Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit take their Pokémon seriously. The thirtysomething screenwriters met at Brown University in the early aughts and bonded over a love of comic books, video games, role-playing games and theater. And while they’ve written a number of pilots and screenplays in the ensuing years (including a big-screen version of Gilligan’s Island for Josh Gad), turning Pikachu, a yellow, rodent-like Pokémon legend with a lightning bolt tail, into a wisecracking gumshoe and headliner of this weekend’s Detective Pikachu is the first time they’ve seen such a project get across the finish line (and into theaters).
But for all the inherent comedy in the premise of Detective Pikachu — not to mention the notion of creating a star vehicle for a Pokémon character voiced by Ryan Reynolds — Hernandez and Samit went about their business thoughtfully and with a legitimate passion for the source material. I recently talked to the duo about stanning for “gen one” of Pokémon, why they’d love to bring Metroid to the big screen too, how Hernandez’s parents divorce factors into Detective Pikachu and the fight Twitter is attempting to stage between Pikachu and Sonic the Hedgehog.
How much did you know about the Detective Pikachu video game before you were hired to write the script?
Samit: At the time we got involved, Detective Pikachu wasn’t out anywhere, except for the first few chapters of it in Japan, in Japanese of course. So we had no knowledge of it. We were given a roughly translated script of the game, but we invented a lot of the story based off of what we like about the Pokémon world.
Hernandez: We extrapolated from the things that we felt drawn to from the original property, or the video games we were familiar with. It became this great synthesis of our innate knowledge and this new movie franchise that was being launched.
What era of Pokémon fandom were you first a part of?
Hernandez: Well, Benji and I are probably about two years older than the height of Pokémon generation-one mania. We might have been 13, but if we had been 11, it would have been like the biggest thing in our world. But because I’m pretty versed in all sorts of genre weirdness, and because Pokémon is such a huge franchise and major part of pop culture, it became something I began to love over the years through the Pokémon video games.
In playing them, I became acquainted with the inner themes of the world and started to consider certain characters my favorites. I grew up pretty much on the “gen one” characters — “gen one” is like 1996, 1997 and 1998 — so all the different characters that debuted after that has been more of a learning process.
Samit: “Gen one” is made up of the original 151 Pokémon that most people know. The nice thing about Detective Pikachu is that it features Pokémon from every single generation. Well, from seven generations. They just started announcing generation eight, but that began after the movie was made. We made sure to include Pokémon from all the different generations, because there are people who grew up with each and every person has a different generation that is their favorite.
Who’s your favorite Pokemon characters?
Hernandez: Psyduck. He’s very neurotic, and has a very specific comedic point-of-view. Basically, he’s a little duck that has psychic abilities, and when he gets too stressed out, he starts to get a headache. If his headache gets too bad, he has a psychic mind explosion. So the other Pokémon constantly have to try to keep him calm and relaxed, which is very funny.
You guys are big gamer geeks in general, right?
Samit: Yeah, which is why I wish we could take video game movies seriously. Why can’t we find people who really care about this sort of material and see the inherent value of these stories — people who are gamers themselves, who are familiar with the newness of these works? There’s a quirkiness in video games. Video games also have complex storytelling and that can be really challenging.
Hernandez: That’s why BioShock is a game I’d love to adapt. It has a challenging, beautiful visual world that would be amazing if brought to the screen. They’ve tried in the past, but there’s a lot of material that people might have tried in the past that hasn’t quite worked out. Maybe we could go back to some of that stuff. To that end, I’d love to write a Mario Bros. movie. Zelda and Metroid would be awesome, too. They’re all games that have been around for decades, but now we may have the technology and right combination of factors to really do them justice.
Samit: Another reason why I think video-game movies generally have a bad name is because when people play video games, they’re seemingly controlling the narrative. So they feel a much closer connection to that narrative than say, just watching a movie. And because of this connection, it can make it harder for people to see a game that they love adapted. If you’re deeply connected to a game and then see a movie of it that’s different than what you had in mind, you’re disappointed. It’s like, “What is this?”
How did you hope to avoid this with Detective Pikachu?
Samit: One of the big things that was cool, but also challenging about Detective Pikachu is that it’s not the main storyline of Pokémon. It’s this side mystery in a city that we haven’t seen in the anime, or in any of the other games — this city where there’s no capturing Pokémon. There are no trainers. There are no Poké Balls. There’s no battling. And those are all the core concepts to Pokémon. So the challenge was, how do we do a Pokémon movie without a lot of the core concept that everyone knows?
Our answer was to focus on the core concept that’s inherent to what Pokémon are — namely, the idea of evolution. Pokémon all evolve into different, better, more powerful versions of themselves. So we set out to write a story about evolution. Not just the literal Pokémon evolutions, but also, can characters evolve? And what does it mean to evolve?
Hernandez: As a result, we tried to make sure that there were some quieter moments that are very pastoral. We were trying to capture this feeling of, if you were to walk into the right forest at the right time, maybe you could see one of these creatures. Maybe you really could come across one of these incredible animals, and your life would be better for it. It opens the curtain a bit. Even if there weren’t Pokémon trainers, these Pokémon would still be going about their business and doing their thing.
Samit: I think our story makes the world of Pokémon a little more accessible to new fans and people who haven’t watched every episode of the anime and played every game. If we were doing a movie of that, it might require a little more knowledge, or people considering seeing the movie might feel the pressure of, “I don’t know these characters. I don’t know the back story.” But because this is its own side thing, someone who knows nothing about Pokémon can walk into this movie and have a completely fulfilling experience and understand what’s going on.
Why did you make a father/son relationship so central to the story?
Samit: At the heart of the movie, you have a young man whose father is missing or presumed dead. He’s searching for answers of what happened. He comes across this Pikachu who he can talk to, who is like a middle-aged Pikachu, so there’s a natural fatherly relationship that develops, even though he’s a tiny little guy, and you’ve got a growing adult taking on the “son” role.
Hernandez: This isn’t exactly the same, but my parents are divorced. I remember how it feels to feel either disconnected or lost from your father. So even though it’s a Pokémon movie, you have to try to bring your own experience to the project. When the main character is talking to Pikachu, he’s talking about his father. It’s really no different than some of what I’ve felt in my life about my own father. I love my dad and we’re on great terms, but that feeling of separation is impactful.
Are you enjoying this process more because you’re going through it together?
Hernandez: It makes it easier to be harmonious during a process that’s pretty chaotic, especially when you have two people trying to create one piece of work. You really need to be simpatico about what turns you on creatively, what doesn’t interest you, what you find funny and so on and so forth. We’ve been very fortunate that we found each other, because we really sync up on most things.
Samit: I’d add that even though we have this very similar taste, we both approach things from different points-of-view, like, we have very opposite personalities in a lot of ways. When we did the Myers-Briggs personality test, we were literally opposite of each other. But that’s really helpful when we’re bouncing ideas off each other.
Have you guys seen the crazy tweets about Detective Pikachu versus Sonic the Hedgehog? One said, “Detective Pikachu slays Puss,” but calls Sonic an “incel demon.” What do you think about the films being pitted against one another?
Samit: It’s a natural byproduct of the internet, the proximity of release and that we have these two classic 1990s video-game properties made into CGI live-action hybrids at the same time. Basically, there’s going to be comparisons. We haven’t seen the Sonic movie yet, but as a lifelong Sonic fan, I’m excited to.
Hernandez: I’m excited, too. I hope it does well. It’s only a good thing if there’s a video-game renaissance. The more video-game movies that are successful, and the more that are executed in a variety of ways, the better it is for everyone who are fans of this kind of material, which definitely includes us.