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Wanting Stories to Find an Audience: An Interview with ‘Gundog’ Sci-Fi Serial Creator Gary Whitta

Gary Whitta speaks with Script about creating and producing 'Gundog,' creatively pivoting to different mediums to get his work produced, premiering 'Gundog' to a live Twitch audience weekly for all nine-episodes, and so much more.

Gundog is an original sci-fi serial created by Gary Whitta (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, The Book of Eli) and performed by Shannon Woodward (Westworld) with music by Austin Wintory (Journey). In the near future, Earth has been conquered by a race of brutal alien machines known as the Mek. When a young woman stumbles across a map that may hold the secret to humanity’s liberation, she embarks on a dangerous odyssey that leads her to an amazing discovery — a long-lost prototype war machine known as a Gundog.

Gary Whitta is the king of storytelling for geeks - and that is not a jab in any way, but a well-earned moniker, as he is incredibly well versed in geek culture but also incredibly invested in his community. Gary has been creating stories in various forms since his days as an adolescent in the 70s and 80s, playing with his action figures, awe-inspired by the television shows and movies of the time. Gary's career, mostly has been, as he later quips in this incredible conversation, "my bread and butter...playing in other people's sandboxes," yet it's the personal passion projects that speak volumes to his inner child that jump off the page; either as a novel or graphic novel and now with his latest creative endeavor Gundog, he takes his audience on an auditory journey.

I had the utmost pleasure and honor of speaking with Gary about creating and producing Gundog, creatively pivoting to different mediums to get his work to audiences, being a risk taker (and I'm sure a trendsetter) with premiering Gundog to a live Twitch audience weekly for all nine-episodes, and so much more. Plus, Gary shares some insider thoughts on navigating Hollywood and writing inspiration nuggets throughout this conversation.

Gary Whitta, courtesy of Gary Whitta.

Gary Whitta, courtesy of Gary Whitta.

This interview has been edited for content and clarity.

Sadie Dean: There’s so much world-building happening here in this first episode. I'm definitely hooked on your new creative endeavor Gundog and excited to keep following Dakota's journey.

Gary Whitta: I'm glad you enjoyed it. The response to it has actually made all the work seem worthwhile, which is the hope, right? You never want to feel like it was a waste of time. But the reaction has been great. I remember when I first had the idea to do this, basically self-produce the audiobook version, was that it's audio, how hard can it be? Well, it turns out, it's actually really hard. [laughs] And the last few years have been kind of a crash course in learning how to do good audio content, basically.

Sadie: Yeah, and I feel like with your career, too, because you've done everything, you're kind of like going backward in time back to radio.

Gary: That's the funny thing about the internet, like narrative fiction, podcasting is such an emergent space right now. It's like the hot new area for Hollywood to be looking for, and there's so many hip podcasts that have since been picked up by Hollywood for screen adaptation. And so, a lot of the hype right now is, ‘Oh my God, audio drama. It's the hot new thing.’ I'm like, ‘Yeah, they had it in the 1930s, it was called Radio. This is not a new idea. It's just being delivered via a new medium.’

Sadie: Right and with the tools that we have now, you can take this narrative podcasts or audio dramas to another level. Where did the story idea come from you and then making the decision in producing this into a narrative podcast show, rather than as a TV series, film, or even a video game?

Gary: I went back through my files and found all my old original kind of notes from it - it goes all the way back to 2004. The idea of wanting to do something with essentially a giant mech - I've just always loved that genre. It's very, very popular in Japan, you know Gundam and Robotech and giant robots, piloted war machines, kind of fighting each other has always been really central, I think globally, to geek culture - we just love those things. But in the Western world, we've never seen too many really - there's Pacific Rim, I guess. But if you want to see giant machines kind of knocking seven bells out of each other, that is something that is kind of, I think, more popular in Japan than it has been in the Western world. I've always wondered about that. I've just always loved it from a geeky point of view. And much like the Book of Eli was kind of my way of kind of putting a sci-fi lens on the genres that I loved when I grew up. I love samurai movies and westerns. And that's basically what Eli is - kind of a post-apocalyptic.

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A mashup of the whole mech genre is something that I wanted to try and do my version of for a long time as well. Back in 2004, when I first had the idea that predates me breaking into the industry, which is more like 2006-2007 when I had my first big success with Eli, but it always just kind of sat in a drawer because one of the things that I have learned in the 15-20 years, however long it is now that I've been doing this is that big, expensive, original science fiction ideas in Hollywood are kind of a non-starter, right? Unless you're Christopher Nolan or Spielberg, or JJ, or one of the handful of names, who through their name alone, they can make something happen. It doesn't have to be based on a preexisting IP or a property because they themselves are the property, right? 

That's the way people go. It's very, very hard to get those kinds of things made because, everything these days, and it's always been this way, just perhaps more now than ever, it's Marvel and Star Wars. It's preexisting IP because everybody knows Hollywood's a very risk-averse business and one way to mitigate that risk is to make movies based on things that have already demonstrated themselves to have a big built-in audience. So, adapting a hit book or a hit comic, 'Oh, a million people bought that comic. So, there's a reasonable assumption can be made that some of those people will show up to buy movie tickets.' When it's based on nothing, when it's an original idea, you have no idea if anyone's going to show up.

The example I give is if Suzanne Collins had written The Hunger Games as a spec script instead of as a novel, I guarantee you no one's ever heard of The Hunger Games today. No one makes that movie because it's wacky, right? It's a big sci-fi swing. There's a lot of original world-building; its kids murdering each other, she's driving around in a flaming dress and a chariot, there's a guy with crazy blue hair - like it's all so mad. I mean, it's all great stuff, but no one in Hollywood takes a risk on that as an original film. But because she wrote it as a novel, which is much easier, I'm not saying it's easy, but easier to realize and get published and people bought in - Hollywood, then, of course, is knocking down the door, because now they know that this movie is going to be successful because the book was successful.

The way that I've kind of reacted to that as a screenwriter is, my bread and butter is still playing in other people's sandboxes, or what I'm doing as a comic book right now, or the Walking Dead, or obviously, Star Wars. That's where most of the work for working screenwriters is these days is adapting preexisting properties. And that's mostly what I still get from my agent, ‘Do you want to do this playdough the movie?' or whatever hell it is they want to do this week, and it can be hard to get excited about some of those projects. And that's not because they aren't very cool. I mean, look at Lego, right? I mean, look at what they did with the Lego Movie, I honestly believe you can spin gold out of anything if you've got talent and the right take. But it has to be something I genuinely feel like there's a movie there. And I'm not going to do something just because of a spreadsheet said the movie is going to make money. 

And the stuff that I am always kind of fondest of is the stuff that I create out of a whole cloth, like my own original ideas, I'm very, very proud to have been involved with Rogue One. And if I had never been involved with Rogue One, it would have been a somewhat different film, but the movie still would have been made. They would have found someone else to write it. But the Book of Eli, if I don't have that idea, no one else makes that movie. No one else has that exact idea.

And so, I feel like those original ideas are the ones that I derive the most creative satisfaction from realizing. But in Hollywood, they're always also the ones that are the hardest to see realize, again, because they're original, because there's no IP, it's hard to say, 'Well, why is anyone gonna go see this movie, because of its own merits?' No, people need to know what this thing is.

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I have kind of given up some time ago, the idea of writing these big, splashy, original science fiction ideas. I think you can still get a lot of smaller science fiction, which I mean, look at the amazing work that Alex Garland does. He makes brilliant science fiction movies that aren't terribly expensive. And so again, that's another way to mitigate risk, right? Spend less money. But in terms of big, original science fiction ideas, the first one that comes off the top of my head is Inception. It's Nolan, one of the few people in the world that could have got that movie made as an original idea, spending that much money. And I know that I can't do that. 

I had an idea for a medieval horror thing I wanted to do some years ago as a screenplay. But again, I've been in these rooms enough times to know that if I go and sit in a room in Warner Bros., or whatever production company, and I'm going to pitch them an idea, ‘OK, here's the pitch, it's 10th century England,' I just know they're switching off --

Sadie: [laughs] Right.

Gary: And you're laughing because you know as well, yeah, they switch off right away, ‘We can't market this. I got to sit through this 30-minute pitch, even though I know for the first five seconds, I'm not going to make it.’ And so, that's kind of my curse. A lot of the ideas that I'm excited about are original and expensive to do - like big monsters, big science fiction concepts, things that would cost a lot of money to put on the screen.

As I become more pragmatic about the Hollywood system, I've kind of given up on that being route one to try and get those stories to market. So, with that horror idea that I just mentioned, I eventually wrote that as a novel, and that did get published. And it did find an audience. The very first script that I ever broke in with, which was a kind of weird post-apocalyptic retelling of Oliver Twist that never got made as a movie. But I kind of reverse engineered the script to turn it into a comic book, and we managed to publish it as a graphic novel. And both of those experiences were really satisfying for me because even though they weren't movies, which is kind of my first language, at the end of the day, I just want stories to find an audience. You just want stories to kind of reach the surface. Like if I had written Abomination or Gundog as a spec screenplay, again, I know, the 20 people in Hollywood read it, pass on it for all of the kind of commercial reasons that I just talked about, and I spent six months of my life writing something that 20 people read and now is destined to sit on a shelf. And that's how that can be heartbreaking. 

To know that labor of love came to nothing. So, where I'm more pragmatic now is if I've got an idea that I know is going to be very difficult to realize commercially as a screenplay, I find another way to write it; it could be a novel, it could be a graphic novel - there's so many different ways to get something to market now - or it could be audio.

What happened with Gundog, was I wanted to tell the story, I knew that no one was going to make this movie because you know, it's $100 million easy to make this movie with the kind of the world and the robots and everything, it wouldn't be cheap to make. And I just know it would be ultimately a waste of my time. I had a good experience writing Abomination as a novel, I thought maybe I could try that again, I wrote Gundog as a novel. And when that was finished, which was around 2020, I was thinking about ways to bring it to market. Do I want to shop it to publishers? Do I want to self-publish it? 

And around that time, I became aware of the audiobook market. My wife was listening to a lot of audiobooks. And I found out that the audiobook market these days is roughly a third of the whole book market, like a third of people who buy and read books are doing it via audio, which is incredible. And so, if you've got a book that you want to reach an audience, there has to be an audio component to it. Like with Abomination, they recorded an audio version, and that went out on Audible, because you cannot leave that market on the table, right? So, I thought, maybe I could self-produce my own audiobook version of it. Again, it's audio, how hard can it be? [laughs] And again, I spent the next two years finding out how hard it actually is. But, I work in Hollywood, and I'm fortunate enough to know other people that work in that business. I know actors, I know, composers, I know sound people. And I bet I could put together people that would be stupid enough to do this with me for no money. And I called Shannon Woodward, who was on Westworld, and a very talented actor. And I got to know her during the pandemic, because we did some internet stuff together. And she's done audio work before. And I said, ‘Would you be interested?’ And she said, ‘Yes.’ I called up my friend Austin, who's a very talented composer. And he kind of bit down on the idea of writing a soundtrack for it. 

Luckily, I was able to put together kind of a crew of people that were willing to help me do this. It took way longer than it should to record nine hours of audio - not under normal circumstances take the better part of two years. But it took that long because we were doing it during the pandemic and we would do it working around Shannon's day job. That was pretty much how we put it together - just as a kind of hobby project during the pandemic year to kind of give ourselves something to do.

Sadie: That's incredible. What a journey and just I love that you're able to pivot in order to get your stories out there. There are so many different outlets that you're taking advantage of as a creative – absolutely incredible. You mentioned your composer, Austin, and using his music in your audiobook, the music really sets the tone and really emotional groundwork and pacing alongside Shannon doing her part. What was that process like making sure your world is totally consistent through this medium?

Gary: Yeah, the music ended up being a really big part of it. Looking at a lot of the kind of audiobooks and audio dramas that are out there, there's two different categories - audiobooks and audio dramas; audio dramas, more like radio plays and audio dramas to audiobooks usually are just the voice, nothing else. Audio dramas might have some sound effects or some background ambiance, but the idea of a full soundtrack recording with actual musicians is kind of unheard of in this space. And Austin, I mean, he really did bring in like live musicians to record this thing. And it was it was amazing.

We broadcast every episode live, every week with me, we do a live listening party on my Twitch channel, so I show up on video and I introduce it kind of like Masterpiece Theater, and I kind of talk about it a little bit, and then we run the audio and people in the live chat are able to kind of react in real-time and are of having that experience collectively, because they're all reacting in real-time, which is really fun. And then at the end of each episode, I come back and do an author Q&A, which is really cool. No one's ever done that before. That's why I think Twitch got behind this and put it on their front page. And the idea of doing like debuting essentially, an original literary work as an episodic serial with this live community aspect is something that I don't think they've ever seen before. So, they were as excited about it as I am. 

And one of the things that happens when you launch a live Twitch stream is there's generally kind of a waiting room. When you go live, the first 10 minutes are usually just a page saying, ‘the show will be starting soon’ and when you start broadcasting, you're not broadcasting to an empty room, you give the audience time to kind of file in so that when you do go live, it’s like the orchestra is warming up - if you've ever gone to like Lawrence of Arabia, back in the day, they would have an overture instead of watching commercials you'd be hearing an overture from the soundtrack of the film as you were taking your seats, and then the curtains open, and the film would start - and so in that kind of great cinematic tradition, that's what Austin did. He wrote like a 10-minute overture for every episode, each one is different. While the Twitch audience is filing in and kind of metaphorically taking their seats, what they're listening to is an overture that Austin has written specifically for that episode. And so that's super cool. 

Music, as you know, in film, and really whether it be radio, whether it be film or television, music so sets the tone, and to have Austin writing this kind of full orchestral score for it is I think, kind of taking it to another plane entirely.

Sadie: Absolutely. And that communal and immediate response aspect behind this is really amazing.

Gary: It's actually really nice. Because, oftentimes when you put work out into the world, you wait for reviews, or you wait for feedback, or whatever. Often rarely do you get direct feedback. hat's been crazy, and it's kind of nerve-wracking about doing this live on Twitch, is I'm literally getting, like the most immediate direct feedback in real-time that you can imagine, right? People literally reacting in the moment as things are happening in the story has been really gratifying to see. And that was for me the best part of the live broadcast. The first one because I was really nervous, like, ‘Is anyone going to show up? Is this even going to work?’ When it's experimental like this, if no one's done it before, you don't know if it's even a good idea. But we had a really big audience show up and people had all the right reactions to it, they loved the music, and they were engaged in the story. 

Even though I personally think the first episode is like the dullest one of all nine, because it's all kind of scene setting and it doesn't really kick into high gear until the next episode, but people really dug it. And the most amazing thing that I saw was not the number of people that showed up, which was a good number of people, but the fact that the number didn't degrade throughout, because I see the real-time audience number if someone shows up or leaves. And over the course of the hour, our numbers actually crept up, they didn't go down at all, which is amazing, because you'd think there'd be at least some people that would be like, ‘I'll give this a try.’ Five minutes in, ‘This is not for me.’ And they would kind of drift off or maybe five to 20 minutes, they're bored of the story or whatever. But as I said, the audience retention, that number was consistent throughout and actually ticked up a little bit which tells me that people were engaged enough in the story, that they all stayed for the full hour, which I think was amazing.

Sadie: That’s so wonderful! I’m curious, with all of the work that you’ve written and produced over your career, is there a thematic anchor for you or themes you’re looking to tackle or explore through your writing?

Gary: Yeah, I think so. I was thinking about this the other day, actually. I don't think it's in every single thing that I've written, but for the most part, and certainly, most of the things of mine, that people know, there's a theme of bullying and standing up to bullies. I was a super nerd; I was into Star Wars and Star Trek and Marvel and DC back in the 80s. Before it was cool to be into those things. And I would get kind of pushed around and called a nerd - I was a very much kind of a classic kind of nerd that got picked on at school, and that kind of stuff stays with you for life. And to this day, I can't watch a movie if there's like a bullying storyline, I have a hard time with it, because it's very triggering for me to go back to that. It may sound silly, but that kind of stuff from your childhood stays with you for life. And so, it is something that I've tried to find ways to tackle in my writing; Abomination, a girl stands up to an abusive parent is a big part of the storyline. Literally, the dedication in the printed version of Gundog because we're going to publish the book in October once the audio series is done, the dedication is to my parents who taught me to stand up to bullies because that's what they did. 

And even Star Wars, I think, is about at a very core level, what is it about if not standing up to bullies? The Empire is bullying the entire galaxy and the Rebels are the plucky little kid that has the courage to say, ‘No, I'm gonna stand up to these guys and fight back.’ So, I've kind of found a way to kind of make that the central theme in everything that I write.

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Sadie: Especially when it's so personal to you. And I think that kind of goes hand in hand with finding your voice, tapping into that vulnerability, and weaving it into your stories. I'm also curious about the genres that you choose to write, which skews between sci-fi, action, and adventure. Is there something specific about these genres that draw you in or is it just intrinsic because this is what you grew up with?

Gary: It was just what I was attracted to when I was a kid. I grew up on Star Wars, I grew up on Time Bandits, I grew up on The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, I grew up on all the great British stuff that we had in the 70s and 80s when I was a kid, you know, Blake’s Seven, Doctor Who, that was just my diet. This is a bit of a stereotype, but I think there is at least and always has been a portion of the sci-fi audience that really does kind of look at it as an escape. Like if there's something the real world isn't what they want it to be, but you can close your eyes and imagine a better or more interesting one, right? And that to me is where a lot of science fiction comes from as an escape from the mundanity or our own dissatisfaction with the world as it is. The fact that we can imagine anything, you can go anywhere, whether it be fairytales, whether it be science fiction, I think that's always been kind of a central appeal. It certainly has for me, and it's just fun. And it's cool.

I was talking to my to a friend of mine that I'm doing a comic book with right now we were arguing about how the Green Lanterns powers work because we're doing some DC Comics right now. And I said to my friend, ‘This is so cool.’ We were playing. We were essentially bashing our Star Wars figures together when we were kids, right? Telling a story. Making Han Solo fight Lando Calrissian and putting together a little story about who would win in that fight. And that's still, like 30-40 years later, that's still what I do, except on a grander stage and now they pay me to do it. So, I think it's that ability to kind of keep that childlike part of your imagination alive even though you're doing it in a more professional context. It's still like the 10-year-old version of me that's writing these stories.

Sadie: You can't be too serious, you still have to have fun with it, it’s so important.

Gary: Yeah, absolutely.

Sadie: Are there any writers, either from the TV or movie space or even an author that is your go-to for writing inspiration or motivation to keep plugging away?

Gary: I mean, Lord Miller, are a big inspiration to me. I love those guys. I think everything they do is absolutely amazing. Actually, I had an incredible experience with Phil a couple of years ago. I was in a really down part of my writing. I just felt I don't really call it writer's block, or whatever it was, I was struggling. I felt like the ideas weren't coming. I was just in a very down place. I didn't think any of the stuff I was writing was any good. And I spoke about it a little bit on Twitter. And Phil Lord, who I barely know, we follow each other on Twitter said, ‘Hey, man, if you ever want to talk about it, give me a call. I'll happily be your therapist.’ And he didn't know me. I just thought that was really sweet. 

As it turned out, I was due to be in LA The following week, I live in San Francisco and said, ‘Hey, listen, I'm coming down if you want to grab a coffee or whatever,’ and he ended up taking me out to dinner, and talking to me for hours about his own writing struggles and about how he has the same issue, ‘The blank page is terrifying to me as well. And I always think my stuff is crap.’ And just to put this in context, this was the day after he won his Oscar for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Sadie: Oh, wow!

Gary: And he's sitting there telling me about how he struggles and thinks all his own writing is terrible. And it makes you realize that it really does happen at every level; you can win awards, you can have a billion dollars in box office, you're going to have people around you telling you that you're the best, but you'll never fully silence that inner voice that is telling you that you're actually no good and you're a fraud - imposter syndrome.

I actually think that's a necessary part, it sucks it has to be a part of it, but I think that's what makes you good because if you want to shut that voice up, you want to say, 'No, I'll show you.' I think it's the people that walk around feeling like they've cracked it. Those are the people that struggle in the end because if you already think like you know everything, then you're going to struggle. 

This is why I think Pixar is so good. I've had some interactions with Pixar over the years and gone in and kind of spoken there. They have a whole track called Pixar University where they just have a lot of the filmmakers come in and talk to them about the craft and like they consistently consider themselves constantly learning. Again, as epically successful as Pixar is it’s like a group of people that anyone else would say, ‘Let's go learn from them.’ They are always asking the question, ‘Who can we learn from?’ And I think that's an inherent part of why they're so good at what they do. Because that's a critical part of the mindset.

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Sadie: Absolutely. I got goosebumps from your story about Phil, it’s so humbling but also it's so true. You do have that voice in your head. But it's like your, lack of a better word, your inner bully.

Gary: Yeah! You got to stand up to the bully, the only way to stand up to the bully is to write the best stuff that you can. And I remember when Phil told me that I remember thinking, ‘I don't know if that makes me feel better or worse,’ because, on the one hand, it is kind of nice to know that the people at the very top of the profession struggle with the same self-doubt that you do. But also, it kind of sucks to know that no matter how successful you may become, you'll never graduate out of that. Again, that voice will always be with you. So, it is very much a double-edged sword.

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The nine hour-long episodes of Gundog will be available on all major podcast services and YouTube, the flagship presentation will be in the form of weekly live-streamed episodes on Twitch, in which Gary will appear live to introduce and participate in an author Q&A/discussion at the conclusion of each episode. 


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