Rockstar Games’ new Red Dead Redemption — a Grand Theft Auto style take on classic Spaghetti Westerns — takes more than a few cues from John Hillcoat’s 2005 film The Proposition. Hillcoat returns the favor this weekend with a 30-minute promotional mini-movie (premiering on Fox tomorrow night at midnight) made by the director using gameplay footage from Remption. We spoke with Hillcoat this morning about the game, his upcoming projects, and the hazards of working with digital mountain lions.
How much of a video game fan are you? Were you even aware of Grand Theft Auto series before Rockstar Games contacted you for this?
No, I don’t really play games and don’t know much about them, but my son certainly does. And Kodi Smit-McPhee, the boy in The Road, is a huge fan. When he heard what I was doing, he was more excited about that than anything to do with The Road. I do music videos and my music-video company was contacted to do a 3-minute trailer, and I heard that this game, Red Dead Redemption, was influenced by my The Proposition. So I looked at the material and gradually it was expanded into a half hour.
Did you have to play through the game?
For me, to learn the game and really play it would take a lot of time. So I had the aid of some very gifted and fast game players that steered me through much of it. But it would take about 80 hours just to go through the main narrative. The script is 1,600 pages long. But I just took a couple of days going through stuff.
Can you explain how exactly you made it?
I’m terrible with the terminology — machinima? What you do is you can actually is take the game out of gameplay at any point and put the camera anywhere, whether it’s a huge wide shot or whether it’s down on the ground looking up. And you can also control the time of day, the lighting, the weather. Then there were the precut scenes; we could go into and reframe the material, but they’re pre-existing scenes where the animation and the characters are set. There were certain limitations as to which characters and what elements of the narrative we could play with because they didn’t want, obviously, spoilers for the game. So we focused on the first introduction of the character and some of the flamboyant characters that he meets along the way.
I take it this was a welcome palate cleanser after The Road?
It was certainly a huge departure from The Road. But you know, I’m interested in the way cinema is changing. My own personal aesthetic is all to do with real actors and real locations and a kind of almost hyper reality and actuality to things. But the digital world, I explore that through other mediums, with music videos and commercials. Even The Road was a real learning curve for me with digital effects. So I’m interested in the different mediums and I learn from it. So this is my first exploration into the game world, but it was a mutual exploration I think with Rockstar, because they had never done anything like that either.
Did the game behave you needed it to? Were there any surprises?
I was very surprised when I first saw the game, how expansive it was, and the details, like shadows and the horses, the way they moved, and the weather. The natural world that it was trying to simulate was very impressive. Occasionally, the guys would come in and say, we tried this shot, but unfortunately the guy was attacked by a mountain lion. So the virtual world had kind of it’s own wildness to it. I was amazed at the motion-capture idea and how quickly that is advancing. The last time I played video games was Space Invaders.
Would you use motion-captured actors or digital sets in one of your feature films?
I mean, I personally found Avatar, the blue people to me looked like painted art from the seventies. It didn’t have the realism as say, the robotic machines. I’m very sensitive to that kind of stuff, but I don’t think it’s that far away, that step. I think we’re about five yeras until those lines really starts to blur and they’re beginning to blur already. I don’t know about the humans. There’s still a layer between when you look at someone’s real eyes in a film to say a computer generated version. There’s a filter between in terms of the nuance, and I don’t know how long that will take to break through. But it’s all coming.
Can you tell me anything about your next project?
I’ve got another potential western, though it’s more of an action frontier film, going back in time in the early 1800s when a third of America was even unmapped and unexplored terrain. There’s that and then I have another contemporary thriller, crime thriller, set in Hong Kong and Macao. And I would love to do a sci-fi.
Here’s the trailer for Hillcoat’s RDR movie: