Zangief’s Heart of Hearts: Phil Johnston on Wreck-It Ralph

The screenwriter takes full responsibility for the Zangief controversy and describes the GTA parody that was cut from the finished film.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

Zangief knows what he did. That's Phil Johnston's take on the controversy that hit the video game fan community after the Street Fighter character, who may be a heavy but is not officially a "boss" character in the franchise, was depicted alongside M. Bison and Bowser in "Bad-Anon," a support group within the Disney film Wreck-It Ralph for video game "bad guys." It was a relatively minor controversy, but it did strike many fans as an odd placement for the Russian wrestler within the film, about a "bad guy" named Ralph, played by John C. Reilly, who starts hopping to different video game realms after the NPC's in his own game fail to appreciate his contributions to the community.

Screenwriter Phil Johnston, who earned an Independent Spirit Award nomination for last year's Cedar Rapids, took full responsibility for Zangief's placement in Bad-Anon, and defends his position on the matter, in our interview about the animated film, in theaters this Friday, November 2nd. He also explains the lack of TR0N references, describes the Grand Theft Auto parody that was cut from the completed films and was kind enough to discuss some of the issues I had with the production (which I will describe in detail in my full review later this week), before describing his upcoming TV project with the Coen Bros, "Harve Karbo." Enjoy.  

CraveOnline: Wreck-It Ralph takes place entirely in the world of video games. At what point did you decide not to call it TR0N 3?

Phil Johnston: Really, last week.

Okay, that’s good. Was there ever any opportunity to do a crossover, or mention…

With TR0N?

With TR0N. It’s the Disney film that takes place in digital media, and I think a lot of people who are in the target demo for Wreck-It are very interested in that too.

Yes. Never came up. Believe it or not. I think obviously we’re aware of it, and have seen it or all that, but no. Honest to God. I’ve heard that question a couple of times, and I swear to you, never once did it come up. [Laughs] It never occurred to me until right now.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, where did the genesis for this idea come from? What video game were you playing?

The idea has been bouncing around Disney for a long time actually.

How long is “a long time?”

I’d say… I’ve been on this three years… five… I’d say at least ten years, if not longer. Into the late 90s maybe, where it was an idea of an arcade, or a video game character, traveling to a different game. That’s really all I know of it, because I haven’t seen any of the other iterations, and when I met Rich [Moore, the director], that was basically what we had. We have this idea of, it was going to be Fix-It Felix, Jr. initially who was going to be our good guy traveling to different games. We didn’t know quite what those games were, we weren’t sure. And so as we started working we realized that the guy who throws garbage at the guy is really the one we’re going to be wanting to follow. So the idea, the big idea, which is such a cool idea, has existed but cracking that story turned out to be very, very challenging.

When you enter a project that has a history of development, do you have an opportunity to look at previous iterations of it, or did you just want to avoid that?

We may have the opportunity, we chose to avoid it completely. We wanted to come in completely fresh, without any bias. People who have seen the other versions over the years told us that we didn’t really do anything that they did, surprisingly.

You have a character here, a fictional video game character named “Wreck-It Ralph,” and he does inhabit a world where Sonic the Hedgehog and Zangief and all the other [existing characters inhabit]. When you decided to put those other characters in the screenplay, most of them are jokes or just in the first act, what were you looking for? Were you looking at Street Fighter is such a popular arcade game, we want to include that? What was your thought process?

First of all, I played a ton of Street Fighter [laughs] and just loved Zangief. The name “Zangief” made me laugh. And he’s hairy, and wears red underpants, and everything about Zangief. I am really on the Zangief bandwagon. There’s that. More importantly though, with Bad-Anon as an example, it’s whoever is saying this stuff… You know, Zombie is a fictional character. There’s no “Zombie” in a game. But what he is saying is germane to Ralph’s journey. So whoever it was going to be, be it Zangief, M. Bison, Zombie, a guy based on you, a guy based on me, as long as that character is either getting in Ralph’s way or helping Ralph on his journey, that’s really all that matters. The fact that, yeah, you’re going to get a good laugh from inside gamers who know who Zangief is, you know, more power to it, but really we’re just looking at how is this helping us tell the story.

Were you aware of the internet reaction to Zangief being portrayed as a bad guy?

And I take full responsibility for that.


That’s all me. I argued so hard and so long about it. [Laughs] Rich’s hair grew three shades of grey greyer as a result of this battle. Because I grew up playing Street Fighter, and Zangief was not a good guy! He was very mean to me! Regularly. And in Zangief’s heart of hearts I know he has a little remorse over some of the things he did me, personally. So, no, it’s sort of the idea of… What I do is bad. I squish people. I do spinning piledrivers. All this stuff. But I’m a good guy, and really that’s the message Ralph needs to hear.

I enjoyed the film, but there were two things that I was not as positive on, and I would like to give you an opportunity to discuss this. First off, the film, and I think part of this is the responsibility of the trailer, presents the audience with the idea that this is going to be a world of infinite possibilities. And once the plot gets started, [Ralph] spends most of his time in Sugar Rush [just one game]. What was the thought process that went into keeping him in one game for at least the second half of the film?

First of all, you have to tell a story of characters going on their journey. And for us, Ralph becoming a father figure to Vanellope, and learning… A selfish guy become selfless. That’s the story we set out to tell. So in terms of Sugar Rush, Hero’s Duty, any other place he visits, the idea of putting him in a place where, in the early part of his journey, it’s the worst place he could be. He has his medal, although he’s earned it – “earned” it, by stealing it – and he ends up in this sickly sweet game for children, and it’s the last place he wants to be. And you want to put your hero in a place that’s as bad as it gets for him, and so for us, him meeting this snot-nosed brat while he’s on his way home to do what he set out to do, putting him there, getting him stuck there, was to me the best way of illustrating his journey. Him learning to love her the way a father loves his daughter, or a big brother loves his little sister kind of way, this utterly selfless behavior to me is really what the movie is about. And so yeah, he’s going on all kinds of journeys and hopefully there’s a lot of laughs, but at its core, it’s a story of a guy learning to give of himself, I think.

Has there been talk of expanding Wreck-It Ralph, doing a television series, exploring some of the other worlds you could go to?

We’ve had, there have been other worlds. I don’t know if I talked about Extreme Easy Living 2…?

Not with me.

So, in an early cut, and maybe the first two versions of two screenings, there was another world he went to called Extreme Easy Living 2, which was this morally ambiguous, lawless kind of Sims meets Grand Theft Auto world, where there’s a lot of competitive hot tubbing and flame throwers and utter nonsense. And we loved that world, and it was sort of the worst place. The worst version of Ralph would be that guy who’s sort of given up on all good things. So that was there, but the reason we took that out is, A) it was making the movie too long, B) it didn’t seem like a game that could exist in arcades. Right?

That’s a good point.

It’s something you play on your PC or whatever. So it’s a little bit of a thing where you don’t talk about sequels, and you don’t want… You don’t know how the movie’s going to do, and it’s superstition, but yeah, it would be great to bring some of those things back and see what other journeys and adventures they could have, and yeah, there are countless worlds. And now that you know the characters it’s also… I mean, thinking about the burden that you have, [introducing] each world has its own set of rules, and you only have 90 minutes…

And you have to spend at least half an hour just building up Wreck-It Ralph before the contrast makes sense.


My other question is, and I realize that the film is about being appreciated for what you do well…


But there’s an element, and I think a large part of it is because they’re video game characters and they understand that they’re coded, but that is about… You have a function in, say what you will, “society,” “life,” whatever, and if you try to deviate from that there are some really negative consequences. I’m curious what you think about that interpretation, because I’m sure that’s not exactly what you were going for.

Let me just make sure I’m clear. You’re saying that, because the games are programmed…?

Almost like TR0N. Users have defined our role in a system. So the issues come when Ralph isn’t appreciated for doing his job, which is a valuable function and is necessary, that we learn. [MAJOR SPOILERS deleted, but there are several examples of chaos being created when characters step outside their function.]

I think the parallel that kind of makes sense outside the world of video games is a guy who is an IRS agent, or a dog catcher, or a DMV worker, who has this job, isn’t really appreciated for it, but does a good job and then, at home, maybe has a family. Maybe has friends. Maybe has a bowling night. Which is the purpose of Bad-Anon, which is, look, you do this job, you do it well, maybe not everyone loves you for it, but that doesn’t mean we don’t love you. So I think we tried to avoid the thing of, “You are programmed this way, therefore you are this way.” It’s more, I’m born, my dad is this, my brother is that, I’m kind of this way, based on the way I’m programmed, if you will, but really I can make choices in my life and hang out with who I want to.

But you can’t choose your job.

I can’t choose my job.

I saw that you were attached to a project with the Coen Bros. Could you tell me a little bit about that?

Yeah, it’s called “Harve Karbo,” and it’s P.I. show about a… not unlike Ralph, actually. I’m attracted to angry characters. He’s a guy who has seen the worst humankind has to offer, and is sort of calloused against further disillusion. Like, he’s seen it all, he’s done it all. He lives in El Segundo and is sort of a master P.I. on the west side. Tonally, like Big Lebowski, as a show.