Dan Trachtenberg is best known these days as the director of 10 Cloverfield Lane, a film that managed to make us scared of cuddly old John Goodman, and the Black Mirror episode "Playtest" that explored the terrifying potential of augmented reality horror games. If you look into his past, though, he's got serious gamer credentials: he was part of The Totally Rad Show, a video podcast about pop culture where he reviewed games, and he directed Portal: No Escape, a short film based on Valve's Portal that has clocked almost 19 million views to date.
He spoke to Glixel about the impact games have had on his life, his filmmaking, and which games he takes with him to set.
So did you grow up with games at home, or were they something you went to friend's house to play?
Both of those things are true. I had older siblings growing up. I was the baby in my family. We had a Texas Instruments system and then we had a Intellivision and then it was Nintendo and Genesis and all that. My family went Intellivision instead of Atari. I would go over to my friends' houses to play their Ataris and was so jealous of that. I don't remember them ever being jealous that I had the Intellivision.
Even back then, the video game playing really fueled my imagination, my desire to make movies. Mainly because a lot of those games had great premises and were fun to a degree, but they never quite matched the promise of the premise. Not only the games themselves, but even the game covers. Especially the Atari games, which had these beautifully illustrated, painted covers that felt like movie posters. I specifically remember the Karateka video game that Jordan Mechner did. I've since become friends with Jordan Mechner and have talked to him about this. The cover for that game is this awesome, like, Indiana Jones adventure-looking game with this karate guy. It felt so cool and I wanted to see that movie. Whereas now, when you play a video game, it's better than the cinematic experience you could have with it.
I never really lost touch with video games. Even while shooting 10 Cloverfield Lane, I brought my PlayStation with me, the most portable of all the consoles, and was playing every night. After we'd wrap, I would come home and my way of recalibrating and resting for the night was playing a game.
Even [during] Black Mirror, I brought my PC out. I'm a big World of Warcraft player and the Legion expansion had just come out so I brought my laptop. I bring the games with me wherever I go and it's a big part of my creative life for sure.
What are you playing right now?
I've recently gotten into Heroes of the Storm and Overwatch, so I'm definitely on the Blizzard tip at the moment. I'm also in the middle of Dishonored 2 and finishing up The Last Guardian.
I used to review games on The Totally Rad Show and the best thing about that was I would finish games. Now, it's become challenging for me to actually sit through an entire game. I tend to get excited about the next shiny thing. I just started Final Fantasy XV and I'm not in love with the combat. I don't know if I'm going to stick around for it, but yeah that's kind of what's on my docket at the moment.
Any virtual reality?
I should have led with that. I have an Oculus. I don't have the room for the Vive in my home. I've fallen in love and I got the Touch as well, so I can do Touch titles now. Fascinatingly, I'm actually finding more enjoyment from the non-Touch games. I don't know why that is. I think there's something immediately more exciting about, "I'm just sitting here and I'm transported in this world" versus when I'm standing up and moving around. There's this game, Hero Bound, it's basically Zelda. It's 100% Zelda with a different skin. It's so exciting to play a game that we know so well and have this new way to experience it. It's so overwhelming. I get very motion sick, so I can only play for very short increments. But I also feel that it's not just my tendency towards motion sickness. I feel very overwhelmed when I'm playing VR titles. It's just too much for me to take in.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead in '10 Cloverfield Lane' Paramount Pictures
What about horror games in virtual reality?
I can't play horror games anymore, let alone in VR. It's really funny. [Black Mirror creator] Charlie Brooker and I have both shared that confession. I played them until I had this adult realization. I think I was playing, it might have been Bioshock 2, which isn't really a horror game, but I realized that it's not fun for me. This is a very stressful experience, I am not relaxed and enjoying it – I am actually having a bad time playing this. Those games are incredibly well made.
Actually I remember a game called The Suffering. That was like one of the scariest, I cannot believe I endured that experience.
That's the one you were in the prison, right?
There was the prison thing and they had these flash frames that could come at any time of something filling the frame with a giant scary face. It's horrible, it's impossible not to be startled by that. That is just, for me, a really unpleasant experience. I realized I am choosing to play this.
The other one I could not play was Alien Isolation, which I otherwise would have been excited for. I realized I'm not going to have a good time playing this, I don't need to do it, I could play another game.
That's interesting because the "Playtest" episode of Black Mirror, as a horror fan, has so many horror film clichés that I appreciated.
[Charlie Brooker and I] certainly have an affection for that and definitely an affection for horror films and the tropes that are in both games and movies. We then sort of fell in love with the character story we were telling. It didn't really rely on the need to be in love with the actual playing. In fact, we're kind of demonizing, not video games, but we're demonizing the experience of horror games.
I guess that's not actually true. Part of the real mantra that we spoke about while writing ["Playtest"] was how useful those experiences are. The unknown can be very overwhelming and a lot of our hate and fear comes from things we can't sort of quantify or see all at once. That's why we tell stories in general. We need to put things into context, context into perspective, and I think horror games or movies are a way to kind of test yourself and have an uncomfortable experience, knowing that you're going to come out the other side okay.
When I spoke to Charlie Brooker, he said you were responsible for a lot of the video game references, especially Bioshock's "would you kindly." There's also the Resident Evil style game posters on the walls at the games company.
A lot of the geek references come from him as well. I remember he was insistent on the posters. You can see the posters on the wall that are for the game, Harlech Shadow. they all really [references to] Resident Evil, which he was anxious to put in there. I think we both came up with the idea to have Cooper's last name be Redfield.
The Bioshock thing was like, wow, not only is this so baked-in for anyone that loves that game, it's also exactly what that moment represented. It just happened that way. It's a perfect meta moment, and we felt we had to do it. Yeah, I was pretty jacked about that one.
The sort of the game that you guys had in "Playtest" is actually not that far off considering what augmented reality companies like Magic Leap are working on.
We made ["Playtest"] post-Brexit and then I came back home and now I've got crazy political things happening here. Part of what fear is in the episode is not knowing what's real. We're doing that to ourselves. We're so excited about technology and the ability to make things so personal that we do it at the cost of our own livelihood.
Strangely – and this is a weird tangent that I'm going on but that is kind of my biggest fear at the moment – is that it's very hard to understand the truth. We all have different truths because we're all in our own niche bubbles and getting information from sources that we are comforted by. We're all not in the same story. We're all not in the same world. That is sort of the lesson we want you to take away, besides the character stuff about dealing with your issues. In our eagerness for progress and technology, we're altering our reality and that is not a good thing.
We're in the "post-truth" era and we're simultaneously building alternate and virtual reality.
It will be way harder as the technology becomes awesome. These virtual reality things are version one. These are the iPod. These are the first hunky square. They're not even iPods, these are the MP3 players before the iPod and they're fucking amazing! My daughter who was just born, she's growing up with this. It's insane.
By the time she's at school, history lessons will involve hanging out in a medieval castle.
Totally, which will be amazing, but it will also be, I don't know, the headset will be giving us cancer this whole time. Who knows.
Would you ever want to try to build something in VR?
Absolutely, 100 percent yes. I've been eager to hone my ability to make a traditional movie and I'm continuing to do so, and that has been informed by video games as much as movies. Virtual reality is this brand new arena that really takes it up a notch in terms of using all of your senses, and all of the cinematic techniques or game making techniques, using sound design and score and visual storytelling to direct you. I would love to crack that nut at some point soon.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm balancing a lot of stuff. Mainly reading material, but I'm mostly spending my time working on scripts that I had set up even before 10 Cloverfield Lane. There's a science fiction heist movie that I've been working on for years, and there's a comic book adaptation that I've also been working on for years, and the Houdini project might come together. Lots of different things.
I've started to talk about video game stuff with some people too, which is cool. I have a feeling I'll have to make a few more movies before I ever get a shot at making a game, but I'd love to make a game at some point.
You made Portal: No Escape, a short film based on Portal from Valve. You're also listed as working on the Portal movie. Is that still happening?
It is right now being developed by Bad Robot. I've got friends over there and yes, they're working on it and we've had some friendly conversations about it. It's something I would certainly think about. There's reason [for me] to be excited about making them, but there are reasons to feel like there might be other, cooler stuff to do. Hard to say at this point.
Are there any other games that you think would make great movies that you would personally want to work on?
I would love to make a video game adaptation. There was a great article that came out yesterday, I think, on Film School Rejects. Forget the curse, forget the need to make a video game movie – maybe video games are the next evolution for movies? It's not like a comic book where there's a different medium that we're adapting to movies. Maybe games are sort of this next layer of cinematic experience?
I thought that was a really interesting point to make, though I definitely feel like there can be a great movie based on a video game. I am sad that it hasn't happened yet. It's why I did that Portal short, I don't think, especially then, anybody was thinking about that in cinematic terms. People were thinking about Halo.
There's a couple things I've been talking about with people but I can't speak to that yet. I continue to think about the kind of game – or whatever it is – that could really cross over and break the curse.