From Book to Board Game to Box Office: An Interview With ‘The Game’ Writer Neil Strauss

By  · Published on August 21st, 2012

by David Christopher Bell

You know what Dune, Starship Troopers, and Harry Potter have in common? They were all books that became games before they were movies. It happens more often than we realize, and it happens almost exclusively to sci-fi and fantasy.

That’s why Neil Strauss’ undercover pick-up artist memoir “The Game” just might be the first of it’s kind. Not long ago, fearless board game designer Adam Kornblum presented the best-selling author with a prototype for a party game based off of his book, the end result being “Who’s Got Game.”

As something originally designed as a tool to meet other people, the game tied perfectly into the book’s original themes. And while it’s not unusual for a self-help book to transfer over into the board game genre, what’s odd is that since this book is also soon to become a film starring James Franco ‐ it just might be the first self-help book to become a game before a film.

It’s not exactly a Hollywood milestone, of course. While there are exceptions, movies based on board games and self-help books aren’t usually regarded as being successful. The reason for this is most likely the initial lack of source material. After all, when all you need to do to keep true to the original work is have a character point out numbers and letters on a grid, you know that you’re arm-deep in bullshit.

That said, having read The Game ‐ I know that the source material is there, and quite good as well. It’s far from some kind of card-counting type of instruction manual for getting easy sex but is rather a full narrative, a tale that stresses the importance of finding and building healthy relationships while overcoming the insecurities of facing the opposite sex. For a book covered in more sexy silhouettes than a truck stop mud flap display, it’s a rather moral story.

Is the fourth one from the left golfing?

For Neil Strauss, these are exciting times. Along with “The Game,” his Motley Crue biography “The Dirt” as well as his modern survival guide “Emergency” are both being adapted into films, the latter of the two supposedly starring Robert Downey Jr.

Getting a hold of Strauss, I promised to keep my wits about me, for as Russell Brand warned Kara Warner at the MTV Movies Blog, “He could trick you.” Of course she’s probably much prettier than I am… and female, but I wanted to keep cool nonetheless. Turns out that it’s hard to be intrepid when asking questions to a guy who interviews superstars like he’s ordering a pizza ‐ luckily for me, the man wasn’t tricky at all but rather polite, patient, and honest.

Brain Kopplemen and David Levein are working on a draft of The Game, right?

Absolutely, [they] finished a draft ‐ it’s really good. D.B. Weiss, who does Game of Thrones, did the original draft. There have been many drafts and many writers; I guess that’s how Hollywood works.

Did they consult you at all about it?

The basic thing is that I definitely didn’t want to write it because I feel like if you already wrote the book and did your best version possible, why do another version under the direction of other people who weren’t there? Basically I’ve seen every single draft and given feedback, which is ‐ you know they don’t have to listen to my feedback but they did, which was very cool of them.

I was wondering what it’s like to pass on your work to another writer like that ‐ you sound like you don’t mind it at all.

I understand that a good screenplay is different than a good book. And I already put out my best version of it, so even if the movie sucks there’s still the book to say that was my original vision, they can’t change a word in the book no matter what the movie does. So I always feel like whatever my vision is is there and they should go take what I wrote and use their vision to make what they think is great, so I don’t have any attachment to it.

And while I give feedback it’s usually as objective as possible ‐ the feedback is never like “well that was different in the book.” I remember at one point with “The Game,” Mystery was really buffoonish, and I said, you can’t make Mystery buffoonish, because then if your main character’s following him he becomes buffoonish and your audience just thinks the whole time, ‘why is this idiot following another idiot’ like ‐ Mystery has to be seductive even to the audience, so they want to be on that ride along with the main character. Many things like that I would say about any screenplay and not just because it’s my book.

What do you think about James Franco playing the role of Mystery?

Uh, slightly jealous. (Laughs) If only I could be the really good looking guy in the movie. But I think he is the perfect Mystery cause we’re thinking a lot about who in discussion ‐ and again it was really cool that they consulted me on their acting choices and everything, they really were respectful of my opinions but I thought James Franco was a great choice and they really worked hard to get him involved.

Josh Gad is playing you right?

Yeah you know, I’ve seen “Book of Mormon” but I never saw Josh Gad when he was in it ‐ I think he might be a good choice… …I’ve seen a couple good screen tests… I can definitely see that being a good buddy movie, like Josh Gad and James Franco.

So about the board game ‐ how did you get involved with Adam Kornblum and start developing the board game anyway?

I was the kind of the guy that used to write people letters when I read a book I liked or it was music that I liked and it meant so much when I got a response… so I have a whole system here where like every letter that comes in, and there are like hundreds a day, someone writes a response to them. I’ve written like a couple stock responses to give to people.

So everyone kind of has something interesting to pull out and show to me, and Adam… for him to have designed a game, for him to have designed a game for Hasbro before, he had some credentials. What stuck out about his letter is that ‐ I get like ten emails a day that say “Hey want to make a lot of money call me back” ‐ And what he had done is, he had actually already turned “The Game” into a game, that he was playing in bars and clubs and cafes to meet women.

So I thought ‐ what I like about this is this guy already did it, and he’s field-tested it, and as you know from “The Game” itself you gotta field test something to find out if it works. So it made me curious, I felt like he was doing it because he loved games and that was his passion, not because he wanted to like, try and make some money.

Is it weird that you’re kind of the icon on the game? You’re like the Monopoly Man on it.

I think that’s again like an example of not meddling with stuff… like, do I like the illustration? Not my favorite illustration. Did I say that to Adam? No, because he has his vision so I’m not going to meddle with what I look like or how I am there because I’ll trust him to something that I thought was objectively… if it’s just an ego thing I’ll let him have the illustration of me and he can do what he wants with it ‐ I’m not gonna mess with that.

What I did work on was the point system and the scoring and I made up a bunch of new categories with cards that I thought would be fun to have, like the secret cards and the neg cards and that I really enjoyed ‐ like every card I rewrote like we really wanted to make sure they worked from a game play and “[The] Game” level.

The purpose of the game is that when you bring people back to your house and there’s always that awkwardness and how do you entertain them… The game was kind of designed so that everyone can start laughing and having fun and everyone can get to know each other. To break that tension between people uncomfortable at your house and the people comfortable and laughing with close friends with potential…

It’s almost like a pick up tool, the game itself…

…Yeah it’s a pickup tool and I think it’s also like a rapport tool because if it was designed to make people have sex that would just be creepy ‐ someone pulling that out it would be like pulling out a condom, so it’s designed to make people have rapport and connection and that could definitely lead to sex or friendship or even deepen an existing relationship. We’ve tested it out so many times with couples and single people and it’s really fun, and even fun with guys because some things get slightly awkward for them.

The book is a little like that too.

Barnes and Noble keeps the book behind the counter because they say it’s the most stolen book there next to the Bible so I think that either shows… I’m not sure what it shows ‐ I think it is cause it’s embarrassing to buy.

“The Game” is about that male insecurity and shame, and that it’s embarrassing to buy… it speaks to what the books about. I never thought of that before ‐ I just realized now… why does one have to be embarrassed that they’re learning how to be better at meeting women, which could lead to marriage and children? I mean, that should be an admirable thing but they’re embarrassed about it… it’s interesting.

So I read in the book that Courtney Love was interested in playing Katya, right?

Yeah ‐ I’m still in touch with Courtney but I don’t think anyone’s approached her. I think she’s a great actress and I think that she should do some acting.

If you could cast anyone for The Game for the more minor characters, people like Tyler and Sickboy, who would it be?

We always thought Tyler for Seth Green. At one point someone online did their own casting of it… and it was really, really good.

Have you talked to anyone from the book about the movie?

I’ve talked to Mystery ‐ I even talked to Tyler Durden.

Mystery sent me an email… …when he heard James Franco was playing him, with a whole plan to show up at the movie with a limo full of models and, you know, just being Mystery.

How did “Emergency” get picked up by Robert Downey, Jr’s company?

Mike De Luca was originally involved in The Game, and it moved around a couple times and he wasn’t… so he just said “I want to be involved with whatever you’re doing next.”

I sent him “Emergency,” he liked it and then I think they sent up with Robert Downey, Jr. Obviously I think the topic connected with his interests. And then that just came- especially for Hollywood, that just came together really easily and naturally.

Have you thought about screenwriting?

I’ve done a little bit, like I’ve sold a show to FX, I’ve sold a show to HBO.

What about doing a full-length film?

You know I feel like… I feel like I’d rather write books that are turned into movies. Cause the thing about the movie is ‐ you can put your heart and soul into it but the chances of it even ever seeing the light of day as a movie are low, and chances of seeing it see the light of day as a movie as you envisioned it are next to nothing.

So I feel like if I’m going to put my heart into a creative project it’s definitely going to be a book, and then someone else can suffer the heartache of dealing with the production process in Hollywood.

It is a very strenuous process isn’t it?

Yeah I think there is a game to getting a movie made. It’s a political game as much as it is a creative game.

And it makes sense because if you’re investing $25m ‐ $100m into something you’re gonna make sure you’re not going to lose that investment. So a lot of people worried about losing their money are looking at this creative thing, whereas with a book it doesn’t cost much to print ‐ you can throw it at the wall and see what sticks.

You can’t really do that when you’ve got $25m ‐ $100minvested in something. Because it’s something of that magnitude it’s bound to [undergo] such a strenuous vetting process that it’s not going to come out as intended. And I don’t know if it gets any better, like every screenwriter says that their first draft is always the best because that was the one that really was their vision. Sometimes you really do get good notes ‐ it’s true that there are good producers and good studio executives and very good notes but there’s always bad notes as well when you’re going up each level to get it made.

With Project Hollywood in the book, people start mimicking not only your techniques but your personality and you basically watch this thing grow and grow ‐ and you just completely loose the control you had. I was wondering if there’s a degree of that in watching your book turn into a movie?

Yeah I think that… I told them that what matters is that you capture the themes of the book more than the exact events that happened. What’s important to me is that this isn’t like a romantic comedy but it’s a real movie that explores male insecurity because that’s what “The Game” is about.

I think a lot of people feel like it’s a how-to book… …but in a lot of ways it’s about male insecurity and fears with [being] around women and trying to be honest about the male mind. And that’s what I think, I mean ‐ for me that’s what made the book, helped people connect with the book. It may be the transformation part of it too, but also I think because… just being honest without fear of reprisal about how most guys think.

It was surprising to see it in the self-help section…

It’s funny, every one of my books is found in a different section of the bookstore, like “Emergency” is in current events and “The Game” is in self-help and “The Dirt” is in music and “Everyone Loves You When You’re Dead”… you can never really know where that is. I think that most authors just go to a section and look up their name and see their books and mine’s are scattered all over the place.

Well you’re covering all grounds then, that’s kind of cool.

Yeah ‐ I guess my next book needs to be a cookbook.

You can find out everything you need to know about Mr. Strauss at his web site, where he’ll no doubt be announcing the debut of his new cookbook that I just made up, The Flame. If you are looking to buy Who’s Got Game, look no further.

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