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Stephen Gaghan On Writing Call Of Duty: Ghosts
The Oscar-winning screenwriter talks attack dogs and Charlie Kaufman

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Hitting shelves next week, Call Of Duty: Ghosts is the tenth main installment of the award-winning and record-breaking first person shooter series. This time around, players are taken to a future distopia where America is no longer a superpower and a federation of South American states have joined together to stamp out what remains of the US. Their military crippled by satellite strikes, the Home Of The Brave's best hope at defeating 'The Federation' are an elite paramilitary team of former U.S. special forces known as 'Ghosts', featuring an attack dog known as Riley who you don't want to mess with.

Following on from Black Ops II's work with David S. Goyer, another established Hollywood screenwriter - Stephen Gaghan - was on scripting duties, so Empire got in touch with him to talk about his work with Activision and Infinity Ward (and how the experience compares to making movies).

Stephen Gaghan On Writing Call Of Duty: Ghosts

Were you a big Call Of Duty fan before you got involved with Ghosts?
I was a fan, I was. In my life, I don't have a tonne of free time. My 13-year-old son, he is a gamer - that is his definition for himself, 100%. So I have this dual experience, playing a game and seeing the game through the eyes of my son, and that's a fun thing that adds to my enjoyment of it.

So did he lose his mind when you told him you were going to be the writer of the new Call Of Duty game?
That is an understatement, actually. (Laughs) It's so funny, he's never been allowed to see any of my films. They have no relevance to him. Every once in a while, someone will tell him, 'I'm a fan of your father's work...' and he just doesn't care.

But Call Of Duty: Ghosts, this landed like a bunker buster in his life. It's unbelievable. Any time I would go pick up kids for anything, or outside the playground, there would be a swarm of his friends around my car, asking questions. It's so great. It made me really happy, and continues to make me really happy. Now he's pestering me, asking what I'm going to do next.

'Are you going to write GTA VI?'
This has to be the best experience for gamers ever - that's just where the bar is set. The. Best. Ever.
'Get on it, Dad!' I'm like, 'Give me a break!'

How did you first get involved with the project?
It came about the way a lot of things seem to - things that are good, ultimately - which is through serendipity. I was at this thing... it was actually a baby shower, and there was somebody there who works for Activision, and we got talking. This top executive, but not a developer/designer/creative type, but a powerful guy at the company, and we just got talking in this abstract way. Then it became less abstract, and I was talking about the power of games and the power of storytelling inside games.

I was thinking about stuff like Heavy Rain, but also the stuff that Activision does, truthfully. Weirdly, I was thinking about Skylanders, because we'd had this big Skylander invasion in our house, and I was talking about this, that and the other thing, and I was talking about Call Of Duty, about Black Ops, and I was talking about stuff I was working on, and stuff like Black Hawk Down - I did production rewrites on Black Hawk Down - I was just... talking.

There was this funny insight I had. I thought that the whole experience of the movie of Black Hawk Down would have been half of a good level of Call Of Duty. At that point, everyone was talking about next gen, but sitting at that baby shower, I didn't know what it really meant. So I was curious about that, and I wanted to know when games were really going to feel like movies. When are you going to be able to see emotion in the eyes of the characters at a level that's really compelling? Because that's what's really interesting to me.

When you're directing a film... like, when I was directing George Clooney - and he won an Oscar for this - there's a whole scene in a hospital bed, and it's all a slow push towards his eyes. There's just a lot going on there. That was the kind of discussion we were having, we were talking about that. And I guess he passed along some of that to some of the other guys in the office, and it trickled down and I got a call asking whether I'd come and have lunch.

Stephen Gaghan On Writing Call Of Duty: Ghosts

How often do you pick up work from baby showers?
(Laughs) It's almost exclusively from baby showers now. I'm hoping my agency, Creative Artists, will get a bit more engaged so I can get off the baby shower circuit. 'This is a great party, but do you need anyone to write a video game?'

Have you wanted to work in games for a while?
The movie business has been in enormous flux. It's always changing and you've got to scramble. The internet came along and devoured the DVD backend of the movie business. Suddenly you're watching dollars turn into nickels, and that's interesting to me. What does that mean? Then you see Black Ops make a billion dollars in 15 days... What is it? Why?

And let me be blunt with you: lead designers and level designers, they don't give a flying eff about a screenwriter. It's not like they're asking you about your Oscar, they're more like, 'You're a fraud. Put up or shut up. We have 10 minutes, what have you got for us?' They're skeptical, and rightly so, because the film and gaming worlds are different.

So I end up actually moving my office into their office. And it was fun! It's a fun environment. Compare it to Hollywood... with Hollywood, it's all theoretical. The average development time for a Hollywood movie is nine years. Nine years for a studio film. And a lot of what you do is abstract. 'Maybe we'll do this some day - it's going to go to greenlight committee in March, we'll let you know how the numbers come back from Uzbekistan.'

And this is totally different. This is all-hands-on-deck. This has to be the best experience for gamers ever - and that's just where the bar is set. The. Best. Ever. 'We're already behind, so let's go.'

How does the filmmaking and game-making business compare?
More attention and thought goes into naming a character in Call Of Duty than all the work that can go into certain movies.
In my business, I'm the writer-director, and the writer-director has an enormous amount of power. You're a bit of a dictator in terms of what the thing is going to be, and you normally partner with a financing and distribution team, who give you the $50 million you need, so they have a big say, and the two of you hash it all out.

With gaming, this is quite different. When they're starting to think about a game, they bring in the best designers they have in-house, and they field outside people, they acquire studios, and basically they're bringing the smartest and most creative people in to say, 'What's the coolest thing you have? What's the most interesting level idea? We're thinking in this realm... what's the coolest damn thing you can come up with?'

This is not too different to the way great, great, great movies are written. The movies that are really original and really fun, where it's really groundbreaking, that comes from a guy saying, 'I've got a really awesome scene. We're going to make that scene no matter what, and I have no idea what's coming next.'

I know Charlie Kaufman really well, for instance. Charlie Kaufman starts a story and he has no freaking idea where he's going. None. Zero. And he doesn't want to know, because there's a little bit of death in that. You work with certain franchises and you're locked in.

In this world, I'm telling you, there is so much freedom inside those levels to just be like, 'Let's blow people's minds', and the methodology of how you're going to blow their minds is a little bit up in the air.

But at the same time, we want a narrative. What's the narrative? Some of the levels are wide open, some of them have more form to them, some you're pretty sure this is what it's going to be. This is triple the length of a movie, at least, and there's freedom to work within there, within those lines.

And are you writing scripts in the same way you would a movie, in Final Draft, with Courier?
Precisely. I am a big believer in Courier. It's the same dramaturgy, exactly. Exit pursued by bear, all that kind of stuff. The thing is, everything I write is in service of the game. The needs of game are served first. I can write what I think is the single best five page emotional dialogue scene between two soldiers that has ever been written, but the truth is, in the game, they're going to pause - if at all - for eight seconds, for fifteen seconds. You don't have a lot of time.

You have a little more freedom in the load movies, but people skip load movies, because they want to play the game. If you want more information, the load movie will give you more information, but the great trick - and by the way, this is the exact same trick of all movie writing - is how to fit character into action. Character is defined by action, character comes from action, so that helps.

But the player is in control, you have no guarantee that the player will be looking at what you want them to or listening to what you want them to. You have a whole new bag of tricks. Okay, so we're going to lock these people down here under fire, you're not going to be able to move for this period of time, and now we have to take that five-page masterpiece and make that play in half a page.

And that's the same process as anything I've done elsewhere, whether it's in TV or movies. That's always the problem. You always wish you had five pages, and you only have half a page.

Stephen Gaghan On Writing Call Of Duty: Ghosts

What it you who came up with the idea of Riley the dog?
I cannot take credit for that. I love dogs - my best friend was a dog for 14 years - so I am way on board for the dog, but I don't know who came up with the idea initially. There's this old expression in screenwriting: 'Shall we have him pet the dog?' And here we have a dog who's not just a pet, but who's actually a real, valid, valuable member of the team.

That dog does stuff that is really, truly bad-ass. When you're in there on the motion capture stage, you're watching the dog doing stuff that makes you say, 'Holy shit! I would not like to run across that dog in the dark jungle.'

And what about naming him, and naming other characters?
You fight over those names like you cannot believe. More attention and thought goes into naming a character in Call Of Duty than all the work that can go into certain movies. (Laughs) Blood and sweat and tears go into figuring out the names, because they are so important. The call signs say a lot about you. The brotherhood that's evoked by the name is quite profound.


Call Of Duty: Ghosts is out on November 5.

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