After Earth opens this weekend and stars real-life father and son Will and Jaden Smith as a father and son whose spaceship crash lands on Earth a thousand years after man has abandoned the planet. We talked to screenwriter Gary Whitta about the ideas behind the film’s original story and how the real-life military influenced his script.
How did you meet Will Smith to work with him on “After Earth”?
I had a career before screenwriting as a video game journalist. I grew up loving two things: video games and movies, so I’m very fortunate. I’ve been able to make a career out of both. After many years of working in the video games world, I was able to transition over and start writing screenplays. After a few years, I had something of a success with The Book of Eli.
Gary and Will
I guess Will Smith saw that because when he was coming up with the idea for After Earth, they asked me to come in and help him flesh out this idea. This movie was Will’s original idea. He has a story credit on the movie. It’s actually the first time he’s been credited as a writer on a film. There’s a lot of his DNA in this movie and, as a sci-fi geek coming from that sci-fi video games background, I was able to help him flesh out some of the science fiction ideas that he had started to work on.
The movie is set in the future. Back in the day when we started working on it, it was called 1000 AE, meaning a thousand years after we’d left earth. Then it just became After Earth. There’s a prolog in the movie that explains that in the year 2071, we reach kind of an environmental tipping point where we finally as a human species have done so much damage to planet Earth that it eventually becomes uninhabitable and downright hostile to us. Humans are kind of singled out as a destructive species that needs to be removed for the overall health of Earth’s natural ecosystem.
So we’re forced to leave. We get into these big interstellar ark spaceships that we build and we go off and find another planet called Nova Prime on the other side of the galaxy where we live for the next 1000 years.
The majority of the movie is set in that period and Earth has become kind of a distant memory. Historically, it’s where we come from but a thousand years is a long time ago and we don’t really think about it much.
Will is a military character. One of the things we came up with for the movie is this idea of a United Ranger Corps, which is formed back when we first evacuated the planet as a kind of vanguard security force that is in charge of evacuating as many humans as we can from Earth and establishing a new colony on this new world that we find.
A thousand years in the future, the rangers are still very much the vanguard of human scientific endeavor. They’re scientists, they’re soldiers, they’re warriors. Will plays a legendary, very high-ranking general in the ranger military structure and he’s very well-respected, kind of a heroic figure. His son, played by Will’s real-life son Jaden in the movie, is a cadet in the Ranger Academy and really wants nothing more than to be like his father and live up to his father’s reputation, something that’s very, very difficult to do because his father is such a legendary figure and they have a fractured, difficult relationship as father and son until eventually his mother suggests that the two of them go off on a trip together to finally bond as a father and son in a way that they never have.
As they’re traveling through space, their ship is hit by an asteroid storm and is forced to crash land on a planet that turns out to be Earth. They’re the first human beings to set foot on Earth in the thousand years since we left. The planet now has evolved atmospherically to the point where it’s just not fit for human habitation any more so it’s very, very dangerous hostile natural wilderness. So the ship crashes, Will is very badly injured and Jaden, who’s the only uninjured survivor of the crash, has to finally man up and become the hero like his father that he’s always wanted to be. He has to trek across this hostile wilderness to recover a rescue beacon so he can send a signal off into deep space and have someone come him and his father before his dad succumbs to his injuries.
It’s a cool science fiction story but we hope it really is a great father-son bonding story as well.
Because the characters in the movie are a military father and son and because Will Smith has the ability to open a lot of doors for you when you’re researching a movie. Aside from the science in the film, we wanted to make sure we were telling a believable human story. One of the things that we were able to do was contact the Army’s press office and get in touch with many real-life serving father and son pairs.
I got to talk to them and thank them for their service and ask them what are the unique challenges of raising a son or being a son and looking up to a father in a military context. One of the things that I learned — and it informed a lot of the relationship between Will and Jaden in the film — is that all the things that you would imagine with any father and son, that the son really looks up to the father and wants to please him and the father hopes that the son will make him proud and go on to his own achievements, those things are way, way amplified and there’s even more pressure in that regard in a military context.
There was one guy I spoke to who’s kind of a drill sergeant in the military. He said he’d often come home and treat his son like he did his troops. He’d want to bounce a quarter off his son’s bedsheets to make sure they were squared away properly, that it’s often difficult to turn that 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.” That line came from our real-life research talking to military fathers and sons.
It was very humbling to speak to those guys. I made it a point to that those guys for what they do, it makes what I do for a living seem quite silly by comparison. They were great to talk to and we really did learn a lot about the unique expectations and pressures of raising a child and being a father or a son when both or you are serving in the military.
One thing that’s interesting about “After Earth” is that it’s a big summer movie that’s based on an original story instead of a sequel or based on a TV show or novel or comic book.
I’m very proud of the fact that we’re one of the few truly original big science fiction movies of the summer. Don’t get me wrong: I love Superman, I love Iron Man, I love all those big superhero and comic book movies, Star Trek, all that stuff.
But increasingly it’s difficult to introduce completely fresh, completely new and original ideas, especially in a big summer movie. What makes it possible in this case is having Will and Jaden. We’ve got literally the biggest movie star in the world, who’s one of the few people who can actually usher a completely original idea on this ambitious a scale all the way from conception into movie theaters. He really makes it possible. Certainly I’m very proud of the fact that we’re one of the few really original ideas. Of course, the hope is that the movie’s successful and that it becomes the next Star Trek, the next franchise and we can make multiple movies.
Of course, even Star Trek and Star Wars at one point were new original ideas just like this is now.
Talk about the science behind the film. How realistic is your scenario?
It’s always a balance of science and fiction. Our first priority is always to make an entertaining movie but we try to base it as much in real science as we can.
For example, the ways in which the earth has changed are the atmosphere has changed somewhat so humans can no longer even breathe the atmosphere. In order to survive, Jaden has to take all these special vials of a breathing fluid that coat his lungs and increase the amount of oxygen that he can extract with each breath because the atmosphere just is not what it was a thousand years ago.
Earth has also gone through a hyper-accelerated evolutionary process where the creatures on earth are still very much recognizable as lions and tigers and things that we see in the world today but they’ve evolved somewhat and they’re even more scary and dangerous than they were when we left a thousand years ago.
The other thing I really like the most. A lot of people describe this as a post-apocalyptic film. Most of what we see in post-apocalyptic films is the world looking completely destroyed, worse than it is today — burned out cities, wreckage of human civilization. The Book of Eli looks a lot like that, where the world was basically wiped out.
This is a different kind of post-apocalyptic movie in that the world of After Earth, a thousand years in the future actually looks better than it ever has since humans first set foot on it. The great idea is that once we leave — you know we’re a very destructive force in the world through deforestation, overpopulation, pumping toxic gases into the atmosphere and all the things that we do as a human species that are destructive to the natural world.
After we leave and being absent for a thousand years, the planet finally has a chance to heal itself. It’s amazing that this idea that once you remove the human species from the equation, the rest of the natural world flourishes. There’s more natural organic life and the planet is in a better health as an ecosystem than it’s been since the dinosaurs.
It’s a very, very different kind of post-apocalyptic film. We were able to go to locations like the California redwood forests and the jungles of Costa Rica, some of the few places left in the world where the natural world seems completely untouched and unspoiled by humans and really presents the idea of a whole world that’s really teeming and bursting with life simply because humans have been forced to leave it alone for a thousand years.
With this post-apocalyptic genre, it’s very easy to lump everything in under that one category. When we think post-apocalyptic, we think destruction, we think decay. In fact, the human world has decayed.
One of the things I found when I was researching the movie was a really fascinating History Channel show called Life After People that has the same premise: what would the world look like 500 years after humans had left and what happens is that all the human buildings, all the human skyscrapers, all the bridges, eventually over time decay and collapse and the natural world rises up and flourishes and reclaims everything even just 500 years in the future. Everything just comes back to life in a way that we haven’t seen in a long time.
We’ve built a really interesting website called AfterEarthDecay.com. You can go there and go into various locations using Google Maps — like the White House and the Eiffel Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco where I live and see the world as it looks today. There’s a little slider where you can slide from today up to a thousand years in the future and see the gradual decay of all these human landmarks and the flourishing of the natural world until eventually the vast majority of the world that Jaden and Will occupy after the crash just looks like one beautiful tropical canopy rainforest.
So your lead characters are military men. What kinds of weapons do they use?
So we’re a thousand years in the future and mankind has really had to do with whatever resources it was able to find on this new planet and it’s a very kind of barren„desert, rocky planet. So we do have spaceships, we have technology but it’s very different to what we have today. In fact, there’s a very specific element: we’re at war with an alien race in the future. They’ve genetically engineered this deadly predator called the Ursa which is a terrifying-looking monster that they drop down onto the planet’s surface to kill off humans. It’s heavily armored — it almost looks like a scarab beetle with its shell that’s impenetrable to weapons fire. The only way to kill one is to get in really close with what they call a cutlass, which is like a double-bladed sword, and hit the Ursa in a weak spot.
There are no guns in this film even though it has a militaristic theme. The way in which we fight doesn’t rely on typical small arms fire or rifles or pistols. Everything is done up close, almost like old-fashioned Spartan warriors getting in close with the bladed weapons. It wasn’t originally designed this way but I’m actually kind of proud of the fact that we may be the only big summer movie that doesn’t have guns in it. I think it’s one of the few movies this year you can take your kids to and enjoy with the whole family because we’re not really part of that whole summer movie action arms race where it’s about bigger and more explosive destruction in the same way that Earth in the movie has reverted to a more primitive, almost simpler state.
The Rangers in the movie are almost like Jedi warriors. They fight with swords and blades and it’s almost kind of a more elegant form of combat than the kind of militlary-style firefights that you see in a lot of these science-fiction films.
There’s a real survivalist component to your story.
There’s a whole United Ranger Corps Survivor Manual book that’s been created as a companion piece to the movie. Les Stroud, who is a well-known jungle survivalist-type guy has done a whole series of After Earth–themed videos about how to survive in the wilderness.
The big challenge that Jaden has to face in the movie is just surviving with very little equipment, all he’s able to put together in the crash. He has what’s called a Lifesuit, which is like an all-in-one suit that provides some protection but, really, that’s all he has along with his father’s bladed cutlass weapon. It’s just him surviving against nature.
There’s some cool ideas. Earth’s orbital rotation has shifted so there are much more dramatic temperature changes between night and day than we see in the world today. It’s actually an idea I got from a fascinating book I read several years ago called Bravo Two Zero about a British SAS patrol that got stranded behind enemy lines in the Iraqi desert in the first Gulf War.
One of the things that I learned is that the desert is scorching hot during the day but actually drops to sub-zero freezing temperatures during the night. The temperature changes are incredibly drastic and that’s one of the ideas that we inserted into the movie. One of the challenges for Jaden is not just breathing the atmosphere and surviving the deadly plants and the deadly creatures that are all around him but every night, when the planet freezes over and drops into sub-zero temperatures where he would freeze to death, he has to find his way to what we call these geothermal hot spots, these natural hot springs that have risen up in the world, where he can take shelter during the night while the rest of the world freezes over.
There are all these kind of natural obstacles that he has to survive. On top of all of that, one of the terrifying Ursa creatures that I mentioned is actually being transported on the ship that crashes and that gets loose during the crash and that’s now hunting Jaden. It’s a creature that has been genetically engineered specifically for the purpose of hunting and killing humans and it’s tracking Jaden through the whole film.
You worked with “The Sixth Sense” writer/director M. Night Shyamalan on the screenplay.
It was the first time that either of us ever had a co-writer. Night has always written his own movies solo. I’ve written all of my stuff solo so we both went into that relationship not knowing how we might get on with one another as collaborators. I had written a first draft and Night then came one. We wrote the second draft together in a room tossing ideas around. He’s one of the most gracious, one of the most generous collaborators I’ve ever worked with. It can be hard to find people who are genuinely very generous and very gracious with their creative energy and with their ability to collaborate with others. I loved every minute of working with him and I think he brought some tremendous stuff to this film.
You’ve got a big presence on social media.
Some might say too much.
How do you make that work? Your Twitter account (@garywhitta) is incredibly active.
It’s a real problem. I often find myself checking my Twitter feed way too much. Sometimes you’ve just got to shut it all down. This sounds like a joke but it’s real: there’s actually a program that you can get for the Mac that a lot of writers use that I’m thinking about getting myself. It’s called Freedom. Once you download this app, you can basically say, “Shut my Internet down for 8 hours.” Once you hit that button, it’s like locking a time lock on a safe. There’s no way to get it back until that timer expires. If you’ve got no willpower to stay away from the Internet, you can kind of unplug the Internet forcefully from yourself and have no choice except to concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing.