Writing any movie is hard, writing a Pokémon movie is like taking on the Elite Four without any revives. But that's just what Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit had to do with Detective Pikachu, bringing the beloved video game franchise to the big screen in live-action for the first time. Taking inspiration from the 2016 spinoff game of the same name, they crafted a movie that respects the source yet opens it to whole new fans.
Screen Rant recently caught up with Hernandez and Samit to discuss the entire process of writing Detective Pikachu, from building the world to teasing a future by way of some long-held Pokémon fan theories.
I want to go right back to the start for this one, because the whole concept is so exciting and this specific take on Pokémon is so interesting. So when you guys came on to the project, what sort of state was the script in and how did you guys go about evolving it?
Benji Samit: When we came on board, there actually was not a script. They had played with a few different ideas, and they were still very much in the idea genesis phase. So we came in pretty early on and helped shape exactly what you see: what Pokémon show up in the movie, who the characters are, what their emotional journeys are, the set pieces. A lot of that early world-building stuff was actually us.
When it comes to the Pokémon, were there any restrictions on what you could and couldn’t use? Obviously being rooted in Detective Pikachu, Pikachu has to be the lead. But what about pulling in characters like Mr. Mime and the Mew, how did that come about and were there any that you wanted but Nintendo wouldn’t allow?
Dan Hernandez: There wasn’t really anything that they said that we couldn’t do. Nintendo was actually really great about working with us and really helpful as a resource. I think that the challenge for us was making a master list of all the Pokémon we were interested in and then winnowing out that list until we figured out the ones we truly felt had to be in that movie. So a character like Psyduck doesn’t appear in the video game, and we felt pretty early on that was a character that we really wanted to bring into the movie. That’s my personal favorite Pokémon, and so there was a period where we’re trying to figure out not only who are the most interesting Pokémon but which one has a comedic point of view? Which one has neuroses? Which one has character quirks that would translate to a live action narrative. As far as ones that we wanted to use… It wasn’t that we couldn’t use any Pokémon, but there were a few that we had in earlier drafts of the script that kind of fell away over the course of many drafts. One that I really wanted to use was Garbodor because it felt like for this urban environment it would make sense to have a garbage collection Pokémon as the waste management, but it just didn’t quite make it to the end. So that was one that I do wish we could have gotten in there.
You mentioned Psyduck is one of your favorites. In the amine, he’s always a bit of a joke and a useless Pokemon. But in the movie you give Psyduck incredible power, and you make him very useful. Do you feel that was a response to how Psyduck is traditionally viewed?
Hernandez: Well, yes. I felt like we saw that he has comedic quirks that right away you understand where he’s coming from. If you stress him out too much, he has a psychic explosion. But it seemed to us in the context of this movie that it would only be satisfying if you actually have him have the psychic explosion at a moment where it’s really useful to everyone and satisfying to the audience. You check off Psyduck like, okay, he’s got psychic powers – but then in the midst of this huge action scene, you compound that with Psyduck freaking out, and ultimately his freak out ends up saving the day in a lot of ways. We felt like that was a really funny and satisfying journey to go on with him, and something that the anime maybe hadn’t done to quite the same extent.
Samit: Something I would add to that is, something that was really important to us in writing this movie and something that’s really amazing about the Pokémon world is that it’s a world filled with all these creatures that have these unique abilities. Something that seems as mundane as a duck actually has much more power behind it. Even the bit we have with Magikarp, which is another one that people find to be a useless Pokémon, we wanted to show that even the most insignificant ones have these tremendous abilities.
One of my favorite Pokemon in the movie was Mr. Mime. That entire sequence is just hilarious, and the trailer doesn’t even scratch the surface of it. It gets kind of dark at the end – was that darkness always the core idea of the character when bringing him in?
Samit: Mr. Mine actually appears in the Detective Pikachu video game, so he was a character that was always on the short list. I would say that even before we got involved – Rob Letterman, the director, came on at the very start, and it was always at the top of his list to do an interrogation with Mr. Mime. Then when Dan and I came onboard to write it, the question for us as writers was: yes, it’s funny to interrogate a mime, but what does that actually look like? How do you interrogate a mime? So we came up with this idea of miming torture, and that was definitely one of our ideas that we thought people would bump on. When people actually liked it – because it definitely was a more out there idea – it’s stayed basically the same. The style of torture has changed a little bit, but it’s been basically the same since the very beginning.
I talked with Rob last week, and he said there were about 54 Pokémon, give or take, in the finished movie. I wondered how many Pokémon were in your script. In the wide establishing shots, did you write which Pokémon would appear in different areas of the city?
Samit: Yeah. We definitely wrote a lot into the script. I think our script went into more detail than maybe some of the other scripts we’ve written in the past. We, along with Rob, made a list at the very beginning of the Pokémon that we wanted to see in the movie. And we picked ones from all different generations to make sure that there was fair representation. In the script, in that sequence when he first gets to Ryme City, a lot of those Snorlaxes sleeping in the streets were in the script. But then Rob and the whole production team probably doubled the amount of Pokémon that are in the script. So when we first saw that sequence, it just blew our minds.
A sort of Pokémon lore question: one thing that’s such a big deal in the Pokémon games is the leveling up of characters. Did you give any thought to what level Pikachu or some of the others would be in this movie? Or was that something that you tried to remove in the constraints of Ryme City?
Hernandez: We didn’t really put a level number on any of the characters, but our overtures towards that were really trying to talk about evolution. Specifically, seeing evolution in that moment with the Magikarp. We really wanted to figure out an organic way to use those gameplay elements and those mechanics that fans are familiar with, but weave it into the narrative in such a way that it felt organic and just like a part of the city that people understood and were familiar with. There was a similar moment with Eevee and the Flareon, where it evolves.
Samit: Because in Ryme City there’s no battling, there’s no Pokeballs, there’s no trainers. Some of those traditional Pokémon elements, we couldn’t really use. But one thing we had, as Dan said, that we really wanted to use was the idea of evolution. From very early on, we wanted to make this a movie about evolving. Because it’s so unique to Pokémon. And it’s not just about one Pokémon evolving into another, it’s about can people evolve? Can relationships with fathers and sons evolve? Evolution was sort of our key word as we were writing everything.
Hernandez: One question that did occur to me after seeing it was, where had that Magikarp been that it acquired the experience to evolve into Gyarados? It sort of demands its own side movie of what was going on with that Magikarp that led it to that moment. But for fans who understand those elements of the game, I think they get a big kick out of seeing that stuff.
Talking about the evolution of Eevee becoming Flareon, why did you choose that evolution to be the one that Eevee turns into? Because you’ve got a lot of choices there.
Hernandez: I believe we didn’t choose that one. I think that was maybe Rob, I’m not 100% sure whose idea that was. We always wanted to have Eevee in the movie just because it’s such a popular, iconic Pokémon. But I’m not sure whose idea the Flareon actually was, I can’t remember.
One interesting thing about the world, that isn’t overly leaned on but is definitely there, is the sense of religion and legend within these Pokémon. How did you go about crafting a believable legendary world in the background of this much more grounded Ryme City?
Samit: We really wanted to take everything seriously. I think part of grounding this in a live-action world was accepting all of these key elements of the universe. We really didn’t want this movie to feel like it was an alternate Pokémon universe. We wanted it to feel connected to all the lore that’s come before it, and we wanted to respect it.
Hernandez: And the lore that does exist is so interesting, so developed over the years that really wanted to play it pretty straight. I think sometimes when things are hinted at, it’s more provocative than when it's overly displayed. Hopefully people who are not already into Pokémon will hear some of the references to these Legendaries and say, ‘What was that all about? I want to go learn more about that.’ At least I was that way when I was a kid about things like that. I think that there’s a lot of opportunities for people to really do a deep dive on this world, and I think that’ll be an ancillary part of this experience.
Talking about things that are glanced at but not necessarily focused on, you mentioned the Kanto region in reference to Mewtwo’s origins, which is very pointed. It implies Team Rocket exists, but it doesn’t actually namecheck them. Did you ever consider having Team Rocket have a presence and namedrop in the movie at all?
Samit: No. I think for this movie, we really wanted it to stand on its own. We didn’t want it to be too connected to specific stories from the anime and games that have come before. We wanted to give a little wink towards that, because there’s only one Mewtwo, so if we’re gonna have him in this movie he’s got to be connected to that. But we wanted the narrative to really stand on its own.
I’ve got a spoiler question about Ditto. I thought the whole Ditto idea was fantastic, but what I really liked is the reference to how it was genetically engineered. Was that intended as a reference to the theory that Ditto is derived from Mew, that it’s a failed Mew clone before Mewtwo?
Hernandez: So we went into the history of Ditto, we looked at all of those things, and we kind of wanted to leave it up to the audience of people that are more familiar [with the story]. We didn’t necessarily feel that we wanted to go too much into that. But all of those things are a factor, and I think the deep origin of Ditto is a provocative question that we wanted to hint at. Because of the interaction with Mewtwo’s genetic material, it did seem like there was a sensible connection Mewtwo and the Ditto.
What I really liked about the movie was how it tells this amazing, character-driven story in this new world, but it doesn’t feel like it’s setting up anything too obliquely. It’s very much about the Goodman family. Was there ever any sort of pressure or desire to put in more teases for future Pokémon movies, or were you always trying to make sure that this stood on its own and didn’t tease any explicit sequels?
Hernandez: We wanted to tell a completed story, and a complete film with this movie. Of course we were aware that, if successful, this is a huge universe with lots of potential stories to be told. And I hope those stories do get told, but when we were sitting down to write it, we really said, ‘What is the best version of this story that we can complete? That can feel like a satisfying story unto itself, whether there’s a sequel or not?’ and go from there. If this is it, we really wanted to make it as great as it could be.
If you could write any Pokémon movie set in the world you’ve created here, no matter how feasible, what would it be?
Hernandez: That’s a tough question.
Samit: It’s a tough one.
Hernandez: I mean, I am interested in Jiggypuff’s singing career. I think there’s an American Idol/Eurovision story there. I want to go on Jigglypuff’s journey to stardom with the severe problem of putting everyone to sleep. We love Jigglypuff – I like the weird Pokémon that really want something. And just by their nature, Jigglypuff can never achieve that. Jigglypuff: A Star Is Born.
Samit: I feel like I can’t top that.
You could get Lady Gaga to do the voice of Jigglypuff.
Hernandez: And it’s still a tragic love story.
This is a videogame movie, and those are famously hard to get right. But Detective Pikachu works so well that you don’t even question if it’s from a videogame or not. So do you have any advice about how to approach this kind of movie and how to ensure that it stands on its own merits?
Samit: When we approached this, that was not at the front of our minds. Like, ‘Oh, there’s this videogame curse that no one’s ever made a videogame movie that was well-reviewed, that’s so much pressure on us.’ We just tried to make what we love about the story and the world, and just sell the best story we could. I think having a love for the property which you’re adapting goes a long way. We cared about all of these Pokémon, we cared about this world, we took it seriously. We didn’t view it as a sort of cash grab, we approached as fans first.
Hernandez: I think that you have to write the story that excites you, and if you can write that story whether it’s Pokémon or My Little Pony or Lego, really approach it with respect and embrace what people love about it. I think sometimes with these adaptations, there’s a tendency to think that the reason it won’t work on the big screen is because of some inherent property of the thing itself, and I reject that completely. I think that if you embrace idiosyncratic things, embrace the weird things you’re writing about, you’ll also find those are the biggest strengths as opposed to the biggest weaknesses.
One of the big jokes that I’m sure you’ve seen online is that Detective Pikachu is the first step to a Super Smash Bros shared universe. If you were to approach that, what would be your genesis of that?
Hernandez: That would be an extremely exciting challenge. I think that the key to doing anything like that is to make sure that the other introductory movies are sensational. It’d be a dream to write something like Legend of Zelda, but before you can get to that Smash Bros stage you have to write the best damn version of the Legend of Zelda that you possibly can. And the same with Mario, the same with Kirby, the same with Starfox.
Samit: Avengers: Endgame is only as good as it is because we loved all of those characters individually, so when it came together it was just magic. And I think that’s how you have to approach the Smash Bros.
One final question about the future: there’s reports that they’re working on a script for Detective Pikachu 2. Do you have any ideas how they could do a sequel to this story, because it’s such a contained thing?
Samit: There are a lot of ideas. As we said, the universe is massive in size in terms of Pokémon and locations. Even within Ryme City itself, we’ve only scratched the surface of that. There’s a lot of magic in this universe, so there’s plenty of places for it to go.