Interview with creators of «Papers, please: The short film»

At the beginning of June Lucas Pope, the creator of the game Papers, Please tweeted about a short film being shot in Russia which would be based on the game. Papers, Please is a simulator where you become a customs official in the unreal totalitarian country Arstotzka. Any of your choices, whether to let people cross the border or not, will influence the plot significantly and lead to one of 20 endings. We have talked with Nikita Ordynskiy and Liliya Tkach, the creators of the short film, about the process of making the film, communicating with Lucas Pope and their sudden success.

What genre is your film?

Liliya: I would say the idea was to keep the genre of the game first of all.

Nikita: A dynamic drama.

Liliya: Right, a dynamic drama.

Gamers face different dilemmas while playing the game: to let a wife go after her husband or not, to take bribes or not and so on. Have you highlighted the same points in your short film?

Nikita: Actually, one of the difficulties that we faced with while writing a script was the absence of any main hero. It’s you who is the main hero of the game. You rely on your own value system and the information given about the virtual family, that’s why the decisions and the way the story develops are up to you completely. So, in fact, there is no hero in the game at all. And when we were writing the script, the first task for us was to create his personality. After we had thought up a character, we continued with his personalities and how he would act in different situations; so basically, the story is based on such moral choices.

Would the main character’s moral choices be similar to yours, if you had to make them?

Liliya:  Not always. When I first played the game, I was totally in sympathy with Arstotzka, a true inspector, you know.

Nikita: It was just the same for me, especially when I played it the first time and had no background. Firstly, you play and make decisions. And only then you understand that you have made a mistake and you should have thought better.

Do you play a lot, in general?

Nikita: Well, more often than Liliya.

Liliya: Yeah, Nikita plays more often, I’m a typical girl if we talk about games. I mean if I play something it is already success. But I guess, “Papers, please” is a kind of game which anybody can play and not get bored after a long time. The gameplay is rather adaptive and even if you never play computer games before it would be easy to understand everything in 10 minutes already.

Nikita: Right, very intuitive and clear.

Liliya: Let’s say it like this, if I have managed it then it’s really simple (smiling). For example, I know that the main problems people have playing for the first time are joysticks and the necessity to control camera and walking. You just start wandering around and bump into walls trying to move your camera. But here there are no problems like that, you get really quickly what is going on and what you have to do.

Nikita: As for me, I have noticed that little games became more interesting, while the big ones are getting too typical. Sometimes they are just too big and you have to spent too much time on it.

What would you choose for your next film version of a computer game?

Nikita: If we talk about some new things then I really liked Beholder. The atmosphere of this Russian game is quite similar to Papers, please. The story is also set in the totalitarian state where you play for a house-manager who is in charge of a house with 9 flats. You have to go around the house and report about all the disturbers.

As Papers, please, it is different from our real world, visually I mean, so I think it would be interesting to work with it.

Liliya: I’d like to see a film version of Bioshock.

Nikita: Yeah, exactly. I can’t disagree here, Bioshock is so visually bright, so rich, so «wow»!

Liliya: But for me it was not interesting to play this game.

Nikita: When there were some rumors about Gore Verbinski as a director of its film version, I was actually excited about the news. Because he is such an awesome visualizer, and Bioshock is a thing that should be visualized. You are just an observer when you play this game, walking around like in some museum and learning the history of the city. But there is no personal story, you have to create it. This would be interesting.

Why a short film? Why only 10 minutes?

Liliya: Why a short film?! Look at us, how can we make a feature film? (laughing)

Nikita: We tried to value our possibilities to the maximum. We really like the game and its setting. So, when we began thinking about what to do and how to do it, we decided to create a compact but dynamic story which would the aspects of the game. We don’t want to put the whole game into our film, we have an independent story which is based on the game. We understood that a feature film was impossible for us, that’s why we decided to start with a short one.

Liliya: When we started to write a story, we didn’t even know if Lucas Pope would answer to us. It was like writing for ourselves, without almost any hope for a positive answer.

Did he make any key changes?

Nikita: We have been discussing everything, from the script to the design of the documents, logos and so on. He’s changed the story a bit and we’ve agreed with that.

Of course, it was a great pleasure to speak with the person who created the game you really like. We know the game since it came out in 2013. We heard about it somewhere, launched and played till the end in one night. Since then we have been playing it from time to time. So the fact that we have managed to get through with him, that he liked the script we had written is already a huge step for us. But you have to understand, he didn’t answer to us straight away, we needed to wait for a couple of weeks.

Liliya: By the moment he finally answered we weren’t waiting for it already. But then we understood it was about time we had to start working really hard.

And what if he hadn’t answered?

Liliya: Nothing like this would have happened. There would be no work without the right of use Arstotzka and the original music.

Is the music original by the way?

Nikita: The melody is the same but it will be rewritten as real instrumental music, not monophonic like in the game. The main theme will be written specially for the movie.

Liliya: Lucas even sent us the music sheet (smiling). The story with the music is actually as interesting and complicated as it is with everything else. The game itself is absolutely stylish and with its own atmosphere but while working on filming it you understand that it is just a pixelized image without any connection with the real world. And it concerns the music, the characters, everything. So, we had to leave that setting for more real one. And, of course, it took the most amount of time because it was our task to develop everything from the very beginning, for example the logo of Arstotzka. It had to be changed for looking normal in the real world.

Do you emphasize the documents in the film?

Liliya: Yes, we have done some real passports.

Nikita: They are so realistic that I was shocked at first. They were crumpled, put into tea, so you could actually confuse them with real passports.

Liliya:  In the end, we got the right vinyl cove, the same as our Russian passports have. Thanks to our friends from a printing office who were tied up thinking about how to make passports right.

Our house is a museum of Arstotzka right now. There is uniform which was made for the film, stamps, a map above the fireplace, documents and other stuff everywhere. You know, a little memorial of Arstotzka.

Will the film be shown in two languages at the same time?

Nikita: Yes, we shot with English signs from the very beginning, all the text in the film is written in English also, but everybody speaks Russian, it is easier to work with actors and crew like this. Also we are going to make the dubbing, so there will be two versions of the film – Russian and international which will come out simultaneously.

Have you chosen the way of releasing it?

Nikita: Not yet. Just looking through various variants, with Lucas helping us. He is suggesting many of them, but we are in the midst of discussing. Honestly, we didn’t plan to deal with this question so early, the shooting is not finished yet.

Do you have a lot of actors and characters in the film?

Nikita: We’ve got some important characters, besides the main hero, and some characters who refer us to the game. There is a mass scene with plenty of people at once. But the most attention is concentrated on one main hero played by Igor Savochkin.

He’s written me recently that he was walking and some guy on the street started to shout “Papers, please! Papers, please!”. That was quite unusual.

Will we see anything outside the «booth»?

Nikita: Yeah, but this is the material that we haven’t shot yet. It is only one scene, we are preparing it now and want to make soon. Frankly speaking, technically we are a bit limited in shooting.

Now, when you know that people are interested in the project, what kind of reaction are you waiting for?

Liliya:  Right now, the task number one is not to get too relaxed, because it is the first time we have such a stir. It is really the first time in our life when we do something that is interesting not only for us.

Nikita: We get it when we see this huge amount of news with #Papersplease.

How many people have been working on the film?

Liliya:  We had a really funny crew of 10 people: 2 pregnant women and 8 angry men.

If everything turns out successful, will you try to work on sequel?

Nikita: It doesn’t depend on us only. We still have Lucas who owns all the rights. But in general, we like the world of this game. One short film isn’t enough, because the story itself is much deeper and we are ready to work with its developing,