Directors Lisanne Pajot and James Swirsky call "Indie Game: The Movie" an "inspiring, cautionary tale." It explores the world of independent game development through developers of three games: Super Meat Boy, FEZ and Braid.
The film opens Friday May 18 at New York's IFC Center, with select cities to follow.
The duo has been building anticipation on the film's website, where they interact with the gaming community and write about the process of making the film, including two Kickstarter campaigns. The film has been getting great buzz at the festival for its univeral take on passion, craft and art, but it's also getting the seal of approval from the gaming community. And HBO has acquired adaptation rights for a fiction comedy series that Scott Rudin will oversee.
The two filmmakers, who have been worked together for the past five years in Canada on works-for-hire and a television series on green construction, spoke with Indiewire about what they learned from the indie game industry as independent filmmakers.
How did you both come to this project?
Lisanne: Before this, we were doc makers for commission. The province of Manitoba commissioned us to do some docs of a game developer. Through meeting him, we got access to and we found out about the game developers' conference in San Francisco, which is this huge thing with game developers there. We were also there for a gig.
When we were filming that we found the Independent Game Summit, which is like the Sundance there — all these independent developers working on their games. We were just blown away by the stories people were sharing and how personally invested they were. The games looked amazing, and we were just floored that one or two people could make games like this and then reach the world. It was just emotionally compelling for us and we sort of related to it.
James: Yeah, and when you hear their story of creating the game, and it's kind of hearbreaking and inspiring — all the ups and downs that they have. The more you hear that story, the more it becomes evident that the game ends up morphing into an extension of themselves in a way. When you play the game, you actually feel it. You can tell the game was actually made by someone. It's a very intriguing concept to us.
Lisanne: They're making games in this ecosystem where they're now reaching millions of people with digital distribution. It's just one- or two-man teams using accessible technology to reach the world through the Internet. We had started to see tons of big successes happen. They're making this art — this personal thing for themselves — but they're also reaching tons of people, so there's this tension that we were interested in.
The kinds of things that these game developers are doing, their tactics and their mindsets are things that indie filmmakers could keep in mind. What did you think of the developers' work ethic and approach to their work?
James: These are people that are completely compelled to make these games. Even if they weren't going to sell a million copies, they would still make this game, even if that prospect wasn't there. It's something they're compelled to do, they're very independent-minded people. They have a certain point of view that they want to express that doesn't fit within traditional infrastructure or traditional industry. Super Meat Boy would have happened even if Xbox Live Arcade wasn't there. They would have made that game or a version of that game and even if it didn't succeed, they would be making their next game.
Lisanne: This film has a very do-it-yourself spirit, and it's because it's what we value, it's what we're doing. We're doing the same thing! Like Jamie was saying, these people would create regardless, even if they weren't successful. Although in the moment, when you have all this money on the line, and you have all this time on the line, it gets pretty intense.
What do you see as the relationship between these two indie industries — the one you're working in and the one you're showing in this film?
Lisanne: They're in the Wild West. They're at the beginning of a movement, which is what brought us to this. It's exciting things are happening. Just like film was in the 90's. They are achieving immense success so quickly, and I think that's incredible. They're reaching people directly from the beginning. In the film, you see there's an Internet conversation that's happening early on, which is both good and bad.
James: In terms of the parallels, it's very similar to the situation we went through. We see ourselves in it a lot. We didn't make this in a traditional way, filmmaking wise, although I think more and more people are doing it the way we did it. We were filming the same — two people using accessible technology, working straight for 18 months to release a game. And it just seemed our stories were the exact same. It's like they were six months ahead in the future of us.
What lines or scenes from your subjects have you been throwing around?
James: There's a line from Phil Fish when he's about to show Fez at Pax for the first time. He says, "It's real. Everything's real. It's happening." Four years of work, and he's finally showing it to the public!
Lisanne: I also didn't really understand when we were shooting: In the film, there's reactions to getting reviews and stuff and people have differing reactions to the reviews. At first, I was like, wouldn't you be so happy to get a good review?
What does it feel like to make a film for this particular community, which as your film shows has this dedicated and intense fan base?
James: They'll let you know if they love you, and they'll let you know if they don't love you.
Lisanne: It's incredible. The film wouldn't have happened with all of those people. There's almost 4,000 people who have supported the film and it's so cool, and it's also so stressful because you don't want to disappoint those people. You spent all this time communicating with people, and you spent all this time telling them, "It's gonna be good. You're gonna like it." We had two Kickstarter campaigns and a website that people responded to.
James: The very thing that made this thing happened is the same thing that is really scary. This community is really passionate about the subject.
Lisanne: And it's so wonderful. We get amazing emails on a daily basis, but only people at Sundance have seen the film. Only a few hundred people have seen it.
With all of this energy surrounding you, what do you want to do next?
James: It's so crazy, you get so myopic in the Sundance thing. You're so scheduled; you look two hours ahead.
Lisanne: No, you look 15 minutes ahead. We haven't really slept.
James: I think in the general sense, there's definitely inspiration going on. It's very validating. This is something I thought would never happen at all. Sundance is where your heroes go and where heroes are born; it's the kind of stuff you just read about. It's something that we never really thought would happen, and all these crazy things are happening. I really can't wait to start shooting again; it's been way too long! For a while there, I wouldn't go two weeks without shooting. But now it's been five months.
Did you watch the film when it premiered?
Lisanne: We watched it with the audience twice. The premiere, I felt like I was sweating through my clothes. And then going to Salt Lake City — such a great experience of having a real audience of people getting engaged with it.
James: The premiere was weird because you're so nervous. You're paying attention to every fidget, every cough. And then you read into it — you're just in a weird headspace.
Lisanne: I was kind of surprised there was a five-year-old who came up to us afterwards asking about all the games.
James: That was one of the things that convinced Edmund to do the film, he wanted to inspire someone. He made the game for his 13-year-old self. In a way, he participated in the movie for the 13-year-old version of himself. He was kind of looking at this as an opportunity to give back and pay it forward.