When Hollywood screenwriter and director Zak Penn (X-Men: The Last Stand, The Avengers) was hired by Xbox to make a documentary about the mysterious burial of hundreds of Atari video game cartridges in the middle of the New Mexico desert back in 1983, he assumed he was making a spoof. Or at least “a meta commentary about documentaries,” as he puts it. For one thing, the mystery, or “urban myth” as it is often called, surrounding the video game burial wasn’t actually a myth. It’s been well-documented that in the wake of Atari’s biggest money-loser of all time, the video game version of E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (i.e. “the worst video game ever made”), the company dumped tons of returned games in a landfill in Alamogordo, a dusty town in southern New Mexico. For another, the whole premise of the film sounded a little absurd. Penn was planning to film a dig to unearth the buried games and see if they were actually there.
“I really did think, which a lot of people probably thought, we’re just gonna go out there and dig up a bunch of games and it’ll be really silly and there’ll be a media frenzy, but there’s nothing really to say about it,” says Penn.
But as he began interviewing people and delving into the research for Atari: Game Over–which was produced by Lightbox’s Simon and Jonathan Chinn, along with Xbox and can now be viewed via XBox–Penn’s perspective changed. Characters started to emerge who not only had real heart, but poignant and very surprising stories. None more so than Howard Scott Warshaw, the free-wheeling former Atari developer (he showed up on his first day at Atari with a joint to share with co-workers) who created E.T. in the insane turn-around time frame of five weeks–in itself a big part of why the game bombed. Penn also began to see a larger point to his story, one that went beyond the question of why Atari would bury video games and instead shed light on the origins story of the $64 billion dollar global games industry.
“When Seamus Blackley (the co-creator of Xbox) says in the film, ‘Three Lives was invented by a person. Flying a ship was invented by a person, and we’ve all forgotten how special it is, because it’s so ubiquitous,’ I just thought, my God, it’s just such a good point. I loved Atari and we’re talking about how great Asteroids is, even today. That’s when it became about, oh yeah, this whole innovative, brilliant thing that started this culture that we live in now has been forgotten, and many of the names have been forgotten, and Howard is a great symbol of it.”
Penn spoke to Co.Create about changing course and turning his film into an earnest love letter to ’80s video game culture; how he copes with the unknown nature of documentary filmmaking; and why making scrappy independents complements his career writing Hollywood blockbusters.
Penn knew that Warshaw was a crucial piece of his story and immediately set up interviews with him. But he was dismayed when Warshaw was dismissive about how the failure of E.T. had affected him. Despite the fact that soon after the release of the game, Atari folded and Warshaw lost his job and a career that he loved–he left the games industry for good–he told Penn that none of that bothered him. When Penn asked if it would matter at all if someone told him that E.T. was actually a good game and had just been a scapegoat, Warshaw still said, “Nope. Doesn’t matter,” Penn recalls.
It was only when Penn began talking about his own experience with failure–one of his early films, The Last Action Hero, was a dud–that Warshaw began opening up and Penn knew he had an emotional center for his film.
“I didn’t (bring up Last Action Hero) in such a calculated way,” Penn says. “It just occurred to me, because I’ve had a number of experiences in Hollywood that are like that. You write something and then some (less than great product) comes out and you have to deal with it. And people criticize you on the Internet and the next thing you know people are saying it’s the worst X ever made. But I also think what other people who were important people in the games industry were saying about him and what he did, that helped. But the main thing was going to the actual dig. We were all kind of surprised by how many people showed up and how intense the feeling was about the game; that’s all extremely genuine. You can see in the film what his reaction was.”
As Warshaw opened up, reflecting honestly and very emotionally at times, about his history at Atari and the making of E.T., Penn realized that his original plan to make a snarky documentary wasn’t going to work anymore. This meant that midway through filming he had to come up with a whole new blueprint for his project.
“As I watched my conversations with Howard it became more and more apparent that I needed to include my point of view as a fan, that it was relevant to the movie. Because originally I was going to play somewhat of a jackass version of myself and there were some very different ideas I had about how to explore all of it.
“It wasn’t until I shot a lot of stuff that I thought, ‘Oh no, I have to be sincere. I can’t put a joking voice-over about how silly the dig is if I’m making this sincere movie. That’s when I started saying, ‘Wait, I do love these games and why am I not just saying it?’”
Of course, an openness to new ideas and directions is at the very core of making a documentary, which doesn’t rely on a hard script and reveals itself in real-time filming. At times this presented challenges for Penn whose primary career is as a feature screenwriter.
“I’ve directed a couple of movies so there’s a lot of process that’s similar, given that I’ve done two improv movies. There’s a level of not knowing what you’re going to get. But obviously there’s this huge difference in terms of when you sit down to write a script, even if I’m going to direct it, you have to figure everything out in your head to the point that it actually works A to Z before you can get started. Even if it all changes, you have to do that.
“With a documentary, you have to take the opposite attitude, which is you’re trying to figure out what story you’re telling but you have to keep yourself completely open to whatever you stumble across. By the way, it was tough. It was an interesting transition for me because there were times I was trying to tell the story I thought I should tell. But it wasn’t coming out, something else was coming out. You just have to roll with it.”
While working on Atari-Game: Game Over, Penn was hired to write two other major Hollywood movies, Ready Player One and Pacific Rim 2 with Guillermo del Toro. Although the juggling created some stress, he says that working on a documentary actually helps him with his more mainstream work, both creatively and personally.
“Look, the documentary is a loss leader. You don’t get paid much for it. It takes away from the way I make my living. But the reason I did it is the same reason I went and did Incident at Loch Ness (a mockumentary he made with Werner Herzog), which is, coming off these big movies you want to do something that you have some sort of control over and that is really an expression of something personal and that you’re psyched to work on every day. I’m supposed to direct another lower-budget movie hopefully next year and there’s no question that coming off this, it’s absolutely rejuvenating. I’d so much rather make this than make something that I have mixed feelings about.
“If you call me about half the movies I worked and say, ‘Yeah, I saw it,’ I would feel the need to say to you, ‘Yeah, I know it’s not that great, here are the things that are wrong with it.’ That’s just the nature of the business. It’s almost inherently compromised and it’s very rare that you get to work on a movie where the vision–by the way, of anyone, it doesn’t have to be mine–gets carried through from beginning to end. It’s an exceedingly rare thing. Whereas with this, I’m not saying it’s perfect, but I don’t have to qualify it to you. I can say here’s the best movie I could make out of this and I’m proud of it.”