By: Brian Ashcraft
Jeremy Roush let the game do the talking. Adam Sandler watched the plasma television as filmmaker Mike Binder looked on. They were demoing a video game for the Hollywood actor in hopes of convincing him to include it the upcoming Reign Over Me, co-starring Don Cheadle. In-game save posts were far from the action, and the graphics were last gen. If Sandler didn't bite, the game was out. "One of the hard things about showing Shadow of the Colossus is that if you are not a real game player, your first glimpse of it is that it's blocky," Roush, an avid Kotaku reader, tells me. "You don't see how much artistry that's behind it because it's not Pixar perfect." So he turned up the music, the aspect ratio narrowed, and Sandler saw the feet of a Colossus for the first time. The music started to crescendo, and Roush gripped the DualShock he brought from home as the game's hero Wander climbed the giant.
And promptly got tossed on his ass. "You can feel that tension, sitting there, trying to demo this in front of people," Roush recalls, laughing. "And you're climbing up this guy, and you get knocked off. It was really tough." Once again, the music began to crescendo, and this time he finally brought down the huge Colossus in a slow motion collapse. Adam Sandler was sold, asking Roush for the game's name and immediately calling up his staff to buy it. Next up, was convincing the developer to let them use it in the film. No problem, right? Reign Over Me was produced by Sony-owned Columbia Pictures, and Shadow of the Colossus was created by, well, Sony. But this PS2 game inclusion wasn't just clever product placement on Sony's part.
After Mike Binder finished early drafts of his scripts, he passes it along to people he trusts for feedback. Roush was in the director's inner circle — He had previously done a title scene for Upside of Anger and helped the filmmaker design and build his own Mac-based edit suite, which was used for Man About Town. Binder's latest script was called Reign Over Me, and Roush was slated to co-edit it along with Steve Edwards. It followed the story of Charlie, a New Yorker who lost his family during the 9/11 attacks. The character tries to avoid his problems and cover them up. Says Roush, "It had Charlie, Adam's character, playing a video game that was very much the typical fake game that you see in TV and film." The game was an arcade-type shooter with aliens. An avid gamer himself, the editor's first instinct was that Charlie should be playing an MMO. He could have a social life, but not have to interact with people. "That was in my first set of notes I didn't give to him," says Roush, "because that night it occurred to me that this was the same thing my own father was doing."
The Vietnam War left his father 100 percent mentally disabled with post-traumatic stress disorder. After getting treatment at a V.A. hospital for several years, his father was discharged. Unable to work, he spent the days and evenings watching sci-fi thriller Aliens over and over again until he actually had to buy a new VHS tape. "Aliens is a thinly veiled kind of Vietnam veteran kind of story," Roush explains, "and watching it is a way of thinking about it without telling yourself you are thinking about it." The movie was visceral therapy for his father. That's when it hit Roush. Refusing to accept the death of loved ones. Seeking out an escape from that truth. Giants falling in slow motion. "You could see where someone who was dealing with 9/11 would be engrossed by a giant that keeps collapsing over and over again," he says. Charlie's therapy was Shadow of the Colossus.
Roush took his slim-line PS2 and personal copy of Shadow of the Colossus to Binder's office. Binder's no gamer and coming from a different era. Childhood friends with Sam Raimi, Binder spent his free time deep in comic books — Perhaps explaining why Hollywood of late has had better success with comic books than with video games. According to Roush, it's merely a generation gap. "It's just how much exposure they've had to games as a kid," he says. But Binder was receptive — Not just to Roush's personal experiences with his father, but also his advice on including Shadow. As the game was demoed, the filmmaker saw how it worked thematically. And when Adam Sandler finally came on board, the script was changed so that it specifically mentioned the game's title and sent to Sony Computer Entertainment to get the game's lead designer, Fumito Ueda, to approve of Shadow's inclusion. Weeks later, his reply came through: Greenlight.
What if the Shadow of the Colossus was a Nintendo title? Or a Microsoft one? Sony connections or not, Roush says, "The job of people at Columbia is to make great film. And they've been given the freedom to do that." What's more, he adds, Sony had long moved onto the PS3, and Shadow is a PS2 game that just happened to directly parallel Reign Over Me. A timeline of all the Colossi was created. Roush recorded himself playing through the entire game, fighting each of the giants. From that footage, Binder then selected which Colossus he wanted on screen at particular moments. During the shoot, a mix of pre-recorded footage and live play was used, and Sony Computer Entertainment even sent a staffer to play up to each particular giant. Because of the game's save points, the crew had to wait until he arrived at the Colossus.
Stars Adam Sandler and Don Cheadle were Shadows experts by the time they arrived on set. In one scene, Sandler's character Charlie explains to Cheadle's character Alan how to play Shadow, giving a detailed description of the controls. "That scene wasn't in the script," says Roush. "If you needed to learn how to play the game, Adam could teach you." In order to capture the reality of the characters playing video games together, that's precisely what Sandler and Cheadle did: Played video games together. "Some of the moments where they failed, we used in the film," says Roush. "The failure, the frustration and the happiness are all a part of playing the game. It's hard to act in some ways."
Reign Over Me must be one of the first Hollywood films, if not the first, to deal with games thematically and intelligently. While other industry pundits try to figure out how to take the latest blockbuster game and turn it into a movie or vice versa, Reign Over Me already has an insightful leg up: Let the games speak for themselves. Characters bond through games and lose themselves in them, only to find themselves again. They enjoy the simple act of play. "We're starting to get people in Hollywood who have perspective of what the video game experience is like," says Roush, "what it can feel like. And all that gets integrated into Reign Over Me."