Zak Penn interview: Atari: Game Over, Ready Player One

Writer/director Zak Penn talks about his documentary Atari: Game Over, resilience in Hollywood, Ready Player One & Last Action Hero.

Having begun his sceenwriting career in the early 1990s, Zak Penn has worked on a varied range of film, TV and videogame projects. He co-wrote the original screenplay for Last Action Hero in 1991, a satire of action movies ultimately brought to the screen after several rewrites in 1993. He later worked on X2 (2003), directed the one-of-a-kind mockumentary Incident at Loch Ness with Werner Herzog, and collaborated with Simon Kinberg on X-Men: The Last Stand. Penn’s most recent project as director is Atari: Game Over, a documentary about the collapse of Atari in the early 80s and the burial of E.T. videogame cartridges in the New Mexico desert.

With Atari: Game Over out on video-on-demand on the 2nd February, we spoke to Penn about the making of the documentary and the surprisingly warm story it tells. Penn also talks about his memories of Hollywood in the early 90s, seeing his first screenplay become the altogether different star vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, his part in the rise of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and a little bit about his adaptation of Ready Player One.

I know from the documentary that you were into gaming, but at what point did the film come together?

I got hired a year ago in the fall, maybe November. I was approached by the people at the former Xbox Entertainment, and as soon as they told me what the documentary was about I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”

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At that point, a number of people had already started researching and prepping and doing other things, so I came into it with half the research already done, and set about making it.

It’s a fun look at one of gaming’s big legend, but I think it says something serious at the same time, which is that Atari’s collapse really affected people – including [E.T. designer] Howard Scott Warshaw. Did it feel good to be able to tell that story?

Sure. Always, with a documentary, you find your characters as you’re going. It was one thing when I met Howard, because he’s a really good conversationalist, and very smart. But really, it was when I started talking to other people in the business about Howard’s legacy – some of which you see in the movie – that I realised that it wasn’t one guy who did good work, it was everybody. Particularly people who really know gaming – they have a lot of respect for him, and for Atari as well. It’s all been buried under this myth, so as that started to come out of the interviews, I started to realise that there’s an emotional story here.

Howard didn’t admit, at first, that he cared. When I first talked to him about it, he’d say, “I think it’s funny that people think it’s a bad game. I don’t care. It doesn’t hurt my feelings. I’ve moved on.”

Which I thought was pretty shocking. How I got through to him was by saying, I’ve worked on movies where they’ve been destroyed, and then they were huge disasters and you have to live with it like an albatross. I can’t believe that you wouldn’t want the record set straight. I think part of his evolved nature is to say, “No, no, I don’t let it bother me.” But once the movie actually happening, and he got down to Alamagordo and saw the reaction, it was hard to deny.

So that was pretty satisfying, to see him work through it, and see how much people appreciate his work. I never really expected that. 

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The crowds that you had there, it’s amazing how interested people still are in the whole story.

Completely. I really thought there’d be 50 people, I mean honestly. I really thought that it’s so out of the way, it’s really unpleasant. What are they there to see anyway? We’re there to dig up some old trash. I’m of the age where I grew up with Atari, but a lot of the people who showed up aren’t. It makes sense for me to have nostalgia about it as I talk about the movie, but I was really surprised and impressed by how many people there were who didn’t grow up with Atari but still felt the same way. It was a very nice surprise.

As I say, the documentary talks about Atari and the crash that occurred in America, but it wasn’t to do with just one game – it was a series of bad business decisions and other forces at work. Pac-Man could easily have been blamed just as much as E.T.

One of the things that interested me as well, which is why it was a no-brainer for me, is that I’m also attracted to stories about myths. Particularly urban myths – the stories that emerge from actual events, but turn into their own monster – in this case, the monster being this particular [E.T. burial] legend.

I really like figuring out, why do people want the story to take this shape? What is the collective mind of the fans or the culture that pushed it into this format? There’s got to be a reason for it. We see what we want to see, to a certain extent, so why do we want to see this? For me, that was the other element of this story that was so compelling.

Here’s a thing that happened and was reported on, so it’s not really a myth. And the explanations of why they would have done it don’t really make any sense from any objective viewpoint. And also, the details of it are conflated – the idea that it destroyed the videogame industry, so they buried it. Well, that doesn’t make any sense, because the videogames industry wasn’t yet destroyed when they buried it.

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So all of that is pretty fun to unpack, and it tells you something about the way people think. That’s the same experience when I made Incident at Loch Ness, many years ago – there’s a reason why a story pushes in different directions. There’s a reason why people don’t say, “Oh, it’s a big fish that looks different than other fish.” No, there’s way more to it than that, there’s got to be.

That was the part I knew I was going to get. The part I didn’t know I was going to get was Howard’s story and the emotional content. That’s really what makes the movie. 

It’s actually quite moving to see it brought full-circle for him: he could see his role in history for what it was – the great games he made as well as this supposed worst game of all time.

Listen, I’m used to writing fiction where, when you get that reaction from the audience, it feels really good. When we screened this at Comic-Con, and Howard was actually there, literally hundreds of people stood up and gave him a standing ovation at the end of the movie. There’s definitely an extra bonus to doing something like this, which is very little to do with me, frankly. And that’s watching this guy actually find redemption – to witness people reconsider his work is really satisfying. Even if the movie sucked it would be satisfying.

Another thing the documentary touches on as well is the excess that happened at Atari at the time. I was wondering: you’ve been involved in the games industry and the movie industry in different capacities. So how do the tales of excess compare?

Well, I think that was definitely a particular place and time. And what’s compelling about hearing those stories about Atari – that level of irreverence… look, they didn’t know how much money was at stake. Not the people running the company or the people working there really understood that this was going to turn into a billion dollar company. When you know what you’re getting into, there’s going to be a lot less smoking pot and rolling down hills when you realise that you stand to make millions of dollars. I think back then I think it was just a pure, “This is just fun – I can’t believe we’re doing this for a living.” That led to the Animal House-like atmosphere.

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I think the same is true in the movie business. Apparently, in the 70s and 80s, the excess was pretty extreme, but by the time I got to Hollywood in 1990, things had definitely calmed down. Not as calm as they are today, certainly, where if you did drugs in a meaning you would be thrown off the lot – that was certainly not true even in 1990. There was definitely a lot more crazy stuff going on, but it paled compared to the stuff in the 70s I think.

The movie business is a fairly loose business – it’s a lot of creative people getting together, so it’s not like going to work in an office. But the corporate side of the movie business is corporate now. All those companies are owned by big corporations. It’s funny, you look, in this movie, at Warner Bros. It’s a big corporation, right? But Warner Bros is nothing compared to Time Warner. Because it was still a company started by a guy who owned it. It wasn’t so huge.

Now they’re all international – look at Sony. Sony can’t afford to have its executives doing crazy shit on the lot, you know? Nor the people who worked for them. Times have definitely changed. I wish I could tell you that my life as a screenwriter is filled with one crazy party after the other. It was more so at the beginning. On the first couple of movies I worked on, there was some pretty hilarious excess, but it’s not really how things work anymore. 

I’m guessing it takes an awful lot of resilience to be a screenwriter in Hollywood.

I think that’s fair to say. The one compliment I’m prepared to accept is that it takes a pretty thick skin and a lot of rejection to stay in the business. You have to early on learn how to steel yourself against a fairly brutal assault against whatever you’ve done, and pick it up to drive you onto the next thing.

Frankly, the internet has only exacerbated that. If you do something and people don’t like it, you have to say, “Okay, well I’m going to do something better.” Or, “I’m going to ignore them and keep going.” That’s a lot harder than people think. I think a lot of people come to Hollywood not realising how difficult that’s going to be. I’ll take the compliment that I’ve figured it out and stuck around. Like a barnacle for 23 years. They haven’t pried me off yet!

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Last Action Hero was a unique project. What are your memories of that time?

Well, Last Action Hero was my first script. We wrote it right out of college, me and my writing partner [Adam Leff], that was the script we used to get an agent. The fact that it got made into this movie, this legendary disaster of a movie, was pretty surreal. In some ways, it was the best and worst possibility, in that if you write something, you want to be involved with it and learn the process. You want to become a better writer for it. We were replaced almost instantly, so as writers, we were shown the door. But what was good about it was that it was such a good example of things going wrong as they were unfolding.

With Last Action Hero, we watched what was a genuine love note to movies – that was the way it was written, by two guys outside the industry – turned into this giant superstar wank. It was actually pretty informative and interesting to watch.

Even the reaction to the film itself: it’s changed over the years; people feel about the film differently now than they did when it came out – it’s helpful. Whenever someone says, “It must have been tough”, well, it’s better than writing something that just disappeared, you know? It had its moment, I was able to observe it, and I’m still proud. I remember pitching it to friends, and everybody saying “That’s a dumb idea.” I feel pretty good, actually. In some ways, they were right, but I still feel good about it.

That’s how Howard and I bonded. I talked about going to the premiere of Last Action Hero with my family, and I’d never been involved with a movie before. I was 23, 24 I guess, by the time of the premiere. I brought everybody I knew, because I didn’t know what I was getting into, and as we watched the movie, my parents were turning to me and saying, “Did you write all these fart jokes?” And I said, “I promise, I didn’t.”

It was a dreary premiere – for a lot of reasons, really, not just the script. The script was actually the least of the issues in some ways. That experience of explaining to somebody, “You don’t understand. I get that you don’t like this movie. But you have to understand – neither do I.”

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You just sound like you have sour grapes. Howard and I definitely bonded about talking about that. There’s other movies I’ve written, like PCU, which at the time was dismissed, and is now, in the States at least, is a cult comedy. To talk to a classroom full of students, and hear that they all love this movie, which didn’t get the time of day, is pretty satisfying – because at the time it was heartbreaking.

That’s what me and Howard spent a lot of time talking about – kind of commiserating about how difficult it is explaining to someone, from Howard’s point of view, “Look, I know this game has problems and it’s not perfect , but I did it in five weeks.” People playing the game don’t care. Nor should they. So to have a group of experts sit around and say, “Given what he had to do, it’s pretty amazing.”

It’s like people finally get to peer behind the curtain and see what his accomplishment was, because the end product doesn’t do a good job of representing it. I do think Last Action Hero has similar qualities – that now, people can say, “Wait a minute. This is a pretty crazy, subversive movie for a studio to make.” 

Like Howard, you were at the ground floor of something big being built up. You were there when the Marvel Cinematic Universe was being established. That must have been an interesting position to be in.

It was awesome, it really was. Basically, as soon as I got to Hollywood, I said “I want to write Marvel movies,” and Marvel was in disarray. One of my first jobs was writing a draft of The Hulk, in about 93 or 94. It took Marvel about seven years before people started taking the movie seriously, so part of the way I got my foot in the door was being an early fan who was saying, “These movies aren’t cartoons, they’re comic books. They don’t have to be silly.”

Remember, we were coming off the back of Batman & Robin at that point. I think there’s a generation older than me that see comic books as this silly thing: shallow but fun. I grew up on a totally different kind of comic book, X-Men and Frank Miller’s Daredevil and all those. A completely different aesthetic. So for me to be there at the point, and arguing with people: “It doesn’t need to be a romp. It should be science fiction, like James Cameron or Ridley Scott.”

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To actually be there when that started to happen, like on the X-Men films – certainly from X-Men 1 to X-Men 2 – there was this big change in the weather. Now when I was saying, “Why does he need a hideout? He’s a terrorist – he doesn’t need to live in a volcano, that’s not who Magneto is” – now people were listening. They were receptive. Bryan Singer and a lot of the other people who were responsible for that, it was good to be around them. I was very fortunate to be there when Marvel started as its own concern. Because the truth is, until we got away from the other studios who controlled the properties, it was very hard to convince people who weren’t Marvel or comic book fans what the potential was. I think the sense that we were going to make these interconnected movies, and we’re going to make this cinematic universe, was, believe it or not, seen as a waste of time. Because it hadn’t been done.

Every X-Men movie I worked on, they said it was going to be the last X-Men movie. I mean, that’s why X-Men 3 was called The Last Stand – it wasn’t going to be called that, they changed it because they thought, “Okay, it’s a trilogy. That’s all audiences have the stomach for.”

I think when myself and Avi Arad were sitting around talking about what we would like to see, well,  you saw it – that’s what’s happened over the last seven to eight years. I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time, but in that sense, I will say I was sticking my foot in the door over and over again for ten years before it all happened.

I remember having conversations with Kevin Feige. “It’s so frustrating that they can’t see what is so obviously the case.” Which is that it will be even richer when all the characters exist in one universe, and when we take it seriously. That doesn’t mean not having a sense of humour about it – it means treating the material like it’s not for children. Now, if anything, there’s so much of it. Shamus has a line in the movie, “It’s become so ubiquitous it’s hard to tell why it was special.”

Now, there are so many comic book movies that have that tone, that take themselves seriously and take the audience seriously, that it’s almost like that’s all there is. That’s possibly a different frustration for some people. I personally think saying that there’s too many films based on a different artform – that is, sequential art – is a silly thing to say. Maybe there’s too many superhero movies right now, I’m not sure. But who cares whether it comes from a comic or a graphic novel, or whatever? It’s what makes a good story.

What was working with Werner Herzog like?

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I’ve worked with him a bunch of times now. The first thing I worked with him on was the script for what became Rescue Dawn. So that’s how I met him. And then Incident at Loch Ness was this crazy notion I had that he signed on for. I literally said, “I want to do a movie with this and this.”

And he said [adopts uncannily accurate Werner Herzog impression], “Yes! Let’s go and do it.” [Laughs]

So that was pretty cool. I did this movie called The Grand where he plays the villain. Look, it’s awesome working with Werner for a lot of reasons. One of them is that he’s hilarious. I think people have realised that now, but that was something that was apparent to me from the first time I hung out with him. He’s got this extremely dry sense of humour, but there’s a deep humour in everything about him, which makes him a fun person to be with. But it’s also that he’s a truly larger-than-life figure. He just got back from Antarctica where he was stuck in snow. He’s about to take a zeppelin up to a promontory that no one’s ever been on. Like, his life is an adventure, so when you’re around him, it’s hard not to feel like you’re part of some larger-than-life thing.

Most importantly, he’s a great person to have on set. Because everybody stops complaining. It’s really funny and weird. It can be tough making a movie, and there’s always people upset about the conditions. But then Werner shows up and someone says, “Werner, what was the food like on Fitzcarraldo?” And he says [adopts that accent again], “We ate beetles we pulled from the river. And that was on the day we had food. And we would sit on a sharp stick.” [Laughs]

So if you have a problem with the air conditioning in your room, go talk to Werner. And it makes actors, particularly people who know him, bring their A-game. It’s a thing I’ve learned, and good advice for new filmmakers: if you can get a really well-respected film director to be in your movie, guess what? All the people are like, “Okay. I’m around this person who’s one of my heroes. I want to do my best work.” As a starting director, you’re not going to get that respect, and for good reason. No matter how good you are, there’s going to be a test. That’s one of the things about making a movie – there’s people testing you. Whether it’s a technician testing to see how much this guy actually knows about what he wants and what he’s doing, or an actor wondering, “Does this guy really have any idea?” It’s not a bad thing. They want to know: do I have to look out for myself, or is this guy looking out for me? Is he going to let me light this scene the way it needs to be lit, or do I have to be vigilant about it? When you have someone standing next to you as your confidante, and who everybody knows is not one to suffer fools, it’s a confidence raiser. From a professional standpoint, working with him is a joy as well.

Mostly he’s my buddy, and it’s cool to hang out with him when I can.

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He’s crazy busy. He never stops. I think that’s what makes him unique. I don’t know anyone in Hollywood like him. He’d say, “If I have $10,000 to make a movie I’ll make a $10,000 movie. If I can get $20m, I’ll make a $20m movie. If I can’t get a fiction thing off the ground, I’m going to do a documentary.” He just wants to be making movies at all times, and frankly, he doesn’t want to spend a lot of time on it in post, he wants to move on so that he’s always doing something. It’s kind of thrilling. Exhausting to watch, but he’s one of those rare people who can do it. 

So what’s next for you? You’re working on Pacific Rim 2, aren’t you?

I have a bunch of things going on. I’m writing Pacific Rim 2 with Guillermo [del Toro], just trading it back and forth. I just wrote Ready Player One, the adaptation of Ernie Cline’s book. The weird part is that as I was making this movie, they were hiring me to adapt his book.

So that is something that’s been going along pretty well, and I guess it’s moving forward. It’s out to directors. A lot of things I was doing  got pushed back because of this movie [Atari: Game Over], and they all came together at the same time. I’m hoping also that this movie that I wrote, and I’m supposed to direct, will also come together this year.

I’m also writing a pilot for my wife for Showtime. It’s a bit of a crazy… it’s the way Hollywood works. You’re sitting on your ass for three months, and all of a sudden everything happens all at the same time. But I’m not complaining. Someone’s going to get angry at me when I’m not available for one of those things, but that’s an uptown problem to have. I don’t know which of those will come out next.

Ready Player One should be exciting. I’m interested to see how that’ll work as a film.

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I have to say, it’s been a long time. I feel like I’m fairly modest – I don’t think I’m the best writer, or the best at anything. It’s very rare that I’ll say, “Oh my God, I totally nailed that.” People ask me about Last Action Hero and say, “They should have made your script.” I say, “Ah, go read it again. Only the first 40 pages work.”

But I do think, with Ready Player One, it might have been because I was spending so much time with Ernie, and the nature of what I was doing with the documentary thrust me into that world, but it hit me over the summer, how to adapt that book. And it’s one of the rare times I was just, like, “Oh my God, right – this is how you do it. You have to make a couple of choices, but you can turn this into a movie if you just do X, Y and Z.”

Some of that I bounced off Ernie as it was coming to me, but some of it was well after they hired me. I figured out how to deal with the central conceit and still keep the spirit of the book. I’m pretty proud of the script – I think it came out well, and how they make it is going to be interesting. That’s definitely an issue – how much it’s going to cost to make that movie. But I feel pretty good about it. The people who are involved, who are big fans of the book, including Ernie, seem satisfied with what I’ve done with it.

Not to go off on this, but it felt a bit like getting to write the version of Last Action Hero I had in mind, and what I mean by that is, there are some of the same wish-fulfilment elements of, like, what if all the things you loved in pop culture were at your fingertips, and you could manipulate them to your pleasure, and make them what you want them to be? Last Action Hero started with me as a movie fan sitting in a movie theatre saying, “God this is so stupid. Why don’t you just go do that…?” And with Ready Player One, you’ve got some of the same thing.

The good thing about it is that it’s more positive. It’s “look at all this shit I love. How can I use it to create a new adventure?” It definitely has some of the same spirit. It tapped into my inner 13-year-old again, in a good way.

It’s kind of a love letter to a medium, as well, isn’t it? The same as Last Action Hero was to films.

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Yeah, absolutely. His is a love letter to pop culture, and it’s certainly a love letter to Atari. It’s a love letter to the beginning of the videogame era, to the 1980s, but particularly to videogames as they began. And that was really, really helpful, to be suffused in that world for a year, really helped me grab onto it. But it’s also a love letter to movies as well. The book is obsessed with movies, too.

The other thing is, Ernie’s working on a sequel to it, and it is one of those great ideas that has endless possibilities. And to a certain extent, the longer it exists and the more Ernie thinks about it, the more he comes up with. And I think I got to ride on that train.

Often with a book adaptation – if you’re adapting Catcher in the Rye, it’s difficult to do anything but make it worse. It’s very hard to capture what makes the book great on film and do justice to it. With Ready Player One, it’s this universe he’s created with the opportunity to be more true to the thing than the thing itself, if you know what I mean.

Zak Penn, thank you very much.

Atari: Game Over is available now on Xbox Live, and will appear on video on demand in the UK, US, Australia and Japan from 2nd February.

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