James Swirsky and Lisanne Pajot, directors of Indie Game: The Movie, which has its Canadian premiere as part of this year's Hot Docs festival, recount the journey of their film.
This year’s Hot Docs features a new innovation: Hot Docs Live!, a simulcast of two Canadian premieres to 35 Cineplex Entertainment theatres across Canada, complete with interactive discussions with the filmmakers and special guests. One of the selected films is Indie Game: The Movie, a look at three independent gaming developers: Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes (Super Meat Boy), Phil Fish (Fez), and Jonathan Blow (Braid). We sat down for a talk with the film’s two Torontonian directors, Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky.
Torontoist: What was your experience with video games growing up?
Lisanne Pajot: I wasn’t a huge gamer growing up. I played Nintendo when I was younger, fought over it with my brother and then it just kind of fell away from me.
James Swirsky: I grew up with Nintendo, Sega Genesis, Commodore 64. Video games defined everything I was when I was a kid, to the point where on family trips success or failure was defined by whether or not there was an arcade. When I was 16, I kind of started going away from games a little bit. And then I really stopped my love affair with games after being a game tester in 2000-2001. If anything can take the magic out of games, it’s being a game tester. I just kind of stayed away from games for the next eight or nine years. And it wasn’t until going down to the Independent Games Summit and discovering Alec Holowka’s game, Aquaria, that the magic was re-introduced.
Did the experience with Aquaria lead directly to Indie Game: The Movie?
LP: Yeah, we were commissioned by them, we were documentarians for hire. Before that I worked at CBC, and if someone wanted us to make a documentary, we’d do it. We did this series for Manitoba, and one of the guys in the series was Alec Holowka. It was the first time that we realized that games could be personal. And that ended up being the thesis of what ended up being the film. There was this hungry audience wanting to hear about game development.
JS: It’s funny because when you think about it, games are huge. They’re bigger than movies, they’re bigger than music. We know how movies are made. We know how music is made, I mean there are tons of documentaries on those subjects. But there’s nothing about game design.
After speaking with many developers, what was it about these three that seemed right for the film?
LP: It’s sort of a past, present, and future thing, that’s how it turned out. Super Meat Boy was working towards their release on XBOX. Phil, we met up with him earlier on through some other work that we were doing. He was really vibrant and excited about the game. Then when we caught up with him a year later, he was losing his funding, things weren’t working out, he had some personal troubles. And Jon had one of the biggest commercial successes in indie games. That’s how it all ended up fitting together.
JS: We actually thought we’d be following one team through the entire thing and we’d have these little vignettes in between which would be other developers. The way it worked out, you kind of do see every aspect of the production process, but through three different windows. With every developer that we talked to, after they release their game, there’s inevitably this sort of postpartum depression.
LP: Having it out there is great, but it’s never as fulfilling as the process. And that’s what we were learning as we were making the movie.
The film was funded entirely by two extremely successful Kickstarter campaigns. Were you surprised at the reaction?
LP: The first one, we raised our goal in two days. The second one, we raised our goal in a day—shaved off 24 hours. It was kind of insane. We thought we’d make our goal, we didn’t think we’d double it.
JS: The independent gaming community has proven in the past, if they want to make something happen, they can make it happen. It seemed to be that collective, “Oh yes, finally” type of thing that was going on. Those first 48 hours of Kickstarter set in motion the next two years of our lives.
LP: We thought we would be sending DVDs from our basement. And we still will, actually. But we never thought all that other stuff would happen.
The movie has recently been optioned by HBO and producer Scott Rudin as a TV show. What’s the latest on this?
JS: Yeah, the best producer in the world and the best television-producing channel in the world.
LP: We weren’t thinking about this at all, it caught us completely by surprise. It’s sort of unclear right now. It would be a show that’s exciting, I hope it turns into something.
Are video games art?
LP: Well, watch the movie and come to a conclusion.
JS: Art is never said once in the movie. We tried to stay away from asking if video games were art and we thought…
LP: Let’s just show it.