Why ‘Uncharted’ Director Ruben Fleischer Felt Trying to Re-Create the Video Games Was ‘A Fool’s Errand’

Fleischer also tells TheWrap about the comedic chemistry between Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg and if he’s started thinking about the sequel


“Uncharted” is finally hitting the big screen.

After years of starts, stops, dead ends and speedbumps, the movie adaptation of the beloved PlayStation video games (published by Naughty Dog) is here. Tom Holland stars as young adventurer Nathan Drake, with Mark Wahlberg as the more-seasoned pro Victor “Sully” Sullivan. It’s a rip-snorting, globe-trotting adventure with oversized action set pieces and a lot of genuine humor. And the man in charge of bringing all of that together is filmmaker Ruben Fleischer.

Fleischer has directed big films before, like “Venom” and the two “Zombieland” films, and he had to use all of his knowledge and experience on this one. (And he came on late too!) TheWrap spoke to Fleischer about what he wanted to maintain from the video game, what the potential pitfalls of video game adaptations can be, and whether he’s already thinking about a sequel.

This project had been kicking around for so long. When you were brought on, did you end up looking at those earlier drafts or going through that history at all?
No, I honestly was just focused on making the movie that I was hired to direct. The script that they originally sent that I got involved with was so good. I didn’t feel a great need to go through the archives or whatever. I felt like they totally captured the tone and spirit of the games. I could imagine Mark and Tom playing these characters. And the action set pieces that were written, I was so excited at the opportunity to get to bring them to life.

What was it like being brought up to speed on this giant thing?
It was daunting, but also really exciting just because this genre is one of my all-time favorite movie genres, the treasure-hunting, globe-trotting, “Raiders of the Lost Ark”-type genre is really… I mean, “Raiders” is my all-time favorite movie. When I got sent this script, it totally evoked that feeling for me and fulfilled all my childhood dreams of why I wanted to be a filmmaker. It was exciting. And from the moment go, I just threw everything I had into making this the best movie I possibly could.

Were you familiar with the games before signing on? Was that part of the appeal too?
Totally. I was familiar with the games. I’d played the first “Uncharted” when it came out and then moved away from video games as I had kids and had a much busier work schedule. But upon being hired, I went back through and caught up to where the games had gotten to and was really excited to, or just proud to have the opportunity to bring them to life on screen.

Video game-based movies have had their ups and downs. Were there things that you were nervous about or things that you knew you wanted to avoid in terms of adapting this one?
Well, I think the thing that was really important to me was that the movie had to work on its own, independent of the games, just relying on the title or the IP as a film. And I think that just trying to re-create the games is a fool’s errand because video games now are so cinematic and so immersive that anyone who’s played the game has been that character, they’ve had control over that character’s destiny. And since movies are somewhat inherently passive, you have to just make sure it’s entertaining from start to finish and that it works for its own medium. And we were making a big action movie. It has to work the same way that any big action movie has to work and that’s great characters, incredible set pieces, exotic locations. My focus was making it work as a film while still respecting the game at the center of it.

How soon did you realize that the rapport between Tom and Mark was going to do a lot of the heavy lifting?
Well, being a comedy director, you know it when you’re on set and you just feel the electricity of that repartee. And luckily, Tom and Mark are both just such talented comedians, which they don’t get enough credit for. You think of them as these big action stars, but they’re both hilarious as individuals. One of the first scenes, if not the first scene that we shot with Mark and Tom was that scene in the crypt where they turned the keys and the arrows shoot out and Nate gets mad at Sully and Sully says, “I don’t have my glasses. I can’t read this thing.” I think that was maybe an improvised line. Mark had a bunch of them ready to go.

And then there was the line, “Oh, my God, how many apps do you have open?” Which was a scripted line, and then I think they maybe improv’ed the Tinder line. But yeah, it was that scene where it was just them with their sparring was one of the first days that we shot with the two of them. The first day we shot with the two of them and Sophia. And I knew just watching it, that it was popping and that there was that chemistry and the comedy was working. And the comedy’s such a key part of the games that it was really important to me that it be a center of this movie as well. And so, yeah, it was thrilling that day because I just watched it happen with my own two eyes. And I was like, these guys are just fun to watch and really, really funny.

Sony Pictures

Can you talk about working with cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung again and what you both decided on for the look of this?
I think Chung-hoon Chung is the unsung hero of this film because it just looks so great. I mean all those locations and set pieces, they’re spectacular. And technically, it was really challenging just given the COVID of it all shooting this film, especially in Europe with a crew that he’d never worked with before. It wasn’t an easy task, but he beyond exceeded my expectations. And in terms of the visual aesthetic of the film, I wanted it to be big and expansive. And we intentionally chose locations that would offer that scale and give us almost a Bond quality. And yeah, he’s just the best, most collaborative, easy to work with, funny, awesome, cinematographer you could possibly hope for.

What was your philosophy when it came to the action scenes?
I mean the video games set the bar really high in terms of the expectations of what the action would be. I wanted to make sure that we at least delivered on the expectation of what an “Uncharted” movie would look and feel like. But having someone as skilled as Tom Holland or for that matter, Mark Wahlberg at the center of the movie, allowed us to do so much with them at the center of the frame. We didn’t have to hide the stunt guys because they were literally performing their own stunts. I think that makes it all the more visceral and perhaps the reason it’s not as cutty is because we didn’t have to cut around the fact that the actor wasn’t at the center of the action. We had our movie stars performing the action. So you can just hang on them and allow it to feel real because you’re not hiding the lack of reality.

That’s really Tom Holland hanging on the back of the plane or that’s really Tom Holland fighting on a boat or that’s really Tom Holland hanging four stories off of a chandelier in the middle of this action sequence. That was all real. We’re able to really feature the actors. And I just personally don’t prefer super cutty action. I find it disorienting. Maybe I’m a little old school in that regard. But I prefer being able to see a wider frame, watch the action play out in front of you and not just have it be this quick cut kind of experience.

When does it become too much of a stunt that you say, “OK, Tom, you cannot do this?”
Tom’s the person who says that. He’ll tap out. He has two incredible stunt doubles, Luke and Greg, who are… They were in “Spider-Man” with him and they’re just exceptionally talented stunt guys and also really cool people. And then, so I think there’s a lot of communication among Luke and Greg and Tom saying, “Yeah, we think, this one’s for you. This one’s for us.” And it’s really whether the shot’s on his front or back. Because if it’s on his back, there’s no real reason to put Tom in it. And if it’s on his front, obviously, if we can have Tom perform it, it’ll make it that much better. But yeah, but it’s a lot of communication just among all the people involved to make sure that it’s appropriate to put your movie star at the center of that action and make sure that it’s always safe and no one gets hurt.

Have you started thinking about another “Uncharted?”
No, obviously, I can’t help it. When you spend two years on a project and a year in post-production, yeah, your mind tends to wander. I’ve thought a lot about it, but I don’t want to get ahead of myself. I just want to make sure that this movie performs the way we all hope it will. And then hopefully, we’ll be lucky enough to get to make more of them and answer some of these questions.

“Uncharted” opens in theaters Friday.