How Pixels went from short to full film

In 2010, video game characters took over New York.

Space Invaders bricked cabs left and right. Pac-Man chomped his way through the city's subway system. Donkey Kong climbed the city's highest buildings, while Tetris blocks cleared entire floors. Eventually, the entire world was warped into one pixelated block. It was a chaos both nostalgia-inspiring and endearing, created by writer and film director Patrick Jean.

The year is 2014, but New York isn't any safer from the throes of gaming's most recognizable era  — or even Jean's creative destruction. In 2016, the two-and-a-half minute short will make its first appearance in theaters as a full-length film of the same name. It's a leap years in the making, starting with Jean's video going viral shortly after its release and catching the eye of studios in Hollywood.

The movie pitch, which Jean tells Polygon is "very close" to the current script by Timothy Dowling, had the attention of more than a few productions. However, it was Adam Sandler's Happy Madison Productions that won the contract.

"We ended up signing with Adam and his production Happy Madison for three main reasons," Jean told Polygon. "One: Adam was perfect as the lead character of our story. Two: With him, the movie was probably going to happen. Looks like we were right on this. Three: I love his movies. I knew he would give the project a truly unique identity."

Jean was initially signed on to direct the film. As the film grew into a bigger, visual effects-heavy film, however, Happy Madison elected to put Chris Columbus — whose work includes Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Mrs. Doubtfire and Home Alone — at the wheel. Jean remains on the project as the executive producer. Although still involved with the project, Jean views it as something different from his creation.

"I think it has its own identity, especially now that Chris Columbus is helming it," Jean said.

Pixel's script, too, has undergone some changes. Tim Herlihy, known for movies such as Billy Madison and The Wedding Singer, penned the original story in 2010. Role Models writer Dowling was tapped for rewrites in 2012.

"I had done a movie (Just Go With It) for Adam Sandler and Happy Madison and Sony two years before," Dowling told Polygon. "I loved working on it and with them."

Dowling was already familiar with Jean's short and, as a fan of '80s movies and games, loved the concept. But that didn't make it an easy film to make. The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters (a documentary about arcade gamers) director Seth Gordon had recently joined the project. Gordon and Dowling were familiar with each other, enough to be fans of each other's work, Dowling said. When the studios handed over a list of potential writers, Gordon called Dowling.

It needed to be fun

He was interested. It had the potential to be the kind of film Dowling wanted to see, let alone write. He pitched Gordon and Sandler and was brought on; that was the easy part. The script was a little tougher.

"It's a tricky movie to pull off because it is a few different genres all roled into one," Dowling said. "It's a comedy so it has to be funny, but more than that it has to also work as big summer action tentpole film. And some things that would feel at home or work in a straight comedy won't work in a movie like this."

... but with a real threat and high stakes.

The scriptwriter credits films like Jurassic Park and Ghostbusters as a major tonal model for Pixels; it needed to be fun, but with a real threat and high stakes.

"One of the big things I tried to do was make sure the threat and stakes and the set pieces felt like they came out of a big summer action film," Dowling said. "And then the comedy comes from the fact that its not Tom Cruise or Harrison Ford saving the world but Adam Sandler, Josh Gad and Peter Dinklage."

Sandler leads the cast, which also includes Kevin James and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang actress Michelle Monaghan. Speaking about Sandler, Dowling called the actor underrated.

"People, I think, underestimate guys like [Sandler]," Dowling said. "You have to be real and interesting and relatable and fun and funny, all while grounding the movie and being its center.

"Adam, I think, does that really well. And I  was also excited because this is a different type of movie for him. His partner Jack when he read my draft told Adam, 'We're making a Will Smith movie starring you.'"

"Pixels was created as a tribute to all these things I love."

Dowling, who received notes from Jean himself on the film's first draft, calls the original short a version of the film's third act. Although the movie has life of its own, it will retain some of the short's original flair.

"Pixels is about nostalgia, characters getting their revenge on life, and of course, video-games," Jean said of his original concept. "Pixels was created as a tribute to all these things I love."

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