by Ousmane Mariko
From our original review of Indie Game: Many of us who have played, will play, or currently play video games never give a second thought as to what happened before the end product. “Indie Game: The Movie,” a 96 minute documentary, directed and shot by James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, is the exact realization of what so few of us understand. It follows four independent game developers on their quest to indie game stardom: Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, makers of “Super Meat Boy”; Phil Fish, maker of “Fez”; and Jonathan Blow, of “Braid” fame.
Ousmane got a chance to chat with James and Lisanne about Indie Game:
BYT: What has reception been like from fans and critics?
Lisanne Pajot: So far, really good. We’ve gotten reviews from Sundance, SXSW, and Hot Docs. Reception has been incredible.
James Swirsky : The reaction that we’ve been getting is kind of like the things we dreamt about, in a way. When we were making this we were always hoping to make something that told the stories of video games and told what goes into them and how personal and emotional they could be. We were hoping to do so in a universal way and make a movie that someone who has zero interest in gaming can take a look at and still relate to and identify with.
And it seem like that’s happening. A lot of the reviews are saying what we secretly dreamt of and would say to each other when we’re filming. It’s fantastic and super fulfilling.
The story isn’t about the games; it’s about the people making the games. Was this your original intent?
L: Yeah, yeah, that was the intention. We wanted to tell a good story, a story about people doing their thing, working really hard and trying to achieve their dreams. So that was the story that we were following and hoping to get.
We go incredible support from the gaming community earlier on, and that was really cool. We knew that they would want a film like this, and throughout the edits we tried to balance creating something that was about games but is accessible enough that if you don’t feel that you can identify as a gamer, then this film would allow that. We give you enough information to give you an understanding of all the decisions and all the work and all the different nuances of making games, but also tell you the human story, the creative process, and what that’s like.
We read your review, and that’s exactly what we were trying to do. It’s really good that you were able to articulate it that way because that was our intent. We can’t say as much in the film; we just show people doing their thing and hoping people get it, and it was really good that you got it.
J: One of the things that drew us to this project was the fact that we saw a lot of ourselves in the stories of these guys. We just thought it was intriguing hearing their stories about pouring everything they have into their game and then feeling so personally attached to it and putting it out to the world. It just felt like the story of a film maker, or a writer, or a painter, and that whole idea of games being personal was new to us personally. It was a new construct that we haven’t really seen discussed in documentary form. There actually hasn’t been much documentary about video game design. It was something that we were drawn to.
Regarding the developers in the documentary, have you heard any feedback from them?
L: We showed them a cut of the film before anyone. We showed it to maybe two people prior to showing them, which doesn’t give you a lot of feedback. But we felt it was really important to show them the film early on, and we flew to California [from Winnipeg, Canada] and showed Edmund [McMillen] and Tommy [Refenes] and Jon [Blow] and got their thoughts.
We were really nervous. I wasn’t sure how they’d react and how they’d feel, because the film is very intimate, and they’re very vulnerable and share a lot. It’s an incredible thing seeing yourself in a film with music and editing within this context of a film that people are going to watch this in theaters. So we were just conscious of how they’d feel about it and what their reaction would be. That was the most satisfying moment of making the film.
Their reaction was incredibly positive. Edmund and Danielle [Edmund's wife] and Tommy, we all just cried. It was kind of cathartic for them seeing what they had gone through in that year. Some moments they don’t even remember, like a whole section when Super Meat Boy is being released Edmund told us he doesn’t remember.
J: Edmund was on little sleep during the Super Meat Boy release. This has to be the weirdest home video ever because you’re watching yourself filmed with multiple cameras, and it’s edited together and has augmented graphics. It’s the toughest time that you’ve ever gone through put on there on screen, to have them not only watch it and like it and feel like that we did justice to their story. They see value in sharing this because not many people know how games are made. And if they do know how games are made, they are familiar with the technical aspect of it. But not many people know that actual human beings put a lot of effort into these products. And they saw value in sharing that.
When we showed Phil [Fish], which was also frightening, he also broke down into tears and said he was extremely proud to be in this film. He thought it would be inspiring to other aspiring developers and kids that want to get into games. If you go to our website, we filmed Phil watching it for the first time and you can see him break down and share his thoughts on the film. You can see Lisanne in the corner looking super worried as to what his reactions were when the lights come on. They really were huge supporters of the film and are really happy to be in it and the way it turned out.
Have you gotten responses from people not in the film?
L: We’ve had lots of developers, even those that work in Triple A studios like Epic, Valve, and Bungi — big studios –, coming up to us and saying “we know we don’t make independent games, but we understand that journey.” It’s just been really neat that people identify with the core story of the film and we get a lot of developers saying “I can’t wait for this to come out on DVD so I can show my mom.” That was a developer, but we’ve also had software engineers, graphic artists, and web designers say the same thing like, “I want to show this to my mother so they understand what I do and what I go through.” Which is such an amazing complement that people see value in these stories and it’s been an amazing testament to the guys that we show in the film, that they were able to share so much and their emotional journey is relevant to lots of people.
J: You can see from the early moments of the first Kickstarter that there was always this kind of feeling of support for the film with that sentiment of “yes, that story needs to be told.” If you look around the documentary landscape, there are very few about video game design, and that made no sense to us. That’s one of reasons why we got into this. If you look at films and you look at music, and video games are bigger than both of those. You have tons and tons of documentaries on musical journeys and film journeys, and people know what goes into making a film and what goes into making a movie. But they don’t know what goes into making a video game. I think that there’s been a growing frustration, whether people knew it or not, from developers not having their story told in a way that they wanted it to be told, or not told at all, or just no one really thinking about it.
So when we said we wanted to make the movie, I think that’s one of the reasons why the Kickstarter got funded so fast and so adamantly. Our second Kickstarter was the same thing. It was the course on the internet of people saying, “yes, finally, the story is coming out” or “this story needs to be told.” There’s been a lot of that, and we couldn’t be happier with it.
Did you have a favorite moment while shooting?
J: Yea, there was actually this one moment that’s in the film, that was actually one of the first things we shot. It was when Edmund talks about his game “Aether.” He was talking about making a game that was personal, but he didn’t even know how personal it was until he found a box of drawings later and everything clicked. It turned out he was making a game that had very direct ties to experiences he had as a child.
When we were shooting this, we were actually shooting it as a test piece. We wanted to go down to Santa Cruz and see if we could get these stories that we were hearing from these independent guys through articles on film, and if there was indeed a movie here to be made. It was Edmund telling that story that Lisanne and I literally turned to each other and said that there’s a movie here. If we could get more of this, 80 more minutes of this type of content, this is exactly the type of stuff that we wanted to tell. This ended up being the thesis of the film. That was a huge moment for us, and that basically ended up being the Kickstarter piece which put in motion the last two years of our lives.
L: A big moment for me filming was when “Super Meat Boy” was releasing on Xbox. I was filming with Tommy in North Carolina and James was in Santa Cruz with Edmund and Danielle. That was an emotional experience to be part of because you’re filming with someone alone, and it was just such an emotional and stressful time, being part of that and being in that world. They’re not sleeping, so you’re not sleeping, and you’re trying to capture the essence of this time for them. It was challenging and amazing to be part of this life-changing with somebody, for sure.
Jonathan Blow has a reputation on the internet for being somewhat of a jerk. What was he like when you sat down with him?
L: Jon was awesome. We really tried to show a vulnerable side of him in the film so people can get a better understanding of who he is. When he’s talking about video games and design and the thing he’s so passionate about, he’s very serious about it because it’s serious stuff to him. Like, making great games and pushing [them] forward is his life mission. That’s what he’s about. He has very distinct opinion on things, and he’s always right. He’s just super smart, and I think people are intimidated by that and demonize that because he’s just this guy with his own opinions and wants to do good work. Hopefully people see in the film that he’s not that internet personality that people have made him out to be, and he has feelings about that internet personality that has been created for him.
Jon is actually a very smart guy. You don’t see it a lot in the film, but he’s actually kind of goofy. He was incredibly supportive of the film and he shared things on camera that he has never shared before, and we feel very thankful that he trusted us with that stuff. Generally he doesn’t share, and I think that’s because he had this sort of weird reaction to the things he was sharing when “Braid” was coming out, so he didn’t want to share anymore and we’re grateful that he did.
What’s next for you two?
L: We are creating this ultimate special edition because we shot over 300 hours worth of footage, and we’re making something that’s more game design and gamer focused. It’s going to be something like two more movies of content that we’re putting together, and we’re producing it all. That’s what we’re doing as soon as the film is released.
And then we have a project, a feature doc, that we’re that we want to start shooting in 2013, but we can’t say anything about it just yet. It’s going to be good if we can get our ducks in a row.
J: We’re hoping to start talking about it once the special edition is out there and once we actually know we’re going to be shooting it. But it should be good. I think fans of the film will definitely be interested in it. It’s not necessarily video games, but very complimentary to what people what people that like this movie should like… hopefully, maybe. But yea, we’re basically seeing this guy through and getting it out. That should probably take eight months or so. And then, take a little bit of a break and get back to work on our second project.