The Multi-Hyphenate Opportunity: An Interview with Graham Reznick

The Multi-Hyphenate Opportunity: An Interview with Graham Reznick

“Turn the car around right now,” Jake told me. “If you want the job, you need to drive back to Culver City.”

Jake was my old boss. I had just finished eating with him at the Sony Commissary, a terrific hub for lunch meetings, co-worker kvetch sessions, and people watching. As we caught up over a well-stocked salad bar, he asked me how work was going. I was honest.


I had a full-time gig, writing and directing for a production company, and on the side I was directing comedy shorts for a few familiar platforms.

I was busy, money was good, bills were paid. Honestly, I probably could have coasted for the rest of my life doing the work. But I felt I could do more.

Jake is one of those amazing type-A guys who problem-solves by immediately texting everyone in his contact list. The second I hopped into my car, he called me to say a producer friend of his needed a writer on an advertising campaign for candy bars.

They just lost their writer, and the agency was having an all-hands meeting in 25 minutes. If I wanted the job, I needed to say yes right then and there.

But commercial work? Me? I wrote and directed narratives. It’s what I did and who I was.

I was a multi-hyphenate, but not that many hyphenates.

The idea of doing anything that wasn’t exactly smack-dab in my career path seemed like a waste of time. Especially advertising. And especially for candy bars. No art in that. No narrative craft. Just crass commercialism.

“Matt. I need an answer, I have to call the producer.”

I so badly wanted to say no. Because nos are easy. Yeses are way harder, especially when they force you out of your comfort zone.

My mind was racing. Should I take a job in which I have no experience? Something I never wanted to do? Something I’m not even sure I’d be good at doing?

Yeah. I was probably a little scared, too.

This was the sort of decision that most creatives face, especially in an economy where a career can be more like an assemblage of gigs, rather than full-time employment.

So, what did I do that day in my car? I’ll get back to that in a little bit.

I was reminded of this story recently when I sat down with an amazingly talented writer / director who may have more hyphenates (and definitely more Guinness World Records) than anyone else I know, Graham Reznick.

The two of us discussed film, the art of writing for games, and what it means to be a creative in an age where most creatives must also be multi-hyphenates.

Matt: Graham, you’re primarily a filmmaker, but you might be best known for writing some of the biggest games in recent memory. You’ve also run TV shows and sound designed iconic horror films, just to mention a few lines on your CV. You’ve really done it all. How did you get started?

Graham: I didn't know I wanted to be a filmmaker until I had already pursued other interests in the arts. I didn’t realize filmmaking was a viable career, it just seemed like entertainment. I was really into comics, TV shows, movies, books, music, even just creating sounds. Then I started learning that directing was a way to combine almost all of those things into one discipline where you get to do a little of everything.

When I was about 13, I became aware of "Twin Peaks." Seeing that made me realize that film and TV could be art, not just entertainment. And so that opened all these doors into learning how the art side of film and TV, more than the entertainment side, allows the audience to be more of an active participant. And bringing the audience into the work creates a feedback loop that’s always fascinated me.

Matt: When we were at film school together at NYU, you had a reputation for these complex, horrific, beautiful films that felt like pieces of art more than anything else. How did you go from that to writing computer games?

Graham: Through mutual friends, I met Larry Fessenden who produced a low-budget, experimental feature I made in New York called I Can See You.  

Larry is sort of the Roger Corman of the New York indie art horror scene. He's produced tons of films by first-time directors like Ti West, Jim Mickle, and myself. Larry had been asked by a British company called Supermassive Games to submit a writing test for a narrative horror game.

And he asked me to write on the pitch. They'd given the pitch to a bunch of other big writers, too. I had no idea. And I was a nobody. And Larry was a somebody who I happened to know. So, I was very lucky that he asked me to do it.

He told me about it about four days before it was due. I got it on a Friday, and we spent all of Friday night and Saturday furiously writing about 150 pages of dialogue. And then Larry and I sat in his kitchen in his East Village walk-up apartment and took turns reading it all out loud, making each other laugh, punching it up.

And we happened to get the job, and it ended up becoming Until Dawn.

Matt: One of the biggest games of the last decade. For those who don’t know, can you tell me a little about it?

Graham: Until Dawn is an interactive, narrative adventure game about teenagers who are stuck on a mountain and spend the night being tormented by a variety of different antagonists. Very teenage, very horror—classic 80s style slasher. It has a brilliant cast, including Rami Malek and Hayden Panettiere.

The story is told in a choose-your-own-adventure style. There are some traditional gameplay elements as well where you can interact, move the character, solve puzzles, and things like that—but it's a hybrid game with elements of traditional adventure and interactive fiction.

Matt: Which was incredibly far afield from anything you’d done before. Was saying “yes” to the gig difficult at all?

Graham: I didn't really know anything about the video game industry. But at certain points in your career, you say yes to anything if it seems like an interesting opportunity, even if that just means feeling it out. Especially if you’re a broke 20-something living in New York City, and it seems like saying yes could be fun.

We weren’t really sure how far it would go, or what the game would be like. Or even if it would be good. In the end, we were all very pleasantly surprised.

Matt: With your background as a screenwriter, was it a challenge to write for gaming? What are some notable differences between the two?

Graham: Page count. (laughs)

Matt: Right! Didn’t you set a Guinness World Record?

Graham: Yes, Larry and I have a World Record for the longest adventure game screenplay, which seems like a made-up thing. I think they certified us at 2,000 pages, but it's funny because I count the work that went into every version of the script, not just the final shooting script, which was about 2,000 pages. So, we wrote closer to 10,000 pages. And I will stand by that insane number.

Matt: Yes, that is insane. It feels like a completely different kind of experience than sitting down to write a film or TV script.

Graham: When I first started writing for games, I didn't treat it any differently except for the fact that characters were more malleable than they were on film. As we got further into it, I started seeing how characters and actors respond to an interactive medium like games differently than they do a static medium like traditional narrative.

As a game writer, you need to focus on the fact that you're just trying to influence an experience. That changes how you approach writing the dialogue. Yes, it can be movie-like, but with the added knowledge that you’re affecting the viewer, and the viewer is then going to affect you in return. So, being a game writer is actually a collaborative co-writing and co-directing experience with the player.

Matt: How do you adapt your approach to character development when moving into game writing? It has to be intrinsically different, because the characters can be one of a hundred different things, right?

Graham: Yeah, you have to think of a character's journey as a “possibility cloud” in games. The cloud is moving in a direction, being pushed towards things, and is still aware of input from the audience. As you're writing a character, you can't just think, “They want something in the scene, and then they either get it or they don't.” That's what we do in a movie.

In a game, you have to think about both what the character wants and what the player wants. And if the player shifts the character's point of view, suddenly that character might have a new read on the next thing to happen. They might feel totally different about the thing you had planned in the next sequence. It's like you're working with an imaginary improv partner.

Matt: You say it’s improv, which it obviously is, but it’s also meticulously scripted. In the kinds of games you write, if you were to stitch a different series of decisions together, you've written a completely different scene. So, is it like you’re writing ten different scenes for each scene?

Graham: Yeah, although we don’t sit down and write one version of a scene, fade out, and then we start over and write the next version.

Game scripts are usually written in something closer to a flowchart format. And within each of the nodes of that flowchart are script segments, and then you can string them together.

You start with the beginning of the scene, which generally is one node, and then you get to a branching point, and then it can fan out into three different nodes, and each one of those can fan out to three different nodes. They can come back together, or sometimes branch off into a new direction entirely.

As you're writing a game, you can click the flowchart tool we use, and think to yourself, “If I start the scene this way, and the character makes these series of decisions ...,” you can generate a linear script, and then read through it to make sure it tracks. That’s also helpful for actors when we're recording.

That's another whole piece of the puzzle, the actors. Game work can be really fun for actors, because they get to explore many different aspects of their character. But it's also very disorienting at first, because most actors are not used to having to perform 10 to 30 versions of a scene in tiny chunks, which is often how it's done.

Matt: I imagine starring in games can get confusing for actors, at least ones who haven’t done it before.

Graham: They do ask questions! Because there are so many ways the story can branch out and come back together, you find yourself saying things to actors like, “You might have been coming from these six different places, you might want these four different things, and you might be going to these five different places from here.”

Sometimes we have to do the exact same line six different ways—one where the character is happy because they confessed their love to their crush, and it was reciprocated, and another where they had their hand cut off by their crush.

It can be very confusing, but most actors seem to click into it after a little bit and really enjoy the process.

Matt: Since the writing process is so different, are you still using your Joseph Campbell, hero’s journey framework? Or does that get tossed out?

Graham: In TV and film, the audience passively experiences something, so as a writer you need to adhere to those narrative rules because the audience has expectations.

In a game or interactive narrative, you still have those rules in an overall sense. So, if it’s a 15-hour game, you still need familiar narrative touchstones like act breaks and turning points at their respective intervals. But within that, you can go off in wildly different directions because the player influences what the character is going to do, which affects how the character responds moving forward, or learns from the experiences they're being put through.

Matt: So, there's a way you can play the game that follows a very tight narrative structure, and a way you can play that is totally freeform?

Graham: Yeah. Sometimes that's called “the golden path,” which is a path through the game that often follows a recognizable narrative structure and touches on the most broadly compelling results. We try to avoid sticking to that too much, because we want it to feel like there is more to the game than branching off of one path—you almost want it to feel like there are endless possibilities.

Until Dawn’s game director, Will Byles, put it best when the press was asking him how many endings there could be—he said there were hundreds of different endings, because there are hundreds of different ways the characters can interact—but the game’s always going to end at dawn. It’s going to go all night, and end in the morning, in the woods. The journey can change, but the final destination is always the same. It will mean something different every time.

Matt: What would you tell a young writer who might want to start writing games? Is there a way for writers to craft a spec like in film and TV?

Graham: It’s easy to make your own interactive fiction. There are a lot of programs now; a great free one is Twine. It’s basically that flowchart style nodal thing we use, just much simpler. You can go in and write out your story, make your choices, and create your own text-based choose-your-own adventure game. It’s that simple.

And recently I’ve been giving talks at colleges. It seems like more and more narrative design classes are being taught, which wasn’t a thing back in the day. It’s a great way to get started.

Matt: After Until Dawn’s success, you wrote a number of other games, right?

Graham: Larry and I wrote six or seven more games for Supermassive. Then I was the lead writer on a game called The Quarry, which was the spiritual successor to Until Dawn. I never thought I’d be a game writer, but it’s been a tremendous amount of fun.

Matt: And you were still doing a wide variety of other things in the arts at the same time?

Graham: During that time, I also created and directed a psychedelic neo-noir TV series for Shudder called "Deadwax," co-wrote a movie that premiered at Sundance, sound designed dozens of films, and released a couple of albums.

Matt: As an artist, it’s easy to get stuck in the idea of labeling. Like you are a “director” or a “writer” or you do games. As someone who’s basically done it all, do you think artists shut themselves off from opportunities if they become too rigid in how they define themselves? Like you were not a game writer until you were asked to become one in a weekend, and now you’re a game writer.

Graham: Yeah, as I said, when I was growing up, I was attracted to directing because it incorporated all these different disciplines, that’s why I try not to say no to anything new and interesting, especially if it can feed that deep omnivore hunger to try out all these artistic disciplines.

Like right now, I'm sound designing this wild Dev Patel movie, a year ago I was writing a bananas video game that's not out yet, and four years ago I was doing "Deadwax."

All of these things feed the ultimate experience to me, which is directing. I believe Kubrick said you should be able to do everyone's job on set, but to try to surround yourself with people who can do it better than you.

It's often weird suddenly shifting gears onto a new project, and people are confused as to why the the writer of these games is the sound designer, or the person who directed a TV show is the writer on a game project—but I don't see any of them differently. They're all the same, they're all just part of one big discipline.

I see it as an opportunity. If you do only one thing for too long, you can lose a sense of the possibilities of the medium. To me, knowing the potential is the whole ballgame. It's very important to know what new tools are available because it gives me ideas for a new story—and new ways of telling stories.

Matt: That’s interesting to me, because as interactive media rises in prominence, the expectations of viewers evolve. There are all kinds of new ways of telling stories that people who work solely in the film and TV medium don’t have experience with. Do you think it’s inevitable that gaming and other interactive media will influence traditional storytelling?

Graham: I'm hoping that all of the different disciplines can build off of each other's strengths. People raised on interactive narrative games aren’t going to bat an eye if a film or TV show goes in a wildly different direction than it would have if it was traditionally structured, and I think in interactive narrative games, characters can be pushed to the quality level of film and TV.

It’s possible a new form will emerge. Not games, not film and TV, but some sort of hybrid. An interactive narrative meant to be experienced for what it is. That's where we're moving on either end anyway.

In fact, there are some game developers like Sam Barlow, who did Her Story, Immortality, and Telling Lies, already doing things like that, brilliantly. It’s difficult to call what he makes a “game” and you definitely can't call it traditional film and TV, but he’s making live action, and he's using actors. I'd like to see more like that.

Matt: And as A.I. comes into the picture, steamrolling over everything, it seems like that kind of human ingenuity—amalgamating different forms of art to create something that hasn’t been seen before—is a great way of staying one step ahead.

Graham: If you accept the idea that the A.I. genie can't be put back into the bottle, and I don’t know that we should, but let’s take that as a given—then ingenuity will be absolutely paramount. That’s why you need to discover new ways of telling stories, try out new and different kinds of writing, go out on a limb and try something crazy in a discipline you’ve never done before.

Matt: In other words, it’s important for a writer to get out of their comfort zone?

Graham: When you’re a writer, there’s no such thing as a ‘comfort’ zone. (laughs)

Matt: Thanks, Graham.

Graham: Thank you, Matt.

So, what did I do that day in my car?

After way too much hemming and hawing, I said yes. Of course. Actually my response gives me the icks now. Someone offered me a cool job, how privileged was I that I didn’t immediately say “yes?"

Despite my reluctance, I ended up having a great time. And with my creative input, we added a 12-episode narrative webseries into the campaign. In the end, I got to work on my craft while learning an entirely new one, which has led to years of work in the ad industry.

Working in advertising has not only added another hyphenate to my list of titles, it’s allowed me to approach writing in a way I hadn’t previously thought possible. After all, you’ve got to know how to sell something; whether it’s a product, a script, or even a character’s motivations.

As writers, it’s important for us to go out on a limb, try new things that challenge us—these are the experiences that teach us new ways of telling stories and give us something to write about.

In other words, say yes a lot more. It might just make you a better artist.

*Feature Photo: Graham Reznick by Aurelia D'Amore Photography

A writer / director who has created over 700 episodes of content, Matt ran two seasons of a 1/2 hour TV show, and won awards at Tribeca, Final Draft Big Break TV, Script Pipeline TV, & Cannes Lions.
More posts by Matthew Manson.
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