Interview: Kennedy Baruch on Filmmaking Inspired by Games
Posted by Thomas Whitehead
"The Legend of Zelda is basically the Holy Grail of gaming"
Over the past year we've shared two videos produced by Kennedy Baruch, the first of which was an award-winning short film titled ESCAPE!, a heart-wrenching tale of a young girl seeking escapism from bullying at school and abuse in a breaking home. Just recently Baruch confirmed that he's now working on a feature-length adaptation called Princess in Another Castle, which will adjust the storyline to include a number of games from the NES era, as opposed to The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on GameCube.
With the combination of video game fantasy and tough realities, as well as the Nintendo focus, these projects from Baruch naturally attract plenty of attention. We've caught up with the filmmaker to learn more about these films, his wider work and the role of games in his productions.
NL: First of all, can you provide some background and information on yourself?
Kennedy Baruch: Sure! I'm a filmmaker and animator in Austin, Texas. I consider myself a storyteller foremost, and I tend to use video games as inspiration for more original, personal stories. I'm also a Radio-Television-Film student at The University of Texas, in my final undergraduate semester, and I'm about to start work on my live-action thesis and animated thesis.
NL: When did you begin concept work on Escape, your prize-winning film from 2012?
KB: The first version of ESCAPE was actually a photography assignment, the first production project I did in the Radio-Television-Film program at UT. The assignment was to tell a story in 12 - 15 pictures, and I told a story about a fourth-grade boy, Davey, who makes a bad grade, deals with an unhappy family, and then escapes into his video games. He was in a different character costume in each shot, but was soon sent to bed. Davey then dreams of being Link, from Zelda... just like in ESCAPE! That was then the foundation for the plot of the version of ESCAPE everyone knows, which I made as my final project for an entry-level production class, Narrative Production I.
NL: Can you outline how the idea came together, and how you came to focus on video games?
KB: After that initial photography project, I just kind of stuck that story idea in the back of my head, and let it grow over the course of about seven months. With every project I turned in, I found myself thinking back to that idea, how it could work as an actual short film, and how I could add in more personal childhood gaming experiences to give it an emotional punch. In March of 2012, I finally decided I was ready to make it, and I wrote the script.
As for focusing on video games, that's always just kind of come naturally to me. I'm more interested in gaming than anything, and people always tell you to write "from the heart" and tell stories "about what you personally know," and for me, that's gaming. My characters and ideas all stem from my own brain, and my own brain tends to spend a lot of time invested in video games, so it always just comes naturally. It's kind of like how Martin Scorsese says, to him, all of his movies are Italian movies. To me, all of my movies are gamer movies. That's just who I am.
NL: The usage of the Zelda franchise naturally grabbed attention, was that always your first choice for the concept, and if so why?
KB: That was most definitely always my first choice for the concept. The Legend of Zelda is basically the Holy Grail of gaming, and I always knew it'd be the best franchise to get the reactions I wanted.
NL: The contrast between escapism and harsh realities clearly have an emotional impact; was there ever any hesitation with the subject-matter, particularly the scenes of domestic abuse?
KB: Never. Everyone in the crew and cast got what I was trying to say right from the get-go, and everyone really believed in it, and wanted to do all of what was in that script. I'm also very much of the personal belief that if you want to do something, with all your heart, you need to take it as far as you possibly can, even if that means you have to rip out an absolutely haunting piece of your childhood and put it on display for the entire world to see.
I'm also very much of the personal belief that if you want to do something, with all your heart, you need to take it as far as you possibly can, even if that means you have to rip out an absolutely haunting piece of your childhood and put it on display for the entire world to see.
NL: Following the success of ESCAPE!, can you explain the process of moving towards Princess in Another Castle as a feature length film?
KB: Well I've been making little films since I was fifteen years old, and I've made about forty shorts, throughout high school and college. So a little over a year ago, I just had this moment of, "okay, one of my short films is finally a hit, I'm tired of telling small stories, I need to make a feature." I originally wanted to do a stoner-comedy for my first feature, but I thought about it a lot, and it just seemed like a no-brainer that I should adapt ESCAPE instead. The response was overwhelming, and I already had a backlog of ideas for how I could've made ESCAPE even better.
I'm very critical of my past work, and I already wished I had given Danni a friend or a school counsellor, so her life could've had emotional depth, and that the adult characters could've all been fleshed out, with their own character arcs that would weave in and out with Danni's arc. I wished I could've had the time to do the fantasy sequences animated instead of live-action, so that they'd look more professional, and more true to the games. I wished that I could've had the time and budget to set the movie in the 90s, when I was a kid, and make the pang of nostalgia hit even harder.
Those are all huge aspects of the new film. Honestly, that's all that Princess in Another Castle is - ESCAPE, but much bigger and exponentially better in every possible way. Everyone has loved the script, we've invested a lot in production design, the performances are even more emotional, the camerawork is consistent and really says some thought-provoking things about Danni and childhood, and the fantasy sequences are totally faithful to the original games.
NL: Can you outline the plot of this new film?
KB: I really do want to leave most of it as a surprise, but I can tell you that the story feels like it has much more of a goal-oriented plot this time around, and balances with the more "day in the life" feel of ESCAPE in a way that really lets Danni grow as a person. She actually puts some effort into being a "good kid" this time around, mostly for the sake of that end goal - getting a new system, a Game Boy Pocket, in order to play the sequel to her favourite game, Mother, which is also known overseas as EarthBound Zero. Mother 2 (EarthBound) came out on the SNES, but I changed history a little bit for the sake of drama. I think people will be able to forgive that, once they see how the story ends.
NL: Which franchises are at the forefront this time around?
KB: Mother (EarthBound) is the main one, but we'll also have sequences for The Legend of Zelda and TMNTIV: Turtles in Time, as well as plenty of production design nods toward other gaming franchises.
NL: Will you be distributing this new film primarily online, or do you hope for some limited theatre releases, DVD etc?
KB: We'd like to pursue a conventional (theatrical and home video) release, after we send it off to festivals, but I think it'd be pretty cool to just put a full-length film online for everyone to be able to see, easily and for free. We'll just have to wait and see what happens!
NL: How has filming progressed to date, do you have a target release date?
KB: We're about two-thirds of the way through shooting it, and should (hopefully) wrap production by March. I hesitate to say a release date because I know the animation will take me a very long time, but it seems likely that it'll be ready for the festival circuit this Fall.
NL: Do you think, 20 years from now, film projects similar to yours will feature Nintendo games from consoles such as Wii / Wii U and DS / 3DS with the same sense of nostalgia?
KB: That's a good question, and I've never thought about that. I'm sure that'll be true, as each generation has a somewhat different set of influences than the one before, and Nintendo continues to put out excellent games that offer new experiences with classic characters. I think we're going to start seeing nostalgia for other brands as well though, particularly Sega and PlayStation, both of which I actually wrote into a feature-length stoner-comedy I have no intention of making... for now.
NL: Do you have any plans for the future that'll have Nintendo themes?
KB: My next short film and short animation won't be placing any focus on Nintendo exclusives, but they've still got some game references here and there.
I can tell you that video games will definitely be popping up in all of my works (because I just can't help myself), and I've been planning a few animated, story-driven Nintendo and Sega adaptations for a while now. I'd really like to try to tackle them once we finish Princess in Another Castle, and maybe even pursue some kind of series, if any of them are successful. I spend way too much time daydreaming about being the first filmmaker to finally give video games the adaptations they deserve, with a truly excellent quality of storytelling, whether they be animated or live-action.
All I can guarantee is that I'm going to keep pursuing that dream, while mainly focusing on telling the personal stories that only I can tell.
We'd like to thank Kennedy for his time. Below are ESCAPE and the announcement video for Princess in Another Castle. Please be aware that ESCAPE contains brief instances of bad language and a scene of simulated domestic abuse.
Princess in Another Castle announcement