Five On Film: Talking Video Game Movies w/ ‘Wreck-It Ralph’ Writer Phil Johnston
Five On Film is an occasional feature on “Hey You Geeks!!” where directors, writers, actors or just plain awesome advocates of geek culture are asked five questions in line with the theme of their current work. In this edition, I chat about video game movies with Wreck-It Ralph screenwriter Phil Johnston.
One of the most acclaimed Animated Films of 2012, Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph is a celebration of video game culture framed in a medium that has seen its share of video-game crossover failures. Using insider gaming humor (“Jenkins”) and classic video game cameos from Bowser and Sonic the Hedgehog to Tapper and Paperboy, Wreck-It Ralph is a film written to appeal across three decades of children and adults who grew up playing these games. With Wreck-It Ralph about to hit Blu-ray and DVD on March 5th, and the Oscars, for which the film is nominated for Best Animated Feature, just a few days away, I asked Johnston about Ralph’s origins, character cameos, and whether he believes there exists a line between video games and art.
Phil Johnston: The idea for a movie that took place in the world of video games had been floating around Disney for years– since the late 90s, I think. But when Rich Moore and I started figuring out the story for Wreck-It Ralph, we quickly gravitated towards a video game bad guy– a guy who was sick of doing the same crappy job and never being appreciated for it. We knew from the beginning that it would be a road movie in which a character left his game to travel around the arcade. But by making Ralph a guy in the midst of an existential crisis, we were trying to make it much more than just a video game movie. It’s a story about a guy with real human emotions who just happens to be a video game character.
HYG: What kind of research goes into writing a film about the inner world of video games? How do you immerse yourself into the mindset needed to create this type of world?
PJ: “Research” is a lofty word for messing around and playing a lot of video games. With that in mind, yes, I did a lot of “research.” The most interesting thing is how much games have evolved over the years. The fact that we were covering 30 years of video games meant that we did have to do a fair amount of actual research. The funny thing to me is how nonsensical and absurd the early games were. I think a lot of the creators were products of the 60s, and those influences show up in some of the stranger games.
We were majorly influenced by those early games in creating the Fix-It Felix, Jr. game. It was much more difficult figuring out the worlds of Hero’s Duty and Sugar Rush, mainly because the games are so complicated and have so many rules. We went through many, many iterations of those games before settling on something that felt authentic. We relied heavily on game developers and avid gamers to help guide us through that process.
HYG: Did you write the script for Wreck-it Ralph with specific video game cameos in mind? Any cuts due to licensing, or characters you would have liked to have seen worked into the film?
PJ: There were some characters we really wanted. Zangief, Q*Bert and Pac Man, for instance, were characters we were shooting for from the beginning. In most cases, we were able to get the characters we wanted. Obviously, it would have been nice to figure out a place for Mario, being that he’s such an iconic character. It’s not that Nintendo said “no” to that idea; it’s that we weren’t able to figure out a sufficiently interesting and meaty cameo for him. It’s like if you asked Jack Nicholson to be an extra standing around in a party scene. You just can’t do it!
HYG: When it comes to video game movies, what would you say is your favorite? Why?
PJ: I’ll be honest; I haven’t really loved any video game movies. There are movies that deal with technology gone amok that are great. I loved War Games back when that came out in the 80s. I remember watching it as a kid and being mesmerized by the idea of a brainy hacker kid getting in over his head and almost blowing up the world. I’m always attracted to characters who are out of their depth–whether by hubris or innocence. Ralph is a character out of his depth. It’s always dramatically and comedically fun watching characters struggle to overcome their own profound shortcomings.
HYG: Roger Ebert famously argued that video games can’t be classified as art. What’s your take on that argument?
PJ: Well it’s a pretty silly argument, isn’t it? Cinema wasn’t considered an art form for decades after its inception. The same can be said of photography. Really, you can point to virtually any art form and find detractors. Are all video games artful? Of course not. But I’ve seen plenty of paintings, heard plenty of music, seen plenty of theatre that can’t, in good conscience, be called “art.”
Wreck-It Ralph hits Blu-ray and DVD on March 5th.
– Tony Nunes