First posted on 16 May 2007. Last updated on 13 September 2008.
As the creative figure in the director's chair for the groundbreaking adventure Gabriel Knight II (also known as The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery), Will Binder is the unequivocal master of game directing. His credits in Hollywood include work on "Scent of a Woman" and "Greedy". Co-working with game designer Jane Jensen and directing the talents of Dean Erickson, Joanne Takahashi, and the remaining cast of Gabriel Knight II, Binder has shown a remarkable ability to create exactly the right ambience for this much loved game. At the heart of his directing lies the same love of a great story that typifies the storyteller, and that is perhaps how we can best understand Binder -- as a storyteller whose words are painted in the visual canvas. We are honoured to have the opportunity to interview him. In this interview, we discuss with him the technical behind the scenes magic of Gabriel Knight II, learn that he is also a gifted oil painter, and discover some exclusive snippets about his future scripts and projects.
- You learned the business of directing from the ground up -- you were a post-production assistant for "Scent of a Woman" in 1992 and a set production assistant for "Greedy" in 1994. Did you already have the vision and creative mindset that now epitomise your directing style when you began work in such films or did your production assistant work in such films open up this unexpected vista of creativity for you?
- Working on large Hollywood productions gave me an insight into the technical and logistical side of filmmaking on a large scale. It's when I attended UCLA Film School that I started to hone my creativity and vision in regards to filmmaking.
As far as a specific "style" as a filmmaker; I want my style to be undistinguishable, to disappear in the film or game or whatever. To me, serving the material and totally involving the audience in the story and characters is what's important.
- When did you first know that you wanted to be involved with the making of films or other visual media as a career? Was there something during your childhood that sparked off this desire?
- As a kid I was a big daydreamer. I loved to fantasize about stories and scenarios. "What would I do if I was in a specific situation or scenario." Of course in my mind I was always the good guy that defies the odds and saves the day. I didn't really think about a career; I just remember telling myself that "I wanted a job that allowed me to go to the beach everyday during the summer."
It wasn't until high school that I thought seriously about making films but it wasn't an easy choice. I've always been, and still am today, torn between my love of painting and filmmaking. I chose filmmaking because I'm interested in people and what makes them tick; their hopes, fears, desires, motivations, etc. Also, something about the dynamics of working with other creative people gives me energy. Not to mention the craft itself is just so powerful. It's visual, there's performance, movement, music, voice; it's the closest thing to simulating real life. So, I guess it goes back to the daydreaming (story-dreaming) of my childhood, "what I would do if I was in a specific situation or scenario." Of course I would be the good guy that defies the odds and saves the day.
- Did you already have some directing experience to draw upon when you directed Gabriel Knight II, or did you bring into the task the knowledge you had gleaned from associated work in this field?
- Yes, I made several short films while I was at UCLA Film School and a few after I graduated. There's no way I (we) could have pulled off GKII without experience. We had so much to do with such logistical and monetary obstacles that it was extremely important to know what we were doing. That being said, making GKII was a whole new experience for me and everyone else on the crew. We were doing some pretty ground breaking work and that made it all the more fun.
- You and Jane Jensen worked together closely in conceiving the look of Gabriel Knight II. What gave you the inspiration to use detailed and beautiful photographs to give such a gorgeous palette of looks for the game?
- The look as far as the photographs and style of GKII was established before I was brought onto the project. Jane Jensen and Nathan Gamms and the talented art department were responsible for "Gothic Novel" look. It was my job and my crews job to make our shots on the stage matched the look and feeling that was established for us. Which by the way wasn't an easy task but that's a technical story for another day.
- Do you feel there is any difference of approach required in directing a game and directing a film? What in particular do you find challenging in this game-making genre?
- Overall the approach required in directing a game and directing a film are very similar. You work with your actors and your crew to tell a story with images and sound. That being said there are some noticeable differences.
One difference between directing a game and a film is that in a game the director has to be aware of all the different scenarios that may or may not have happened to a specific character because the story (or characters) can go in many different directions depending on the choices the player makes. On GKII for example, something may or may not have happened earlier in Gabriel's (Dean's) adventures depending on the choices the player made; making it difficult for the actor to know exactly what he/she's been through or where he's at in the story. Because of this, it was tricky at times dealing with the actors and explaining their motivations, state of mind, etc.
Another noticeable difference was some of the specific requirements unique to directing a game. For instance, in many of the scenes in GKII, the actors needed to start and end each scene on a specific mark and in a specific position with a specific expression for continuity purposes because we did not know the next choice the player would make.
Also, on GKII there were many technical considerations and limitations. "The Beast Within" was basically a giant special effects movie. Ninety percent of the nearly 500 page script was shot on a blue stage. Because of space and monetary reasons we ended up constructing blue props, fake doors, etc. This took time and made the lighting more complicated. And, because we didn't have motion-control and couldn't move the camera during a shot, we had to take extra care when composing and blocking our shots. Not to mention that our limited budget gave us very little rehearsal time for the cast or crew, making the production even more challenging and rewarding.
- Gabriel Knight II has garnered so many awards and so much praise; it must have been a deeply satisfying artistic work. What facets remain brightly in your mind as the most rewarding aspects of working on Gabriel Knight II?
- Working on GKII has been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my life. We worked our tails off but I loved every minute of it. We (the cast and crew) became very close, almost like we went to war together. Especially the core group. There were just so many special moments I don't know where to begin.
I think some of the most rewarding moments during production were when the camera was rolling and everything just seems to unfold, like a perfect storm. The Performances, the camera work -- wow, those moments were really special. I would glance over at Jane Jensen, Dave Plaskett (Asst. Director / P.M.), Gil Neuman (P.M.) or Randy Littlejohn (Cinematographer), and we'd just wink or smile at each other. When the magic happens everybody knows it and it's very satisfying.
Also, post-production (editing) was very rewarding. It was much more relaxed and we were able to really enjoy what we had captured on the set without all the pressure. Peter Lonsdale, my editor, and I spent many hours together in the cutting room and I enjoyed every minute. Jane also really enjoyed seeing her characters and words come to life. To me editing is one of the most over-looked aspects of the filmmaking process. It's also one of the most creative and important.
And then after the game was finished with all the amazing artwork and the brilliant programming and all the awards; that was pretty satisfying as well.
- After Gabriel Knight II, you subsequently worked as the producer of the shoot for another game, Babylon 5: Into the Fire, that was based on the hit cult series, Babylon 5. What were the major differences for you working on these projects? Obviously the specific task -- director for the former, producer of the shoot for the latter -- varied, but with respect to the game vision itself, was this something that stood out as very different between these games?
- GKII and B5 were totally different types of games. GKII was much more character and story oriented where B5 was fairly light on character and story combined with some fantastic artwork, simulation play and AI (artificial intelligence). Also, B5 was shot in the first person POV where the eyes of the camera were the eyes of the main character. In other words, the main character was supposed to be you (the person playing the game). In GKII, the main character was Gabriel Knight (Dean Erickson) a real character with a specific past, specific desires, motivations, looks, attitude, etc.
As far as my role on B5, it was much more managerial and logistical. I was intimately involved with the budget, casting, contracts, scheduling as well as being the point man dealing with the B5 production crew and cast, Netter Studios, Warner Brothers and Sierra On-Line. Needless to say, I had a full plate. The only complaint or regret I had with the B5 experience is that the game was never finished or released. It would have been an amazing game. Stunning artwork, brilliant programming and great acting and directing by Janet Greek (talented director from the B5 TV show). I know there's a lot of die-hard B5 fans out there that feel the same way. Who knows, maybe someday they'll decide to pull the footage we shot out of the vault and finish it.
- With the marvellous sense of balance you have showed in poising the opposing forces of tenderness and savagery, of mystery and revelation, and of elegance and brutality, highlighted on the canvas of the rich and romantic visuals you directed in Gabriel Knight 2, you have so much to offer to fans of your work. Can you tell us about the other projects in which you have been involved and some of your future works we can anticipate?
- I have several feature film projects I'm trying to produce and or direct. I haven't been pursuing any projects in the game world recently but with the advances in the technology opening up the possibility of more live-action, I'm thinking about jumping back in. Here's a brief synopsis of a couple of the scripts I'm currently hoping to get off the ground.
One script I recently wrote is called "No Brainer." It's a comedy about the misadventures of Dennis Woodruff, a homeless eccentric, on his quest to become a famous movie star. Dennis has been seeking stardom by advertising himself on his wildly decorated cars for years. He doesn't want to just be an actor; he wants to be a "Movie Star." One day Dennis befriends Jose, a twenty something Hispanic Kid who's living in a pay-toilet, and Dennis offers him a job as his driver. It turns out that Jose is from East L.A. and has come to Hollywood to find his real father whom he believes is a famous movie star. This unlikely pair takes us on ride involving personal ambition, drugs, murder, celebrity impersonators and general mayhem. A world where nothing is what it appears to be. The story examines the conflict between success and failure, between dreams and everyday realities.
Another script I recently completed, with my writing partner Chuck Zigman, is called "The Devil Made Me Do It." You know those movies where the guy, in order to 'earn his wings' and stay in Heaven, has to take 'fallen' people and set them on the right path? In our story the opposite is true: Loveable-loser mailman Gabe Fowst accidentally electrocutes himself and winds up in Hell -- which happens to be a huge, fun, blow-out-party, where all your dreams come true. The Devil tells him he's not bad enough to stay...unless, he'll agree to return to earth, take a good, wholesome family and set them on the wrong path.
I have a psychological / drama / thriller story I'm writing that's not yet complete, as well as a couple other projects that some producers I know would like me to direct if and when they land a deal. Also, I plan on having an art show with some of my oil paintings in the near future. So much to do, so little time.
- You have worked with some of the best actors in the business -- Al Pacino, Michael J. Fox, Bruce Boxleitner, Mira Furlan, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and of course, Dean Erickson and Joanne Takahashi. Is there a particular acting style or approach you find that works best with your directing style or appeals most to you? Which actor(s) have you found the most inspiring or the most responsive to your creative vision?
- I worked with all the actors you mentioned but unfortunately I'd didn't have a chance to direct the major stars on the list. Working with Dean Erickson and Joanne Takahashi was great. They are both very receptive and talented actors and I'd jump at the chance to work with either of them again. Most of the actors on GKII were very talented and a pleasure to work with. That being said, I formed a special bond with Dean Erickson and am still in contact with him. Dean has tremendous range as an actor and I plan on casting him in one of my future projects.
On the B5 game the cast was a mixture of the original B5 cast who, needless to say, were excellent and knew their characters inside and out. There were a few new comers who did an excellent job as well. I know I keep saying excellent and pleasure and talented but it's really true. I've been fortunate to have had the opportunity to either direct or observe so many talented actors. And don't be mistaken, there are many, many talented actors who never really get a chance to shine. And it's really too bad.
As far as style or approach when dealing with actors, I'm very flexible and don't prescribe to any specific method. I believe it's the director's job to facilitate the actors performance by almost any means necessary. So the more methods or techniques a director is familiar with, the more tools he/she will have at his disposal.
I like to use bits and pieces of many styles or methods depending on the actors, the situation and the material. I use memory as emphasized by the Strasberg Method, the British technique of observation, imagination by Steller Adler, Meisner's immediate experience technique, as well as a combination of all or none. The key is for the director to be thoroughly versed and practiced in various technique's giving him the flexibility to best work with a given actor or situation. This coincides with the trust factor that must be established by the director. If the actor doesn't trust the director he/she rarely gives his/her best performance. If the director is not prepared or knowledgeable, it's very difficult to gain the trust of the actor. It's the director's role to help the actor give the best performance he/she can. If leaving the actor alone works best, then I shout my mouth and let the actor do his thing. That being said, I believe the actor needs to have the raw material or emotional reservoir called for in the role in order to give a successful performance.
The old saying, 90% of directing actors is casting is not too far off in my opinion.
The actor either has it or he doesn't. As a director, you try to earn TRUST enable them to RELAX, help them if they need it and then...IT can happen.
- You are certainly classified as among the gurus of computer game directing. What advice do you have for those who want to emulate your achievements in this field?
- As a director you're ultimately a story teller. You might not be the writer but you're still a storyteller. It's your job to take the written words and make them visual. So, know story. Study story. Try to write if you don't already. You might not be the greatest writer but try and develop as best you can. Even if you only direct other writer's work, which most director's do, be intimately familiar with the process and the craft. Also, get as much experience on the set as you can. Observe, observe, observe -- then try it yourself. It doesn't matter what genre or what format you shoot in, just shoot. become comfortable telling stories using images. Remember it's a visual medium, so develop a feel for camera placement, blocking, etc. Choices and more choices. That's what a director is faced with every time he/she steps on the set. Have a point of view, a voice, and surround yourself with good people. A lot of directors I know are great visually and technically but are weak when it comes to working with actors. If you fall into this category, take an acting class yourself. Understand what an actor does and how he prepares, it will be invaluable to you as a director.
As far as getting a job as a paid director, well, there's hundreds of books on the market and they all work and don't work. In other words: I don't have the answer. Just try to work in the field at any capacity while you develop your craft. Network, meet people and keep trying. Persistence is key. And like anything else in life, don't wait for it to come to you. Be proactive and make sure you're prepared when an opportunity presents itself. And if your uncle happens to be the head of a movie studio or game company then forget what I just said and don't bother buying all the books.
- Do you see an intriguing future for computer game directing? If another project in this field is offered, what may make such a project of interest to you?
- Most of the games I see today today are simulation -- shoot-em-ups, sports, racing, types and that's not my thing. I do think the character/story oriented games will make a comeback. And with the advances in technology I definitely think live-action will be even more in the mix. And yes, I would love to direct another game if the right project came around.
- Gabriel Knight II offers a deeply satisfying experience for the player, with its layers of story line, stunningly beautiful graphics and utterly superb soundtrack. From your point of view, what is the most important aspect in making an adventure game?
- Story. With out a doubt. And by story I also mean character as well. To me, character and story are inseparable. If Jane's story wasn't as good as it was, we wouldn't be doing this interview.
- Do you ever think about future Gabriel Knight projects at all? Do you feel there is something further you can contribute if another Gabriel Knight game eventuated?
- Yes, I do think about future Gabriel Knight projects from time to time. I think Jane Jensen is extremely talented as I said earlier. I think she's created a great franchise (world) with compelling and developed characters. If Jane decides to make another live-action Gabriel Knight game, I would love to be involved. Also, I could easily see a Gabriel Knight feature film and/or TV series. But you need to talk to Jane about that.
- Of all your projects, what remains to you as your finest achievement, the one perfect moment that encapsulates everything you want to achieve in directing or producing?
- There hasn't been a "perfect moment" that encapsulates everything I want to achieve in directing or producing. There's been some magical moments that encapsulate some of what I want to achieve, but not all. As soon as I have that "perfect moment" I'll let you know.
That being said, I'd have to say my experience on GKII was probably the closest I've come so far. We didn't have all the restraints you would with a 50 million dollar feature. Jane Jensen and Sabina Duvall, our producer, recognized that we knew what we were doing and trusted us enough to let us go for it. It was a great experience that I wouldn't trade it for anything.
- What can we look forward in you over the next 5 years?
- In the next five years you can look forward to a least one theatrically released feature film and possibly a game. Who knows, maybe you'll invite me back within the next five years to talk about the next Gabriel Knight game of the year.
Thanks for your time and I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.