A Special Interview w/ Unicorn City Director Bryan Lefler

Tunicorncoveroday 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.

unicorn-cityYou’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...?

UnicornCity_still6No. 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.

maxresdefaultSo when we see the interactions between Voss and his brothers, are we really seeing a window into your relationship with your own siblings?

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...”

unicorncity4Did Wizards of the Coast not find the screenplay amusing, or was it easier to just allude to them without using their actual name?

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!

Thanks as always for reading our little blog; if you like what's happening here please subscribe over on the right. You can also find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube! [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_V7BZy-dCyc&w=560&h=315]

TOG Visual - Michael Coe and Dungeon Heroes!

DungeonHeroesBox4_zps46bd4d57One of our first stops at Origins was the Gamelyn Games booth, where we had a little chat with Michael Coe, founder of Gamelyn Games and designer of Dungeon Heroes, a fun little 2-player dungeon crawl with outstanding components.

We'll be writing a full-out Double-Take Review of Dungeon Heroes very soon, but until we do you can get a good feel of the game from watching the video. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=umrpX-fUfaA&w=560&h=315] We'd like to thank Michael for sharing some time with us, and look forward to reviewing Dungeon Heroes soon!

Thanks for reading and watching!

Don't forget to subscribe to the blog for a chance to win free stuff!

And don't forget all the internetie things you can do to keep up with TOG! Facebook! Twitter! Instagram! YouTube!

Adventure Maximus! Need We Say More?

by Jeremiah Kickstarter featured a campaign yesterday that really caught our attention, and while we will be doing our regular Kickstarter weekly post tomorrow, we couldn't help but write about this campaign today!

MaximusAdventure Maximus, is a quick-playing RPG for...KIDS! The campaign touts that characters are created in 2 minutes, and the kids can not only play the game, but they can be the game master and run the game!

Normally we don't cover RPGs here on TOG, but the concept of there being an RPG for the kids has really caught our attention. It seems to be very appropriately themed for the youngsters as well. Nothing too creepy or scary—the goblins are known for eating waffles, etc. I (Jeremiah) am certainly not the biggest RPG fan in the world, but Adventure Maximus seems to take the fun elements of the genre and package them in a kid-friendly way. (Creativity, story telling, team work, using your imagination!)

The campaign is cruising along, and for $15 you can get a print-and-play version of the game, or for $35 you can score a physical copy along with all the stretch goals they hit.

Definitely worth taking a look at this one, which you can do RIGHT HERE!

Thanks for reading, please check us out on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram! And don't forget to subscribe to TOG over on the right! Have a great day!

Mage Knight - These Aren't Your Big Brother's Clix!

by Jeremiah

In the year 2000, Wizkids hit the market with their debut to the "Clix" system with a miniatures game called Mage Knight; it was a hit. Spawning Mech Warrior and the still-popular Heroclix titles for the company. Several years and multiple expansions later, Wizkids decided to release Mage Knight 2.0 and deem every figure previously created null and void in tournament play. Exit Mage Knight as we know it, and the eventual demise of Wizkids.

Wizkids is back up and running, and really hitting some home runs as they slowly but surely reboot titles that were gaming staples for much of the first decade of the 21st century. Which brings me to this week's review: Mage Knight the board game.

The overview—Think 40K, D&D, MTG, and any LCG all mixed up together. It sounds schizophrenic, but it works. The base set comes with 4 characters that players choose from; you then embark on a scenario (1 of 11 included, or if you're daring you can create your own or scale up or down your own) and into a land that is revealed as you explore. Along the way you encounter baddies, keeps, monasteries, dungeons...well, you get the idea. Killing a monster, conquering a keep, exploring (adding a new tile to the board) etc, will earn you "fame' (Experience Points, the ultimate goal in most scenarios is to have the most fame) which allows you to level up, which gives you stronger stats, allows you to gain new skills, control more allies...sound familiar?

Here's where the game takes on a different spin, and becomes very intriguing. You control all of your actions through your "Deed" deck. You have 5 cards in your hand (you get a higher hand limit as you level up), and these cards dictate what you can do on your turn. There is no intricate time-based system to keep track of; there is no Dungeon Master telling you what you can or cannot do. There is a board that consists of tiles that are revealed as you explore, and your own deck of cards. You also cannot die—taking wounds doesn't take away hit points, it only fills your deck with wound cards that clutter up your hand and inhibit you from taking more actions on your turn. Play continues in turns and rounds. A day round followed by a night round and so on. Day and night rounds have different effects on traveling across certain terrain and your ability to see what a certain baddy is before you jump into battle with it.

The Mechanisms—They're actually fairly clean and easy to learn—on the other hand, the multitude of combat rules and special abilities for your foes can be a little much to swallow when you first jump in. Playing cards to do anything and everything is a unique twist on a game like this, and you can really come up with some great combos to accomplish a lot on your turn, but it takes some good base knowledge of the gaming system and the cards in your deck.

I really enjoyed this game, but be warned: If games such as Battlestar Galactica are a marathon to you, Mage Knight is an Iron Man race! The longest scenario included is estimated to be about 8+ hours! It's definitely geared for a multiple-sitting experience.

Beware—As with most games of this nature that take place in some sort of "fantasy realm" the use of darker magic and spell casting is highly prevalent. But there's no flavor text on the cards, so as the game is played it feels pretty innocuous. About two rounds into the game I was informed that my character was a "Blood Cultist." It didn't really have any effect on the game play or the cards in my hand; all the players have the same cards—only different amounts of certain ones. I happened to have a few more cards that were more aggressive in nature, but as I leveled up I could easily select skills and cards that were geared more for healing and being a nice guy. But if casting spells and fighting wizards in towers and such gives you pause, it's best to steer clear of this one.

All in all, it's a deep gaming experience, with nicely tuned mechanisms to help take out some of the randomness of most card-based systems. I'm hoping for expansions to come soon that will offer more characters that are of a less evil persuasion.

Thanks for reading!