LAist Interview: Jordan Mechner

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It's hard to believe that Jordan Mechner is only in his 40s. He's accomplished an awful lot in a short period of time. Hailed as a visionary game designer, Jordan is an icon in the video game industry. His first game, "Karateka," was an immediate success. Using innovative character animation techniques, Jordan's next game, "The Prince of Persia," redefined the look and feel of video games for years to come.

Currently adapting the screen version of "Prince of Persia" for Jerry Bruckheimer, Jordan divides his time between writing and making documentary films. His most recent film, Chavez Ravine: A Los Angeles Story, is a look at how the community of Chavez Ravine was destroyed and eventually replaced by Dodger Stadium. Chavez Ravine is a timely topic due to the success of Ry Cooder's latest album, derived from music Cooder created for the film project, and the recent death of Frank Wilkinson, the former assistant director of the Los Angeles City Housing Authority and social reformer, whose efforts to improve the lives of the Chavez Ravine inhabitants inadvertently led to the neighborhood's destruction. Eventually, Chavez Ravine became the site of Dodger Stadium. The short documentary will be screened for free this Wednesday, February 1, 2006 at UCLA's James Bridges Theater as part of the 24th Annual Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences/UCLA Contemporary Documentary series. The screening starts at 7:30 PM.

Occupation:
Screenwriter, videogame designer, independent filmmaker.

How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?
Going on seven years. Silverlake, then Los Feliz.

Will there be a Prince of Persia movie? How involved are you with the adaptation?
John August and I brought the project to Jerry Bruckheimer and Walt Disney Pictures, who hired me to adapt the screenplay. I'm also an exec producer on the movie along with John, Mike Stenson and Chad Oman. Jerry Bruckheimer is the Producer with a capital P.

What are the differences in writing for video games and adult-oriented TV/film projects?
In a movie or TV show, the story comes first. It's the locomotive, the creative driving force. Whereas in a video game, the game play is the critical element that drives the project; the story is just one of the supporting elements. One of the biggest traps for a screenwriter/game designer is to overestimate the importance of the writing, as compared to other aspects of the game designer's job. You have to remember you're making a game, not a movie.

How did you happen to make the film Chavez Ravine?
Shortly after moving to LA, I read a review of Don Normark's book of photographs of Chavez Ravine in the LA Weekly and realized I knew him. His son had been my college roommate. Don was from Seattle, I was from New York, and now here we both were in L.A. We had dinner, one thing led to another, and three years later the film was finished.

Any plans for a feature length version?
We actually had a 60-minute cut at one point, but it just felt strongest as a half-hour. In a feature length documentary, I think the rather delicate story of Chavez Ravine itself would inevitably be overpowered by the other elements that you'd have to dig deeper into — racism, corruption, HUAC, Frank Wilkinson's story, etc. I could see doing a fictional drama set in L.A. in the fifties that uses Chavez Ravine as a backdrop, the way Chinatown did with the water scandal. I also think Frank Wilkinson deserves his own biopic.

Will it be broadcast again? When?
Check the Independent Lens website at www.pbs.org/chavezravine for broadcast schedules.

Did you spend much time with the late Frank Wilkinson while making the film? Are there any strong moments from him in the film?
Frank's was the very first interview we did on the first day. What he had to say staggered me and totally knocked out any preconceptions I had about what the film would be and how it would be structured. Over the next year and a half, we did dozens of interviews with former residents of Chavez Ravine, but the biggest editing challenge was always how to balance their voices with Frank's. His story is so powerful, and he tells it with such passion and such precision, it almost felt like it belonged in a different movie from the photographs and reminiscences of the lost neighborhood. It took a year of editing, and starting over and recutting the film from scratch at least three times, to find a structure that felt simple and natural.

How do you feel about Ry Cooder's new album "Chavez Ravine"? What was the extent of your involvement in its creation?
I owe Ry a great debt of gratitude. He believed in the film and the story from the start, spent his own money to re-record Lalo Guerrero's song "Barrio Viejo" and more, provided us with an entire soundtrack at his own expense. Lalo, sadly, passed away not long after that recording session. Ry's finished album includes the two songs he did for the film, but also goes much further, telling the whole story of Chavez Ravine in his own way. I think it's terrific.

Given the mini scandal involving plans to build a mall on Dodger Stadium property, and by extension Chavez Ravine, do you think anything's changed in the way city leaders and elites do business in this town?
What's the same? What's different
?


OK, since you give me a chance to stand on a soapbox, here is the local issue I'm currently most outraged about: The city's new Master Plan for Griffith Park. This is a disaster in the making right now in my neighborhood, Los Feliz. Last year the commissioners made a hypocritical show of inviting public input from local community groups, the Audubon Society, Sierra Club, etc -- then instead, went behind closed doors and made a bunch of sweetheart developer deals that will destroy the park, which they are now touting as a "plan." They want to build aerial tramways, a senior center, ball park, parking garages, high-end "destination restaurant" at the Observatory. If they do even half of what they propose, the resulting overcrowding, overuse, and traffic congestion will be a misery for everyone who lives, works, eats or drives in Los Feliz or Silverlake (or who uses the 5 or the 101). The erosion and environmental degradation to Griffith Park will be devastating. We will see the first tip of the iceberg later this year when they reopen the Observatory. They need to do something like the Getty with a shuttle, advance reservations etc., but none of this has happened, instead they seem to be proceeding on the blithe assumption that the more people come to the park at once, the merrier. I predict a full-scale traffic meltdown in Los Feliz that will make grown men cry. What was the question again?

You've made a film about Cuba and a film about one of Los Angeles' historically Hispanic enclave — what attracts you to Hispanic culture?
It's nothing premeditated. I come from a family of immigrants and children of immigrants (European Jews), my dad lived in Havana as a kid when he was a refugee from the Nazis, so I guess that may have been part of the draw.

What's your preferred mode of transportation?
Walking. If it's too far to walk, I drive.

How often do you ride the MTA subway or light rail?
Never. Maybe once, to the Hollywood Bowl. That's the one thing I really have trouble reconciling myself to about California. When I lived in New York and Paris I rode the subways constantly, it was part of the texture of daily life and what I loved about those cities. Sixty years ago, L.A. had a much better public transportation system than it does now. The fact that it was deliberately dismantled and destroyed, to encourage the growth of automobile traffic... don't get me started.

What's your favorite movie(s) or TV show(s) that are based in LA?
Chinatown. More recently, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

Best LA-themed book(s)?
Anything by Raymond Chandler.

Share your best celebrity sighting experience.
Maybe in Montreal airport, waiting to check in for the flight back to L.A. In line in front of me were Kirsten Dunst and Jake Gyllenhaal, comparing passport pictures and being a really cute couple, months before it was public knowledge.

What's the best place to walk in LA?
Griffith Park.

It's 8:30 pm on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?
Coming from putting the kids to bed, going to the kitchen.� The best part of L.A. is being home.

If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?
Mine. Give me the east side any day.

Los Angeles is often stereotyped as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do find it challenging to make new friends here?
I do feel that way, but I don't know whether it's true or whether it has to do more with what age you are. The friendships I made in my twenties, in other cities -- San Francisco, New York, Paris -- include most of the deepest and most enduring friendships I have.� But is that because of something about those cities, or just because I was in my twenties.

What is the city's greatest secret?
Griffith Park.

Drinking, driving. They mix poorly, and yet they're inexorably linked. How do you handle this conflict?
Statistics show that 90% of Americans consider their driving skills to be better than average, and likewise rate their ability to handle a couple of drinks as better than average. In this, I'm firmly in the majority.

What do you have to say to East Coast supremacists?
The first moment I realized that LA had to be a great city was right before I moved here, when I heard my San Francisco friends telling me how terrible L.A. was and going on about S.F.'s virtues and how crazy I would be to leave. In the real cosmopolises of the world, New York and Paris and London and Madrid, all people do is complain about how unlivable it is and how they wish they could leave. It's only in provincial cities like Atlanta and St. Louis and (I'm sorry) San Francisco that people tell you how great it is, the restaurants and the symphony and so forth. So I figured that if people from L.A. were trashing their city so much, there had to be something good here. So now I just do the same thing.

Do you find the threat of earthquakes preferable to the threat of hurricanes and long winters?
Yes, because it's only a threat. The latter two are certainties.

Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?
With my kids.