Thank You For Playing

PBS Premiere: Oct. 24, 2016Check the broadcast schedule »

Filmmaker Interview

Go behind the lens of POV documentary Thank You For Playing.

POV: Tell us a little bit about Thank You For Playing.

Malika Zouhali-Worrall: Thank You For Playing tells a story of Ryan and Amy Green who develop this really incredible video game about their experiences raising their young son, Joel, who was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. They worked for more than two years building this video game with the goal of sharing their story and also generating a conversation around the topics of terminal illness and death and bereavement and grief because they felt like those had become very tabooed topics in our society - issues that people didn't feel they could freely talk about and share. The film follows them through the process both of making the video game, but then also of dealing with their son's diagnosis and ultimately with his deteriorating health in the last few months of his life.

David Osit: I think in a time in which we feel that technology brings us further and further apart, Thank You For Playing is a story about the surprising way in which it may in fact bring us closer together.

POV: Talk about being co-directors and how your collaboration came to be.

Zouhali-Worrall: One day David read about what Ryan and Amy were doing in a blog online and was so intrigued by it that, you know, he shared it with me and we decided to go out for a short shoot, just to explore the topic. So this was actually our first project together.

Osit: It was a very special film to work on because it was so intimate. Oftentimes it would just be Malika and I in the room with this family and we were the only production personnel involved. So we not only directed the film together, but we produced and edited the film together. And that was a very intimate process, just because we didn't want to involve too many moving parts with this film. We really wanted to focus on getting to know the family and getting to connect with them and it made sense that everything kind of came down to us working together, because so much of our relationship with Ryan and Amy was us working together with them to be present in documenting their story.

POV: How far along were they in making the game when you first contacted them?

Osit: When we first contacted the Green family, they had really only made one demo of the game, which was just a ten minute scene that they had only premiered at a couple of game conferences up until that point. And that's where the initial press came from because people would have very strong reactions to it, and a couple journalists would write articles about playing this one ten-minute demo scene and just being in tears afterwards. And that's when we first found out about the game itself. And I think just trying to imagine that was even more helpful for us in figuring out that we wanted to make this film, because we had to kind of imagine: how can a game be this emotional? How can a game be this complicated and interesting and complex that after playing it for ten minutes you're reduced to a puddle? And that was really the instigating factor of us trying to check it out. Then we saw some early concept art at a very preliminary stage, art renderings that they did. We were enthralled by this idea that all of the avatars in the video game are faceless. It was just polygons, little polygon counts which seems first of all, very beautiful, but also had this emotional impact because you can insert yourself into that space with this video game. You're being allowed by the creators of this video game to put yourself into that position. And I think as documentarians, we're regularly thinking about how we let the audience in to a space that we are creating for them. And exclusively as documentarians, as people who have never worked in the video game form or even in much of the interactive form, we were really intrigued by this method of storytelling. And I think just as storytellers, we were fascinated.

POV: Whenever you're making a documentary and subjects let you in their lives, there are ethical concerns. Talk about how you navigated and made decisions to be respectful.

Osit: We were kind of just taking our leads from Ryan and Amy and Josh, the co-creator of That Dragon, Cancer. We showed up to make a documentary, but there was already a documentary being made, it was just in video game form. So we were stumbling onto the scene of this moment in time where this family was already in the middle of documenting their own lives. And that involved this introspection of thinking about how do we share these emotional experiences, how do we back away, how do we not drag the audience through the mud of this terrible time that we're in and show the beauty of the experience? And we really just wanted to peg what we were doing in style and tone off of what we were seeing in front of us, which was a family that was full of life and joy that was experiencing this terrible thing, but also doing it with so much presence and grace and thinking very carefully about how to express that and keeping open communication with their children, with their family members and each other. And that was something we were really were acutely aware of. The idea of showing up as filmmakers and telling a story that wasn't already being told I think would have been much more daunting. But we were in this very self-reflective space and were just able to kind of shed another light on it in the sense of being one more level zoomed out from this experience of making a personal artwork, but looking at how the creation of that personal work affects the art itself and the maker of the art. And we always really wanted to be careful in obviously showing too much or focusing too much on the grief or the sadness. But that's what this experience is. Shying away from it is exactly what Ryan and Amy did not want to do by making this video game. They wanted to go head-on into these feelings. And it's something that we don't do a lot in society anyway. Us being able to zoom out a little bit and say, this is what happens when you do this. This is what happens when you engage in these emotions, when you put them up to the wall and shine a light on them and say, here's what I'm dealing with. You've dealt with it too, or you will deal with it some day. Being able to talk about that is part of what takes that pain away.

Zouhali-Worrall: They actually never asked us to turn the cameras off, which is especially remarkable given what a difficult and trying time they were going through, especially as Joel's health deteriorated so rapidly towards the end. We were in there in their living room with them when Joel went into hospice care, and we were filming. But the interesting thing is that at that moment I think we both recognized that something about the relationship had shifted that meant that it was our call essentially when to stop filming. But on the other hand, there were moments that we felt incredibly uncomfortable filming and we felt so emotional about, but we realized that we actually had a responsibility to continue, even when in some ways we didn't want to continue filming. And that was partly because the whole point of what Ryan and Amy were doing and what we were documenting was about going to these incredibly difficult places with them. So that meant us filming some of the hardest things I think either of us have ever filmed. But that was almost the unspoken contract that we kind of found that we'd entered into over the course of making the film. That was the least we could do in exchange for the amount of trust they put into us.

POV: The Green family is a spiritual family. How does their faith over the course of the film color their experience with losing their son?

Osit: The Green family are practicing Christians. And I think religion throughout history has been an amazing tool for so many people to be able to try to find a way to make sense of something that is otherwise inexplicable. And I think the fear of losing your child is something that is inexplicable. So the Greens' religion for us was a very interesting facet of their story because to us I think this idea of using religion and spirituality as a tool for coping isn't terribly dissimilar to what the video game's purpose was for the Green family. It allows us to take the weight off of our own shoulders and put them in something that feels very solid. And in the sense of a video game, I think the idea of being able to be a creator, to be in charge of something, to have some agency as the creator of a video game in a situation where you really just don't have that much control otherwise was a very powerful theme for us to explore throughout the film.

POV: How did you balance responsibilities in crafting and working on the edit of the film?

Zouhali-Worrall: There were so many challenges in editing this film and telling the story. One major thing was, having filmed so much and some of the hardest moments you could imagine observing any family going through, we then had to make the decision of how much an audience could deal with. And interestingly, that did involve a lot of cutting it down and figuring out the essence of the emotional experience they'd had, while also not making it an impossible film to watch, and also would make them care for Ryan and Amy. So often when you're dealing with topics like this, the crucial thing is actually to see them in different emotional states. So in our case that meant going through and finding the moments of joy or laughter or the moments of love and happiness that we'd also captured because we realized that those were going to be the crucial moments that would enable any viewer to want to keep watching and go through these other harder moments. And then one other challenge we had in making the film, was that it incorporates so much footage and material from the animated video game. The video game is incredible and is remarkably told and stunning and poetic in so many ways, and so I think one thing we realized in the editing process also was that we had to figure out the line at which to stop in terms of respecting this other work of art and not exploiting it or not using what was brilliant about that work of art to tell our story.

POV: Were either of you video gamers before shooting this film?

Osit: I believe we had both played Mario as younger children. I spent a little more time with it in the last couple years cause I'd heard a little bit about this sort of independent gaming scene that existed on sort of a similar level as we might imagine the independent film scenes who exist. It's people who are making some really exceptional content with not that much money. And similar to the way that filmmaking has been democratized in the last 15-20 years, so too has gaming. The median age now for a gamer is in their thirties, not in their teens. There are millions of games that most of us will play and not even think that they're video games anymore. So that culture is slowly changing. And I think that's one of the things that Ryan and Amy and Josh were really excited to do with That Dragon, Cancer is say, well if we are going to loosen our definition of what a video game is, can it not be something that can also make you feel something too? That can actually engender more interaction with other people rather than less, that will keep you out of just playing a game in isolation in your basement or on your cell phone, but actually make you want to talk to the creator or talk to your family members or think about how to express something that you've never otherwise been able to express because at least you don't feel alone in feeling that way anymore because you've played this game that someone else has created who's been through the same thing or something similar. And that's what art is for us.

And I think spending that time with Ryan and Amy and making this film was a very profound window into how important it is to be vocal and emotive and expressive when it comes to sharing the things that terrify us and the things that we're afraid to talk about. Everyone has a dragon called cancer, but it maybe isn't cancer, it could be addiction or depression or loss. There's always something that is chasing us throughout life wherever we are and whatever we're doing. But this experience I think is so tangible in terms of other people being able to understand that we all have our demons, we all have our dragons, and you can handle them through relying on and sharing with the people that you're close to and expressing yourself in a way that engenders more connection as opposed to isolating yourself. That was something I didn't really quite understand the value of until we spent time with the Greens.