Buried trea­sure

Film­maker Zak Penn on Xbox En­ter­tain­ment Stu­dios’ first ma­jor project: a doc­u­men­tary about dig­ging up the past

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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

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