Interview with Christophe Gans and Akira Yamaoka (Director's Cut) (EGM)
Date published: 2006.02.23
An edited version of my interview with Silent Hill director Christophe Gans and composer Akira Yamaoka appeared in EGM issue #201...but here's the whole damned thing. It's kind of a huge, rambling mess, but it's also kind of awesome. I came away from this meeting really impressed with Gans–he truly seems to get the game, and I have high hopes for the film.
EGM: What drew you to this project? Did the stigma of working on a videogame-based film deter you?
Christophe Gans: Adapting the games presented a major challenge. It's the most complicated game to adapt, for all the reasons that gamers across the world know: the aesthetic has no equivalent; it's maybe the only game with such an important back-story. The mythology of Silent Hill has been built through several games, and each of them is remarkable. And the characters in the games have that twisted quality which makes them very special for every gamer. And the game by itself was an amazing experience...so yeah, for all these reasons; it was a major challenge to put that game on screen. It was impossible for me to do Silent Hill and not be serious about it.
One guarantee that fans can have, is that it's much easier to adapt Doom, even if it is a disaster, as we've seen a month before, then adapt Silent Hill. If you want to adapt Silent Hill, and you're not ready to face all of the complexity of the story, it's just too much. For a lazy director, like the one who directed Doom, simply Silent Hill would be too big of a piece to swallow. I dreamed of adapting this game when I first started playing Silent Hill six years ago. I prepared myself for six years to do this job, knowing that every fan in the world would wait for me with an axe. I will be sniped when I go to buy my games at my favorite store if I do a bad job. And I understand that, I'm a fan of the game myself...I admire the work of Akira and his friends, and I feel very much like someone who joined the group and tried to transport that amazing piece of art into a different medium. The responsibility is huge and I know that: I like the challenge and in every film I try to face a very specific challenge. I love the fandom and I understand these people, and how tense they get when they hear–your favorite game is going to be adapted by some French guy–oh my god! It's understandable, and that's part of why doing this film was so great–the danger. You can't make a good film without feeling some sense of danger.
EGM: It's impressive that you actually tackled the mythology of the games rather than creating a simpler story...was that something you intended from the project's outset?
Gans: Yes, in fact, when we decided to do Silent Hill, we wanted to do the second game. It was very natural, since that game is the favorite of every fan, and it's the one with the most beautiful world, and it's the most emotional one of all four. Every gamer who finished the game knows what I'm talking about–it's a very tragic and romantic game, and it's a beautiful adaptation of the myth of Orpheus–going to hell to bring back Eurydice. It was not a real Silent Hill, though–the town serves as the background to the story, but it's not really about the mythology. So, when we decided to do the film, we thought that we wanted to do the second one, but we realized that it was impossible to talk about Silent Hill and not talk about why this town is like that. So we realized that we had to adapt the first one. Of course, when I say adapt, I mean to transpose onto the big screen in a different medium, the mythology and atmosphere of Silent Hill. Of course, we were facing the fact that the characters that we love so much were designed for games, and not to be played by real actors. It became readily apparent when we began to write the script and had to deal with the character of Harry Mason.
We realized after two weeks in the writing process that Harry was actually motivated by feminine, almost maternal feelings. To be true to the character, it was very odd and difficult to write for him. He worked fine in the game, but for a real actor, it was too strange. It's not that he's effeminate, but he's acting like a woman. So if we wanted to keep the character, we would have to change other aspects of him'but it seemed like a mockery to keep a guy called Harry Mason and change everything about his character. Essentially, all the people who love Silent Hill are more interested in seeing the mood and atmosphere of the games whether than if a certain character is wearing pants or a dress. Also, when we decided to adapt the characters of Sybil and Dhalia, we found it difficult, mainly because they appear only sparsely in the game. When you have to create a narrative arc for these characters, you have to work really hard. So, the people are going to recognize Silent Hill–the atmosphere, the fog, the dark streets, the creatures, and the mythology–but the characters are now written for the big screen. These are not precisely the characters from the game–they are the same, but written for real actors. And I want to warn everybody, because I know how much we all love these characters, even with so-so dialogue and stuff like that–but we love them. But, I didn't want to do what they did with Resident Evil: Apocalypse when they put Jill Valentine on screen. I mean, that's a perfect example: I love Jill Valentine–in the game, but not on screen. I mean, I'm sorry, but just dressing a girl like her doesn't make her the character. That was a boundary that I had to step over with Silent Hill, it's a very serious game, and it has a unique quality–so we had to treat it with respect. It's a big film, a $50million project with 600 special effect shots, and it ran more than two hours. I guarantee that we have really tried to respect the mythology, because trying to do this film in less than 2 hours would be like cutting everywhere. Yet I still had to make some sacrifices. There is a character that I love named the Red Nurse, and she's in the film briefly, but I'd love to explore more of her character if we one day do the second movie–she's a really beautiful character, and you will see that she's great in the film. I needed to have three hours just to explore the rich mythology. I wrote the film with two other directors, Nicolas Boukhrief and Roger Avery, which was interesting since we're all gamers, directors, and fans of Silent Hill. It was not the usual director-writer exchange; it was more of a gamer-to-gamer sharing of ideas.
EGM: Did you feel a need to make elements of the mythology more concrete, to explain them to the audience?
Gans: It's a delicate balance, because in the game we are basically following one character, and this character is more or less finding little clues that tell a back-story. And games have a tendency to stay cryptic with their back-story, and it's interesting because it's up to the imagination of the gamer to figure out everything that is happening. In a film, we can change the perspective when we want. We can show what Silent Hill was like before it became a ghost town. We can show precisely what Silent Hill is like in reality–we've never seen that before. In the game, there are two Silent Hills–the Silent Hill of darkness and the Silent Hill of fog. But when you have to tell a story about something that happened 30 years ago in a town, and that town suddenly became like the Bermuda Triangle, you have to add two more dimensions: the reality and Silent Hill from 30 years ago. So basically, we had to deal with four dimensions, and jump between them at will. It makes the concept very exciting, it's very compelling to juggle the story between those different incarnations of the same place. If we want to explain what happened with Alessa, we are dealing with the theme of doppelgangers. For every fan that has read the synopsis of the first game's story in the strategy guide of Silent Hill 3, they all know that we are dealing with doppelgangers–and it's a very cross-cultural concept, both Japan and Europe have this myth. But in Japan, it means that every character has aspects of a God and aspects of a devil inside them. It's a very shocking concept if we attempt to transpose that into a North American, traditionally Christian perspective. The line between good and evil is much more clearly in North America, especially today. And here we are dealing with a character who has the capacity to split, and when you realize that Alessa is no longer one character, but many, it explains the story of the town. It's interesting because the town itself mirrors this fractured psychology–different dimensions, different doubles of the same person. It's very interesting, but I'm only the illustrator of this mythology that has been invented by this guy and his friend, and it was important to be true to it, and if possible, to expand it some direction–to make a Romanesque vision of Silent Hill. A little like what Clive Barker does in his novels Webworld and Imagica, to complete a complete world of horror, where the creatures are more like gods and demons that traditional monsters. It's like a metaphorical vision, and I think that Silent Hill is exactly on this ground. I say this humbly, as I'm not the creator...but I think that the world of Silent Hill is unique, and that it has no equivalent in cinema. The horror is no longer confined to a space like a room or a house, but rather opened up into a whole town that exists in different dimensions. That, for me, is what games can bring to cinema: new perspective, new dimension, and a break from the idea that stories can be told in a line–now, stories can be told on a moebius strip. And only David Lynch has tried to do something like that–with Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, both contain different stories that turn onto themselves, lighting each other with different elements. Adapting Silent Hill, I felt that I had to expand on it in order to not be simply didactic about it: to just say, "This is the story of a little girl named Alessa, blah blah blah." If you really want to be respectful with the original creation, you have to expand it. I think that for fans of the series, the film will be very respectful and sometimes, full of surprises.
EGM: It's surprising how much you seem to get the game...
Gans: Most directors aren't spending one third of their life playing games. (laughs)
EGM: What does Akira think of the additions Christophe has made to the world of Silent Hill?
Akira Yamaoka: After seeing the film, I think that Christophe has really expressed the elements of Silent Hill, and he's really kept the themes alive in this new medium. Silent Hill is not just a horror game, there is human drama rooted very deeply in the story, and I feel that he expressed that very well with the visuals, sounds, and atmosphere in the film. By watching the film, I feel that you'll get a clearer and deeper understanding of the world of Silent Hill, more so than simply playing the games.
EGM: Do you feel that the film will affect your future work?
Yamaoka: Most definitely. I'll probably be very influenced by Christophe's film. I don't like to call my work "videogames," I prefer to call it "interactive entertainment." And Silent Hill is one of the titles that I've worked upon where I tried to take that approach, and after seeing this work on the film, I've witnessed many ideas that I can use in my future works.
EGM: Given your fandom, have you considered trying your hand at producing or directing a game?
Gans: Yeah, because as a director who is also a gamer, I like to think that there are two different ways to tell a story, and sometimes it can be like a dialogue between a film and a game. For me, the Silent Hill film attempts to interact with the game–it's very interesting. As Akira said, he's working in a global interactive medium, and the line between games, manga, and film are blurred. It's not just a way to sell more products, but it's also the best way to create a world, and make it more compelling for more people. I'd like to think that people would come and see the film who might not know the game, like a 40-year-old woman, for example, and she might enjoy it and then realize that it's an adaptation of a videogame. Now, I don't expect her to play the game, but for her to realize that games are important, and that they deal with human emotions, not only carnage. Most of the people have a very caricatured vision of videogamers, and actually, gamers are very intelligent. Games are a form of art. I realized that when I played through Silent Hill. Of course, I was a big fan of Miyamoto's work, and I considered him to be an artist. Playing through the Legend of Zelda, for example, was a beautiful, poetic moment. Playing through Silent Hill is very serious, and adult, of course–and that was the moment that I realized that gaming would become an important medium for storytelling. The quality of immersion is very difficult to reach with cinema. If we are altogether working in the right direction, I feel that people will begin to take it more seriously. And I feel that it's extremely stupid for films like Doom to come out and reflect poorly on games. Personally, I love Doom the game–it was not only about killing creatures, but it was also about the landscape and atmosphere, to be alone in this huge, scary place–to have all these deadly creatures all around. Then to see this guy saying these stupid one-liners in this boring corridors without windows: Where is Doom? I'm sorry, guys, but Doom is not all about running around corridors shooting at fucking zombies. Doom could be, for some people, a poetic experience. Close to the level of Lovecraft. Where is that? We have to treat these games with respect, and that is important. I'm ready to have people dislike my work on Silent Hill, but at least they will say that what I did was done with respect. I respect these kids, and I understand them. I have a nephew who's 20, and for him, games are really important. He likes me as an uncle, because I'll play games with him. He feels like we actually live on the same planet, and it's because I understand games. If you want to understand a young guy, you have to play games with him. That's all. It's part of what we are. Adapting Silent Hill was very special: It's not like adapting a comic book, it's actually talking about ourselves.
Yesterday, Akira told me that he was surprised that he'd see exactly the right angle for a shot in the film–and it's not because I've played the game right before we shot, it's because I've been to Silent Hill. Part of my life was spent there. It was like traveling to a foreign country, and then coming back and trying to make a movie out of my memories. Playing games is not just a waste of time; I value those 10 hours I spent in the dark, strange town, while trying to figure out what was happening to me. Games today, when they are successful, are like dreams. In this post-Freudian era, we should give games the same importance that we give dreams.
EGM: It certainly doesn't help our industry when a major critic like Roger Ebert comes out and says that "games are not art"
Gans: Fuck him. You know, I will say to this guy that only has to read the critiques against cinema at the beginning of the 20th century. It was seen as a degenerate version of live stage musicals. And this was a time when visionary directors like Griffith were working. That means that Ebert is wrong. It's simple. Most people who despise a new medium are simply afraid to die, so they express their arrogance and fear like this. He will realize that he is wrong on his deathbed. Human beings are stupid, and we often become assholes when we get old. Each time some new medium appears, I feel that it's important to respect it, even if it appears primitive or naive at first, simply because some people are finding important things in it. If you have one guy in the world who thinks that Silent Hill or Zelda is a beautiful, poetic work, then that games means something. Art only exists in the eye of the beholder. You know, I saw The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly when I was eight, and I thought it was a masterpiece. And at that time, I felt like I was alone thinking that. But now, it's commonly accepted as being a classic, so I was right!
EGM: The various representations of evil in Silent Hill have always interested me–how did you approach that in the film?
Gans: Because Silent Hill comes from a part of the world where the line between good and evil is blurred more so than in the West, it's very interesting to deal with that. Since you haven't seen the film, I don't want to go too deeply into that, but I will say that for me, it was interesting to define what exactly is evil in the world of today. In a world, where many people all over the world start to be confused as to whether or not they are on the side of good. I think it's an important question to raise. Until five years ago, we were living in a world that was a product of the Second World War. It was very clear that we were on the good side. But many things have happened in the last few years, and now people aren't so sure about that. In Silent Hill, I don't attempt to answer these questions, but I do try to illustrate them. And I think it's one of the most important objectives of the horror genre, to ask the right questions. Horror is actually a very political genre. It's become more and more interesting, because Silent Hill is a Japanese creation, and we bring our own complex morality to it. We know that in the game we have to do certain actions that are morally ambiguous, like in the first game where you have to kill Sybil. I remember I said to a friend of mine that this game was very disturbing to play, because you're not just alone physically, but also alone morally. That's the world of today. Each day, we're forced to reevaluate our own morality. Years ago, I feel that rock music was able to express that feeling of alienation, but now it's games like Silent Hill that approach those subjects. The monsters in the game are not really monsters, but rather a mockery of human beings. The real monsters are the people, the cultists who tortured Alessa. When I approached the film, I knew that it was impossible to represent the monsters as simply beasts that jump on you.
EGM: The juxtaposition of psychological horror and splatter horror was important to the game–how did you balance that in the film?
Gans: First, I thought that it was important to not make the movie an action movie. It's going to surprise people who know my work, as I have the reputation as an action director. But the first thing that I tried to do was to respect the game by not putting action into the film. So don't expect a gun to have more than five bullets in it, just like in the game. The movie is very physical, people have to run and jump, but it's not an action film. I didn't want a girl with machine guns shooting monsters.
EGM: So it's not Tomb Raider, then?
Gans:: No, but Tomb Raider is OK. I mean, that's the definition of Lara Croft, and she's a beautiful icon. She has a beautiful butt, and she has long pigtails, and she's sexy with her big boobs, and we love to see her crawling in narrow spaces. That's enough! I'm a big fan of the first Tomb Raider film. But personally, I would not adapt that, because I don't see the purpose. I think that a CG film based on that game would be successful. I like Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, but that really has no meaning. For Silent Hill, it's very different–the characters aren't idealized versions of what we want to be, they're not action heroes. Instead, they are twisted versions of our psyche. It's why it was possible to adapt it to film very well, actually. These characters have a feeling of reality.
EGM: What MPAA rating are you expecting?
EGM: Was that always what you were aiming for, because PG-13 horror is whack.
Gans: It's definitely R. There are some sequences. (laughs). Oh my god. This film is dealing with a child of 10 who's being tortured. I don't think that's PG-13 material. Even if you want to treat it elegantly, it's still a story about a bunch of people who torture a kid. It's horrible! It's not a movie for kids. It's not a game for kids. You will see, we have added some moments that are very dark–the violence is very straightforward. We don't build the movie on the violence, but when it arrives, it's quite shocking, factual, and cold. The violence is very unpleasant. If you want to tell the story of Silent Hill and make the meaning of that story complete, you have to face up to the torture of Alessa. It's a town of people trapped in dark dreams, and she inflicts onto the town what those people did to her body. That is, to me, the meaning of the darkness. The appearance of the town is corrupted in the way that her own flesh was wounded. So yeah, it's definitely an R rated film.
EGM: You seem so passionate about this project–will you be able to say goodbye to the project, or do you hope to go on to a sequel?
Gans: Of course, I would love to come back. Actually, it's funny–when we were writing the script, we were working with the actors around a table, and so we were always bringing new elements to it. And when you are dealing with women, the notion of violence is very different, and you must be very sensitive. Questions arose from the actresses about what happened to their characters after the end of the film. And of course, Silent Hill 3 is a direct continuation of the first game's plot–I think that it would be very possible to do a sequel to this film. As I said, Silent Hill is a complete mythology, and I did what I could in 2 hours, but I would love to tell much more about the Red Nurse, Claudia, and the Doctor. Plus, there is a fifth dimension of Silent Hill–how it existed in the 18th century, during the Salem witch-hunts. It's so big, and so interesting, and would love to jump back on the horse.
EGM: What was the most influential horror movie that inspired you as a child?
Gans: My favorite horror film is the Haunting, made in 1963 by Robert Wise, with Julia Harris. It's a movie about a haunted house, it has been badly remade by Jan de Bont a few years ago. For me it's the most frightening movie I've ever seen. Really. Recently, I was very impressed by the Japanese original Ringu, I think it's a beautiful film. I like what in Japan they call kaiten, or "ghost story". It's very interesting because they say that ghosts exist because of the guilt. Not because of there is an afterlife, but because people who linger on after death are guilty. I like this idea, and it's one of the ways to explain Silent Hill. It's a place on earth where the guilt inhabits houses and streets. It's a place where guilt is a town.
EGM: How does the score for the film compare to that of the games?
Yamaoka: I didn't really want to change the style too much, I wanted the game and the film to mesh.
EGM: Any vocal tracks for the film?
Yamaoka: There may be some vocal tracks, but I don't want them to interfere with the atmosphere of the film–instrumental score provides a better balance.
EGM: What was the process like for composing the film's score?
Yamaoka: Actually, I'm just starting now–and by seeing the film I got immediate inspiration for how certain tracks would fit into the film. I'm actually really inspired after seeing Christophe's film.
EGM: Can you tell us anything about your original album coming out?
Yamaoka: Yes, I do have a CD coming out, but it's not really related to games. It's my personal collection of original works, and I hope that anyone interested will track down the import, since it's only available in Japan.
EGM: What has the whole Silent Hill movie project meant to you?
Yamaoka: I never dreamed in my wildest dreams that Silent Hill would ever become a feature film, so I must say that I'm extremely grateful for the chance to work on this project. The approach that we took when making the games was not typical–many of our team members really loved film, so we did approach the game from a more filmic perspective. We were heavily influenced by films, but at the same time we tried to create with Silent Hill something that's not a game or a film that can touch the users' emotions. We didn't want to make it into a normal game where you just press buttons to jump, shoot, and run. We wanted to touch their hearts deeply. That kind of emotional potential was generally reserved for other forms of art, but I think that we were able to succeed. And now, to see these filmmakers take inspiration from our game, that was a very emotional moment for me. It's incredible.
EGM: For many fans, the best parts of the games aren't the ones that are traditionally videogamey...
Yamaoka: Yes, that's what I think also. It's not the shooting and killing that are that compelling. Because the monsters are taking the shape of your own guilt, it reflects your desire to be punished, but at the same time you're scared of the monster and don't want to be attacked. Those two opposite feelings are mixed inside, and that's what makes it interesting. Christophe has really succeeded in translating that image into the film, and I was really impressed.
EGM: Can you give us any clue as to the future direction for your games?
Yamaoka: Yes, I would like to try to expand the boundaries of videogaming with the new hardware. Certainly, we can create some amazing visuals, but if you look at the games, it's still the same stuff that's been made since the NES era. Better graphics, but the same concepts. I want to expand the scope of interactive entertainment with my work in the future.
EGM: What do you think of the Nintendo Revolution?
Yamaoka: I'm very interested in it, but I don't think that Silent Hill would fit very well with the Nintendo demographic. (laughs) I feel a lot of potential for it though, and I would definitely like to try working on that system.