Detective Pikachu Screenwriter Interview

Pokemon has been many things: card games, video games, animated series, animated movies, and now the live-action movie Detective Pikachu. Well, live-action with CGI Pokemon who fit seamlessly into the world of Ryme City.

Tim (Justice Smith) travels to Ryme City to collect his dead estranged father’s things. When his dad’s partner, Detective Pikachu (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) shows up, Tim finds he can hear Pikachu speaking English, unlike the usual Pokemon language. Together, Tim and Pikachu try to solve the mystery of what happened to Tim’s father.

Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit wrote Detective Pikachu and spoke with /Film by phone last week. They discussed adapting the Pokemon world and Detective Pikachu specifically. Detective Pikachu opens Friday, May 10.

Did you have to really work on how the first act would explain the rules of the game and the world to new audiences?

Hernandez: Yes, that was one of the very first things that, when Benji and I came on board this project, that we really spent time thinking about how to economically but completely explain the underpinnings of this world, the rules, things from the video game that people were familiar with, things from the anime that people were familiar with or for people that had no context whatsoever, how to get those people understanding what was happening and on board with this world that they maybe weren’t familiar with prior to that. So that was a huge part of the writing of the first act and something that was calibrated over the course of the entire process of writing the script.

When did the idea of the video on the train to Ryme City come about?

Hernandez: That was very early in the process. We thought that having a little intro video a la, there’s a scene in Total Recall where he is on the train and he sees the video for Rekall. Do you remember that part?

I love that Total Recall is your reference for a Pokemon movie.

Hernandez: I really thought that video did a great job of establishing a bizarre conceit in a really clear, engaging and fun way. Like oh, there’s a company that can implant memories in your head and here’s a video about it. So when we sat down to write the script we thought oh, is there a way that we can get some of this information across about this game. By the way, a city that isn’t exactly the same as some of the other regions that we might be familiar with in the Pokemon world. So that was the genesis of that. That was something that we started to work on very early in the process. That’s been in there pretty much from the beginning.

Samit: It’s been interesting because not only were we explaining the rules of Pokemon in general to people that aren’t familiar with the franchise at all, but we were explaining to Pokemon fans what Ryme City was all about. So it was sort of doing double duty and because of that we’ve had it since pretty close to the beginning.

Are the Cliffords in the game?

Samit: The Cliffords are in the Detective Pikachu video game but we take them a lot further than the game does. Yeah, we added some motivation with them and some textures to their characters that are not in the video game, although the video game was a great jumping off point for those characters. So we took the basis of what was there and did our own thing.

If people have beaten the Deteective Pikachu game, do they know how the movie ends?

Hernandez: The first game actually doesn’t resolve a lot of the questions about the Detective Pikachu world, and in addition to that, we did some different surprising choices in the movie. So I think that people who have played the game will still be surprised.

Did you get to indicate what a lot of the background Pokemon would be?

Samit: Yes. That was one of the earliest things we did when we started working on this. We came on pretty close to the beginning and so we really got to look at the list of 800 different Pokemon and make choices of who do we want to see in the movie? Which are our favorites? What do we think people would like to see because obviously we can’t have 800 Pokemon in the movie for practical reasons. Most of the Pokemon that you see we decided on early on in the process, and we made a big list of all of our dream Pokemon and then in consultation with everyone, with the animators, with Rob, we sort of whittled that list down until we got to the core Pokemon that we really wanted to use.

Were there ever any tough choices where two Pokemon and their powers could work in this scene and you have to choose one?

Hernandez: Yeah, sometimes picking which evolution, whether it was going to Bulbasaur, that kind of stuff was challenging. Or, which ghost type did you want to use? Those were things that sometimes came down to well, do we have one from a generation that we haven’t used yet? Oh, let’s try to make sure that we represent all the generations that were out at the time that we were writing it. So we did have to make a couple tough choices and there were a couple sequences that we wrote with Pokemon that ultimately didn’t end up in the movie that we were really pumped about. But, who knows, maybe in the sequel or maybe in the future some of those Pokemon that we didn’t get to use will come back around and that will be pretty cool.

On your list of favorite Pokemon, were there any that didn’t make the cut?

Hernandez: Yeah, there were a few. We really wanted to use Golbat.

Samit: Yeah, we had a big fun sequence that we wrote with Golbat that lasted for quite a while but eventually we cut it for pacing purposes. Cutting it was better for the whole of the movie but he’s always been a Pokemon that I think is cool so we really liked that sequence. So we’re bummed about that but it made the movie better. There’s always other movies.

It sounds like you are really big fans and immersed in this world, so was Mr. Mime one you always wanted to make fun of?

Samit: The Mime interrogation scene, that was actually something that Rob Letterman, the director, Mr. Mime is in the original Detective Pikachu video game. From moment one, Rob came on board before we did, he really liked the idea of doing a police interrogation scene with a mime. So when we came on, he pitched that idea to us and that was one of the most fun scenes for us to write.

Hernandez: Well, then it became up to us to figure out how do you interrogate a mime? What is the process and how do you enter into that mentality? What we ultimately realized, and this was important for writing all the Pokemon in the movie, is that you had to find the particular way that these Pokemon communicated, whether that was Mr. Mime, whether that was Bulbasaur, whether that was Psyduck, trying to find the truth of how you would actually talk to different Pokemon was a really interesting writing challenge and one that we feel made the movie a lot better for trying to find the truth of those situations.

Did you have it so that Tim gave up Pokemon when he was younger to address the fans who have maybe grown up and even rediscovered Pokemon as adults?

Hernandez: That was definitely a part of our thinking when we were coming up with this backstory of someone who has gone away from Pokemon, who maybe feels a little bit disassociated. That’s a huge reason why we put the scene in where he has his childhood bed and there’s all the Pokemon memorabilia. We really tried to capture that feeling of youth, of that first moment. Pokemon for so many people was the first thing they’re obsessed with. I’m obsessed with this. I want to have the cards. I want to have the games. I want to watch the show. I think that the response that we’re seeing is those people, some of whom are still deeply in it, but some of whom have gone away from it, who haven’t thought about it in a long time, coming back and tapping back into those emotional feelings of oh yeah, this meant a lot to me. This was a really magical thing and I’m excited to see it in live-action for the first time. So that actually was absolutely a part of that backstory when we were sitting down to figure out Tim and his figure.

Because Detective Pikachu is a mystery, did you have to leave clues and dole out information, and reveal clues through set pieces?

Hernandez: 100%. What we call the clues game is a huge part of any kind of story like this. Benji and I recently wrote on the show The Tick. One of the first things that we did on that show was what is the clue chain for this season? Then when we came into this movie, it was a very similar situation. We said, “Okay, what are the clues? How are they going to be arranged? When are they going to be revealed? How can they be revealed at the moment of highest drama, whether that’s in a really dangerous situation or in an abandoned lab or in an underground battle. You always want to be moving forward on that clue chain so it feels like our characters are making important discoveries throughout the entire movie so it doesn’t get static. It’s kind of a more technical part of the writing process but one that is super important for any kind of mystery.

Is Detective Pikachu still a father/son story as Tim is trying to reconnect with his late father?

Hernandez: That is a theme that is very resonant for both Benji and for me. It’s not the same as having a parent pass away, but my parents got divorced when I was a pretty young age. I remember the feelings of loss and separation and sadness, trying to process grief and come to and understanding of what my relationship was with my own father and I think we both tried to bring some verisimilitude and emotional honesty into those sequences when you’re talking about fathers and sons and loss. I think that even though maybe that’s not something that would’ve been expected on first glance from a Pokemon movie, we really spent a long time talking about what is the underlying emotion of this father son relationship and how can we access that in ourselves and put it on the page. That was something that was very close to us and I’m glad that it came through.

Was the idea that Pikachu could speak English to Tim a big decision? Did you ever develop a version where he had to communicate the way trainers and Pokemon normally do?

Samit: That twist is an inherent part of the Detective Pikachu video game, so from the very beginning that was the big hook that we were excited about, that the producers were excited about, that the Pokemon Company was excited about just because it shows a different, no pun intended, evolution of a Pokemon story. We’ve seen the way that trainers and Pokemon interact in the anime, in the video games. To do a live-action movie, the entire creative team wanted it to be a reason why we were making this different type of movie. Having a different way in was something we were all excited about from the beginning.

Are you still working on a Gilligan’s Island movie?

Hernandez: Not currently but maybe if Detective Pikachu does well enough, they’ll revive it. That was a really fun project. We’re really proud of the work that we did but right now it’s a little bit in limbo.

Was that a tough adaptation to do for 2019 when we all have cell phones?

Hernandez: No, we address that in the script. We accounted for all of the difficulties of doing Gilligan’s Island in the modern day. I think it was going to be a pretty tremendous movie and Josh Gad was going to star in it. It was going to be awesome and hopefully maybe someday it will be revived triumphantly.

You’ve referenced possible future Pikachu movies. Was a continuing franchise baked into this?

Samit: I think all of us were just focused on making a really great movie. Obviously, in success, if people want more, but we were all singularly focused on telling this story and telling the story we wanted to tell and just making a great movie that people loved.

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