The golden rule of film festivals is that it is not possible to see or do everything you want to. I learned this the hard way, as my initial plans for SXSW were screwed up from the moment I picked up my credentials. With a couple hours to kill and nothing to do, I wandered into a line for “Indie Game: The Movie.” I had heard of the movie from watching the streaming awards ceremony from the Sundance Film Festival, but as someone who isn’t into video games, I walked into the theater with no expectations. Not only was it a completely fascinating and moving documentary about a subject I thought I had little to no interest in, but it was the best thing I saw at SXSW that day.
“Indie Game: The Movie” follows the creators of the independent video games “Super Meat Boy,” “Fez,” and “Braid,” among others. Though the subject revolves around the development, struggles, and painstaking work that goes into developing these games, the film also delves into deeper themes such as putting elements of oneself into a project as well as creating a product –not necessarily for mass consumption – that one would be proud of. I recently had the chance to speak to the Canadian co-directors James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot about the films crowd-sourced funding, the developers we see in the movie, and whether they as independent filmmakers experienced similar feelings as the game designers in the film do.
I want to start by talking a little about Kickstarter. It’s kind of a relatively new service but especially in film festivals it seems that you’re really starting to see a lot of projects come from that. What was your experience with using Kickstarter?
Lisanne Pajot: Yeah, Kickstarter was really a kicking off point for the project for us. James and I were commercial producers here in Canada and I had worked in television. We’ve been doing stuff for about 10 years and we came across this idea for a film based on a short we had done about a game developer named Alec Holowka, who made a game called “Aquaria.” What we got was that making his game was incredibly personal. His process of making the game ended up becoming the game. So we had this idea and we thought that there might be more of a movie there. So we decided to shoot a test piece and include it in a Kickstarter. A lot of films now use Kickstarter for finishing funds and stuff like that, but we literally used it as we were conceptualizing the idea.
James Swirsky: I think we were one of the first feature films that was born on Kickstarter. We were inspired to make [this movie] because of independent game developers. We looked around the world of independent game development and they were doing a lot of really cool community building and audience engagement that we thought would work really well in a film world. Our first Kickstarter was for $15,000 which is not enough to make this movie at all, and we know that. But it was enough to get things going. We basically just raised money for food, gas, and lodging for three months on the road to go out and get these stories. We thought it would take about 30 days to get that goal, and we ended up getting it in about 48 hours. And then it kind of just kept on going to like $23,000. It just blew us away. That money was hugely important for the production. But I think even more than that, the whole Kickstarter process was even more important than the money was. It was the whole collective “yes!” from the internet and the audience.
LP: It was a big victory for us. We knew that [the film] could have potential to go to festivals and potentially be theatrical and we needed a bit more money to get that together, so we asked for $35,000 almost exactly a year later. We made that goal in 24 hours.
How exactly did the crowd-funding support influence the release of the film?
JS: We ended up getting into Sundance, which was insane and an incredible opportunity. We had a lot of people who wanted to be involved in the marketing and distribution of the film and offered us some deals but what we always kept in mind was that we had these supporters that we need to satisfy and we need to be able to get the film out. So instead of waiting to do a theatrical release in the fall, we decided to tour it ourselves so we could get it out faster.
When you are hitting your goals that fast and such a passionate group of people are funding this, what kind of pressure is there on you to create something that they are really going to appreciate and love?
JS: That definitely does exist, but it doesn’t come early. Basically, it’s all pure inspiration and positivity for that first wave. Then the weird thing about a Kickstarter is that it’s all positivity and excitement at the beginning, and then you kind of have to go away and make it. And that’s where the stress and pressure starts to creep in a little bit. Some people know what they are getting to, some don’t. Some don’t realize that a movie takes time and they feel like they’ve been waiting for it forever. But that’s just kind of the nature of watching things on the internet, there’s this weird time warp effect that goes on. There’s a personal promise from us, the creators, that it will exist but there’s nothing really beyond that.
LP: I think the pressure was not necessarily coming directly from people that supported us. You just internalize that when you receive lots of e-mails saying, “I’m so excited for the movie, when is it out? When is it out?” You appreciate their excitement but you also internalize it as personal pressure. Like this film has to be great, these people have to like it, just as a creator you want to make something good for those people. And I think that wore on us a little bit.
I want to talk a little bit about the subjects in the film. First with Team Meat, one thing I noticed was that you have a juxtaposition of Tommy, who is kind of neurotic at times and Edmund who seems a little more laid back. Was it your intention to juxtapose these two guys and was it something that came naturally through filming?
JS: Not really. I think we kind of caught them in a moment in which Tommy was feeling pressure and Edmund was being laid back, because as a team, they have it worked out where they balance each other out.
LP: I think also we caught all the subjects in the film at the most stressful points in their life. It’s a super stressful time. There’s a mountain of technical things you need to do. That lack of sleep caught up with [Tommy]. I think that he was just hoping in that moment when he turned on the Xbox, the morning of the release, that everything would be okay and it would finally all be worth it. All that hard crunch and hard push would be worth it and unfortunately he was disappointed. He’s good now. (Laughs) But I have to say with our own release I would probably be the Tommy person in the background having crunched so hard just wanting things to work out exactly as they go. But things don’t always work out the way you want them to.
On the subject of Phil Fish: obviously as we stand today “Fez” has come out and it’s been a huge success. But is a moment in the film where Phil makes the comment about how if the game never comes out, that he would kill himself. It doesn’t sound like he is in any way kidding. Was there ever a moment where you were worried for his safety?
LP: In ways, yeah. It sort of took us off guard when he said that. We spent a lot of time with him after and we were there and in certain moments, he even admits it now, that he was going a bit crazy. Not to a point where we felt we needed to make some serious professional calls. But we were always very aware of where he was at. He swung up and down throughout the process. He could be really excited about something and then he could be really upset. I think that was wearing on him. Imagine working on the same thing, the same story for five years. He talks about it now and he recognizes it as a moment of where he was really losing his mind and he says in that moment, in certain times, yes, I did feel that vulnerable and I did feel that helpless. But luckily he was able to pull through that.
There’s a few different parts of the film, specifically when Tommy turns on the Xbox and “Super Meat Boy” isn’t there and when Phil has all those technical bugs when he is showing off “Fez” for the first time. Is there a struggle for you guys as directors between that empathetic side who wants to help and hates watching this person go through this and that feeling that you know you’re getting really great footage for the film?
JS: Yeah, it puts you in a very weird position. When you’re filming with these guys for so long, you end up caring about them, and you end up caring about their stories. And when you see things like this happen, and they always happen by surprise…all the weird, dramatic stuff that happens in the film, we actually thought was going to be a highlight of the film. We thought Tommy was gonna turn on the Xbox, see “Super Meat Boy” and it would be this wonderful little moment where there’s validation there. And then these things just start happening. I think the thing that makes it easier as a documentarian is that there was nothing we could do. You feel empathy as you’re filming it but we were never faced with the choice of, “Do I put down the camera and help them?” because we couldn’t. That wasn’t an option because we don’t know anything about computers at all. But you heart goes out to them. So you film it going down and you get what you need, and then you put down the camera and talk to them about it and try to make them feel better about it. You never get involved in the action.
Were you there when “Fez” finally did launch?
JS: Ahhhhh…I wanted to so badly.
LP: We were already touring the film when “Fez” launched so we couldn’t be with [Phil]. But we had shot an epilogue when he actually physically finished the game. He finished in December, but he was waiting for it to release on Microsoft so we went and shot with him in Montreal and then we shot with him at the Game Developer’s conference where he ended up winning the Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival. So we shot with him all throughout that.
JS: Although luckily, it was a much less dramatic release than “Super Meat Boy.” Although, it came on Friday the 13th in April, which was kinda funny. But everything went nice and smoothly. It would have been great to be there and watch him watch the reviews come in and all that. But we did kind of get that validation epilogue through the award show.
One thing that I found really interesting is both Jonathon Blow and Tommy in the film talk about feeling very weird and conflicted seeing any sort of criticism of their work online, be it good or bad, because of how personal the games are to them. When you saw them say that, what were your reactions to that and also, do you feel that at all as filmmakers in the same way they do?
LP: Completely. I was filming with Tommy in that particular scene where he was talking about how he felt weird. He was talking to his parents about the reviews coming out and feeling weird about it. I didn’t quite understand in the moment. I had spent five days with him in North Carolina leading up to the release of the game and he’s getting these wonderful reviews. He’s getting 9 out of 10, 10 out of 10, but it felt uncomfortable and I couldn’t understand why in the moment. I was like, “This is great! You should be really happy!” and he’s like, “No, this is weird, I feel uneasy.” And I totally understand now. It’s a very odd thing. You spend all this time and love this thing that you made and you put obviously blood, sweat, and tears into it and then to have it be out there and to be this thing that people consume and love and hate or whatever. Just the fact that it’s out there and that people are taking claim to it and speaking about it as if it’s this separate thing from you is very weird. Even the positive things can make you feel really uncomfortable.. We’ve had incredible positive reviews. We have 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes but that’s bizarre.
JS: It’s just a strange uneasy feeling of spending two years on something and it being this thing that lives on your computer. “Indie Game: The Movie” was this collection of scenes that we really loved that kind of lived on our hard drive. And we would go and spend time with it and we kind of polish it and tweak it and tinker with it for such a long time with the end goal of eventually showing it to the world. But you become very, very attached to it and very, very protective of it. I think it’s as close to raising a child as I have gotten in my life so far.
LP: You don’t sleep. You’re constantly worried about it.
That kind of times into a theme that I saw in the film, which was about making this product but not necessarily for mass consumption but something that they truly loved and would want to play themselves, or in your case, a film that you would want to see yourselves. Was that a theme that you had going into the film?
LP: That was kind of the thesis. It sounds kind of silly and trite to say that games can be personal but it was a new idea to ask when we were inspired to take on the project and I think it’s a newer idea to a larger audience. I think people within the game community have known for a while that people can express themselves personally through games but that was the guiding thing. Little did we know how deep that would run and how the struggle would be much more dramatic. The thesis of the film was the idea of people taking their works, pouring themselves into it and then releasing it to the world and seeing how that goes and what that feels like and that creative journey that a lot of people go through now that a lot of creation is dependent on the internet.
JS: And the thing that made that thesis all the more intriguing was this added layer of digital distribution and these marketplaces opening up to where you could now take this personal little game and if it was the right game at the right time and it got distribution or it got on the right channels, it can take off and completely change your life. And that’s kind of what we see happening with [these games].
This idea of making a very product, as you said, your thesis of the film…it can really be applied to anything. You can apply it to film, music, podcasts, anything like that. Do you think that’s why you’re seeing such success with a larger audience, not so much in the video game community, but to anyone in creative media?
LP: That was the hope. That’s why we identified to the story to begin with. I wasn’t a big gamer going into this. But it was that personal story of people working really hard and going through those ups and downs. When you see success it’s not a straight line. It’s all these peaks and valleys that get there and this film shows you what those peaks and valleys are. I think a lot of people can identify with that, whether you’re writing music or creating a start up. We’ve had people that are just starting companies relate to the movie.
JS: It’s a movie about video games and making video games but it’s really a movie about making “stuff.” It’s about taking everything you have personally, emotionally, financially, time-wise and pouring it into that stuff and making this really personal thing and then putting it out to the world and seeing what the world thinks of it. Will they see what’s special in this thing that you thought was so special in it? That’s kind of universal. That kind of thinking can be applied to a film, or book, or music, or podcast or blog post, or even a tweet. It’s this idea of creation and feedback and what drives that and I think a lot of people relate to it.