Twenty years ago the Myst franchise dominated the PC gaming market. An enigmatic narrative that challenged players to explore a mysterious island while also challenging the perspective that games were just for kids. Robyn Miller was co-designer of Myst and its sequel Riven but he left the developer, Cyan Worlds, to pursue work in other mediums. His latest project is Writer, Director and star of the indie film The Immortal Augustus Gladstone, a faux documentary about a man who claims to be a vampire. Explosion’s Charles Battersby spoke with Miller about his new movie and his time making games.
Explosion: What inspired the character of Augustus?
Robyn Miller: I always like early monster films and books like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Where there’s this character who is very innocent and not able to grasp the rules of society, and not able to grasp his own self. At the same time it has to do some gruesome things in order to survive. So there’s a weird juxtaposition of those two things, because a being like Frankenstein remains innocent even though he’s doing some horrible things.
So I wanted to take a character like that and set him against the modern age where we have stuff like the internet and Youtube and Facebook. What happens in that scenarios where you have this innocent person, but now he’s attempting to survive and try to make sense of all this?
Explosion: Was the faux documentary format your original plan, or was there an other version of the story?
Robyn Miller: There was an older version of the story but I also wanted to do it in documentary style. I had a seed of an idea where there were two brothers. They were twins, one of them was German and the other brother was similar to [Augustus] and they were separated by time.
When you are working on a creative idea, you are chiseling away, attempting to figure out what really works, and that idea wasn’t working for me, but I still wanted to do it in that documentary style. I really like the language of a documentary. The documentary communicates “Hey, this is real, this is believable.”
In this we did a lot of improv. With people talking over each other, people making mistakes in heir dialog. It becomes something that feels like real life. So that’s one of the things that attracted me, and I wanted to continue on in this, the final project.
Explosion: The actual crew appears in the film playing themselves.
Robyn Miller: When we were bringing on the crew I explained to them that “You’re going to be in front of the camera” and had to get their okay with that. They were all a little astonished to say the least.
Explosion: Were they real documentary filmmakers?
Robyn Miller: No. Our sound crew had done documentaries, but even they had never appeared in front of the camera. So it was really interesting because that was not what any of them necessarily wanted to do, but they all had a little fun with it.
It was very natural and organic. Very real. Because they started reacting to this character, Augustus. We filmed it sequentially trying to make it as much like a documentary as possible. There’s one scene in the film where there’s a tea party on the roof, and it was odd, because it was a turning point for the actual crew and a turning point for the film. When we were up on that roof, you see the crew enjoying [Augustus] like they hadn’t before. Everyone was just enjoying themselves. I wanted to make it as real as possible so that we could capture those moments with the crew.
Explosion: Did you remain in character as Augustus between shooting scenes?
Robyn Miller: No, and that was the toughest thing for me. Jumping into his skin then jumping into my own as director, then jumping back into Gus’ skin. As soon as I was dressed up as Augustus, that helped me become him. It was a pretty dramatic change, but that made it weird for me to just be me.
Explosion: Augustus moves and speaks and looks very different from your real appearance. How did you create that persona?
Robyn Miller: I drew from a lot of different places. For his movements and the way he walks – that slouch – I tried to think of someone older. He says he’s old. For his voice I took that from a Southerner, obviously, but from somebody’s aunt who’s very proper. There’s aspects of my own mom in that character, so it’s an amalgam of all these things. I played with it for a long while before we began shooting.
Explosion: “Mockumentary” films are usually comedies that make fun of their characters. What was your intent on the Comedy / Tragedy scale with this movie?
Robyn Miller: There are definitely some comedic elements, but I really did not want to make fun of Augustus. I wanted to take this character, this person, and send in our documentary crew as if we were real.
How would a real documentary crew react to this guy? We wouldn’t mock him, there would be no reason to do that. He’s very interesting. How would we react to a guy who says he’s immortal, then halfway through the film he tells us he’s a vampire, yet he has no proof of it?
We wouldn’t mock that. In my mind that’s not really that interesting. It’s more interesting to present the guy at face value and see where that takes us. I felt like that was a more interesting story.
Explosion: Gus’ backstory has some ambiguity about him possibly being a vampire, or possibly being delusional. In your mind is there a definitive answer?
Robyn Miller: I sway in one direction more than the other [Mysterious laugh]. Some people will come out of the movie and they know that he’s a vampire. And other people who have a more realist bent will know that he’s not. They’ll see it differently depending on what view they take of the world, and I like that about the movie.
Explosion: But I want Gus to be a vampire, not a crazy man!
Robyn Miller: I want him to be a vampire too.
Explosion: How much of the film was scripted in advance?
Robyn Miller: We had a very detailed outline. Everybody knew when we shot something where a scene would start, the direction of each scene, and where it would end, but none of the actual dialog was scripted.
Explosion: Aside from the crew, were there a lot of non-actors in the film?
Robyn Miller: When Augustus goes to the doctor, the doctor is an actual doctor and he was reacting to Augustus as if he was really reacting to this guy.
Explosion: Did the doctor know? Was there any “Borating” when you were filming?
Robyn Miller: No, even though it might seem like that at times, there wasn’t any of that at all. There were surprises, but when that happened that doctor used his own bedside manner and reacted in a very believable way. What we shot with that doctor was about 24 minutes that we scrunched down to about a minute and a half. We just kept the cameras rolling.
Explosion: Is the extra footage from the film going to be used anywhere?
Robyn Miller: We created these other short films. A couple of them are online, and they’re called “Augustus Talks”. If you went to our website, there are two of these Augustus Talks videos. We have so much footage that we can make another movie with our extra footage.
We are also releasing a game that is related to the movie. More than anything it’s just fun to make. It’s called AWOL In P-Town. I haven’t made a game in years and years. It’s nothing like Myst or Riven, but still, it’s kinda cool.
Explosion: The story in the movie has mysteries, and audiences will be looking for hidden meanings and clues.
Robyn Miller: I’ve actually had people ask me already. Augustus made a series of Youtube videos and we used one of those in the movie and someone wrote me and said “You put the wrong date, is that intended? Is that a clue? Where are we going to find the next clue?” And I was like, okay, we made a mistake.
Explosion: “If we put the two dates together it makes GPS co-ordinates!”
Robyn Miller: Exactly. It’s not that big of a deal. We didn’t go back and fix it either. People are looking for every little clue in that respect. Releasing those videos online were a way to make a more believable truth to the whole thing. It feels more real. This is a false reality – it’s very satisfying to be able to see the film and then refer to the youtube videos online, and they’re actually there. It makes it more like a myth. When I encounter those things in any kind of media, I like that.
Explosion: You made some of the most popular games of all time, do you find that Myst and Riven are sticking with you in your work in films?
Robyn Miller: I would say yes and no. There are some Myst game players who watch this film and really like it. I would say there are other Myst game players that don’t relate. It’s a very different animal, this Augustus story. Myst was a strict fantasy, and The Immortal Augustus Gladstone is a cerebral, psychological story about this guy living in an abandoned hotel alone. They don’t necessarily relate, and maybe it’s people expectations that they will. There might be some disappointment there. So we’ll see.
I do know there has been some Myst players who really liked it. I don’t know if that’s where the core audience for the film will be.
Explosion: What’s next for you?
Robyn Miller: I’m working on two other screenplays. One is a science fiction project, and the other is a surrealistic comedy.
Explosion: Anything you’d like to say to your long-time fans?
Robyn Miller: I love all of you, thank you for making Myst so popular.
The Immortal Augustus Gladstone releases on April 1st via iTunes, Amazon, Googleplay and Vimeo, with live screenings around the country in indie film festivals. More information can be found on theimmortalaugustusgladstone.com, and Robyn’s new game can be played at awol-in-ptown.com.