An interview with Alex

He plays drums, is knowledgeable both about movies and video games. He is a professional Nicolas Cage expert and knows a thing or two about bad truck games. Who is this wonder man, you might ask? Well, it is Whiskey Media's own Alex Navarro. I got to ask him a series a disjointed questions, that, maybe, could be called an interview, about starting Screened, working for two sites and a bunch of other stuff. Enjoy!

Me: Thanks for agreeing to this. Could you please tell me how did the idea of Screened was born? What made you leave Harmonix and start a site at Whiskey Media?

Alex: I can't tell you the exact origins of Screened as I actually wasn't there for the initial planning meetings. The Whiskey folk had already decided they were definitely going to do a movie/television site in the vein of Giant Bomb, and it just so happened that I was back in the Bay Area during a holiday break and hanging out with Mr. Jeff Gerstmann when he told me the site was in development.

Little known fact: During my time at CNET/GameSpot, I had lobbied several higher-ups there to allow me to do some work on FilmSpot, the apparently doomed-from-the-start movie website the company briefly pretended it cared about. As it turned out, no one there in management really gave a crap about that site after the guy who helped get it created (I believe that was a Vince Broady joint) left CNET, so nobody had much interest in paying anyone to dedicate significant resources to that site.

So, anyway, that's a roundabout way of saying I'd always wanted to get into writing about film, either in addition to writing about games, or as a full-time gig, and the idea of working for Whiskey on a movie website sounded incredibly appealing, especially given that I'd been considering leaving Harmonix anyway. That's sort of a long story, but I think I've said before that my relationship with MTV Games wasn't overly great at that point, and I was increasingly frustrated with working with them. Plus, you know, the possibility of working with my old friends again was kind of a hard thing to ignore. So this seemed like a really good opportunity.

So I interviewed with Shelby in early 2010, and not long after that everything came together. We started working on the site and getting all the pieces in place, we hired Rorie, and eventually, the site was born.

Me: How different is it to review films compared to reviewing games? How much of your experience covering video games could you use, or was it something completely new to you?

Alex: It's a pretty different mentality. Video game criticism tends to focus so much on the mechanical. How solid is this framerate, how do these controls work, etc. Often times, the idea of narrative gets checked off as a single bullet point to address in a paragraph. Though, honestly, a lot of games really don't deserve much more acknowledgment than that as far as their story goes. The ones that do deserve more attention in that area I suppose are the ones I've been enjoying most lately.

When you're reviewing a film, you're certainly taking into account technical aspects like direction, cinematography, performance, music, and whatever else. It's just that it's much more in service of the overall understanding of how well a movie tells its story. You (typically) go to a movie to watch its plot unfold. Sometimes that becomes ancillary to seeing a particular actor or seeing specific action sequences, but even those things factor into the overall storytelling. Games can have no story (sports games, puzzle games, etc.), or have tons of story. You have to be able to parse what parts are important to each individual game, and focus on those. Like, I doubt I'd ever give a Mario game a negative review just because its story sucked. It's more about the mechanics, the world design, and what have you. Likewise, I don't care how technically proficient a movie is if it can't make me care about its plot and characters.

Me: With your last sentence in mind, do you think there is something substantial to gained by trying to change the viewing experience of a film goer? Can things like 3D, IMAX or even D-Box add something meaningful to a movie, or is just novelty and a way to make a ticket more expensive?

Alex: I think if it's one thing movies like Hugo, and yes, Avatar, have proved it's that 3D can be used as something more than a silly gimmick. And I think if there's one thing movies like Piranha 3D and A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas have proved, it's that when you are going to use 3D as a gimmick, it's best to be as ridiculous as possible about it.

Like all things, technology absolutely can aid a film-going experience. It's all about how the director chooses to use it, and whether that technology is really capable of immersing you in the experience, or just a cheap gimmick to raise ticket prices. I am not 3D's biggest fan, but I even recognize that there is merit to it when it's used well. As for D-Box or IMAX, I'd say it's the same thing. I don't find D-Box that enthralling personally, but I know Ryan loves the hell out of it. It certainly has its benefits, if you're way into big, crazy action movies.

Me: Going back to covering films and video games, how did you get involved with Giant Bomb and back to reviewing video games? Do you count as an intern/freelancer at Giant Bomb or does just Jeff ask's you to review some games, because everyone else is busy at that time? How much does it affect your ability to work for Screened?

Alex: My current role basically has me as a 50/50 split covering games and movies. I'm still a full-time employee of the company, not freelance or anything. Movie assignments get worked out between Rorie and myself, whereas game stuff usually just comes from me talking to Jeff whenever stuff is coming out.

Getting back involved with Giant know, I can't recall the exact thing that got that all started. I did a few reviews back in 2010 during the Q4 crunch, as I recall, and then at some point I had some free time and just started doing some news posts for them before Patrick came along. Again, I think that mostly just was a matter of convenience, originally.

As for my decision to take on this 50/50 role, it just made sense to me. I still love games and like writing about them. Likewise, I still really dig writing about film. I guess I'm a bit of a dilettante, in the sense that I like to involve myself in a lot of different art forms without necessarily focusing all my efforts on just one. It's why I used to write up those big Album of the Year posts every year--I really like following and discussing music, but I think I'd go nuts if that were the only thing I were doing.

Me: Yeah, I remember those posts. I used to to enjoy them, but, from what I understand, they take a lot of time to make, yes? Could you see yourself reviewing albums or covering the music industry?

Alex: I'm not a particularly great music writer. Part of the problem is that music, for me, is an exceptionally personal thing, and oddly something I find pretty difficult to explain in terminology people will understand. Also, as someone who is a drummer exclusively and has no real sense of how to write songs beyond the scope of structure and tempo, it's hard for me to really judge music on the same wavelength as people who do kind of understand that stuff. So it's why I stick to just writing my lists of the stuff I really liked, because it's simpler than trying to write full reviews of every album I come across. It also doesn't require as deep of thought when explaining, since I'm just explaining why it made my list.

I dig reading about the music industry, be it reviews, news, interviews, or whatever else. But I doubt it's an area I'd want to cover professionally.

Me: Your site does also cover TV. What can you say about modern television? Do you agree with the notion, that traditional television is a dying breed of entertainment?

Alex: Dying? Maybe not, but certainly transforming. I'll freely admit that my passion for TV is perhaps less than that of games/movies, but I watch a good number of shows in my free time. Far more than I did, for instance, before DVRs and Netflix came around. I think the truth of the matter is that the traditional Network model is beginning to show its age, and the networks that have been able to adapt to this (licensing shows to Netflix or Hulu, using the Internet to help promote the program with clips or entire episodes, etc.) are the ones that will be the most successful in the future. I don't know that the idea of scheduled programming watched via your television will ever go away, but it'll be one option among several ways to consume your favorite programs. As long as networks can find a way to monetize it, they'll do it.

Me: So, it has been some time that you moved to the east coast. How did it impact your workflow? How do you review unreleased games? Do you have your own debug units for consoles?

Alex: It's actually been really good. One of the neat things about the New York game scene is that everybody here's pretty friendly with one another. Which isn't to say that the San Francisco scene isn't friendly, but I've gotten pretty close with a number of writers here who've all been pretty cool about helping me make local PR contacts and letting me know about events, and such. It's a pretty supportive group of people and it's made the transition a hell of a lot easier.

I have a debug Xbox that I've had for, god, I guess since I was briefly freelancing between my time at GameSpot and my gig at Harmonix. It's beat to shit, but it does the job.

Thanks Alex for this interview and super fast response time to my questions.