Interview: August 2010
How did you get started in the movie business?
My father ran the local movie theater in Hanover, New Hampshire, where I grew up. I was exposed to every kind of movie ever made from an early age, and I guess the experience festered in my brain. Sometime in high school I saw Bergman’s Seventh Seal, and its weirdness made me realize that movies were made by individuals with ideas and not manufactured like Ford automobiles.
At about the same time I read an issue of National Geographic that was all about the construction of Disneyland. I thought any place that embraced airy fantasies so enthusiastically was my kind of society, but I didn’t know how I was going to get there and join up. During my college years, I began making short animated movies in 8mm. Then I heard about USC’s famous film school, applied, and won a fellowship. That was my ticket west. So I married my childhood sweetheart, Barbara Ward, and we migrated to California, me to study movie-making, she to teach.
You worked on THX1138, the famous George Lucas movie. You knew George from USC. How was he in those days? Did you expect he would become as big as he is now and your paths would cross again (at LucasArts) 25 years later?
George was always George. We all thought he was a tremendous talent from the very beginning, a precocious master of movie material. All of us in that USC cohort admired his imaginative work and his organizational skills. I didn’t imagine the magnitude of his career, but I did think he would be a big success.
Our paths never really uncrossed. The reason I wound up at LucasArts was because, through my friendship with George, I got to know a number of the early employees of what was then called Lucasfilm Games.
In the late 70’s you had a small part in the Steven Spielberg movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. How did you get this part?
Well, Matthew Robbins and I were screenwriting partners. We wrote Steve’s first feature, The Sugarland Express, and he kept us abreast of the developments on Close Encounters of the Third Kind. After a couple of screenplay drafts by other writers that didn’t ring any bells, Steve himself did a draft and showed it to us. We liked it, but thought it needed a lot of help. Steve liked our suggestions, so we wound up doing a lot of re-writing. Instead of a credit we got a percentage and appearances in the film.
In the early 80’s you produced and wrote the great movie Dragonslayer. Can you share some of your experiences regarding that movie?
Thanks for the kind remarks. Matthew and I were looking for an exotic concept that might grab attention, but not attempt to compete with Star Wars or Close Encounters of the Third Kind or Alien. We thought we knew how to do a fantasy by grounding it in historical iron-age reality. We were right about that, but wrong about grabbing attention. It wasn’t a commercial success — but I still love it.
If I’m correct you joined LucasArts in the early 90’s. Why did you make this change from movies to games? And where and when did you get an interest in games?
It was in the middle of Dragonslayer when I realized I wanted to pursue another childhood passion — games. We were preparing one of the most difficult sequences, the burning of Valerian’s village, and it was a logistical nightmare for me, the producer. One of our actors didn’t read his call sheet and was off in Ireland. We were building very expensive thatched huts on a farm in suburban London that had to burn without setting fire to the local countryside. We had 200 extras dressed in burlap we had to check for wrist watches and sneakers. We had a choreographer teaching them how to dance an iron-age gavotte. We had to reveal Valerian’s gender. We had to light the whole thing with moonlight, which meant tall towers with cable stays and 10K arc lights. When all the goods and services were delivered and the cameras started rolling, I found I had no desire to watch my partner Matthew direct the action. It should have been among the most exciting moments of my life, but a few months earlier I had purchased an HP 41C calculator, the first little gadget that could do alphanumeric displays, and I was happier sitting in my trailer teaching that thing to play a Dragonslayer version of Hunt the Wumpus than to be on the set. I knew right then I was in the wrong business, but it took me 10 years, another movie, several more screenplays, and a couple of ambitious Apple 2 projects to make the switch professionally.
One of the first games you worked on was Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. You even wrote the story for this game. A lot of fans (including me) think that story is the best Indy-story outside the movies. How did you come up with the story?
As part of The Last Crusade project, George’s group built an adventure game based on the movie. The guys involved, David Fox, Ron Gilbert, and Noah Falstein, didn’t want to do another one, but they wanted a follow-up. I had gotten to know them through George, and they decided that I knew what I was doing, so they brought me on board. The group had been handed a script for the purpose. It had been rejected as a fourth installment of the Jones franchise, but management, which didn’t know any better, thought it would be good enough for a game. It was rejected for a reason, though, and I thought it was hopeless. Noah agreed, so we marched down to George’s wonderful research library and started thumbing through Dark Mysteries of the Past -type coffee table books. We opened one of them up to an illustration of Atlantis arranged in three concentric rings, and we both thought, wow, this looks like a game.
That’s not enough for a story, however. Atlantis, unlike the Ark of the Covenant, never had a historical basis. But I knew that Plato was the origin of the myth — at least in written form — and we decided to fasten on Plato’s reality to give the thing legitimacy. Orichalcum, the mysterious metal he wrote about, seemed like an ideal McGuffin to lure the Nazis if we could pretend that it harbored atomic power. And then we needed a companion who was connected up with the whole problem, so I cooked up Sophia Hapgood as a fellow archeologist. She was kind of a shadow version of Indy — sharp, capable, fascinated by antiquities, but she jumped the ethical tracks after finding a supernatural amulet in Iceland.
Noah, more sensitive to the delicate sensibilities of adventure game players than I was, thought we should cater to varying tastes by instituting three paths through the game emphasizing either wits, fists, or team play. He then went off on another project, and I spent long agonizing months making that idea work. Whew, I’m still tired.
After Fate of Atlantis came another popular game. You directed the live action cut scenes of Star Wars: Rebel Assault II. How was that, directing scenes that come as close as possible to directing a Star Wars movie?
That was the era — don’t blink, it was brief — of Multimedia. Remember? Anyway, live action video was briefly in flower, and I was the only one at LucasArts who had ever directed a movie. So I got recruited by Vince Lee, the project leader. It was great fun, very intense, because we had almost no budget, and we had to work very fast. We also had to solve a lot of production problems: how to integrate 3D models, how to capture the video material, how to do it all against blue screen. Digital movie-making years before it became the current practice.
What are your best memories regarding working on Rebel Assault II?
The speed. I think we were in production for five days. Most game development takes years. Fate of Atlantis took two years; my last game at LucasArts, Red Rock took almost four. So blasting through a project like Rebel Assault II was exhilarating. Oh yeah, our CEO quit in the middle, I remember that too.
In 1997 you created the game Yoda Stories; a desktop adventure game. (I must admit: I played this game for hours….I really loved it) It was the Star Wars version of the 1996 Indiana Jones desktop adventures game. Where did you get your inspiration for the Yoda game and the short stories?
Both of these Desktop Adventures were casual games before such things had a label. I love storytelling in games, and I wanted to build games with broad appeal. I thought the key was to minimize players’ time commitment, and provide lasting value with replayability. Convincing management to make these things, however, was an agonizing process, because no one had yet plowed the field for me. The casual game business, now prominent, was undiscovered territory.
The Jones game was a little bit experimental — it was the first replayable story game ever, I think. Yoda Stories — another quick project that we turned out in about eight months — was a better idea. The story premise works perfectly, just like the second movie, with Luke learning his trade from the Jedi Master. We made big improvements to the structure of the puzzles, and we introduced a simple campaign mode. I’m very proud of both of these games, especially Yoda. Figuring out how to do algorithmically-driven puzzles and stories was a genuine accomplishment. I still play them now and then.
Then, in 1999 you did another Indy game: Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine. Again, I’m curious regarding how this story was conceived.
I was at a dinner party with George one evening in the mid-nineties, and he casually mentioned he had an idea for a new Indy movie, to take place during the 1950s. I thought, hmm, what kind of exotic artifacts might my favorite archeologist be after in that time frame? So I guessed — Science fiction? Roswell? George froze, and even though he wouldn’t confirm it at the time, I knew I had guessed right. So years later, when I wanted to drag Indy into the 3D action-adventure game genre, and when another Indy movie looked out of the question, I proposed it. Word came back, “Don’t go there.” Uh-oh, the movie wasn’t dead after all, but unless I could squiggle up an alternative tale, my game was.
In desperation, I started making lists of all the ancient mysteries that Jones hadn’t already tackled. The Tower of Babel is a well-known idea with some basis in fact as a companion to the famous hanging gardens of Babylon. I thought we could make use of the Babylonian god Marduk as a supernatural force and bring the Russians along as well. Looking back, I’m glad my Roswell proposal was denied. I like my story much better than what turned out to be The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
What are you currently up to? Do you have new projects and is there any chance you’ll work on a new Star Wars or Indiana Jones game?
These days I’m a freelance consultant, designer, and writer. I do small projects for various clients. Most of the time, I’m not that busy, so I’m also working on some small one-man game projects in Flash. My Star Wars and Indiana Jones days, much as I enjoyed them, are over.