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The Strange Story Of When George Saunders First Met Virtual Reality

How a young VR director convinced the technophobic fiction writer to take a high-tech plunge and create a VR tie-in for his new novel.

The Strange Story Of When George Saunders First Met Virtual Reality
Lincoln in the Bardo VR experience

Graham Sack has never been the sort of guy content to do one thing. He was for many years an actor, on stage and in films. He’s a PhD candidate in comparative literature at Columbia. He recently sold a screenplay about a math genius who gamed the Texas lottery. Combining his interests in literature and movies, he had long dreamed of adapting something by the writer George Saunders, whose writing Sack fell in love with a decade ago when reading a dystopian Saunders story in The New Yorker.

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With so many interests, Sack is the sort of person who wouldn’t think twice about reinventing himself as a director of virtual reality films, which is what he decided to do a little over a year ago. In late 2015, he and his girlfriend saw someone in a New York café fiddling around with a VR headset, which they’d never seen before. They approached the stranger, who it turned out was visiting New York from Austin, befriended him, and tried out the headset. Within a few months, Sack decided to fly down to Austin to visit his new friend and attempt to shoot something himself.

While in Austin, Sack was sitting in a café paging through a local newsletter when he saw that George Saunders was scheduled to speak at Book People, a local bookstore. Sack checked the time: Saunders’s talk was actually happening that very minute.

Lincoln in the Bardo VR experience

It all felt like kismet. Some of Sack’s favorite Saunders stories had seemed to anticipate emerging virtual reality and augmented reality technologies. Sack wondered: had the author himself actually sampled these technologies? Sack rushed back to his Airbnb, grabbed the VR headset he’d been playing with, and called an Uber to Book People.

By the time he arrived, Sack had missed the talk entirely, but fans were in line to meet Saunders and have their books signed. Sack filed into the rear of the line, his VR headset in tow.

Finally, it was Sack’s turn to speak to Saunders. Sack introduced himself quickly, and asked: Might Saunders like to sample virtual reality?

In case you haven’t read George Saunders, know that his short stories are infused with techno-skepticism. Many of them present dystopian science fiction worlds where people are manipulated by, or manipulate each other with, various forms of digital machinery. So approaching the author to ask him to put on a scary VR headset was a big ask.

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“I think he was curious, but very off-put at the same time,” recalls Sack. What’s more, Sack was proposing that Saunders try VR for the first time in a public place (the managers of Book People were still milling about). When Saunders hesitated, Sack explained: “You are already doing virtual reality.” The technology that Saunders portrayed in his stories was here. Wasn’t it time he sampled it?

Saunders acquiesced. Soon, Sack was fumbling nervously to get the Samsung headset on his favorite living author. After a few false starts with the menu–“super awkward,” recalls Sack–he managed to boot up his favorite VR film, Chris Milk’s “Evolution of Verse,” a poetic short whose highlight may be the moment a train charges at the camera before transforming into a flock of birds.

At last, the film was running. One of America’s foremost literary figures now stood with a headset strapped to his face in the back of an Austin bookstore beside the table where he had been signing books a few moments before. “Ah jeez . . .” Saunders said as the VR film progressed. “Oh boy, it’s coming right at me,” he said, bumping into the table.

The film ended, and Sack helped Saunders take off the headset. Sack waited anxiously for Saunders’s verdict.

“What else should I see?” asked the author.


Sack told Saunders he would be eager to collaborate sometime. They traded emails. Weeks went by. “It was basically radio silence for a month,” recalls Sack.

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Then, suddenly, Sack got an email from Penguin Random House. They said that Saunders had been thinking a lot about the VR, and invited Sack in for a talk.

Sack assumed he’d have the chance to pitch a VR adaptation of a Saunders short story, so he spent weeks combing through every short story Saunders had written, jotting ideas of which ones might work in the medium. But when Sack got to his meeting at Penguin Random House, they sprung a surprising idea on him: Would Sack be interested in making a companion VR short for Saunders’s forthcoming debut novel, Lincoln in the Bardo?

Lincoln in the Bardo

Now it was Sack who was slightly hesitant. Saunders’s dystopian short fiction was a natural fit for VR, but Lincoln in the Bardo was a period piece (about, among other things, Abraham Lincoln’s mourning the death of his son, Willie). Was it even suited to a medium of the future like virtual reality?

Sack took the novel home and started reading it. And soon, he came to an early, major scene in the novel, where Lincoln cradles the dead body of his son, a sort of paternal Pietà. “I read it, and the tears came, and I was like, ‘I want to do this scene,’” says Sack. The scene was highly visual, rooted in one place, and had a theatrical quality–all elements VR excelled in handling, Sack had come to feel.

Sack agreed to do the film, entering into a production partnership with the New York Times. (Though the Times has been doing VR journalism for over a year, this is its first foray into scripted, fictional VR. Other production partners for the film are the New York VR firm Sensorium, and the San Francisco literary studio Plympton.) After navigating a complex, precedent-setting contract negotiation–never before has a novel launched with a VR tie-in–Sack worked on the film through the summer and fall. Finally, by November, Sack had a rough cut of the film to show Saunders.

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They met in a New York hotel: only their second in-person encounter.

Again, Sack fumbled to put the headset on Saunders. And as Saunders watched the film, he scrutinized the author’s every reaction. He was particularly nervous about what Saunders would think about the moment in the short film where Lincoln cradles Willie’s body. Would he find it moving, or maudlin?

Sack had by now tested the film on enough people that he knew exactly where they were in the film based on the most subtle movements of their faces. As Saunders approached the big moment with Willie, Sack braced himself.

Finally, the author spoke. “I’m fucking crying in here man,” he said.

And indeed, when the film’s last moments were over and Saunders removed the headset, his eyes were red. He said that watching Sack’s film helped him relive the pathos he’d felt when originally composing the Lincoln-and-Willie Pietà.

You can experience the scene now, too, in various forms. Lincoln in the Bardo itself went on sale last week, along with a companion audiobook (featuring performances from Nick Offerman and others). The VR companion piece can be found via the NYT VR app, or experienced less immersively on YouTube.

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“Honestly, it’s the most fulfilling project I’ve ever been involved in,” says Sack now.

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal.

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