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'Tetris' screenwriter on translating dramatic history of Soviet game to film
John Yang: There is an addictive quality to building those walls with cascading digital blocks. So addictive that in the Soviet Union were Tetris was created in 1984, the government blocked it from state computers because it was ruining productivity. It was made available outside the Iron Curtain a few years later, and it's now one of the most popular video games of all time.
In the beginning, it was played in our cage and on handheld devices. Today, it's on cell phones. In Brazil, they put it on the side of a building. At the Burning Man festival there was a version using flaming blocks. And people who've even dressed up like Tetris pieces called to trauma knows.
No Name Given: It is so simple and it's one of those like simple to play but impossible to master kind of games.
John Yang: Its creator Soviet born computer engineer Alexey Pajitnov said he was looking for a way to use computers to make people happier.
Alexey Pajitnov, Creator Tetris: Every time people come to me and say, oh, you did make the entries, I spent so much hour on this game, so much out. And as asked, was it a good or bad? Of course, it was great. I never think that this is a bad addiction.
No Name Given: This is it, the original.
John Yang: A slightly embellished version of how the game escape from behind the Iron Curtain is portrayed in a new film now on Apple TV plus, called appropriately enough, Tetris.
Taron Egerton, Actor, Tetris: If you were to put it in percentage is about 90% factual. Yeah, there's a couple of little moments to license but it's a crazy story.
I played Tetris for five minutes. Yeah. Still see falling blocks in my dreams.
John Yang: Taron Egerton stars as the American businessman who raised to license the game as Soviet communism was going through an identity crisis.
The film has been described as part John Le Carre, a Cold War spy thriller part. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego. Noah Pink is the screenwriter of Tetris. Noah, I have to ask, I've read that you've described this as a passion project. Are you a Tetris player?
Noah Pink, Screenwriter, "Tetris": I must admit, I lost a lot of my childhood to Tetris on Game Boy and when you grew up in Nova Scotia, and you want to go anywhere, it's at least four to eight hours in a car. So I spent a lot of time on Tetris as a kid.
John Yang: How did you come to be aware of the story of how Tetris came about?
Noah Pink: The moment I heard about it, I knew that this could be a great movie. And then the more I researched it, the more I looked into it, the more I realized that the heart of the story was actually a movie beyond just the high stakes of, you know, getting the rights to a game, it was really a story of friendship. And that's kind of what set me off on my journey. If you're pitching a movie. Today, the last thing you want to say is I want to make a movie about intellectual property battles, because people's eyes will glaze over right away. That being said, this movie is about so much more than that. What I found in it was the story of these two guys who were from different parts of the world who found a friendship through their shared love of gaming.
John Yang: I've read you say that the key to sort of shaping the story was getting the two characters you just talked about Alexey Pajitnov, the computer engineer who designed Tetris, and Henk Rogers, the American video game publisher, who's struggled to get the rights to the game to get them on board to work with you, Mr. Pajitnov has acknowledged there is some artistic license in the movie. How did you decide what to keep factual, what to keep sort of true to the story and what to dramatize?
Noah Pink: My main goal when telling the story was to really get down to the emotional truth of everything. Some of, you know, the external antagonism that is introduced in the movie is a little bit of a fabrication on top of the reality. But at its core, you know, I wanted to make sure that everything for the characters especially felt true. And that's where Henk, Alexey really came in handy.
John Yang: Your previous project before Tetris, you created a series for National Geographic called Genius. You looked at the life stories of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso, you seem to be drawn to fact-based stories centering around people, real people, what why do you think that is?
Noah Pink: You know, I really love telling stories about things that we thought we knew. But in fact, had no idea. We all know what Tetris is. We all grew up playing it, or at least hearing about it. But none of us had an idea that this guy risked his house and home and life to literally go across, you know, into a place and lie his way into the Soviet Union, to get the rights to this video games that it could be on our Game Boys. It's kind of a crazier than true story.
John Yang: You also detailed sort of the Kafkaesque, the bureaucracy of the Soviet Union. And also that that's sort of the beginning of the end, that sort of unfreezing of Soviet communism, were those important points to you that you wanted to illustrate?
Noah Pink: The initial name for this script before we went to production was called Falling Blocs, which is B-L-O-C-S. And I felt like that was, you know, the story behind the story. This was a country that was going through glasnost and perestroika, the really interesting part about that time was that nobody had any idea that Soviet Union was going to end in two years. And so there was a lot of, you know, existential questions being asked at all levels.
John Yang: The movie is Tetris. It's streaming on Apple TV. Plus the screenwriter is Noah Pink. Noah, thank you very much.
Noah Pink: Thanks so much for your time, I appreciate it.