With the release of their new film, Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile coming later this week, directing duo Josh Gordon and Will Speck sat down with Collider’s own Steve Weintraub to discuss their adaptation of the classic children’s book. The musical comedy follows the titular croc (Shawn Mendes) as he meets a new friend in Josh (Winslow Fegley) who struggles to fit in with his new surroundings in New York City. During the interview about the family film, however, Gordon and Speck revealed they’re working on another iconic piece of media: a musical adaptation of the classic educational video game, The Oregon Trail.
If you’ve never played the game created in 1971, The Oregon Trail is an old-school simulation about the experiences of 19th-century pioneer life. Many people flocked to the newly acquired U.S. territory with hopes of finding better fortunes there, with many taking the Oregon Trail, which ran all the way from Missouri to Oregon.
Players took on the role of a wagon leader, deciding what their group of settlers would bring on the journey and how they would survive along the way, scavenging for and purchasing supplies as they traveled. The journey was grueling for many settlers back then and the game reflected that with its difficulty, making it incredibly easy for players to die from disease, lack of supplies, or even something as small as a cut. The experience of playing the game is shared by many former students of a certain age, with the game being revamped and reissued several times over the decades, most recently by Apple in 2021. As Gordon noted:
“It was the only video game you were “allowed” to play in school because it was educational. So, everybody would spend their free period in, whatever, science, computer lab, basically playing this early video game.”
Though the experience is universal, Gordon and Speck said the idea to adapt the game came from their Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile songwriting duo Pasek and Paul (Benj Pasek and Justin Paul). “And they’ve both been very obsessed with Oregon Trail,” Speck said. “We were talking about what we could cook up next, because we really want to do another musical. They mentioned that, and we now have the rights to it, and we’re putting it together alongside them and some other exciting people.” The pair had high praise for Pasek and Paul, with Gordon particularly waxing poetic about their originality:
“There’s a few people of which they are right up there creating popular music for movies and not just writing for Broadway and that being adapted. But they actually are creating new towering works of musical theater for the film, so that’s just incredible to watch.”
Beyond wanting to collaborate with Pasek and Paul again, the directors cited comedy as a reason for taking on the project. Despite its serious nature and subject, The Oregon Trail is darkly comedic due to how easily you can die. According to Gordon, that dark yet comedic aspect is part of what drew them to the project, saying:
“It always had this dark band of humor running through it, because your chances of dying from everything from dysentery to a cut to anything was… Basically, every move you ended up dying.”
He went on to say:
“For us, that’s returning a little bit to our roots in comedy, marrying it with the fun of doing a big musical, and also just the ambition of taking that very seriously as well and making a big historical westward expansion epic that’s also about dying from dysentery.”
Yes, the game introduced generations of kids to dysentery, a disease that has since become synonymous with the game due to how frequently it would kill players. Both Gordon and Speck thought the film would allow them to return to their comedy days in films like Blades of Glory and Office Christmas Party. Currently, they’re weighing whether to make it a PG-13 or R-rated film in order to get the right balance. Speck notes that the pair want the film to “not pull any punches and be able to be darkly funny, but we also want it to be accessible enough for a big audience,” leaving the question of rating up in the air — at least for now.
The film is, however, in active development, with Speck telling Weintraub that they’re “putting it together with a writer” before the pair begin looking for the right studio for the film. This right fit is imperitive, with Gordon adding:
And we want to find a home for it where we know it’ll get made in the right way. That was a little bit what we did on this project, which was really got the rights, developed, and then found our studio partner. We’re finding that to be a really effective creative approach.
The directors commented on how they got the rights, working with the publishers, and having the freedom to explore their own vision for the adaptation with Speck explaining:
Well, it’s owned by a publishing company, and we had to do what we often have to do, and what we had to do for Lyle, which is to give them a sense on multiple phone calls and Zooms of what our intentions are and how exploitive we want to be and how truthful we want to be to the original material and what it’s going to look and feel like. People are very protective of their IP as they should be. These guys have so far been great partners in allowing us to take it and run with it. Also, we’ve made them producing partners, basically. So, the publishers are now our partners.
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile releases in theaters on October 7.