Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky are two filmmakers who went deep into the world of indie games, and ended up creating the fantastic Indie Game: The Movie in the process. But don’t just take my word for it. You can also, er… take my word for it in our review of the film. We were able to talk to the directors, just before the news broke that the movie was getting picked up and turned into a narrative series on HBO. If that seems weird to you, it’s because yes, that is weird.
But these two talented filmmakers have created a movie well worth watching for both fans of gamers, and people who have never played a single game (who are those people, anyhow?) Read on for the full interview where they talk about making the movie, what to expect on the Special Edition DVD, why they aren’t done with video game movies just yet.
So, give us the synopsis for Indie Game: The Movie. What’s the story?
James: Indie Game: The Movie is a feature documentary about independent game designers. We watch them create and release their games, through all the ups and downs of doing it. It’s about video games, but really it’s about creating in general. It’s about making something and putting it out there, and expressing yourself to the world.
How did the project come together?
Lisanne: We were doing commercials and corporate work, and we came across the Game Developers Conference and we found the Independent Games Summit there. We were just blown away by all the stories of the people because they were all sharing, not only about their games, but sharing about themselves as well.
Their games seemed to be a direct reflection of them as well, and t’s all set in this context where, with digital distribution, people can make their own games and release them online and do potentially really well. That was an interesting dynamic that there’s this world where you can create your own stuff, and people actually consume it. Millions of people do consume indie games, and that’s what we started with.
When did you realize that there was a compelling story to be told here?
James: There was a moment where we were shooting, at the time we thought it was a test piece but it ended up being in the actual film, where Edmund (McMillen of Team Meat) is talking about his game Aether, which was a Flash game he’d made, and there’s a very strong connection between that game and his childhood. And it was a connection that he wasn’t even conscious of at the time when he was making the game.
That story was so beautiful and heartfelt that we literally turned to each other and said “Oh my god, there is a movie here.” At that point, we were sold. We just needed more of that, and we needed to do justice to those moments.
Lisanne: We actually shot about 300 hours of footage. We shot with way more developers than are in the film. The film only follows Super Meat Boy, Fez, and Braid, but we shot with game developers from other games as well. It just so happened that timing worked out that we were able to really capture the “in the moment” feelings of creating and releasing, and that’s how those games ended up dominating the film.
The games and developers that you do follow hit the emotional beats, but you don’t really see anyone “fail,” per se. Of course, Fez could come out and be a flop, but that seems unlikely so far given all the praise it has gathered. Were there any stories that were almost too depressing to tell?
Lisanne: Well, Phil’s story was pretty depressing when we met him! [Laughter] When we met him had lost all of his funding, and he was considering not doing the game. That was interesting to us given that he had so much hype online, and so many people had talked about his game and there were even awards he had won. That was pretty depressing.
James: Yeah, it’s “The Saddest Movie of Triumph” you’ll ever see.
What was it like getting so intimate with these developers? With documentaries you try to remove yourself as much as possible, but you’re right in their faces the whole time.
James: We were very conscious of that, but the more time we spent with these guys, the more we identified with them. We were two people using accessible technology to make this movie about one or two teams using accessible technology to make their vision. So, their story kind of became our story. It became our movie. It’s about them but…
Lisanne: It’s actually kind of bizarre how personal the film is. It feels like, well today it felt incredibly personal to show everyone (at Sundance) this thing that we’ve had on our computer for so long. A thing that we’ve agonized about and fought about and dreamed about, and now people see it. And although it’s not about us, we just really identify with the journey and I think that a lot of people who make stuff, anything: books, music, whatever, would identify with that sort of journey with putting something out there.
Is there any irony in the fact that Kickstarter is what got this movie funded, and it’s also what is used these days to fund indie game?
James: Completely! It’s like this whole creative culture, this whole culture of engagement, and people have a vision and feeling empowered that they can actually act on that vision. That’s what we did with this movie, and that’s what Tommy, Edmund, Phil, and John did with their games.
Lisanne: It’s so exciting to see lots of people going to Kickstarter for games and films and stuff like that, and really reaching an audience they can speak directly to. That was so exciting. That’s really what propelled us forward to make the film. Because, you know, you’re making something isolated, and we could have been complete isolated for a year and a half making the film, but being able to share as many clips as we have and getting that feedback really helped us want to do better and go forward.
Another indie game tie-in with your movie is with James Guthrie who did the music for Sword & Sworcery EP. How did that come about and what do you think of his score?
James: We love the soundtrack. It’s amazing. He did so much for this film, it’s just been taken to another level with his music. We got exposed to him the same way a lot of people got exposed to him, through his Sword & Sworcery soundtrack. I played that game, and it was so magical, and a large part of that was the music. We were still searching for a composer, so I just shot him an email and three hours later he went “Sure, yeah. I’d love to!” The next day we talked and it was done and he was on board.
Lisanne: So Jim composed the film, but we’ve actually never met him in person. We’ve only worked with him over Skype and through file sharing. It was really interesting to bring on somebody because we’d already worked on the film for over a year, and we brought him on as a third person. To have a sounding board and somebody to help us amp up the drama and know where not to amp up the drama … he’s so talented. He not only did Sword & Sworcery, but he’s also a Juno Award-nominated musician in Canada….
James: Those are Canada’s Grammys. [Laughs]
Lisanne: Yeah, he’s kind of a rockstar in Canada, so it’s amazing that he chose to work with us.
There are several poignant scenes in the movie that have nothing to do with video games, like the empty amusement park, and the treasure hunter with the metal detector on the beach. What were you going for with those?
James: It was really important to us to get the film away from computers as much as possible. We know that it’s visually challenging to make a movie about video game development, because it involves people sitting at their computers typing. When we went outside of their offices and into those places, it was just to break up those visuals, but also to create a metaphor of “This is what they’re missing. This whole beautiful, fantastic world outside.”
And they are in their homes working, which is where they have to be to get the game done. The whole movie is about sacrifice and those scenes were just to show a small portion of that sacrifice.
Was it strange seeing those correlations between the worlds of indie game making, and indie filmmaking?
Lisanne: When we were editing it, it was just really surreal to be cutting people going through the process we were going to. Leading up to our screening at Sundance, we spent a lot of time quoting the film…
James: To each other, to express how we felt.
Lisanne: It’s a weird thing, but we feel very connected to them. It’s amazing at how supportive they are of us, and how super-impressed we are with how well they did. Super Meat Boy is this hit game! It turned out really well.
What sort of insight into indie game development did you come out with after making this movie?
James: We went into it knowing it was hard to make a game, but after seeing it, it’s a miracle that any game ever gets shipped – Triple-A or indie or whatever. Every game that is completed is a little miracle, because it’s so hard and takes so much work. And there’s no guarantee of an audience, especially as an indie game guy. You’re making this on the chance that someone will connect with what you’re connecting with, and will see what you see. It’s just a huge, huge risk, and it takes so much work.
Have you given thought to what your next project will be?
Lisanne: We have four ideas, and half of them are video game ideas, video game documentary ideas, and the other half are not. But they are the kind of things that we think people who enjoyed this movie will enjoy. But, we haven’t really had the time to start yet.
Have you had a chance to think about the extras that you would put on the DVD?
James: Oh completely, we shot with over 25 different developers, and there are only four of them in the film. It was heartbreaking having to cut all of these fantastic stories. But the silver lining is that there is this Special Edition that we’re doing, and we’re going to make as much as possible available in that. We will put in as much as we can fit onto it.
And luckily, you can pre-order that Special Edition DVD of Indie Game: The Movie right now in case you aren’t able to see it at a theater near you.