Filmmaker Zak Penn on Xbox Entertainment Studios’ first major project: a documentary about digging up the past
After 31 years, ET and other Atari 2600 relics come home
Screenwriter and director Zak Penn was on hand for the excavation of the Alamogordo landfill and the recovery of thousands of Atari 2600 cartridges buried there in 1983. Prior to the dig, the story had been well documented, but doubters – including ET: The Extra-Terrestrial creator Howard Scott Warshaw – had turned a matter of public record into urban legend. April’s successful dig, which Warshaw also attended, will be the subject of the first major production from Xbox Entertainment Studios, available on Xbox One and 360 later this year. Here, Penn talks about working with Microsoft, the dig’s impact on ET’s creator, and how garbage lives forever. Why is this a story that needed telling? I think the question is why people are reluctant to believe that a company threw garbage in a garbage dump. It’s not a particularly extreme story, or at least it shouldn’t be, but the question of why or how a story takes hold is a really interesting one, because there’s not a clear answer. You don’t have to go far to find some evidence that it actually happened, so why are people so compelled by this particular legend when there’s plenty of evidence? How much of the documentary is about the early-’80s industry crash itself? That’s a lot of what the documentary will be about. When you look back and take everything out of context, the whole story seems crazy, and the idea that maybe it never happened starts to make sense. Why would a company do this? How did they get to this place? How did it fail so quickly? Today it all sounds so excessive, but if you think about it, it’s not that insane. The videogame industry was brand new and it was growing at an astronomical rate. Atari was a key part of the first Silicon Valley startup boom. I think it’s easy to look back at it and say, “How come they couldn’t see how dumb all of this was?” But a lot of it is hindsight. How did Howard Scott Warshaw and James Heller, the man responsible for disposing of the excess carts and consoles in the first place, react to the successful dig? For Howard and for Jim, it was two wildly different experiences. Jim was the guy who buried the games, and nobody had called him or talked to him about it in 30 years. One of the most exciting moments of the movie for us was when we found him; he had pictures he showed us. For Howard, it was a far more complex story, one the movie will tell well. The obvious issue here is that here’s a guy who is clearly a genius; to program those games back then [was] not something anyone [could] do. I think for him there’s a lot of conflicting emotion about it. I think it was pretty clear that people weren’t there to rag on ET, and in fact I think Howard was overwhelmed by how much people loved the games that he made, including ET. There’s all sorts of arguments about how good or bad ET actually is. It’s not the worst game of all time, and if people don’t believe me [then] they can come to my house and I’ll put in a couple of games that are worse.
“I think it’s easy to look back at it and say, ‘How come they couldn’t see how dumb all of this was?’”
Is it especially interesting for you to be making this film expressly for distribution via Xbox consoles? I don’t sit there and think, ‘I can’t wait for this to show up on my Xbox.’ It’s not like, ‘Hooray, I’m turning on my Xbox!’ you know? Like most viewers, I don’t care how it gets to me; I care about what I’m watching. For the most part, there is a bunch of smart people presenting me with a really cool project and the opportunity to do it. Not naming names, [but] there’s a lot of time in Hollywood where you’re working with something and you think, ‘Wow, these are the wrong people to be making this type of programming.’ When they love it, it matters; you’ve seen the results of that over the last 15 years with comic-book movies. It’s always good when you know you’re making something for the right outlet and the right people. I’m online a lot, I know what the people this is aimed at are like, and I know that I’m part of that fanbase. I know that, yeah, if this appeared on my Home screen on Xbox, I would click on it, because it would interest me. Some of the cartridges that were dug up looked almost new. Have you tried plugging them into an Atari 2600 yet? We have been working on it. I would say that I’m 99 per cent confident – certainly for the shrink-wrapped games like
Centipede – that the chips inside those are totally playable. There are already conspiracy theories saying that it didn’t really happen, and how can these games be in this good condition? Joe said something to me early on: people think when you throw something in a dump you’re getting rid of it, when in fact you might be keeping it forever. Most of this garbage will outlive us.
Director Zak Penn at the busy Alamogordo landfill, where dust made filming difficult and the smell lingered on skin and clothing for days after the dig