|GameSpite Journal 9 | Coffee Break: A Conversation with EarthBound Saga's Jeff Benson|
If you’re a fan of Shigesato Itoi’s Mother series (better known to Americans as EarthBound?), you may be familiar with Ubsey Movies’ EarthBound Saga. The series began in 1995, when Jeff and Robbie Benson began adapting the beloved SNES game to film. Being children, though, they quickly abandoned the project.
Over the next ten years, the brothers and a group of friends from the Bay Area began making short films seriously under the name Ubsey Movies. In 2005, they decided to finish EarthBound Saga on a whim that’s never quite passed. Since then, Ubsey Movies has gained considerable recognition, and among their work, EB Saga remains a fan favorite with frequent requests for the series’ completion.
I had the opportunity to discuss the future of EB Saga with Jeff Benson, the series’ main writer and director. On a sunny afternoon at his home in San Jose, he answered a number of questions about EB Saga and his plans for a new reboot of the popular web series.
Brad Allison: What do you enjoy most about EarthBound as a video game?
Jeff Benson: The world it presents -- it’s relevant to me because it resembles contemporary life. Everywhere you look, there is subtle commentary on how we think and act. Sure, Ness’ journey is meaningful, but all the nuanced characters he meets are what make his experience unforgettable.
BA: Many fans of EarthBound claim to have been “touched” by the game for various reasons. Why do you think this is?
JB: EarthBound is really genuine: it’s a coming-of-age story with all the accompanying baggage. In order for Ness to transition from a naïve kid into a self-aware hero, we have to help him make sense of his place in the world before he can have any hope of saving it. You feel a bit sad once the game thanks you directly, and slowly comes to an end.
BA: What did you think of the game’s ending the first time you saw it?
JB: When I was six, Robbie and I used to play EarthBound with our dad. One afternoon, I finished the game by myself and began crying uncontrollably as the credits were rolling. I ran outside to find my father, repeating, “It’s so beautiful,” to which he replied,” I know.” At the time, that was the best I could articulate my understanding of the game. Since then, I’ve been making EB Saga to express what EarthBound means to me.
BA: And what would that be?
JB: Well, just look at the title. EarthBound can mean a number of things. The most obvious reading suggests a journey around the globe, which is certainly true. Or, Earth is our only home, and so we must protect it. However, I’ve always felt that it implies something more urgent: If we continue injuring the Earth, our mother, then we are bound for destruction. Buzz Buzz’s grim premonition that the influence of Giygas will lay the planet to waste in fewer than ten years is plausible because humanity is already treading down the same slippery slope. It’s a game that says, “Peace, love, and tolerance are worth fighting for.”
BA: Aside from EarthBound, have any other video games made a noteworthy impression upon you?
JB: I used to play a lot of Halo and was struck by how much power the protagonist had over his enemies and environment. It didn’t take long for me to realize that Master Chief was just an imperialist dog. I briefly considered making a Halo movie, but decided I couldn’t condone its themes. Besides, we have James Cameron’s Avatar now, and that’s pretty much the same story as Halo.
BA: What movies or directors have helped you understand film as a medium?
JB: I’ve learned a lot from Martin Scorsese in terms of using pacing and editing to effectively seize the viewer’s interest. More than anyone, I admire Stanley Kubrick because he infuses each of his films with such intense moods that stay with you long afterwards. A great example of this is 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s intensely dark, yet optimistic at the same time. I approach a lot of my own work similarly, and EB Saga is no exception.
BA: Do you think it’s possible to make a competent movie based on a video game?
JB: Absolutely! Although I don’t think it’s happened just yet. I mean, the Super Mario Bros. flick was pretty entertaining for what it was, but despite its big budget and talented cast, there was little understanding of what to do with the source material. The director retained the premise of two plumbers rescuing a princess and her kingdom from Koopa, but threw out all the beloved lore and the setting of the series in favor of some inexplicable cyberpunk theme. Gaming is a relatively immature medium, though we’ll eventually see it (and its film adaptations) consider narrative possibilities other than melodrama and violence.
BA: How is EarthBound’s narrative altered when it is reinterpreted as a film?
JB: Film is a medium that offers a linear experience. So do most video games; they merely give you the illusion of agency because they are interactive. The story of EB Saga has to be condensed so it stays consistently engaging for viewers. By playing the game, you gradually learn about its complex world through exploration. With EB Saga, I have to reveal this complexity through more subtle means. The corollary to this is that I get to bring out the characters’ personalities, Ness being the best example. He can’t be a silent protagonist because I see him as a real person. He reacts to his situation in all kinds of ways: earnestly, comically, and sometimes even unfavorably.
BA: What are some of the challenges you have faced as a result?
JB: It takes a long time to make each chapter. We started EB Saga when we were children, then later picked it up as teenagers. Now, Robbie’s going on twenty-three, but as independent filmmakers, we have to make limitations work to our advantage. Besides, I always thought the story of EarthBound unfolded over several years, which makes Ness’ maturation seem a lot more plausible. There’s also the undeniable fact that it’s just plain funny to watch a grown man pretending to be a baseball bat-wielding adolescent on film.
BA: What has been the most enjoyable aspect of working on EB Saga?
JB: In Chapter 3, we began to understand that EB Saga could really become something special. The pacing and the acting improved, and it was consistently funny. This is also where I first got to play Everdred, the boss of Twoson’s Burglin Park. I feel like he and I are not that different in terms of ideology, so he’s a lot of fun to play. The guy comes off as a fool to viewers because he’s an old hippie who takes himself quite seriously. His gruff exterior fades away once he sees that Ness is in need of some fatherly guidance.
BA: What prompted you to steer the series in a darker, more mature direction, going so far as to even “reboot” it from the beginning?
JB: There were a lot of really important expository scenes that we forgot to include in the first chapters, which will now set the tone and theme of the series. We’ll get to see Ness’ relationship with his family and his neighbor Porky. Now, Ness will actually get to investigate the meteorite, learn about his destiny, and encounter the Mani Mani statue. There’s also a lot going on with the local gang, the Sharks, and the Onett police force that we plan to delve into. So there’s all this unacknowledged tension beneath the pallor of suburbia.
BA: Kind of like David Lynch’s Blue Velvet?
JB: [Laughs] Yeah, but not quite that intense.
BA: So how do you plan to establish a distinct mood in future installments of EarthBound Saga?
JB: Simply understanding things like the atmospheres of the locations and mental states of the characters are good starting points. I use the basic elements of filmmaking like a painter would compose an image: The camera crops and lighting gives the synesthetic sensation of mood. The difference with cinema is that time, motion, and sound are also parts of my toolkit. In the case of EB Saga, I want to focus on creating a snappy and engaging experience that can be a strong counterpart for the game.
BA: Glancing through YouTube.com turns up a bevy of other adaptations of EarthBound. What has helped EB Saga stand out?
JB: I love the fact that EarthBound and even EB Saga have inspired other filmmakers. I’ve since become good friends with a number of them, especially the guys at Ridgeway Films. I think Ubsey Movies got a lot of initial recognition for EB Saga when Kotaku and Starmen.net ran stories about our first two installments. Over the last five years, we’ve been refining our craft—things like screenwriting and having better overall production—to which our fans have responded positively.
BA: Do you have a favorite location or scene from EarthBound? How would you ideally shoot it?
JB: I’ve always been interested in depicting Magicant, but I’m not entirely sure how we’ll film what is effectively a surreal dreamscape. Everything there is an abstraction of Ness’ memories, so perhaps we’ll have to use composite imagery in combination with some pretty distinct set designs. The game has a lot of imagination, but I don’t think anything is impossible; we just have to shoot our locations creatively. And the great thing about working on a film that has such dedicated fans is that help is never too hard to find. Just last week, a buddy of mine called me up and told me he’d dug a twelve-foot hole in his backyard that we could shoot some of the new scenes in.
BA: Is there a character whose personality or story you wish to flesh out in greater detail for the upcoming first chapter of the EB Saga reboot?
JB: Pretty much everyone: Lier X. Agerate, Frank Fly, Captain Strong. We really didn’t get to explore their motives very much in the original series. Most of all, I want to give viewers a better understanding of Porky. My intent is to reveal what makes him such a volatile foil for Ness: His hostile home life, his lack of compassion, his pessimism. Porky is something of a tragic figure, in that he can’t relate to others, so he lashes out at them. He manipulates people to maintain a sense of control over his own sad life.
BA: In the past, securing an actress to play Paula consistently has proven difficult. Have you since located the right young woman for the role?
JB: Originally, we rotated two actresses to play Paula, and gave them very few lines of dialogue. This really hurt the character, especially because I think Paula is the most independent of the Chosen Four. Seeing her quietly trail behind Ness seemed funny as a vestigial convention of a video game, but it just relegated her to little more than an occasional plot device. So, to answer your question, yes, I have found a confident, strong-willed woman to play Paula; I just need to convince her that she’s perfect for the role.
BA: What’s your favorite thing (latent PK power)?
JB: PK YAYAYA. A lot of fans really seized on Ness shouting, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” in Chapter 4, thinking it was humorously irreverent. Actually though, I’ve always considered this to be a mantra that Ness uses to psyche himself up when the chips are down, kind of like, “I’m the head honcho!”
BA: It looks like you’ve invested a lot in these characters and their world.
JB: For sure. I want to share my view of EarthBound with fans and newcomers, alike. It’s a great story that we’ve taken a lot of care to expand upon.
BA: So, when can we expect to see the first installment of the EarthBound Saga reboot?
JB: I’m happy with the new script, so we’ll be entering production this summer.
The current version of EarthBound Saga is available on DVD at Fangamer.net. You can also check out EBSaga.com, UbseyMovies.com, and check out their films on YouTube.
|By Brad Allison? | Oct. 9, 2011 | Previous: Valkyria Chronicles | Next: Phantasy Star Online|