Two days ago, news broke that a Castlevania TV show would be heading to Netflix in 2017, prompting thousands of jokes quoting dialogue from the video game series. In a Facebook post, producer Adi Shankar said, “I personally guarantee that it will end the streak and be the Western world’s first good video game adaptation.” I talked to Shankar yesterday and he sounds totally committed to that.
Maybe this week was the first time you’ve heard Adi Shankar’s name. So you may not know that he served as executive producer on the 2012 Dredd movie, The Grey, and the over-the-top Power/Rangers short that had people talking in 2015. In the 33-minute phone conversation I had with him, Shankar confirmed much of what’s been reported about the Castlevania series in development. Warren Ellis—beloved for his comics work on The Authority, Transmetropolitan, Nextwave, and Moon Knight—is writing the show, which is based on Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.
Shankar balked at giving a specific release window for the show but said that things are well under way. While he couldn’t say too much about the upcoming adaptation, he did hold forth on video games as a creative medium, the changing landscape of filmed entertainment, and whether the series will try to adapt Castlevania’s signature design tricks.
Adi Shankar: We’re living in this different paradigm of what media is. What entertainment is, and the role it plays in people’s lives. I didn’t grow up in America, so it was very difficult for me to watch American movies and I would beg my friends to get me magazines so I could see photographs of movies, and stills and stuff. I remember I loved RoboCop as a kid. And I didn’t know there was a RoboCop 2... and then my friend showed me a magazine that he had—from, I think it was Japan— but it had the cover for RoboCop 3 and he had a jet pack and it literally blew my mind. “What?! RoboCop can fly now?!” That mindset worked really well in the era of print media, when everything was kind of focused. And you had entertainment options and fewer distractions, so to speak.
And any magazine you would pick up, or whatever was on your television. Right? And you had to leave your house to go consume other information and data and entertainment. I don’t think it’s a secret that the theatrical movie business is just completely imploding in on itself. Every year, movies are making less and less money. And the movies that do—you know, I’m not a money-grubbing guy—but at a certain point, you’re like, “Dude, you made this for 200 million dollars and it didn’t even make 20 percent back.” That’s a problem. I think a lot of that comes from an over-reliance on teasing stuff out and giving people so much information that... like, for a lot of these movies, the trailer was more highly-anticipated than the film. That’s weird.
io9: The gap between a trailer release and a theatrical release—so much stuff comes out in between that period—you can see where the anticipation dies off a bit. There are websites and Twitter accounts dedicated to when trailers come out.
Right, so, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Power/Rangers, the short that I did.
Sick. Thank you. The fact that it came out of nowhere, like—it wasn’t teased. There wasn’t a big announcement, like, “Hey, these two actors have joined it! And they’re playing these characters!” And we weren’t releasing publicity stills on a lead-up to it. And, you know, Joseph Khan and I weren’t giving interviews about it.
It’s kind of like the mystery of the movie experience is gone, because everybody has a window into understanding how the process comes together. People use to call it, “the magic of the movies,” right? Because they were shot on film, they had this kind of flow to them, and it almost felt like your mind was being incepted by these memories that you didn’t really have. And now, because of HD, these movies are clearer, they’re more visual effects-driven—which I’m not saying is a bad thing, I’m not making an artistic judgment on that. I’m just saying it’s a completely different art form and a completely different medium now then it’s ever been. The whole purpose of it is completely different. And the power of it is different. That’s ultimately what I’m getting at: the power of this art form is evolving into something completely different.
So, why Castlevania? It’s a series that gamers think about, from a design standpoint, as a great accomplishment. It helped birth a sub-genre and it’s got tons of goofy lines you can make fun of, because of bad localization back in the day. What about do you think was ripe for reinvention in a different media form?
How old are you?
Okay, so, there must have been a period in your life where you were playing video games and people were like, “What the fuck are you doing?”
Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
RIGHT. THAT’S FUCKED UP, DUDE. VIDEO GAMES ARE LIKE THE DOPEST ARTFORM that exists, today. It BLOWS MY MIND that, like, PHOTOGRAPHERS—I don’t want to call anybody out—are treated more as an artist than a video game designer blows my fucking mind. That’s ridiculous. And what’s cool about video games is, like—are you into first-person shooters?
Little bit, yeah.
Okay. If you’ve never played Overwatch and you’ve never played Call of Duty, like, you’ve played Halo... you can pick up the controller and you know EXACTLY what’s going on. You understand the language, because what’s happened is that a language has been created and we’ve all seen it evolve over the last few decades. If you’re a gamer, you’ve seen the language evolve.
I’ve seen your quote saying “Castlevania is going to be the best video game adaptation” floating around. What do you think has been the problem with other attempts?
The bar is very low. Right? And why is the bar low? People ask this question a lot. People are like, “Oh man, this guy’s really into video games, he understands how they’re made and the mechanics—why are video game movies so bad?” And I’m like, “Because they’re treated like video game movies.” It’s just storytelling. You’re just telling a story. You’re just telling the story badly.
Now, do you think that’s because of the difference of the mediums?
I think it’s a lack of respect. If you look at early comic book movies, they were totally bad, because people would go into it [reluctantly] and you could tell! You could tell when the actor—at least I can tell—I can tell when the actor is like, putting on a costume and thinks the costume is ridiculous. And it’s like, “I’m not going to commit to this role, because the fuck am I wearing?” You can literally tell within a few frames of shot design whether someone gives a shit about the thing they’re making or not.
And once things get into the marketing department, you can tell whether the studio [views] what they’ve made as schlock or as pure entertainment or as artistry. Right? You look at like, the poster of... pick a movie... The Wrestler, or Black Swan. A Darren Aronofsky movie. There’s actual thought put into the PR. Because the distributor is subtly communicating to themselves that, “Hey, we’ve made an important film! We’ve told an important story. And it’s been told very well.” Again—I don’t want to be the guy talking shit about other people’s things, because you can tell with certain posters.
Most consumers who are now more aware of the business of making entertainment can probably tell that, too.
And I think, also, there’s certain pre-conceived notions—this is no way applies to Castlevania—it’s just literally an observation I have: there are these steadfast rules that executives make to effectively tell you, “Hey, if you do this, then the fanboys will be really upset.” And one of them is like, “Don’t change the character’s origin story.” Look at Superman: Red Son. It’s dope. And the origin story gets completely changed. So, I don’t think any of the rules actually apply. I think what we’ve moved towards as a culture is a culture of authenticity.
Which can be limiting.
I think people were responding to [in the case of Power/Rangers] is the fact that no, this wasn’t a cash grab. There was no monetary incentive to that.
They tried to shut it down after a day, right?
Shankar: Exactly. And it wasn’t even an attempt by me, or Joseph, to make a pitch to get anything. It was literally, like, “I watched this show as a kid. I thought it was dope. This is a love letter to it.” Yeah, it was a parody, but ultimately it came from a place of authentic love. And unfortunately, to answer your question about games and stuff, a lot of the people who made adaptations of game stuff in the past haven’t been fans of it. It’s like, “Oh yeah, here’s a property: go make a movie.” There’s a cool point-of-view into pretty much anything as long as you understand the core mechanics of it.
But there’s the opposite argument, too: it’s possible to be too much of a fan. Sometimes an outside perspective can bring fresh blood to a character or a concept that you love. Or do you feel like that’s not necessarily the case?
No, I absolutely think that’s the case. Joseph and I collaborated on that, and, you know, Joseph was not a Power Rangers guy. At all. Neither was [James] Van der Beek, neither was Katee [Sackhoff]— I guess Katee auditioned to be the Pink Ranger, or something like that? They weren’t fans. But it was treated like a... at the expense of sounding like a mega-douchebag, we felt like we were making an art piece. Right? If you look at video games, a lot of them are works of art. It’s not like that guy went out there and made Diablo and it sucked. It’s like, “Well, no, there was no artistry involved. You’re just basically trying to lure me in, because you’re trying to bank on the fact that I’m a fan of the game, so I’m going to show up and watch the movie, even though the film doesn’t contain a mere fraction of the artistry found in the game.”
Fair. The Castlevania news kind of blew up unexpectedly. Why do you think people care about this news so much?
I think that’s because the niche things that made us outsiders are now, like, super-fucking mainstream. It’s so weird, and it almost feels like a magic trick. “Oh no, it’s all going to be taken back.” Like, last night, I beat out a story for a Power Rangers anime—like a hard R, super violent Power Rangers anime. That would like kind of like Dragonball Z. So, when they morph, the Rangers go Super Saiyan into a Ranger. At any other point in history, this would be just, like, a fantasy that would have played out in my head. But even then my mind would have censored it. “Why are you even thinking about this? This is nonsense. This is never going to happen.”
It would be the kind of thing you sit around in the cafeteria and spitball with your friends.
Shankar: Right. And now we’re seeing that’s not necessarily the case. If you went back a decade ago and we were looking at Comic-Con 10 years ago and we talked about a Deadpool movie getting made, like, there’s no way. It would have been like a parallel universe fantasy conversation. Now we live a word where Deadpool can get made, and it was one of the biggest movies of last year. That is a paradigm shift. It’s the difference between the Hulk and Wolverine before that first X-Men movie got made. Like, if you watch that animated series in the 90s, or you were into X-Men at all, I would argue that Wolverine had very low awareness outside of comic books, right? Wolverine had relatively low awareness versus the Hulk had massive awareness. The Incredible Hulk was a household name! The Hulk was on t-shirts, there were multiple TV shows, comic books—everybody knew the Hulk. Hulk was part of the mainstream vernacular, used to describe something.
The difference was, if you were a fan, you really cared about Wolverine to the point where you get into arguments at school where you’re all playing X-Men, like, you get into a fight about who gets to be Wolverine. You didn’t get into that with Hulk. And that translated into years later, with Wolverine becoming iconic on a mainstream level, and literally Deadpool was the same thing. Because of the Internet, being niche is not bad anymore. Having a small, but dedicated audience is no longer a bad thing, right? Guys like John Carpenter are retroactively being viewed through a different lens now. Are they mall famous? No. There’s a subculture on the Internet that is like, “This guy’s dope, all his movies were dope.”
Do you worry about the geek culture ecosystem being super-saturated now?
No, not at all. I think of anything, the fact that it’s become the new normal—versus, if you were really into Iron Man in the 90s, people were like, “What?” Nowadays, Iron Man is more well-known than King Kong or Godzilla. The geek culture is the new normal. I think it was Todd McFarlane who was like, “Dude, the geeks won. I don’t know why everyone’s still mad!” I do think there’s there’s this anger within the subculture sometimes. Which needs to get addressed. Because I think that’s a huge fucking problem.
I fundamentally believe the artists on this planet, we are another branch of the global government. We are the conscience of humanity. We’re there to show people a better way! We’re imaging a better world so that future generations grow up watching that world. I want to create that for real! That’s literally our only job. But if there’s self-policing going on and people are afraid to create stuff, or to be truthful to themselves because of hating and stuff, that’s bad! That self-censors a whole generation.
So, going back to Castlevania: one of the reasons the games were so popular is that the environment was like a big puzzle, right? It was not your standard side-scroller where you go from left to right and eventually, if you go right far enough, and you beat all the things, you beat the game. Castlevania sends you back and forward and up and down and you turn the castle around. You unlock different areas with stuff that you find and all this other stuff. Can you bring any of those elements into a TV series format?
No, because fundamentally, the philosophical limitations of what a show is, is a story told through a point of view. The way the camera moves—it’s almost like a story is unfolding like they’re memories of yours. Versus, like, when you play a game—it’s different. So I would argue the difference between watching a film or a TV show is almost, like, a bunch of friends sitting around a campfire, telling what happened to them, versus a video game, [which is] like playing a sport. You’re participating and have an end goal.
So, the puzzle-like nature of the games is not something you guys are going to recreate in the series.
I wouldn’t say that we can’t do something like what the games did, but they’re fundamentally different art forms.