Jordan Vogt-Roberts (Detroit, 1984) belongs to a new generation of young filmmakers whose artistic vision and very special creative approach seems heavily influenced by a childhood surrounded by video games, something that certainly didn't happen with those behind the gaming-to-movie adaptations that players had to 'endure' watching in the '90s. But Vogt-Roberts being the best choice for bringing the Metal Gear universe to the big screen goes way beyond that, as it became personal when it's Hideo Kojima himself who's giving his blessing and patronage to the project.
During the recent Gamelab Live 2020 conference and with Gamereactor as official media partner of the event, I had the chance to have a 20-minute conversation with the director of Kong: Skull Island who, even though he kept biting his tongue, shared a bunch of details that I'm sure will be of interest to Metal Gear fans around the world, as it's all about how he understands the MGS universe and its characters, how he's converting all that into a movie format, and how aligned he is with his friend Kojima-san. Those of you who call themselves Metal Gear fans and read this with a Tactical Espionage Action mindset I'm sure will a) uncover a bunch of revealing clues about the plot and b) find their expectations suitably increased. Let's go.
Firstly, Vogt-Roberts tells us about work and life during the pandemic, but soon enough we talk about making a proper video game adaptation.
"I'm generally hanging out with people in the video game industry and talking to them; I find those conversations more inspiring somehow than a lot of people in the film industry," he says in the video below. Behind him, there are a massive Snorlax and an even bigger Pikachu, which reminds us how successful both Detective Pikachu and Sonic: The Movie have recently been on the big screen. The generational shift paying off?
"Precisely because we grew up with a lot of bad adaptations, I think that that creates like a hurt in us - we saw these things that we loved get misunderstood. I carried that pain with me, it's part of my battle cry," the director recalls.
"It is about translating what a game evokes from you into the passive experience of watching a movie."
And he knows how to convey the video game feel with non-interactive pictures, as he's behind some of the successful Destiny 2 and PlayerUnknown Battlegrounds spots. With these commercials, "the comments on YouTube, collectively, is a bunch of people saying things like 'man this is how I feel when I'm playing this with my friends'. So a big part of it is about translating feeling and translating what a game evokes from you emotionally as you play an active experience and then how you translate those feelings into the passive experience of watching a movie. And I don't think it's as simple as just taking plot and characters and things like that. I really think movies like Snowpiercer or Edge of Tomorrow, which are not based on video games but have a lot of core video game mechanics in a strange way baked into it. Snowpiercer really is like a side-scroller beat 'em up, the whole thing is a left to right experience. And Edge of Tomorrow sort of captures the respawning save point mechanics of what a video game is."
For Vogt-Roberts, there are clear examples of what it took for other mediums to be successfully translated to the big screen: "It really took people like Sam Raimi and people who grew up loving comic books to come in and have that technical film credibility to them and understanding source materials. So it took that and now I think we're reaching a point with me, Dan Trachtenberg, there's a handful of guys who are younger and grew up with video games being a part of our DNA, being just as much of an influence as movies were".
"I really love this position that I am in right now of being able to act as a bit of a liaison between these two worlds and translating them," he adds regarding his current role. "And Metal Gear itself is such a dense thing where you're taking on a beloved, sprawling property that not only has an incredibly intricate plot and incredibly complex characters that represent the walking-talking ideologies and philosophies of Kojima-san and these very Western tropes translated through a Japanese mind."
"You not only have just the pure plotting but then you have the emotions of what that gameplay makes you feel," he continues, describing the purpose of Metal Gear. "What it felt to be sneaking around and to know that being caught had real consequence. What it felt to be fucking with guards as you knock on a thing and run around and they go 'huh, who's that noise?' And the Japanese goofiness of finding people without further ado almost like a [Andréi] Tarkovski military surrealism, the magical-real elements that are in that game, the almost survival horror elements that are in that game. There's a lot of really complex tones and things in Metal Gear, and it's very easy for people or a studio to just sort of view it like 'a futuristic military franchise', and that is not what it is."
By going deeper and deeper into what they're secretly doing, Vogt-Roberts mentions both several (interweaving?) storylines and an intriguing narrative device they're using to blow p̶l̶a̶y̶e̶r̶s̶ spectators' minds:
"You have to first and foremost understand all those things and intelligently know how to focus in on it, and mix and match, and remix in terms of what story you're telling, or parts of the story... Like in the original Metal Gear Boss and Snake are actually facing off, which is not something that's been rendered to the fidelity of the rest of the games in the franchise".
"We're applying I think a very unexpected, very Kojima-sanesque 'fucking with your audience.'"
"There's a device that we have in the script, that I love," he teases, "that really plays into like some of the core thematics. A big part of those games for Kojima fundamentally is asking how do we make the whole world whole again? How do we make ourselves whole again? And the cycle of pain that we as people are caught in, that the world is caught in, and that the soldiers, in particular, are caught in. And so for me there's a device that we're playing with that, I think, it's not what the Edge of Tomorrow thing does, but in the same way that that is thinking outside the box, we're applying I think a very unexpected, very Kojima-sanesque 'fucking with your audience' but in a way that allows you to properly tell the story. In a way that, those games felt disruptive because they fucked with the format and they challenged your expectations of games. So it's equally important to me to not just take these elements of the movie, but to be equally disruptive in the film environment."
That, and what he unveils towards the end of the interview, sounds great for fans, but what about newcomers? What about the potential wider audience the franchise could reach thanks to the movie?
"And then there's the tightrope you have to walk," as Vogt-Robert puts it, "of not just being fanservice but to the legion of fans who are out there who have been waiting for this movie, to the legion of fans who believe that a Metal Gear movie should never exist. And then the whole generation of people who don't know what it is. Who don't know why people like me are obsessed with it."
"In the same way no one knew who Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon and Groot and people like that were five years ago, but now you get in an Uber and they've got a little Funko Pop of those characters sitting on the dashboard of their car, I believe that Sniper Wolf and Revolver Ocelot, and Otacon, and Snake, and The Boss... All of those characters are as iconic as the characters from the [Marvel Cinematic Universe]."
"I believe that Sniper Wolf, Revolver Ocelot, Otacon, Snake, The Boss... are as iconic as Marvel's characters."
"As much as I want to make a movie that the fans say 'fuck yeah, that's my Metal Gear', I also want to make a movie that the rest of the world sees why Kojima-san's work affected us and touched us so much."
What the director couldn't tell us, due to both COVID-19 and "studio politics", is the current status of the project and if we can still expect it to hit theatres next year. However, he could indeed share a few more clues about that mysterious device, about characters and their "cycle of pain."
"(Laughs) I can't get too much into the timeline", he warns, "I would love to tell you because every time that I actually tell somebody, a lot of the concept artists, they say 'oh shit, that's so smart, I would never expect that' and I talk to a lot of concept artists who have worked on this art with me (...) and generally they're like 'wow, that is very Metal Gear in an unexpected way'. So I wish I could tell you more, but I can tell you that the timeline itself sort of plays directly into the unexpected device and the cycle of pain that I'm talking about. And for me it is important to be able to contrast the sins of our fathers and... there's this great quote about how a warrior is destined to stay on the battlefield and they're trapped there until they're killed and set free, essentially. And they have to continue that struggle until that happens. And so, therefore, contrasting Snake's journey and Boss's journey and the mistakes that were made that continued the cycle of pain that they're all trying to break free from, is important."
"The timeline itself sort of plays directly into the unexpected device and the cycle of pain."
"COVID is disrupting everything right now, so I can't really give much of an update on the status of it," he explains about their obviously delayed schedule. "I wish that I could be more firm about when that's happening and things like that. I actively, every day, want to be making this movie because I love it so much. I love the script that Derek Connelly wrote. It's so perfectly Metal Gear and disruptive and fresh for our audiences."
However, Vogt-Roberts had a semi-announcement under his sleeve:
"In the meantime, I'm really advocating and fighting to try and get an animated series going with the original voice cast. Because there's so much love for people like David Hayter and his representation of Snake, and all of those characters from [Roy] Campbell to Otacon, to Wolf... all of those original voice actors brought so much to why people love them, and so I'm really advocating and trying to fight to get that done in conjunction with this live-action movie that we're doing. And hopefully, people see the value and the true excitement that could come from that, because I really do think that the Metal Gear world is big enough for... you can have these dual tracks, you can have a live-action thing and an animated thing going on at the same time in an art style that is cool and disruptive in its own way and honours a lot of [Yoji] Shinkawa's art and designs."
"I think that the Metal Gear world is big enough for a live-action thing and an animated thing going on in an art style that honours Shinkawa's art".
"Kojima-san and I have become very close over the last couple of years," Vogt-Roberts explains when asked how would he picture an official collaboration with the game creator. "He was a big fan of Kong [Skull Island] and when Kings of Summer, my first movie, was released in Japan (...) he actually wrote a very glowing paragraph about me and our relationship and about how he believes I'm the only person who could and should direct a Metal Gear Solid movie, which kind of blew my mind, and I cherish that."
"Kojima-san believes I'm the only person who could and should direct a Metal Gear Solid movie."
"We've had many, many conversations. We talk ad-nauseam about the film because that's one of the things he loves talking about, he's one of the biggest cinephiles I know, he loves film. I've shown him a lot of stuff, I've shown him a lot of the art, and I've talked to him about a lot of the things that I'm doing. But he also as someone who loves and respects filmmakers and filmmaking, to some degree kind of has an approach of like, 'well, in order for this to be good, in the same way for the original Metal Gear he was translating Escape from New York and The Guns of Navarone and El Topo and these movies that were huge influences to him and the American machismo and the '80s action movies - he was taking those things and translating them through his brain, and they became spit out in something that was far more potent and important. And so I think that he has a sense that, in order for it to be a good movie, it sort of needs to go through a similar filtration and process where I take those things in and then filter them through me."
"Believe me though, he... (laughs). There's a character that I have in the movie that basically would be [Kojima-san]," the director unveils finally as an Easter egg. "And the way that it's handled is like in a meaningful way. It's a quick thing, but it thematically represents something that I think would be sort of shocking to people but also in line with something that Kojima-san would do. Whether that actually ends up being Kojima-san or not, the sentiment of the character is there. But it's super important to me that he - I would love to have him as involved as I could, you know, there's obviously certain legalities and issues with Konami and his relationship, and I need to respect that. And I think Kojima-san also, as much as he is involved, would want to be involved, also wants to respect me as the director."
"I have to pinch myself that I have these casual conversations with someone who now is my friend but also is like a legend to me."
"But, it's a dream to be able to go to Japan and sit and have dinner with him and talk about movies and games and be able to dig in to really weird specifics about things, about Metal Gear that have never really been put in interviews before. I have to pinch myself that I have these casual conversations with someone who now is my friend but also is like a legend to me, and a huge shaping force in my influential DNA as a filmmaker and as a gamer. Look, I would love to have him as involved as he could be, I would love to have him on set. There's all sorts of potential red tape around that, but it's important to me that this is a movie unlike, you know, Alan Moore and Watchmen where like you have a creator completely sort of disowning something. It's important to me that this is something that he [Kojima] is like 'yeah, this is my thing and I love the translation that this has gone through.'"