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Indie Game: The Movie directors talk gaming, developers, and the creative process

The documentary Indie Game: The Movie was one of this year’s surprise hits on the festival circuit, finding a sympathetic audience among gamers and non-gamers alike with its compelling look at the creative process.

Directed by Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky, Indie Game explored the world of independent game creators through the experiences of four developers: Jonathan Blow, Phil Fish, and the two-man team of Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes. The film chronicles the lessons learned by Blow since the release of his critically praised game Braid, the development and release of McMillen and Refenses’ 2010 hit Super Meat Boy, and the struggle Fish had in completing his own game, Fez.

After winning the World Cinema Documentary Film Editing Award at Sundance and being nominated for the festival’s prestigious Grand Jury Prize, Indie Game captured the attention of audiences throughout North America with screenings around the U.S. and Canada. It also caught the eye of HBO and producer Scott Rudin, who optioned the premise of the film just before Sundance, with an eye toward making an Indie Game television series.

With the digital release of Indie Game: The Movie kicking off June 12, we spoke with Pajot and Swirsky about their fascinating documentary and the lessons they — and the audience — can take away from this story of independent game developers.

Before we get started on anything else, I’d like to know what brought you to this particular subject for a documentary…

James Swirsky: We started thinking about it when we were commissioned to do a short documentary on game developer Alex Lopez, who’s based out of Winnipeg, where we’re from. Prior to that, we spent the last 10 years being commercial filmmakers and doing a lot of corporate work. We were commissioned to do a five-minute piece on new-media people in Winnipeg, and originally we thought it was going to be this very light “a guy made a game and isn’t that cool” type of piece, but in talking with Al, the more time we spent with him it became clear that it was a lot more than that — rather, it could be a lot more than that. It was a story about a guy who invested everything into this game, who put himself into this game. He started making one game, and then over the course of just living through the development of this game, it became something much, much different. It became a reflection or extension of all this stuff he’d been going thorough.

It was the whole idea that games could be personal that really kind of took us. It’s not a new idea that games can be personal, but it was new to us. Shortly after that, we’d been going to the Game Developers Conference for a couple of other gigs, and we were always drawn to the Independent Games Summit. So we went down there and were talking to independent game developers and kept on hearing story after story just like Alex’s story. So we thought to ourselves that this was really compelling and dramatic, and if we could get these stories on film — and even better, if we could get them happening real-time — that would be an interesting documentary and a documentary that we’d want to see as people who use stuff and consume stuff.

At the same time, we looked around the landscape and there weren’t many video game documentaries out there, which was extremely surprising to us, because games are huge. Games are bigger than movies and music, and we know how those things are made, but there aren’t many documentaries about how video games are made. At the time, when we were looking for documentaries to watch, we were looking for something like Helvetica — we wanted to see something like that documentary, except about game design and video games — and that didn’t exist. So we thought, let’s see if we can make it. Let’s make that movie we want to watch.

How did you settle on these four developers to spotlight in the film?

Lisanne Pajot: We interviewed lots of developers. We visited 10 around North America and shot maybe 20 or so more through going to different game jams around North America. We thought the film would involve a lot more developers at first, but we kept following the story of Super Meat Boy and Fez and spent more and more time with them and the story kept evolving. To do the story justice, they just demanded more time in the film to have it all make sense. So it turned into a story about Super Meat Boy, Fez, and Braid, and in a way it worked out well, because we think it shows this past, present, future thing — different aspects of development through three different stories.

It was especially interesting that Fez wasn’t finished by the conclusion of the film, but has been released since then. Have you given any thought to following up with that story or adding a post-script to the film?

Pajot: We talk to Phil and Edmund and Tommy and Jon all the time, and we kept in contact with Phil and followed him to GDC and filmed him winning — a surprising win in some ways — the Seamus McNally Award at the Independent Games Festival. We did some follow-up while we were finishing the film, so we do have an epilogue that we’re going to be including in a special edition of the film. We shot over 300 hours, which included lots of other developers and more story threads, so we’re going to put that all onto a special edition that we’re still creating. We’re about half done creating it, but we’ve been tied up self-releasing the movie, so we’re hoping to get back to work creating that together. So yeah. Fez is out, but we’re not adding that stuff to the film. It would make the film crazy long. [Laughs]

It also feels right to end the film that way, since you have a well-known game that’s been out for a while, a new game that you follow through its creation cycle right up to its release, and a game that’s having some trouble getting finished…

Swirsky: Yeah, it feels right to leave it hanging and have some uncertainty to it. The whole process of making a game is all about uncertainty, so having that be the end note of the film’s story really makes sense and really works.

Pajot: It works, and that was the reality when we finished the film. We finished it a week or two before Sundance in January. Less than six months later, things have changed a little, but it’s still accurate to the experience.

Were you surprised by the positive reception the film received at Sundance? I ask because, despite how big of an industry gaming is, it still seems to get marginalized by the general public and viewed through the niche-industry lens…

Swirsky: We believed going into it that we made a good movie, and that it’s a movie that spoke to what we believe about video games and the guys who make video games. They are artists, and they pour their hearts and souls into it, and they go through very legitimate, very powerful experiences. But always in the back of our minds we were hoping for this kind of reaction, where people who normally don’t consider games at all would watch the movie and be surprised by it in a very pleasant way. Then it started happening, and it’s kind of like our dream came true. People were saying these things we would dream that they’d say, and they’re looking at video games in a slightly different way because of the movie. That’s not everybody’s experience, but a lot of people seem to be having that reaction, and it’s surprising. It was like our secret little goal all along.

Did you find yourself having to edit the film with a mainstream audience in mind, toning down some of the more in-depth elements in order to appeal to people who might not be as gaming-savvy?

Pajot: Yeah, that was the fine balance of what we wanted to do with the film. We wanted to make it satisfying for gamers and game developers and the core audience of the film, but make it open and accessible enough that people who don’t have that experience could be able to access it and feel like they’re part of it and not feel alienated. That was a hard balance, because we had lots of parts of the film that were a bit more technical, and were a bit more interesting in terms of discussions of game design and such, but we felt like everything we needed to put in this particular film had to serve the story and serve the experience of the characters in the film. So that was always the question: Do these parts that talk about the creation of games serve the story at all? That’s where we were coming from. We wanted to make a film that anybody could watch and appreciate.

Swirsky: We knew wanted to tell a universal story about creation and that process. and I think with any kind of specific documentary there’s always a risk of getting a little too esoteric, and we found ourselves in the edits dipping into that a little bit and having to pull back. You can get bogged down in the technical stuff pretty easily. If it’s a more mainstream or general audience and you get into that esoteric stuff, it starts to cloud that universal story you want to tell. We’re fascinated by the technical stuff, so we would’ve loved to put it in — in fact, we kept putting it in and then realizing we went a little too far sometimes. [Laughs]

Pajot: At the same time, we also wanted the documentary not to talk down to people and sort of jump in and not be like “this is a video game” and define what a video game is. We had to figure out what the baseline of knowledge needed to be, enhance it quickly, and then jump into the story.

On top of everything else, HBO optioned the film before Sundance. What can you tell us about that deal and the series that could come out of it?

Pajot: So HBO and Scott Rudin optioned the premise of the film to potentially make into a television series for HBO. They approached us a week or so before Sundance, and yeah, it’s optioned. It’s an option like a book gets optioned, though. And yeah, it’s kind of crazy. It may or may not happen, but just as consumers of television, we would love to see what that could turn into.

Swirsky: I’m hoping very much that the show happens. I just want to see it exist. I want to see a show made by Scott Rudin and HBO about game development. That would just be amazing. I think it’s really, really early, so there’s no real concrete stuff — only that everyone is really enthusiastic and we’ve had great conversations about it, and it seems to be going in the right direction.

But it’s going to be a scripted series, right? Not reality television or documentary-style programming?

Pajot: Yeah, it would be dramatic, like everything HBO does really well.

Swirsky: It would be a dramatic, scripted show based on the world of the documentary, and not based on the characters. It wouldn’t be Edmund or Phil, but would be fictional people.

You’re also making some interesting decisions regarding the release of Indie Game. Can you tell us a little about that?

Pajot: We’ve been playing in theaters across the U.S. and Canada since around May 18, and we’re jumping into digital much faster than most films. We’re going to be releasing digitally on June 12 on iTunes and Steam. We’re actually one of the first films ever to be released through Steam, which is one of the biggest game platforms in the world. It will also be available on our website DRM-free, so if people want to download it and put it on all of their devices, they can do that. The film will be in a bunch of different languages, too. This is not the way most films are generally released, but we wanted it to be accessible to as many people around the world as possible on the same day, and not windowed or staggered. This is the way the world consumes stuff now — they hear about it, they buy it, and they want to watch it. The Blu-ray will come out late this summer, likely in July. The regular editions will have the film and some different commentaries and a few extras, and the special editions will probably be released later in the fall, and will be a completely new thing, with lots of new content. We’re even going to shoot some more for it. It will have longer epilogues for everyone who was in the film, and other developers and such.

If you could take away one lesson from this whole experience of making Indie Game, what would it be? Is there something that this film taught you that will stick with you down the road?

Swirsky: I was actually thinking about this just the other day. I was thinking that I will never be vocally negative and critical of other people’s work in any truly harsh way again. I will definitely disagree with things and be critical, and enjoy or not enjoy them, and though I wasn’t a brutal critic before or anything, I’ve learned to temper everything a little more. It seems silly to say, but all of these things are made by real people. Watching Phil go through what he goes through, and then also Tommy and Jon, I always knew that element of creation and audience response and the connection between the two existed, but in making the movie and doing something large-scale like this on our own, you realize how hard it is to make anything. Whether that thing you make is good or bad, just making something and seeing it to completion and putting it out in the world is impressive. Everything that gets made is this little miracle. I knew that going in, and I appreciate it so much more now. It’s not like I was ever commenting “that’s a piece of crap” on blogs, but now I find value in everything just because it exists.

Pajot: Yeah, I think in going through and making our own thing, our own two-year project, I just have an immense amount of respect and admiration for anybody who tries to make their own thing — whether it’s a movie or video game or anything. It takes a lot to get it done. It takes a lot to push through when you want to quit. That’s what the movie is about: pushing through when things get hard and focusing on your vision.

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