It Will Be Cyberpunk: Scott Derrickson & C. Robert Cargill on Deus Ex
My interview with Sinister filmmakers Scott Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill took an interesting turn towards the end. A quick question about which of their projects was coming up next rapidly evolved into a long conversation about their new movie Deus Ex, based on the hit video game from Eidos Montreal about a security specialist who augments is body with new technology to uncover a vast conspiracy. Although it was too early for many specifics, Derrickson (the film's director) and Cargill (his co-writer), were eager to discuss the film's ambitions as a true cyberpunk movie, the future of sci-fi filmmaking, and why so many (read: pretty much all) video game movies have been disappointments in the past.
CraveOnline: You both have a ton of stuff on your plate. What’s coming up next for you guys? What seems closest to fruition?
Scott Derrickson: Everything is kind of happening all at once. Deus Ex is moving like a rocket. We’ve turned in a draft of that that everyone seems excited about, and we’re very excited about that, and we’ve got a number of other projects that haven’t really been announced that have a lot of momentum also. It’s Hollywood, though. I’ve been doing this a long time, and you just never know what will come together when. There’s so many moving parts that have to come together for a movie to get made.
In Deus Ex, are you guys focusing on Human Revolution, or the original? There’s so much story to go with.
C. Robert Cargill: Human Revolution.
Do you have a philosophy on how you’re approaching it? Because basically every video game movie has sucked before.
C. Robert Cargill: Yeah. Yeah, the chief philosophy is we’re not making a video game movie, we’re making a cyberpunk movie. We’ve taken a look at what’s worked in video games and what hasn’t, and really what we’ve broken down is what we think the audience really wants, [what] the audience that loves Deus Ex is going to want to see out of a Deus Ex movie. And it’s not a rehashing of the game. What they want to see is, they want to see elements of the game that they love, but they want to see things that they hadn’t quite seen in the game, that the game didn’t allow them to see. So it’s really allowed us to expand upon the things that happened in the game, and the game has such a great cinematic story to begin with that those elements are very easy to extract. But really, at its core, we just keep telling each other, “We’re not making a video game movie, we’re making a cyberpunk movie.” And Scott and I are such big cyberpunk fans from way back in the day that that just really charges us up. Because that’s what’s so great about Deus Ex to begin with, is it really gets cyberpunk. I Eidos Montreal really understood the nature of cyberpunk and made “the” cyberpunk game, and it is just fantastic, and we’ve just had a great time adapting it.
It’s interesting to me because, like a lot of geeks, I’m a cyberpunk fan too, but I feel like I don’t know if we’ve ever really had the perfect cyberpunk movie yet.
C. Robert Cargill: No!
What sort of films have you seen that are in the cyberpunk mold that are worth extracting for Deus Ex? Or are you going to break out and try to make this the first proper one?
C. Robert Cargill: We’re trying to break out, and really, the mold for the movies that we’re looking at… We’re looking at movies like District 9 and Looper, and Inception. Those are the molds of what we’ve been doing. It’s… Let’s push this and do something new with concepts people love, but tell a story that they’ve never seen before, that just melts their brain. And that is just hyperkinetic and smart and just hits all the right buttons that genre audiences want to see. That’s what we’ve gunned for. We haven’t tried to build it around Johnny Mnemonic or New Rose Hotel…
I know who live and die by Johnny Mnemonic, and I look at them like… “Really? Really…?”
C. Robert Cargill: [Laughs]
Scott Derrickson: Yeah, cyberpunk is difficult. There’s a reason we haven’t had a great cyberpunk movie yet. There’s a reason why a sci-fi movie as great as Neuromancer has never made it to the screen. I do think there’s a new wave coming, and not just because the technology and the effects are up to speed, but I think that there’s a sensibility to cyberpunk that the movies are catching up with. That’s kind of how we feel. We feel like the science fiction, the reason why we reference Inception, Looper and District 9 was that they were all movies that took certain familiar science fiction methodologies and turned them upside-down and brought a grounded realism to them. Time travel, aliens arriving on Earth, going into the dream world… Those are all things that you’ve seen a dozen bad versions of, and it dozen decent versions of that. But no one, until those three films, no one had gone into filmmaking from a grounded, realistic point of view and made something with a fresh aesthetic. And I think that there was a little bit of the Blade Runner curse, a little bit of the Matrix curse, where you’ve got these movies that touch on cyberpunk elements that aren’t really cyberpunk films but they are so iconic, and so insurmountable. They’re perfect films in their own ways, [but] no one has been able to break free of that, or no one has broken free of that, and tried to go at it completely fresh. I think that we’re going to see a wave of them, I predict. I think that cyberpunk is going to break out. There’s going to be a new kind of science fiction film, and it will be cyberpunk, and it will be amazing.
One of the things about the films you mentioned, particularly District 9 and Looper, is that they are futuristic, but they’re also very grounded visually. They feel like they are only ten years out.
C. Robert Cargill: That’s right! It’s not just that, but you really have to reckon with the influence of Blade Runner. That dark, wet, tech-noir look of a movie, and that kind of feel of a movie, it’s just dominated cinema for thirty years. It’s dominated sci-fi cinema. Alien and Blade Runner, together, really changed everything. Smoke and rain and fog and darkness… it’s noir. And Looper and [District 9] went ahead and just got rid of that idea, and said let’s take a different aesthetic. And that aesthetic was, both in the aesthetic of the storytelling and the visuals, was “Let’s do make it very realistic, and let’s start where some of these movies end, and let’s have different kinds of problems.” The result was everybody loves them. People wanted to see those movies. People are craving new kinds of science fiction that don’t look and feel and act like the same science fiction films that they’ve been watching for thirty years.
I look at the Deus Ex video games and they’re very big. They’re very futuristic in many regards.
Scott Derrickson: Well, yes and no! There are places where you want that and you get moments of that in both Looper and in District 9 as well. The thing about Deus Ex, the landscape is massive. I mean, it is a big, broad, sprawling game, and look, it’s impossible to get the aesthetic of that game into a single movie. So the key is to take some of the elements of it that are original, and that feel fresh, and that feel like the things that we haven’t been looking at for a long time, and use those. What else you need, you invent. You adapt. That’s the nature of turning a video game into a movie, is keeping the elements that are iconic and important, [that] advance the game, but also recognizing that if that’s all you do, you’ll just make another bad video game movie.
Is there any video game movie that you feel has come close, or that you enjoyed in some respect, whether or not you’d use its lessons for Deus Ex?
C. Robert Cargill: Mortal Kombat. I think Mortal Kombat is about as good a video game movie as anyone’s made, because it captures the essence of what the game was and delivers what the audience wanted out of it, but it’s still not a great movie. I think the first Resident Evil is also a solid adaptation, in that it’s a great Friday night, two in the morning movie. Where, if you pop that movie in, that’s a cool, fun little film. But I really feel like those are the only two that come close to really being close…
Scott Derrickson: …and the big difference being, they work because they did the adaptation – I would agree with that, by the way, that both of those are decent… they’re not great, but they’re decent – but they’re also based on games that did not have lofty ambitions. The games didn’t have big ideas in them. Deus Ex… Our interest in doing this has to do with the grand ambition of that game. There are big ideas in that game. There some deep characters in that game. There is sci-fi technology that we haven’t seen in that game. So those are the elements that make for fresh cyberpunk storytelling. So I think that the coming of age of video game movies is going to be a combination a few factors. I think that it’s going to be, one, the growing intelligence and maturity of games themselves. That’s certainly the case with Deus Ex. Then, the fact that there’s now filmmakers like Cargill and I, other people who are working on video game adaptations and… Who’s doing World of Warcraft?
Scott Derrickson: Yeah, and Duncan Jones doing World of Warcraft, and they’re developing Snow Crash at Paramount. I think that we’re going to see the first generation of video game adaptations made by people who grew up playing video games, and who grew up watching science fiction films. So there’s kind of a love for both, and also a very clear understanding of the difference between both. What makes a good game versus what makes a good movie. And certainly we don’t have the attitude of some past filmmakers, which is “Just be faithful to the game a huge audience of the game will show up.” I think that’s been, in some ways, the Achilles Heel of these video game movies.
C. Robert Cargill: The thing that Scott said that really, really, really drove it home for me while working on this was… We had a discussion about whether or not to do a video game, and he just said, “Look, comic book movies sucked until they didn’t,” and that finding the primer that worked for comic book movies and adapting them is exactly what we needed to do
Scott Derrickson: Cargill was really skeptical, I remember that. And Cargill said, “Oh no, video games movies always suck.” And I said, “So did comic book movies, until they didn’t. You know?” I’m a big believer and I think Cargill is now, as well, that video games… Video games and cyberpunk, I’m hoping that there will be a new wave of both, because there’s amazing source material for great films there.