Today we’re once again playing a bit against type, as we have a little sit-down with Bryan Lefler, Editor, Writer, and Director of the film Unicorn City, which is a wonderful and funny movie about gamers.
Bryan, thanks so much for taking some time to chat with us! Did we get all the credits right? Or did you have any additional roles/jobs on the film?
I’m going to correct you on the title of writer. I was a co-writer, having written the script with my brother, Adrian. My father, who was one of the executive producers, was instrumental in the writing process as well. He’s the one who would read our stuff, say that it didn’t make any sense, roll his eyes and say it was lame, and push for more weighty issues instead of making it all about people just fartin’ around in a forest.
When you’re talking about an independent movie you end up signing on for all sorts of extra jobs, whether you planned on it or not. I did storyboarding, concept artwork, and a myriad of other things.
So take us back to the beginning: What spawned the idea of Unicorn City? Were you a gamer growing up, or were you drawn to the genre because of the awesome level of geeky awkwardness within the gamer culture?
This is a multifaceted question so I’ll answer it in a kind of brain-barfy way.
The idea of Unicorn City didn’t just pop into our brains. My brother and I had been writing, or rather, trying to figure out how to write, for about 6 years. We had written about 3 scripts. The first one was awful. The second script had dark subject matter and we decided we didn’t want to go there. Basking in the dregs of society isn’t where we wanted to be for the next 2 to 3 years. We wrote another that was just way too big in terms of budget. When they say “don’t limit yourselves when writing” I think they’re smoking. My experience is that you have to have budget in mind. If you’re going to be low budget then treat it that way and embrace it.
So, we knew we had to do something very, very low budget. So low budget that we could finance it by mortgaging our homes...or at least convince my dad to mortgage his. Adrian approached me one day and said, “I got it. A modern day Don Quixote by Cervantes. It’s all about imagination vs. reality, but with gamers.” We grabbed that idea and started working on it. In the meantime I ran into a friend at the LA airport that Adrian and I went to school with named Cameron Dayton. We were catching up before our flight and I mentioned that we were working on a script about gamers. Cameron had a similar idea about the creation of a utopia and the title “Unicorn City.” We met up afterwards and worked together on the story until Cameron left Utah because he got a job with Blizzard Entertainment. At that point we all agreed to move on. Adrian and I kept writing for years after that, about 4 years to be exact, until we had something we felt comfortable in pitching. Writing is the hardest part of filmmaking. Everything else is cake when compared to writing.
In regards to whether or not I gamed growing up; no I didn’t. Adrian played some D&D for a while for not long. Whenever I had a spare moment I was drawing. When it came to Unicorn City Adrian and I joined a guild and gamed for about 8 months. However, even during that time I wasn’t interested in the gaming, or how the game worked, but rather in the people and the relationships around the table.
An additional aspect of myself is that I’ve worked in the video game industry for over 12 years, and still do. Many of those I associate with are gamers and are some of the greatest, most intelligent, and gentle people I know. When Adrian and I started in on the film we really wanted to break the stereotypes of who a gamer is. Everything we saw had them has nerds with glasses. When in reality we had friends in high school who were stars on the football team who gamed religiously. We had a lot of fun doing that and, oddly enough, it’s gamers who write us negative reviews because we busted some of those stereotypes. Kind of funny.
You’re an artist by trade, so how did you fall into making a feature film?
I’ve always drawn. My mother claims all responsibility for my talent because she allowed me to make a mess with my food. My grandmother, who is a neat freak, would be disgusted at the messes I would make in my highchair. My mom would say “Oh, he’s just
painting.” But I share a very deep love of illustration and film. I like to think I “make pictures” and qualify both under that definition.
In grade school I was set on working in the SFX industry. I loved Stan Winston, Dennis Muren, Richard Edlund, Phil Tippett and wanted to do what they did. I would go to the library and copy entire magazines of Cinefex and go over and over them. I realized soon that the director had the ultimate say in the decisions and grew to love the idea of being in charge of the entire story.
I drew and drew through middle school, high school, and when I went to college tried to double major, but the school wouldn’t let me. At BYU I minored in film because I could still get my hands on the equipment and not have to do most of the classes and then majored in illustration. Before leaving school I got a job working for a game company and I’ve been in the games industry since. I currently work for Avalanche Software in Salt Lake City, Utah. Disney is the mothership and we’re currently finishing off “Disney’s Infinity,” which is going to blow peoples minds. It’s a great game (shameless plug).
Some people are calling Unicorn City "Napoleon Dynamite set in a gamer’s world"; how do you react to that comparison?
It’s a compliment. The actual quote that we slapped on our movie poster we got from a fan at our second screening. We showed it at Gencon and after the screening a guy came up to me and said “...that’s like Napoleon Dynamite meets Monty Python’s Holy Grail...” We never had a Peter Travers or any top critic review our movie and give us a quote, so we used this fan’s and indicated that the quote is by “Some dude in Indiana.”
I don’t know if you are aware of this or not but I went to film school with Jared and Jerusha Hess and I was the storyboard artist and script supervisor on Napoleon Dynamite. I never set out to copy it, however there are things that happen in making low-budget that cast a similar glow. For example, you only have so many setups, you only have so much time, comedy plays best in the wide—in a Buster Keaton or vaudeville way. So I share many things in common, stylistically, with Napoleon Dynamite but in terms of story and character I don’t see anything that is really similar. Well, we also have a bus and Jon Gries. But if people want to say that about Unicorn City then go right ahead because I hold both films very dear to my heart.
Using the DM as the film’s villain is sheer genius, and Jon Gries’ portrayal of Shadow Hawk is so sinister I hated him through the whole film! So, be honest: This guy is totally one of your DM’s from the past, isn’t he...?
No. Actually, he’s Shakespeare. Adrian and I made Shadow Hawk's alter ego as William Shakespeare and he’s never been able to fall out of playing that part. The only thing that slides in and out of character is Shadow Hawk’s accent—which I love. We thought it would be funny to have the DM think of himself as the greatest story teller and, of course, that would be Shakespeare. We even gave Jon hair and costuming that reinforced that; the facial hair and beard, pony tail, and those big, poofy shorts and tights during the battle of wits.
So typically when a film or TV show tries to inject “gamer” games or terms into the story, it might make some sort of Catan reference, but the scenes in the game shop have a pretty all-star selection of great board games. Did you have some input on getting your favorites in those scenes?
It wasn’t a matter of finding a favorite but a matter of finding a backdrop. Adrian worked tirelessly, writing tons and tons of emails asking for permission to show them. Most of the companies were very generous and allowed us to display their games.
I don’t know of any relationship between brothers where there isn’t some sort of pecking order. Our neighborhood growing up was full of these types of familial relationships. You can pound that crap out of your brother but no one else can, and if they do you’d pummel their head in. It’s a really weird way that brothers say, “I love you.”
How were you able to walk the fine line of making fun of a culture, while also showing a great affection for that culture?
I think you do that by showing their pain. We’re all attracted to different things. What’s normal to one person is bizarre to another. I could have made a film about people who love fantasy football, or paintballing, or competitive knitting. It doesn’t matter. You show great affection to a culture by making them human and we know they’re human because we relate to their successes and failures. We all know what it feels like to fail and hurt inside. So regardless of what that person is suffering from, whether we think it’s bizarre or not, we’re still tapping into something familiar. If it’s Voss sitting up at night and looking over a miniature landscape and feeling alone and wondering if he even belongs on this earth, then we get it. As long as we’re treating his pain in an honest way. Making fun of something is easy. You just hold a microscope over a culture and not give their ups and downs and equal billing. It comes down to empathy for me.
Aside from some very mild language, and extremely awkward necking, the film is very family friendly—that is to say, there’s nothing overtly violent, sexual, or crude about it. What motivated you to keep the film clean? And how hard was it to maintain that standard?
It’s more difficult to make something that is kind than it is to make something mean. Just as it’s easier to tear down than it is to build up. I took making the film clean as a personal challenge and as a calling card. I had some issues with some of the actors wanting the film to be edgier and some other conversations about how it needed to be aged up, but I felt strongly in making it an experience that everyone in a family could enjoy. I wanted to label myself as a writer and director who embraces family. Interestingly, one of the actors that I'd had this “edgier” conversation with later came to me and basically gave me his genealogical pedigree of everyone he invited to see the film, from his parents to, aunts, uncles, grandma, and kids. He described exactly what I was wanting to achieve, which is that they all went to the movie and enjoyed it together. That’s how I remember films of the 80’s. They were fun for everyone.
The best was when I ran into Chris Metzen, Vice President of Creative Development at Blizzard Entertainment, at Pixar. I was there for my work and listened to a lecture he was giving with other heavy hitters in the game industry. At one point during his lecture he talked about gamers being like a family unit. Which was my philosophy going in to make Unicorn City. I saw gamers sitting around the table gaming as nothing more than a family sitting around the dinner table. They share stories, talk about personal issues, argue, eat, laugh, and enjoy each other. Well, I introduced myself and told him that I wanted to give him my film and that I thought he would love it. Before I could finish he cut me off and said “Unicorn City!!!” He had already seen it, loved it and then paid me the best compliment. He told me that he watched it with his kids and laughed through the whole thing. He said “...good for you, man. Making a film that I could watch with my kids; that doesn’t happen very much anymore. You should be proud of that...”
We sent Wizards of the Coast a script to see if they would allow us to display their products on film. The person with whom we were talking was interested and told us to get back with them when we were about ready for production. We did what they asked but when we tried to contact that same person they wouldn’t allow us to talk to them and then said “...absolutely no...” So we made sure we didn’t use their products and made double sure we didn’t use their name. Then, in the middle of filming, we realized we never had given a name to the company that Voss wanted to work for. Devin McGinn and Adrian approached me in between takes one day and Devin pitched “Warlocks of the Beach.” I laughed so we went with it.
So what do you want someone to walk away from Unicorn City having learned—or felt?
I wanted people to feel good after having watched it. The visual in my head was people leaving the theater with a smile on their faces. I wanted them to laugh and have an experience that I had when I was younger. Which is seeing a film with the entire family and not feeling like you needed to go home and repent for watching the thing. Now that’s the ideological answer. I also wanted to make enough money that I could quit my job and make films full time, or at least have enough money to concentrate on one job. Making a film while you’re working full time, supporting a family, have church responsibilities, work with the scouts, and have a bunch of fruit trees is excruciating. I would have to work on it after 10:30 pm until 1:00 and then get up at 5 am and get another hour and a half in. I did that for years through the writing, then pre-production, and then the post-production/editing phase. I never wanted to do that again, but I will be. Why? Because sitting in the back of a theater and listening to people laugh is an addiction I’m happy to have.
Will there be more films in your future?
I sure as heck hope so. I’m working on other ideas currently. I think I have one that will be a lot of fun.
A sequel to Unicorn City, perhaps?
I don’t see one in the near future, but who knows.
Or are there other stories you want to tell?
I’m dabbling in stories from Western to Science Fiction. I really would like to try all genres, minus horror and porn.
5-questions, 5 words to answer them (okay, you can use a phrase if it’s appropriate):
Favorite RPG race/class combo?
Clarbadong. Just made that up.
Favorite seven-letter word?
Favorite science fiction television show of ALL TIME!?
Greatest American Hero, Voyagers, or Star Trek
Favorite vacation you’ve taken?
My family kidnapped me from going to work one day during a very stressful time.
Favorite minor character in a major film?
I have a few that come to mind:
Argyle in Die Hard
Blain in Predator
Hudson in Aliens
Skinhead (Elias Koteas) in Some Kind of Wonderful
Anthony Qunn in Lawrence of Arabia (not really a minor character)
Bryan, thanks so much for taking the time to chat with us today!
Unicorn City is currently available on Netflix instant streaming. You can also get your own copy of the film on Blu-ray and DVD on Amazon right here! You can also find more about the film at UnicornCity.com, and on Facebook.
We really enjoyed the film, and the sincerity in which the gaming culture was handled. This film has a lot of heart! And it's funny!
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