After a stellar debut at this year’s Comic Con, Dan Trachtenberg, perhaps best known as one of the co-hosts of the Totally Rad Show, who has also directed commericals, premiered his short film, Portal: No Escape, online, where it has already been seen over a million times, and has quickly earned all kinds of accolades from the likes Slashfilm, The Huffington Post, Ain’t It Cool News, IGN, and even Patton Oswalt and Donald Glover, who called it fuckin baller. I’d agree.
I got the opportunity to talk to Dan about his film, adaption, and his inspirations.
There have been many fan made films of all kinds of video games, from Pokemon to Grand Theft Auto. What about Portal and the Portal universe inspired you to create this film?
Well it’s certainly redundant to say I love the game and its universe, but to be honest, I was more excited about seeing the technology in the game in a different world. The video game is very whimsical and somewhat cartoony- I really wanted to explore the idea of taking the fundamentals of “Portal” and placing it in a much grittier, serious place.
I was also very excited to work with an aesthetic, a special effect that was actually quite special. It’s a rare thrill to see a special effect that works on an intellectual level as well as a visceral one, and I always thought “Portal” had the potential to do that…
The lead actress (Danielle Rayne) does a phenomenal job carrying the short, and even with no dialogue, creates a character that draws the audience in. What were you looking for when casting your lead and how long did it take? Was knowledge of the game a required element?
I knew it was going to be a very physical role- and the way people move is something I always consider. I have this ridiculous reference…but the way Patrick Dempsey runs in movies like “LOVEBOY” and “RUN” – he really brings swashbuckle to it- It’s something Tom Cruise always brings to the table (and there are plenty of Youtube mashups highlighting that) so I started casting with the help of my stunt coordinator Keith Adams. We looked at some stuntwomen and Dani brought the goods, physically, but as you stated, she was very good at communicating without words and without “gesturing” to telegraph what she’s thinking.
To be honest, most people that worked on this movie were not fans of the game. I think the biggest fans were Keith (stunt coordinator) and Maxx Burmann our matte painter, aside from myself.
What was the shooting schedule for the film like? What elements were you looking for in your production design – particularly in the special effects and the Portal gun itself – that would allow you to express the ideas you had for the film while staying true to the tone of the game?
I shot this almost 2 years ago so It’s actually hard to remember the shoot schedule. We shot over 3 days in various locations in downtown LA. Finding our locations was probably the most difficult part of production. In fact, the cell was really only about 50% practical– we couldn’t get exactly what we wanted so we built an additional wall and manipulated aspects of the location with VFX. I will be putting out a VFX Breakdown reel soon so people can see just how many VFX shots are in the movie.
The portal gun itself had an LED light at the end and some practical amber and blue lights were placed around the set to help blend the CG fx with the on set photography.
It was a thin line to walk in how much of the game I wanted to involve and how much new I wanted to bring to it. There is no GLaDOS, no Chell, by design. I wanted subtle incorporations of the aperture logo and be faithful to the iconography of the gun. I wanted this to be an adaptation – not a shout-out or fan service…
The scene in which the lead actress is exercising in her cell reminded me of scenes in the second season of ALIAS in which Syndey’s mother, Irina, would do the same thing in a similar way. What inspirations apart from the game did you draw from in creating the film?
Interesting. I’ve only seen the first season of Alias so that wasn’t something I could draw on. I am a huge fan of how Ridley Scott is able to combine reality and a stylish artistry in every genre he works in, but specifically in Science Fiction. The opening of T2 has obviously inspired some of this as well.
The Portal series is known for a certain brand of dark humor throughout both games, primarily through the player’s robotic supporting characters like GLaDOS in the original game and Wheatley in the sequel. This film is decidedly darker and feels more like an action thriller. What choices influenced that decision?
I am a big believer in “adapting” material not “recreating” it. The game is the game, people love the game for what it is, I wanted to make something different.
As I said before, I really wanted to see that Portal gun in the real world. Honestly, I’d love to see a CITY OF GOD with a Portal gun– which would probably be something more like MINORITY REPORT with the gun, but still.
The score is very reminiscent of Trent Reznor’s score for THE SOCIAL NETWORK. What about the minimalist electronic style do you think lent itself to your score for your film?
OY VEY. Well after hearing the music from the INCEPTION trailer I tracked down its composer Mike Zarin and who wrote some beautiful music. We scored our movie about a month after production…2 months before “Inception” came out….4 months before SOCIAL NETWORK and its score was released. We actually had a conversation a month or two ago about maybe re-scoring since THE SOCIAL NETWORK’s music became such a big deal. But this tone fit our movie so well, we decided to keep it. I am a big fan of counterpuntal music– scoring big moments with minimalism and atmosphere– there is a “theme” as well, but the cool thing is its all in keeping with that simple instrumentation.
This seems like a great jumping off point for a Portal feature film. Who would you include in your dream cast for the film?
As I’d like this to not just be conjecture, I probably shouldn’t say publicly.
Do you have any ideas as to what you want to do next? Would you want to make another film in this universe or do you want to start exploring original stories?
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I would love to make a movie in this universe. I’m actually really interested in adapting material, in general, but I also have several original ideas that I’ve been developing pitches for ever since my last short got around. Hopefully “Portal: No Escape” helps me continue to have the really cool conversations I’ve been having and starts some new ones!