By Amy R Handler.
In the interview below, Australian filmmaker Aaron Stevenson suggests that screenwriter Gary Whitta may have plagiarized Stevenson’s film Freedom Deep (1998, complete ‘Final Director’s Cut’ in 2008) when penning the script for The Hughes Brothers’ recent film, The Book of Eli. When confronted with Stevenson’s statements, David Fierson, Director of Business Affairs and Legal Counsel at producers Alcon Entertainment, made the following statement to me over the phone:
‘This is the first time I’m hearing about this and the first time anybody at Alcon has heard about this either. It would have been difficult to acknowledge him (Stevenson) if we hadn’t heard about him before. I’ll take a look and see what if anything on our behalf needs to be done. We certainly want to hear if there’s an accusation and if anything’s been stolen from him we want to hear that as well. We set out as any company, to avoid alienating anybody’s rights and property.’
Gary Whitta himself declined to comment.
The following interview was made via email during April of 2010:
Aaron Stevenson compares and differentiates between the two films as follows:
Stevenson: Both films concern prophets (Liam or Eli) each carrying his ‘book’ back to the remnants of civilization after an undisclosed war leaves a hostile post-apocalyptic wasteland. In both films the prophets are intercepted by a protagonist or protagonists, who attempt to obtain the ‘book.’ In Eli’s case he befriends a female character who later turns out to be an asset. In Liam’s case, the female character forms a relationship with him and compromises her mission. She becomes convinced that the ‘book’ must reach its destination and so removes herself from the equation. The Hollywood version introduces the Gary Oldman character as the protagonist, thus allowing the female character to become less of a potential threat and more palatable. In Freedom Deep the female assassin has been sent by person or persons unknown, leaving the Gary Oldman- equivalent a mystery.
Where the two scripts mostly differ is the use of intrusive fight scenes and forced Hollywood action on the part of Eli, whereas Freedom Deep has flashback-style, intercuts to provide some back-story when the character was a ten years old poet. These were used to pad out the narrative without a significant budget to play out the Post Apocalyptic scenes. This Post Apocalyptic time line was shot on 35mm at great cost and exhausted our very limited budget. Adding the flashbacks and shooting them on 16mm was a budgetary consideration.
The other difference of note is that at the end of The Book of Eli, it is revealed that his ‘book’ is in actual fact a Braille version of The Christian Bible whereas Liam’s is a ‘new Bible’ of undisclosed but presumed original work.
I am not suggesting that [The Book of] Eli is a verbatim clone of Freedom Deep but that it was indeed the template for The Book of Eli screenplay which then shaped and influenced the similarity in visuals.
Stevenson describes Freedom Deep’s lengthy history as follows:
Stevenson: 1st Miracle Pictures was established by Menahem Golan & Yoram Globus who had just reunited following an earlier falling out and the demise of The Cannon Group. A meeting at 1st Miracle pictures and an introduction to Menahem himself resulted in Freedom Deep being purchased for $4,000.00 as a securing advance with a supposed percentage of the profits to follow. A 40-minute meeting with a rep, a handshake… and the deal was done. The advance money was then spent in early 1998 on an M&E mix for international release and the digital masters and artwork sent to 1st Miracle. There was no funding for the additional shoot.
Freedom Deep was one of a first batch of acquisitions for the newly formed company. From that point…in 1998, all communication attempts with 1st Miracle Pictures were met with silence. Over the next few years, the film began to appear on European TV. Fans of the film began sourcing its director and production company with emails primarily inquiring about dvd release, the soundtrack, and positive feedback. The producers were unaware of the release intentions, territories secured etc. The world wide web was still in its infancy and information such as this was not widely available.
The producers sought legal advice in Melbourne. An initial consultation resulted in an inspection of the contracts. These revealed a loophole clause whereby the distributor could offload the film to another distributor where they also held shares. The only asset-binding contract for the producers was with the first company. Thus, 1st Miracle could license the film to a second distributor for peanuts and not pass anything on to the initial copyright-holders, Fatal Impact Productions. After 5 years, the contract and rights reverted back to the producers (FIP Pty Ltd). Upon legal advice, the producers held the film until 5 years ended – sourced additional finances and completed intended scenes. The second version of the film incorporated references to 9/11 as a prophetic date. These additional scenes related to the [year] 2049 that bookends the movie and were not part of the initial 2018 timeline where Liam journeyed his work to the remnants of civilization.
Freedom Deep version one was released on DVD in numerous territories, including the US and Australia. Copies of the various releases and differing cover-artwork can be found on DVD sites, ebay and amazon.com.
An attempt by the producers to move the film under another title, ‘The Samsara Chronicles’ was unsuccessful, as the film had already made the rounds despite the additional 2049 scenes. This version did however, reach Wim Wenders, who responded to the piece with much enthusiasm. He also attempted to gain attention for this alternatively titled version, but the fact remained – its initial release although unfinished, had exhausted its potential as a separate new release.
This version was later released on amazon.com and ebay as, Freedom Deep: Final Directors Version.
Now comes the Gary Whitta ‘original’ scripted, The Book of Eli…Prior to selling this as a spec-script…Whitta was a self-confessed gamer [and] computer-geek. The odds of selling a spec-script in Hollywood are so small that winning the lotto has better odds. The script was [then] picked up by The Hughes Brothers.
The Hughes Brothers and Warner Brothers were probably unaware that The Book of Eli was a re-interpretation of Freedom Deep. The original [version] had a limited but solid release – seen by late night TV addicts and bargain bin DVD hunters… the types who worshiped anything post-apocalyptic, from movies to games.
The worldwide, Box Office release of The Book of Eli grossed over $147.038,797 (as of 19 April 2010).
Stevenson: With DVD, Blu-Ray and numerous ancillary tie-ins to follow – for what Mr. Whitta claims was an original concept.
Can you speak about the timelines in your film?
Stevenson: The major timeline of Freedom Deep central to the plot is in 2018. The other two timelines are in 1997, which is Liam’s back-story and 2049, which bookends and sparsely punctuates the film. The 2018 timeline is Liam’s journey to take the ‘book’ across a hostile, post apocalyptic wasteland – back to the remnants of civilization. It is this timeline that is the template for Gary Whitta’s screenplay, The Book of Eli.
Can you address the basic plots of Freedom Deep and The Book of Eli and show comparisons?
Stevenson: The premise underlying Freedom Deep concerns a future prophet named Liam who attempts to journey his ‘book’ back to the remnants of civilization. He crosses a post-apocalyptic wasteland and is soon intercepted by a Warrior Woman, who tries to steal the book. In The Book of Eli a future prophet named Eli attempts to journey his ‘book’ back to the remnants of civilization where he is intercepted by a group of adversaries who wish to obtain it. Both prophets are assisted by female adversaries, and both eventually fulfill their missions. The Book of Eli varies somewhat in the last 15 minutes or so by adding some plot twists that appear forced and imposed, possibly to disguise shared origins to that point.
Can you cite precise scene similarities in both films, and discuss the gas masks?
Stevenson: In Freedom Deep’s first image of Liam in 2018, he is lying on the ground, eyes open but seemingly unconscious. We do not know how or why he happens to be there. The first image in The Book of Eli is of a body lying on the ground. We don’t know how or why he is there. Viewing both, the audience is left to make their own assumptions. Similarly the Warrior Woman’s arrival at the 15-minute mark in Freedom Deep is a mystery. There is no back-story. The suggestion in both is that there is a higher power or influence at play. It is also here in Eli, that we first see the gas mask in the forest – that is virtually identical to the one in Freedom Deep’s scenes – a recurring motif throughout the timeline. The incorporation of the mask in Eli, is curious, as it suggests that the apocalypse was in some way solar. It is of course a stunning visual as it is in Freedom Deep. However, in Liam’s world the purpose of the mask other than its visual power, concerns the filtering of dust! Scenes in Freedom Deep where the gas mask is in the forest but not worn, serves as a visual reference and reminder of Warrior Woman’s mission and purpose. In Eli, the gas mask is used as a striking visual that is included in the initial promotional trailers. It is an early indicator that there may be borrowed content from Freedom Deep.
In Eli, the forest at the beginning is graded in strong greens and takes on a mystical contrast to the desert scenes that dominate the remainder of the movie. In Freedom Deep the forest scenes occur much later but serve as a similar sense of sanctuary or time-out from the harsh environment. Similarities between the framing and quality of forest-visuals, and inanimate, gas masks in both movies are significant.
What about actual settings – in precise detail, please?
Stevenson: In Freedom Deep the setting is a hostile post-apocalyptic wasteland. The suggestion is that the environment is caused by an undisclosed war that becomes a global catastrophe. From the forest in Eli, the future prophet embarks on a journey across identical desert wastelands. The cause of which is also suggested but not disclosed.
At 6 minutes 30 seconds into Freedom Deep we see the first of many dry dead trees that occur throughout the film. These represent a solemn dry terrain, contrasting the forest scenes. In Eli, virtually the same tree is used at around the 85-minute mark as a visual set piece. If this were a sanctioned effort one would call this homage. The point here is that clichés and borrowed motifs are not merely written, as in 8 notes of music when plagiarized, but are clearly visual! When isolated, these may not be that directly significant, but when assembled in a collective context, it’s a distinct example of plagiarism! One image, one note on its own may be a coincidence, but a set of numbers, or more of said ‘coincidences,’ seem a blatant act of theft!
Given the post-apocalyptic scenario – most of Liam’s plight in Freedom Deep is on foot across desert sands. There are always strong visuals of high contrast skies, harsh wind-swept sands, intense suns, silhouetted long-lens imagery and moody soundscape soundtrack. In Eli, these are also evident – with the similarities in many visuals almost indistinguishable.
At the 76-minute mark in Freedom Deep there is a striking shot where a silhouetted Liam arrives at a desert shack, pulls open the door and inspects the interior. At the 5-minute mark in Eli, he arrives at a shack, opens the door in the exact same manner, to the point where the framing of the shots are identical. Both can be seen in the films’ respective trailers and could be seamlessly swapped without consequence.
Can you discuss in detail – characters, props (including the ‘book’ itself), wardrobe, voice-over, and additional similarities in Freedom Deep and The Book of Eli?
Stevenson: There are striking physical similarities between Freedom Deep’s Warrior Woman and Eli’s Solara. They both also serve identical narrative functions.
Likewise the costuming of Freedom Deep and Eli is nearly identical.
In Freedom Deep, Warrior Woman carries a sawn-down shotgun, as does Eli.
In both Freedom Deep and Eli, the ‘books’ are fastened and locked.
The use of voice-overs, serve and enhance the narratives in both films.
In Freedom Deep, at 78 minutes, a rat nestles across Liam’s hair as he grieves. In Eli, a rat is also portrayed as a survivor of the catastrophe. A cat appears in both movies. These serve as both domestic reminders of a life prior and that of the rodent-survivor.
In Freedom Deep, Liam accesses an antiquated cassette stereo that plays a reference-track to his past. In Eli, an iPod is used for the same purpose.
In Freedom Deep as the drama unfolds the ‘book’ becomes the centerpiece that must be preserved and protected on its journey. It is a ‘Holy Grail’ built on words and pages. In Eli as the drama unfolds the ‘book’ becomes the centerpiece to be preserved and protected on its journey, a ‘Holy Grail’ built on words and pages.
At 41 minutes in Freedom Deep the Warrior Woman closely trails behind Liam across the desert. Liam carries a spear in a staff-like manner. At around 70 minutes into Eli, Solara follows Eli, carrying a bow. The actions and visuals are again virtually identical and could be easily switched from one movie to the other with very little detriment.
In addition to props and action, how about similar color palates in the films?
Stevenson: Freedom Deep embraces bleached colors, flat hues, high contrast clouds throughout its desert scenes that make the landscape a virtual character in itself. Eli brushes its desert scenes with the exact same tool and palate, thus replicating yet another character from Freedom Deep.
While exploring, in Freedom Deep, Liam finds a military bunker outpost, picks up a sword and brandishes it assuming the warrior-poet pose. Then, aware of the reference – the irony – returns it. In The Book of Eli, Eli brandishes a sword and massacres everybody! The irony is somehow lost…
Can you elaborate in precise, scenic detail?
Stevenson: In Freedom Deep’s second act, at 46 minutes, Liam attempts to catch a fish with a spear whilst the Warrior Woman reads the ’book’. He quickly gives this away with a sense of irony and looks up as we hear a bird overhead. No dialogue is necessary. In Eli he spears a bird with an arrow and Solara asks, ‘What is that?’ to which Eli replies, ‘Dinner!’
In Freedom Deep at 47 minutes and again in the military depot at 66 minutes, the two characters sit around a campfire collecting their thoughts and reflecting upon the book and their developing relationship. In Eli the two characters sit at a campfire in a rusted out refuge with dialogue exposition. Again the shots are identical.
At about 50 minutes into The Book of Eli, he talks about the ‘book’ stating that ‘it’s not just a book’ and that some things in life are precious! This is implied throughout Freedom Deep without having to verbalize.
In the forest of Freedom Deep, at the 31-minute mark, Warrior Woman picks up the book and begins reading. In Eli at around the 8-minute mark, Solara picks up the book to view its contents but is thwarted by Eli. Whilst reading the ‘book’ in Freedom Deep, Liam approaches Warrior Woman. She immediately grips her knife but then backs down as if under some kind of spiritual influence or recognition. In Eli one of the bad guys aims his gun at Eli then lowers it as if under some kind of spiritual influence or recognition. Both Liam and Eli exhibit some sort of calming, placating influence.
Can you discuss the adoptive, parental figures in both films?
Stevenson: In Freedom Deep the young Liam is befriended by a gay-couple who become parental and guiding. In Eli, the lead character is befriended and shacks up with an elderly-couple who assist and guide him. However this becomes over- shadowed by the addition of a clichéd, shoot-em-up!
In Freedom Deep the couple use a small boat to continue on their journey with the sense that water adds an obstacle to overcome and distance. Toward the end of Eli, the couple use of a small boat to continue along their journey that ends at Alcatraz. Thank God they don’t copulate here as they did in Freedom Deep, or this would be too much!
Can you address human sacrifice and the ‘books’ in both films?
Stevenson: In Freedom Deep, Liam makes the ultimate sacrifice and throws himself off a cliff whereas Eli takes a bullet.
In Freedom Deep the Warrior Woman assists by putting herself on the line and sacrifices herself so that Liam can continue his journey. In Eli, Solara puts herself on the line and rescues Eli so that he can continue his journey.
In the final act, Liam crosses the last of the harsh desert elements to arrive at the remnants of civilization. The ruined city can be seen in the distance. Liam is exhausted, sunburned and nearly resembles the landscape as he clutches the physical ‘book.’ A fatigued Eli also arrives at the remnants of civilization with the ‘book,’ though it is in his head.
In Freedom Deep’s not too distant 2049, the older Liam rests on a hill overlooking the new community where a teacher reads from the ‘book’ to a gathering of tomorrow’s children – a symbol of hope. In the concluding scenes of Eli, the ‘book’ is reconstructed, printed and made available in a library to the remnants of civilization – symbolic of hope for the written word.
At the end of Freedom Deep, Liam drops his head and dies peacefully with the knowledge that the ‘book’ has been delivered. In Eli having delivered his ‘book’ he likewise dies peacefully, with the addition of angelic sentiment.
Are there similar twists in The Book of Eli?
Stevenson: In Freedom Deep the music’s lyrics were integral to the development of the script and also served the finished product as direct references to the content of Liam’s ‘book.’ In The Book of Eli, Eli quotes the contents of his ‘book’ either directly or in voice-over. The fact that the movie is called The Book of Eli is a red herring in itself. In the Bible there is no ‘Book of Eli.’ Hence, we are lead to believe that Eli is the author of his ‘book’ until the ‘twists’ at the end where it is revealed that Eli’s ‘book’ is in fact someone else’s – the Bible! Although a neat twist, this is misleading based on the title – The Book of Eli. In comparison if Freedom Deep were called, ‘The Book of Liam,’ this would have far more substance, as he wrote the book! I guess if the ‘Book of Eli’ concerned Eli’s words and not those of the various books which make up the Bible, then the similarities to Freedom Deep would be far more open to allegations of plagiarism!
Are there additional messages and surprises toward the end of both films?
Stevenson: In Eli – after his death – Solara stands in-frame with a large water silo behind her, contemplating her future. In Freedom Deep right before her suicide, Warrior Woman stands on top of a near identical silo, contemplating her future.
Both films conclude with an ironic twist. In Freedom Deep, in the year 2049, the second book is completed and the pages collected by a religious figure dressed in robes. The meaning is left to interpretation but could be that the second book outlines how the first ‘book’ is conceived, constructed and delivered. A select few are aware of this, which may be enough for the story to be passed on. In Eli the twist is that the ‘book’ is written in Braille and so cannot be read by Gary Oldman, but is picked up by a blind girl who can. This suggests that though the information contained is exclusive, it will be passed on.
How exactly are the inherited ‘words’ passed down in each film?
Stevenson: In Freedom Deep’s concluding epilogue, the words are delivered. They are safe and will be protected and passed down by the community. In The Book of Eli the words are safe in the library, protected, and will likewise, be passed down by the community that oversees them.
Do you think this is a case of plagiarism?
Stevenson: Yes plagiarism against myself as writer, producer and director of Freedom Deep.
What are you planning to do about it legally?
Stevenson: Both Gary Whitta and the production company did not answer my emails prior to their film being shot. I concluded then that the only way to get a response was by a legal approach which would appear cost prohibitive. Several international lawyers are reviewing the case and we will most likely sue for damages… I have other film projects on the go also and these are keeping me busy. I believe that Gary has mislead the film’s producers by presenting them with a script that was based on Freedom Deep… There are many out there already who have also confirmed the all to obvious similarities. I believe that this swell will grow as more people are made aware…
Aaron Stevenson is an Australian filmmaker, writer and artist. His work in film and television span many genres including comedy, documentary, and drama. His 6-part television series, Hoon Capital is in post-production, as is his feature length documentary, Welcome Wherever 2. He is also writing the screenplay for a comedy feature. Stevenson runs Fatal Impact Productions from Bendigo, an historic city near Melbourne in Central Victoria. He and his wife Kate, also produce electronic music under the banner of Moby-Wan and in conjunction with the Boost Bros.
Amy R. Handler is a filmmaker, writer and critic.