Ubisoft Chief Talks “Asssassin’s Creed” Film Plan

So far the road of video game to movie adaptations has been one littered with bodies. Ubisoft Motion Pictures hopes to change that as it enters this arena with plans for several film adaptations of its most high profile game series.

Nothing in its library is really more high profile though than their annual and ongoing “Assassin’s Creed” franchise, and the hiring of talent like Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard and filmmaker Justin Kurzel indicated that the studio certainly cares about the quality.

UMP’s CEO Jean-Julien Baronnet recently sat down with French magazine Premiere to talk about their process for adapting their various game franchises and how it has actually taken years of careful planning to make sure it all comes together right. Baronnet says (translated from French) that this is why they’ll avoid the usual issues of video game adaptations:

“”Until now, it was licensing purchases – so the studios that were unfamiliar culture and DNA of the game – and that frustrated fans. Or gaming companies who thought that because they knew playmaking, they knew how to make films. But this is not the same.

By taking the initiative to create this structure dedicated to the cinema – with only film people – we want to show that we have the closeness with the players and the specific know-how that allows us to produce it. That’s why creative control is essential for us. We have creative control as we choose the main actors, directors, budget, the scenario… It’s a package that we present and studios take it or not. But the amount will still be paid. We also have the final cut, even if we do not fund mainly the film. They preferred not to film rather than not having that creative control.

Of course, we work closely with the studios. They have an incredibly strong expertise on production. But it is a safeguard. If ever there was a slip that would bring the film to a direction that does not suit us, we can put a veto. And in Ubisoft’s history of loving to change the rules of the game, we want to do that too in film.

One way is to hire the lead actor first, before any script or studio is in place. Why would an actor do that? The actor is allowed to have major input in the project and help shape it, it’s a tempting proposition which not only ensnared Fassbender for the ‘Creed’ games but also Tom Hardy who is attached to star in the long-gestating film version of the “Splinter Cell” games:

“[Michael Fassbender] accepted very quickly, and he was the only actor which we thought was suitable. So we started with the actor, which is incongruous. Even more incongruous, he engaged us with nothing. There was no script, no studio or anything.

We told him we were going to build the project together, that we have a huge brand and we want to make a make a film modelled on feature films like ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘Blade Runner’. That is what we’re aiming for. He was promised that he could work with the writers, and he would be involved with all key creative choices.

This is obviously attractive for intelligent players like Michael Fassbender and Tom Hardy. It is like a huge studio because it has huge brand, but it is a small structure. And it will remain like that, you do not want to become bigger. Tom Hardy was also keen on Splinter Cell. We had the same discussion and it is also committed immediately. Tom is a gamer and he loves the world of Splinter Cell. We worked a lot with him on the character.”

Developing the project in house and fully financing it themselves allows the company to retain creative control and give it to the artists. It also means there’s no external pressure regarding meeting a specific release date – so they can take the time to get it right:

“Our approach is to remain in control of the development, so we finance it 100%. We choose writers who are not necessarily big names but rather people who have an understanding of this universe. As long as the script is not ready, we will not launch. We have also worked very closely with New Regency for ‘Assassin’s Creed’. We needed their expertise.

There was a kind of triptych between the actor, the studio and us. It is the combination of the three who have built this scenario, with the final decision on us as we are funding it. The beauty of being a small structure is that there is no pressure for us to greenlight films quickly. It leaves time for it to arrive at what it takes.”

‘Creed’ in particular has taken time because it will be a bit more sci-fi than the videogames, and more evenly split between past and present in its story (the games spend most of the time in the past). Plus you have Fassbender playing two different characters:

“Assassin was complicated to develop, because you’re working with two time periods, one contemporary and one historical. With two heros, as you have Callum, the modern-day hero, and his ancestor Aguilar, who have two parallel stories which meet up. Generally in a film, you only have one hero. And with the link between the past and the present, you can’t have one of the stories taking precedence over the other. So structurally, it’s very complicated.”

He says Fassbender is the one who recommended Justin Kurzel for the directorial job and they also made sure to enlist his cinematographer Adam Arkapaw who worked on both “Macbeth” and the first season of HBO’s “True Detective”. The ultimate aim is to entice three very different kinds of audience members – the 95 million fans of the game, fans of blockbuster filmmaking who turn out for “Star Wars” and Marvel movies, and the art house crowd:

“Our big gamble, is that it works for three audiences. Fans of our games, which there are some 95 million of; fans of mainstream cinema who are going to see Star Wars and Spider-Man; and in parallel, we’re also aiming it people who would never think of going to see an Assassin film, people who like independent films.”

Finally, he confirms that “Watch Dogs” and “Ghost Recon” films are also still in development, but due to their nature won’t be so much star-driven as more concept-driven which means making sure the script is right first before involving an actor or filmmaker.