Interview with Roger Avary (Edge Online)

Date published: 2005.09
Source: Edge Online

EO: Can you give us some background on Silent Hill, the adaptation project and your involvement with it?

Avary: I'd played the original Silent Hill on the first PlayStation and it was a fantastic game. I remember it being so advanced in its story, atmosphere, in the way the camera and game engine operated and in how playable it was. One of the most important things to me while playing an interactive application like a game is that the interface is as invisible as possible. A good example of an interface vanishing after you play it for a while was Resident Evil - it wasn't like you were telling your brain to press the A button and the L button simultaneously. You were able to fall into it much more quickly. GTA is another game with such an interface, though I've kinda fallen out of step with that because they’ve altered the interface as the game has evolved. I was very comfortable with the original and felt that a lot of the changes were needless.

I'd been into Resident Evil not only because of the story but because it had a fixed camera - I’m very much into the cinema of games and how that's gradually evolving. So I played Silent Hill, liked it and put it down like any other game before moving on with my life. Then one day I got a call from Christophe Gans, who's a very very old friend of mine, even from the days when he was a critic.

I remember when I was doing Killing Zoe, he was doing a movie called Necronomicon. I went and visited his set, and though we didn't know each other very well at the time, because we had the same producer - Samuel Hadida - and because Sammy is such a character, we bonded like we were [laughs] going to war with the same sergeant. Secondly, I know a fuckload about cinema. I know all kinds of things about movies, and Quentin [Tarantino] blew me out of the water. I didn't know how, but he knew so much more about cinema than I did. Well, Christophe blows Quentin out of the water, which I never knew was possible. And not just in terms of what he knows about movies, but what he knows about all media. You name a book and he's read it, name a game and he's played it (and he hasn’t just played it casually – he's played it to the end). He's invested the 50-100 hours it's taken to finish all of these games. I don't know how he finds the time – he has no life separate from media. He's also very similar to Quentin in his energy, so I was very comfortable around him and we became very good friends very quickly.

Some time afterwards, I was showing the Rules Of Attraction in France and Christophe and I went out to dinner. There, he brought up the possibility that he would be doing Silent Hill. Now, authorship in Japan is very tightly maintained and controlled, and the authors of videogames need to be wooed very carefully if you intend to make a movie from their material. So what Christophe did is make a presentation on video, cutting together scenes from Silent Hill and other movies, and he put it all together on his own dollar. Additionally, he did a videotape interview that he then had translated and sent over to Konami and Akira Yamaoka. Yamaoka watched and immediately he said 'Oh my God, this is the guy'.

Christophe had also done Crying Freeman, and so was already very highly regarded because of how immensely faithful he was to the author's vision. I, on the other hand, commonly reinterpret material – so I'll say 'Okay, the game or the book is what it is, and now we're making a movie'. So if you go and see The Rules Of Attraction, it's a very different story to what's on the page. I made massive changes to it, staying true to the material before reinterpreting it and making something new out of it. In my adaptation of Salvador Dali's life, I threw out his life and started from scratch, writing a fictional biography. That's my method.

EO: Is that something you’ve applied to Silent Hill, or has Christophe’s approach prevailed?

Avary: It was interesting because I had to work in the opposite way to how I'm used to. What Christophe does, and what he did with Crying Freeman, is that he remains expressly true not just to the spirit, but also the themes, story and visuals of the original. If you watch the movie of Crying Freeman you'll see exact frames from the novelisation – the exact images reproduced faithfully. So his interest in Silent Hill was to make a reinterpretation into a separate media of the exact same visual experience.

So he calls me up says 'Roger, I've written a script with Nicolas Boukhrief - it's in French and we'd like you to write the dialogue for it. The movie's going to be in English and my English is not so good, so all we need you to do is write the dialogue'. I was in the middle of several other jobs, had a pending job and then another one after that. But I said that was something I could do – I could squeeze it in – and I'd done the exact same thing (only for free) for Crying Freeman. I did the Silent Hill adaptation for very little money because Sam is a close friend and Christophe is a close friend, and I wanted to live in Paris for a while on Rue des Saint-Peres.

They rented me an apartment in Paris and I went to hang out with Christophe every day in Sammy's office. I quickly discovered that they didn't just want to just make the material they had and have me rewrite the dialogue for it – they wanted me to completely change and conceptually re-explore everything. They wanted me to come up with completely fresh material and somehow stay faithful to the game, which is not as easy as it sounds. If you're remaining precisely faithful to moments in the game and coming up with new themes, it’s difficult to do.

We ended up spending several months just hammering out a completely new draft, running everything past Nicolas and completely reinterpreting what the two of them had done. We sat down and played the game every day and observed its many different movements. I have to say, the dialogue in these games is very badly written. Have you ever heard of the game Zero Wing – "all your base are belong to us; make your time gentlemen; someone set us up the bomb"? That’s usually the quality of the translations, so we attempted to go through and smooth it out to help it make sense.

The difficulty with Silent Hill is that it's an abstract experience – you're making something that's dreamlike in many ways, and where someone’s in an alternate dimension. Christophe was showing me all sorts of crazy movies at the time, stuff like Horror Hotel [known as City Of The Dead outside the US], and I quickly realised that the one special skill that he wanted from me was bombastic speeches. Christophe loves the big moment. What he wants to do is to make every single moment in his films the big moment. If someone's walking through a doorway, he wants it to be the best walking through a doorway scene of all time. He'll shoot it with techno-cranes and computer graphics and do all sorts of things to make sure that moment is unlike any of its kind that you’ve seen before.

So I sat down and I turned the dialogue moments into something akin to what John Milius [screenplay writer of Apocalypse Now, writer of Conan The Barbarian and uncredited author of the U.S.S. Indianapolis scene in Jaws] would write. When Milius writes a speech, it's always this big, powerful, impressive moment where people are talking in hyperbolic terms and everything they say is quantifiably profound. I wanted the movie to have that feeling of a witch movie, because that's essentially what it is at the end of the day. Also, Christophe wanted the movie to be oestrogen-filled.

[He breaks into an impression of the Frenchman that is, considering the underlying Californian accent, alarmingly good and somewhat exaggerated.]

"I like women – I like to fuck the American bimbo. I want to make a movie with no men and have sexy women throughout. Women everywhere. I don’t want to have all these men to deal with or the attitudes of men."

So almost every character is a woman - there was one male character. We kind of did a composition of characters into the character of Rose. She's really a composition of multiple characters throughout the Silent Hill games. Originally, her husband is almost not even there. One of the studio notes, however, when we finally turned it in was "THERE’S NO MEN IN THIS!" So they requested that we make more out of the husband character, which is exactly what we did. It actually turned out to be a very good note. Whenever you get these studio notes, your first instinct is that it's friction, but when you step back and look at them you realise that they're often not actually that bad. So that note led us into some very good places and some visual things that we came up with that play with parallel dimensions that wouldn't have happened had they not given us the so-called "dumb studio notes".

As for the husband's character, I just named him Christopher because of Christophe. I said: "Well, if there’s just going to be one guy in it, let’s have it be you."

What we would do is finish a draft – we must have had 20 drafts – send it to Nicolas who would make some changes and then send it back to Christophe. Every single draft that we wrote had to be translated into French so that Christophe could read it properly. He actually speaks English really well and reads it very well, but still he wanted it translated. He would write his changes in French and then have them translated back into English, and I would change them so that they weren't just written by a translator.

EO: Much of the game's atmosphere is derived from either being or becoming lost in its labyrinthine environments – this is something that's more difficult to evoke when you're tied to a movie's duration. Was this a consideration when adapting the game?

Avary: Actually, because of that it became a very difficult script for the studio to accept. We had long passages with no dialogue. Christophe wanted to ensure that when we wanted to have dialogue, we wrote it big. But for the most part, much of the movie is a silent film – we wanted it to be full of silence. So there are scenes where Rose is just wandering through Silent Hill.

EO: Is that still in there?

Avary: Well, I haven't seen the final version, so who knows what it'll look like. But in the script phase, we had long, long moments where seemingly nothing happens. It's all atmosphere – you're falling slowly into a world and experiencing it much like you would in the game. I don't mean to be negative against the studio, but the normal movie that costs $50 million or however much Silent Hill cost has to have as normal a structure as possible. The way it must be written is that every 30 pages you have your act break, and every seven you have a specific story beat that leads you into your superstory beat. Everything is so finely structured that people have become programmed to it. Christophe, however, likes to blend together different kinds of cinematic movements. He's quite a bit like Hector Berlioz, in that everything is a massive musical movement that will suddenly shift to make a different piece altogether. He has no problem spending 30 pages of a screenplay without pushing the story along, just exploring a world. Then he'll push the story along in other ways.

There was a certain amount of normalisation that did eventually occur, but then there you have it.

EO: What kind of impact will Silent Hill have on the way games are adapted in the future? Will it inspire a global change across the entire field, or simply make it easier for more faithful adaptations to get the go-ahead?

Avary: I think that as videogames evolve and become more cinematic, there'll be a natural convergence. I think that one of the greatest frustrations between games and cinema is that game designers have been attempting to fall into passive entertainment. You're playing an interactive game and then suddenly you stop and you’re sitting there watching a cinematic. It's like 'well hold on a minute, this is a game and I'm not an active participant'. So I actually think that eventually game designers will realise that trying to make movies out of their games is not the key, and that it's instead creating an interactive experience full of consequence that drives the story along without stopping. Movies, by design, are passive entertainment, which is not to say that that's any worse or lesser than gaming.

Maybe the question is: will Silent Hill make game designers more comfortable? Guys like Uwe Boll have done a lot of damage, and I don’t know that one good game adaptation will undo all of it.

EO: Would you say that the way in which the movie industry's treatment of games has evolved is directly linked to the sophistication of the games themselves? In other words, have the movies been disrespectful, or have the games been too simple?

Avary: Often, you have movies that are made by people who have no idea what a control scheme is or what a gaming experience is like. Christophe is a gamer – the guy may be a filmmaker and a lover of cinema, but he loves his games. Quentin Tarantino, on the other hand, is not a gamer. He has an actual disrespect for gaming. I shouldn’t speak for him like that, but the truth is that he’s said "what am I gonna do, stick my dick into a Nintendo hard drive?" He doesn't realise, of course, that a Nintendo machine doesn't have a hard drive even if you did, in fact, stick your dick into it – that's a floppy drive [laughs]. But Christophe understands the interactive experience, and I think that as the older generation of filmmakers die off and a newer generation who are more comfortable with gaming experiences come around, those adaptations will naturally become more faithful, understanding and respectful.

EO: Would you, as a representative of the writing community, be inclined to adapt any other existing games?

Avary: You know, I'm in discussions with one gaming company right now about adapting another game into a movie, and I get approached – probably because of Silent Hill – a lot now. And I'm very cautious about what games I would choose to make into a movie. I would say that more important to me than the game itself is the filmmaker involved, and whether that's going to be somebody I can respect.

As a writer you’re interfacing with a filmmaker and it’s a long process. You really need to have a good connection with somebody if it's going to be a good movie. For example, if filmmaker X just came up to me and said: "I want to do Halo", it would really depend on just who that filmmaker was. Maybe that's a bad example - there's another writer on that already. But Grand Theft Auto, then – a game that I love – if it was the right filmmaker then I'd go for it, because it would be a great experience writing it. At this stage of my life, I have no desire to just churn out product. For me, it's about choosing the projects that I do and about making sure that the experience of making them is as good as the experience of watching them.

I don't mind saying that there is another Konami title – which I can't mention because they haven't closed the deal on it - that Christophe and Sam are in talks about right now. We've already gone into discussions about adapting that material and that would, I must say, be a dream come true.