Why video game film adaptations used to suck and don’t anymore | Uwe Boll interview

Why video game film adaptations used to suck and don’t anymore | Uwe Boll interview

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Uwe Boll has been contemplating a tough question lately. Why are video game adaptations like the Super Mario Bros. Movie and The Last of Us on HBO taking off now? And why didn’t they take off when he was making them a decade ago?

And the question for us is this: Did we need to have Uwe Boll before we had these recent successes? Don’t get us wrong. We’re not making fun of Boll. He had a passion for video games and he saw an opportunity to bring them to the big screen. He also made a profit on his razor-thin budget movies.

Boll is known for making House of the Dead, Alone in the Dark, Postal, Far Cry, Dungeon Siege, BloodRayne, BloodRayne 2: Deliverance, BloodRayne: The Third Reich and many more. I talked to him about the rising trend of Hollywood and games, and what’s happening as gaming subculture is becoming mass culture. Critics were not kind. Alone in the Dark has a 1% review score on Rotten Tomatoes, while his highest score is 40% for They Wait.

I discovered that Boll returned to his love of original films in the past decade. In February, he revealed he was making First Shift, a crime drama starring Kristen Renton (Sons of Anarchy) and Gino Anthony Pesi (Shades of Blue).

Boll said that he was trapped in a way by the times. Hollywood executives had no respect for games, and they gave him shoestring budgets to do his work. In one case, a game based on the plot for his Alone in the Dark movie was canceled, and fans thought his movie was just making up new stuff and disrespecting the original game. And yet he tried to master the craft.

I found it instructive to talk to Boll, since I’m always trying to understand the future of games. And this time it was interesting to probe into history in a walk down memory lane with Boll. He retired from Hollywood in 2016 to open a restaurant. And now he’s back, making films again seven years later. And while he’s not necessarily going to do it, he thinks there is a big opening for video game horror films.

Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.

Uwe Boll is back to making movies.

GamesBeat: I thought of you more than once while all these new shows were becoming successful. I’m curious how you look at this trend in video game adaptations, with the new success everyone has had.

Uwe Boll: I was too early, right? I got started in 2002 or 2003. Before me there were things like Street Fighter and so on. Other shows and game-based films. Besides the bad reviews, they made good money, so there was more money for game-based films. That was the reason I went on it and acquired various licenses.

GamesBeat: What years were you most active?

Boll: 2003 until 2010, you could basically say. I think the last one was Far Cry. That was 2010 or 2011. It was a period of seven years. BloodRayne, Alone in the Dark, Postal, Far Cry, House of the Dead. I did second and third parts of BloodRayne. Alone in the Dark had a second part, but I didn’t direct it. House of the Dead had a second part, but I didn’t direct it. Dungeon Siege I did all three films.

GamesBeat: What brought it to an end for you? Did you move on to other things?

Boll: I did a lot of different genres in game-based films. I always tried to acquire properties that weren’t the same. Different genres – fantasy, horror, comedy action with Postal. I felt like I had to go back to writing myself. Postal was the only game-based film I wrote myself. Everything else was other writers. I wanted to go back to where I started with original films, not necessarily tied to a comic or a game.

BloodRayne spawned three (really bad?) Uwe Boll movies.BloodRayne spawned three Uwe Boll movies.

GamesBeat: How do you think about the reception your films got? Both at the box office and critically.

Boll: I got hit hard. Put it that way. I felt, in a way–when BloodRayne came, my third film, after House of the Dead and Alone in the Dark, I felt like people were not really watching the films. They didn’t see that they were different films. They judged every film in the same bad way. A lot of things were a little overhyped, because everyone was so excited that I got the Golden Raspberry award or whatever. A lot of critics were excited to trash them.

I watch almost all the movies coming out, and I know there were movies that were worse than mine. I never said Alone in the Dark or whatever was a masterpiece. The maximum you can say is that they had some–especially House of the Dead, they had some technical scenes that nobody had done before. They later turned into normal things. We had the Matrix setup with 300 cameras. We had a turntable, the thing where the camera spins around at 200 miles per hour. We had video game footage cut in. What other people later used, I used in 2003 with House of the Dead and got bashed for it.

On the other hand, I think what was also–the mainstream film media, what they always got wrong–on home video, all of these films sold millions of DVDs. There would be no second parts for BloodRayne or Dungeon Siege if they hadn’t generated enormous amounts of money in home video and TV. In comparison to a lot of big films made by the studios, they also weren’t so expensive. If you only spend $20 million, you can recoup that with home video. That’s what most of the films did.

I felt that it was a bit like–the Variety writers, the Hollywood Reporter writers, they always looked at box office as the biggest thing. When you look back on the last 10 years, we had so many films that didn’t even make $5 million at the box office, and they were way more expensive, with superstars. Alone in the Dark did $5.8 million. House of the Dead did $11 million.

GamesBeat: So you’re saying that it was a good business in general.

Boll: Yes. That’s the thing. House of the Dead was $7 million bucks to shoot the film, not $70 million. When it made $11 million box office and I think $28 million on home video, that was the whole point. Making more films based on video games, because they actually made money. When you see that stuff on Wikipedia, it’s very tough for me to change that, to get the facts out. Nobody cares. Their minds are made up.

GamesBeat: I’m trying to figure out why these adaptations are viewed as so successful now, and why they were viewed as unsuccessful in the past. One of the answers that usually comes back is that now video game creators have more say in how these things turn out. Riot Games made Arcane itself. Neil Druckmann did The Last of Us on HBO. Nintendo was very involved in the Mario movie. Do you think that’s part of the answer? Or are there other reasons why these things are successful now, but weren’t thought of as successful in the past?

Boll: In comparison to, say, comic book films, video games were always the little brother. They never got the money. They never got the same attention from the studios in regards to distribution and advertising and all that stuff. I agree that The Last of Us is a masterpiece. I loved it. As a TV series, it was just amazing. The Mario film, I went with my son. It was very well-done entertainment. It totally worked.

There was a genre, kind of like the Cannon, the Golan-Globus films, the old Rambo or Chuck Norris films, whatever. This kind of style, that was the very old game-based films. Those straight in-your-face action films. They weren’t necessarily framed perfectly, with real drama or a perfect arc for the actors. It’s gotten better, and that may be because the original creators were involved. They know it’s a different genre. They can’t copy a game on screen, so they need to have a real script, a real emotional arc.

It’s still a surprising development now. There was that phase after me with things like Prince of Persia, Assassin’s Creed, or World of Warcraft. They got big money for those films, but they also didn’t turn out very well. They never made money like the comic book films made.

Uwe Boll's Far Cry.Uwe Boll’s Far Cry.

GamesBeat: The other thing I’ve heard is that in the past, the Hollywood establishment didn’t respect games. They felt like movies were better content, more artistic. I don’t know if you encountered that as you were trying to get your movies made or work with people in Hollywood.

Boll: No, 100%. The studio executives had grown up with comic books. They were older, most of them. At that time period, they were already old in the year 2000. You had no support. They didn’t really believe in the success of these films in movie theaters. They only put up money for options because they knew they were strong on home video and pay TV and stuff like this. But I totally agree. They didn’t put in the work because they didn’t acknowledge games.

It’s changed so much now in the last five, seven years. Games are so big. They see their kids playing Fortnite and Zelda and all the stuff that’s hot right now. There’s more acceptance. And the visuals of the game have gotten so much better in the last 10 years, how things look.

GamesBeat: I wonder if the TV shows make a difference, too. If you tried to do The Last of Us in two hours, it probably wouldn’t work compared to a 25-hour video game. But if you do a nine-hour series on HBO, it feels like you can tell a lot more of the story. Was that an option for you at the time at all? Or was it always trying to fit these things into two hours or less?

Boll: For me, at that point, there was no streaming. You were stuck with the major companies running TV channels, and they weren’t really into it. They wanted PG or PG-13 ratings, maximum. They would have never felt they could do an R-rated TV show. You only had HBO and Showtime at that point. They got it started later on with things like Game of Thrones.

I had to do for Fox–Dungeon Siege was three hours long. We had to cut it down to 120 minutes for a theatrical release. If it’s three hours it goes straight to DVD. We needed that release. It was the biggest film I’d ever shot. So there’s an hour missing from the film. In Europe there’s a director’s cut on Blu-ray. I don’t know if it ever came out in the U.S., the three-hour version. That’s very hard as a director, when you know you have the characters fleshed out. You’ve shown their emotional development. And then you have to cut an hour out, and all you have is an action film with Jason Statham in a fantasy world. That’s not what I was trying to do with Dungeon Siege.

GamesBeat: What, for you, was the best thing to adapt from a game? Was there a pattern that you followed? Some people have pointed out that things like gameplay–that can translate into action scenes, but you don’t necessarily want to do something like DOOM, which had minutes of actual first-person action. You want to adapt it, but you don’t want to duplicate it. What was your philosophy around that kind adaptation?

Boll: The best ones, like Postal for example, they just captured the spirit of the game. It was a chaotic, crazy, almost bullshitting the audience game. In the film I used the main aspects of the game, but the point for me was to have a film where Postal fans would say, “That’s exactly what we wanted from a film based on Postal.” And that happened. Postal has a lot of fans, and the film, to this day–if I ever get fan mail or people at a convention want me to sign a DVD, Postal makes up almost half of that. It has real fans, and they love that film.

I also got some more positive reactions to Dungeon Siege, In the Name of the King, because it has more of an emotional arc. It has this kind of–the guy is losing his son, and he wants revenge. It has more emotions in it compared to the more technical, darker films like Far Cry or Alone in the Dark or BloodRayne. I personally like the first BloodRayne, because it’s so gory and sexy. But it’s a harsh R-rated film. I didn’t want to copy Underworld or Resident Evil. They were going for PG-13 ratings. I went darker and harder. I liked that. I like those kinds of classical Dracula films.

Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark.

GamesBeat: Were there particular scenes in Postal that really resonated with fans?

Boll: The whole thing is over the top. But when Verne Troyer gets caught in the suitcase. He’s carried away in that suitcase, and then he gets raped by monkeys in the dungeon? When you talk to people, everybody has their own favorite scenes in it. But they all liked that it was so ruthless. Postal, if it came out now, it would be a huge scandal. People would lose their shit over Postal, because everybody gets it. We weren’t thinking, “Well, how can we insult this group?” We didn’t care. Everybody had so much fun doing it, all the actors. J. K. Simmons is in it. Seymour Cassel. Even Oscar-winning actors in it. They wanted to play a film like this.

Today, maybe their managers would tell them, “No, you can’t do this. Everyone would tweet about it.” Now people would be scared to do a film like Postal.

GamesBeat: These adaptations are successful now, but would you have any advice for them, or things you’d like to see them do more of?

Boll: They definitely know what they’re doing. I would like to have maybe a bit more of the horror genre back, making films out of horror games in a way that’s really creepy. But it is what it is.

I had wanted to do Hitman with Jason Statham. Then someone else got the rights. Fear Effect, I had an option but I couldn’t get the financing together. People ask me, “Do you want to go back and do this again, do another game-based film?” I wouldn’t say definitely not, but I agree with you that it has to be totally different now. It’s 10 years later. They have to stand alone and completely work as movies. 

GamesBeat: If you had $100 million to do one of these, what do you think the outcome would have been like?

Boll: Now, on the technical side, it’s actually cheaper to do things. You can do a lot of things for less money. We had to do a lot of things for real. Things like the green screen behind you right now. We had that out in a field in Dungeon Siege to copy the army. You’d have about 150 soldiers and move them around a field to composite it together. Now you can do that with 20 extras. You can make the whole Lord of the Rings army. I’d love to do a big-budget film like Grand Theft Auto with real money, though. That would be fun.

Uwe Boll is working on First Shift, a new original crime drama.

GamesBeat: Computer graphics has done amazing things. There are some people saying they prefer animation over real people.

Boll: I haven’t seen the new Spider-Man film, the new animated one that just got released, but it’s supposed to be sensational. People have said it’s way better than any Spider-Man film with real actors. 

GamesBeat: As far as the idea that gaming is the biggest opportunity, it feels like that has changed. I wonder how these things got greenlit more recently, given that gaming was always viewed as a subculture rather than mass culture.

Boll: It’s funny, because who actually reads comic books? My kids never read the Spider-Man comics. They only know those franchises through the movies. Then they make games based on the movies and the comics. But now comics themselves are a minor hobby for people. Games are the big money-makers. That’s what takes all the time out of children’s daily routines. I’ve spent, for my kids, at least $3000 or $4000 on Fortnite in the last four or five years. “I need this, I need this.” They terrorize me until I pay. It’s a big business.

GamesBeat: The interesting thing is that the awareness that comes from these things is still surprisingly big. The Last of Us was a very successful video game and made lots of money, but there were still so many people who had never heard of it. It took the HBO show to reach a much broader spectrum of people.

Boll: It can happen. My BloodRayne film made the game far more known. That’s not necessarily because it was very successful. It was no comparison to Far Cry or Alone in the Dark or House of the Dead. But I liked the character. The half-vampire woman with the two swords was a great character for a film. That’s why I wanted to do that film.

Uwe Boll’s Alone in the Dark.

GamesBeat: As far as the criticism that’s hung around to this day, is there a response you’d have? Whether it’s off-base or deserved in some ways?

Boll: I made films with, let’s say, medium budgets the way it was technically doable at the time. I know that Alone in the Dark has a lot of flaws, but it was also a situation where the developer, from Atari, they basically got shut down in Los Angeles and they never did the game. They developed a game with connections to our film, and then they shut down the whole operation. I was completely roasted. “What does this movie have to do with Alone in the Dark besides Edward Carnby?” But you can’t put that guilt on me. It wasn’t me.

Of course, I know the film wasn’t a masterpiece. House of the Dead was maybe just campy fun. But all the films I did based on games, they’re not boring. They weren’t 180 minutes long, either, the way every superhero film is now, which I think is horrible. Why can’t you tell a story in 100 minutes and be done? I think it’s ridiculous. I really don’t like that. Films are getting longer and longer because they think they have to spend another $50 million to put another car chase at minute 140. It’s ridiculous. I don’t get it. It’s wasted money.

The Last of Us showed this. It was episodic, but every single episode was almost a little film by itself. Sometimes they were only 60 minutes long, and sometimes 80 minutes, but they weren’t two and a half hours long. It just becomes redundant.

GamesBeat: There are conflicting ideas there. In some ways everybody wants the director, the filmmaker, to be faithful to the game. But that word “adaptation,” sometimes it means that they don’t want you to change the details of the game for the movie. They want it to be the same. But they also may not realize that if you do stay that faithful, it’s not going to be as good a movie. Someone commented to me that with The Last of Us, it was great up until the last part, when it turned into a video game and he was just shooting everyone. And yet that’s faithful to the story of the game.

Boll: And it was very satisfying for the audience. She’s there and you think she’s dead. She gets her brain taken out, basically. The only way for him to save her was exactly what he did. Otherwise, they would both be dead. There was no halfway. Either shoot them all or she’s dead. I liked that. The tension was there, and also the identification–I thought the girl who played her was one of the best actresses I’ve seen in my life. She was absolutely sensational.

But if you have someone who is a huge fan of a game, it can be very tough for that person to accept a film. You’re so into it for yourself. You make the game into a film in your head every single time you play it. It’s tough to accept when you’re sitting passively and watching a film. “I would have never done it like this!”

I had this with House of the Dead. I mean, did you ever play House of the Dead? You sit there, mostly in a cave, and shoot zombies. That’s exactly what happens in my film. I don’t know what story you’re trying to find there. It’s just a survival game.

GamesBeat: I ran into someone recently who said he refused to watch the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies, because he didn’t want to change what was in his head from reading the books. 

Boll: It’s the same thing. When you read a book, or when you play a game, so much of it is in you. You spend days and days with it, not just two hours. Then someone makes a two-hour film about a book that ran 500 pages. You feel cheated. You have so much more in your head about the story, so much detail, that they can’t translate into two hours on a screen.

The main thing, with superhero films, with comic-book films–I think too much is not good. If you have two films per year, or a TV show and two films, by far that’s enough. Otherwise you end up with this kind of inflation where the quality goes down. We have way too much Avengers and spin-offs. I see more and more people who don’t want to follow it anymore. The box office slowly goes down.

They try to make franchises out of Black Adam or whatever, these superheroes that nobody actually knows. Black Adam, before that movie came out, was completely unknown to 99% of people. It’s not a good idea to do all of this. You need fewer event films per year. That’s good. But the opposite is happening.

Uwe Boll returned to making movies in 2023 with First Shift.

GamesBeat: The kind thing that I think people can say about your place in history–what you did paved the way for things that are happening today.

Boll: That’s a good line, absolutely. I definitely showed that there’s more–there are games in many more genres to bring to the screen. If I’d only done two films it wouldn’t have had that effect.

GamesBeat: Are you working on something right now?

Boll: I shot a film in New York in March, First Shift, a police film that plays out over one day. It’s a kind of bro movie. They’re in the car, and they go from case to case to case. There are sad things, very brutal things, but also–they’re doing their first shift together, so they don’t know each other. We’re in editing right now. The editor worked on Sin City, From Dusk Till Dawn, Machete. We’re working on it in Los Angeles. We’re hoping to release in fall to winter. The composer is on it right now, and then we’ll see.

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