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Hot Docs Interview: ‘Playing Hard’ Writer/Director Jean-Simon Chartier on the Human Story Behind the Video Game ‘For Honor’

May 1, 2018Ben MK

When you think "making of a video game," you might think of the technical wizardry and next-gen computational intensity involved in bringing the multitude of polygons and pixels to life at 60 frames per second. That, however, is not what Playing Hard is about.

On the contrary, writer/director Jean-Simon Chartier's documentary about the five years game creator Jason Vandenberghe and the development team at Ubisoft Montreal spent making the game is about so much more — it's a tale of the blood, sweat and real-life human drama that went into turning For Honor from a lifelong dream project into a critically acclaimed original IP.

Playing Hard makes its world premiere at the 25th annual Hot Docs Film Festival, and I spoke with Chartier to go in-depth about the making of this compelling documentary, and to find out more about the parallels between the world of filmmaking and the video game industry.

Are you a big gamer yourself? What made you want to make this film?

Chartier: No, I'm not a gamer at all. Actually, my company — MC2, a small production company — is two blocks away from Ubisoft Montreal, so over the past years I saw this kind of tribe of programmers [and] designers taking over all the restaurants and cafes and bars in the Mile End, where we're located. They actually grew from a few hundred to more than 3,000. Today, Ubisoft Montreal is the biggest studio in the world.

And so as this evolution was happening in my neighborhood, it was also taking place in the entertainment industry, gaming having become bigger than Hollywood. So I just thought I needed to find my way into this fortress and find a story to tell. And I managed to have a first meeting with someone at communication, and I pitched the project that I was planning to do. I was looking for strong characters to tell a story of what is it to create a game, and I wanted to tell a story about passion, about all of this. And they thought I was really enthusiastic, but they said, "Thanks, but no thanks."

And then I managed to have another meeting with someone else at communication through someone I knew, and this person was Luc [Duchaine], actually, that you saw in the documentary, who became the brand manager of Hero, [the original title of For Honor] at the time. And the shift on this side was happening, and he told me, "Come back and see me next week, and I'm going to introduce you to Stéphane [Cardin], the producer, and we'll see from there."

So that's what happened. I met with Jason, and he agreed to have me on their floor. There were 40 people at this time. So I was there for 8 months shooting, but after 8 months' time, they told me, "Alright, we're now bigger, we don't know if this is going to happen, but we're under pressure. And some people are not comfortable with you being there." So I had to stop shooting, and it took me another 8 months before I was able to go back on the floor. So that's a bit of the genesis of the project.

When you're making a documentary like this, do you have an idea of the film you're going to make, or do you have to be more like a journalist, and follow where the story takes you?

Chartier: Yeah, I knew after a few days of shooting that Jason was this kind of character that was bold and complex enough so that he could carry a story. I didn't know what story it would be, but I knew I had a very, very strong character. I felt that with Jason, but I also felt that with Stéphane, and the fact that his last game was a failure. He had worked for two years on this game, and the company pulled the plug. And Luc, his character as well. So I knew I had some good characters.

And I felt that it was a question of instinct, and also luck, obviously. [laughs] 'Cause I didn't know that at the end there would be so much pressure and conflict that things would evolve such as would happen. But then I had to provoke things and act as a journalist, as you said, so that Jason would open [up] to me and tell me what was on his mind, and what he felt, and what was happening. And I did the same with Stéphane, and I managed to get the real thing and the emotions. But I think it was the relation of trust that grew over the time, that enabled me to tell the story.

'Cause if I would have come, let's say, one year before the release and not having this kind of close relationship and trust with my main characters, they would have kicked me out. But then we worked three years in this together, so they were willing to go all the way.

Speaking of the game's creator, Jason Vandenberghe, the film is as much a deep dive into his psyche as it is a look at the behind-the-scenes human drama of its creation. Can you tell me more about Jason, and perhaps what you learned from each other over the course of making this documentary?

Chartier: Yes, we talked all the way when the camera was not rolling, and it was the same with Jason, it was the same with Stéphane as well, where they were also asking me questions about why I was doing this and why I was kind of still doing this after 2 years with no financing, and what kind of struggle I was going through, and what was happening in my family as well. So it was a two-way conversation, and actually, that's one of the reasons why they, as I said before, were willing to move forward with me. 'Cause they knew a bit about what was happening on my side, and I saw myself in Stéphane, and I saw myself in Jason as well. All my flaws, and the struggle with being a single dad on my end.

So I think it's one of the reasons why they allowed me to carry on, and it's one of the reasons why I wanted to carry on myself, 'cause it was a bit of my story in there.

The film brings to light some of the parallels between creating a film and creating a game. As a filmmaker, what stood out to you the most?

Chartier: I think the main parallel is passion and believing in something that's kind of bigger than yourself, and trying to have some light on you. It's a bit about ego as well — they have strong egos, we have strong egos when we do a film. We were doing it because we believe that an audience would connect with what we do. So I think a lot of motivations are coming from the same dreams and probably some failures we have in the past.

I'm working with a three-person crew when I'm shooting, and then I'm in the editing room with my editor alone for 16 weeks. Doing a documentary is a very lonely process [laughs] and the stakes are obviously not comparable to what they're doing when they become 500 people and they have to make millions, otherwise they won't make any money. So the stakes are completely different, but the pressure we put on ourselves is very comparable.

I mean, it's my own company, I'm the producer/director. And when I do a film like this, I'm not doing other stuff. So I need to believe that it's gonna connect with an audience and that I'm gonna be able to sell it. And they have to believe in the same thing.

You mentioned that you're not a gamer, but did you have any preconceptions about the video game industry that were challenged, or perhaps shattered, by what you learned making this documentary?

Chartier: I was able to notice that creating such a big game, that managing part of this — having like 100 people working on very, very specific items, and this becoming a whole — this struck me. I couldn't believe there was so much technology management [and] human resources involved in creating something like this. I wouldn't have been able to understand that prior to witnessing it. But even if I spent that amount of time witnessing it, I got a grasp of it, but I wasn't doing a making-of, like a gaming documentary. I was interested in the heart and the passion, the emotion — the gaming industry and the game itself was the context to tell a story that was more human.

There's a moment in the doc where Jason says, "Entertainment is philosophy in motion." Essentially, he's saying that we learn about the world around us from movies, books and games. Does that sort of encapsulate why you became a documentary filmmaker?

Chartier: [laughs] I think Jason is much more intelligent and interesting than I am. And I think he spends a lot of time thinking about why he is doing things. He's a speaker, he thinks about the psychology of gaming, so these kinds of answers that he's able to provide us are much more profound than what I could answer myself, as to why I'm doing what I'm doing.

But actually, the simple answer to why I'm doing documentaries [is] I am really touched by the authenticity and the genuineness of the people. And I'm trying to find a way to be more authentic myself, and I think being able to tell some stories with authentic people, this brings me further to what I want to become. That's my philosophical way of explaining why I do this. 'Cause I'm not more interested in gaming than I'm interested in religion or any other topics, but I'm interested in the human being.

You also have another film coming out, called Body À La Carte. Can you briefly tell me more about that one?

Chartier: Yeah, it's a documentary about our relationship to body modification, so basically I'm following different characters that are going through the process, or went through the process, of plastic surgery, to kind of become more themselves. So it's completely non-judgmental, and it's a TV documentary. It's going to be released in January of 2019 on Radio-Canada, the French network for CBC.

Playing Hard screens Wednesday, May 2nd, Thursday, May 3rd and Friday, May 4th at Hot Docs. Its runtime is 1 hr. 30 min.

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