Gary Whitta’s an unusually versatile writer. In addition to writing for both film and TV, in both live-action and animation, he’s also written novels, video games, and comics and he’s been a video gaming journalist. He’s perhaps best known for co-writing Rogue One, the first stand-alone Star Wars movie. Lauri Donahue spoke with Gary about his screenwriting career.
I read that the first screenwriting book you read was How to Write a Movie in 21 Days
The truth is, you can totally write a screenplay in 21 days. If you write five pages a day every day you can get there. My over/under is like five pages a day. I caution people not to read too many screenwriting theory books. I feel like you get inside your head and start second-guessing yourself.
There’s another one called How NOT to Write a Screenplay by Denny Martin Flinn. I thought it was a catchy title and would help people catch mistakes they might be making. I tend to listen to and gravitate toward people who have walked the walk. I’ve seen a lot of screenwriting books from people who have no film or TV credits. Who are you to tell me how to write a screenplay if you’ve never actually successfully done it yourself? I think there’s a whole industry of so-called screenwriting gurus and mentors who will tell you that they have the secret of writing the billion-dollar movie. I guarantee that if I knew the secret of writing a billion-dollar movie I wouldn’t be writing books about it.
Flinn, if I recall, was one of the writers of Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. It’s a movie that I love. So I remember thinking that if he’s done that then he’s someone I might want to pay attention to.
And Syd Field is obviously a name that gets thrown around a lot. I was more attracted to a book he wrote called Four Screenplays, because I’m interested in advice that’s rooted in the practical. What I like about the approach in that book is that he took very four very popular films (Thelma & Louise, Terminator 2, The Silence of the Lambs, and Dances with Wolves) and broke down why the screenplays work the way that they do. That’s very appealing to me because it takes us out of the world of theory and brings it into the practical.
You’ve talked about how you reverse-engineered the script for Die Hard by watching it over and over on VHS. How did that work? What were you looking for? And what did you learn?
I was doing it around 1988 or 1989 pre-internet when screenplays where hard to get. The movies were on VHS. There were no behind-the-scenes features or “making of” or anything, or any insight into how the film was made.
I was trying to figure out how a plot works. And I didn’t have a book, so I just reverse-engineered Die Hard to try to teach myself the machinery of the plot. I would start by putting in the VHS tape, reset the time counter, and just watch the movie and make notes as I went along.
In the first scene of the movie, John McClane learns to take his shoes off so he can relax during the long flight. It’s a scene that pays off later in the movie. I really believe that you could teach a screenwriting master class on Die Hard. It really is a Swiss watch in terms of how well it’s structured and how the stakes escalate and how things are revealed. It’s a brilliant piece of screenwriting. I tried to deconstruct it as best I could. Ten minutes in, the terrorists arrive. Fifteen minutes in, this happens. I tried to reverse-engineer my own structural roadmap for the movie and in so doing to try to understand why the movie works as well as it did. What makes the plot tick?
What did you learn from that movie that carried over to your own work?
I learned that you have to have an act one. I learned you have to know where your story is going.
The very first screenplay that I ever wrote, I was so keen that I didn’t want to do any of the prep work. I just made it up as I went along. Some screenwriters do work that way. But the danger of that is that you will often write yourself into blind alleys if you don’t know where your story is going.
In Die Hard, when John McClane learns to take off his shoes, it has a really important story reason later in the movie.
Something I didn’t know when I was a 16-year-old kid is the value of plotting out your story and drawing out a basic roadmap of where your story is going. If something is going to happen on page 50, you can plant a little seed. Everything in screenwriting is set-up and payoff. You have to know what the payoff is so you can write the set-up. That seems like very basic stuff, but that was something I had to learn.
You’ve mentioned that you wrote the first draft of The Book of Eli in six or seven days. What inspired that marathon?
It was the most alive I have ever felt. I was exhausted afterward, but I’m so glad I did it. Those six days gave me a career.
I had an idea I fell in love with and I was really excited to write it. But I knew it wasn’t terribly commercial. There are a lot of reasons why it was a movie no one might ever make. It had religious themes. It was extremely violent. The original draft of the script was more violent than the film, which was very violent.
I had this idea of a guy walking around the desert with a machete and a Bible cutting off peoples’ heads. I had a manager and an agent at that time and typically I would vet material through them. I just knew that if I pitched it to them they would talk me down off the ledge. And I didn’t want them to. I really wanted to write it.
What I liked about the movie was that it was a very simple film structurally. What takes me the longest is figuring out the actual construction of the story.
The story wouldn’t leave me alone. At 3 o’clock in the morning, the story was bugging me. It was like a living being that wanted to be told. And I realized the only way to flesh the story out of me was to write it.
So I decided I’m just going to bash it out really fast. I was so overtaken, so possessed. It didn’t need a lot of story breaking, so to speak. I was able to write very, very quickly. I wrote in this kind of long fever dream. I wasn’t even aware of the time. And it just fell out of me — which is a good sign when the writing is coming out easily.
Writers often say to each other “the thing writes itself.” And that’s what the experience was like for me, writing 20 pages a day for about six days — 120 pages.
Maybe I should write a book about how to write a screenplay in six days. I’ve never replicated that since, never written anything that quickly. It was really a one-off.
It was a very, very rough draft. I sent it to my agents and they had the same reaction they might have had if I pitched it to them. “What the hell is this?” But you’ve written it,” they said. “So we might as well try to do something with it.”
And the rest is history.
The lesson to be learned is don’t let your sense of what might be “commercial” or “not commercial” talk you out of an idea that you’re really in love with.
If I had listened to that voice saying ”you’re never going to sell this,” I never would have written it. Regardless of how commercial it might have appeared to me, it ended up as a very commercial film.
After that first draft, how long did you spend revising it before you sent it off?
I wrote the first draft around Halloween of 2006 and sold it in February 2007. So there were about four months that encompassed all of the rewrites and the process of going out to sell it. Part of the time didn’t count because there was a big holiday and everything shut down. So maybe three or four weeks doing rewrites. And maybe two or three rounds of notes from my managers. The version we sent out wasn’t markedly different from the original version. But there were inevitably a number of rough things that need to be cleaned up.
I read that for a while you did rewrite work on “B movies.” How did you get those gigs?
I don’t know that they were “B movies.” They were definitely smaller movies.
This was all pre-Eli. A spec script I had written got me my first manager. They felt that piece of material wasn’t the right material to speak to the market. So I pitched them a bunch of other ideas, including a sort of detective noir thing. And that was the first piece of material that I optioned and sold.
Off the back of that I got a lot of general meetings around town with junior executives. And I started to get offers for little movies.
I believe you live in the Bay Area?
I do — in San Francisco
The conventional wisdom says you have to live in LA. So how do you manage your career as a screenwriter from San Francisco?
It’s not a problem. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it made my life more difficult. It’s a choice that I made.
I don’t dislike LA. I did live there for a year before breaking into Hollywood. But getting a manager, the first screenplay that got sold — all of that happened while I was living in San Francisco.
The question you always get is “do I have to move to LA?” I’m not one to disagree with the conventional wisdom of “yes, you do.”
You can write a good screenplay from anywhere, but if at some point you want to have a career in this business, isn’t it an advantage to live in the city where all the business takes place? Yes. Of course, it is.
I’m the only screenwriter I know who is working at this level that did it without ever living in LA. My friend Nicole Perlman (Guardians of the Galaxy) lives in San Francisco, but she broke in from LA. I’m the only one I know who did it completely from outside. I wouldn’t recommend anyone trying to replicate that. Now I’m established, so it doesn’t matter as much that I’m not there every day. Living in San Francisco helps, because it’s close enough I can even drive down.
But I often ask myself how many more opportunities I might’ve missed because I’m not in LA. When you take a meeting on the phone or over Skype, the energy isn’t the same as if you’re in the room. It’s mostly an inconvenience more than anything else. I’m very much a homebody. I like to be at home with my wife and kids.
How do you get the gig on Rogue One?
This is an example of how you never really know what’s around the corner in this business.
I had written a movie called After Earth which was a big commercial and critical failure and I honestly didn’t know if that was the end of my career or not.
Oftentimes people bounce back from very public failures, and other times they don’t. 11% on Rotten Tomatoes… and my name is on it. I didn’t know if anyone would ever want to hire me again. For a while I was in a real funk. I thought of going back to my old life in the video game industry. I wrote a novel, trying to open up more avenues for myself in case that road became closed to me.
The phone didn’t ring for a few months — and then it did and it was Lucasfilm.
Disney had just bought Star Wars. It was very early on. I think they’d announced episode seven. There was certainly no talk of standalone films. No strategy had been laid out at that point.
One of my managers happened to be having lunch with a development executive at Lucasfilm who said “we’re obviously looking for writers.” And my manager said “you should talk to Gary — he’s one of the biggest Star Wars fans there is. He lives and breathes that stuff.”
When you go into a room one of the ways that you sell yourself on a project is by talking about what a huge fan you are of the material. The problem with Star Wars is, it’s like saying you like pizza or the Beatles. Who isn’t a fan? So it doesn’t really distinguish you.
So I said “let me talk to you about the very specific ways in which I love Star Wars and what it means to me.”
I went in for a general meeting. It was very easy for me because Lucasfilm’s in San Francisco. But they could’ve been in LA or anywhere because of course I would’ve gone. It’s one of the holy grail properties of our culture.
So I went to Lucasfilm complex in the Presidio and sat down with two of the story executives. I went in having no idea why they wanted to talk to me. I left having no idea why they wanted to talk to me. They played their cards very close to their chests.
I said, “Do you want to pitch me something?” And they said “no, no, we’ve got a lot of projects for the next few years. We just want to know about you and what you might be interested in.”
So I told them about how I froze my Han Solo action figure in the ice cube tray and then ran him under the warm tap to defrost him. I tried to come across as the Star Wars true believer that I really am.
I’d had one movie made that was reasonably successful. Not a blockbuster, but people liked it. And I’d had another that was a big flop. I thought maybe they wanted to talk to me about a video game or a graphic novel.
A couple of days later they sent me a one-page story idea for a live action feature film. I told them “I think you sent me the wrong document.”
And then I had to go back for a more substantial meeting and say “here’s my take on how you would tell that story.”
They liked what they heard but I had to go through very rigorous process. I had to go back and meet with [Lucasfilm president] Kathleen Kennedy, and she had to sign off on me, and then I had to go to Disney. The process took several months. But eventually they let me go write the Star Wars movie.
But at some point you parted ways.
Yes. It’s not uncommon. If you look at any Marvel or Star Wars movie, they’re very rarely written anymore by just one person. They tend to kind of throw screenwriters at them until they feel that they’ve exhausted every storytelling possibility. Marvel in particular is notorious for cycling writers in and out until they get what they want.
I look at it kind of like a relay race. I’m running the first leg of the race, and then I hand my baton off to the next guy who has a fresh set of legs. And you keep going until you have the best version of the movie.
I ran the first leg of the relay. John Knoll was the person who came up with the original idea for the story. I wrote the first draft of the script. Then there was Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy.
I understand that at one point there was a happy ending version. Was that yours?
We were afraid Disney wouldn’t let us kill everybody. We said “this feels like a movie where everybody dies at the end and it’s about making a great sacrifice for something greater than yourself. Jyn and those characters die so the galaxy can be free. If those characters don’t make that sacrifice, Star Wars is about the Death Star going around blowing up planets until the rebellion surrenders.”
So we thought everybody should die. But we thought Disney wouldn’t let us do it.
We made some assumptions that they wouldn’t let us do anything too dark. Rather than fall in love with the idea of killing off everyone and have them tell us we couldn’t do it, we just didn’t pursue that. We kept it in our back pocket. In the version I wrote, I remember turning in the draft thinking it was the wrong ending.
When I left and Chris came on, the first thing he said was “I think everyone should die.” So I’m very glad that they did eventually end with the ending I had in mind — even though I didn’t have the courage to execute it.
I feel that if there’s a lesson to be learned it’s that you should always have the courage to follow what you know to be the right creative instincts. If you think it’s a battle worth fighting, then have that battle. I never gave myself a chance to fight for that ending.
I should have given Disney more credit. Because as it turns out they would’ve been fully supportive of that.
What do you have in the pipeline at the moment?
I’m in the middle of a feature film for a big studio that I’m not allowed to say anything about. It’s not a Star Wars film. I spent five years working in the Star Wars universe. My one bragging right is that I’m the only writer ever to write Star Wars in four different media: television, features, books, and comics.
You’ve got the Star Wars version of an EGOT?
I guess you can call it that.
I’m really proud that I worked on Rogue One. I worked on two seasons of Star Wars Rebels. I wrote the graphic novel of The Last Jedi and I wrote on a literary book: Star Wars — From a Certain Point of View, which I contributed a story to.
I would never say no to more Star Wars, but it’s up to Lucasfilm to invite me.
Like I said, I’m writing a feature for a studio. Everything I write these days has so many NDAs I really can’t talk about it. I can tell you this is something more family-friendly than I’ve ever done before. When I first started this I didn’t have any kids, and now I have a seven-year-old daughter and I want to write things that she can enjoy.
Maybe I’m also mellowing in my old age. I want to write things that are more optimistic and more Amblin. That’s tonally where I want to get to.I just finished a novel. I’m in the middle of an original comic book series that I created. And I’ve got about five or six different TV pilots I’m trying to get off the ground.
What do you know now about screenwriting that you wish you’d known when you first started out?
Just how brutally hard it is emotionally. Just make sure you’re ready for just how brutally indifferent this business can be toward writers.
I understand that we’re an interchangeable and often disposable commodity, and that we’re at the bottom of the creative totem pole when it comes to the big decisions that go into making films.
The only authority that you have to ensure that your ideas make it into the film, the only power that you have, is the power to persuade those above you that your idea is the right one.
In this business, unless you’re the one writing the check, as a writer you don’t get to put your foot down and say “No, it’s going to be this way.” They’ll just bring in the next writer.