by Rogier van Bakel and Eric La Brecque
William Gibson on the making of Johnny Mnemonic.
Robert Longo is one of America's foremost painters and sculptors. Born 41 years ago to an Italian immigrant family in Long Island, Longo first made a splash in the music world in the late '70s, playing guitar with avant-garde punk artists like Menthol Wars and Rhys Chatham. After studying art at the State University of New York in Buffalo, he distinguished himself with stark, neo-expressionist art, moving from sculpting to painting to set design and even to performance art. His work also includes music videos for REM, the Golden Palominos, Plan B, and others.
He lives in New York City with his wife, German actress Barbara Sukowa, and three children.
Author William Gibson, 47, emerged from obscurity with his novel Neuromancer, published in 1984. The bestseller introduced the term cyberspace. ("And they'll never let me forget it.") Gibson's subsequent works include Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive, Virtual Light, and a self-destructing story-on-a-floppy, Agrippa. Gibson, who has a BA in English, lives in Vancouver, Canada, with his wife, Deborah Gibson, and two children.
It was Gibson's fiction that brought him together with Robert Longo, who was harboring hopes of making a feature film based on the writer's work. They settled on the short story "Johnny Mnemonic." The film, which tracks an unfortunate courier who must deliver his data or lose his life, marked Gibson's first experience with Hollywood screenwriting and Longo's first experience with big-time feature directing. Distributed by Columbia TriStar Pictures, the film is slated for US release in early June.
Rogier van Bakel recently caught up with both of them in the liminal period between wrapping up production and starting postproduction work.
"Tell me, do you still collect pictures of animals fucking?"
The words are spoken by a slightly nerdy man with John Lennon glasses and the posture of a question mark. He clearly feels at home here, though the loft isn't his. The huge studio occupies part of the top floor of a downtown building filled with some of New York City's infamous sweat shops. The sewing machines next door spew forth angry whirring noises, like a cloud of irate insects preparing for attack. This is Robert Longo's loft, resembling nothing so much as a wildly chaotic repository of the odd and the ordinary: large works of art on the wall, some protected by sheets of heavy plastic; a Gibson SG Junior and a Fender Telecaster in a corner (Longo is a veteran of punk and avant-garde bands); a basketball hoop on one of the dirty white pillars; stacks of cassettes over by his desk (PIL and Joy Division are among his favorites); and a lost-looking, disconnected washer-dryer combination machine that, in this context, is almost a sculpture in itself. Boxes and crates are everywhere you look.
There's also a very large TV set hooked up to a U-Matic VCR, on which its owner must have watched - any number of times - the rough version of his first feature film, Johnny Mnemonic.
Like any postmodernist worth his salt, Longo has steadfastly refused to make a distinction between highbrow and lowbrow culture. While his art has graced the floors and walls of some of the world's most prestigious museums, he is equally happy to talk about the movie, or about the rock videos he directed for bands like REM ("The One I Love"). And, admirably, Longo doesn't flinch when someone mentions the episode he made a few years back for HBO's ultraschlocky Tales from the Crypt horror series.
Oh, about that TV. Plugged into it, next to a stack of dusty tapes (The Godfather: The Complete Epic; Superslams of the NBA), sits a Mitsubishi electronic image grabber that takes snapshots of the TV screen and prints them out while-u-wait. It is this little contraption that caused Longo's friend William Gibson, he of the Lennon glasses, to inquire about the state of his host's collection of copulating critters.
Gibson, of course, is the daddy of cyberpunk. When he decided that traditional science fiction was "stodgy and geeked out," Gibson created a gritty, credible future that wasn't about glass-domed space cars or intergalactic laser battles. In novel after novel, he populates his universe with computer jockeys on junk food, hookers and hackers, all manner of high-tech hipsters who are probably a lot closer to the soul of the nascent 21st century than George Jetson ever was.
But no matter how rich Gibson's imagination, he never envisioned the long, arduous process of scraping Johnny Mnemonic's budget together. The film bounced among a series of financial backers, starting with Elektra Records and ending up supported by heavyweight firms Alliance Communications, CineVisions, and TriStar Pictures. By that time, what had started as a small, quirky project in need of a US$1.5 million budget had ballooned into a $30 million action-adventure flick that may well become a blockbuster. The investors, Longo says with a wide smile, became increasingly generous as stars such as Keanu Reeves and Dolph Lundgren signed on.
The movie is about "the politics of information," muses Gibson. "It's phrased as an action-chase piece, but our real agenda is a little more serious than that." On a basic level, though, it's the story of a hapless messenger, Johnny, who has crucial information locked in his head. Even he doesn't know what it is. Others want it - his head, and the data it contains. "We want to see him get the information for himself, escape, turn the tables on the bad guys," says Gibson. "But in the end he does something else, and manages to become a human being in the process. I see it as a fable of the information age."
Longo and Gibson have spent countless hours in each other's company during the more than five years it took them to finance and shoot Johnny Mnemonic. They share a love of filter cigarettes, in which they indulge throughout their conversation. Longo also picks at a large tray of fruit, sucking intensely on chunks of watermelon, leaving the sweet rolls alone. He's trying to shed the more than 30 pounds he has gained in the preceding months. "They keep slipping you snacks on a movie set. You're made to eat constantly," he complains in his high-strung vibrato. Gibson, by contrast, is not just thin, but also laid-back and soft-spoken.
What follows are excerpts from a long, rambling talk between the two, a verbal free fall, no holds barred.
Longo: What was your favorite part of making the movie?
Gibson: Being part of what sometimes felt like a medieval military campaign. Three hundred people working in this freezing old factory building in the middle of winter in Toronto, all working toward the same end. It was the biggest empty building I had ever seen in my life. I walked in, and someone took me up these ladders to a vantage point that would give me an idea of the scale of the thing. At that point, I had decided that you were crazy. I kept thinking, This is too big. [Laughs.] What was the best part for you?
Longo: I really wish you'd been there when Keanu slipped into his character's suit for the first time. When he cut his sideburns off, and put the suit on.... I recognized the feeling I had, because, here in the studio, a lot of the time, I'd work on pieces in parts. And then at maybe three or four o'clock in the morning, I'd have the assistants assemble it and put it up on the wall, and I'd say, OK, tell me when to turn around and look at it. And it was always this incredible explosion, this rush - of seeing this thing that you'd been carrying around in your head. And when I turned around and saw Keanu, it was just mind-blowing - to see this guy, this fictional character that you and I had been talking about so much. My heart was pounding. I was almost on the verge of crying.
Gibson: My equivalent experience to that was walking onto the set for the first time. This complicated, unimaginably huge structure, with shipping containers and trucks and boats hung up on the underside of a bridge. I was crazy for about two hours. Out of my head. I could hardly talk. It was such a moving experience to be completely surrounded by the product of your own imagination. This particular kind of environment is something I come back to over and over in my work. Seeing one constructed, full-size, in much greater detail, much higher resolution than I was expecting.... It looked like a place. A very real place. And it was a place. I wish we could've made another movie where we just endlessly went around that set.
Longo: [To van Bakel.] We had a 40-ton shipping container suspended from a 60-ton crane, about 40, 50 feet in the air, that actors were hanging out of, having a fight. I was terrified during the whole shoot, because sets are made for appearances only. Something might look like a steel beam or a concrete floor and it's actually cardboard, you know? And I could not accept anyone getting hurt. One guy, this rigger, slipped and fell on his head! He was all right, but I felt incredibly responsible. I thought about Brandon Lee and The Crow. It was weird seeing that movie. It felt like fucking the dead.
Gibson: One thing about making movies: it taxes you. Not just in terms of the responsibility you are talking about, but also in terms of the million little details that needed to be taken care of over a period of years. I got a university degree in less time than we've been working on this. This is literally the longest that I have ever spent on anything. Also, in movies, the expectation of how far you will go to do a good job is much higher than I've ever seen anywhere. Some of these people are so ambitious and driven, and so highly organized.
[To Longo.] That seemed to have an influence on you. There's a certain stamina involved in being a director that's pretty impressive. I enjoyed watching you pull it off.
Longo: Well, there's a Kurt Vonnegut quote I like, something about when you pretend to be someone long enough, one day you'll be that person. I was hoping that'd be true of this experience. 'Cause all of a sudden I'm directing a movie and quietly going, Wait a minute, I really don't know how to do this! Holy shit, where do we put these cameras? It's like waking up out of a dream and realizing you're riding a bike without any handlebars. Like, Fuck! I gotta keep my balance! I was going totally by instinct. That was all I could do to keep my sanity. I found the whole experience of making this picture vaguely unsettling - but comical, too. For instance, a lot of times, directing a movie is explaining to the actors what you want them to do, and then actually doing the gestures, which is really weird. You'll say stuff like, Walk across the room like this, to seasoned pros, and then you'll show them what you mean, with 50 people standing around looking at you like you're a fucking idiot. The other thing that made me self-conscious was watching Hearts of Darkness, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, and I kept thinking what an incredible asshole Francis Ford Coppola was, with all his petty agonizing and despair. But after about an hour of watching this fat egomaniac, it sunk in: Holy shit, he's just like me! [Laughs.] I don't know, I'm just really glad to be back in my studio. We're like two turtles who stuck their heads out into the real world for a year, but now we're back inside our shells and loving every minute of it.
Gibson: That meeting we had yesterday, though, with some of the studio hotshots - I came away from it with the feeling that there were people there who clearly didn't get it. Who still didn't have any sort of a clue about what we had been doing all this time.
Longo: Ha! We did a good job! They gave us $30 million and we gave them a movie they can't understand. All riiighht! [Laughs.] It's interesting that this started out as an arty 1 1/2-million-dollar movie, and it became a 30-million-dollar movie because we couldn't get a million and a half.
Gibson: [To van Bakel.] True. We went in and asked for a million and a half, and they laughed. It wasn't until we started asking for much more that they started taking it seriously.
Longo: A million and a half is the budget for the Heidi Fleiss TV movie.
Gibson: There is so much pulp out there, I can't believe it. I rented a bunch of movies in the process of filming because I wanted to see how others were doing it. I was appalled at the mindless masturbatory violence in these films. We don't really have that in Johnny Mnemonic.
Longo: Except the scene where the guy gets slashed into three pieces by that nasty molecular whip. It doesn't look that bad, though. It's not much worse than looking at raw steak. I think about violence a fair amount. It's in my artwork, too. I once needed to get some guns to take photographs of. Someone put me in touch with a guy in Brooklyn who, for $2,000, would get me some guns for a while. So this guy unpacks a cardboard box with about 30 guns that you could rent. For a crime. I mean, he wasn't dealing with people who want to go plinking cans off of fence posts. And then I was driving back across the Brooklyn Bridge and there was an accident or something, a lot of police cars sitting there, and I'm thinking about this box in the back of my car. If I get stopped, what am I going to tell the cops? "I'm an artist, officer, honest"? Or "I'm starting a cult"? Jesus. It was weird.
Gibson: I grew up in rural Virginia, where in effect, there was no firearms control. I bought pistols when I was 13 years old from the guy down at the gas station. Now, I've been living in a country with European-style gun control for so long that the gun situation down here in the States is one thing that would keep me from moving back.
Longo: Do you remember when we were in school, there was always the toughest kid in school, the biggest, strongest kid? Now anyone can become the toughest kid in school for a hundred bucks. Just go out and buy a weapon. I can tell when kids in New York City are packing guns. Because they have a strut of absolute fearlessness. It's this inherent thing about America. This sense of strength in the face of opposition. Deep down inside, we're still cowboys.
Gibson: Urban cowboys. Kid cowboys.
Longo: You know, for our next project, we really should leave the future alone, just forget about it, and instead make a huge movie about this city in bygone days, the New York of the 1880s - based on that book we were both reading: Low Life, by Luc Sante.
Gibson: I've enjoyed New York so much more since reading that.
Longo: It shows that New York City has always been fucked up. There's this Scorcese movie, The Age of Innocence, that's just horrendous. It's looks like a GQ or Architectural Digest commercial with a little bit of Gourmet magazine thrown in. You always see movies about the rich people during that time period, and that's boring. I'm much more interested in the so-called lower classes.
Gibson: I read that after the Civil War, in New York, you could go into any pharmacy and buy an ounce of pure cocaine for about four dollars - and a jug of opium to chase it with. And there were a lot of people doing that. But it's something that's been whitewashed out of our history. There were drug gangs, and -
Longo: [Excited.] And bars where people went to kill themselves. Actual suicide parlors! Mostly women offed themselves there. I guess it was much more dramatic than slashing their wrists at home.
Gibson: And how about these bars in back alleys that catered only to children? Very young children at that. Newsboys and beggars, that kind of thing. Incredible stuff.
No verbs, just nouns
Longo: I was thinking about books and images. I associate the way that words create images with dreaming. When you dream, there's no frame, it's more atmosphere. Books are somehow much more like atmosphere than like a real story.
Gibson: Well, for me, that whole business of narrative - I'm always uncomfortable with that. I wish I didn't have to do that. I'd like to be able to write books that don't need verbs. Just large collections of nouns and modifiers would work for me. [Laughs.] The ongoing descriptions of things is where the pleasure is in writing. But there's always the editor in the back of my head saying, Now wait a minute, these people have to be doing something and going somewhere.
Longo: Sometimes, what I really want to be is a writer. Writing somehow reminds me of boxing. It's, like, right there.
Gibson: It's direct, yeah. It's not a model for something else, at least. And that's the weird thing about writing for movies: what you produce as a screenwriter isn't anything real. It's like a drawing, or a plan. A book manuscript, at least, is its own end product. And in science fiction writing, where you create strange worlds to your heart's content, that's great, and it totally works. You don't need to be concerned about the cost of special effects because you're not limited by any studio-imposed budget. It's just you, your imagination, and ink and paper.
When I started to write science fiction, I knew I was working in a genre that was traditionally deeply deprived of hipness. I went looking for ways to import as much rock-and-roll aesthetic into science fiction as was possible. Going back and listening to Steely Dan's lyrics, for instance, suggested a number of ways to do that. It seemed that there was a very hip, almost subversive science fiction aesthetic in Donald Fagen's lyrics which not many people have picked up on. But there's other stuff - David Bowie's Diamond Dogs album, which has this totally balls-out science fiction aesthetic going. The Velvet Underground, early Lou Reed - that was important. I thought, OK, that's the hip science fiction of our age, and so I'm going to try to write up to that standard, rather than trying to write up to Asimov. I was looking for a way to not have my science fiction come out as this lame dorky thing that the genre had gotten to be.
Longo: In the late '70s, early '80s, the white-walled art galleries in New York were dead, and the places I ended up going to get inspired and psyched to do great work were the rock clubs and the old movie theaters. I remember thinking, I want my art to be like a chord change in a Sex Pistols song. For the first five years, punk rock was the power source of what I was doing.
Gibson: Punk was the last viable bohemia that we've seen, perhaps the last bohemian movement of all time. I'm afraid that bohemians will eventually come to be seen as a byproduct of the industrial civilization; and if we're in fact at the end of industrial civilization, there may be no more bohemians. That's scary. It's possible that commercialization has become so sophisticated that it's no longer possible to do that bohemian thing.
Longo: Next time anyone even tries, it'll be a prime-time show before you know it. Bohemia: The Series!
Gibson: Look what they did to those poor kids in Seattle! It took our culture literally three weeks to go from a bunch of kids playing in a basement club to the thing that's on the Paris runways. At least, with punk, it took a year and a half. And I'm sad to see the phenomenon disappear. I think bohemians are the subconscious of industrial society. Bohemians are like industrial society, dreaming.
Rogier van Bakel (email@example.com) cannot afford any of Robert Longo's works, but has plenty of William Gibson's. He is a writer in Sharon, Connecticut.
William Gibson is author of Neuromancer, among several other novels. He wrote "Disneyland with the Death Penalty" for Wired 1.04.
Notes on a Process
Sony Imagesoft gambles on a new concept: a game that doesn't look like the movie. Will it catch on?
A clear cold Monday midmorning in Toronto, February 1994, and I'm standing beneath the dim high ceiling of a brick Victorian factory on Lansdowne Avenue, perhaps a foundry once for steam engines, more recently a General Electric plant. This room is vast, and in it are built other rooms, ceilingless, lights slung above. Here's a hotel suite, Beijing, early 21st-century, realized in the most fastidious detail (though the faux Phillipe Starck chairs have recently been riddled with explosive flechettes, setting goose down to play across the wonderfully ugly carpet). Here's the back room of the Drome bar, with grease-stained duct work to rival Gilliam's Brazil. And here, in a propman's plastic Ziploc bag, looking like a cross between some fetish queen's jewelry and the business end of a Roto-Rooter, is a weapon of a sort that has never before existed anywhere in the human universe. Except, that is, behind my forehead.
Why we spent however many mornings driving to Century City in some rented car, with the windows down and the air-conditioning on, as if, thereby, we were stealing something from this system that so effortlessly, so seamlessly, so consistently refuses us....
I've become an intimate of Sunset Strip hotels, moving over these four years from Bel Age to Le Reve to the St. James, and finally to the Chateau Marmont, that historied pile, where the ghosts of Jim Morrison and Gram Parsons (who didn't actually die there, though they certainly served their time) sit around the pool at night with the ghost of Jim Belushi (who did). There I learned to stay in the "9" suites: 39, 49, 59, 69. These have balconies running the length of the building, facing the Strip, and more rooms than you can ever quite discover during a given stay. Like vast 1920s Hollywood apartments, their original fixtures and fittings strangely intact. Huge white gas ranges, deactivated dumbwaiters, cedar-lined closets with fold-down ironing boards. A place fraught with mysteries. Mysteries and intriguing-looking European tourists, who stand around the front desk complaining of irregularities in their wives' rented cellular service. Complaining of strange voices, speaking as from the very well of time. Of a madman on Frau X's pocket Motorola, muttering that the severed finger joint of one particular and long-forgotten '50s starlet languishes this very day in the locked drawer of that odd brown piece of furniture in the hallway of Suite Sixtysomething - but the precise location is always lost, awash in that ferocious garble of Russian cab-static, up off the crawling Strip, where the cabbies, mainly Vietnamese when I began my term of service (Four years ago? Five?), are now mostly from Vladivostok.
Not to say that I wasn't happier at the Marmont, once I discovered the place. My home away from home. Glitz-free. Patient to a fault, the Marmont. A place proud of its Bohemian heritage.
A place to sit up late at night, rereading whatever current draft, so curiously indistinguishable from the last, while pondering what it might be, exactly, that one does in order to make this strange thing, a movie, happen? And they do happen, movies, because through the window, past the palms and the shadow of the Marlboro Man, you can see the billboards down Sunset, the ones announcing all the new films. Yes, but movies are quite impossible to make. Utterly. It cannot be done. And yet. And yet.... So that life, or anyway the segments of it concerned with trying to make this movie, becomes a sort of Kafka-loop, but Kafka as done by the Fox Network, say. So that you go away. Go home. Back to the world. But eventually it tugs you back yet again, as if on a bungee made of prepaid first-class air tickets and something that starts to feel, well, fairly deeply compulsive - yes, even a mania of sorts....
To cut the Kafka-loop bits short, what initially sounds like yes, but - no no no no no begins to sound like yes, of course, but no no no no, and, well, yes. - except of course when we mean no.
When it's virtually all yes, you find several million dollars at your project's disposal (though quite amazingly useless, you discover, and which, anyway, under no circumstances whatever, including any eventual making of the film, will ever belong to you) but the rare no really means it, and while that no is there, some eldritch entity in Dimension Zed, be it a faceless Bahamian banker, her cousin the Parisian tax lawyer, an Alaskan accountant, or Herr Virek in his designer cancer-vat in Neo Zurich (and believe me, you'll never know) will not sign the check you need to secure "the talent," i.e., "name" actors, without whom you cannot make this movie. And it goes on like that. And, well, on.
So that, sadly, when at last you are flushed through that very final membrane, you scarcely even know it. You are, in some odd and I suppose merciful way, past caring. It's all very odd. You're kind of like one of those hapless yet endearingly tough-talking personality-constructs in a William Gibson novel, the part of you that is most nearly human has come to inhabit certain interstices in a piece of software called scriptor. You have started to experience everything in terms of scriptor's "Work" menu. When you enter a room, you feel a momentary anxiety: should this be under scene heading, or action? You aren't sure, so you say something, really anything, to the first person you see, because that will definitely be under dialog.
You have been working 14-hour days, six-day weeks, for the past two months. Your family, when they see you, look at you oddly. You dream of having a personal assistant. Someone to handle all the little things, like relating to your children and brushing your teeth. You experience moments of terrible lucidity, in which you see how deeply and cosmically silly this whole experience has gotten to be.
Meanwhile, your friend who wants to be a director has relocated to Toronto, where the "film" - you've taken to thinking of it in quotation marks - is supposedly to be shot. He has taken his pregnant wife, their two children from a previous marriage, into the bitterest, most nightmarish winter in Canadian history. And he has already spent literally millions of somebody's dollars on ... something. You aren't quite sure what. And the check has not been signed. Not quite. no.
And then they sign it. And the director - and now he is the director - begins to shoot. Things begin to move to a really frantic pace. Because now there is the relentless logic of fitting 105 suddenly very intricate pages of story into only 56 days of shooting. Meanwhile the talent has been signed as well. Actors have arrived to inhabit these creatures of your imagination.
It's all very strange. Deeply strange. People with walkie-talkies. Cars and drivers. Catering vans. The leading lady is off behind the Beijing Hotel set, teaching herself to peg ninja-spikes into a sheet of Styrofoam. People from the Smoke-Wafters Union are wafting prop-smoke into the back room of the Drome bar. Things are beginning to move. It's happening.
The actor who plays Yomomma, the transsexual bodyguard, asks you if his character has a penis. You tell him quite frankly that nobody knows except Pretty, his girlfriend. Who else, after all, would dare to ask? He seems to like that.
Then you go away, and you talk about all this too much, boring your family, your friends with your monotonous obsession. You show them the photographs you've taken. They shrug. You make an effort to behave normally. It doesn't work. You're not sure what to do. So you go back to Toronto to look at the Beijing Hotel suite again - and it's gone forever, dismantled. As is the back room of the Drome bar.
You find all that's left of the hotel suite - a filthy stretch of carpeting and a shredded fake Phillipe Starck chair - in an even bigger building out in the suburban industrial belt. An address on Industry Street, a disused transformer factory. Someone's painted "pcb's 'r' us" over the door to the sound-stage. Here the director and the production designer have caused to be constructed the mother of all garbage constructs, something really huge, big gomi, like a section of the bridge in Virtual Light, a demented, heartbreakingly lyrical, 3-D collage of cargo containers, dumpsters, an Airstream trailer, a cabin cruiser, a school bus. And you walk out on it, into it, as strange winds of time and art and possibility blow through you, and you remember reading the City of Interzone section in Naked Lunch when you were 14 years old, for the very first time. And this is it. And you aren't crying, but you know that it's very possible you might....
And then, then suddenly, it all reverses itself, swings around, back into the real world, and you know that it will never be that for you again, be real or almost, but that's OK. You were there, finally, if only for a very fleeting instant, and now you can actually go back to the real world and talk to your own children and maybe even brush your own teeth.
You don't have to do this anymore.
(Except that there's something called "postproduction," and they haven't really told you about that yet.)
Eric La Brecque
In May, a few weeks before the TriStar feature Johnny Mnemonic opens at theatres, a Sony Imagesoft CD-ROM interactive title of the same name will hit the shelves. That's all part of the usual big media cross-marketing scheme. But fans of William Gibson who expect a product that closely follows the movie are in for both a disappointment and surprise.
The game, like the film, is based on Gibson's 22-page story, published in Omni in 1980. But there the similarity ends. Sony's game has a different star, a different director, and completely different sets. Both film and game envision the Net look of the future, for instance, but those visions are distinct: in the film the Net is an ultradense urban core of a vast mega-megalopolis, all towering structures and winking lights. But the game makes no such pretense. When you enter this Net, you are stepping into dystopia, decanted from entertainment's lowest common denominators. Virtuaville 2000, as it is called, most closely resembles a series of tasteless game shows as glitzy and cheesy as they come. Your host-interface is Doug Llewellyn, the real-life host of television's People's Court.
Cost certainly accounts for a portion of the Net difference. While almost stratospheric in interactive gaming terms, the title's multimillion plus budget can't touch the US$30 million spent on the film, let alone the $3.5 million spent on its main set. Aside from an especially elaborate set silhouetted against a bluescreen, the game makes no use whatsoever of the film's assets. The film's Johnny is Keanu Reeves. The game's Johnny, a most convincing technical boy, is Christopher Gartin. Maybe you saw him on an episode of Melrose Place, and maybe you didn't.
So, what makes the producers at Imagesoft think they can succeed with a title that makes virtually no reference to the movie?
"The people behind the feature went ultra high-tech - and cold and sophisticated in terms of their production design," says Douglas Gayeton, who directed the game's video sequences for Propaganda CODE, the Hollywood production company hired by Imagesoft. "We created a piece of future noir, a future that basically didn't work."
Sony wanted to create a game that felt like a movie, explains senior producer Mary Ann Norris. Paradoxical as it sounds, this is precisely what piggybacking on the film could not do: turf and scheduling issues aside (feature director Robert Longo didn't need his production schedule mucked up by lengthy gaming shoots), the gleaming futuristic props and sets simply didn't lend themselves to the sort of interactive moviemaking Sony had in mind. The publisher turned to Propaganda CODE, the interactive division of Propaganda Films, to provide new production values for the film. It also revamped its thinking about what a full-motion videogame should be.
"In a traditional adventure game, the user is mainly presented with a static screen and controls what happens to a sprite," says Norris, an MIT Media Lab graduate with several productions under her belt. But Norris points out that most full-motion videogames, like Trilobyte Inc.'s 7th Guest, are stuck in "explore mode": you can look around, but heaven help you if you want to fight because the technology isn't really there to help you. Thanks to some nifty video-compression hacks, you can do both in Johnny Mnemonic, where, Norris says, "the video forces the action and you must react in a real-time manner."
So, take Digital Pictures Inc.'s Sewer Shark, plug in a little Virtua Fighter and a dash of 7th Guest, and you have what Sony hopes is a new form of interactive entertainment. If it works, credit will go to the Propaganda creative team of Douglas Gayeton and John Platten. Platten had become a hot property since his bestselling aerial combat simulation for the Sega CD, Tomcat Alley. He was Sony's insurance policy on a marketable game. Gayeton, on the other hand, was a cinematic wild card, a music-video director far less interested in the twitch factor than in the possibilities of interactive storytelling. "I wouldn't define myself for a moment as a game person," he explains quickly.
Maybe, just maybe, Gayeton is the individual many have dreamed of: the director who would spearhead a new media production on Hollywood's terms, the would-be interactive Eisenstein. One thing he most probably isn't: what people had in mind. For starters, he spends scant time on thumb candy. It's not that he doesn't enjoy games, or hasn't played his fair share of them in his time. But he's not obsessed with them himself. He loves action but deplores violence. He reads science fiction voraciously simply because he reads everything voraciously. And while he won't deny that his Johnny Mnemonic is a game, he insists on calling it "an interactive experience."
"It's its own thing," Gayeton says. "If you have to compare interactive entertainment to anything, it's most like a stage play. You don't have 50 sets like you do on a movie, and you don't just see the props - you can interact with them."
Gayeton and Platten delivered a game design that does away with levels, inventory boxes, critical paths, buffer shots, and other gaming conventions that slow the action and clutter the screen of far too many games today. Better yet, Gayeton and Platten conceived of an interface that is somehow both instantaneous and nearly seamless. It's a fascinating sort of very virtual reality. Players know they've arrived at what Gayeton calls a WOO (Window of Opportunity for interaction) by nothing more than a slight change in the picture's dimensions. To onlookers, it might as well be a movie they're watching.
A sneak preview in Computer Gaming World notes that Johnny Mnemonic's gameplay "sucks you into a freaky movie-game gestalt you never thought possible but sure don't mind experiencing."
The premise of the game is simple, a classic burning fuse: download or die. Johnny has data in his head and he has to create a data rig to get it out, or the bad guys will do it for him - via decapitation. In the first act, Johnny must build his data rig so he can retain information. In the second, he must navigate through Virtuaville to gain the download code to the deadly riches stored in his Pandora's box of a head. In the third, he must locate the proper data port for downloading. He has plenty of chances to fight and die along the way.
So far, so good. But playability isn't the only measure of the title's prospects, and there's plenty of room for skepticism. To recoup its investment, estimates Sean McGowan, an analyst with the New York research boutique Gerard Klauer Mattison & Co., Sony Imagesoft will need to sell at least 100,000 units. In a world where sales of Mortal Kombat stand at some 6 million units, a shoot-'em-up that sells below the million mark is a dud. In the more cerebral world of adventure games in general, the numbers drop sharply. At 200,000 units for the PC platform, a title is considered a runaway success. So, it's hard to find a sure measuring stick by which to gauge the game's success. "Based on the raw numbers, there have been very few breakaway mega-smash full-motion games," says McGowan.
To cloud Johnny Mnemonic's prospects still further, the film's June release date will be crowded with other summer blockbusters. "Without the film, the game would probably be a nonstarter," notes McGowan. "There are many other big-budget action movies. The movie could get lost in the sauce." But Imagesoft may yet hold a marketing trump: a perfect demographic match-up between watchers of the movie, players of the game, and cruisers of the Net. Sony plans to exploit this synergy to its fullest, beginning with an online press conference with William Gibson and continuing with a major Internet promotion, which Imagesoft believes to be the first of its kind: a game of Johnny Mnemonic hide-and-seek, with clues to its promotions scattered across the Net.
For Imagesoft, a young company that has yet to score a mega-hit, the stakes go even higher than the dollars: Johnny Mnemonic is an acid test of the company's mettle. The publisher developed, produced, and licensed the title itself, and plans to launch it on at least five platforms. If gamers respond, the title may achieve the critical mass it needs to succeed. With Hollywood production companies such as Propaganda and interactive-savvy directors such as Gayeton, perhaps Hollywood is finally signaling that it has glimpsed something it can begin to understand: an interactive experience that begins to feel like entertainment. If not - hey, it's just another game.