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Gunga Din An Interview With Jessi Thind& Mathieu Larivière

Jessi Thind is an award-winning writer and game designer. Currently, he leads a team of writers as Narrative Director on Dead by Daylight at Behaviour Interactive in Montreal, Canada. Previously Narrative Director atLune Rouge, he collaborated with a team of highly creative individuals to help establish the foundations for the recently announced Unknown 9 Universe. He has also worked on Avatar, Splinter Cell, Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider, Arkham Origins, Arkham Knight, Gotham Knights and Suicide Squad.

Mathieu Lariviere is a 20-year veteran of the videogame industry as an accomplished game designer and game writer. He has recently joined the ranks of Rogue-Factor as their new lead writer to help foster the foundations of a new IP. He has also collaborated on such titles as Still Life, Splinter Cell, South Park, Naruto, My Sims, Thief 4, Rainbow Six and the Unknown 9.


CULT CRITIC : Where did you two meet?

 Jessi – We basically met working on Guy Laliberte’strans media project,brainstorming story and universe elements with visionary creators like Tim Kring, Jae Lee, John NeyReiber and Terry Miles. We had a lot of memorable experiences on that project and we got to see the first offering of the Unknown 9 universe with Terry’s podcast—the Leap Year Society. Three years later and we still can’t wait for the film, the TV series and the game to be released…to finally see the fruits of all that creative effort.

Mat– Yeah, I also got to collaborate with comic book creator David Mack and renowned artist Dave Gibbons and producer extraordinaire Rosana Roth.Good memories working with them.


CULT CRITIC : Describe your process as a team?

Jessi – It varies. Usually one of us will write a first draft and then we’ll iterate on it until we just can’t anymore. I had the first draft of Gunga Din and pitched the story to Mat. He liked it and we started to exchange notes.

Mat- The trick is to be respectful and to listen to each other. If the theme and premise of the story is clear, then it’s just a matter of respecting the foundation of the story.

 Jessi- Pretty much. I mean when you’re working as a team, I think it’s important to establish a clear litmus test for what makes it in the story and what doesn’t. This ‘test’ is usually what the story’s about, what the story’s really about, the story’s DNA, or the heart of the story. This heart captures and distills theme and character to one clear and easy-to-remember idea like… ‘Narcissism leads to self-destruction’ or‘Foolish spending leads to great loss’ or in the case of Gunga Din ‘Life and death rest in the power of words,’ which is a tweak on ‘The tongue has the power of life and death.’ That’s the story redux. It’s what Gunga Din is about at the very core. Words and the power of words to fortify the spirit.Words become thoughts and thoughts can inspire, encourage and build, or they can defame, belittle, and destroy. With this litmus test to guide the team, it’s easy to evaluate ideas with respect to the intended climax, which should be the ultimate expression of what the story’s about. You look at each beat or idea being put forward and see if it supports or builds toward the climax to get a sense of its strength and resonance for the overall story you’re trying to tell. Agree on the heart of the story and story meetings and discussions become fun, effective and inspiring. Everyone’s basically pulling the chariot in the same direction.

Mat- When there are clear guidelines and limits, collaboration becomes second nature, and that was definitely the case with Gunga Din. After several iterations and when we were happy with what we had, we put it through the gauntlet so to speak, won several film festivals like 13 Horror, Tagore International Film Festival, L’Age D’Or International Art-house and I believe we just picked up Best Horror Feature in Los Angeles at the renowned Prestigious film festival.


CULT CRITIC :GUNGA DIN followsa unit of American  soldiers who encounter an ancient evil in a forgotten temple in Afghanistan. What inspired you to write a film script on this?

 Jessi – I had been reading about the MK Ultra experiments at McGill University and how they were trying to ‘break’ minds or ‘remother’ patients seeking help for postpartum depression.I read horrifying, declassified documents on how the CIA believed that with psychedelic drugs, exposure to endless loops of traumatic imagery and phrases they could break or erase minds to create new personalities within individuals or even allow inter dimensional beings to high jack these ‘broken’ or ‘blank’ minds.Positive mind, powerful defenses. Traumatized mind, weak defenses. I was curious to know more about these so-called being sand found several references to demons and Jinn. Basically,the experiments were designed to weaken the subject with trauma to create fractures or compartments in the mind that ostensibly would let the demons in. Well, needless to say, the story gears kicked into motion and I found myself wanting to write a story about the power of words in relation to emotions and the mind. Namely, how uplifting thoughts and emotions protect us against psychic enemies, or, conversely, how dark and depressive thoughts leave a back door open for a kind of demonic hijack. And so I began scribbling about an ancient Jinn who basically lures a group of soldiers to do his bidding. One scene led to another until I had the first draft of Gunga Din.

Mat– For me it was the heart of Gunga Din that resonated in a way that’s tough to explain. It felt like a powerful allegory for what many people go through in toxic environments with an abusive partner or boss. It reminded me of this one place I worked at where I witnessed how an abusive leader destroyed colleagues with words and words alone. Just ripped them to shreds and then ridiculed them at meetings for cheap laughs. I’ve even witnessed good people, colleagues, change who they were fundamentally to survive at that place, and some even seemed to be possessed by something dark other than just fear of losing their job. I’m exaggerating but I did observe how one person and one person alone could act as a catalyst for so much anxiety and negativity with just words. Gunga Din is about soldiers in Afghanistan going up against an ancient Jinn, but the heart of the story speaks to the struggle we all have to protect who we are in face of the naysayers and abusers in our lives.


CULT CRITIC : Could you share an experience you had in dealing with a difficult character in this script and how you handled the situation?

Jessi – Antagonists are always difficult for me because they are critical to the story.I mean heroes are only as tough as the forces of antagonism you set against them—the forces of antagonism they have to overcome. So creating a worthy antagonist is always daunting for me.Trying to get the Jinn right was for me a challenge in research, creativity and respect. The last thing we wanted to do was take a legend from another culture and make a mess of it.

Mat– Yeah, the Jinn and the Ghul were a tough combo to get right. Also making sure each soldier had the right psychic wound that the Jinn could manipulate was another challenge. It took time and research, but I think we got it. No problem you can’t solve with time and patience.


CULT CRITIC : Your most recent screenplay, Gunga Din, is beautifully explained with great attention to detail. Can you talk about how you planned each of the scenes?

Jessi –The scenes are structured so that they support and build in relation to the climax. Other than that there’s no real plan, but I am always questioning the scene, asking myself how it turns the story or develops character. If it doesn’t, then it probably has to be re-worked or scrapped. Mat and I both prefer to show the visuals with the writing instead of ‘telling’ with director jargon. This way we’re suggesting more than dictating what the shots should be. We basically avoid doing the director’s job with camera suggestions. Instead, we choose the right details to inspire the director. So the attention to detail really comes from respecting the director’s craft by being detailed with the action and description and not the shots and camera angles. It’s just professional courtesy.


CULT CRITIC : Along with the attention to detail, the screenplay has characters that are intriguing and authentic. They basically pop off the page. How do you create such believable characters?

Mat – Before writing a single word of the screenplay, all of the characters must be properly defined. Where are they from? What was their upbringing? What was their education? What do they look like? What makes them tick? Do they get along or do they fight constantly? How do they emphasize or contradict the premise and theme of the movie? In my opinion, these are just a few questions any writer needs to know before embarking on the creation of a story. Knowing who your characters are and how they interact with the world is paramount. By knowing all these details beforehand, it makes it easier for the writer to connect with his cast of characters and if the writer connects with his character, so will his audience. When the writer is armed with the knowledge of his character, it’s much easier to write dialogue that will make them unique and recognizable.

Jessi – Not much I can add there. I mean I’ve heard writers debate character and plot at every studio I’ve worked at. Are you a character writer? Are you a plot writer? What kind of writer are you? That just confuses me. Character is plot. Change the character and the plot should change as well. Plot isn’t a series of generic events that can happen to anyone. It’s a series of choices and consequences—choices made by a character with a problem. I guess I’m saying character is important, and I’m also saying character and plot are symbiotic. They should be considered and iterated on together as one deeply connected thing. It’s not one or the other. They’re one and the same thing and they should be treated as such. 


CULT CRITIC :Do you have a genre that you prefer to write in? Can you speak about the differences between the genres?

Jessi –That’s a tough question to answer, but if I look at my work I’d say I have three genres I generally gravitate toward. Horror. Revenge. Drama. Jaws. The Count of Monte Cristo. Twelve Angry Men. Genre is more or less a bunch of stories that are similar and have established a certain set of expectations with respect to tone and structure. Horror has a dark and ominous tone. Comedies are light and humorous. Revenge stories have obligatory beats. Beats like the protagonist—before embarking on the path of revenge—must try to secure justice through the proper channels. Only after being denied justice, will the audience fully get behind the protagonist’s plan for revenge. I mean genre expectations are basically a guideline for what works, but there’s a lot of flexibility and room for experimentation within each genre. Personally, I enjoy writing the monster movies or what the industry is now calling ‘monster in the house.’ What I like about these films is the sense of relief you feel when the credits roll. You’re not pumped to save the world or win a gold medal at the Olympics. No, no…You’re relieved… just relieved… satisfied and happy to return to your normal day-to-day. Happy you don’t have a dog named Cujo. Glad you’re not aboardThe Nostromo. Glad you’re not in the ocean with a great white.It’s kind of like those first few seconds after you’re startled awake from a nightmare and you’re just staring at the ceiling, happy to be alive. What’s especially fun about writing in the horror genre is you get to design the nightmare.

Mat– I have no specific genre really. I do like horror. You can confront the audience with certain truths and realities of the modern world or just have fun and entertain. In other words… it’s very flexible.


CULT CRITIC :What do you think is the best part of Gunga Din?

Jessi – The ending, but I won’t spoil that. The best part of any story should be the ending, the payoff, otherwise audience’s feel like they wasted two hours of their life.

Mat– I have several favorites. Like Jessi said, the end is very important. It’s the final curtain that reinforces the message of the film, which we hope, leaves the audience wanting more. However, I do have a few along the way. The scene where Sam tries to connect with the child she saved from the camp. This small scene reveals Sam to have a soft center underneath her hard exterior. Also, I love the scene between Maisie and Raj, when they are trapped together. Maisie shares a story from her childhood, which gives Raj the solution to escape their predicament. I also love the scene when they find Scott tied to a tree which raises the stakes for our heroes.

CULT CRITIC : What advice would you give to aspiring screenplay writers?

Jessi – Learn to dance, take up a martial art, and read a lot. Read a lot to feed the muse. Read the original Alien script. Read Pixar scripts. Learn proper formatting. Avoid telling directors what to do with cameras. Avoid telling actors what to do with parenthetical s. Nine times out of ten if your dialogue needs a parenthetical there is an issue with the scene or the dialogue. The important thing to remember is script writing is a collaborative art. Actors are professional and quite adept at interpreting intention by reading the scene if it’s well constructed. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to read as many story cookbooks as you can and adopt the advice that resonates with you as an artist. Aristotle’s The Poetics. Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Synder’s Save the Cat.Lajos Egri’sArt of Dramatic Writing.And… yeah… there’s an on-line masterclass by Angus Fletcher worth mentioning that an IP director once shared with us while we were working on a universe bible. His class is an absolute must if you’re interested in creating a universe with interconnecting trans media stories.

Mat– Like Jessi mentioned, read a lot. Read books, screenplays and plays. Don’t just read the final drafts. Read first drafts, in fact, read as much “crappy” screenplays as you can. Honestly, you’ll learn more. Read the first draft of Star Wars or Back to the Future.  It’s just as important to read failures. You’ll clearly identify what works and what doesn’t work. Also, it will give you confidence in your own work. I recommend these books on writing that might help you acquire some “writing principles.” Story by Robert McKee is probably my favorite and will give you plenty of tools for your writer’s toolbox. It helped me plenty of times when I was in the weeds. On Writing by Stephen King will give you a unique perspective on how a legend approaches the craft. The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri which gives stunning insight into themes and premises that will help you build profound stories and unforgettable characters. Last but not least, I strongly recommend you read Flow by MihalyCsikszentmihaliyi. It will help harness your creativity and focus in ways you never thought possible. Another good course is ‘Building Story Worlds.’  You can find it on The Great Courses website. It’s a great reference for genres, character and creating universes. The last advice I can give sounds obvious. Write! Write every day, no matter what your day is like. Practice makes perfect.


CULT CRITIC :   What are you working on now?

Jessi– Our next nightmare.

Mat– I’m currently finishing up the first draftof said nightmare.


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