Why Gore Verbinski is developing video games -- and likely not directing ‘Bioshock’
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When most people think ‘Gore Verbinski and video games,’ they think Bioshock, the 2007 hit video game about an underwater dystopia that he signed on to direct as a film for Universal last year.
But Verbinski isn’t just interested in adapting video games into movies. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in advance of this week’s E3 conference, the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ director explained that he instead wants to produce them. Since first introducing himself to the game industry at least year’s D.I.C.E. conference, Verbinski has hired a video game designer, Will Stahl from ‘Star Wars: Battlefront’ maker Pandemic Studios, to work at his Blind Wink production company. Blind Wink now has five game projects in development, one of which it is building as a prototype.
Hiring a game designer to work on staff is unusual enough for a film production company. But in another twist, Blind Wink’s first look deal with Universal Pictures, which it signed last year, also includes video games. That means the studio, which recently released its first self-financed game, ‘Wanted: Weapons of Fate,’ could publish or co-publish one of Blind Wink’s games in the future.
Verbinski, who is currently working on the animated film ‘Rango,’ isn’t confident about ‘Bioshock’s’ making it to the big screen. It’s been previously reported that the film is on hold due to concerns about its escalating budget. Verbinski tells the Times that it could probably get made, if it is shot in one of those foreign countries that offer a generous tax credit. And he’s not sure whether he wants to go overseas for the year-plus it would require to make it.
Our conversation with the reluctant ‘Bioshock’ director is part of a larger story in tomorrow’s Times about the new efforts among film industry hotshots -- including Verbinski, Jerry Bruckheimer, Thomas Tull and Zack Snyder -- and newly-hired executives at some of the big studios, to produce video games. They’re determined to succeed where so many in Hollywood have failed before. You can read the entire story right here.
(To follow the Times’ full-scale coverage of E3 this week, be sure to read the Tech blog and look for unique posts with a Hollywood angle here on Company Town. You can also follow several Twitter feeds including LA Times Tech, Company Town reporter Ben Fritz and tech reporter Alex Pham.)
Here are excerpts from our conversation with Verbinski:
As a movie director, what do you think you can bring to video games?
It’s a mistake for Hollywood to impose themselves on the gaming space. Not only is it arrogant, but it hasn’t really worked. The presumption that we have a better understanding of narrative that we can bring to gaming is flawed at its core because interactive entertainment is a completely different way to navigate and explore what compels you in that world.
As a filmmaker, I’m absolutely fascinated with the idea that the protagonist is the audience. That mandates a new form of narrative at its core. So you can’t really take the skill sets we have for making movies and impose them upon games. Hollywood has made a mistake to think they can enter this space and somehow provide better storytelling.
When we design a game here, my mantra is ‘gameplay first.’ We start on a game with the way controlling it feels in your hands. Narrative has to be a byproduct of that in the same way story is a byproduct of character in films.
When you say you’re designing games at Blind Wink, what does that mean? It’s very unusual for a film production company to have a game developer as an executive.
Will Stahl is not an executive for us: he’s a game designer. We’re not suit-heavy here. I like to work with artists, so we don’t need a preponderance of executives. Will is a hard core designer who comes from [L.A.-based game development studio] Pandemic.
With Will’s help, we’re developing five different projects. We’re prototyping one right now. We hope to move the other remaining properties into prototype.
What can you tell us about the game projects you’re working on?
They’re wildly diverse. Some of the stuff we’re doing is taking a conventional [first person shooter] experience and tweaking it in a way that hasn’t been thought of before. We looked at it from a different angle and changed the experience.
All the way on the other side, we’re doing big epic narratives that are four quadrant experiences. And then we’re doing some really radical thinking. That’s more difficult to fund immediately, but we’re think-tanking it because we feel like there’s tremendous potential.
Gears of War and Halo are taking care of that part of the market. Other people are really good at those games. We’re more inspired by games like [critical favorite indie game] Portal.
Where do your game projects come from? Do you take pitches the same way you do from screenwriters for movies?
Right now, about 70% of our ideas come from in-house. There are a couple pitched to us that we really responded to. My good friend Brett Gurwitz, who runs Epitaph Records, came with a pitch that we found fascinating and put into development. Game designers do come to us. Right now we’re open and listening, but also not waiting for ideas to come from the outside.
Do all your game projects get shown to Universal first as part of Blind Wink’s first look deal there?
That’s right. I’m interested to see what has happened there. We enjoy working with Universal. But we’re definitely building a gaming studio. I think all the [movie] studios jumped into gaming, but have started to realize it’s not too simple.
You can’t just farm out your existing movies into video games. Gaming is its own art form. We at Blind Wink respect the achievements of auteurs who have come before us in a medium. It’s not a purely financial model. As a filmmaker, every time I pick up a game, I go ‘Oh wow, imagine what we could do.’
We want to home grow properties, especially if we’re going to do the heavy lifting anyway. With ‘Pirates,’ there was no narrative even though there was an IP [intellctual property]. If you have to come up with story and characters, at some point you have to question why you’re looking for existing IPs rather than creating you own. It’s laziness.
Do you think about most of the games you work on as potentially also being movies or working in other media?
We are a transmedia company at our core. We’re not siloed in the sense of Internet content or gaming or animation or feature film or television. All the heads talk to each other.
But just because you can make a movie doesn’t mean you have a good game.
We do have a game currently that may work really well as an animated feature. That may time out quite well, since animation also takes a long time. The biggest problem you have is when you’re making a movie and someone says, “there’s got to be game on the [films’s] release date on shelves.” That’s born of compromise inherently. It’s impossible in a year and a half
If any of your games get made, what role would Blind Wind play? There’s not a successful model for producers on games the way there is for movies.
Obviously with our relationship with Universal, they could fully fund and develop and publish a game. We also may be developing things here and then partnering with another publisher.
It also depends on the scale. We’re doing everything from 30 hours of gameplay to applications that may be eight minutes of highly entertaining and unique downloadable content. Those are a lot easier to do in-house.
And what would your role be? Would you produce or direct the game like you do a film?
Will Stahl is a great designer and I see it in the same way as when you make a movie, you count on having incredibly talented people all around you. When I meet with Hans Zimmer on a score, I don’t tell him what notes to play. My respect for artists is very high. I think to get the most out of them, you have to liberate them. I think part of liberating them is saying, ‘Come up with something brilliant, new, and fresh. Stop thinking based on what has been beat into you by executives or publishers in terms of what’s going to work and what’s not. Don’t react, just act.’
I want to be clear I’m not not talking about directing a game the way I direct a movie. There are better people. It’s more assembling a great team of talented people and getting them inspired.
The only other producer that seems to be trying to do something similar is Jerry Bruckheimer.
Jerry is doing it in a very interesting way. We may be partnering on some things together. He has hired two guys that come from the executive side of things. We’ve hired a nuts-and-bolts game designer. We’re all going to sit down and see if there’s some potential cross pollination.
Since we’re talking video games, I would be remiss if I didn’t ask you where things stand on ‘Bioshock.’ Do you think that movie can still get made?
The bottom line is it has to shoot out of the States for budget reasons and my schedule may be prohibitive. There’s a great script and a really interesting cast. It really comes down to the financial model now. Big movies are just not being shot in the States. I’m weighing whether I can physically go the U.K. or Australia or one of those other places with a tax rebate for a year-and-a-half.
Photo credits: Gore Verbinski, Amanda Edwards / Getty Images; Bioshock, 2K Games.