Listening in on When an Acclaimed Director and Video-Game Maker Meet

Guillermo Del Toro and BioShock creator Ken Levine chatted for a soon-to-be-released podcast. To anyone interested in the intersection of film and games, the conversation is fascinating.

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AP Images / Irrational Games

For videogame nerds, it's long been the subject of frustration: In the last three decades, there's never been a great videogame movie adaptation. There have hardly been any middling ones. Happily, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider looks a bit better with age. Prince of Persia was watchable but ultimately inane because it pandered. Silent Hill, based on the survival horror series from Konami, was disturbingly creepy for much of its 125 minutes. But it went off the rails at the end. And that's it. The rest of the canon pretty much stinks like zombie death.

Outspoken filmmaker Guillermo Del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hell Boy) would likely disagree that Silent Hill's much-maligned penultimate scene was way too over the top. In a two-part podcast, the first of which will be published on Halloween at the Irrational Games website, Del Toro says he adores much of Silent Hill. The podcast, in which Del Toro chats with one of the most intriguing videogame makers working today, represents a landmark event in itself—because filmmakers and game makers aren't supposed to understand each other.

"I call Hollywood The Land of the Slow No," Del Toro says. "It literally takes them two fucking years to say 'no.'"

They certainly haven't in the past, at least. One medium tells a linear tale. The other branches and takes gamers on interactive journeys. That's why this podcast is such an unusual meeting of the minds. Del Toro sat down with Ken Levine, the creative lead on BioShock, the scariest horror videogame ever made. It's a game that seems to have been created after reading every one of Stephen King's best novels—and the non-fiction Danse Macabre (which beautifully parsed the differences between horror and terror) as well.

Listening to the two converse is like watching a version of My Dinner With Andre tailored for pop culture nerds. The talk is wide-ranging and soulful. It's also a bit like a conversation I once saw on-stage at the YMCA in New York City between David Mamet and Horton Foote about adapting Broadway plays to film. Mamet was full of bile. Foote was wary, but more understanding and accepting of Hollywood's bull. Yet that kind of talk about Hollywood ruining the best of Broadway drama is not uncommon, and hasn't been for a long time. This kind of unbridled, ranting-yet-intelligent discussion between game maker and movie maker has never, to my knowledge, before been made public for everyone to listen to or download. It is historic in that sense.

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"A lot of people in Hollywood look at games as junior varsity films," says Levine, who was contracted to write a romantic comedy feature before he turned to games. "They just don't understand games…You have to go into each game with a certain amount of humility. Each time I go into a game I'm terrified at how to make it work."

In response, Del Toro declaims, "The opposite of humility is arrogance, and that is the coin of trade in the movie business. Movies are one of the peaks of human narrative. But I'm sorry to break it to the movie industry: So are videogames. The videogames we will be playing in 2020—they will be fucking masterpieces then."

Del Toro, who is ensconced in the process of making a videogame called inSANE to be released in 2013 for publisher THQ, likens the work to a game of chess "where you're thinking 20 moves ahead before your opponent even shows up for the game. I find it fascinating; revitalizing as a narrator."

Beyond being an avid (and occasionally obsessive) gamer himself, a few sour experiences in the film industry may have prodded Del Toro into game making. "In my mind, every movie is on hold, at least in Hollywood," he says. "I call Hollywood The Land of the Slow No. It literally takes them two fucking years to say 'no.' So some of the best movies I have are not shot." His passel of unmade films includes a Count of Monte Cristo adaptation turned on its head as gothic western in the 1800s "where the count has a mechanical hand." He says he sometimes feels typecast: "Because I'm into comic books, they come to me—I'm not kidding—with every large superhero franchise ever. When I don't relate to the franchise, I just say no. I always say, 'It's really hard to fuck without a boner.'"

Or maybe what excites Del Toro about game making is the idea that every gamer becomes an actor to be directed. Levine points out that, as a game unfolds, a player can feel as though he or she is the star in a movie. Throughout BioShock, says Levine, "You're basically putting the gamer in an improvisational scene. But there are certain guidelines. The closest thing to it is when you think about Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm. He just sort of sets out a general direction…and the actors run with it. [But David has] actors who can use their brains. We have to do that programmatically and that can be super, super challenging. You have no idea what the gamer is going to do. But you still can't break the narrative."

As the minutes pass, you also hear a fair amount of creative neuroticism. Levine, who was influenced by everything from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged for BioShock to Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City for next year's BioShock Infinite frets, "I'm always worried about crawling up my own asshole and getting so into the things that I'm interested in that I forget I have to keep this interesting for an audience, while still retaining those things [I like to delve into] like objectivism and art deco." At one point in the podcast, he admits that he wanted to include the 50-page speech at the end of Atlus Shrugged in BioShock.

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Del Toro commiserates and says, "You have to go by the one GPS system we all have, which is our gut."

Yet despite the significant nature of the discussion, one of the things you're left wanting Levine and Del Toro to banter about is a BioShock movie. That adaptation, which was supposed to be directed by Gore Verbinski, never really emerged from the bowels of pre-production. According to an employee who toiled for the director, Verbinski said he wanted to make a movie "so creepy that kids will tell their friends, 'Don't go see that movie. It's too scary.'" As you listen, you witness an ever-growing, mutual admiration between the two craftsmen. So the BioShock movie is kind of the elephant in the room. The rapt nerd wants to hear Levine ask Del Toro, "Hey, Guillermo. Why don't you think about doing the BioShock movie? Why don't we work on it together? Let's do it right." And with glee you want to hear Del Toro agree, "I didn't think you'd ever ask. Let's do it, Ken." For the sake of wanting one great videogame-to-movie adaptation, we can only hope that some conversation like that has happened when voice recorders weren't running.

Harold Goldberg is the author of All Your Base Are Belong to Us: How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture. He can be found crowdsourcing a movie about games at www.playingwithfirefilm.com.


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