The Gamechangers

New factual drama for BBC Two

The Gamechangers, A Writer’s View, by James Wood

The Gamechangers is a BBC Two factual drama telling the extraordinary story of two passionate, very different men on either side of a high-profile, high-stakes cultural war. It’s a battle which in many ways has helped define the cultural landscape we all now live in.James Wood
Date: 04.09.2015     Last updated: 05.09.2015 at 12.33
Category: BBC Two; Drama

The Gamechangers is a BBC Two factual drama telling the extraordinary story of two passionate, very different men on either side of a high-profile, high-stakes cultural war. It’s a battle which in many ways has helped define the cultural landscape we all now live in.

The film tells the behind-the-scenes story of a period in the development of the fastest-selling entertainment product in the world: Grand Theft Auto. It’s a game that’s wildly successful, brilliant and fun but also highly controversial, due to its violence. The creative genius behind the game is Sam Houser, a young British games designer.

The Gamechangers is about an amazing time in the mid-Noughties when Sam and the company he founded, Rockstar Games, clashed fiercely with moral guardians in the US. Leading this crusade was Jack Thompson, a Miami-based Christian lawyer who launched a legal case against Rockstar after two police officers and a police dispatcher were shot dead in Alabama by a young man who had been playing the game.

The film is in part a celebration of what they do at Rockstar. And it’s about what was without doubt the toughest test Sam Houser and the company ever faced. Their clash with Jack Thompson affected the whole team and tested the relationships of the original group of British friends who started the company. And the film is also about how his battle against Rockstar also came to define Jack Thompson. And not always for the best.

In many ways it’s a story about two radically different but equally obsessive men on a collision course. They’re two wonderful, powerful characters: Sam Houser is rightly regarded as a visionary pioneer in the gaming world - a man who’s been instrumental in elevating gaming as an art form over 20 years. And Jack Thompson is equally driven in his desire to stop what he considers to be the pernicious influence of Grand Theft Auto on young minds. Jack became a high-profile figure in the US due to his campaigning. They are two clever, driven, dynamic, focused, witty men who come from fiercely opposing viewpoints.

The moment the idea for this film was brought to me I became excited, because there is something wonderful for a writer about feeling you can explore a world people haven’t really tackled yet in drama. Video games are a huge part of a culture now, but there have been very few films or television programmes about the people who make them or the social dilemmas they can throw up.

I had no idea until I was told that the most successful video game in the world – a game that’s in many ways a detailed love letter to American culture - is in fact chiefly made by Brits. I wanted to find out who these clever, driven, ultra-successful men were – and why they did what they do.

When I wrote Rev, I really enjoyed going into the Church of England and learning about that world and then hopefully presenting it in an entertaining and revealing way. And it’s been the same with this.

The nature of the clash between Sam Houser and Jack Thompson threw up so many interesting contemporary issues that it was irresistible as a project.

Amongst others, the story is about the tension between freedom of speech and a need to protect kids; it’s about the clash between an older generation and the young; and about the difference between European attitudes to sex and violence as opposed to American ones. It’s a story that asks whether these violent video games can affect people’s minds and behaviour – and that’s not a question I think we’ve fully answered as a society.

We’ve been incredibly lucky to have Dan Radcliffe play Sam Houser. He’s perfectly caught Sam’s mixture of drive and wit and obsession. I genuinely think it’s his best performance in a film. And we’ve been equally lucky to have Bill Paxton play Jack Thompson. Bill is one of the best American actors of his generation – I think he’s done more than 80 movies, many of them household favourites. I think he really enjoyed having such a rich, complicated, driven, sometimes contradictory character to play. It’s been a dream to work with these two top-drawer actors.

It’s been a staggeringly ambitious and exciting project for the BBC to take on, not only due to its subject matter. There’s a huge cast of characters. The scale and sweep of the piece in its locations and settings is really unusual. The story takes place in New York and Miami and Alabama and San Diego. In order to achieve all of those places in one place, most of the film was made in South Africa. However, the director Owen Harris and his team did an extraordinary hit-and-run visit to New York where I think they shot for about 20 hours straight to get as much out of one day as they could.

Owen is one of the most sought-after and talented TV and film directors around – and we were very lucky to have him on the project. He’s given the story an exceptional filmic scale and look – with an energy that matches the game that it’s about. And at the same time he’s delivered a compelling, nuanced drama about two extraordinary real men.

He’s been supported by a brilliant producer Jim Spencer and by an amazing crew, some from the UK, many from South Africa. DOP Gustav Daneillson, designer Nick Palmer, costumer designer Susie Coulthard and their teams have done a fabulous job. Vince Pope, who composed the music, and Peter Christelis, who edited, have been brilliant. These are all people at the top of their craft and it’s been a joy - often an education - to work with them.

We’ve been wonderfully supported by Executive Producer Mark Hedgecoe. Many thanks also to the research team – led by Factual Producer Dan Parry. The film has had a huge amount of factual work behind it and they made that process easy and very productive.