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[Interview: Part 1] Gary Whitta on ‘The Book of Eli’

Written by , on January 18, 2010 at 8:06 pm 

I’ve never interviewed a screenwriter before. I’ve talked to directors/screenwriters, but never just a screenwriter. So when I hopped on the phone with Gary Whitta I was hoping for a good experience which actually ended up being a great one. I was a bit worried about seeing the film just a day before our chat since that’s not the best amount of prep time, but after I saw the film I had plenty of questions running through my head I was excited about asking. If you’ve read my review then you know I really enjoyed it and it’s always great to talk to people behind films you not only enjoy, but also admire. The Book of Eli is different from the current wave of post-apocalyptic films. It also features a new side of Denzel we haven’t seen before and it’s also a welcoming return for the Hughes brothers.

Whitta is one of the main men responsible for Eli’s audacity and talking to him for an hour and forty minutes was a real treat. While not all of that conversation is here since some of that time involved us sidetracking and talking about other films, I have of course included everything revolving around Eli. Now with the long introduction out of the way, here’s what Mr. Whitta had to say:

I know you wrote the draft relatively quickly, under a week I believe, was that because you were rushing for a deadline or did it just come naturally?

Gary Whitta: No, it certainly wasn’t rushing it. It was really just a case of me being really consumed by the idea and the only way to get it out was to write it out, because it was a very simple story. I didn’t have to spend a lot of time picking over the logistics or the mechanics of the story structure. As you can see it’s a story that’s got very few moving parts so most of what I found interesting about the idea of the script was the characters and the themes that were explored. They came together very quickly and were expressed in a very simple story in terms of plot. I usually get bogged down when I’m working on movies that have very complicated plots. To me, that’s kind of the least interesting part of a movie and it’s the part of a movie that endures the least. People usually remember the bigger things when they come out of movies than just the mechanics of the story. In the case of Eli, the fact that it was a very simple plot and that the characters in my mind made it come together very quickly. Like I said, I was writing probably like sixteen or eighteen hours a day. I was just so into the idea that I couldn’t stop writing it and that’s why first draft came together in six days.

I know you obviously took a few notes on that draft. What were they?

Gary Whitta: I do what I always do: I send it off to my manager… It’s interesting on this one, typically I will float creative ideas to my representatives because they’re very good arbiters of ideas. They have a good sense of when I may be barking up the wrong tree or when the idea just isn’t that good. I was worried that… because of the themes explored in Eli that they would kind of talk me down a ledge and say,”don’t write that, that’s something we wouldn’t be able to sell.” I just didn’t want to hear that so I kind of wrote the script under-the-radar not even telling them I was writing it. When it was done I just sent them the first draft and it just took them by surprise. They responded to the script, but I don’t think they quite knew what to make of it. They saw something there though and they gave me a few notes and the there was a few things: the villain wasn’t quite there and there was a couple of story points we needed to work on. We did a few rounds of re-writes and then it went out to…

Anthony Peckman? I heard he did a re-write.

Gary Whitta: That wasn’t until after we sold the script. I did several re-writes for the studio and the Hughes brothers after we sold the script then Tony came on and did some work then I came back and worked with Denzel and did more work. So when I came back after Tony that was much more specifically about giving the Hughes brothers and Denzel what they wanted. Then I left and Tony came on to do a final polish. We kind of did a back and forth for a little bit.

But it’s still very true to what you originally intended right?

Gary Whitta: Yeah, it’s astonishing. The one thing that I’ve said all along and this was the biggest thrill for me to see  that the movie is absolutely scene for scene the movie I wrote. It’s very… For all the re-writing we did it’s funny that it’s actually not that different from the original script. Scene from scene I think it’s probably only like three scenes that aren’t in the final film that were from the final draft. The beginning, the middle and the end are the same as the movie I wrote. I think the only big change… The big mistake that I made that needed to be corrected was in the third act or really the whole second act of the film. Carnegie stayed behind in town and just sent Redridge out, because I wanted to give the idea that Carnegie was a coward and didn’t want to go out on the road. The problem is you make the villain disappear for the second half of the movie and he doesn’t appear until the very end. You don’t do that to your villain ever and you certainly don’t want to do that to someone as excellent as Gary Oldman, you want to give him enough screen time as possible. Also, the scenes played out… (Spoiler Alert: Will give notice when spoilers are over) In the very, very first version of the script where Carnegie gets the book and shoots Eli that was Redridge. We kind of just took Redridge and adapted that to Carnegie and his voice. Scene for scene it was all the same stuff, but that was something we needed to do. We went back and forth on whether or not Carnegie should die. I kind of felt like…

I like that he lives.

Gary Whitta: Yeah, but does he or doesn’t he? That’s the thing at the end we kind of left it a bit open. My feeling all along was that these kind of movies don’t need to be a zero sum game. The bad guy doesn’t need to lose in order for the good guy to win. Clearly at the end of the movie Eli accomplishes his mission. His mission wasn’t about killing or taking down Gary Oldman, it was about getting that book to where it needed to go. In the first draft of the script Gary was just frustrated. He obviously got the book, but it was useless to him. We all thought that was cool and didn’t want to kind of do the Joel Silver typical Hollywood ending of the bad guy falling out of a window and falling on a spike or something like that. Denzel has a very good nose for what audiences want and that ending bothered him for a long time. He said,”you gotta put a button on the end of this film, people gotta see him get it.” I worked on a couple of different versions where Claudia killed Carnegie and a couple of other versions where he died different ways. Nothing just felt right and we could get anything that felt one hundred percent right to us. In the end, what we came up with and I think it works is him in ruins and all his plans are ruined. Whether or not he dies, who knows. It certainly seems like it could go either way and like a lot of things in the film we wanted to keep it open to interpretation for the audience.

Whenever you see a villain get it at the end sometimes it feels so tacked on and there for the sake of audience satisfaction.

(SPOILERS OVER)

Gary Whitta: It just feels like pandering to the audience. We said with this film we wanted to make a thinking man’s action movie and to do something that would challenge the audience a little more, make them think and I’ve been really gratified by the critical reaction. I always said this movie was going to split people right down the middle, because you cannot make a film about these kind of themes without pissing someone off. It’s interesting… I try not to pay too much attention to the tomato-meter and all that kind of stuff, but if you look where we are we’re right now at fifty-fifty. That looks where we’ll probably end up. If you look at Roger Ebert, Richard Roeper and the New York Times we got all the good ones. I was very anxious about the reviews at the beginning of the week, but now we have enough of the heavy-weight guys in the bank that now I feel like we’ve passed the critical test. Now, I don’t care what anyone else thinks and it kind of just brushes off me. Like I said, we swung for the fences on this film and we didn’t want to make a safe film. They do that in Hollywood all the time. I think it’s kind of a miracle we got to make this film within the Hollywood system with having a controversial theme and to touch on things that movies of this scale would usually not touch with a ten-foot pole. We tackled them head on and we were trying to do something dangerous in a way and get people talking. We certainly seem to be doing that in a positive way. Yeah, but the ultimate fate of Carnegie and the book were things that we tried to leave open enough for people to try to interpret the way the wish.

I actually really enjoyed the Hughes brother’s last film From Hell, and I would definitely say Eli tops that film. It feels more singular, like the exact movie they wanted to make.

Gary Whitta: I did as well, I thought it was very underrated and it’s interesting how the two of them work together. You do kind of get two directors for the price of one. You’ve got Allen who’s very good with story, themes, and actors then you got Albert who I genuinely think is a genius visually. Just look at some of the vistas and some of the scenes in this film I just want to frame them. He creates beautiful images.

They really are visual storytellers. They can say a lot with a frame.

Gary Whitta: Yeah, that may be true. Actually, I haven’t even noticed this myself and I have to go through and really pay attention or sit down with Albert to have him help me out, but every time Eli kills someone there is a cross or some other religious item in the frame. Remember the bridge that he’s confronted under at the beginning of the film?

Yeah.

Gary Whitta: It say’s fourteen feet and six inches, but that’s a reference to chapter fourteen verse six of a particular bible where there’s a speech on slaying those who are against you. They put in a lot of Easter eggs like that and this is all stuff they added visually later. Albert had this idea that there would be this visual iconography in the movie at appropriate moments. It’s probably something you would never even notice unless someone pointed it out which is stuff he likes to do. With the fourteen inches and six inch thing, I very much doubt that anyone will really get that unless it’s really pointed it out to them. But it is there and they don’t throw anything on the screen that doesn’t mean anything, everything is there for a reason.

One particular cliché you avoided was with the opening of the film with no text appearing onscreen or a clumsy narration telling us what happened to the world. It’s the usual exposition films have, was there ever any pressure about putting that in?

Gary Whitta: That’s actually a really good question. It’s funny, the very first thing I wrote was that kind of narration. It was either going to be a text scroll or I was going to have Eli narrate… Remember at the end Eli’s voice over? That’s kind of left over from the fact that he had voice over from the beginning of the film. I’m not one of those type of people that think in screenwriting you should never use voice over because it’s a crutch, but I just didn’t want what you were saying. I didn’t want the movie to open up on a nuclear explosion and a text saying,”in the year 2020.” That’s just so lazy and I kind of felt like it would be more interesting rather than laying it all out at the beginning of the film to just spread it out. To have audiences be intrigued by what happened to the world and give them clues to figure it out. This is not a movie that spells everything out and gives all the answers, this gives them a lot of pointers and clues for them to figure it out. I think that’s why audiences are coming out surprised. They’re so used to being spoon-fed everything and when you work in the studio system you usually get notes saying, “we gotta make this more clear for the audience or we really have to spell this out.” You have to give credit to the audience that they’ll be able to fill in some of the gaps with their own imagination. I think that’s the more interesting thing to do. I decided early on it was better not to do that and I also… This is risky because when you write a spec script they always tell you,”exciting things have to happen in the first ten minutes to get viewers interested,” and I made a conscious decision that very little was going to happen in the first ten minutes of the film. It was important to me that we take the time to immerse the viewer in the loneliness, the isolation and the desolation of Eli’s world. That we understood that he was a tragically lonely man in an empty world so when he finally begins to relate to someone later on in the movie that carries more weight. It’s strange to say, but the first ten minutes are actually my favorite part.

It’s a great set up.

Gary Whitta: It’s incredible and we had to fight to keep that actually. That was one of the very few fights we had with the studio at one point where they were saying what we should do was take that underpass fight right up to the front so right after he hunts the cat he should be confronted by those guys and then you should put him on the road. Again me, Allan, and Albert would just shake our heads and we all knew what each of us were thinking. It was basically: have we really gotten to the point where we have so little faith in audiences to believe that they’re really going to sit in a movie theater and say,”it’s been ten minutes and nothing has really happened yet, should we go?” You gotta be kidding me. Fortunately, we won that battle. It wasn’t a fight that went on for very long and we managed to put out that fire quite quickly. That gives you an idea of when you go through a studio often times that’s the kind of homogenizing influence they can be that you often have to fight against. I don’t want slant anyone of people who helped finance this movie and distributed it, because at the end of the day they supported the vision of this film, but we just had to fight them on a few things. They’re very proud of the film they put out just as we are. It’s interesting, that idea of the loneliness and the desolation was sort of a product of… If you ask Allan or Albert they basically think they’ve made a Sergio Leone film. For me, the original idea for the film before the faith based elements and the ideas of literacy I just wanted to make a samurai movie. I just wanted to make a bad-ass take on that mythic wandering hero since that’s a classic character. That’s a classic figure with the big vista and the lone guy on the horizon. I just wanted to be apart of that and I wanted to tell my part of that story. If you said to me,”there’s this movie coming out that’s a post-apocalyptic samurai western,” I would so be there. That’s initially what we wanted to do and that’s why he has a sword. That’s homage to the samurai movies and there’s also a lot of references to The Man with No Name series… It’s interesting I got in a conversation the other day about modern audiences and especially kids these days who are very ADD with films. I think Michael Bay and the post MTV generation where there’s a cut every four or five seconds with everything moving forward at a freight train speed I think has created an impatience. I was looking at the opening to Once Upon a Time in the West… I don’t know if you’re familiar with that movie.

I am.

Gary Whitta: But the first ten minutes of the film is just the bad guys waiting for the train with Charles Bronson to arrive. Nothing happens. I think the most interesting thing that happens in that is a guy flicking a fly off his nose, but the way it’s filmed and the way it’s set up it’s absolutely gripping. You can’t take your eyes off the screen and that was one of the risks of this movie. We wanted to do the old school Sergio Leone opening in this film. There’s almost no dialog in the first ten minutes of this film. I think it’s probably ten or eleven minutes in until he encounters another human being when he gets into that fight. I’m really proud that we did it that way and I think that the first ten minutes set it up so much better than if we just jumped into some action scene.

You definitely see the western inspiration during the face off at the house later in the film. That single take is a nice modern take on a siege. 

Gary Whitta: That’s a product of Albert’s direction, I don’t think he does a lot of typical coverage like a lot of directors do where here’s the one shot and here’s the two shot. It’s not tremendously unconventional what he does, but he sets it up in such a way that there’s a rhythm to the scene that you wouldn’t have seen if another director had done it. I’m actually really glad that people are responding to that scene. When I was writing it I was kind of making up the story a little bit as I was going on. I had a basic structure, but I don’t think George and Martha were always there. It just became apparent to me about seventy pages in that,”holy shit, we gotta lighten this up.” This is a dark bleak movie where we’ve done a lot of brutal things with showing someone almost get raped, people being murdered and even Eli killing domesticated animals and eating them. I wanted all that to feel savage, but at some point you have to give the audience a break. I’ve seen the film a couple of times with audiences and they always get the best reaction when Michael Gambon busts open that couch with the weapons in it. That gets the biggest reaction in the whole film.

You keep the comic relief very contained, though.

Gary Whitta: Yeah, I mean we have a couple of one-liners…

But there’s no Batman and Robin type one-liners.

Gary Whitta: Yeah and you have to do it very sparingly because tone is everything. The tone of this movie until the end is very dark and you need people to invest in the world and take it seriously. You can’t do that if you got knock about fun buddy movie dialog. You got a little bit of it between Eli and Solara, but you got to have a little bit of it because then it could come off to morose. It was a balancing act and we just had to sprinkle the right amount of humor here and there to take the edge off, but not softening it too much. If that makes sense.

Jumping into the violence, the Hughes brothers have always been good when it comes to depicting violence. There’s definitely a few, “oh that’s cool,” moments but you shouldn’t really be cheering for what’s going on.

Gary Whitta: Absolutely, I think that’s another… The violence in the film is obviously something people are talking a lot about. Some people say this is a Christian film and I don’t think it is, but clearly it’s a film about faith. To have a guy with a bible in one hand and a machete in the other hand is going to get people talking one way or the other. The fights in the film, a lot of it comes from the way Albert designed those fights. He had very specific ideas visually in his head for what he wanted. From where I was coming from I could tell that I didn’t want… From day one, when this was written I didn’t want to violence to be sanitized or diluted in any way. The film had to have real consequences, when people get hurt they get hurt. This is obviously a world without doctors so you could die of a broken leg out in the wilderness. We wanted that to feel real. It’s interesting that in both of the major Kung-Fu fights in the film we never go in close or hang a lampshade on anything. That first fight was done in all one shot.

That reminded me a lot of Oldboy.

Gary Whitta: Yeah, well Albert I know is very influenced by Oldboy. You really have to watch that fight four or five times because it’s all happening at once and so quickly. The second fight at the bar where he takes on fifteen people is incredibly violent and in one shot he cuts off three heads, but we almost don’t notice. We don’t go in and do the obviously thing of showing the head rolling off, the blood spurting, the body falling down and it’s just there. You’re watching the film and you just go,”did he just cut that fucking guy’s head off?” You almost don’t notice it. The violence is there. The violence is real. The violence is very cool, but we don’t draw your attention to it. We put it in the frame and you’ll see it if you look at it. We don’t aim the camera at it to show a big spurt of blood.

There’s a few hints early on that Eli is in touch with god and being guided, but was there ever an idea to that keep ambiguous earlier on in the film where you could actually say: maybe he’s just crazy?

Gary Whitta: That’s another really interesting question. I was just talking to Albert about this yesterday and the decision we made with the character. He says at one point in the film that he isn’t crazy and Solara is a bit skeptical. Eli was a little bit almost inspired by those homeless people in LA who are a look a little scruffy, but go on about Jesus. You see them in every city and Eli was a little inspired by those characters certainly by their look. When someone says,”I’m on a mission from God and God is talking to me,” your first reaction these days would be that he’s crazy. There’s maybe a way… There was maybe a version we could have gone with where we made him a little more twitchy and played up the idea that maybe he was crazy then the ending of the movie would settle that one way or the other. I think in the end we just decided we wanted to go with the stoic bad-ass version of it. But yeah, there’s never really any evidence that God is actually talking to him until I think the end of the movie. You can take what you want from it.

Eli obviously represents hope and the goodness of religion and faith, but there seems to be another message there that is the total opposite about the downside of religion. There’s hints about what happened and that it was caused by a religious war and Carnegie also shows how exploitive and powerful religion can be. Did you want that dichotomy? 

Gary Whitta: I talk about the ambiguity in the film about how I want people to take different things from it, but I guess in terms of the good guy and bad guy relationship that’s the most unambiguous part of the film. I don’t think we’re seriously expecting anyone to root for Gary Oldman even though he’s extremely cool (laughs). Denzel said all along that a film is only as good as the villain and the interesting thing about Denzel is… This just shows how much of a selfless actor he is, but we spent most of time working on the script not with his character but Carnegie. He would get up and strut around the room doing Carnegie’s scenes. He did a slightly broader version of it and we ended up getting Gary Oldman to do it because he kept saying,”imagine if Gary Oldman did this?” Until eventually we said maybe we should just hire Gary Oldman… I don’t think there’s any ambiguity about who’s the good guy and the bad guy, but Gary will tell you that he’s not playing a bad guy but just a man who does bad things. It’s interesting, there’s this one very unambiguous scene with him where he’s talking about why he wants the book and how he wants to use it to control people. But I think he genuinely does believe that it could help create a new society. The ultimate message of the movie is what will build a new society is not weapons and muscles, but ideas, words, languages and culture. That’s what civilization is really built on. He really believes that this is the book to empower and inspire people to build a new civilization, but he obviously wants to be the head of it since he’s power crazy. We worked to make sure that for every scene he’s being evil… The first scene you see him with Claudia he’s actually being sweet and tender with her, but it’s not all black and white. I think he’s a man who has his own kind of faith and it’s just opposed to what Eli believes which throws them into collision. But Gary is the bad guy, but I just don’t think he’s a caricature.

Solara has that passive average joe turned rebel arc. Since it’s a transition that’s been done before, how do you make it feel fresh and natural?

Gary Whitta: Well, it was a difficult one because she really is the key relationship to Eli. Again, you can do all the samurai references with Loan Wolf and as you said there’s kind of a classic mythic master and apprentice relationship going on through the film. The key function to Solara and the reason she exists in the movie was for having someone to challenge Eli and letting down his guard. Letting someone in emotionally. That’s why we spent so much time setting up the harshness of Eli’s world where trust doesn’t come easily. Pretty much almost everyone Eli has met on the road the past thirty-years has probably tried to kill him. His entire worldview is very cynical and he’s probably lost a lot of faith in people and human nature. It’s just what the world has become with no stability. When he finally meets someone who is innocent and wide-eyed, polite, interesting, and so different from anyone he’s ever met that it challenges him and sort of forces him to reevaluate a little bit. My favorite… (Spoiler Alert) I say that about fifty times, but my favorite shot in the film emotionally is when he rescues her from the rapist and she leaps up to hug him. He doesn’t know how to respond and that’s the first time anyone has done that in long time. I thought that was a really beautiful moment.

(Spoiler Warning) One thing that I want to jump into is one of the main criticisms brought up that you have to take a leap of faith with the ending. I feel like there’s plenty of hints throughout the film that make it connect.

Gary Whitta: Like you said, there’s probably… If you go back watching it with what you know like something like The Sixth Sense you’ll pick up more things. A lot of that is with Denzel’s performance… If you watch that performance a second time you will notice this is something we worked on and did a lot of research on, but anytime he seems like he’s visually engaged with you or reacting to something it’s actually coming from someplace else. He can hear where you’re standing, he can hear where you’re moving, he can smell things and he touches things. He has a tactile relationship in the film… It’s like he opens that cupboard and he drags the dishes across the cupboard, things like that. There’s a lot of little clues. I’ve heard a few people say they’ve felt cheated by the ending and I’ve heard from people who were blown away by it. It’s going to divide people and it’s clearly working for a lot of people. For me, the point of that twist isn’t a “gotcha” moment. Here’s what I feel and take away: if you believe he’s blind then everything he did in the film had to be impossible or a miracle unless he’s genuinely been guided by god throughout the entire film. Picking snipers off rooftops from fifty-feet away with a pistol is difficult for anyone. He’s doing things that are uncanny. My view is that when you see what the book is and that he’s blind that to me tells you god must exist. If not, then there’s no other explanation for how he’s been able to do all that he did. Now I don’t know how many people are picking up on that theme, unless you’re a person of faith perhaps. Let me ask you, what did you take from it?

I felt like he was being guided by God. There’s plenty of hints throughout like when we first see him wake up he wakes up from a light, there’s when he tells Gary Oldman that someone told him to head west and especially with the scene where Ray Stevenson lowers his gun towards him. It was as if he was being protected.

Gary Whitta: He has this kind of aura where people just don’t know what it is, but it’s just to leave this guy alone.

Yeah, it just seems like an odd criticism since there’s so many interpretations or explanations you can have for it.

Gary Whitta: I always knew that this film was going to divide people right down the middle and I never knew how right I’d be about that. Again, if you look at Meta Critic or Rotten Tomatoes we’re dead on 50 percent. People either love it or hate it and there’s barely any middle ground reviews. There’s people who are tearing into it or calling it a classic which I’m actually incredibly satisfied by… If you try to make a movie that pleases everyone you might have to make some safe choices to get there. We’ve made a movie that’s going to challenge some people, that’s going to anger some people and even inspire some people. I’d rather do that than make the safe movie. I’d rather put something out there where we swing for the fences. We are getting really passionate reactions from some people.

Make sure to check back in the coming days for Part: II of this interview.


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