Interview: Patrick Algermissen, Films, Games, and Books

Patrick AlgermissenPatrick Algermissen makes books, movies, and video games. He programmed physics and gameplay for the most popular American football game in the world, designed and built intelligent lighting and camera systems for the leading developer of cinematic video games, received his first filmmaking award from Steven Spielberg, and worked in the Launch Control Center during Space Shuttle launches. His proudest accomplishment is marrying the woman of his dreams and raising three children with her.

Justin Sloan: Thank you for agreeing to speak with us, Patrick. Let’s start with your recent publication, the amazingly cute and fun (if not a little scary!) book Dudley and the Toy Keeper’s Chest. Where did this story originate and what pushed you through to the end?

Patrick Algermissen: Thanks, Justin! It’s my pleasure to speak with you today. It’s been a long road for Dudley. The book is actually based on a short film I directed several years ago that had a great film festival run. That movie came about because I had directed a couple dozen other short films, mostly just silly things with my friends in college and just after, and wanted to sink my teeth into something challenging that would make its mark on the festival circuit.

I thought back to the kinds of things that inspired me to write and direct in the first place, and thought about what inspired me that I wasn’t seeing being made any more. I wanted to do something in the style of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller. I wanted to write a modern fairy tale, and make a film with puppets and humans on-screen together. Something that was warm and sweet, but that didn’t shy away from being a little bit scary (though everything comes out all right in the end).

Dudley was an old stuffed animal that I found as a small child, and I had featured him in several of my short films, generally as an Easter Egg, and I wanted to give him his own story. To me, Dudley has always been a toy, and I loved fairy tales about toys coming to life and protecting their owners (something I think you know a lot about, Justin!). I came up with the Toy Keeper as the world-famous toy mender, and Dudley as his only creation. The rest of the story just flowed from there.

JS: What was the process of publication like? How did you find a publisher, and what advice do you have for other aspiring authors of children’s books that want to find a publisher?

PA: I had tried to find a publisher for years after finishing the movie, but didn’t really know how to go about it. I talked to a few people who had published books, and read things like the Children’s Writer’s Market, and put together a package that, in retrospect, was not very good. I had considered self-publishing, because I knew the story would work as a book, I just didn’t know how to sell it. Meanwhile, my friends at Blue Juice Films turned their company into Blue Juice Comics and started becoming successful in the world of indie comics, and then came to me and said they wanted to publish the Dudley book.

In light of that, I don’t know that I have any useful advice on how to find a publisher. That said, I can tell you where I likely messed up in my original attempts. I was trying to sell a picture book, but I had tried to sell it just with words. I had written a manuscript, which was mostly a transcription of the movie (though fleshed out in parts where the movie was working with pure visuals). I did not attempt to figure out how many pages a picture book should be, or attempt to break it down by page or describe what visuals should go with each page. (This seems like an obvious mistake, but the advice I was given was that the publisher and illustrator were the ones that worried about that sort of thing, so I didn’t bother myself with it, though I should have.) I would go so far as recommending that you include some sample art, even if you have to hire an artist (and if you believe in your story, then you should have no problem spending money on an artist. Put another way: if you don’t think your book is worth spending money on, why would a publisher?). I was also given advice that the book should stand on its own, and so I didn’t send a DVD of the movie along, which I think was a mistake as it would’ve probably made an impression, and helped sell what the book could be.

JS: Have you received any awesome feedback/ reviews yet that have made you feel it was all worth it?

PA: For me, the most gratifying thing is seeing the faces of my own children light up on seeing “Daddy’s book,” and watching my daughters read it to each other. It was also nice seeing reviews come in from old friends from high school and elementary school. One friend sent me a picture of his kids reading it in Hawaii. A coworker brought me a handwritten note from her daughter, who wrote a short review telling me what she liked about it, and even drew little pictures of Dudley and Silas.

JS: That is awesome! I feel the same way when my daughter points to my book and says the same thing – it’s why we do it. What is your writing process? Why do you write, and what do you do about writer’s block?

PA: I wake up at 4:00 am and ease into the morning with some cold brew coffee and a TV show of some sort. Once that is done, I suit up and hit the gym. Then I either go back home or head to a coffee shop and try to get an hour of writing in before heading to work.

I write because I don’t know how to not. People always say, “Never give up,” but I’m the opposite. I say you should totally give up if you can. If you can be happy without writing, or performing, or drawing, or whatever you claim it is you “really” want to do, then you win. You’re happy. You should enjoy it! For me, I’ve tried giving it up but I just can’t. I’m all out of sorts if I’m not writing something, or directing something, or editing, animating, or in some other way creating a story.

For writer’s block, I don’t really have anything to say that hasn’t been said before. I just have my time when I write, and I sit down and I write, and I don’t let myself not write. Generally if I’m blocked, I will take a step back and see what’s wrong with my story that is causing me to not see what is supposed to follow next. Or, I will just start writing whatever, which will invariably be terrible, but changes the problem from “What do I write?” to “How do I fix this?”, which is generally an easier problem to solve.

JS: What are your favorite children’s books? What about from other genres? What is it about those books?

PA: I really enjoy Fortunately, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman. Really anything by Gaiman, or Terry Pratchett. I love how Pratchett has very heavy stories with high-stakes, life and death situations, but handles everything very lightly and can take the time out of a terrifying scene to make you laugh about exploding cabbages. I try to keep that sense of fun on top of serious stories laced throughout my own work.

JS: What’s next for you, as far as books are concerned? Are you writing something now?

PA: I’m currently writing a Young Adult novel about sisters who never learned how to get along becoming trapped in a fairy tale world together.

JS: You mentioned that  you also do films (http://poemfilms.com/). What is the story behind your passion for making films and stories for children?

PA: It wasn’t what I set out to do. But when I was looking for what kind of movies I wanted to make, I kept turning to the work of Jim Henson and Walt Disney. The Dudley movie screened at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival, which is the largest Children’s Film Festival in the world. I was very inspired by all the different kinds of work and types of animation and clever things I saw. I always loved things like Who Framed Roger Rabbit that mixed live action and animation, and so I wanted to do that in my own work. That’s why I made the Pupsock & Wendell movies, combining live-action, 2D animation, 3D animation, and puppets — all of my favorite things!

JS: Where does your love of Muppets come from? Did you love them as much when you were a child? Did you make films or write when you were a child?

PA: Puppets always fascinated me as a child. It was like a cartoon, but it was real. Magic you could touch (which became the slogan for my production company). The Muppets, I always felt, were the best of expression of that. Growing up watching Sesame Street, I always dreamed of living in a world where I just lived with and interacted with Muppets on a daily basis, and I guess I’ve spent my adulthood trying to create that for myself.

I wrote my first movie when I was six, after watching an episode of Muppet Babies where they made their own version of Star Wars. So I guess Jim Henson has always been a big inspiration for me. From then on, I was always writing movies, short stories, or plays. Once we got a video camera I made all of kinds of silly things with my friends, or with my toys, or whatever I could. In college, I got a Computer Science degree on a theatre scholarship, and I was the only theatre student writing and directing plays instead of acting in them.

JS: Do you have any crazy stories from your time making films, to give aspiring filmmakers an idea of what it’s really like?

PA: There’s always crazy things happening on a no-budget movie set. We were making a Star Wars parody out in a nature preserve, and I was playing Yoda. I did all my makeup at home, and then we were driving out to the location, with me on the street decked out in green makeup and big ears, getting odd looks from the other drivers. A year or so later, I was making a different movie in the same nature preserve, and the ranger told me stories about “some crazy movie shot here last year, with some big dude all in green makeup.” Another time we were shooting in a grocery store without permission, and got caught by an employee who told us we weren’t supposed to be doing that and instructed me to wait (right by the exit) while she got the manager. I agreed, but I don’t think I waited for her as long as she would’ve liked. Another time we were filming in the woods and a tree fell on me.

JS: Haha, nice. How about the same question but inspiring stories?

PA: The best thing, for me, was seeing how much people loved Dudley. I set out to make something inspired by Jim Henson’s The Stoyteller series. A couple of years later, I found myself on stage at the Smithsonian Institute with Jim’s daughter, Heather Henson, during the Jim Henson exhibit. Heather had selected Dudley to screen as part of her traveling puppet film collection, Handmade Puppet Dreams, and had chosen it (along with several other wonderful shorts) to screen there during the exhibit’s final weekend. It was incredible, standing on that stage, talking with the audience about my film, and feeling that I must have pulled off exactly what I had set out to do with the movie.

JS: I can’t imagine how amazing that would’ve been. You have been making games for some time now, correct? How did you get into games?

PA: I got into games later in my life than writing. I started writing movies when I was six, but didn’t start programming until I was eight. I’ve always enjoyed telling stories and creating worlds, and games are just an extension of that. I was inspired to write games by the Sierra adventure games of the 80’s, particularly the Space Quest series. I loved all kinds of games, but those were the kind of games I wanted to spend my time making. The first game I wrote was a text adventure called Disney Day, which I wrote so I could “visit” Disney World whenever I wanted.

JS: I’d play that! As a programmer, do you feel aspiring writers and designers should understand programming? I read this in an interview with a game designer, but I have a very basic understanding of programming and would love to gain more insight on this issue.

PA: I feel everyone should understand programming to some degree. Computers control so many aspects of our lives, I feel it’s worth knowing how they work and how to make them do the things you want them to do. It also helps pay the bills nicely and leaves me time and money to pursue my own projects.

JS: What are some of your favorite games, or games that you would say any aspiring game writer, programmer, or any other sort of game developer should play?

PA: I love games like Braid and Portal, where they have an interesting mechanic (time travel in Braid and the Portal Gun in Portal) and then spend each level exploring different ways of using that mechanic. There’s no padding – just several interesting levels, and then it’s done. I also enjoy the aesthetic of Braid, and games like Limbo and Dust: An Elysian Tale.

For storytelling games, I love most all of the old adventure games. I grew up on the Sierra ones, especially Space Quest, King’s Quest, and the first Gabriel Knight game. I think the LucasArts games have the edge, though. Day of the Tentacle, Sam & Max Hit the Road, the Monkey Island series, Full Throttle, and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis are all outstanding.

My favorite game that I’ve worked on is The Wolf Among Us, which has a great story, amazing characters, and a cool aesthetic.

JS: What have been some of your biggest struggles in pursuing your creative passions?

PA: The clock and the calendar are my biggest adversaries.

JS: Did you have a career plan along the way, and what is coming up next for you?

PA: Not really. I’ve always studied and pursued the things that interest me at the time, and have more or less been successful along the way. I’m currently writing a couple of short films that I can make with my daughters, and am considering doing a web series about the making of one of them.

JS: Thank you, Patrick. Before we sign off, can you leave us with one main piece of advice for all those aspiring writers, game makers, and filmmakers out there that want to follow in your footsteps and pursue their dreams?

PA: My first directing award was presented to me by Steven Spielberg. I asked him to tell me everything he could about filmmaking. I was a blank slate, knew nothing, and wanted to know everything. He said this to me: Keep making movies. Whatever you want to do, do it. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes. Mistakes are just happy accidents (he was quoting Arthur Penn). I applied this to my life, not just filmmaking, but anything I wanted to pursue. I figure that anything I want to do, someone has figured out how to do it, so why not me too? So I study the craft, I look at what I did as objectively as possible, try to figure out what was good and what needs work, and then do it better next time. This way I can make new mistakes and learn even more.

 

Thanks again to Patrick, and be sure to check out his book: Dudley and the Toy Keeper’s Chest

Dudley

 

 

For other interviews like this, see my Creative Writing Career: Becoming a Writer of Movies, Video Games, and Books. (now in Audiobook!)

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