The crazy game Saints Row celebrates its 10th-anniversary this week. A few years have passed since the last game in the series expanded the brand even further into the delightfully madcap territory. It went from being mislabeled as a Grand Theft Auto clone into being a franchise that has carved its niche and continually pushes the envelope. As is the case with so many substantial properties, a movie version was in the works. And I was lucky to be a part of that project on the producorial side.
Working from a strong script by Peter Aperlo with producers Lloyd Levin (Boogie Nights, Watchmen, United 93), and Andrew Cosby (Haunted, Eureka, 2 Guns), the film had a tremendous amount going for it. Game developer THQ really had the right approach. Everything was moving in an exciting direction. We had interest from huge directors. A-list stars were on the menu. The script was a perfect video game adaptation, faithful to the source material but with a swagger and big screen energy all its own. To me, it felt like a modern-day Escape from New York, only bigger and with that Saints Row attitude.
For those who aren’t aware, Lloyd Levin is a genius. His resume is a diverse and enlightening list of material, and that’s not counting the projects he still has in development. He’s one of those producers that has no interest in just milking a property’s name but rather preserving the integrity of the material until it’s seasoned right. Watchmen is a perfect example. Levin’s work with Paul Greengrass showcases the producer’s tenacity in bringing challenging material to the screen. Saints Row had the perfect shepherd.
Artists created concept art. Designers created a style guide and pitchbook to represent the brand. Gears turned, and revisions kept the story evolving. There was a real feel that the timing was right.
To many, there still hasn’t been a good video game adaptation. All the pieces were in place with Saints Row.
And then THQ went into bankruptcy, and that was all she wrote.
The Seeds of the Story
Peter Aperlo’s script was good enough to anchor a major blockbuster. He too saw the potential in the material and his producer. I flagged him down on the anniversary of the game to share his thoughts on the film he worked so hard on.
Peter Aperlo: My involvement with Lloyd and adapting the video game to a movie came from adapting a movie to a video game, namely Watchmen: The End is Nigh (as well as the two companion books for the movie). I had just heard that he’d acquired the rights to Matt Wagner’s MAGE series and was anxious to meet with him about that or anything else.
At our meeting, he handed me Saints Row II and sent me off to play it, and for the next couple of weeks, I immersed myself in the crazy world of Stilwater. Loved the anarchic, hyper-violent parody of society, but especially the insane characters like Shaundi and Johnny Gat. This was at a time when they were still developing SRIII, and my initial thought was to set the movie between II and III.
Rewrites and Development
Aperlo also went into the crux of the development of the idea and which elements from the games would be making their way into the film. A benefit of Saints Row is that it’s not as closely tied to a mythology as some games. Tone is everything. As a result, the writer could sculpt and adapt with much more flexibility than some would have been with other material.
Peter Aperlo: The first treatment had a new character initiated into the Saints via a reality show, a sort of urban Survivor with real bullets. (I believe I even had Jeff Probst get his head blown off at one point.) New gangs were moving into town, and the character was joining up to get revenge for the death of Carlos in SRII, thinking the Boss was responsible. Anyway, the producers liked it but felt we needed to go back to more of an origin story to get an audience used to the Saints and what the franchise would become.
So, our plot ended up hitting a lot of the same notes as SRII, with the Boss as a Count of Monte Cristo figure coming in to reclaim what was once his. Throw into the mix Dane Vogel wanting to convert a chunk of Stilwater into a private prison (something that’s still relevant today) and a lot of over-the-top action and darkly humorous social commentary (a la the original RoboCop), and that was essentially our SR.
From R to PG-13
Peter Aperlo: Dwayne Johnson was very interested at one point. One of the worries, for me anyway, of having a big star like that, was that we’d have to tone things down. This was going to be hard R, balls to the walls. Sure enough, I was asked to prepare a draft that was PG-13. Soften the violence, no nudity, only one “f***” allowed. If you’ve played the game, you’ll know how hard that would be and still keep it SR. I couldn’t even use the “Phuc Mi Phuc Yue” Vietnamese Seafood sign I wanted to have!
In the end, they couldn’t get anyone to bite and THQ imploded soon after. The IP got sold off and the new owners didn’t seem interested in making a movie. It was frustrating because the process was so fun, to be immersed in that world of larger-than-life gangstas and corrupt corporate tools. A little cartoony, sure, but we had something to say, and this was one movie that I really wanted to see up on the big screen.
Who knows what the final film could have ended up like, especially under the direction of someone interesting? I know that the extremely gifted Álex de la Iglesia was on board at one point. I remember pushing hard for Dan Trachtenberg, who recently broke big with 10 Cloverfield Lane. Dwayne Johnson has only reinforced his place in the cinematic food chain.
I’ve known producer Lloyd Levin for a long time. We had House of Re-Animator with Jeffrey Combs and William H. Macy locked and loaded. We got MEG as close to the finish line as a movie can get, and this was in the original incarnation with Jan de Bont directing and Guillermo del Toro producing. We (along with Cosby as writer and producer) had Runoff at Fox TV with Stephen Sommers directing at one point. So we’ve worked on many projects together that sadly haven’t made it to the screen.
It turned out that his particular vision of Saints Row wasn’t meant to be either. But who knows what the next 10 years will have in store?