During the most recent Hollywood Comedy Shorts Festival, I had a chance to speak with one of the filmmakers in attendance about their film, their career and what’s coming next. Edward Douglas is a writer of many years in the gaming industry, and with creative partner Daniel Roy has stepped into writing for film as well. Their film, Swiped, was a big hit at the Hollywood Comedy Shorts festival, and has garnered attention from around the world for its clever look at the future of technology, and in this instance, dating apps. My write-up of the festival, including my thoughts on Swiped, can be found here. A big thanks to Edward for coming to the festival, showing their film and for having a chat. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity. Before we get to the chat, though, please take a look at the film if you haven’t yet had a chance!
Russ Pirozek: Thank you for talking to me. I know that during the Q&A portion of the screening of your film, you spoke about working the the games industry, so how has that process been different from working in film? I know gaming has a much different way of scripting than film does.
Edward Douglas: So I’ve spent about fifteen years in games, telling stories in games, doing cinematics and writing, then eventually moving into design. But the big difference between telling stories in games than film is that the story it’s not interactive; it’s all about the story and the characters. Games are about the interaction, it’s about the feel of playing, about the feel of action and reaction, and the story is something that brings you in. And then you get brought into the world and immersed in the world, so the story is part of the wrapper, part of the tools that brings you into that world. It can be very narrative driven, like a movie, but first and foremost in a games, it’s about how it feels to interact with that world.
RP: That makes sense. I’ve spoken with and listened to other writers about working on in gaming, and they’ve described it more like an Excel spreadsheet than a formal script.
ED: So I’ve worked on games that absolutely did not need a story, and they asked “Can you write a story for this game?”, and we did, and they came back and told us “We don’t really like it, so we’ll just use part of the story” and then it all kind of falls apart, of course. Then I’ve also worked on games like the Mass Effect games, and those are very story rich. The main one I worked on was Mass Effect 2, and there were over 30 hours of interactive story.
RP: That is one of my favorite games of all time, so thank you for your part in that.
ED: Oh, I love to hear that. And I’ve written for games that don’t feel like they have a lot of story, but there’s still like a thousand pages of script, which is the equivalent of around 30 episodes of a prime time television show.
RP: Do you feel like you have a lot of real estate in a game, versus a film, because you have to be more on rails with the story?
ED: Sometimes in games you’re supporting action, and designers say “we want to do a mission like this” and you find a way to support that or wrap a story around that. And sometimes they say “design a story for us” and they’ll wrap a story around that. Where it gets tricky is where you say “here’s the story, and we’re building character arcs around this, and this design” and they reply with “you know what, this isn’t working. We need to change this design or this feature” or they need to cut the whole sequence, and the real fun comes in trying to figure out how to make it all work when all the foundations are getting changed or pulled out. It’s a very different process. In film, film is at the service of the story, and games, the story is at the service of the game. Mass Effect is one of those few exceptions, where you go there for the story, and they build around the story, but that’s pretty rare. I was very privileged to work on that one.
ED: And I’ve worked on other games, like the Need For Speed games, where they have some fun, good, goofy stories, but at the end of the day, people go there for the action driving, so it doesn’t matter what you say that the hopes and dreams for the story are, if it isn’t right for the action, it’s going to get cut.
RP: So, in Swiped, you kind of focus on the evolution of dating apps and the integration of technologies like VR and those kind of technologies. Is that where you see this going, in terms of the future, or were you just envisioning a new type of world?
ED: My writing partner, Dan Roy, (who wrote Swiped) and I were just chatting one day, about technology, and thinking about virtual reality, and where I saw this tech, and augmented reality going, and thinking “well, VR is cool, but in ten years, the hardcore people will have VR, but everyone will have augmented reality”, in the same way that not everyone has a giant PC gaming rig, but everyone has a smartphone. So AR will be like a smartphone, so I was thinking about what will happen when spambots and all that go into AR and VR? And we were just talking, joking around about ideas, not even thinking about a script, and then a couple of weeks later, Dan comes in and says “So, I wrote this thing” and it was basically exactly what we shot. We changed like, two lines, and that was it.
RP: That’s amazing.
ED: We also have another short film, more of a Black Mirror-ish action thriller that’s in the same world. It’s the same future, you know, what happens when Apple brings their tech into Augmented Reality. And our graphics are designed around that. It’s not like an Iron Man blue, flashing graphics kind of thing, but more like what our current stuff will look like in a couple of years and what happens when the technology looks so real and looks so compelling that you develop an emotional relationship with it. But of course, it’s still written by the same kind of Silicon Valley algorithms that is built around how it can make the most money off of you. But it can tap into your emotions, and it can understand your chemicals and your endorphins and your dopamine, because that’s what we did in video games too. I used to work for Zynga, who made Farmville, and that was built all around how to get people hooked, in that compulsion loop. They used that word, compulsion, which is pretty close to an addiction loop.
RP: That kind of stuff is very interesting and terrifying, and Black Mirror was one of the first things that popped up when I watched your film. I kind of thought “Black Mirror, but funny”.
ED: Well Black Mirror can be funny sometimes, in a dark way.
RP: In a very dark way, I know what you mean. There was that episode with the rating system ( Note: Season 3, Episode 1: “Nosedive”).
ED: Ours kind of has that DNA in it.
RP: It felt kind of like a similar pathway that you took into a different direction.
ED: And we were never trying to ape Black Mirror or anything like that, but I think that we kind of came from the same sources that Charlie Brooker (creator of Black Mirror), and he sees this, we see it, we’re living in it, and if we think about our involvement in this technology, and we get a little bit sick when we think of how people can be manipulated and hurt by it, so we make a satire, because we’re kind of powerless to do anything else in some ways.
RP: Sometimes that’s really the only thing you can do. Were there any challenges as you were making Swiped?
ED: Try to do no harm, try to be kind, try to be good. But yeah, it’s interesting, regarding the challenges of the film, because the dating app was never part of the original script. It was never part of the original story. We found as we were cutting the film together that people didn’t really care about Melody’s (Nicola Chapman) character that much. And so we went right back into Film School 101 and thought “Well, what does she care about?”. We never figured that out in the script. So we figured out that what she gets is bad romance, and so what she wants is good romance. So, of course, give her a dating app. And of course, all of that was graphics added in post, so that was pretty easy to get in there with the footage we already had. The original name of the film was “Chat Bot”, which is a pretty big spoiler, so we changed it to Swiped, and the poster, the name, it all becomes about the dating app, an that wasn’t even in the original script. Which is the magic of movies, you figure it out as you go.
RP: That’s an interesting way to shift your narrative, going from the chatbot to being about the dating app, and what happens when chatbots infiltrate that system and start to interact with real people. To find that out so late in your process is very interesting, and makes it feel very fresh.
ED: I love reading about how writers come to their stories. I’m a big nerd, I’ve been rewatching a lot of old Star Trek, and I’ll jump on the big encyclopedia and read about some of the writing of those episodes. And sometimes you’ll hear “Oh, we had this big tech idea, and we wrote most of the episode around this sci-fi tech thing”, but at the very end, they find the heart. Right at the last draft, they find the heart of the script and then the whole script transforms into something that actually connects to humans, which is usually the magic of Star Trek, marrying technology with humanity. But that comes so late in people’s process. You think it comes fully formed, or that you have this protagonist that has all these hopes and dreams, but it often takes long, circuitous routes to get there.
RP: Is there anything else you’d like to say about the film or anything you have coming up?
ED: In the same world as Swiped is our next film, U-Run, which will be premiering at the London Sci-Fi Film Festival (Note: This already happened, as of this writing.)
RP: That’s fantastic. Thank you so much for your time. I loved your film. I really appreciated it.
ED: You’re welcome. Thank you for talking with me.
As a special treat to those who read through the entire interview, we can officially share the trailer fo U-Run, Ed’s latest film, which just premiered at the London Sci-Fi Film Festival! Please enjoy, and thanks again to Ed Douglas for taking the time to talk and sharing Swiped and the trailer for U-Run!