'Uncharted' Director Reveals Video Game Movies' Biggest Mistake
Ruben Fleischer talks young Nathan Drake, Tom Holland and early-riser Mark Wahlberg, plus how he'd make a Jak and Daxter film.
Richard TrenholmFormer Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
You don't have to be a video games fan to enjoy treasure-hunting romp Uncharted. In fact, director Ruben Fleischer says the casting of Tom Holland as a younger version of video game hero Nathan Drake is key to making a movie adaptation that offers something for gamers and newcomers alike.
In theaters now, Uncharted has finally been brought to the screen by Fleischer, director of the Zombieland flicks, Gangster Squad and the first Venom movie. At one time or another, filmmakers including David O. Russell, Shawn Levy, Dan Trachtenberg and Travis Knight were linked to a movie adaptation of the Sony PlayStation game series Uncharted from developers Naughty Dog. The film has been in the works so long that Mark Wahlberg aged out from playing Nathan Drake to starring in the finished film as Sully, an older mentor figure for Holland's likable hero.
I caught up with Fleischer over the phone from Rome where he's on the campaign trail promoting the film.
The Uncharted movie was in development for quite a long time. What was the state of play when you came aboard? Fleischer: I got sent a terrific script which in large part resembles the finished film. I had made two movies back to back with Sony, Venom and Zombieland Two, so we had a great working relationship and I felt like when they sent me the script they were giving me a gift because it totally captured the spirit of why I love movies. It had this broad global globetrotting appeal with these incredible locations, a classic buddy relationship at the center of the film and some action set pieces I couldn't believe. Honestly I couldn't imagine how I was going to pull them off, but it was so exciting because they were so original. I was so stoked when they sent me the script because it was a dream film for me to make. The treasure hunt movie is a beloved genre that I think is responsible for a lot of us who've been going into this industry, but they don't seem to make movies of this kind any more.
Did you play the games much? I played the first Uncharted when it came out. One of my all-time favorite movies is Indiana Jones and so I was drawn to it. But then as my life got busier and I had kids. I didn't have as much time for video games. I lost track of what Nate and Sully were up to, but of course upon being hired to direct I had to go back and catch up on all their adventures.
You had the movie studio Sony, plus the gaming people at Naughty Dog, plus the fans, who must all have had a clear idea of what they want to see. Was that a lot of pressure? I had had the experience on Venom of knowing you have to respect what everyone loves about the characters and the world from the source material. Naughty Dog and the people at PlayStation are arguably the biggest fans of the franchise, so we were really lucky to have them by our side every step of the way. They ensured we were maintaining the integrity of what makes Uncharted great and that the movie was capturing its spirit.
But at the same time, I know from experience it doesn't matter what a movie is based on, at the end of the day it has to be entertaining in its own right. And so what was most important was a great story, great characters, great relationships at the center of it all, with a strong theme, which for us was trust and greed and family. So I had all the elements of a great film, and it's terrific that it's inspired by this incredibly popular video game franchise, but we also were given the freedom to make sure it could work as a standalone feature film whether or not you've heard of the video game.
Video game adaptations have a checkered history. How did you set out to make a game adaptation which worked? I think a mistake of adapting a video game is just to try and re-create the video game as a film. Video games these days are so immersive and so experiential that watching a movie passively can never compete with the experience of basically starring in your own movie. When you're playing Nathan Drake [in a game], you are Nathan Drake and you're navigating that world -- if you want to go left, you go left; if you want to go right, you go right -- and when you watch a movie you don't have those same options. You have to come at [a movie] in a different way.
With Sonic The Hedgehog, they were able to tell a story that was very different from the game by bringing him into our world and making it something based upon and inspired by the popular game but offering fans a completely different experience. And that's what we tried to do with Uncharted, by telling a chapter of Nathan Drake's story no one had seen in the video games yet. ... In the games Nate's much older and a veteran treasure hunter, so I think it was a really smart decision to distinguish the movie from the games by telling a chapter of his story fans hadn't seen already.
You've also mentioned an adaptation of Jak and Daxter [another Naughty Dog PlayStation game] as a possible future project. Uncharted is already very cinematic, but that's a very different animated visual style. How would you approach adapting it into a movie? I've always wanted to do more of a space opera type film. Jak and Daxter takes place in a different world, and it has certainly very different characters than our human form. So it would be a fun challenge, but similar to Uncharted what makes that game so special is the tone. And I think the buddy relationship is at the center of the game, so as long as you have the relationship and a great tone. While this incredible landscape isn't cinematic per se, you can really create a cool visual world with that.
Does Uncharted's co-star Mark Wahlberg really get up at 2:30 a.m. to do his workout routine? Yeah. We'd all be starting work at the crack of dawn, 6:30 or something, rubbing sleep out of our eyes, and Mark's already been up for four hours, worked out, read the script back and forth, prepared for the day. He's just one of the most professional, prepared people you could ever hope to work with.
You mentioned Indiana Jones. Is that a difficult balance to strike in nodding to those films without becoming derivative? Well, the folks who created the Uncharted video game are very inspired by Indiana Jones and classic '80s movies and adventure films. So there was this almost cyclical nature to the process. The video game Uncharted was inspired by Indiana Jones and other classic adventure films, and then adapting Uncharted to the big screen we bring it full circle. We intentionally namecheck Indiana Jones in the film because you can't help but evoke that when you have guys walking around catacombs with torches. But what I'm so excited about is that [Raiders of the Lost Ark] originally came out 40 years ago, so this can be a new treasure-hunting adventure film for a whole new generation. And the biggest distinction between the two is that Indy takes place in the 1930s, the villains of his movie are Nazis and other things from that time period, whereas our movie is very contemporary and modern. And it's kind of a different tone -- Indiana Jones takes the relics to return them to museums, and I'm not sure our guys are as altruistic.
The film's post-credits scene gives a hint of where the story goes next. Is that already worked out? What's the sequel situation? It was important to me that this movie ends for audiences with the suggestion Nate and Sully are going to be partnered on more adventures in the future. I didn't love them just flying off into the sunset. This movie's about these two guys coming together as a team, so I wanted to leave the audience with the feeling this isn't the last we'll see of these guys. But ultimately the audience will decide if they want to see more. That'll come down to how much they like the film and whether or not they want to go see a sequel.
Would you want to be involved in a sequel? Absolutely. I would be thrilled. As an avid fan of not only genre films, but also history, it was like a dream come true getting to shoot this movie. I was a history major in college, and I've always had a passion for all things antiquity. I can't tell you how excited I would be to get to make another one.
New Movies Coming in 2023 From Marvel, Netflix, DC and More