[INTERVIEW] ‘POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU’ writers Dan Hernandez & Benji Samit level up within a fun, fantasy playground
Courtney Howard // Film Critic
Screenwriters Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit’s version of the world within POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU is one filled with wonder, imagination and many, many colorful characters. The pair of self-confessed “nerds” found themselves able to play in a sandbox, selecting which chosen Pokémon to catch and reverentially use in their cinematic adaptation of the popular video game. They crafted a hilarious, often times heartfelt story about a son (Justice Smith) left searching for his estranged father, and the eponymous adorable, furry yellow rodent-like creature (voiced by Ryan Reynolds) who helps him, in a city where cartoon characters cohabitate alongside humans.
I recently spoke with the dynamic duo over the phone where we discussed everything from playing around with the Pokédex, to the inspirational feelings they bottle from other modern classic films, to what video game adaptation they’d love to take on next.
Did you have to pitch your take on the existing IP, or was the story already decided when you joined on?
Samit: We came on very early on in the process. We knew they were doing a Detective Pikachu movie based off this game. We were given the script to the game, which, at that point, was only out in Japan. It was a translation of the Japanese script for the game. We were on early enough where we were able to shape what the story would be, what the character arcs would be, what the themes would be, which Pokémon we wanted in the movie.
Dan Hernandez: Legendary was aware we had a certain set of geeky skills and we were prepared to use them. It was a great marriage because we had been anxious to do this kind of big adaptations for a really long time. It’s one of our favorite properties. We love this world so much. They knew of our huge love for this and that was a reason they brought us in.
Having that foundational knowledge prior, did you have to go through any great lengths to research it? And was it difficult to choose which Pokémon characters you were and weren’t going to use?
Samit: We probably had to do a little less research than some other people, who might’ve been coming in completely unfamiliar. That said, it still required us to learn about many of the Pokémon we were less familiar with. We grew up with Gen-1 and 2 and into 3. Once you started to go beyond that, our familiarity required us to sit there with the Pokédex. I remember writing at 5 in the morning, writing with one hand and flipping through the Pokédex. in another, saying, “If only there were some kind of bio-luminescent mushroom,” then flip the page and “Oh great! Morelull!” There was something very cool about knowing anything you could imagine was probably a Pokémon that fit your need dramatically. It was a very different way of writing than something that has less source material.
Hernandez: To be integral in choosing what Pokémon made it into the movie was such a thrill because there were some in the videogame that we wanted to use – like Mr. Mime. But there were others, like Psyduck, which is my personal favorite, that is not in the Detective Pikachu game, that Benji and I pitched day one. We love Psyduck. We think he could be the comedic breakout character of this movie. We would really like to try to create this character for the movie that we thought people were gonna love. He’s like our little baby.
Many, including myself, have compared this to WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT?, but was that something you pulled inspiration from as far as tone?
Hernandez: Absolutely. That was one of the main films we looked to as far as thinking how to balance a world that’s fantastic, very elevated and genre-driven, but the way that it’s written is very mundane – it’s every day for the people who live in this world. That’s one of the most brilliant things about ROGER RABBIT. Everybody understands how toons are and what Toon Town is like. We [wanted to] capture that same sense of where everybody knows the deal. We wanted to throw people into this world and not explain too much about the why of it or question it too much. We just wanted to become enveloped.
One of my favorite moments is when Tim walks into Ryme City and you just get in the face with all these people and Pokémon going about their business. We were trying to invoke, in some small way, the feeling of walking into the Mos Eisley Cantina for the first time.
Was it fun to find the moments to properly layer in the nostalgia callbacks without pandering?
Samit: That was definitely one of the many fun parts. That was part of choosing what Pokémon to put in the movie. There’s over 800 to choose from and obviously they couldn’t be all in that. We really wanted to pick Pokémon for the story we wanted to tell. For instance, Ditto, the shape-shifting Pokémon, we knew early on for him to be a part of it because it fit so well in a detective story to have a shape-shifter. Psyduck, that’s one we have a personal connection to, but he has an inherent comedy to him. There’s inherent fun in having an interrogation scene with Mr. Mime.
Hernandez: It was really finding the small slice of life moments where the longtime fans could get excited about – like Snorlax causing a traffic jam. Those were the kind of texture and details we felt were important to put into the movie to show that this is a living, breathing world, but also to show we’re embracing all kinds of Pokémon history and different generations. If you aren’t familiar with Snorlax, it’s just a funny thing that’s happening. But if you are familiar, there’s another level. Trying to find those moment and employ them organically in this world.
What was the sequence that changed the most?
Hernandez: One that jumps to mind was really nailing when Detective Pikachu reveals himself to Tim. It’s such an important moment. It has to be just right. It has to convey a lot of things at once: it has to jump start the mystery. It’s doing triple duty. We did a lot of different versions of that sequence to the Aipom chase until we landed on one that made sense, felt noir, funny, but also that didn’t shrink away from the bizarre fact that this little Pikachu can now talk to this kid. It took some time to craft, but I’m thrilled with the way that it turned out.
If you could adapt another “nerd” property for the big screen, what would it be and why?
Samit: That’s a good question. Us being ultimate nerds that we are, we have a long list. There’s a lot of video games that are an untapped market that we’re hoping PIKACHU opens up the door a little bit. Dan and I talked a lot about a LEGEND OF ZELDA movie – that would be amazing.
Hernandez: That would be on the shortlist of dream projects – a LEGEND OF ZELDA movie. I hope that PIKACHU will start to make people think about these classic video game franchises as viable movies. There’s so much great content in these games that, if you find the right people, who have an affection and understanding for these kinds of properties, I think that the “video game curse” could be lifted. I don’t think it would be a one-off thing. It could be a whole new stream of content that’s as viable as Marvel, or DC, or anything. That’s one thing we’re excited to come into its own, hopefully following this movie.
Sure. They’re so cinematic.
Hernandez: And there’s all different kinds. I think that sometimes people think of video games as this homogenous blob. But the truth is, if you’re a gamer, there’s a vast difference between a game like Detective Pikachu and BioShock Infinite, to Final Fantasy, to Portal, or The Last of Us. I think if we can start to change the narrative about these video game movies, there’s a whole world and that world has sub-sections and sub-genres. You can do a comedy in that world if it’s the right property. That’s really exciting to us. We’d like to be at the forefront of that.
You both have been writing together for some time now. Did you discover anything new about each other during the process of working on this film?
Hernandez: That’s a good question. I can tell you this: When we started doing this, I was doing Pilates twice a week. I was getting muscle and I had to stop because this freight train hit us. I hope that Benji learned of my willingness to sacrifice my own body for the sake of the movie.
Samit: I did know that. Truth is, there’s not that much that Dan and I don’t already know about each other. Not only have we been writing together for over ten years now, before that, we went to college together and we’re best friends. Even when we’re not working on stuff, we’re hanging out and talking. Dan is the guy who I play video games with and go to the movies with. Our writing is just a continuation of that fun together. Hopefully, that fun energy continues into our writing.
POKÉMON DETECTIVE PIKACHU is now playing. Read our review here.