Following Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinksi's keynote speech at the 2008 DICE Summit in Las Vegas, the filmmaker fielded a number of questions from the press, and Gamasutra was there to go in-depth for more insight.
First, Newsweek's N'Gai Croal joined Verbinski for an enlightening exchange.
N'Gai Croal: You spoke about being shut out on the Pirates MMO... is it because games are not your expertise?
Gore Verbinski: That might have had something to do with it... it took a lot of hard work to create a fanbase for that, and then it feels strange. I don't know that the other games just felt like, 'just hit the shelf date' -- and they actually contractually come under merchandising. They're considered the same as a poster or a wind-up doll, which I think is ridiculous, because they're an art form.
NC: It's hard enough work making films -- why would you want to be involved with games?
GV: In that particular case, the episodic nature of the film narrative is a problem... In a game, it's an asset. It felt like we had kind of Trekkies right after that first movie -- I felt like we had this world, and to turn it over to the fans and let them grow it... You get these passionate letters, and I think those guys would get in there and they would drive it. Why not open it up to them?
NC: So you look at it as another way of engaging those people who want to step into that world for more than two hours?
GV: I find it fascinating in terms of a social network .. I think that games are, everything from Halo to BioShock are so much fun. And then you play Fl0w... Now I pick up that box and I go, 'holy crap, look at what we can do!' It's infinite, it's got so much more depth than cinema, potentially.
NC: At what point during making Pirates did you know you'd make one or more sequels, and how did you approach it creatively?
GV: You're the underdog the first time out. You can never be in that place again ... The expectations are huge. The first time, you have a suicidal pact... You are trying anything to resurrect a genre that's pretty much dead. The first time, nobody was expecting anything, so it was easier to be brave. The first time, there was a naiveté going into that. You need to find that same madness, the 'we don't know what we're doing.'
NC: What was the madness in 2 and 3?
GV: By the third movie, we had too many characters. I think Davy Jones was something we kind of conjured out of nothing. Those films had release dates and no script. You have a lot of glue and tape and coffee and you're up to 3:00 in the morning and arguing. You have a kind of inner circle, you have the key creative people... It's collaborative. You create a circle of tremendously talented people and give them all the knowledge of what you're struggling with... Out of that comes Davy Jones. It's kind of triage.
NC: Many people cannot handpick a team, though you have that luxury. What do you recommend to those working under constraints?
GV: I'm still learning. I'm here as a fly on the wall to find out where the bodies are buried. I don't think that studios are inherently evil, there's a nature, a DNA thing there. It's a very dangerous place to step out onto a blank canvas. We use star power in Hollywood. You have this great script and you get six actors and suddenly, the money comes.
Games are influencing movies, but we've been borrowing from other movies forever. When I pick up my controller I go 'wow, what is this?' The idea that as I play, I'm a creator.
Following this exchange, Verbinski fielded questions from audience members and the media.
"You have no problem with franchises, but you talk about the need for madness," pointed out one audience member. "Franchises create their own handcuffs over time. What if someone talks to you about Pirates of the Caribbean 4, 5 or 6? How do you prevent them?"
"I think it's a big problem," Verbinski agreed. "I don't want to be flogging Rocky 9. The reason to do 2 and 3 was because I thought there was still something to do there. If somebody asked me to do Pirates of the Caribbean 4, my first reaction would be to pull the gun out of my mouth -- but my official reaction would be 'send me the script.'"
Another audience member asked Verbinski what games he feels "got it right," in terms of innovation and originality. Though he admits he hasn't played enough games to pick, Verbinksi pointed out that his kids' enjoyment of Ratchet & Clank and the Katamari games stands out to him.
Though he can't believe how far games have come in such a short time, Verbinski still sees some redundancy. "Why are there only FPS games? Why do you have to be an avatar, why can't you be an object? I feel like we need to try other things... It's such a powerful box, but it's only half full."
Another audience member asked Verbinski how his team kickstarts the creative process during brainstorming sessions.
"I'm working on an animated movie right now," Verbinksi replied. "My old house is now full of 9 animators. We're storyboarding a pitch, and we constantly throw stuff away. Fortunately it's pencil and paper. We're having discussions about character, narrative, aesthetic. We're asking questions like, 'why do films often feel like they're tableau?' We throw a lot of stuff away, and we are constantly printing. We had this thing last week where we watched a lot of Sergio Leone movies, and I was constantly printing frames to look at. It keeps happening on set, with actors... We do it down to the last minute, in the mix days, in editing."
One questioner wanted to know whether Verbinski ever has trouble getting access to effects animators. "I have spies and I do detective work," he joked. "You ask questions: 'Who did that shot? Let's meet him.' You close the door and you conspire. You really have to find those invisible individuals and ask for them. I don't think you can go to the name over the door."
Noticing that Verbinski liked both Halo and Fl0w, an audience member asked Verbinski whether he's more interested by triple-A games or independent efforts. "I think both," he answered. "What they're doing is interesting... I just think the debate should happen -- what other things could be done on Xbox besides what we're playing?"
Verbinski continued, "We talk abut mechanical objects, we talk about characters, story, anti-narrative, where there is no story, but it feels good. Some of those things can be tremendously commercial -- that's why I talk about Guitar Hero. If you build a game that you want to play and you have commercial instinct, you will make a hit."
Finally, Gamasutra's own Brandon Sheffield asked about adaptations. In a previous era, he noted, when films were made of novels or stage plays, they were viewed as poor bastardization. Now, games made from movies are in the same category. What would it take for games to achieve the respect that films have earned?
Replied Verbinski, "I think games that are based on IP that exist have a burden, but it's not inescapable. They have shorter times usually; they have shelf dates based on the release of the film. Here's the movie at the forefront and here's all this trash that follows... the studio considers the game that relate to movies as merchandising."
Verbinski advises treating tie-in games as "another movie," and reinventing. "It has to do with what makes the best game. You need to hire a single person with a vision, like a director on a movie. Every creative decision is a fiscal decision. Your primary objective is to build the best game you can build, the best movie you can make... you count on the fact that the audience wants to see something fresh and new. You need a voice - a singular voice."
"For games from scratch that aren’t burdened with existing IP... I understand why you make versions of games, or sequels to games," he said. "What I'm concerned about is, if you are starting from scratch, why are trying to make a game like Halo? Why don't you go in another direction? You have this path that exists... The terrain is wide and there are so many places to go. Why not invent new genres?"