Bioshock is easily one of the best video games of the 21st century. For those who have never played it, the story takes place in the ruined underwater city of Rapture, which was founded on objectivist ideals. Your goal as a player is to survive the rampaging splicers (people who have spliced their genetic code to gain power) and Big Daddies (hulking beasts in modified divers outfits) while trying to find a way to the surface. It’s a brilliant conceit that, based on your player’s choices, offers the choice of two different endings.
Back in the late-2000s/early-2010s, Pirates of the Caribbean director Gore Verbinski was pursuing an adaptation of Bioshock, but it never came to fruition. During a recent exclusive interview with Collider‘s Steve Weintraub tied to the 10th anniversary of his animated feature Rango, Verbinski told us about the project’s history, and the director explained that he was an entirely up-front with Universal Pictures on the cost and tone of the project, and then the studio balked:
“It was talked about as one movie. And it was strange, my first meeting at Universal on ‘Bioshock’ was sitting in a room and saying, ‘Hey guys, this is a $200 million R rated movie.’ And it was silent. I remember my agent going, ‘Why did you say that?’ I’m like, because it is. Why just even trying to kill a movie you haven’t even started? That’s before getting a scripted before anything. I’m just I just want to be clear. And I think everybody at the studio was well, yeah, okay, maybe. Wow, no. It’s big, we know.”
However, it looks like the hesitancy to simply accept the project for what it was led to the studio being late on simply saying that this was a rating and cost they couldn’t accept:
“You couldn’t bring that thing to a point. There was a lot of diffusion. So, when the movie was shut down, it was literally the conversation that I had. The brutally honest conversation I had saying, don’t buy the rights, I just want you to be clear. This is a 200-million, R-rated [movie]. We were now about to start shooting a $200 million R-rated movie and they chickened out. I think, ‘Watchmen’ had just come out right before that or something. So, there was a little bit of, these movies need to be PG-13. If they cost that much, they need to be PG-13.”
Verbinski continued, adding that it felt like a waste of time given that he was clear from the beginning:
“There are those people deal with data. So, it was like new data that said, don’t make the movie. So, fair enough. But it was glorious waste of time because I tried to be super clear, just absolutely honest, it’s R-rated… That was even before, we’re walking in with a, we’ve talked to the video game company. We’ve talked to [game director Ken] Levine, we’re ready to go. Do you want to make it? I just said it, there was silence in the room full of 30 executives, marketing departments, everybody. Really tried to do this, so don’t waste everybody’s time if you’re not going to make it.”
Had Verbinski been able to make the film, he imagined that it would have started with a bang similar to the game where the protagonist survives a plane crash, and then he would have tried to approach the film in such a way that you could get both “endings” as opposed to the game where you’re limited to only one based on your previous actions:
“I think that’s one of the few video game narratives that actually has a great story. It’s Oedipus. It’s got a great narrative flow. It’s got a sort of untrustworthy narrator. It’s got, at its core … Again, that was one that I went to John Logan with, and he really responded to the dramaturgical aspect of the story. So, we spent a lot of time adapting the script. Obviously, the big plane crash was a huge set piece, the entry into that world. There was a lot of story boarding, a lot of pre-vis. There was playing with how to have both endings. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the game but dissecting that feint to the happy ending. And then, still having the unleashed version of the ending. We were trying to achieve that, which was really exciting. Where if you watch the movie, you could get both. The set piece thing to me… I don’t like generic action if there’s not story through line.”
Verbinski then explained that for him, set pieces need to flow through story and character, which is how he’s approached them in his previous films:
“So, you could look at the three-way sword fight in Pirates 2. There’s an object or a key, or somebody needs the chest, or somebody needs the this. It’s nice to follow the thing people are after, and then also to storyboard the … I thumbnail all of those things. They start with shot construction. It’s a language and that probably comes from animation, weirdly. That comes from Road Runner cartoons or whatever. You go all the way back to there’s always some sort of momentum transfer.
The filmmaker continued, illuminating his philosophy on action scenes:
“There’s always some version of transfer of kinetic energy momentum, and then there’s weaving. So, you have those ideas that you’re well, how do we get momentum? How do we transfer momentum? How do we get jumping from different trains? But then also, why am I interested in this person? How am I cross cutting these four threads of narrative? And why does it have to feel like there’s only one way to cut it, right? It doesn’t want to feel like a bunch of shots that are thrown together. I always like to have it pre-cut. Like, it’s drawn. I usually, from storyboards put a little piece of music and play it and, and say, I don’t need that shot, but I’m missing a closeup here, whatever. And build it until. So, when we’re shooting, there’s no coverage of any of those sequences.”
Compared to other blockbusters, such as those made by Marvel, Verbinski tends to reject coverage since he knows exactly what he needs and what will build tension throughout the set piece:
“Everything is, I need this shot, this shot has one objective. It fits in those elaborate action set pieces. When I go to shoot them, there’s no coverage. There’s no other way to cut it. It’s really about putting the shot into the already cut pencil version of the sequence. But then, prior to that, it’s working out, what does everybody after? And it’s the thing you’re after now. How do you keep complicating that? How does that thing almost get there? And then now that person has a thing. Now I have to do that. And now this new obstacle and that they start to cascade as you start to storyboard them, and they evolve. And then you’re nurturing to them to some peak or three peaks. So yeah, the shooting process is very much, sometimes it’s a lot of work for one, the trains tilted on our side, that… It’s this place. We have to have a crane here. Hang that. Put in this. And it’s the door swings open, the guy flies out and is holding on by one arm and he’s got a wire on him.”
He also explained that the kind of effects you’re using need to match the kind of film that you’re making so that you don’t upend the conceit of the picture:
“But I think what’s happening is you’re seeing the video game aesthetic and frankly, the Marvel aesthetic. It’s nothing against what they do, but as soon as you have a movie where somebody can fly or whatever, you have a conceit. So then, that conceit can create a theatrical nature to things that is fully acceptable. But then when visual effects in a movie, you wouldn’t want that in Dunkirk. It shouldn’t feel that way. There should be no artifice. So, there’s nothing better than at least trying to get half the frame to be real.”
While I would have loved to have seen Verbinski’s take on Bioshock, especially with how he approaches action through character (elements that are tied together in the plotting of the video game), I’m excited to see anything Verbinski does, and hopefully we won’t have to wait much longer for his next movie.