How Director Michael Keillor Set the Tone of Grand Theft Auto

Michael Keillor probably isn’t a name that many fans of the Grand Theft Auto series are familiar with. Not only does the writer/director not talk much about his work on the game, but if you look at the credits for Grand Theft Auto 2, he’s listed under “Documentation,” an ambiguous role you may confuse for a position in admin or marketing. However, during his brief stint on the Grand Theft Auto series, he played a huge part in establishing its irreverent tone, arguably laying the groundwork for the games’ future success. 

Keillor was responsible for writing and recording Grand Theft Auto 2’s satirical advertisements and DJ chatter, a feature that helped define the future direction of the series and established the offbeat nature of the game’s world. It’s a story that’s been buried under poor crediting, and one I only stumbled across recently when chatting with the former DMA Design and Rockstar North audio lead Colin Anderson for PC Gamer. Anderson believes Keillor hasn’t received nearly as much credit as he’s due for his influence on the game, so I tracked the writer down to hear more about his experiences working on Grand Theft Auto 2. 

Welcome to Liberty City 

Now an experienced TV and film director, Keillor wasn’t too hard to find, although he has now left the games industry and gaming behind. Speaking to me from a sunny beach in the UK, he walked me through his memories of joining DMA Design — the original developers of Grand Theft Auto — and putting his own stamp on the Grand Theft Auto series. 

It was Colin MacDonald, the producer on Grand Theft Auto 2 and an old school friend of Keillor’s who invited him to work on the series. At this point, the first Grand Theft Auto had just been released to great success, with Brian Baglow handling the writing duties and trying his best to wring some sense of a living, breathing city out of the in-game pager used to deliver dialogue. However, the series had yet to make the leap into recording voice actors or establishing the brash, satirical voice it would become known for.

“Colin knew that I was writing films and trying to get into filmmaking and basically thought they needed a different kind of writer,” Keillor explains. “Because they didn’t have anyone to write the story basically. They had some outline gang characters, I remember… and they basically wanted me to flesh out the world beyond that.”

When he joined DMA Design, Keillor didn’t know too much about gaming. As a result, it was a bit of a strange fit for the aspiring filmmaker. He remembers that while the folks at DMA would spend their lunch breaks playing video games and showing off their skills, he’d more than likely sit outside reading a book or hanging out with the audio team, who had their own space away from the hustle and bustle of the rest of the studio. It was this group of individuals, particularly Colin Anderson and Craig Conner, who he found himself working closely alongside. Anderson had been the one to originally suggest the idea of having radio stations, while Conner was integral in getting the radio stations into the game and was involved with the series as recently as Grand Theft Auto V, where he served as music director.  

Courting Controversy

The original intention for Grand Theft Auto 2, according to Keillor, was for the in-game text to be more X-rated and adult than the first game in order to lean into the press generated by the first game’s marketing campaign, but this changed during development, with both Sony and DMA Design wanting to go for a cleaner, more utilitarian approach.

“They sort of pulled back and it ended up quite perfunctory and quite informative…” says Keillor. “There’s a shit ton of dialogue, because it had to come up everywhere. But for me it wasn’t the most interesting thing.” 

Instead, Keillor was more interested in writing the advertisements for the radio, an area of the game where he had a lot more freedom to do what he wanted. Getting together with the audio team, he’d pitch ideas for skits, trying his best to sneak in as much political or outrageous content into the game as he could. 

“Nobody cared about the radio stations and nobody cared about the adverts, so I just needed to fill this stuff in,” says Keillor. “I just sort of had carte blanche to do whatever I want… It was very irreverent. I think that was just the humour of all the 23/24-year olds in Dundee and the films we were watching. This was a few years after Trainspotting and Tarantino and all the stuff like that. So we were all sort of hyped on that stuff.”

It was from his pitch sessions with the audio department that the idea for the more irreverent ads came about, featuring concepts like “DNA food” (a take-off of GMO foods), “S-Uzi” (a gun advert poking fun at the USA’s fetishization of firearms), and “3rd World Bank” (a commercial about corporations squirreling away money in illegal business opportunities overseas). These ads were punchy, satirical, and surprisingly clean enough to get past the censors, with Keillor comparing the effect to animated films like Toy Story that hide their adult humor behind layers of innuendo.

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Grand Theft Auto 2

New York, New York

Keillor has many stories from his time working on Grand Theft Auto 2, but one that stands out is about a trip to New York he took with Craig Conner to record the voiceovers, — on which he mistakenly cost the studio thousands of dollars. The story goes that the recordings were so disorganized and chaotic that nobody informed him that the voice actors charged per voice, so during the recording he asked the cast of experienced actors to experiment with different voices, working through a bunch of material and trying out different variations for each ad. 

As he recalls, “I’d come in and… go ‘Can you give me something like this?’ and basically made it up. That was just how disorganized everything was. Nobody knew what the fuck they were doing.” He’s now able to laugh about it, having had plenty of experience since working with actors, but at the time he the atmosphere with Rockstar/Take Two was both tense and “incredibly male and hierarchical in an unhealthy way,” with a number of egos at play, including his own. 

“They wanted everyone to agree with them,” says Keillor. “It was sort of a Trumpian camp there. And so, I can vividly remember being in New York with Dan Houser, and me sort of me saying, ‘You need to get the actors here on time, you know, we’ve got studio time.’ Because I was working in the film industry at the same time on film sets — it was in quite a new role, but I knew how you treated actors and to be professional and I remember having these stand-up rows in New York, because they were just so disorganized.” 

As Grand Theft Auto 2 neared completion, Keillor’s relationship with DMA’s publishers Rockstar and Take Two deteriorated further, as the studio was “gutted” and transitioned into Rockstar North, a new base in Edinbrugh. Today, he believes it was his dissenting voice that put him on the chopping block. Nevertheless, his thumbprint is all over the later games in the brash, daft, advertisements that accompany the player as they drive from mission to mission – many of which continue the irreverent and erratic tone he helped establish. If anything, he sees the experience as a positive, helping to shape his own attitude towards collaboration and accepting criticism.

He comments, “From my end, I have no real beef with the Housers, I knew what they were like then and they got rid of me because I was a dissenting creative voice. They basically got rid of anyone who disagreed with their approach. It clearly made them successful in gaming… but I learnt a lot about how not to treat people from working on GTA 2 and that has stood me in good stead as a director who now enjoys the creative influence of all my collaborators.”

Since working on Grand Theft Auto 2, Keillor has gone on to have a successful career in television as a director, working on everything from Shameless (the UK version) to Mr Selfridge and Line of Duty. His most recent credit is an upcoming show called Roadkill, starring Hugh Laurie as a controversial conservative minister, currently in post-production.

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