The arena. The Pongitron. “How’s that for a bad hit, Team Leader?” The Ball Chase. The music of Guns N’ Roses. The liberation of Pong City One.
Any of these phrases instantly brings to mind one of the most notorious cult films of all time: Pong: The Motion Picture. Released in December 1992 in Europe and Japan, the movie didn’t get a proper release in the United States until August 1993, when, after all the buzz it garnered overseas, it landed in American theaters with a “game over.”
However, just like Eric Stoltz’s protagonist, Jace, the Pong movie rose up from the Ball Mines of shame to become the Paddle Prince of cult movies, forging a bright future for cinematic video game adaptations to this day. Now, on the movie’s 25th anniversary, here is the definitive oral history of the tale of Planet Pongia and how it came to be.
NOLAN BUSHNELL, Atari co-founder: One day in the early ‘70s, Allan came running into my office screaming his head off. He said he’d just had the greatest idea anyone had ever had for a motion picture, and that we should pour all of Atari’s financial resources into it. After I gently reminded him that we made video games, he sulked for a while but eventually just made a game out of it instead. It was called Pong.
ALLAN ALCORN, Pong video game inventor: I had to really simplify the video game version from my treatment. But I made sure to keep all my notes about how the movie version would work. When the film people finally showed up to make the adaptation, I went to show them the notes, but I couldn’t find them. Turns out we found we’d accidentally shipped them out as the instruction manual for Alien Blaster.
BUSHNELL: No wonder nobody could figure out how to play that damn game.
ALCORN: The eventual movie comes pretty close to my original idea. Still, what a shame, eh?
After the massive popularity and sales of the video game, the cinematic surrealist and auteur Alejandro Jodorowsky approached Atari for the rights to make a film of Pong in 1978. Sadly, after three years of development, the project collapsed.
ALEJANDRO JODOROWSKY: I hired some of my most treasured collaborators and muses on that project. Dan O’Bannon, Moebius, Ron Cobb, Jack Kirby, Chuck Jones, Salvador Dali. None of those f***ing idiots could design a ball. So, we quit.
After the Jodorowsky attempt, the movie rights to Pong languished in limbo, passing between filmmakers as diverse as David Lynch, Steven Spielberg, John McTiernan, and Jerry Lewis. Finally, in 1988, the producing duo of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson became Pong’s saviors.
JERRY BRUCKHEIMER: Don and I had just figured out with Top Gun that we liked it when stuff blowed up real good, so we were on the hunt for any property or spec script that would allow us to do more of that. Video games were pretty hot at the time, and literally all they did was have stuff blowing up. So we bought the rights to a bunch of them, but the one Don seemed to gravitate toward was Pong. Apparently he played a lot of this one game called Alien Blaster back in high school, so he had a vision for it. I dunno, I didn’t get it, but whatever.
PAUL MARSTEN, Pong superfan and historian: According to my sources, Simpson was determined to get a particular take on the material made, but he couldn’t quite articulate it, and no one could find a copy of Alien Blaster since Atari had apparently buried them all in a landfill somewhere. So they brought writers in to pitch. The first one said that the film should simply revolve around a big, flashy ping pong tournament.
BRUCKHEIMER: We had creative differences with the first writer.
MARSTEN: That writer disappeared suddenly the day after the pitch.
BRUCKHEIMER: Then the unthinkable happened: We got word that a Super Mario Bros. movie was in development. We couldn’t wait any longer, so we did what any smart producer without a script, cast, crew, or director would do—we set a release date.
With a release date of July 4, 1991—just a year away—a director and crew were assembled, and pre-production officially began on Pong.
DENNIS MUREN, visual effects designer: We came in one day and were told to just start designing spaceships that look like giant paddles. The next day we were told to stop doing that and design several types of balls. Then we had to mock up various sized explosions. For the first four months, I had no idea what movie we were even working on.
MICHAEL GOTTLIEB, director of Mannequin, Playboy Midsummer Night’s Dream Party 1985, Mr. Nanny, and Pong: Ah, Pong, sweet Pong. That was going to be my Star Wars. I still to this day don’t understand why it wasn’t.
TED ARTZ, 2nd assistant director: Michael literally thought the movie was a new Star Wars. We had to keep gently explaining to him why C-3PO wasn’t in every scene.
MARSTEN: The script still needed to be cracked. They brought in a new writer, gave him the logline. A week later he was found in an alley on Hollywood Boulevard, babbling to himself. That’s what started the rumors around town of “the Pong curse.” There was still no script, but it had to be cast.
Eric Stoltz was chosen to play Jace, the heroic Paddle Prince.
STOLTZ: After being replaced at the last minute on Back to the Future by Michael J. Fox, I wasn’t going to take any chances. I used almost half of my paycheck to hire my “Fox Trappers,” a team of mercenaries armed with horse tranquilizer darts. People called me paranoid, but tell me, did you ever see Michael J. Fox on the Pong set? I rest my case.
Up-and-coming English actor Daniel Day-Lewis was cast as Pongulus Rex, evil emperor of the Bounce Empire.
DAY-LEWIS: By that point in my career, the Method was exclusively how I approached a role. Pong almost broke me. I spent four days in a ball pit at a putt-putt golf near Jackson, Mississippi.
The overqualified Diane Lane was cast as the female lead, Lara, the Paddle Master who captures Jace’s heart.
LANE: Oh yeah, I really loved how I got to say things like “You’re so much better at this game than me, Jace!” and “Your Bounce is so big!” while the producers explained to me that the role was very feminist because I got to punch and kick some people. Great memories.
Shooting began on November 12, 1990. Production was rough from the start, and a script still didn’t technically exist.
MARSTEN: The first day of shooting, director Michael Gottlieb just shouted out lines for the actors to say, but they were all from Star Wars. They couldn’t use any of the footage from that day, so they brought in another writer. He got pretty far, wrote about 50 pages before he ran out onto the lot, went over to the Jaws ride, and threw himself into the mechanical shark’s mouth.
STOLTZ: Michael was hard to work with. He refused to shoot a scene unless he had several glasses of milk.
ARTZ: Every day, he’d be at me like, “Ted! Where’s my sweet cow juice? I need my bucket of white stuff.”
GOTTLIEB: Milk is a harsh mistress, and I am its slave.
LANE: I remember it took a while to shoot anything because half the time we had to figure out what the plot was, while avoiding “the curse.”
BO WELCH, production designer: Michael told us to build sets that looked like the 1940’s as if the only material they had available was neon. You had to wear special glasses to even look at the set.
STOLTZ: The dialogue was terrible.
LANE: The characters were terrible.
DAY-LEWIS: This was perhaps the richest, most intellectual part I’ve ever played. A techno-fascist dictator who was also a sportsman, bested by a member of the proletariat. Also, I was a ball.
MUREN: The ball chase was a month’s worth of work alone, but we got through it. I also remember being really put off by the fact that, in the film, if the balls hit you, then you’d explode into gory pieces.
STOLTZ: Wasn’t this supposed to be a kids’ movie? I’d find myself asking that a lot.
LANE: The scene where Eric and I learn how to “Bounce” together was needlessly and confusingly sexual.
DAY-LEWIS: This film spoke a lot of truths.
STOLTZ: Oh god, I just remembered the puppet.
CHRIS WALAS, “Pongster” puppeteer: I guess he was a lizard dog that lived on Pongia. I didn’t see how he fit into the story, exactly, but the resulting merchandise was great.
Shooting wore on as the film went increasingly over budget. The original release date came and went, and the producers now said the film would come out “sometime in ’92.”
MARSTEN: The shoot finally wrapped in late 1991 and post-production began. The assembly cut was over seven hours long. The producers brought in one last writer to transcribe the script for archival purposes, and immediately after he was done he flew out of town on a 747 — on the wing. Things didn’t look good, but then somebody hit upon a novel idea: get the band Guns N’ Roses to do the entire score.
SLASH, Guns N’ Roses guitarist: When we were originally approached, we were still the hottest band around. Then these flannel-wearing slackers Nirvana had a huge hit, and music changed forever. We just lost our mojo, man. Axl was hit pretty hard, I remember.
AXL ROSE, Guns N’ Roses singer: Sha-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na wowwwww, aww yeauuuh.
SLASH: We just phoned it in, man. “Welcome To The Arena,” “Sweet Paddle O’ Mine.” I actually thought “Pongia City” wasn’t too bad.
After a three-year period, Pong: The Motion Picture was finally released in movie theaters. Everyone laughed at it, and it died at the box office in less than a month.
STOLTZ: I just wanted to forget about it. But then I was at a convention a few years later, and people started bringing me paddles to sign. I thought they were joking, but they seemed incredibly sincere.
BRUCKHEIMER: We were able to sell the film to cable channels for pennies, so it became their go-to afternoon movie. I think Pong played somewhere on television every day at 2 p.m. from 1994 to 1999.
LANE: I’ve done my share of cult films, and they all have their merits. Pong, though, was, um … a film … sorry, I’m not going to be able to finish that sentence.
MARSTEN: I started the website TheTrueBouncer.com in the late ‘90s, just to see how many other Pongheads were out there. That first year we had 90,000 hits total. Now we get 90,000 hits per day.
STOLTZ: Nowadays if I do a convention, the majority of my line will be for Pong. It weirds me out, but I keep getting these young guys telling me it changed their life and how they live by “the code of the Bouncer.” I don’t get it, but hey, as long as it helps them and doesn’t make up for their lack of character and individuality by replacing it with an empty rhetoric of pandering nonsense, who am I to judge?
BRUCKHEIMER: Pong will live on. We keep talking about doing a remake or reboot, and the time is right. Stay vigilant, Bouncers!
GOTTLIEB: Pong was delicious. The milk was sweet. Not too cold, and not too moist.
DAY-LEWIS: I may still be a ball. I’m not sure.
LANE: I keep hearing that Pong started “the video game movie” and while I guess that’s true, I don’t see why it happened. Each new “video game movie” tries to awkwardly graft cinematic genres and tropes onto structures and concepts where there literally is no story! Why do they keep making these?
Anyway, check out Tomb Raider on March 16 and Rampage on April 13, only in theaters!