Exclusive Interview: Call Of Duty Ghosts Writer Stephen Gaghan

 

For Call Of Duty Ghosts (Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, PlayStation 4, WiiU, PC), Activision hired writer/director Stephen Gaghan — who penned Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 movie Traffic and both wrote and directed 2005’s Syriana — to help with the campaign’s story. With the game done and out the door, I spoke to Mr. Gaghan about how he got the gig, how he feels about the way stories are told in games, and how he feels about the game’s critically-maligned ending. As a result…

WARNING: THIS INTERVIEW HAS SPOILERS ABOUT CALL OF DUTY GHOSTS.

Call Of Duty Ghosts Gaghan

Let’s start with the basics: How did you come to be a writer on Call Of Duty Ghosts?

It was a really unusual process. For me, at least.

I was at a friend’s baby shower, and he’s friends with Thomas Tippl, who’s the [Chief Operating Officer] at Activision. And I had met him a couple times, but I didn’t really know what he did, but then, somehow, we got around to the subject of games and Hollywood and movies.

Then, about three weeks later, my friend asked me if I would be willing to lunch with Eric Hirshberg [Activision’s President and CEO]. So we went and had lunch. Then again, a bunch of time passed, and then I got an email from Eric asking if I would have lunch with Dave Stohl [Activision’s Executive Vice President Of Worldwide Studios]. So I had lunch with Dave, and then we all had lunch with Scott Pease [Studio Director at Neversoft], who was really in the trenches with what would later become Ghosts.

And again, more time goes by. And I’m not thinking about it, particularly, I’m working on ten different things. But then they asked me if I could come up to Woodland Hills, to Infinity Ward, and talk to more people, some designers and lead designers, and they showed me some stuff, some next-gen stuff they were working on, early level design.

Then they asked me to sign a non-disclosure agreement, and after I did, they sent me this binder of ideas they’d been thinking about. And still, there was no talk of hiring me, it was still in the world of having fun. I just wanted to see how they work. I like Call Of Duty, I like Black Ops, so this was interesting to me.

So I spent a couple days with that binder, and after that I went back up and had a much more serious meeting in which I talked specifically about what I thought work, what were the problems, and what I would do. And that’s when someone reached out and asked if we could make a deal so I could come work on the game.

In an earlier interview I did with Mark Rubin, the Executive Producer of Call Of Duty Ghosts, he said, “…unlike when we’ve brought in Hollywood writers before, who will look at the story and say, ‘here’s what I think you should do,’ Stephen came in early and got an office in our space, and was there every day.”

In the contract, it said something like, “We’d like to have the right to ask you to come up to Woodland Hills once a week.” And I looked at it differently. I really liked the people at Infinity Ward. And at Neversoft. So I was like, “Give me an office, I’ll come up here every day.” And they were like, “Sure you will.” But they got me an office, and it was really nice, they have unlimited, really strong coffee, and I just started going up every day. I just kind of embedded myself with them.

And I didn’t think I had all the answers, on any level. I was just really curious how they worked, how their culture operated, and I really liked the people I was working with, I found them to be really smart and super talented. But I’m not just saying that. I’m a really critical person. If, at any point in this process, if I didn’t like the people or thought they were full of shit, I would’ve walked away, there were lots of other things to do. But I really enjoyed it.

But why didn’t you just look at the story, tell them what to do, and go home?

I wasn’t interested in that, at all. Where my office was located, down one axis were computer programmers writing code, and down the other were the designers making levels. And I was right at the intersection. And I thought that was not just interesting but important because nobody really knows what’s coming down the pike, and everyone’s always predicting the end of the movie business, and here are these people who are going to make a billion dollars in twenty-four hours, and they’re working their asses off, but they’re also having a really good time.

Call Of Duty Ghosts 01

Do you think there’s anything about working on Call Of Duty Ghosts that might impact how you write or direct your next movie?

There is. There’s a bunch of things.

One thing, specifically…. With movies, for better or worse, the director is the king. It’s really an auteur culture. At least on the movies I tend to work on. But in Activision culture, and the way they work on Call Of Duty, you have lead designers and designers are their own auteurs. Every person who’s building their own level is really responsible for it, and has enormous say in it, regardless of who’s working above them. It’s like you have twenty [Jean-Luc] Godards that you have to collaborate with. But it’s on a much more horizontal plane, as opposed to movies, which work on a vertical plane. So there’s an exchange of ideas that’s founded in an equality, and it makes people confident to speak their mind, which makes for a really great work process and thus a better product.

I’m getting ready to mount a movie in the spring, and I was thinking, How can I empower the production designer? How do I empower the cinematographer? Because you’d be amazed at the level of decisions on a film that the director has to make. The width of a tie, the color of a pair of shoes, all the way through the edit and working with the composer. You’re so all over it, and I think almost to a fault. You can really get lost up in your own kind of…binary decision making process. I want to find a way to find a way to create a more horizontal feedback system. It could be a total train wreck, but it could be cool.

Is there one thing in the game that you had the most influence over?

I think I had a lot of say in how it ended. How the player would feel at the end of the campaign. All of the interplay between the father and the two brothers, between the villain and the hero. All of the classic Greek dramatic elements: protagonist, antagonist. What does it mean to be in a band of brothers? What does it mean to have a brother in a band of brothers?

What was interesting was that I would be write something I was really happy with, “Yeah, I’ve just invented Drama 2.0,” and the reaction would be, “Well, that’s really cool…but there’s no space for it.” So then I’d have to go and work with the people designing the levels and really look at the gameplay, and ask myself, How can we fit in the emotional elements? How can we make this matter more for the player,? How much actual space do you have? But it was a really fun challenge.

You said that you had a lot of input on the ending. Does it bother you that some critics didn’t like the ending, and thought it would piss a lot of people off?

I understand the risk in not giving a conclusive victory to the main character. There’s no tentpole Hollywood movie that doesn’t have a complete and total victory for the main character. It would never happen because of the danger of how it would make your audience feel. This is much more of an open ending. And it’s much more reflective, honestly, of the world we live in. It feels more nuanced, it’s more interesting than anything a Hollywood studio would do, and it’s also one thousand percent fraught with risk that I was aware of every step of the way.

The people who worked on the game, they’re people who love making games and love playing games, they’re not sitting around, saying, “Oh, let’s disappoint people, let’s piss people off.” They’re more like, “Is this a choice that could be more interesting? Is this the most interesting choice?” It was like, “This guy was the best…maybe he doesn’t lose. Then what?” Creatively, that’s pretty stimulating. And I hope we pulled it off.

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In that interview with Mark Rubin I mentioned, he said that when you started to cast the Call Of Duty Ghosts, you “had some really funny ideas.” I don’t know if you can say, but if you can, who did you suggest?

Well, y’know, just people I worked with who I think are awesome. I worked with Mark Strong on Syriana, and I think he’s one of the very best actors alive. He was an incredible villain. And I said, “If he’s available, if you can get him, you should because he will never let you down, he will make your life easy, and will make you look like a genius.”

I’m also getting ready to do a movie with Jason Clarke, who was in Zero Dark Thirty, and I love him. But as often the case, not everyone is available all the time, and people’s schedule’s allow what they allow.

Did George Clooney’s name ever come up?

Not for this. He would’ve been great, though. I just watched The Fantastic Mr. Fox with my kid, and he did a voice in that, and he was awesome.

It would’ve been very funny if you had cast him as one of the astronauts.

[chuckles] Oh, we were way, way down the road before even a rumor of Gravity came around. But in hindsight, having seen Gravity, yeah.

Along with Rubin, I also recently interviewed Jesse Stern, who wrote 2007’s Call Of Duty 4 Modern Warfare and its sequel, 2009’s Call Of Duty Modern Warfare 2, and recently wrote Battlefield 4. Stern has the attitude that cut scenes are bad and that the player should never, “be more than a few seconds away from shooting somebody.” Given that Call Of Duty Ghosts isn’t full of cut scenes, does that mean you agree with Jesse?

I think it’s a very standard video game writer/creator point of view that you should never impede the autonomy of the character. And there’s a lot of different tricks to focus someone’s attention or to slow things down for something to happen, and I don’t think there’s a way, in the current state of things, to do a game where you don’t do that.

What I think people are anticipating is that you’re going to be getting to a world, pretty soon, where the level of detail and the level of choices and autonomy, what you throw at the player, is going to be super realistic and life-life. Shooting people is awesome. But I would say that, underneath the shooting people, is that moment of choice when you decide to go this way or that way, do this or that, use this or that weapon.

I don’t think games and drama are mutually exclusive. And I think the toolbox that will bring them towards each other is still evolving. So I take his point very, very seriously. When I first started working on the game, I had all kinds of ideas about how to go about it. But then I watched the pause and the lag that would happen, and I changed my mind really quickly. It just wasn’t fun, and it has to be fun. It’s a game, it’s not a movie. It first and foremost has to be fun. For me, honestly, the challenge was figuring out how to wedge that shit in without you feeling disempowered.

So I agree with him. But, at the same time, it’s where games are going to go. You’re going to be true moral and dramatic choices in the hands of players, and you’re going to be seeing the fallout from those decisions in the hands of the character. And when you have that, it’s going to be a different day. It won’t be just shooting, it’ll be way more impactful. And I think that’s…I think that’s interesting.

Is the plan then that you’ll work on the next game?

I don’t actually know anything about the next game, and I don’t have any plan to do it, though I would definitely be open to doing it. I imagine we’ll talk about it at one point.

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From this conversation, it seems like you are a gamer.

Yeah.

If you could work on any other game, what game would you like to write?

Ah, I don’t want to talk out of school. I’m pretty proud of Ghosts.

But there are a lot of cool games.

 

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