism and screenwriting I pretty much just banged on the door until someone let me in. The key to both is simply to write, write, write. I wrote a lot of sample game reviews before I had anything I felt was good enough to submit to anyone, and the same is true with the screenplays -- though "Eli" is the first film of mine to be made, it's probably about the 15th full-length screenplay that I've written.
Crispy Gamer: How long have you been writing scripts?
Whitta: I first started dabbling when I was about 16. I think I was really inspired by seeing "Die Hard"; it was, at the time -- and remains -- the best action movie I'd ever seen. I still believe you could teach a weeklong master class in popular screenwriting based on that movie. Over the years since I wrote about a dozen more scripts, writing whenever spare time permitted, but it wasn't until a few years ago that I finally found myself with the time (thanks, dot-com bubble!) to really sit down and give it a serious crack.
Crispy Gamer: When you played games for critical purposes, were you thinking of them in terms of how they delivered stories?
Whitta: Games and movies are my two first loves, so I would always look at a game and think about how the story could be told in movie form. This is going all the way back to the days of 8-bit games like Paradroid and Rescue on Fractalus!, which had compelling premises even if they weren't fully realized as an in-game story. And I was always in love with the Infocom games, where story was king; those games often delivered stories more dense and mature than most of what you'd find in other media, including movies.
These days, of course, the technology and ambition level have grown to a point where games are striving much harder to tell more sophisticated stories, and in a cinematic way, built around strong central characters. I remember the first time I played Tomb Raider, one of my first thoughts beyond how cool the game mechanic was, was "this character is going to be in a movie." I actually spent some writing a Tomb Raider movie script on spec which wound up winning some fans on the Internet, and that's how I got my first manager in the film business.
Crispy Gamer: Considering you moved from magazine editor to movie writer, was the transition from media journalist to media creator a difficult one?
Whitta: I wouldn't say difficult, but like any major change it took some adjustment. The main challenge was transitioning from a collaborative creative process to a solitary one. When I edited games magazines for a living I had the luxury of being surrounded by a whole team of talented writers, and we constantly riffed and bounced ideas off each other. Filmmaking becomes a collaborative medium later in the process, once actors and directors and other creatives come on board and start pitching in, but during the initial stages -- the writing -- it's just me and a blank screen. I very quickly became aware of just how much I used to rely on being around other creative people for my own creativity. Creativity is like a living organism that feeds on itself, and when you're working solo it can be very difficult to get it jump-started. This may be why many of the more successful writers work in pairs.
Crispy Gamer: It's often said that critics look at things differently once they see how something gets made. How has screenwriting and seeing the movie come to life changed how you view film?
Whitta: I found that working on the other side of the fence gave me a whole new perspective on what I used to do. Criticism can be its own art form to be sure, but ultimately it's always going to be easier to criticize something than to create it. In retrospect I feel pretty bad about the times that I would bash out a review of a bad or mediocre game, pleased with myself for whatever clever little put-down I'd come up with, without any thought for all the months or years of blood, sweat and effort that went into its creation. I'm not saying that "hey, someone worked really hard on this" is reason to go easy on a bad game or film -- it's not -- but from having worked on both sides now, it's amazing to me just how off-base a lot of criticism is.
Crispy Gamer: It's become common movie critic shorthand to dismiss a film as "looking like a videogame" -- this is never a good thing. Is there anything to this criticism or is it just a question of demographics and ignorance?
Whitta: It's the product of ignorance and snobbery based on the false assumption that the older medium must automatically be more sophisticated than the younger one. Even comic books still have to put up with this crap; they've been around for decades, but even though they've matured incredibly over the past 20 years and in many instances surpass movies in the maturity of their storytelling, the term "comic-book" is still often used as a pejorative when describing movies. Games still have a long, long way to go, but I honestly believe that the day will come when they're considered equal with movies as art forms in which compelling stories can be told.
Crispy Gamer: The Hughes brothers don't direct many movies -- their CV is, in fact, relatively short considering how long they've been in the business. What do you think about how they portrayed whatever was in your head?
Whitta: Allen and Albert have done an absolutely incredible job with "The Book of Eli"; they've really blown me away. The fact that they've done relatively few films really just demonstrates how selective they are with material. They're so passionate about what they do, they won't commit to making a feature unless it's something they believe in very strongly -- so it's all the more flattering to me that they chose my script to direct after several years of passing on many other big projects.
Crispy Gamer: So many major media productions are now either conceived as franchises or pillage franchise nostalgia from the past. Do you foresee a Book of Eli media empire -- comics, games, novels?
Whitta: There are some plans in the works. The universe is robust enough to support that kind of thing. What you see in the movie is only a small part of the world we created, so I'm hoping that we get to explore it further in other ways, be it games or comic books or whatever's appropriate.
"The Book of Eli" is scheduled for wide release in January 2010. While waiting, be sure to check out 50 things you can do in your own private wasteland. If you're as slow as I am, you should finish just in time.