Detective Pikachu surprised audiences around the world with its genuine, heartfelt approach to the world of Pokemon. Whether you’re a hardcore Pokemon fan, someone who has no idea what a Pikachu is, or somewhere inbetween, there’s a lot to love in Detective Pikachu. One pillar of any film’s success is its writing team who are responsible for weaving a captivating narrative that’s both believable and interesting.
Without a doubt, the writing of Detective Pikachu is phenomenal in that it stays true to its source material while also branching out creatively in order to reach a satisfying conclusion. If you haven’t seen the film, we won’t spoil anything for you, but it’s well worth a watch! To learn more about the writing process and the writers themselves, we reached out to Benji Samit and Dan Hernandez for their insight into crafting one of the best video game adaptations, Detective Pikachu!
Can you introduce yourselves and explain what your roles were on Detective Pikachu?
Ben: I’m Benji Samit.
Dan: I’m Dan Hernandez.
Ben: And we’re the writers. We’re a writing team, we came on very early on in the process when Rob Letterman, the director, and the producers were still working on drafting what the story was going to be. We came in during those formative days and figured out which Pokemon were going to be in the movie, what the action scenes were going to be, what the overarching plot and character arcs would be. We were at that foundational stage.
Detective Pikachu has been praised as one of the best video game movies of all-time. How does it feel to be a part of Detective Pikachu’s success?
Ben: It feels fantastic, it’s something we hoped would happen. But, it was also something we tried to put out of our minds in the process of writing the movie because we knew there was so much baggage with video game movies – you know, like a video game curse – thinking about it too much became an added pressure that only made things more difficult. So we tried to set it aside and say, “Ok, let’s just try to write the best movie that we possibly can. Tell the best story that we possibly can.” And as fans of Pokemon, put things in the movie that we ourselves would want to see.
What’s the writing process on a film like Detective Pikachu, were there any challenges that surprised you?
Ben: On a big movie like this, it has its own set of challenges just in terms of, we weren’t locked in a room writing together and coming up with whatever we wanted to do. It was a very collaborative process with the director, with the studio, with The Pokemon Company, with the storyboard artists who were working while we were still coming up with ideas for scenes.
It was much more involved in terms of everything we did, there were conversations that led us to those points. We weren’t in a vacuum writing on our own. I would also say another big challenge was coming into doing this live-action Pokemon movie – the first live-action Pokemon movie – we were all on the same page that we wanted the movie to be different from all Pokemon incarnations that had come before.
And so, from very early on, the idea was to do this Detective Pikachu story where it’s in Ryme City, where Pokemon and humans are living together. There’s no trainers, there’s no battles, there’s no Poke Balls, so a lot of the core concepts that people know and love from Pokemon, we weren’t using in the first Pokemon movie. That was a challenge. It was like, how do we still make it feel like a Pokemon movie, even without all those core components.
How did you strategize writing Detective Pikachu as a believable character, rather than just a Pokemon sidekick?
Dan: We really spent a lot of time thinking about the tropes of detective movies, noir movies, what are some of the traits that we loved in some of our favorite detective films. For me, I’m a huge fan of the classic American noir from the 30s and 40s and early 50s of Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Graham Greene was a huge influence.
And so, we kind of broke down what are some of the traits that these classic detectives have. They’re quippy, they talk tough. Oftentimes they have a vice, something like they drink too much, or they smoke too much, or whatever the case may be. So we thought that applying some of these classic tropes of detective fiction to a very tiny little Pikachu, there was an inherent funniness and a comedic tension in that idea.
That was sort of the genesis of Detective Pikachu’s character and then, of course, when Ryan came on board it became even more specific to him because he’s such an amazing improviser, such an amazing actor, that he took the character and just ran with it from there.
How much of Detective Pikachu would you say was improvised by Ryan Reynolds in terms of dialogue?
Ben: Most of it was on the script. We weren’t in the recording studio with Ryan and Rob, but from what we’ve heard there was some playing around. I think the overwhelming majority of what you see in the movie was on the page.
Did you brainstorm how Pokemon lived within Ryme City and the various jobs they held? What were your favorite Pokemon jobs in Detective Pikachu?
Ben: This is definitely one of the areas we had the most fun with during the writing process, and there are tons of jobs that we wrote that never made it into the movie. I think there was a day where we basically spent the entire day just thinking of all the fun jobs. In terms of ones that are in the final movie, the Machamp crossing guard is a personal favorite of mine.
Dan: One that I really like are the Loudreds being used as amps and beatboxers in the underground sequence – the Roundhouse sequence. The Loudreds, to me, are one of the stranger character designs in all of Pokemon. So that was one we were really excited to use in this city setting because it felt right that they would be an integral part in Ryme City.
How difficult was it put together a convincing mystery that audience members of all ages would be able to follow?
Ben: That was, I would say, the first thing in the writing process of breaking down the story. Very quickly we knew what the emotional arcs would be, we knew what some of the big set pieces and action sequences that we wanted to se were. Those all came out very quickly.
But then we really had to take our time at the very beginning with Rob with talking through what are the clues, how are they going to happen, how are we going to make it so there’s a surprising reveal for adults who see it, but also children can follow along as well. It was a painstaking process, and there were a lot of different iterations, but I’m pretty happy with where we wound up.
At the beginning of the film, Tim tries and fails to catch a Cubone. Was Cubone thrown in as foreshadowing for Tim’s backstory?
Ben: An idea we had from the very beginning – I think it might’ve even been Rob’s idea – but we were all on the same page that we wanted to start with a stranger Pokemon. Something to really announce to people that have no idea what the world of Pokemon is that there are weird creatures in this world, and it’s just something you have to accept. We sort of used this to explain how weird Pokemon can be. At the same time, Rob had the idea that this guy Tim, he’s a loner, so let’s use the loneliest Pokemon. It took off from there.
One thing that really had me laughing was when Lucy mentioned creating listicles of cute Pokemon as it ties in the film’s world to our own. If you had to pick, which Pokemon would be at the top of Lucy’s list? Psyduck?
Ben: I mean, I know she has a personal affinity for Psyduck, so he’s definitely going to be up there. For me, personally, I might have Bulbasaur at the top of that list. I think he’s always been my ultimate favorite. I don’t know about you, Dan?
Dan: I think Squirtle is the cutest. I think Squirtle is an adorable little baby turtle guy. I don’t know, there’s a shot in the movie when they kind of rise out of the water and they just look so playful and silly. I really, really love the way they turned out in the film, so maybe Squirtle.
Were there any ideas written for Detective Pikachu that didn’t make it into the final film?
Ben: Yeah, there were a lot of things we were excited to do that for various reasons like timing or pacing that ended up getting cut. We had a sequence where we wanted to go to the Pokemon Natural History Museum and have fun with some of the exhibits there.
Dan: We had a pretty long sequence with a Golbat we really loved, but it kind of became clear that for pacing reasons it couldn’t live in the movie anymore, so it fell away. But it was a very fun sequence with them chasing a Golbat in an underground cavern. That’s sort of the nature of collaborative writing with movies like this though, where you try a lot of different themes and the ones that are essential sort of rise to the top so you can get rid of things that aren’t necessary.
What was it like writing for a self-contained movie with an ending based on a game that never had a full conclusion/resolution?
Ben: From very early on, everyone’s goal, was a single, standalone movie that is as good of a story that it possibly can be. Part of that involved expanding a little further than what happens in the game. The game hints at a lot of the final acts, but it doesn’t full go there. So we felt like we needed to really show that stuff, as well as give it more of an overarching moral. We wanted to make it about something.
The game, as fun as it is, is really just a puzzle-solving game. Yes, he’s searching for his father, but there’s not even a resolution there because it’s really just about these little puzzles. We really had to hone in on who’s this character of Tim, what is this movie actually about, who’s the bad guy, what’s the bigger overarching narrative. It was a challenge, but it was fun.
If you could write for other video game films in the future, which ones would you be interested in adapting?
Dan: That’s a really good question, there are so many we’d love to have the opportunity. I think the one that jumps out immediately would be The Legend of Zelda. I think that’s a huge world that people really care about, similar to Pokemon, that’s never really been explored on screen. I think Metroid would be another great opportunity, but also games like Portal.
Games with a lot of humor, a lot of adventure. Those are the things that really appeal to us now that we’ve taken a crack at adapting Pokemon, we feel we have some understanding of what goes into making a great video game adaptation, and we’re really hoping to have more opportunities in the future to do even more.
Can Pokemon fans expect other live-action films like Detective Pikachu in the future? Are there any animated Pokemon films you think would make great live-action flicks?
Dan: As I said, going into this movie, we were all focused on one movie. Of course, with success, yeah we would want to see more Pokemon movies, and I think everyone involved would want to make more Pokemon movies. There’s such a vast, rich world and we’ve only scratched the surface of it with this movie. We’re excited at the potential of what the franchise holds.
What do you think is the best reason to go see Detective Pikachu from a writing standpoint?
Dan: Speaking for myself, what I’m most proud of is that I’m hearing from Pokemon fans how much they loved it, and I’m hearing from people that have never even watched a single minute of any Pokemon media before that they enjoyed it and connected to it as well. I think, at its core, the movie is just a sweet story between these two characters that go on this adventure together. Whether or not you know much about Pokemon, I think there are some things to enjoy in it.
Ben: For me, I think the reason to go see it is that it really feels like Pokemon are alive. For 1 hour and 40 minutes you’re transported to a world you’ve never seen before, a world where nature and humanity are living in harmony in this fantastical way. I find it quite moving, the idea that there’s a realm where we can live coequally as a species. Not to mention the fact that these creatures have magical powers, so you get washed away in this city you really wish you could buy tickets to and just go and visit for the weekend. I really think that’s been the coolest part for me, so that’s why I’d say you should go see it.