Horror & Dark Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Interview: Gary Whitta

Garry Whitta wrote the screenplay for the post-apocalyptic thriller The Book of Eli, starring Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman, and also worked on the script for After Earth, an SF adventure starring Will Smith and directed by M. Night Shyamalan. Gary has written for video games and comics and he also worked on the upcoming feature film Star Wars: Rogue One, which (unfortunately) he is strictly forbidden from discussing. He recently used the Ink Shares crowdfunding platform to publish his first novel, Abomination.

This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by David Barr Kirtley and produced by John Joseph Adams. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the interview or other episodes.

Okay, so you started your career as a game reviewer, so just tell us a bit about how you got involved with that.

I started, jeez—I started way back in the 8-bit days of computer gaming. I was reading the Commodore 64 games magazines and playing kind of Sinclair Spectrum and C64 games. I grew up in the UK, so I was much more a child of the Commodore and the Sinclair computer game world than I was really of Nintendo and Sega. But I grew up loving those 8-bit games and transitioned in to the 16-bit era right as I was leaving school and desperately wanted to do something like this for a living.

I knew that I loved video games, I really wanted to write, and it was a combination of writing being the only thing that I’d ever really shown any aptitude toward in school, while at the same time, the only thing that I was really that interested in was video games. I was tremendously inspired by the game magazines that I would read voraciously when I was growing up. That’s what I really wanted to do. I would type out these little mock reviews. It’s much easier these days, of course, you can put your own reviews on your own website, or create a blog, or something like that, but it wasn’t necessarily quite as easy to break into the print magazine world back in the late 1980s when I started. But I would write these kind of dummy reviews, and mail them out to my favorite game magazines, and someone eventually took me on, and gave me a box of games to go home and review, and that’s kind of really how it all started for me.

Was that PC Gamer?

No, that was Commodore User, so this was like 1988, and it was roughly around the time the 8-bit generation was giving way to 16-bit. So, the Commodore 64 was going away, and the Amiga was the new thing. And I, as a fifteen-year-old kid, had saved up all of my paper route money and all of my allowance to buy an Amiga 500. It was the thing that I wanted. I bought an Amiga, and I got it like, the first week it was available in the UK. Then when I went to Commodore User to interview for this job, and at first they weren’t necessarily that interested in hiring me. But when they found out that I had an Amiga—and I think at that time they didn’t have any freelancers who actually had one at home—they had this big stack of Amiga games they needed freelancers to review, so it was really just simply the fact that I had an Amiga that kind of got me in the door. They sent me home with a box of Amiga games to look at because they just didn’t have enough freelancers with the hardware at home, so that was how I got into the business.

That’s a lucky break. I guess that’s going to come back too when we talk about your screenwriting career.

Yes, you will find that most of the things that I’ve achieved have been pure luck.

I used to read PC Gamer though, so I’m curious to hear about that. How did you end up at PC Gamer?

That came a few years later. So, I started in ’88, and I jobbed around on various 16-bit game magazines. I worked on a magazine called The One, which was kind of tri-format. It covered the Amiga, the Atari ST, and the PC, which back then was just barely finding its feet as a games machine. I remember playing games in CGA, EGA, and even prior to the VGA era when games had sixteen colors. I remember playing a lot of the early, primitive PC games. But there were the beginnings of a market there. And around 1993, I guess, the PC games market had gotten to the point where it was considered viable for them to have their own magazines, and PC Gamer was launched.

I was hired to go work on that—I think I was originally taken on as Deputy Editor, but then the editor left quite quickly after the magazine was launched, and I became the Editor-in-Chief of PC Gamer in the UK. That was in ’93. Then around ’96, I came out to the US, to San Francisco to oversee the launch of the American edition of that magazine. It was originally just meant to be my year in America. I hadn’t originally planned to stay longer. I fell in love with San Francisco, with the Bay Area, and also secretly in the back of my mind I’d never quite put away the ambition that one day I might write movies for a living, and I figured getting to San Francisco got me nine-tenths of the way toward Hollywood.

Right, so I said I used to read PC Gamer magazine. I was a really hardcore PC gamer back in the day. One thing that strikes me now is that you go on Xbox Live or something and it’s just like this non-stop stream of obscenity from teenagers, and I’m wondering, when you were writing for PC Gamer, was gaming culture different? Were people writing you angry letters all the time like that? Or do you think gaming culture has changed since the ’90s?

It’s funny; I was just talking to someone about this the other day. About how—I’m going to sound like kind of a grumpy old man here, like Abraham Simpson—but I actually kind of miss the days when what you would hear from the community was basically just on the letters pages of the magazines, and that was a curated space where all the crazy letters just got tossed away, and you would only print the edifying ones. Now, of course, it’s much more like the Wild West. There is a massive democratization of opinion that we’ve seen the internet give rise to. It’s tremendous in many ways, but there is also a dark side to it, and that’s why we unfortunately now live in this culture where a lot of people don’t go anywhere near the comments section, and a lot of the major gaming outlets have had to either put huge resources into moderating their comments and their reader feedback sections, or just shut them down altogether because they’ve gotten out of control.

But you got plenty of crazy letters back in the day? It’s not like that’s a new phenomenon?

Yeah, I don’t think the internet has created the crazies. The crazies have always been there; now they just have a much more powerful outlet to make themselves heard.

It’s interesting actually; if you type your name into YouTube, this video comes up where you’re debating some colonel about video game violence.

Oh, David Grossman. Yeah.

I was curious to hear more about that experience from your point of view. What was it like doing that?

First of all, I try not to type my name into YouTube when possible. But, if someone does that, yes, that video does come up. I’m kind of amazed that it is still there. It’s kind of become a little bit infamous in that, I don’t know how many people remember this guy, but Dave Grossman was one of these characters like Jack Thompson, one of these anti-video game campaigners, who for a while there was trying to convince people that playing video games turned harmless children into violent, expert killers, and a lot of the mass shootings that we saw and tragically continue to see in America, basically were the fault of video games. I, along with many other people, have always thought that that argument was preposterous, and I was asked to go on Fox News many years ago and debate this guy. Like I said, if you type my name into YouTube, you can see it for yourself. I try not to look at that video if only because of the terrible, terrible vest thing that I was wearing back then that is just embarrassing to me now. I was quite proud. I think I put up a decent argument against Dave. I think that these people, it’s kind of a pet peeve of mine, whenever we see one of these mass shootings or one of these terrible tragedies, people always blame the culture. They always blame the media. They blame everything, except it seems, the crazy degree to which guns are readily available to anyone in this country. And I think that’s a bit sad.

Was that the only debate like that you did? Or did you do any other things like that?

I’ve certainly been on plenty of panels and forums where I’ve had to give my opinion. I think that might be the only time that I’ve ever been on Fox News. And this was several years ago, before Fox really had created the reputation that it has today for being this very partisan, agenda-driven network. I think it always was that to some degree. It’s much more overtly that now. But even back then, I went in there thinking the audience is not necessarily going to be on the side of my argument. They’re much more likely to react to the scaremongering idea that video games are turning people into killers than any other factor.

I just thought the argument was preposterous. I’m someone who has played video games for years. I used to be the PC Gamer office champion of Quake II. I was really good at Quake. And people like Dave Grossman would tell you that that skillset of being able to kill people with a mouse-controlled rocket launcher translates into killing ability in the real world. I’ve been to a firing range. I’ve fired a variety of real weapons. It’s nothing like sitting in front of a computer shooting people with a mouse. But the idea that it can somehow condition you, or somehow make you immune to the dangers, or the horrors of real violence, I think is slightly preposterous. And they think, if we’re trying to solve the problems of gun violence in this country, there are much more obvious indicators that we can be looking at.

You mentioned that part of the reason you came to San Francisco is because you wanted to get involved in the film industry. So how did you actually break into the film industry?

This goes way back. It’s funny; I kind of had these parallel ambitions. I’ve been extremely, extremely lucky to be able to have these two separate careers where I’ve been able to pursue both of the things I’ve loved doing growing up and wanted to do professionally. One was video games and the other one was movies. When I was writing my first little dummy video game reviews when I was like fifteen or sixteen, I was also writing these really terrible movie scripts without having any idea what I was doing. But I knew that I wanted to be a Hollywood screenwriter. And I never really pursued it very seriously.

The video game thing, that career took off for me, and I went down that road, and I thought, well one out of two dreams ain’t bad. I’m pretty happy to be doing this. This is what I always wanted to do. And eventually I became editor-in-chief of PC Gamer and ran that magazine for several years. The idea of doing the Hollywood thing, I almost half-way forgot about it. But when the chance came to come to America it kind of resurrected that a little bit, and then what happened was, three or four years after I came out here, the company that I was working for that published PC Gamer had a terrible, terrible financial year. They got caught up in the whole dot com crash that everyone else did around 2000. And I got laid off.

I had saved up enough money to be able to live very, very frugally, if I just ate ramen noodles and Chef Boyardee for a year, if that didn’t kill me. I could pretty much survive long enough to try to bash out some movie scripts to see if I could really do this thing. I always think that circumstances often—even with what might seem like very bleak circumstances at the time—can really, really work for you. If that had never happened to me, if I’d never been laid off, it’s entirely possible that I’d still be editing PC Gamer today. That I would have just continued to do the very safe and comfortable thing that I enjoy doing, and even though there might have been a bigger dream, a bigger ambition out there, the idea of cashing in this job that I enjoyed and was perfectly safe and was perfectly stable to go off and do something that might seem very crazy and unlikely to bear any fruit, I don’t know if I’d have that courage to take that kind of risk.

But, my hand basically got forced by the fact that I was laid off. So I took that year, like I said, that kind of ramen noodle year, and just wrote a bunch of movie scripts. I wrote as many as I could. I’m kind of an autodidact, I don’t do very well at all learning by reading or going to seminars, I tend to learn better just by trying and failing and learning from my own mistakes. So, I wrote a ton of scripts, each one slightly less terrible than the one before it, until I eventually had one that I thought I wouldn’t be totally ashamed to show to someone, and I sent them to various managers and agents, studios and producers, people that accept unsolicited material from wannabe screenwriters and found a manager who responded to the script that I sent and signed me up as one of their writers. That was kind of how I got my first foot in the door.

If an aspiring screenwriter is listening to this, how do you even find those people to send your script to in the first place?

I still don’t even know if there’s an easy answer to that question. I will say that, I’ve not really looked into this for some time, but I do think it’s much easier now than it was back when I started fifteen or so years ago. And when I say easier, I don’t mean like it’s easier easier, I just mean that the resources are more readily available. There’s a whole world now of screenwriting messages boards and forums and support groups, and there’s a bunch of really, really helpful blogs, and other informational resources that will teach you or help you learn not just how to write a decent script, but then also what to do with it after that. And you can find online lists and resources of companies out there that will actually accept unsolicited material from writers. Most companies won’t, like if you send your script to Warner Brothers or CAA, and you don’t have any representation and no one knows who you are, they will literally just send it back to you unopened, or the email will just bounce back to you. You have to find someone that will take you on and represent you, and that usually comes in the form of a manager.

I had a manager long before I had an agent, and that manager kind of saw, from the material that I had submitted, some potential. What a good manager will do is not just try to represent you and your work in Hollywood and also put you up for jobs and get you work, but they’ll also mentor you and try to bring you on as a writer. Even if you’re not completely the finished article, if they see the potential there for you to become one, they will take you on and try to nurture you a little bit. That’s what happened to me. When I signed with my manager, I don’t think I was in any way ready for prime time. The script that got me signed is probably something that would never get made even today, but there was something in it where the guy that I submitted the script to said, “This guy might have the makings of something.”

When they put your script in the wrong pile, was that to get your manager?

Oh, you’ve heard the wrong pile story?

Yeah, yeah.

Again this comes back to the idea that it’s often better to be lucky than good. In my case, I had sent this script off to a management company, and typically what happens when you submit a script, to anyone really, is it’s never going to be read by the principal person at the company or the decision maker. It usually goes through a whole phalanx of readers and people who determine whether or not this is something that is even worthy of the attention of one of the principle people of the company. So, on a normal day, my script would have gone into one of those piles, and perhaps a reader would have looked at it and said, “Eh, maybe not so much, the guy above me doesn’t need to be troubled by this script.” And it may have just been sent back to me rejected.

But by pure happenstance, my script literally got put into the wrong pile. It got put into the pile that the company’s founder and principal would take home, like the cream of the crop scripts to read over the weekend, and read for consideration whether or not he wanted to represent these writers. Like I said, my script had just kind of leapfrogged all of those without ever being read, simply by virtue of being put in the wrong pile. This guy called me over the weekend that he had taken the script home and said, “I don’t even know why this script is in the pile. There should be some kind of coverage or some kind of notes on this from the guy who read it, but I ended up reading half of it anyway, and I already know that I want to sign you.” So, again, I was just really, really lucky that I managed to get through that, what normally would have been this vanguard between me and the person I was trying to reach.

Okay, so then you wrote The Book of Eli, which actually got produced. How did that project first get started?

Again, it’s interesting how often when you get your first movie made it shows up in the trade papers as that writer’s first project. Eli was probably, I don’t know, like the twenty-ish thing that I wrote, but people don’t ever really recognize or pay attention to all the other scripts that you had to write just to get good enough to write something that might actually get made. So, there was the script that I wrote that got me signed with my manager, and then I wrote another script after that, which we managed to get optioned by a small independent company, and then I kind of jobbed around for a while doing small-time rewrite on smaller movies, kind of B-movies. It’s all good experience, and you get to meet writers, and actors, and directors, and producers, and you meet with the people at the studios and you start to get a sense for how to navigate this business and what it takes to really be a working writer in Hollywood.

But Eli was just a spec script, an idea that I really wanted to write. I had spent the last couple of years prior to that working on other people’s movies, doing little rewrite jobs, trying to fix other people’s scripts that were broken, and I don’t find that tremendously rewarding or satisfying. For me, the most rewarding or satisfying thing to do is to come up with an original idea and create something out of whole cloth. Eli was an idea that I had been bouncing around in my head for a long time. The idea of trying to kind of do an old-fashioned Western, a wandering Man with No Name, almost like a Zatoichi samurai type movie. I’ve always been attracted to those kinds of characters. I wrote Eli in an attempt to try and capture that idea. I sent it to my managers as what they call a spec script, which is a script that nobody asks you, or hires you, or assigns you to write. You’re not getting paid to write it. You come up with the idea yourself, you write it on your own volition, speculatively, in the hope that once it’s finished, someone might be interested in buying it and making it. That’s what happened with Eli. I wrote the script, and we sent it out, and we had a few people interested in it. And Joel Silver took it into Warner Brothers and said, “I want to make this movie.”

The story is actually far longer and more roller coastery than the summary I’m giving you. But the short version is, we were lucky enough to get Denzel, and the Hughes brothers were attracted to the material. It was actually made, for an original piece of material, you’ve got to remember that the speed of development in Hollywood really, really moves often at a very glacial pace. Unless you’re operating in the echelons of Star Wars or Marvel movies, those movies are getting made, we pretty much know those movies are going to get made. With an original piece of material, it can sit around for years and years and years and get caught up in all kinds of development hell and go through all kinds of writers before it ever sees the light of day, if at all. Eli, by that standard, was actually relatively fast. I wrote it in late 2006, we sold it to Warner Brothers in early 2007, and it was in theaters January 2010. So from beginning to end, it was a little over three years, which might sound like a long time, but by movie standards it’s actually staggeringly fast.

The premise is that there is a kind of lone wanderer in a post-apocalyptic landscape, and he has the last copy of the Bible that anybody knows about. How did that idea come to you?

It originally started with very pulpy roots. I grew up on movies like The Man with No Name, A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. I’ve always loved the idea of that kind of lone wandering hero. I grew up on Seven Samurai. To some extent, there’s a little Obi-wan Kenobi in there as well, because Star Wars to some extent was inspired by westerns and old samurai movies. There is something, I think, very mythic about the idea of that kind of nomadic character, that kind of lone wandering warrior prophet.

I originally had the idea for Eli as that kind of guy, but I didn’t really have a foundation for him. I didn’t really know what the movie was about, and I’m not religious at all. It’s funny; a lot of people who see the movie assume that I’m a Christian. I’m not at all. I’m an atheist. But I’m fascinated by the way that religion and spirituality and faith does motivate people. It’s clearly one of the great social forces in the world and has been for thousands of years. I thought I saw kind of an opportunity to try through the very popcorny nature of the movie—it is basically a good old-fashioned action adventure, post-apocalyptic thriller—but I wanted underneath all of that for it to be really about something. And I was really attracted to this idea of having this conversation about whether or not religion is a positive or a negative force. The idea that I arrived at is that I think it’s essentially down to whoever’s hands it’s in.

I was really motivated by, there’s this great old quote from the Alan Ladd movie Shane, where Shane says, “A gun is only as good or as bad as the man who wears it.” I think that’s true, and that you can say the same thing about the Bible. You’ve got Mother Theresa on one side who took her religious faith and turned it into a way to help people and be a tremendous positive force in the world, and then on the other side of the world, you’ve got things like ISIS and Jimmy Swaggart and these kind of people who have turned religion basically into a big confidence trick, or an excuse to kill people. It’s this incredibly, incredibly motivational force. We know that it really, really motivates people. Whether or not it motivates people to do good in the world or bad in the world is the conversation that I wanted the movie to have.

Were people, like the various production people and the people at the studio, all weary about having a story with the Bible used like that? Did it help the movie get made? Just how did that play out?

The irony was it helped the movie get sold, but then it actually became an obstacle to the movie getting made. This happens a lot in Hollywood. With Hollywood, the reach often overextends the grasp, which is to say when Warner Brothers first saw the movie, they were really attracted to doing this thing. They were like, “This is kind of edgy and dangerous, and it’s dealing with these controversial themes.” So, they were originally really excited about it. Every studio wants to try and do something that’s a little bit out of the box or unexpected, something that is not quite so safe. They were attracted to this idea of this kind of gritty violent movie that had these kind of religious, faith-based underpinnings, but then when the time came to actually write a check for 80 million dollars to make the film, they looked at the script again and went, “This is kind of edgy and dangerous and controversial, and we’re not quite sure about this.”

What eventually happened was the studio, in fact, didn’t make it. It’s not a studio film. It’s actually an independent film. Warner Brothers had the opportunity to make the film right up until the last minute, and we went to greenlight the movie—where the head of the studio decides whether or not he’s going to make the film—and they ultimately said no. And this is with Denzel attached and the directors, and this whole package. The movie was basically ready to go, and the studio said, “Uhh, we’re kind of having cold feet. We don’t want to do it now.” And so they said no.

We went back to square one, and we thought the movie was dead. What happened was a company called Alcon, which at the time had just had a big hit with The Blind Side—the movie with Sandra Bullock where she adopts the football player. They were looking for this kind of material, and they basically came in and wrote the check themselves, and basically funded the whole movie outside of the studio system. Warner Brothers still distributed the film, but it wasn’t made as a studio movie, and that was actually terrific for us because it meant that once we were given the budget, we basically had creative freedom to make the movie that we wanted. The studio notes kind of went away because there was no studio. We got notes from the producers and Denzel had his own thoughts, and we would work within those, but it didn’t really . . . what we originally thought was the death of the project, which was Warner Brothers saying no to financing it, eventually really helped us. We got to make the movie essentially as an independent film without anything like the typical kind of studio development process that you might see a big movie like that go through.

Say a bit more about the public response to the movie, because you mentioned some people think it’s Christian propaganda or something. Just what were the range of opinions that you heard from people in response to the movie?

The reaction to the movie, I think, is really divisive. People tend to either love it or hate it. On Rotten Tomatoes fifty percent of people like it, fifty percent of people don’t. And that may or may not be because it’s a good movie or a bad movie. I think it’s something to do with the fact that, I think, any time you deal with religion people instantly kind of already have their preconceived notions that they bring into the conversations. That’s interesting, and it’s part of why the audience reaction to the movie, I think, bore out what the theme of the film was: that two people can read the Bible and take two completely different things from it. It’s all subjective. There’s no truly objective view of faith.

I think people that were Christian really came to the movie and embraced it. I got so many messages through Facebook and email and different places from people who are really deeply religious and take their faith very seriously for whom the film was really profound, and they felt like the movie spoke to them very deeply. They saw it as a very positive affirmation of their faith. And though I’m not a person of faith myself, I take tremendous satisfaction in knowing that the movie worked for them on that level. People who are atheist or more cynical about religion saw it as Christian propaganda and were less likely to embrace it, which is weird because, again, I’m an atheist myself, and the point of the movie was not to try and promote Christian ideology or to say that God is real. I think in the fictional universe of this movie, God is real. I think that’s really the only reading of the film that makes any sense. It’s impossible, I think, for Eli to do the things that he does and for his journey to end the way that it does unless you subscribe to the notion that in the fictional universe of this film there is actually a real God watching over him. But, I’ve also written movies about vampires and aliens. I don’t necessarily believe that vampires and aliens are real either. To me, it’s just another very interesting fictional mythology on which to base the film.

I’m not religious at all. I tend to be hostile to religious film like that, but I really like The Book of Eli. I thought that the supernatural elements, as it were, were understated enough that I just enjoyed it as a science fiction movie.

It tries not to rub it in your face. I think if you do respond to the faith-based aspects of it, I do think there’s an extra level there for you. Again, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that people of faith are the ones who seem to like the movie the most. Even though the movie tries to take a very neutral view of this. Even though I think by the end, it ends in this very kind of affirming way for Eli, and his faith in God is kind of validated at the end. The movie spends a lot of time, through Gary Oldman’s character to some degree, talking about how religion can be really damaging and dangerous, and the backstory of the movie is basically that there were these religious wars that destroyed the world. Part of the reason that the Bibles had all been wiped out is because people recognized it as one of the reasons why the world had gone to shit.

That’s why it was very important to us that at the end of the movie, the book that Eli is carrying ends up on the shelf that wasn’t like a temple or a religious place. It had historical interest as well. People really believed this stuff, and as we rebuild our civilization, it’s going to be interesting for us to know all the different things that people believed in the world that came before—not that we’re necessarily saying we’re going to ascribe to those same beliefs. But even if you just look at it as a cautionary tale: “Wow, we used to believe this crazy stuff and look what it did to the world.” I think it speaks to that old idea of if you don’t know the mistakes of the past, then you’re condemned to repeat them.

One thing that you said that I thought was really interesting is you said that Glen Beck really liked the movie, and that you see him more of as a Gary Oldman character type of person.

Yeah! I had read somewhere, I don’t remember the story directly, but I read that Glen Beck was a big fan of the film, and again, it was very much embraced by people on the right. Kind of Christian conservatives, fundamentalist type people, and I thought in Glen Beck’s case it was particularly interesting because the Gary Oldman character, Carnegie, was very much modeled on people like Glen Beck. The TV evangelists that you see on TV late at night or on Sunday mornings, I think a lot of those people are snake oil salesmen. I think they’re basically identified as those exploiting people’s genuine faith or their search and desire to believe in something greater than them. They’ve very cleverly identified that as a way to make money out of those people, and I think that that’s very cynical. I think it’s quite evil and dangerous. Carnegie was really kind of meant to symbolize that idea.

We had to lose a lot of scenes, as you often do in the making of a film, where originally in my early drafts Carnegie was more of a showman. He would actually go out on the balcony and address the town and sound very much like a TV evangelist or a Glen Beck type person. Pretending to be this person that is a believer in this faith so that he can motivate these people to do what they want. I remember Alan Hughes telling me there’s a little monologue halfway through the movie where Gary Oldman basically talks about how the Bible is not just a book, it’s a weapon that can be used to exploit people and control people and make them do what you want to do because his belief is that people attracted to religion are often people that are desperate, who aren’t necessarily strong minded. Again, I don’t necessarily believe that, but I think there are people that do believe that and have used it very successfully to enrich themselves, and Carnegie, the Gary Oldman character, is in many ways, I think, someone like Glen Beck. I just thought it particularly ironic that Glen Beck . . . that as I heard, saw the movie and liked it without recognizing that the movie was supposed to be criticizing people like him.

I also wanted to talk to you about this other recent big science fiction movie that you were involved with, After Earth. Do you want to just say kind of what your experience on that movie was like?

It’s interesting, when I finished on Eli, I remember sitting in the edit bay, and they showed me the cut of the movie for the first time, and I literally was so overwhelmed at the end. Not because I think the film is tremendously emotionally powerful or anything—and I’m kind of immune to it because I wrote it, so it’s not like the movie has the same effect on me that it might on someone else who doesn’t know what’s going to happen next—but it was such a combination of a dream for me to write this movie and see it writ large on a screen. And it was true to the script. They changed very little about the script that I wrote.

It’s very rare in this business to write a script that sells, and then actually see it made with major actors, people on the level of Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. And then also to see it produced in a way that is basically faithful to what you wrote. Often times when you work on a movie, it gets all kind of bent and pushed and pulled out of shape by all the various people, all the egos, producers, directors, actors, people on the film with basically more power than you, because everyone on a film is more powerful than the writer. That it’s really just a crapshoot whether or not when you get into this business if you’re ever going to produce anything that finds its way to an audience in a way that is indicative of what you originally set out to do.

And Eli is very much that. I watched the movie and I was like, “My God. They filmed the movie that I wrote.” This is almost exactly what I had writ large, on a screen, with Oscar-winning actors. But it’s even greater than I could imagine because the Hughes brothers made it look beautiful and it was so much more artistically pretty and Atticus Ross put this beautiful soundtrack on it. By the end of it I literally just cried, because the emotion of seeing this dream realized was just so resonant and so emotionally effecting to me.

But, I remember thinking shortly afterwards, “This is it. This is the one that you get.” Like you’ve played your joker really early in your career. You had a movie made based on your original idea that’s faithful to your original vision and it’s really good. This never happens. So, the fact that it’s happened once means that that’s probably it. It’s never going to happen again.

And so, off the strength of Eli, I got hired to go work on After Earth, which was this original idea that Will Smith had. I’ve got to say I had a tremendous time working on that film. I love Will. I got to hang out with Will for weeks at a time. He’s one of the greatest people I’ve ever met in this business. I love working with him. I got to work with M. Night Shyamalan, who I think is also just a totally lovely guy. I enjoyed really working with him. I had a tremendous experience working on the film, but it was one of those ones where, unlike Eli, where it was basically me from beginning to end, (there was another writer who kind of came and went on Eli, but I ended up with sole credit on the film, and the film is kind of ninety percent what I wrote). With After Earth, that was the more typical Hollywood process where I wrote a draft of the script, and then other writers came on after me, and Night because he’s a writer/director ended up rewriting a bunch of stuff.

By the time I saw the film that came out the other end, I didn’t recognize it the same way that I recognized Eli because the film had gone through a lot of developmental changes. While the basic structure and story of the film is the same thing that Will and I had originally developed together, I think there were so many other minds and opinions and egos and whatever you want to call it that ended up effecting what movie came out at the end of that process, I just looked and was like, “I remember that bit and that bit,” but the film wasn’t what I originally thought it was going to be. That’s not to say I think it’s a terrible film. I actually think it’s a better film than the reviews suggested because I think between Night and Jaden Smith, it was just too many really soft targets for the press. It was just too easy for them to attack that film. I don’t think it’s as bad as the critics; I still hear from people all the time that they actually really like it.

I totally agree with you about critics being hard on the film. I had seen that it was 11% on Rotten Tomatoes so I hadn’t watched it before, but in preparation for this interview, my girlfriend and I just watched it two nights ago.

Oh wow, you took a bullet.

I was expecting it to be just ghastly, and I thought it was okay. I was really stunned by the degree to which it failed to be horrible.

Like I said, we live in this kind of media culture right now, especially on the internet where there’s so much snark and people seem to delight so much in tearing things down. We see this all the time. When something falls short of expectations, the media descends upon it like a pack of vultures. I find it really disheartening. In the case of After Earth, I look at the film and as someone who saw it from the inside out, I can see the flaws, and I can see the parts that work and the parts that don’t work, but I can ultimately say, yeah, I think there was a better version of this film conceptually than was ultimately able to make it through the rigmarole and the various rollercoaster rides that are a typical film development process. But I don’t think it’s as bad as all that. I still hear from people that really enjoy it. Particularly like dads of kids really like it, because what it was really meant to be—aside from the evolved animals and the crazy monsters that are chasing them around— and what always attracted me to it, was what Will originally wanted to do. That was just a movie about an estranged father and a son who, through this experience, finally found a way to reconnect as a father and a son. I think the movie, to some extent, manages to achieve that, but it’s not, I think, what people necessarily want from a Will Smith movie. Will was very determined to play this part seriously and be this very buttoned down and dour military dad, and I think so many people these days want Will to be Men in Black Will. “Ah, hell naw.” Like they want that guy. And he made a decision to try and do something different, and I just don’t think audiences at large really responded to it.

I liked that though. I may be a sympathetic audience for this movie because it really reminded me of a Heinlein juvenile like Tunnel in the Sky, the kind of stuff I grew up reading, and it was an okay example of that sort of movie.

At the end of the day, I had a tremendous experience. Everything is a learning experience, right? I learned a lot about navigating the politics and the diplomacy of working on a big movie like that where the studio has a lot of money on the line, and there are a lot of people with their own agendas and their own egos, when you’re dealing with Night and Will, these are people that are used to the movie being what they want it to be. When there are so many different cooks in the kitchen, I think that can often be to the detriment of a project.

You said there are bits of the movie that you can recognize as things you did. Is there anything you can point to and say, “Oh yeah, that was my idea.”

The spaceship crash is very much mine. I would say the overall bones of what the movie is, the way that the ship crashes, and the experience they go through afterwards, a lot of that came through Will. He had a general idea of what he wanted the main structure of the film to be, but I helped him flesh that out, and most of that is still there. All of the stuff about the ranger school, the war that exists between mankind and the aliens in the future, what the evolved version of Earth would look like. There are little things that I added, like the little geothermal hotspots that he has to reach every evening because the jungle freezes over late at night. A lot of little, kind of video game-y type of things that I was able to add that I felt helped the movie move along. But, for example, there’s almost none of my dialog left in the film at all. Literally, I can point to one line here or there, but that’s the kind of stuff that tends to get rewritten the most when you get rewritten by other writers.

How about the idea of the alien that senses fear and the details about how people can overcome their fears? Is that something that was in play when you were working on the script?

I came up with the idea for the Ursa, which was this idea of a creature that had been genetically engineered to hunt humans. It was specifically bred by these aliens for that purpose. In terms of the fear thing, I’ll give you one example, the whole big “danger is real, fear is a choice,” which turned into a tagline in the movie, and that big speech that Will gives about how you must control your fear, that’s all long after I left. I don’t even know who wrote that. There were other writers, uncredited, that came and went on the movie after me as well. I think that stuff is really cool, but I don’t take any credit for it. The basic structure of Jaden’s character having to fight that thing at the end and fire off the beacon, all of that stuff was in my draft of the script, but the context of learning . . . basically the idea of this beast that would hunt you by making you afraid and then tracking the pheromones that you secrete when you are afraid. I do think that stuff is all very clever, but that was all developed after I left.

I thought that stuff was all cool. I actually really liked the trailer for this movie. If nothing else, people should check out the trailer. It’s pretty cool.

Yeah, just watch the trailer! Much quicker. And it’s free.

Let’s talk about your new novel Abomination. Tell us about how this project has come about.

This is actually an interesting segue from what we were just talking about. One of the things that I have learned from 15 years or so of working as a screenwriter in this business is that as a writer, you are often not someone who has much control, or much say, or much equity in terms of what the finished product is going to be. With Eli, I just got lucky. I sold that script, and again, you’ve got to remember, I often tell this to writers, once you sell a script, that’s it. You’ve sold it. It’s like selling anything. If I sell you my car, and you pay me money for the car, and you become the legal owner of the car, you can then do whatever you want with it. I no longer have any right to say to you, “Well, don’t repaint it. Don’t drive it over the speed limit. Don’t drive it off a cliff.” You have the right to do all those things if you want because you now own it. And the same is true with a script. If you sell an original piece of material to studio, contractually they are obliged that you have first refusal on doing the first rewrite on script, but after that, they can fire you. They can bring on other writers. They can do whatever they want. Or even if you stay on the movie: stars, producers, and directors will often have more equity, and more of a say, and more of an ability to affect what the finished product is, than you do as a writer.

So, with Abomination, the original idea for that story was that I would do it as a movie, but I remember looking at this idea and thing, well, here are all the reasons why if I write this as a movie script, a studio is probably going to say no to it: it’s a period piece; it’d be relatively expensive to do because it has all of these crazy monster effects and big battle scenes and stuff like that; it’s set in ninth century England, which a lot of studios would tell you, “Oh, we’re never going to make any money. No one is going to come see that movie.” There’s a good chance that I could write that movie, spend six months putting all my blood sweat and tears into it, and studios would say no, and it’s just not going to get made. And nobody reads scripts outside of Hollywood, so you’ve spent a lot of time writing this story that maybe twenty or thirty people would ever see. For a writer, that’s very disheartening. What you want to do when you write something is have people see and enjoy it and get that satisfaction.

It occurred to me that there may be another way to get this story told in a way that I’m completely in control of, and that’s to write it as a novel. When you write a movie script, you don’t really have a finished product. You have the blueprint for what you hope one day will become the finished product if enough people come along and all agree to make it. But when you have the manuscript for the novel, you essentially have the finished product, and you don’t even need a publisher anymore. I look at writers like Hugh Howey and Andy Weir, who have circumvented the traditional publishing model completely, and found tremendous success just putting their books directly on Amazon and talking directly to their audience, and basically bypassing all of the traditional gatekeepers that we associate with book publishing. So, I thought, I can at least do that. Even if there’s like a publisher that doesn’t want to take the book on, I’ve got enough of a following on social media, and people that have responded to my work in the past, that I could probably put this on Amazon, I could self-publish it, and bang the drum and promote it myself, and get some people to read it. Maybe it takes off and maybe it doesn’t, but I know at least that the version of the story that I put out there is the one that I wanted to tell, and nobody fired me, and nobody rewrote me, and nobody forced me to change the story into something I didn’t want it to be.

So I did it kind of as an experiment. The same thing happened on Eli, when you’re really possessed by a story, and you just love the idea, and even if it’s not the most commercial idea, and you think, “No one is ever going to buy this.” When you’ve got one of those ideas that just won’t let you sleep at night, sometimes the only way to get it out of your system is to write it out. So, I wrote Abomination in my free time over the course of, I think, two years. There were like six months where I didn’t even touch it because I was working on other things. But, whenever I wasn’t occupied by whatever paid writing I’d been hired to do, I would write another chapter of Abomination here or there, and I finally had a draft of it that I was going to sell. We eventually did end up finding a publisher for it, but like I said, the plan was originally to self-publish it.

Right, and the publisher, Inkshares, it’s sort of an interesting hybrid of self-publishing and traditional publishing.

I really liked them. It was an interesting thing. It was almost like a Goldilocks story, the porridge is too hot, the porridge is too cold, this one is just right. I had initially approached what we think of as the traditional publishers about Abomination, and a couple of people read it and said, “We like this book. We just have no idea how to market it.” Because it is this weird mash-up. Is it horror? Is it fantasy? Is it historical? Because there’s elements of English history. It’s not set in a magical kingdom; it’s set in ninth century England. There’s magic, and there’s monsters, and there’s also these really horrific elements, so in terms of which shelf you put it on, I think traditional publishers that need to be able to very easily categorize their books in order to market them and know how to sell them, didn’t know quite what to make of it.

So, I thought, “Okay, fine, I’ll just self-publish it. That’s what I was going to do anyway.” I looked into self-publishing, and I did have some very educational calls with people like Hugh Howey and Andy Weir, who have had tremendous success with books like Wool and The Martian, and they did go the traditional, straight up self-publishing route. They wrote the books, they put them on Amazon, they publish them on their own websites, and they just . . . because those stories are really good, they just kind of went viral. People responded to them. They started to share them with friends. And that’s the self-publishing success that you can find these days. And so, I had looked into that. I was talking to Hugh and Andy because I was going to go in that direction. I was asking them, like, what can I learn from your experience having published these books? What would your do’s and don’ts be? They gave me a bunch of great advice, and I was looking into self-publishing it, so I would hire an editor and pay them to go through the manuscript and make corrections and suggest notes. I would hire a cover artist. Do all that kind of stuff. I knew that I could, to some extent, leverage whatever my profile is as a writer to promote it, and help it find an audience.

Then, I discovered through my agent, this company called Inkshares, who are kind of like Kickstarter for books, I guess? In that you can submit your book idea to them, and they’ll put it up on their website, and there’s a little presentation, and read a sample chapter, here’s a little video of me talking about what the book is or what the book is going to be. If enough people like the idea, they can go on to the website and preorder the book ahead of time, and Inkshares has an algorithm where they figure out, “Okay, if we hit this funding number, that covers our costs in terms of printing and publishing and distributing so many copies of the book.” We crowdfunded Abomination that way, and we hit out number, and we were able to publish the book.

In the end, I think it’s been a really good experience because it does have a lot of the benefits of self-publishing. As a writer, I think I probably had more creative control over the book, not what’s just seen inside the pages, but also what’s on the cover and how it’s marketed, and really kind of across the board, I felt like I had a lot of say in how the book was produced, perhaps more so than I might have with a traditional publisher. But, at the same time, Inkshares does also bring a lot of stuff to the table that as a self-published author, you might not have. Marketing the book, coming up with cover artwork, and editing it, and promoting it, and distributing it, all of that stuff, that’s a lot of work for a self-published author, and it’s why a lot of self-published authors don’t find success because they’re not willing or not able to do all the stuff they need to do to make their book look attractive and to find an audience. Inkshares does all of that for you. It was really a great mix of, like I said, the creative freedom that I would associate with self-publishing, but a lot of the benefits that a traditional publisher has as well.

When a lot of my friends do crowdfunding campaigns, like Kickstarters, it’s like a full time job for them for that month, to get the word out about the Kickstarter. Did you do anything like that? Or did you just put the page up and let nature take its course?

A little bit. It’s interesting. We had two rounds of promotion in that when the Inkshares page went up. You typically have, I think, forty-five days to hit your funding goal. It’s not a tremendously high number. The reality is to print, publish, and produce a certain number of books is really not that expensive. But you do have to hit that number, and you’re given forty-five days to do it. We actually hit our number in twenty hours, which was terrific! And that was partly because I went out, of my own volition, saying, “Okay, I have these Twitter followers. I have some profile from the movies that I’ve worked on, and people know who I am. And I’m going to go out there and basically bang the drum as loudly as I can.” And I did interviews with websites, and I promoted the hell out of it on Twitter and on Facebook, and I just did everything I could to direct people to that page and to ask them to back the book or preorder the book so we could hit that number, and so we got it over the number, and at that point you know the book is going to be made, so that’s really cool. That was in February, and then the book actually does go into final copy edits, and you produce the cover art, and you print all the copies, and you distribute them. Then once you actually get to publication day, you kind of have to go back out and do it all over again. So, I did another round of publicity just recently where now that the book is actually out there in the shops, you’re trying to get people to buy it and read it. I ended up doing two rounds of publicity on it.

You mentioned the cover art, and I just want to mention that this is a really physical nice looking book. It looks as good as any other book from any traditional publisher. The cover art is gorgeous, and the production values are great.

I’m really glad that you mentioned that, and that people do seem to pick up on that. I’ve seen a lot of self-published books, and you can publish them, Amazon has a system called Createspace that will allow you to self-publish a book, not just as a digital Kindle-type edition, an eBook, but also as an actual physical book that Amazon will print-on-demand and send to people who order it. But, unless you’re really, really willing to put a ton of work into the design of the book, and there are some people that have done this, it’s unlikely to produce the kind of result that you think this looks like a “real” book. This is the kind of thing that if you walked into Barnes and Noble that you would see put on that front table. A lot of them look kind of crappy, and I didn’t want that. I think people do largely still judge books by their covers, and I said to Inkshares at the very beginning of our collaboration, “Guys, I don’t even know what this really means. You know it when you see it. But, I want this to look like a ‘proper’ book.” I got to pick my own cover artist, Jason Gurley, who’s a tremendously talented artist, agreed to do the cover art for us. Inkshares did a beautiful hardback edition. A lot of it is like really little details. We got to pick the particular type of paper stock, and the typography, and all those little things that, again, you don’t necessarily understand what it is, but your brain just knows when you see the finished product, “Yeah, this is a real book.”

Like I said, it looks just terrific.

They did a great job with it.

You mentioned that the story takes place in ninth century England. How much research did you do into that time period? Did you really immerse yourself in history things to write the book?

I did a fair amount. I didn’t feel like I needed to do a ton because the historical part of it is really just the back drop. The first couple of chapters of the book do have quite a bit of historical detail to kind of set the scene. It’s a really fascinating time in history, during the Dark Ages, basically after the fall of the Roman empire. Europe just descended into absolute chaos. The Roman empire was essentially what kept Europe a lawful and orderly society. When they left, when the empire collapsed, Europe basically descended into absolute feudal chaos. It was a very dark time in English history, particularly for England because we were under constant Viking invasion, and for hundreds of years we were desperately trying to prevent the Vikings from taking over the whole country. And Alfred the Great essentially was charged with defending the last English kingdom that remained that hadn’t been occupied and conquered by the Vikings. So it’s a really, really interesting period in history, and I did a certain amount of research just making that the backdrop and the basic historical details: dates, and battles, and places, and what territory was occupied by the Vikings. That, I think, is all mostly historically accurate. But, then once the story gets going, the historical foundation of it doesn’t really matter so much. It’s more of a traditional fantasy, monster and magic type story after that point.

You mentioned, I think, that you grew up in England. Did that influence this book at all? Are you familiar with any of the geography and things featured in this book?

We learn all this stuff in school. One of the things about English history class is there’s an awful lot of it you have to learn. We have this massively long and quite turbulent history. I remember learning about the Viking invasions and Alfred the Great when I was a kid at school, and again, as an English person myself, I’m often drawn back to those themes. I’ve written World War II stories that are very specifically set from the English point of view. I’ve got a comic book I’m working on right now, which is another thing set in England with English characters. I think where I come from is always going to be a part of the stuff that I create.

The idea with Abomination was partly born out of that process, but also, I liked the idea of telling a story in a real time and place. There’s a lot of fantasy fiction out there these days. It’s a very, very crowded marketplace, I think more so than ever in this post-Game of Thrones world that we live in now. And everyone has got their own version of Westeros, or Middle Earth, or Shannara, these great fantasy kingdoms, and I felt like it might be more interesting, or at least interesting in a different way, to tell a story with fantasy elements, with magic, and with monsters, and with all this cool stuff, but ground it in a real historical time and place because then I didn’t have to worry about creating all of this fictionalized mythology. The history was already there to tell me what the map of the world looked like. Also, it helps to some extent make the more fantastical elements of the story feel more grounded because you don’t feel like you’re in a faraway imaginary place. You’re in a place you know. This is why the first couple of chapters of the book go to great lengths to try and establish this. This is a real period in history, all of this stuff really happened, England really was split down the middle with the Vikings occupying pretty much all of Eastern England, and there was very little real English territory left, and they had these tremendous battles that were being fought. That is, I think, as interesting as anything that’s in Game of Thrones, but it all really happened.

I don’t want to give too much away, but this story has a really interesting structure to it. Is there anything you want to say about the structure of the story?

This actually goes back to the question of why write it as a book instead of a movie. A lot of people have said that the story, in some ways, reads a little bit like a screenplay. That it has this cinematic vibe to it. And I’m sure that’s because of my background as a screenwriter, but part of the reason why I wanted to pursue it as a book instead of as a movie is because the way I wanted to tell the story, didn’t necessarily conform to, what at times, are the very rigid expectations of how a movie story is structured. It’s a three-act story. You escalate towards a big, epic conclusion, and there are various things along the way that if you deviate from those guidelines, that can be just another reason for someone to say, “No, I don’t want to make this movie. I don’t understand the way the story functions.” So, I knew that as a novel, I would have the ability to tell the story with, I think, more flexibility, and not have to worry about a lot of the perceived prevailing wisdom of how a story is supposed to work. The story, as you mention, without giving too much away, takes a really major turn a third of the way through, where it’s like that story ends and a whole other story begins.

I’m sure we’re going to have this conversation at some point, I presume, about whether or not Abomination can or will be made into a film, and at that point we probably have to figure out how to restructure the story to put it into more of a typical movie screenplay, three-act structure template. Part of the fun of writing it as a book was not having to worry about that, and just tell the story the way that I wanted to tell it. And, I think it really pays off because what happens is now people come to stories, especially movie stories, with such an expectation of how the story is going to play out because there are so many specific and very strict rules about turning points and first act, second act, third act, and everything has to escalate. It can become quite predictable. One of the more satisfying things for me is people who have read the book, coming back and saying, “Wow, I didn’t expect that to happen.” Or, “This event really took me by surprise.” Because I gave myself the freedom to take turns and make decisions in the story that were I writing it as a movie, I may not have felt like I would have had the same freedom.

Right, and then another thing that really struck me in the book is that one of the protagonists, Wulfric, is a much more noble character than I feel like most characters in contemporary fiction are, or even in contemporary movies as well. We were talking about this recently on the show, in terms of the Chris Pratt character in Jurassic World, that there just seems to be this tendency in modern movies to make the protagonist kind of a dick for no particular reason, and I was just wondering what you think about that, and do you feel like too many protagonists are dicks, and you wanted to go in a different direction?

Again, especially in Hollywood, we’re always chasing trends, and for a while now we’ve been dealing with this idea . . . these days your protagonist has to be edgy. He can’t just be a good old-fashioned hero character anymore. There has to be some dark side to him. And again, I think a lot of the time that can work. I mean, Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy is kind of a dick, right? But, that’s part of why we love him. That’s what makes him kind of a fun character. Ever since Han Solo, we’ve loved the idea of rogues and scoundrels and characters who aren’t necessarily completely likeable, but it’s often the things that are less likeable about them, ironically, the endears us to them all the more.

I don’t necessarily think that’s the only way to write a character though. I think it’s really interesting, literally right before we got on this podcast, I was watching Captain America: Winter Soldier, here on my office TV in the background. That’s a great example of how you can still do a terrific, good old-fashioned, kind of all-American, apple pie hero. I mean, Steve Rogers in those movies is not morally ambiguous. He knows exactly what he stands for. He is just absolutely true-blue, good guy. He’s surrounded by Tony Stark and Nick Fury, these other characters who are much more morally ambiguous and that’s interesting in their own way, but I think Steve Rogers stands out in that group all the more because he is the one who is like ramrod straight, “I know what I believe in, this is wrong, I’m not going to compromise.” I think that’s kind of the genius of what they did with that Captain America character, is taken a character like that, who is absolutely morally sure of himself and knows exactly where right begins and wrong ends, and put him in a world where none of that stuff seems to matter anymore, and he’s trying to stand up for something with all of these other people around him who don’t seem to give a shit.

I think that’s really interesting, and I guess, in kind of a different way I like the idea of writing a character like Wulfric who was completely morally upstanding and knew exactly what he stood for, but in a way is almost a victim of his own moral rectitude. He has such high standards for what he considers would make a good person that he doesn’t even think that he qualifies himself. He’s very, very deeply critical of himself. He carries around a tremendous amount of guilt for the things he did during the war because . . . it’s interesting. He’s a pacifist. It’s in many ways a war story, and Wulfric is kind of this great war hero, but he hates himself for all of the things that he did in the war because he’s a pacifist. I’m very pacifistic, very, very anti-war. I think any time that we can tell anti-war stories, or stories that don’t glamorize war, or make it seem fun or cool or sexy, I think we’re doing something worthwhile. The battle scenes and the stuff that touches on the Viking wars in Abomination is meant to be absolutely horrible. You would never want to live in this world. I think Wulfric is someone who’s never asked for that for himself. He’s not a warrior by choice. He kind of got conscripted and forced to do this and did the things that he had to do in order to survive and protect his king and his kingdom, but now after that, I think he carries around a tremendous amount of guilt for the things that he’s done. And a lot of the narrative, or emotional thrust of the narrative, is really meant to be about him learning to accept the person that he is and forgive himself in a way for the things that he’s done.

I mentioned Wulfric is one of the protagonists, and again, I don’t want to say too much, but the other main protagonist in the novel is Indra. Is there anything you want to say about her as a character?

With Indra, I always knew that I wanted dual protagonists, and I always knew that one was Wulfric, but I wanted to give him a really good female character to kind of balance of as well. This is something I’ve thought about and talked about a lot recently in writing the book and doing interviews about it. I think there’s been a lot of confusion in the last few years about what constitutes a strong female character. I think it’s great that we’re having these discussions. I think it’s terrific that women are finally getting their due in popular culture. We have an all-women Ghostbusters movie coming. I don’t care what the complainers say; that is fantastic, and it’s long overdue. I’m very, very proud of the fact that I worked on a Star Wars movie that has a female protagonist at the heart of that, and Force Awakens has a very strong female character at the heart of that in Daisy Ridley. I think we’re now starting to finally see a much greater gender equity in terms of who we accept as our movie heroes. It doesn’t always have to be Chuck Norris and Bruce Willis anymore. I think there’s much more gender neutrality now, and I think that’s long overdue.

I think part of getting there though is working through our conceptions or our misconceptions of what constitutes a strong female hero or a good female protagonist. I think a lot of people, when they talk about creating strong female characters, often have a very simplistic interpretation of it, which is to say, this is someone who’s really tough. This is someone who’s kickass. This is someone who basically has a lot of masculine characteristics, someone who can fight her way out of a situation. I don’t necessarily think a man who can fight his way out of a situation is particularly strong—just because they’re good with their fists or a gun, I don’t think it necessarily makes them a strong character, so I don’t know why necessarily assigning those traits to a woman, other than the fact that we don’t necessarily automatically assign those traits to female characters as much, automatically makes her a strong or an interesting character in the same way.

Indra was my way of trying to figure out what I thought we meant when we talked about a strong female character. And, in many of the conventional ways that I just talked about, she does have those qualities. She is good with a sword. She does stand up for herself. She is kind of strong in those typical masculine ways, but I thought what was much more interesting about her, and what makes her a much strong characters, is I really tried to load her down with as many emotional flaws, and problems, and setbacks as possible. She had a terrible childhood. She hates her dad. She was terribly mistreated by her dad. She suffers from debilitating panic attacks. She lies. She’s arrogant. She’s carrying around all this unresolved anger that often leads her to get into trouble and act out in ways that are contrary to her goal. So, she’s got all these emotional and psychological problems that make it very difficult for her to succeed. I think what makes a character strong like that, rather it be male or female, is rather than start them on the goal line where they’re basically an okay character and off they go on their mission, start them twenty yards back, weigh them down with as much emotional baggage and as many problems as you possibly can, and then ask them to overcome those flaws and then succeed in spite of all of them. I think if you can do that, that’s much more of a struggle.

In Abomination, she has to fight monsters, and bad guys, and all this kind of stuff externally that she has to overcome, but I think what’s much more interesting is the internal struggle and her inner demons and these voices inside her head that tell her that she’s going to fail or she’s not good enough and all the things that plague us in our daily lives. Our inner critic, that voice that’s telling us that we’re all imposters who aren’t worthy. What I found ultimately that was more interesting was the more problems I gave her, and the more things that I burdened her with, and the more setbacks I gave her, the stronger she became because she had to become stronger in order to get where I needed her to go, which is hopefully a happy resolution for her by the end of the story.

Unfortunately, we’re running really short on time here. I wanted to note one thing though is that this book has one of the most eclectic collections of blurbs I’ve ever seen. You’ve got video game designers, film producers, podcasters, novelists, some of these people are . . . Cliff Bleszinski and Gale Anne Hurd and Nicole Perlman. I think it really speaks to how wide-ranging your creative work has been. But are these all people you know? How did you end up with all these crazy blurbs on this book?

I don’t have a copy of the book in front of me for all of them, but you’re right. It is kind of an eclectic mix. Typically, when you see blurbs on the back of the book, you tend to get blurbs from other writers and the literary press. Though I have a background in screenwriting and a profile as a writer in film, none of that really parlays into my work as an author. I do now because of this experience, but when I first started writing it, I didn’t know any authors. I didn’t really know anyone who would be appropriate to put on the book as a blurb, so I just kind of reached out. I sent free copies of the book to the people that I did know. Those are people from the world of video games. People from the world of film, fellow screenwriters, film producers. In the end, some of the authors that I came to know during this process, people like Chuck Wendig and Hugh Howey and Adam Christopher, people who are authors of note who were happy to read the book and liked it enough that they were comfortable giving a blurb, but you’re right. It’s an eclectic mix, and it does in a way reflect kind of the weird route that I took towards getting to write this book.

Have any of the responses really struck you, or been really interesting or noteworthy, that you’ve gotten to the book?

There’s a couple of things that the book seems to have done successfully, what I hoped it would do. Anytime that you write something, rather it be the overall work, or maybe a specific moment or a line in a scene or something, there are times when you go, “This is going to kill. I really hope that the audience responds to this.” Here’s a twist in the story that I put, or just a little character moment, or a gag. You have a good feeling about it, and you just hope that it’s going to go over the way that you expect it to, or the way you hope it will.

With Abomination there were just two things that I hoped it would do. One was really gross people out because just on a popcorn level, part of it was an exercise creating monsters and monster scenes that are gut-wrenchingly sickening, disgusting, and awful. I was really influenced by John Carpenter’s The Thing. If you’ve read the book, you’ll probably see some of that influence. I just wanted to create just these awful, absolutely unholy, abominable, unspeakable things that just have no business existing in the real world, and try to paint that picture with words as effectively as possible that people would just be really grossed out. I think that’s worked. I’ve got a lot of comments from people going, “Oh my God, this is disgusting. What the fuck is wrong with you?” That’s exactly the kind of stuff that you want to hear.

Then, just on a larger scale, just hoping that for all its popcorn sensibilities, like it is gross, it’s supposed to be violent, it’s supposed to be scary, it’s supposed to be ugly in places, it’s supposed to be very visceral, but there is, ultimately, beneath it is meant to be, hopefully, a sweet and emotionally redemptive story that along the way takes a couple of unexpected turns. Again, for the most part, people seem to have responded to that. They’ve identified that even though it’s really gross on the surface, it’s actually kind of sweet underneath and emotionally resonant, and in a couple of specific places, the story does turn in a way that people don’t expect. It’s funny, it’s almost become like a meme now, I’ve had so many people come to me saying, “Oh my God, I just read chapter eight.” And they’re just speechless or like, “You motherfucker.” Or whatever. Like really unhappy about chapter eight, but in a good way. Something really surprising and quite bad happens in chapter eight that you don’t see coming, I think, for the most part, and when people get there, it really kind of throws them because it’s not something they’re expecting to happen, again, because I think I was able to structure the story in a way that was to some extent non-conformist and non-traditional and so unexpected.

I agree with that, yeah. The book definitely took me by surprise more than once for sure.

Good, I’m glad.

I think we’ll probably have to wrap things up there. Gary, do you have any other projects you want to mention? Anything else you want to let people know about?

Let me see, I almost wish you were talking to me like a week later because there’s a couple of things that I’m really excited about that are not announced yet, but will be very soon. Right now I’m finishing up a movie for Fox called Starlight, which is an adaptation of the Mark Millar comic book. Mark did Kingsman: Secret Service and Kickass and Wanted and a bunch of cool comic books that get turned into movies, and this is the next one. We’re hoping we’ll go into production next year. I’ve got two other movie and TV projects, which I can’t announce yet, and I’m doing a comic book called Oliver, which is a post-apocalyptic retelling of the Oliver Twist story, which is going to be published next year. Talk to me again in a couple of weeks, and I’ll tell you stuff that’s cool that I can’t talk about yet.

[Editor’s Note: Gary sent along an update to this response, since this transcript is indeed running more than a week after the initial interview was conducted: “I’m also just getting started of a movie for Benedict Cumberbatch called The War Magician, which is the amazing true story of a British stage illusionist named Jasper Maskelyne who during an officer in the British Army in World War II used his skills as a magician to design incredible camouflage illusions that helped fool the Nazis. It’s a really fantastic project and so exciting to be working with Benedict.”]

Sounds good. We’ve been speaking with Gary Whitta, and his new book is called Abomination. Gary, thank you so much for joining us.

Thank you.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.