Hot Docs 2018 Interview: Director Jean-Simon Chartier works hard for Playing Hard

by Andrew Parker

For his latest documentary, Playing Hard (which makes its world premiere at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Film Festival this week), Canadian filmmaker Jean-Simon Chartier takes a behind the scenes look at creative types with vastly different personalities trying to pull together an ambitious fantasy epic with an enormous budget, hundreds of other employees, and a demanding corporate presence constantly overseeing every minute detail. Only Playing Hard isn’t about the creation of another Hobbit, Star Wars, or Marvel film, but rather a documentary looking into the creation of For Honor, a video game released by Ubisoft last year with a great deal of buzz and expectation.

While Chartier, by his own admission, isn’t much of a video gamer or a producer accustomed working with mega-budgets, but the Montrealer was able to see many humane parallels between Playing Hard’s core creative figureheads and his own life. Playing Hard predominantly follows For Honor creator Jason VandenBerghe (a gothically dressed visionary with a big heart and a flair for the dramatic), producer Stéphane Cardin (a family man overseeing most of the day to day technical operations who’s on the verge of burning out), and communications specialist Luc Duchaine (as the hard working everyman who gets caught in the middle of any issues that could arise). While Chartier documented For Honor’s sometimes troubled and fraught production for several years, it was the humanity of the people involved that fascinated the director more than the nuts and bolts construction of the game.

And given the notoriously top secret nature of the video game industry, it’s a miracle that Chartier was able to make Playing Hard at all. It’s amazing that Chartier was able to capture the creation of a completely original game in a market increasingly flooded – much like movie theatres – with sequels, spin-offs, and lucrative adaptations. In the past several years, 85% of all games released are sequels, and only 3% of all games produced by major studios will share 97% of all profits in the marketplace. At any point during the production of the game or the documentary, the plug could have been pulled. A lot was riding on the success of For Honor for parent company Ubisoft, and somehow with the help of his core trio of subjects, Chartier was able to document a side of the gaming industry that’s never been seen on screen before in this sort of detail.

We caught up with Chartier over the phone from his Montreal offices days before Playing Hard’s world premiere to talk about the lengthy process of getting the film made in the first place.

The designing of video games isn’t only a hyper-competitive environment as we see in the film, but it’s also notoriously guarded and top secret. A lot of technology, story developments, concept art, and things of that nature are kept under lock and key. How were you able to convince a video game company as large as Ubisoft to allow you enough access to film the process of making For Honor?

Jean-Simon Chartier

Jean-Simon Chartier: I think it was just my stubbornness. (laughs) Ubisoft Montreal is actually only about three blocks away from my small office. Over the past years, I would see this tribe of designers and programmers essentially taking over the neighborhood. The funny part of this was that my office used to be in another building, but we had to move because Ubisoft decided they needed the space and purchased the offices we were in. (laughs)

But despite that initial curiosity, I wasn’t really a gamer at all. I did, however, think that these guys were shaping the industry as we know it. They’re the biggest entertainment industry in the world right now. They’re bigger than Hollywood.

I managed to get a primary meeting with someone at Ubisoft who was in communications to sort of pitch the idea of making a character driven, human story to understand what kind of roles people played at the highest levels of designing a game. From that initial pitch, they were obviously smiling and nodding at the potential the idea had, but you could tell that these people were used to controlling everything and every little detail that went on in their offices. When someone goes to them with some kind of proposition like the one I had, they have to be asking themselves, “Okay, but what’s in it for us?” and “How can we control this?” That’s why they usually pay for this kind of stuff, and it’s all driven towards creating promotional materials. They edit it and then shape it into something they can use to their benefit. With my pitch, it was a very polite “thanks, but no thanks” answer at first.

But then I returned to it, and I had another meeting with someone else from communications, Luc [Duchaine], who ended up being one of our major characters in the movie. At the time, he was working for Ubisoft on the corporate level. I told him what I wanted to do, and I told him about the work I had done in the past, and he said he’d think about it. That meeting turned into a meeting with him and Stéphane, the game’s producer, about the game when it was in its very early stages and when it was being created under a different name. They both agreed that I could go out onto their floors as long as I agreed to sign an N.D.A. that would expire at a certain time when I could share what I saw.

I was allowed to go there two or three days a week and shoot, and it was all about building up trust in those early days of shooting. But even then and after eight months of shooting, it still wasn’t entirely official that I was going to be able to make the film. Around this time, they sat with me and told me that while my being there was basically a good experience,  things weren’t going well in the early stages of production. At that point, the crew still wasn’t sure if they were even going to be financed by the head office, and some of the people at the money level weren’t entirely comfortable with my being there. I was basically asked to leave for a while so they could secure their funding.

From there, it was another eight months before I could return, because by that point I knew the game was going to be funded and officially announced to the public. That led to a whole series of meetings where everyone involved finally agreed to give me my access back. From that moment, I had the green light, and I could shoot for the rest of the game’s production. Obviously, there was still an air-tight N.D.A. that I was under while I was shooting. There was no way I could show or share footage of the documentary before the game was released. We had to be very careful about every bit of footage that we had on our side.

So, that’s basically the whole story of how this came to be. Our film was always going to be about human relationships because of the amount of trust that Stéphane, Luc, and Jason had in me and what I was doing. After two years of my being there, they completely understood why I wanted to be there and why I wanted to capture these kinds of moments and their individual stories. They were really my partners in this because the head offices for Ubisoft’s worldwide corporate offices and their offices here in Montreal never would have agreed to let me do this if they didn’t tell everyone else, “Hey, we trust this guy.” It would have been impossible without them.

And I think the film is very true to what happened, what everyone went through, and what they felt about it. Luc, Stéphane, and Jason were all the first people to see the finished film – not together – but the three of them all felt that what happened and what they felt was represented on screen. They wouldn’t have edited the film in this way, but they all ultimately felt that it was true to their experience. I’m happy with that, and now I’ll just be interested to see what the audience thinks. (laughs)

The film really brings out a lot of the parallels between making a large scale, commercially viable video game and making a major, blockbuster motion picture. Jason definitely acts and reacts like many writer-directors that I have met in my life, and Stéphane acts very much like producers that I have seen on film sets. As a filmmaker, was that something that you wanted to put into a greater context with this film?

Jean-Simon Chartier: Yes, of course. I mean, I know so little about the Hollywood blockbuster film industry considering the films that I work on, so I knew just as little about the sheer amount of effort, staff, technology, and work that went into making something like For Honor. (laughs) I knew just as much about both, but being a producer and a director myself, I was always able to project a bit of myself onto Jason and Stéphane and see myself in them. Documentary filmmaking is all about empathy, I think. The first thing that I want to do is to make a story that will appeal to an audience, and to do that, we have to relate to the characters that we’re witnessing. We might not always know how they’re doing what they’re doing, but we should always know why they’re doing it, and what it means to them.

I was always pushing them to open up all the way through filming. Stéphane’s story was actually very close to mine. I’m a father that’s going through a separation, and I have to balance my job knowing that I’ll see my son for one week, and then not see him the next. I put a lot of myself into what I’m doing, sometimes to my own detriment, and that was something I saw both in Stéphane and Jason and how it impacted their lives. Their struggles were things that I was and still am going through, and I think the struggles faced by Stéphane and Jason are some that we all wrestle with on different levels. These are very human struggles.

When Jason says he’s been pitching this project for ten years and he began worrying if people were starting to think he was crazy, that wasn’t just something that mirrored the long story I told about getting the film off the ground, but also something that routinely happens all the time. I only pitched for two and a half years, waited for three years to start shooting, and then shot for another two years. On the creative side, I was definitely immersed in Jason’s quest. Also, like Jason, I sometimes have trouble communicating what I’m looking for. (laughs) But I am definitely seeing a lot of myself in these people, and a lot of their personality traits are something I can see a lot of people relating to.

Stéphane Cardin (left, with bottle) celebrates a major milestone in the production of the video game For Honor in Playing Hard.

Jason and Stéphane are very different people who sometimes butt heads on both creative and business fronts, but I couldn’t help but notice that when they become overwhelmed and they need to step away, they both have their retreats that are basically in the middle of nowhere that they’ll visit to recharge. Did you find that to be a curious similarity considering how different their personalities and jobs were?

Jean-Simon Chartier: (laughs) I never picked up on that really before now, but you’re right! I think every human being needs to move as far away from pressure and stress as they can at some point in their careers and lives, and sometimes that means going so far away that you either only see your significant other, in the case of Jason, or you just don’t want to see anyone else, period, like Stéphane. Again, that’s very human. They’re so different as people, though. Jason is very much driven by his heart and his emotions, and Stéphane is very much motivated by his mind. But it is great that their ways of coping with extreme stress are somewhat similar.

Jason VandenBerghe speaks about his labour of love, the video game For Honor, at the Ubisoft E3 media briefing at the Orpheum Theater in Los Angeles in the film Playing Hard.

When things start going wrong in the latter stages of the game’s development, we’re you ever worried that suddenly Ubisoft would come in and pull the plug on your film?

Jean-Simon Chartier: I was stressed out about this from beginning to end, and not just when things were going bad. It was constantly stressful wondering if this enormous corporation was suddenly going to make everything you had been working on for several years completely irrelevant. But at the same time and as I’ve said, if I came in just a year before the release of the game, and I was there only to watch that, I think my participation still would have come down to the core people involved trusted my being there. But from a corporate standpoint above people like Luc, Jason, and Stéphane, I know I wouldn’t have been able to jump in to that final year. I think there was generally a belief that if I got most of the whole picture, there would be context for any problems or disagreements that would arise. But I don’t think I would have gotten to follow that final year without being there for the three years before it. But honestly, if you could ask them why I was able to stay until the end, feel free! (laughs) Sometimes, I’m not even sure myself.

When you’re covering the production of something as large in scale as For Honor – which employs over 500 people across dozens of countries around the world – is it a challenge to make sure that you’re in the right place at the right time?

Jean-Simon Chartier: Oh, yes. It sure was. It was always hours and hours of phone calls to Luc, Stéphane, or other members of the team to find out what was happening every week. Some weeks they would be travelling to the U.S., to Russia, to France, or anywhere else where people were working on it. Sometimes they would decide very late that they would be travelling, and I would have to book a flight pretty much at the last second. There were always some events that I knew I wanted to follow them on that I could prepare for, but most of the time I would just go out on the office floor and sometimes wish that anything would happen. (laughs) There were some days where everyone would be working hard, but none of it would make for an interesting film, but that’s like a lot of jobs, I guess. (laughs) Some days I would be running around like mad, some days I wouldn’t be doing much of anything, and sometimes I was just in the right place at the right time.

Playing Hard screens at Hot Docs on:

Wednesday, May 2 – 9:15 pm – TIFF Bell Lightbox 2

Thursday, May 3 – 2:45 pm – Scotiabank Theatre 13

Friday, May 4 – 8:15 pm – Scotiabank Theatre 3

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