Opening in theatres this week from director M. Knight Shyamalan is a film starring father and son – Will and Jaden Smith on a film about discovery in so many different forms with AFTER EARTH.
Whitta has been keeping busy the last few years with some memorable projects. Beginning with the 2010 short film STARTING OVER, he jumps directly into pajamas in 2010 to be in THE WALKING DEAD, and in the same year brings THE BOOK OF ELI with Denzel Washington. In the middle Whitta has decided to dabble in video games with THE WALKING DEAD (I so need a copy of that!).
This year, Whitta has taken an even bigger step along with Will Smith and M. Knight Shyamalan to become the screenwriter of the film AFTER EARTH. I recently had the chance to talk with him about the film, working with two of the biggest names in Hollywood and the vision they all shared for AFTER EARTH.
Thanks for talking with us today Gary.
Oh you’re welcome.
Tell us about the story for the film.
The story was dreamed up by Will initially. I think its his most personal film and has his DNA in it with his vision. It didn’t start as a science fiction film. He wanted to tell a modern day story about a military father and his son who is a military cadet. A story about a son who can’t seem to live up to the expectations of his very admired father. The idea was they would go off on a camping trip into the wilderness and there is a crash. Will, the father, is badly injured and the son finally has to step up and become the hero that he’s never really been to his father and go on this journey to rescue his father. At some point, Will being Will and making big summer blockbusters said ‘what if we did this 1,000 years into the future?’ At that point it became a much bigger story on a much bigger canvas but still the same father-son story. Now they crash land in a must interesting place with the father injured and Jaden having to travel across the dangerous wilderness to get rescued is still inside the story.
Except now it’s gone sci-fi!
Yes, now it’s gone sci-fi. Will came up with this idea and asked me to help him develop it. It’s a cautionary tale with a ecological message to the movie. The idea that several decades into the future continuing on the path that we are going, you know pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, tearing down the forest and building more and more cities and its all being very destructive to the environment. At some point eventually our eco system decided we had to go and it begins to kick start into this hyper accelerated process where the atmosphere begins to change and all kinds of environmental cataclysms begin to happen and the message is ‘you are no longer welcome here on earth’. So we build these spaceships to evacuate the planet and travel across the galaxy to a planet called Nova Prime where we live for 1,000 years where humans begin to flourish again. In the meantime on Earth is just left behind and its no longer fit for human habitation. Will, the military father and high ranking figure in the Ranger Corps that is created to protect humanity and Jaden who is a cadet trying to please his father go on a trip in a space ship to have time together. They get hit by an asteroid storm and crash lands on planet earth. It has evolved in 1,000 but it’s no place for humans. It’s the most dangerous place in the universe now. Will is badly injured as the ship breaks into two pieces. Jaden is uninjured and he has to find the other part of the ship that has a beacon to send into deep space to get help for his father. Not only would he save their lives but also a bond would happen between father and son.
The inspiration for the space ideas, was that you?
By the time it came to me, the very first thing I knew was that it was 1,000 years into the future. There was very little detail beyond that. We knew that we were forced to leave Earth; we knew we were forced to live on another planet and 1,000 years had passed but I didn’t have any other details.
No pressure on you right?
There is pressure enough sitting in a room with one of the biggest stars in the world! Will is great though he makes you feel at ease. I loved working with him. Its not that he didn’t have a sci-fi grounding but he needed someone else that spoke the language to bounce off of. We sat around his house for weeks at a time geeking out about how the world would change in a thousand years, what would the atmosphere be like, what might the animals look like, and what kind of evolutionary process might have taken place. We thought about what the world we call Nova Prime would be like since it’s a harsh desert planet. We got to do all this cool stuff. We came up with an alien race we call the Skrel, the weapons, the uniforms. We had a huge process coming up with it all.
How long did that process take?
I think it was a few weeks every day. I was sitting and coming up with ideas. Will wanted an alien but the idea for the movie is overcoming fear. Fear is the one force in our life that really holds us back from realizing our true potential. Jaden mastering his own fear is the key to his survival. So what we wanted to really make that real and came up with a badass creature called the Ursa, which has been genetically engineered by the aliens specifically to hunt and kill humans. They do this by sensing our fear, these creatures can sense the pheromones we admit when we are afraid and that’s how they track us. One of these creatures is on this ship when it crashes to Earth so not only is Jaden dealing with the indigenous creatures but is also being tracked by this alien creature. We put that kid through the ringer now that I think about it.
He’s young, he can handle it.
What research did you have to do to come up with these ideas?
We started thinking of the basic ideas of environmental change and what could happen so we started with the atmosphere. Increased seismic activity as the earth is going through this crazy growth spurt that will be an extinction or eviction event. We got to think about the scientific approaches to that. Being science fiction we get to make them entertaining and fun as well. Everything though begins with a real scientific principle, which is one of the things I’m most proud of. There is a whole educational campaign around the movie so when kids see the film and come to school Monday morning they see the dangers of the world we live on. There is a whole curriculum of the science and environmental things to engage the students.
So your sitting with Will Smith discussing the aspects of the film and then M. Knight walks into the room.
It didn’t happen quite literally like that because it was crazy being in the room with Will Smith as it is! What happened was that initially it was me; Will and Caleb Smith sitting around throwing ideas out and did that for several weeks. I went away and came back with the first draft of the film and turned that in. We were just about to get into writing more on the notes from Will. Then Caleb called me and said Will called saying he bumped into M. Knight Shyamalan and told him the idea now he’s going to direct it. The next collaboration was between me and Knight and when we were done Knight took it away, made some changes and then directed the movie.
Did you feel that after you had this conversation with Will about how you envisioned the story, that Knight just added that something extra or mesh into the original ideas?
I think it was both. Knight didn’t come in with radically different ideas. I think part of the reason he sparked to the movie was that he loved the idea. When I first heard it from Will I thought it was a real cool idea. I thought I wished I’d had the idea! I think Knight was the same way once he got a hold of it. We were very much on the same page right away. I know there is a lot about the scientific realism but more important is the emotional realism of the film. Will would say that although we were telling a bigger story than the originally idea of two guys in the car crash, the emotions don’t change. He wanted to keep to the father and son story. This is a movie you can take your kids to see and walk away appreciating one another. We knew we wanted the world to be a wild kingdom untamed wilderness with the science fiction content, and rightly so, but to also make sure the relationships stay real.
You can also say that the science brought out the relationship between father and son.
I hope so. I don’t think Will wanted this to be a big science fiction movie just for the sake of it. It’s an interesting way to talk about what’s relevant today. I think the original version of the Alaskan story was that they stayed in contact with a two-way radio. Here they have a life suit that has a camera, sensors and radar and Will is able to sense the danger and see a creature that’s close to his son. It’s like a separate pair of eyes and ears and even though they are technically separated in the movie because Will is stranded in the cockpit, he tells Jaden ‘I’ll be with you every step of the way’.
So the science is cohesion to the story, which can add more for the audience. There is always one extra element that’s good for a story and here science is the added element.
I so agree. I’m sure if Will wanted to stick with the Alaskan version it would have been a great movie and would have attracted an audience. Once you brought in the science fiction element now you’ve attracted a bigger audience and still do it with the same message.
It sounds like you got to experience the best of Will Smith and Knight and got some Jaden thrown in there too.
It was really an amazing experience and I loved working with Will and Knight. Will likes to say that film is a family business and he made me feel like part of the family. I feel like this is one of those old fashioned family adventures I grew up on. The point of this is a story that feels emotionally real. Part of the research I did was talking to the Defense Department and I was connected with military people who are still serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines and I got to talk to them and ask about the real life challenges of the military. It’s hard enough to be a son looking up to a father but when it happens in a military context it is more amplified. There is one gentlemen that said he would come home to his family and wished he could turn the military off and just be a dad. There’s a line in the movie where Will’s wife says ‘your son doesn’t need a commanding officer he needs a father’ and that line came directly from one of the military families. I hope families see it together and particularly or service people who have fathers and sons who can see themselves in that relationship. I spoke to a young man who was serving in the military whose father was previously with the Joint Chiefs so imagine what kind of expectation there is for him!
Father’s and sons have different perspectives on the military.
That’s one of the details we had in the movie with it being 1,000 years into the future having this new kind of military unit called the United Rangers Corps. They are founded in the 21st Century as a special emergency unit whose job it is to see to the evacuation of earth. Once they are resettled and 1,000 years later they are the vanguards of all human endeavor. They are now scientists and scholars and a forward thinking of the military as more than just combat soldiers. They are the best elements of humanity. There is a companion book that just came out called THE UNITED RANGERS CORPS MANUAL that has amazing detail about the Ranger Corps with the military principles that its based on.
I enjoy reading the books that go with the film to tell you detail of the characters and events.
There is a website called www.afterearthdecay.com that has maps where you can zoom in and see things like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Eiffel Tower where you can push the time line and see what those things would look like in 1,000 years! It shows how nature reasserts itself and reclaims everything and the earth becomes this Garden of Eden again. Most of the time movies have a very apocalyptic view but here its different. When Jaden step foot out of the spacecraft it’s a more hopeful look at the world. In the jungle there is huge flocks of birds in the sky, herds of buffalo and the earth has never looked better because humans have finally gotten out of the way and let nature and evolution progress naturally. The whole planet is teaming with life in a huge biosphere. Its like look how beautiful the world would look if we just got out of its way. There is also a link for lesson plans for educators about global development. http://www.lifeafterearthscience.com/ I think families will enjoy this film and for the family it’s also about loving one another.
That’s a great message to get to kids. I want to thank you so much for your time. Coming this Friday from Sony Pictures starring Will and Jaden Smith is the film AFTER EARTH!
For more information on films and television visit Movie Maven.