This fall, from the writer of Rogue One, The Book of Eliand After Earth, a brand new sci-fi adventure is on the way. Set in a future where Earth has been conquered by giant alien mechs, a young woman finds a map that might hold the key to saving humanity. Sounds cool, right? Well, it’s called Gundog but can’t see it in theaters. In fact, you can’t “see” it, period, which is very much by design.
“At the beginning of my career, like almost 20 years ago, I would have written Gundog as a spec screenplay,” writer Gary Whitta told io9 over video chat. “In the naive sense, I didn’t really understand at that point that big expensive original science fiction from not particularly well-established writers [are] a nonstarter…Even as established as I am in my career now, and I’ve got Star Wars on my resume and all this cool stuff, if I wrote that as a spec screenplay, I know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s going to go to every studio, maybe 15 or 20 different people are going to read it across the studios. They’re all going to pass. ‘Too expensive. It’s original.’ And six months of my life is basically wasted so 20 people can read a script and put it on a shelf. It’s heartbreaking. If I’m going to that amount of work into something. I want to know that it’s going to find an audience.”
So Whitta had an idea. After spending some time with comic book writer Mark Millar a few years back, he realized the man behind Kick-Ass and Kingsman had it all figured out. “He gets the creative satisfaction of writing the comic and getting it on the shelves the way that he wants it. But then the commercial satisfaction of it finding a much bigger audience through a movie or a TV adaptation,” Whitta said. “So he kind of wins creatively and commercially, which I think is very, very smart.”
That’s why, in 2015, when Whitta had an original idea he figured was way too ambitious to be made into a movie, he tried something else. “I had another idea for a spec screenplay I wanted to write called Abomination, which was this medieval horror thing,” he said. “And again I knew no one was going to make it because it was medieval, it was a period piece, it was expensive. So I wrote it as a novel instead, and that did get published. It was much easier than the Sisyphean struggle of trying to push a movie uphill in Hollywood. And it found an audience and people liked it. And I consider that a win.”
It actually became a double win because, once people read and liked the book, guess what happened? “People start [asking] ‘Are the screen rights to this available?’” Whitta said. “I’m like, ‘Wait, where were you when this was a screenplay?’ But oh, now it’s a piece of underlying IP and that’s just the way that the business works.”
To his point, Whitta cites The Hunger Games as the perfect example of what he feels is the right way to get a story out there. “If Suzanne Collins had written The Hunger Games as a spec screenplay instead of as a novel, I guarantee you no one’s ever heard of The Hunger Games today,” he said. “And that’s not just about the story at all. It’s just the reality of the market. No one makes that movie because it’s wacky and it’s a big swing. It’s like, what the hell is this? But because she wrote it as a book and millions of people bought the book, now Hollywood’s lining up because they know the audience is there.”
Which brings us back to Gundog. Whitta came up with the concept in 2004 as a way to just make a story about something he loves—mechs—but didn’t actually write it until 2019-2020. “I was sitting there for a while thinking, ‘What do I want to do with that?’ Like, do I want to send it to publishers? But I was thinking maybe this is the one where I just do it all myself just to see,” he said. “No one else’s help. And, you know, maybe it means that it doesn’t find as big an audience, but I like the idea of just doing it all on my own terms.”
He didn’t do it all alone though. Knowing that audiobooks are a crucial part of the book market, he recruited some of his famous friends (such as Shannon Woodward from Westworld and The Last Of Us Part IIand Journey and Assassin’s Creed composer Austin Wintory) to really make that piece of it shine. But, again, Whitta had yet another idea to find even more of an audience without Hollywood’s gatekeeping: he made the audiobook into nine-hour-long episodes, which he’s been debuting one at a time live on Twitch, with live discussion and a post -show Q&A, and then releasing as a narrative podcast. Like Mark Millar, he just keeps getting bites of that apple.
“These days, whether it be YouTube or Twitch or self-publishing on Kindle, whatever it may be, there are ways around the gatekeepers now,” he said. “You don’t have to ask for anyone’s money or permission to get a story in front of an audience. So it’s been fun to get to experiment with trying to get directly to an audience and not having to worry about anyone getting in your way.”
Now, there’s one big problem with this, which Whitta humbly acknowledges. He doesn’t make a living writing original novels or releasing them in audio formats. Whitta’s day job, 90% of what he does by his own estimation, is that of paid Hollywood screenwriter—a job that affords him the ability to dabble and experiment with these different forms. And he’s fully aware it’s a fortunate place to be in because not only is he making great money, but he has a following, which not every writer or creator has, and is also a crucial part of the equation.
“I remember talking to Andy Weir about The Martian years ago…because before that was even a book, he published that in chapters on his website and he had a little fan site,” Whitta recounted. “And I said ‘What was it about The Martian that made it blow up?’ He was like, ‘Honestly, to this day, I can’t tell you. I don’t know.’ But the one tip that he gave me was, [The Martian] wasn’t the first thing that he put on his website. He had other stories and built a little bit of an audience, which he called kindling. When you got enough kindling, and you finally have something that’s going to take off, there are enough people there that will go off and tell two or three of their friends and they tell their friends, but you’ve got to have that kindling to begin with.”
“And it’s a real shame because I feel like there are probably a million books on the Kindle Amazon Store that are really good, like the next Harry Potter is out there somewhere, right?” he continues. “The next Girl on the Train or next Hunger Games is out there, but they’re just sitting there with about a million other books because they don’t know how to get anyone to read them.”
Will audiences read or listen to or watch Whitta present Gundog? That’s still in progress. In the meantime, he has two lower-budget scripts he’s trying to get out there and is still trying to make the movie of his dreams, The Last Starfighters, a sequel to the cult 1984 film. Unfortunately, at the moment, that film is a perfect example of everything Whitta has been saying about the Hollywood machine being so difficult to navigate.
“We took it to Warner Brothers, they loved it, and they wanted to do it, but ever since then, we’ve just been stuck in contractual stuff,” he said. “We’ve been trying to figure that out for a while now. So it’s still alive [but] right now I don’t think there’s that much happening with it.” While we wait though, there’s another world of heroes, villains, aliens, and science fiction fans can enjoy from the mind of Gary Whitta: Gundog. And you can enjoy it however you see fit.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel and Star Wars releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TVand everything you need to know about House of the Dragon and Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.