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When the recent Entertainment Weekly appeared near the end of March featuring a cover theme, The Criminally Underrated, it also included a spread on Holy Grails — legendary projects that never were quite finished or appeared for public consumption. One project missing from that list was Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version of Frank Herbert epic science fiction novel, the very influential Dune — a prescient book that appeared in 1966. The arch-psychedelic, mystical film director was going to make a film based on this novel and it was to include such legendary figures as Salvador Dali, Pink Floyd and Jodorowsky himself.
Ultra influential artists such as Moebius and H. R. Giger were going to contribute design ideas and the idea of it was ambitious as Herbert’s novel was voluminous. To develop the film Jodo created an amazing Bible for it which was a mix of storyboard, concept art, script and continuity ideas. This book was an aesthetic legend, occasionally seen by various eyes after the original project fell apart from lack of funding and creative conflicts.
Though it has never been published in its complete form it has been referred to for years by fans of Dune and Jodo. But it wasn’t this March, basically during the same week of the magazine’s release that Frank Pavich’s documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune hit theaters and various distribution circuits. Now the story of the film has been both told by many of those who were involved and are still alive including Jodo himself. Seeing Jodo’s El Topo as an 18 year-old kid was revelatory. I went to Cincinnati’s film society and got to see movies like Luis Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, Fellini’s Satyricon, and El Top. All these movies warped my psyche along similar lines that underground comics, science fiction and the post Beat writings emerging in America at the time were doing to the culture in general.
That film, among many other youthful bohemian influences, led me along a strange winding path that's produced a fascination with the cutting edge of pop culture. I have done many things as a result -- from buying a case of the original Alien figures that I still (well, two of them) to this day to interviewing Jodorowsky myself.
All these experiences have added up to a strange philosophy and career path -- something that has affected Pavich as well. This one on one interview is a result of our dialog on Jodo and what he has discovered about the 85-year old director.
Q: Where did this come from? Did you wake up one day and… There must’ve been something you had seen…
FP: I don’t know! It’s just that when you learn about the story. When you’re familiar with Jodorowsky’s films… It’s just...
Q: And you met him?
FP: No, I came from zero. I had no connection to him or to anybody in the film. This is all completely from scratch. I just came completely blank, like, let me just go in completely blind, find these people and just talk to them.
Q: With Jodorowsky, it’s beyond science fiction. He is science fiction.
FP: Yeah, he’s way… Dune takes place in the year 10,000 and something, but Jodo’s in 12 or 13,000. He’s beyond everything.
Q: How many hours did you spend with him?
FP: Hours? I mean, we spent three years with him. We shot in 2011, 2012, and 2013, going back and forth.
Q: How many years?
FP: We started filming in February 2011. So we filmed through ‘11 ‘12 and then the earlier part of ‘13 before we locked it and shipped it off to France.
Q: At least it has a finitude to it. Because a lot of people when they make documentaries, you could be there for the rest of your life.
FP: Exactly. This story has an ending, more or less. So I guess we were kind of lucky with that.
Q: When did you know to quit?
FP: When the Cannes deadline was coming up and we had to submit the film. We just made it by a good 10 minutes.
Q: So is that the final cut or do you see an extended version?
FP: This is the final cut. It has changed from Cannes because we were really racing then.
Q: Was that longer?
FP: No, it was actually a couple minutes shorter. There was a couple structural changes that we fixed and the artwork wasn’t quite there but it’s essentially the same.
Q: On one level, you’re trying to give a sense of the movie he would have made, and on another, you’re trying to give us the sense through this documentary about how this is one of the greatest movies that was never made. There’s a lot of people you weren’t able to get because a lot of them are dead from Dalí to…
FP: Yeah, that was the price. Once we started thinking, “Oh wouldn’t this be a great movie, wouldn’t this be a great documentary? How would we ever do such a thing?”
Then, oh my god, Dan O’Bannon passed away, like, “Oh shit. Oh man, that really sucks.”
Then David Carradine passed away. So it’s like, “Okay, now we need to get moving.”
We realized that if we really wanted to make this movie, we needed to get serious. These guys are not getting younger, all of us are getting older. I would’ve done something drastic to myself had I woke up and seen [Jodo’s] obituary on the cover of the New York Times.
Q: It’s hard to believe he’ll ever go.
FP: I don’t think he will. I think when he says he’s going to live to 300, he will be 300. If he wants to do it, he’s going to do it.
Q: He has amazing energy,
FP: He’s the greatest.
Q: What did you know about science fiction, fantasy and horror and this genre universe?
FP: I know like, the average… I’m not buying a case of alien figures.
Q: Obviously, you’ve read Dune. Have you’ve seen all the movies?
FP: I’ve never seen the version that ran on Syfy. Of course, I’ve seen Lynch’s Dune 10 or 15 years ago, and I didn’t want to revisit it while I was working on this. I want to think of Pink Floyd, not Toto’s music in this film. I want to think of Mick Jagger, not Sting. I want to think of Jodorowsky’s version of Dune.
Q: Really, Toto? David Lynch should have known better!
FP: But it’s not a David Lynch movie though.
Q: Yeah, they took it away from him…
FP: You line up all of Lynch’s films and like, which one is not like the others? Dune.
Q: Wouldn’t you like to get them to cut the way he really would have?
FP: I think he’s so over it, I don’t think he gives a crap, to be honest. He wants to tell his stories. People always ask too, “Do you think Jodorowsky wants to go back and make Dune?” And it’s like, no. He’s made it. He’s done. He’s created his film, and Lynch made his. Thirty years later they don’t want to go back and do it. They’re on to the next thing.
Q: What did you think about doing in terms of filling in the gap for Dalí? Did you have ideas of people you needed to reach who you did or didn’t get?
FP: I don’t like documentaries that have too many voices in them. I see so many that are 90 minutes with 90 people interviewed and I can’t follow who the hell is who. So if we can’t get Dalí we just needed to get a voice, just needed to get someone who was there at the time. And that was Amanda Lear. She was there for all these meetings, she was there the whole route. She was the perfect voice to speak on his behalf.
Q: Your film was amazing. First film that I’ve seen that compiles all these people together. The important thing is that it resonates with the science fiction that’s behind it. Because we see comic book heroes but I don’t think we see enough that really represents the science fiction of it. So anyway, you were saying something more about Dalí. Dalí and Refn. How did you pick Nicholas Winding Refn?
FP: Well, Refn we chose. Jodorowsky has christened him as his spiritual filmmaking godson. Jodorowsky considers him to be the greatest living director and they have a relationship. He’s someone that I like a lot, so let’s get someone that can speak about Jodorowsky in the present, as having a present relationship with him. That was kind of a no-brainer.
Richard Stanley was interesting choice because his experience with The Island of Dr. Moreau is so similar to Jodorowsky’s. He developed that film for a bunch of years, and after two days of shooting he was fired. They brought in John Frankenheimer to take his place, and he went off to go live in the woods, put on an animal costume, and was an extra in his own film without anyone knowing so he could watch how his dream was being destroyed. He loves Jodorowsky, he’s kind of a Jodorowsky acolyte, but without specifically stating it, he can speak to that pain, that experience, and what that must feel like.
Q: Have you read The Incal and some of the shorter… Airtight Garage…
FP: Oh, sure. Eyes of the Cat, I think is my favorite.
Q: Amazing stuff, and the artwork is just incredible. I mentioned Enki Bilal, is because Bilal is of course an heir to Moebius, stylistically.
FP: It had something to do with Giger, right?
Q: I believe so. Well, you know Enki Bilal did a movie, he did a animated digital movie. It was very early on, so it was kind of rough but it’s interesting to see. How did you decide how to animate this? There’s so many key things to this. How you structured it, deciding to animate it.
FP: It was tough. We went through many different layouts and structures behind it.
Q: Did you always know Jodorowsky had the book with all the art?
FP: I saw it a couple years ago, there was a documentary called [La constellation Jodorowsky]. It’s pretty interesting, and there’s a good three or four minute section where he talks about Dune. He pulls out that book, and I think that’s what solidified the fact that we wanted to make the movie. Like, “Wow, that really does exist. That’s the movie. That book! How do we get into that?”
The structure became, with any documentary, especially with a topic like this, with a person like Jodorowsky, there’s a million amazing anecdotes, other things we could’ve animated, and different people, and all sorts of great things. But that just kind of drags things down a little bit. The film is a clean 90 minutes. And it goes by like that, but everything leads to something else. Any bit of animation is not just like, “Hey, look at this cool thing,” but it has a purpose.
Every person interviewed has a purpose to move that story forward. Because it is a story. It starts with, “I had a dream.” He made Holy Mountain, he made the greatest movie of all time, and then [his] ambition grew.
Q: He hadn’t really read the book at the time that he decided to make the movie.
FP: Correct. He had not read the book when he decided to make it.
Q: Now, what made him think Dune?
FP: He wanted to get out of New York. He was living in New York, didn’t have any money, and was working with Allen Klein, who had produced Holy Mountain. Allen Klein wanted Alejandro to direct Story of O. Jodorowsky did not want to direct The Story of O, and he was looking for an excuse to get the hell out. He had no money, nothing to his name, got on the phone with Michel Seydoux, who had released Jodorowsky’s films in France.
Q: Is that the father of the actress Léa Seydoux?
FP: Michel’s brother is Léa Seydoux’s grandfather. So I don’t know what that makes him… He is the… Uncle, grand uncle or something.
Q: Does Michel know Luc Besson?
FP: I’m sure. Don’t all these guys in France know each other?
Q: But we were talking about how he hadn’t read [Dune]. How did he know of Dune?
FP: A friend of his said it was great. That’s how the idea popped into his head. He could’ve said Hamlet, he could’ve said Don Quixote, he could’ve said Oedipus, he could have said Romeo & Juliet. But he said Dune.
Q: And once he read it... Has he fully read it?
FP: Yeah, because he fully adapted the screenplay. He says Michel Seydoux put him in this castle for two months, and he adapted it. As he says in the movie, it’s a very dense book, the first 100 pages you don’t even know what’s going on. There’s a lot to follow.
Q: Did you know Dune before you did this as well or did you read it as you did this film?
FP: I followed the same path as Jodorowsky and did not read Dune until I was on the plane to Paris to do the first interview with Jodorowsky. I think part of me didn’t want to jinx it by reading it too far in advance, and then after awhile I [realized] I was following his methodology, that kept me in line with him. So I waited until then.
Q: And ironically, the mystical qualities of everything permeated…
FP: You need a 50-page glossary at the back. When Lynch made his movie, you went to the theater and you were given a glossary.
Q: At that point, had you seen any of his movies? When did it dawned on you to make this?
FP: I knew Jodorowsky, I knew his films, I was familiar with them. So I came to it from the Jodorowsky side of things, as opposed to the Dune side of things, originally.
Q: When you saw Jodorowsky’s films, how did you see them? Did you view them as part of a certain grand tradition?
FP: I came to Jodorowsky during the drought. During the drought when nothing was out there, you could see like, a fifth-generation VHS tape with horrible resolution. Or a Japanese laser disc, if you were lucky you had a friend who had both a laser disc player and the actual disc.
Q: Who were the biggest challenges to get? You have the Stones, you’ve got Pink Floyd…
FP: Really nobody! Everybody that we wanted, we got because they all love Jodorowsky. He was the first person I approached, and once I had him on board, everybody else fell into place because they all love him so much.
Q: Talking about the musicians you managed to get, did you try for someone from Pink Floyd?
FP: We didn’t get anybody from Pink Floyd. We were thinking about reaching out to them, but it really just didn’t work out. And the main guy from Magma was the other group. I love ‘em. They’re great. They played in Geneva last year and I missed it because I was here, I think. Down the block from my house, literally two blocks away. My wife got me a tee-shirt!
Q: Looking as normal as you look, you must be a very warped person deep down inside. Or not. Were you scared normal?
FP: I don’t know if you really have to be warped to appreciate these things. Maybe I just always stood out wherever I was. If I’m at a New York hardcore show, like which one of these guys is not like the other? That guy would be me.
Q: What turned you onto hardcore?
FP: I just love it. I love the energy of it, I love the music.
Q: Did you see the hardcore movie that Paul Rachman made that Sony released?
FP: I hated it. It’s offensive. The whole conceit is a lie, which is that hardcore died in1986. That’s not true. Maybe it died for him, but I’m living proof. It’s also just so poorly shot, half the people are sitting in front of windows, you can’t even see them, they’re just silhouettes, there’s microphones clipped on the fronts of shirts and dangling. Like, you couldn’t do this a little bit better?
The sound quality of all the live music is horrible. They’re showing old video footage with the released EP or whatever. I don’t get it. When it came out I saw posters everywhere, I was like, “What the hell is this?”
Q: You have a very interesting résumé! Which bands did you feature in your film, New York Hardcore? I used to be a music journalist so I knew everybody in there.
FP: We focused on what was happening in the summer of ‘95. So it was Madball, which is Roger from Agnostic Front’s brother, it was 25 to Life, it was Vision of Disorder, it was No Redeeming Social Value, 108 which was a hare krishna band. They were great, they were amazing.
Q: You hardly look like the hardcore movie-making type!
FP: Weird! Yeah, we had Roger from Agnostic Front, we had John from the Cro-Mags, Jimmy from Murphy’s Law.
Q: I know all those guys, I love Murphy’s Law. I guess I can see a connection between New York Hardcore and this. And what was Die Mommy Die — a horror film?
FP: You know who Charles Busch is?
Q: Oh, that’s the Charles Busch movie! I met Charles Busch, but I never really knew him.
FP: That was the Charles Busch movie.
Q: you have a gap between Die Mommy Die, you were working for other people in development and all that? Were you directing? Were you producing? TV in New York? In LA?
FP: Yeah, development, working in TV. I did a lot of crap in TV. I worked for the E! channel for way too long in LA. Then I worked for like, MTV, that kind of thing.
Q: Who released your films?
FP: Die Mommy Die was Sundance. It was their first time distributing anything and they basically buried it, because they didn’t know what the hell they were doing.
Q: How do you draw people in?
FP: I think that’s the majesty of it, the beautiful qualities of it. We made a movie where you don’t have to know or be familiar with Jodorowsky, you don’t have to be familiar with Dune, you don’t have to be a science fiction fan or anything. It’s not about his history necessarily, it’s about something else. It’s about his personality. He’s so fantastic on screen, he’s such an amazing natural storyteller.
Q: Why didn’t other people cast him?
FP: I don’t know. I found that he had an agent in Spain. He’s not Spanish, but he has an agent in Spain, which is weird. She’s an agent for him for acting, and I didn’t realize that he had acted in anybody else’s films. So I don’t know what kind of relationship they have or what she does, but that’s how I found him. I wish he would be in everything. He’s the best.
Q: Did he sign some things for you?
FP: Oh, the best story. I went to Paris to go meet with him by myself, after that we exchanged a bunch of emails, spoke on the phone, then I went back with my team. We shot for three weeks, a bunch of times with him, for Michel Seydoux, went to London for Chris, Switzerland for Giger, went back to Jodo three or four times, reunited him with Michel Seydoux, shot all that, and on the last day of shooting with him, the team and I each pulled something out for him to sign.
My other guys had him sign DVD covers or something, I pulled out this giant Incal in the slip cover, it was 500 made or a thousand made, something like that. So I had him sign that. So he takes out his pen, and goes, “What was your name again?” I was like, “Frank, my name is Frank.”
And after all this time working together, seeing my name in all those emails. Great. That’s where I belong in the universe! But he meant it so honestly, it was great. It was so hilarious, but it just crushed me. It absolutely crushed me at the time.
Q: At least it’s signed!
FP: It is, absolutely. And I didn’t know if I would ever see him again, if we’d go back.
Q: Did you bring him into New York for the premiere?
FP: He’s actually now just stopping over here because he’s going to SXSW. His film has its US premiere there. Dance of Reality. You knew everything I thought! I’ve found a crack! It’s a new film, it premiered at Cannes.
Q: So he did finish that new film he was talking about?
FP: Yeah. At the very end of Dune, we mention it. During the documentary they got back together and Michel produced Jodo’s first film in 23 years, which also stars his son Brontis, so it’s this weird thing all over again. And we premiered at Cannes together. We were both at Directors’ Fortnight, on premiere night -- we were on at seven and his was on at nine.
Q: And where is he right now?
FP: He’s in the city, we’re going to try to have dinner.
Miles Teller has gone from zero to hero in the last few years. With roles in films like Whiplash, Rabbit Hole and The Spectacular Now, Teller has shown an intriguing dramatic side that all but evens out the heap of not-so-inspiring (read: disastrous) broad comedies he's participated in, take for example 21 and Over and That Awkward Moment. Looking towards the future, Teller has a lot of promise so long as he continues to involve himself in solid project while he's busy paying the bills with mainstream crud. With The Fantastic Four on the horizon, the only question is how high will Teller's star rise?
Over the prattle and coos of preteen girls, Teller and I had a chance to chat at the Seattle premiere of his latest, and largest, film yet: Divergent. But we only talked briefly about the YA wannabe sensation, to preference some of his more serious roles. We touched on drumming, the recurring themes of his fledgling career, his trajectory since college and what makes him an all around bad ass.
So I caught Whiplash down at Sundance. Loved the movie, with the way it was edited, you looked like you were just slaying on those drums. So, tell me what you were doing for preparation for that? Have you always played?
Miles Teller: I’ve played for like 10 years, I got a kit when I was like 15. Never played jazz before and then just kinda started taking some lessons, took like lessons for a few weeks, like four hours a day, four times a week.
Obviously some of the stuff you were playing was like off the charts and some of the best drumming, do you have a guy who is like subbing in and you were body doubled?
MT: I did, like I did do pretty much did all of it, you know what I mean? Like, there’s a couple of things, like the director would shoot some stuff for his hands. Like anything that’s like a real close up is probably not me. But, a lot of that is just me crushing it.
Another film that you were great in was The Spectacular Now, and now you’re doing another movie with Shailene Woodley. How is it working with her again and what’s your guys’ relationship?
MT: Yeah, man she’s great, I think she’s a really natural actress, she’s really easy to play off of, but this was easier, I mean in The Spectacular Now we’re like falling in love and I’m like breaking her heart and stuff, and in this movie I just beat her up.
So you get to get your hands on her in a different way in this movie? You wrestle her to the ground, etc.
MT: Yeah, definitely more violent.
So you’re a villain in this. This is obviously your first bad dude role, what was that like?
MT: Yeah, I mean obviously I wanted to make him likeable. That was a big part of it for me. It’s nice playing somebody where I didn’t have to make everyone laugh all the time.
The line for this movie is like, you know, “If you’re different, you’re dangerous…”
MT: You just turned around and read that off the poster.
Yeah, I did... but I’ve read the book like eight times.
MT: Yeah, me too…
What makes you dangerous, what makes you a badass?
MT: I think the mind. I just think if you outsmart somebody. You gotta be a couple steps ahead of the next person. If you’re in control you’re pretty relaxed in the situation. So I’d say relaxation is key.
What got you into acting in the first place?
MT: I did some plays when I was a little kid. And then, I just played sports and played in some bands in stuff. In high school we got a pretty hot drama teacher, so then I was very into drama. One day my best friend who drove me home everyday said “we should audition for this play” and then I got into it for the last two years of high school. And then I went to NYU and spent a lot of money.
You went like right from your senior year to being in the movies, yeah?
MT: Senior year of college. The first movie I booked was this movie called Rabbit Hole, and so I did that. I booked that like two weeks before I graduated.
In a lot of your movies - Rabbit Hole, The Spectacular Now, even Whiplash - you’re always a character who’s involved in a car crash.
MT: Yeah and in real life I was in a car crash.
Is that a little too surreal for you, do people typecast you for those kind of roles?
MT: I don’t think I get cast as a guy who gets into car accidents, I’m just taking all those roles right? It is weird though, it is a theme in my career so far.
That and alcoholism.
MT: So you said you went down to Sundance? Did you get a chance to see any movies down there?
Yeah, I saw about twenty movies. Did you get a chance to see anything?
MT: I didn’t get a chance to see anything. I got to meet Phillip Seymour Hoffman, that was the coolest thing.
You shot 21 & Over here in Washington, over at UW. What did you think of that?
MT: I dug it man, we shot in August, there wasn’t that many kids around. When you’re walking arouatt:nd in a tube sock and there’s like Summer Session going on. It was cool, man, the Square is like Hogwarts, it’s very nice looking.
What did you think of NYU and what kind of advice would you give to young aspiring actors out there?
MT: Yeah, I really loved it. I think, whatever is good for you go for it. I think New York does propel you forward, it is a city where you can’t really just stay stagnant. People are always doing stuff and it inspires you to create. Also, I just think it’s the best city in the world.
Is that where you’re living now?
MT: No, I live in LA now, because that’s where all the things happen at. There’s a lot of TV in New York though.Follow Matt Oakes on Facebook Follow Matt Oakes on Twitter
Photo by Renzo Adler
Currently running at the Museum of the Moving Image, Indie Essential: 25 Must Play Video Games, features unique examples of how independent developers that are taking gaming in new and daring directions, such as Quadrilateral Cowboy, Gone Home, and Spaceteam. The exhibit is presented in conjunction with the IndieCade International Festival of Independent Games, an annual festival in LA and New York City, which awards new and innovative indie developers.
Also featured at the exhibit and a past festival winner, Killer Queen Arcade, developed by Joshua DeBonis and Nikita Mikros, harkens back to the golden age of arcade gaming with it’s massive cabinet with two screens and the ability to support ten simultaneous players in a strategy game evocative of Joust.
Along with an appearance at The Museum of the Moving Image and the NYU Game Center, Killer Queen Arcade has been touring the world, spreading the good word about the simple pleasures of arcade gaming. I sat down with Josh and Nik to discuss what got them to make Killer Queen, where they come from in the world of gaming, and where they want to take it.
J: We’re getting the game ready to be shown in an arcade in San Francisco called Free Gold Watch and we’re going to experiment to see how profitable it can be. …It’s always been a festivals or museums, places like that where it’s free. So we want to see how it reacts in a more commercial environment. We really don’t know what to expect, we got nothing to base on.
Q: How did the two you get started making Killer Queen?
J: Nik and I are both game designers and game developers, and in our sorta day jobs we don’t work together, we have our own studios. We started to collaborate together because we liked working together and we feel we complement each other well. We got started collaborating on a series of four different games that culminated with Killer Queen Arcade. That was actually the first purely digital game we’ve done, most of our games are physical.
Q: How did you meet?
J: We were both doing work for GameLab who also has a game at the museum called Diner Dash. That was back in 2005 or something like that. We weren’t both employees there but we were doing some contract work for them….
We are both programmers. I consider myself a game designer first. I learned program so that I could make the games that I wanted to make. I did the programming on Killer Queen Arcade, Nik did the art, and we both did the game design. And I did the music.
N: Josh has a music background.
Q: What kind?
J: Jazz, mostly. I play saxophone. For Killer Queen I did chiptunes for the first time, which was really fun. I actually built it and did the music in… it’s called Famitracker, and basically it writes the codes to be played on the NES and emulates the playback. . …It’s a limited pallet of sounds but it’s great.
Q: Nik, do you consider yourself a programmer first, an artist, a game designer?
N: I just make games. I don’t think of myself as a programmer, per se. If I think about my brother, he’s a programmer. I went to art school.
Q: So how did you transition from art school to games?
N: Well I’m sorta self-taught and I’m from the generation of kids that grew up with Apple IIE and basically if you wanted to do anything with it you had to learn some programming.
J: We want to be as good as possible at whatever we do. And I think we both have the similar philosophy. We both enjoy learning new things and that attracts us to game development.
N: It’s always in the surface of the design. I don’t know if I’d ever program again if I wasn’t going to make another game. Unless somebody was paying me a lot of money to do it.
Q: Are a lot of developers coming from art, or programming, or is it mixed?
N: It’s mixed. Honestly, there are a lot of people coming from music.
J: It’s a mixed bag, and it always has been. A lot of people come from creative writing …Depending on what your background is, you bring different things to the table.
Q: What lead to making Killer Queen Arcade
J: Nik and I wanted to work together, that was the impetus, and there was this festival called Come Out And Play, [which was] a street game festival. We wanted to work together and we both wanted to do something for that. We made a game called Pigeon Piñata Pummel that was a game with piñatas, baseball bats, and the piñata were filled with bouncy balls. We enjoyed working together so for the next year of that festival we made another one called Pitfall Live at the Tank.
N: That was like a live-action Pitfall game. There was a rope and you could swing on the rope. It was like a weird fusion of digital and physical games.
Q: Did Activision give you any problems?
J: We weren’t even a blip on their radar. It was more of a performance than anything else; it was a one night only thing. Even if we wanted to do that game over it would be so hard. It was this whole elaborate setup for this one night only thing.
Q: Did you want to make a traditional arcade game because you’re used to working with things in public spaces?
J: We made a field game version of Killer Queen [Arcade] called Killer Queen first. It was a solid game, but it was so hard to set up. It was so big and you needed a field and foam swords and all kinds of crap. So we said we make video games, wouldn’t it be cool if you could play this game on something in your pocket and download it? So we said yeah, let’s make this video game version.
It sort of evolved into what we consider to be the best version of it and, yet again, we made a game that is completely impractical and there’s no way you can download it or put it in your pocket. We’re just seeking the form that fits the game we’re making.
N: We have been working in public spaces and arcades are public spaces.
J: We try to make a spectacle of our games. All of our games are team based, they create a spectacle, they’re all fairly easy to get into, and some of them more or less have strategy. They share a lot of the same aesthetic.
Q: Would say you're more aware of the spectacle when you make an arcade game?
J: Those things are always at least a minor element in any game. You’re thinking about the spectacle even when you’re making something like Super Mario Bros. It’s not as important in some games, but it is a factor in everything.
N: I’m sure even when they were making Super Mario Bros they wanted to make something that’s fun to watch because your friend would come over and then watch you play and then they’d want to buy their own copy or whatever.
Q: How did you become part of the Museum of the Moving Image’s Indiecade exhibit?
J: We were at Indiecade out in LA earlier this year and we were chosen for the Developer’s Choice Award, which we were honored by because that’s chosen by all of our peers. It meant a lot to us. Then, I assume, because they’re having Indiecade East at the museum in February, for this exhibit they want to include all the Indiecade winners which are also at Indiecade East. They asked if we wanted to come and we said we’d love to.
Q: Is there an emerging scene in the East Coast for developers?
N: I would say for indies, New York is really a great place to be. There’s a really good community here. We all talk to each other, we all know who each other are and give critiques to each other or support each other in a lot of meaningful ways that I think in a lot of other places in the country that’s harder to happen. The distances are greater. 70% of us live in Brooklynn. And there’s a pretty big scene here.
J: Also nationally we’re sorta seeing this revival of arcade games and there’s this certain buzz that people are excited about this style of game and I think we’re gonna see more in the future.
Q: Do you also work within more mainstream games?
N: Both of us make more mainstream games for a living for clients. I’ve done a ton of work for various clients. Like when we met, Josh was working on something for Nintendo and I was working on something for VH1 and I had done a bunch of stuff for people like Adult Swim.
J: Our client games tend to be on a smaller scale, not like big Xbox games.
N: We’re not making Call of Duty or anything.
J: I don’t have any interest in doing that sort of thing.
N: Me neither.
J: Sounds like a nightmare.
Q: Was there a moment that made you want to strike out from the mainstream sort of style of games, or is it not so much an us-and-them philosophy?
N: For me, early on I did think about possibly moving out west, but I don’t know. It just didn’t feel right. It’s not an us and them thing, it’s more like this is what I’m doing, they’re doing something else and that’s cool, I enjoy those kinds of games, but I wouldn’t want to make them.
J: The most shocking thing for me is when I talk to friends that are working on triple-A games and they mention they’re only working on that one game. And not only that, but there’s hundreds of people at that company working on that one game and that’s all they’re doing. And Nik and I are often working on many games at the same time. It’s just such a different lifestyle and development process.
N: My brother works at Blizzard but he’s like one of the two people that works on a ton of different titles at the same time.
J: Part of that idea is enticing to me. I’d love to be able to dedicate every moment to crafting on beautiful game.
N: But would you want to have to work on something for five years?
J: That’s the other thing. The work that I do for Killer Queen is completely separate from the work I do for Meriwether and I like that. I like the variety. Also, a steady paycheck would be nice.
Q: What’s the indie game community like?
J: It’s very tight knit. Maybe too tight knit, in that it’s hard to accept new people or whatever. But I definitely feel all of our peers are always willing to help us out, give us feedback, or just hang out and play games. Just this morning we got an email from Adnan [Agha] who has Slash Dash at the museum with an idea for Killer Queen. He said “hey I was thinking about this, what do you think?”
We find people doing that a lot or we bring games to our friends and say play this, what do you think? Lots of sharing of ideas. Technically Nik and I are competitors in the business with our day job, but it doesn’t feel that way. There have been times we knew we were bidding on the same jobs, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any real competition. It would be weird if we felt that way. Even people we don’t work with directly, like Gigantic Mechanic, we compete with them, [but] I’ll go hang out and have a beer with them and talk about our clients. There’s definitely this group of people that came out of GameLab that have a similar mentality about games. Maybe it’s a school of thought.
N: Why do you think that is?
J: Like what’s the mentality? I would largely say it’s an appreciation of play. ...It’s an intangible thing. I don’t think there’s a way to put it into words but I can see a parallel between the work Gigantic Mechanic does and we do and [what] Eric Zimmerman is doing on his own.
N: Is it trying to stretch the definition of what a game is?
J: I don’t know. It’s just everybody’s influencing each other.
N: I think what it’s a willingness to share. That’s probably the most important thing. None of us [are] shy about showing our stuff to anybody else.
Q: Are the big developers starting to learn from the indie scene?
N: To me, the big story there is Hearthstone. Here’s a game coming out of Blizzard, and developed by a small team within the company using Unity. It seems so out of left field, but I can almost see that meeting. “Hey, what if we tried to do something like the indies are doing?” It’s pretty good. I can see that kind of being a trend.
Q: Are the indie developers learning from the big ones?
J: I hate to sound so full of ourselves but I don’t think we’re learning anything from them other than what we already knew.
N: Me and Josh always disagree about this.
J: I love playing big triple A games, but I learn so much more about games by playing smaller independent games, largely because I can play them faster and more of them. Whereas when I spend a hundred hours playing Dragon Age, I didn’t learn a lot about games by doing it. Or about game development. Learned a lot about dragons though.
N: I feel like there is something to be learned, I don’t feel quite the same way as Josh, but I don’t see how it relates to me on a day to day basis. That’s really the key. Because I’m working on a totally different scale from somebody making Dragon Age.
Q: So have you been taking Killer Queen Arcade on the road?
N: We showed it in London, LA, San Francisco, New York, Austin, Dallas, Berlin.
Q: What kind of people get drawn to Killer Queen Arcade?
J: When we showed it at California Extreme in San Francisco, there was a lot of kids there so we got a lot of kids to play it. And I suspect there’s a lot of kids at the museum. I really like seeing kids play it. Kids react to it very positively and they’re so willing to spend a little time to figure it out, much more than many adults.
Q: Do you find people are forgetting what arcades were?
J: There’s enough. Between Chuck-E-Cheese and Dave & Busters in every city… But I think it’s gone away enough that there’s this real strong urge to bring it back. I think that’s what we’re seeing. Things go in cycles and it’s about to come back. I’m hoping it is, and I’m seeing signs of it coming back.
Q: People long for that communal experience.
J: We’ve now perfected, or at least improved, on playing games with people all over the world, and that’s great, and I love playing those games, but that has lost a lot of the social aspects that is endemic to games since we played games and people want that.Q: What’s next for you guys?
J: After the exhibit we’ll bring that [Killer Queen] cabinet back to the NYU game center. We are involved in a lot of events over at NYU. We’re building more cabinets and figuring out where to put them. So may be here in New York, some may go around the country, or the world. Basically we’re figuring it out this moment. We’re starting, very roughly, to think about our next project. We don’t want to dive into it too quickly. We still got a lot to do to tie up loose ends, but we’re tossing ideas back and forth.
SeaWorld trainer/performer Dawn Brancheau was killed by Tilikum, an orca held by the aquarium/entertainment complex, the dangers of keeping this species in captivity was spotlighted. Little did most of the public know that this wasn’t the first time this whale had killed. Nor did they knew how crazed it had become after years of being penned in.
It was such an amazing discovery for filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite that she devoted time and money creating her documentary Blackfish in order to answer why and how the 40-year-old trainer died (SeaWorld Entertainment claims the whale targeted the trainer because she had worn her hair in a ponytail) and what to do about marine parks like SeaWorld that exploit cetaceans for human amusement and profit.
The documentary kicks off with Tilikum’s 1983 capture off Iceland’s coast, and reveals how he has been harassed by fellow captive whales and was left in dark tanks for hours -- incidents this director suggests prompted his aggression. Cowperthwaite also focuses on SeaWorld's belief that captive whales live longer, a claim that the film argues is false.
An experienced TV documentarian, Cowperthwaite has directed, written and produced for ESPN, National Geographic, Animal Planet, Discovery, and History Channel, including History Channel’s “Shootout!” a series for which she and a cameraman were embedded with 300 Marines at Twenty Nine Palms, and “Disaster Tech,” a documentary series about the biggest natural disasters in world history.
This doc has been racking up notices, awards and favorable response — including many protests of the whole marine mammal crisis — while also stirring SeaWorld ire. When the feature was about the air, this exclusive interview was conducted in Manhattan. Cowperthwaite since has seen a successful DVD/blu-ray release and finds the film shortlisted for the Best Feature Documentary Oscar.
Q: Why did you embark on this project?
GC: I came at it with a burning question. How did a top Seaworld trainer come to be killed by a killer whale? I didn’t get it. I know they don’t kill us in the wild, so I couldn’t imagine that happening.
[Dawn] was actively feeding this whale, Tilikum, before he killed her. It speaks to that fact that I think coming into a project like this without an opinion or argument is okay. You can come in with a burning question and keep digging and digging and digging. That ended up being my method and it ended up being so fruitful because all the information I was discovering, it was from a place of ignorance so I just kept feeding my brain.
I knew that when I made the film, I needed it to be very fact-driven. It needed to be a narrative that had credible people like the former SeaWorld trainers [such as John Hargrove,] speaking about what went on inside. I needed to reveal it to the audience and arm them with information the same way that I was able to discover it.
Q: Did you ever go diving one day and meet a whale?
GC: No, I wasn’t even fresh off a trip to SeaWorld, it wasn’t anything like that. It was what happened. Then I’d read another article and I’d think “You just told me she slipped and fell, why are you now telling me it was her ponytail? Weren’t there cameras? Didn’t I just see this on the news?”
So I just dug, that’s it. I had a burning question and I needed it answered whether it was for my own edification or for a documentary, I knew I would keep looking until I found the answer. If I have this many questions, the world will have this many questions and if I am so shocked by the answers then the world will be so shocked.
Q: Going from making a film in Denver to this, how and when did you make the shift? Did you do anything with nature before?
GC: [I did a piece with] National Geographic about human phobias. It would seem like I’m this naturalist.
Q: I guess you’ll never take your kids to SeaWorld, will you?
GC: I can’t. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t un-see it. That’s the only way I can describe my experience. Once you know what you know you’ll can’t look at those silly tricks and think that’s cute. You think to yourself this speaks of mastery, this makes me uncomfortable, this is so sad. Whereas three years ago I thought to myself I always described it as a cringe factor.
This doesn’t feel right, and yet it’s not abhorrent enough to get you to get up and leave if you don’t know the truth. You think to yourself this doesn’t feel right, but it must be okay because everybody is smiling.
Q: Knowing the cruelty of humankind, it’s not that hard to understand. What would be an appropriate space for a cetacean? Are there environments large enough to keep them without just setting them loose — which can’t happen for those raised in captivity?
GC: We do advocate for sea sanctuaries, which would be a cordoned off cove with a net, because of course these captive animals can’t be tossed back into the ocean. They don’t know how to hunt, they can’t chase their own food. Like Tilikum whose teeth is all messed up.
They could be released into these sea sanctuaries, it would be better in terms of what kind of enclosure can emulate their natural environment, but that’s a tough one when they can swim up to 100 miles a day. It doesn’t mean they would do that. I would just be guessing since this is not my area of expertise, but you have to have a big enough space so they can feel like they can get away from you.
Q: How far are we from communicating with these creatures? I wonder what will happen when we do?
GC: Sometimes I think about that and it’s so overwhelming to even imagine what it would be like to communicate with an animal like that. An animal that has been on this earth for that long and they’ve emerged as an apex predator, they’re a predator’s predator, they can take down great white sharks. They live in relatively peaceful communities or pods. So even the transients and residents, when they’re forced into captivity together, they don’t even speak the same language so they don’t get along. In the wild, those animals, when they do migration patterns just pass each other by peacefully. When you think about what they could teach us, it’s astounding.
Q: It would be fascinating to learn the languages of these animals — like in that Steven Spielberg series.
GC: When you think of the range of vocals, the languages. They can isolate languages based on the vocalization of a certain orca. So they can figure out where that orca’s family is.
Q: Are killer whales the most carnivorous ones? I assume they eat tunas.
GC: For the most part the residents are the tuna and salmon eaters, but the transients go for dolphins, seals, and sea lions. It’s this uncomfortable fact, that they eat dolphins, an animal we also love. There’s some things you learn about these apex predators that wouldn’t be suitable for SeaWorld’s literature because they’re trying to create this image that this is a fuzzy, huggable animal that you can then buy in a store on your way out.
Q: Like a lion.
GC: Or a teddy bear.
Q: How long did this take to make?
GC: It took two years.
Q: Did you tell SeaWorld what you were using the footage for when you asked them?
GC: SeaWorld knew very early on what I was doing. I called them and sought out an interview for about six months and we went back and forth as they were considering it. At that point I was sure they were going to be a voice in the film — they had to be I thought.
Dawn died in the park and I came from no animal activism; I’m just a mother who took her kids to SeaWorld. So I thought this was safe territory for them. However, the moment they realized that I had been interviewing people who had worked at their parks and had captured whales for them, they declined. It’s a minefield for them. For 40 years they’ve successfully kept these truths under wraps.
Q: Besides the two deaths, were there others that involved whales?
GC: There were the two deaths, Kelty and Daniel, Dukes, Dawn, and Kito that killed Alexis Martinez. So that’s four human deaths and over a hundred documented injuries -- that’s just the documented ones. From what I’ve heard from SeaWorld trainers there are thousands of undocumented ones.
Q: Where do you go after you’ve had that job if you’re not going to be a trainer? How did you persuade people to talk against SeaWorld? Was it to avenge the deaths?
GC: That was what spurred them to come out and start speaking in public about it. They heard the spin that was coming out of SeaWorld after [Dawn’s] death. She slipped and fell, or it was her fault.
They started hearing that and said, “No, that couldn’t be true.” They worked with [Tilikum} and were there. I think, and this is corroborated, the former SeaWorld trainers speak out because all of them had a hard time, most of them had a hard time leaving and leaving their animals behind.
The former Seaworld trainers bond with their animals and when they’re forced to leave, they are forced to leave an animal they’re afraid will never be taken care of. They basically didn’t feel like leaving without knowing that they were going to be doing something for the whales and speaking out for the whales.
Q: Did you expect the response this film has gotten? And where does that lead to?
GC: I didn’t expect it. I always make the joke that documentary filmmakers never expect their films to be seen on purpose. We always imagine people will run across them on the television -- maybe — but you never actually expect people to pay for it. So I have been blown away by the response. It’s the idea that you created this intact document that can now get in the world and go do some work. That is like a dream come true.
Q: Documentaries give me so much to worry about, now I have to worry about Sea World! Have you seen other similar documentaries such as The Cove or movies like Free Willy as research? Do you want to go further into this subject, or are you done with it?
GC: I do love the doc medium, I have to say. This is my storytelling home. I don’t know what comes next. Sometimes you think to yourself maybe another topic out there needs the kind of energy I put into Blackfish. But then there’s the other side of me that says there’s a momentum here and I don’t want to leave until I know… This 80-minute document has an amazing surrogate. Whether it’s a cause for me, [to support] sea sanctuaries.
I haven’t hitched my horse to any one cause out there, as much as I’ve gathered information from all of them out there and said, “Okay, what’s resonating with me and all the people that have seen Blackfish?”
It’s the idea of these sea sanctuaries. It’s the idea that you have to stop the captive breeding and put them in sanctuaries.
Q: Has anyone made the connection between your movie and 12 Years a Slave — another film about captivity and slavery?
GC: Oh yeah, and it’s tricky because that is probably the fastest way to turn off members of the general public, by saying anything about animals being slaves because that word is so heavy and it really speaks about human horrors and atrocities and it has offended a lot of people that I have spoken with. “How can you liken what has happened to us with 40 killer whales at SeaWorld?” It’s very tricky territory.
Q: What’s next?
GC: I’m percolating some things right now and it’s terrible documentary karma to ever talk about anything you’re doing because it will vanish the moment you think it’s something before you’ve gotten into it.
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