Hollywood writer, Gary Whitta, has worked on some of the most exciting sci-fi projects of 2012. See what he’s up to in 2013 and his advice for young, aspiring screenwriters.
As a member of the Hollywood creative community, you have worn several hats. Which do you like best?
I like anything where I get to be a part of the creative process. I love world-building, creating a universe from scratch, and I’m very proud of the fact that both of the movies that I’ve written or co-written – The Book of Eli and next year’s After Earth – are wholly original stories, not based on anything that existed before in some other form. Adaptations and working in existing universes can be tremendously fun too but there’s something uniquely satisfying about creating something from whole cloth where nothing existed before.
How did you become aware of The Exchange? Tell us about your involvement with The Exchange.
A screenwriting friend recommended it to me. I have to say The Exchange has been a fantastic resource for me, probably one of the best tools I have in my arsenal as a science-fiction writer. I have worked with them on several projects and in each case their assistance has been invaluable. I think they are particularly helpful in my case as the kind of sci-fi I like to write tends to be more grounded – as much science as fiction. As fiction writers we often have to take creative license in order to tell an interesting story, but I often find that research and study into the real science behind a fictional concept actually helps the story and its sense of verisimilitude. When I talk to a scientist that The Exchange has connected me with, I sometimes worry that they are going to roll their eyes at me when I suggest some outlandish sci-fi concept, but I’m often surprised at how receptive they are and just how plausible even the most seemingly far-fetched scientific notions are in the eyes of real experts. These are people who have devoted their careers to pushing back scientific boundaries, and so what often seems outlandish to laypeople like me is all in a day’s work to them. And they will often throw ideas back at me that I never considered and that open up even more storytelling possibilities.
How do you come up with story ideas and the various characters that populate your work? How do you strike the right balance between action and character development?
In terms of sourcing ideas, for the kind of grounded science fiction that appeals to me, I often find inspiration in the real world of science so I try to keep up with the latest developments via science and technology journals and blogs. Michael Crichton was the master of this, identifying interesting areas of real cutting-edge scientific research, whether it be nanotechnology, cloning, or whatever, and then taking the next step. What always appealed to me was just how believable he could make even the most far-fetched sci-fi idea seem; making the impossible seem possible.
How important is it that the audience sees science portrayed accurately in film and television?
I think it depends on the project. I do think that movies, even popcorn ones, have a duty to educate as well as entertain, or at the very least not mislead or distort scientific fact to a deceptive degree in order to tell a story. I think the farther out on the sci-fi spectrum you go, the more license you have – everyone can enjoy a good time-travel movie even though most scientists will tell you that time travel is, in real scientific terms, impossible. It is only important that the story stay consistent with its own internal logic and rules. But a movie about a more plausible concept, say, a deadly virus or human cloning, has a greater responsibility to – and can benefit much from – draw on a real scientific foundation rather than just making stuff up out of thin air.
What role can the entertainment industry play in encouraging more young people to study science or engineering?
In the same way that Top Gun inspired a lot of people to sign up to become fighter pilots, I think portraying scientists not as awkward nerds or geeks but as dedicated, smart, and often heroic professionals whose work is critically important to the human species can help in that same way. And exciting but realistic fictional adaptations of real sciences can spark greater interest and awareness about those subjects. After I saw Contagion I wanted to learn more about epidemiology.
You have been involved in creating and writing about video games. Can you explain to someone who does not understand the appeal of video games why they are such a popular form of entertainment?
The exciting thing about video games, especially for storytellers like me, is that they have now evolved to a point where they have become a legitimate narrative art form. I am currently working as a writer and consultant on the video game adaptation of The Walking Dead, and it tells a really fantastic story that has totally captured the imaginations of its audience, just as much as the television show and comic book have. We are still learning how to tell stories in the interactive medium but as we get better at it the possibilities are really starting to open up. It is one thing to read a book or watch a movie and enjoy that scripted experience, but it can be so much more immersive to help shape and change the narrative through your own choices and actions – you are no longer just a passive observer but an active participant in the story.
Can you tell us about what you’re working on now?
Right now I am finishing up an original film project that The Exchange has been particularly helpful with. I cannot say much about it but it touches on a lot of different scientific areas, everything from artificial intelligence and high-speed space travel to cryonics and genetics. In each of those specialized areas The Exchange was able to put me in touch with an expert who was extremely helpful and whose input informed much of what I wrote.
What advice do you have for the next generation of screenwriters?
Just write. Write as much as you can, and apply what you learn from each script to the next. Read a lot of scripts from accomplished writers, people like John August, John Logan, David Benioff, Jon Spaihts. There are all kinds of online resources to download scripts, get advice, share with other writers – there is so much more out there now than when I was learning. Do not get bogged down reading too many screenwriting advice books; it is easy to get turned around trying to conform to the various tricks and formulas they advocate. Just read a lot of scripts, watch a lot of movies, and write a lot. I must have written 10 or 15 screenplays before I finally had one that I was not embarrassed to show to anyone.