The Book of Eli - Writer Gary Whitta
Screenwriter Gary Whitta © Michael Hixon

Gary Whitta used to be an entertainment journalist – I knew I liked him. He edited such publications as PC Gamer and Total Movie before deciding to become a screenwriter.

His new movie The Book of Eli tells the story of a man, in post-apocalyptic America, on a mission to save the last remaining copy of the Bible. Denzel Washington portray Eli, a peaceful warrior who has carried and protected the book for 30 years, guided by his belief in something greater than himself, he does what he must to survive.

How did this idea come to you?

It came from a lot of places, and it was a bunch of different ideas that I’d been percolating for awhile that came together. For a long time I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the lone wandering hero, which is the classic figure in literature and particularly in cinema. I grew up watching the Man with No Name, and I think there’s something really mythic about that warrior prophet kind of character, and I always wanted to find a way to do my version of that story.

Everything I try to write is about something. With this movie hopefully you see that. It delivers on a popcorn level, we have awesome sword fights and car explosions and people’s heads being chopped off, but my hope for the movie is beyond that there would be an idea, or a message, or a theme that lingers in your mind the day after. It gives you something to think about.

I’ve always been fascinated by questions of faith and spirituality and the idea is that there is something greater than yourselves. The idea of the movie was the belief in something greater than yourself, the most powerful force in the universe, and that’s a force that can be turned either for good or evil depending on what we do with it.

Have you seen any other post-apocalypse movies?

The Book of Eli - Denzel Washington
Eli (Denzel Washington) © Alcon Entertainment

I always thought if I wanted to do a post-apocalypse movie, let’s not do the Mad Max version. I would look at Mad Max, they were great movies, but where after the end of the world do you go to get that Mohawk? Who does that for you? And why are they wearing leather and all the stuff that seems to be more about looking cool than just staying alive. That’s the last thing you should be worried about. We were trying to present a more authentically brutal, bleak, harsh and savage version of what the world after the end of the world might look like.

This was never conceived as being a post-apocalyptic film, it just turned out that once I had the character and once I had the idea for the story that setting was the appropriate one to deliver that narrative and that message. I liked having a movie about knowledge and culture and preserving certain cornerstones of the last 2000 years of our civilization that tell us who we are. I thought that was interesting.

How close to the original version of your script is this movie?

The Book of Eli - Denzel Washington
Eli (Denzel Washington) © Alcon Entertainment

I’m incredibly gratified that the film that they shot was the script that I wrote; it wasn’t sanitized or dumb-down in any way. When I saw the film for the first time a few weeks ago I actually got choked up at the end, partly because I think it’s supposed to have an emotional impact at the end of the film, but also because they made the film that I wrote and that’s so rare in this business, especially when you’re dealing with a potentially volatile theme, where everyone is going to come in with an opinion.

Allen Hughes (who directed the movie with his brother Albert) said, ‘This movie when it comes out, if we do it right, you’re going to see it on CNN and Fox News, people are going to talk about this film, because it goes to a universal theme, it’s a very divisive theme in a way, and I think it’s going to stir up real controversy and debate.’ I think if you give people something to talk about then you’ve done something.

Did you see Denzel or any other actor in your mind while you were writing this?

No. I certainly didn’t see Denzel because I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined that we would have gotten someone of that caliber. When I met Allen and I said, ‘Who do you see as Eli?’ He said, ‘Denzel, there’s no one else, if we can’t get him I don’t know what we’re going to do.’ I was like, ‘Good luck. He doesn’t do this kind of movie. He’s going to have to train for six months with a Japanese sword master to do this movie,’ which he then went and did.

Denzel was such an incredible protector of this film, because he so believed in the vision of it. When you have a powerful star it can go either way, if they’ve got a crazy, mixed up vision of the film it’s going to go that way, because they hold all the cards. However, in the case of Denzel, who believed in the film, who shared the vision that we had for what this film was, he stood like a bodyguard between the script and anybody that might try to dilute it or take it off course.


Judy Sloane

Judy is Film Review Online's regular Los Angeles based reporter.