I’m just outside New Orleans, standing inside a massive space that’s been filled with what I can only describe as a military base that’s been constructed inside a series of oddly-shaped boulders. They’ve built it for real, and it dwarfs the group of journalists who’ve come to visit the set of Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game. As we watch on a bank of monitors, we see director Gavin Hood direct Asa Butterfield (clad in military cadet garb and almost unrecognizable as the street urchin who scampered his way through Martin Scorsese’s Hugo), and it’s the same “set-up, take, cut, talking; set-up, take, cut, talking” process you see on every set visit.
Except this time Harrison Ford—Indiana goddamn Jones himself—walks up, stands next to us, and nods a hello when I look up to see who’s wandered over. It is immediately one of the most surreal moments of my life. But it’s far from the last amazing thing I’d witness during my Ender’s Game set visit. Find out what else I saw—and what you need to know before the film’s November 1st release—after the jump.
The first thing you need to know about Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game (based on the wildly successful sci-fi novel of the same name by Orson Scott Card) is that it’s big. Like, gigantic. The scope on this thing is ridiculous, which I can’t imagine will displease anyone who’s a fan of the book. The sets we visited—which I’ll be detailing a bit more thoroughly in the second-part of this writeup, which we’ll be running next week—were the biggest I’ve ever seen, and the pre-viz footage we were shown indicated that Summit Entertainment and Lionsgate are sparing no expense when it comes to realizing Card’s vision.
Combined with a cast that includes Sir Ben Kingsley, the aforementioned Harrison Ford, True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld, and Viola Davis, it really seems like Hood and company may have something special on their hands. Of course, megabudget films with all-star casts don’t always stick the landing (*coughTheLoneRangercough*), but—if nothing else—what I saw on set convinced me that everyone involved is serious about getting this one right, and I’m damn curious to see how it all plays out when the film opens November 1st.
Here are 25 things you need to know about the film, all culled from the time we spent on the film’s set last year.
* Here’s the story, for anyone unfamiliar with Card’s novel: a boy named Ender Wiggin (played by Butterfield) gets drafted into a long-running conflict between Earth and and an alien race known as “Formics” (or, um, “Buggers”). In this version of the future, children are trained from a young age to battle said alien threat at a place called Battle School, and Ender’s basically the best student the Battle School’s ever produced. Can he help defeat the Bugger menace once and for all?
* Ford plays Colonel Graff, the gruff, no-nonsense International Military commander who recognizes Ender’s potential and taps him as humanity’s next great hope. At one point early in the film’s development, Card apparently suggested that the role be rewritten for a brash, dryly-comic female in the vein of Janeane Garofalo or Rosie O’Donnell.
* A cool side-note about Ford on-set: we were told en route to the set that Ford wasn’t slated to take part in the interviews we had scheduled for the day, and all of us—about a half-dozen online writers—were really bummed to hear that. Based on what we were told, it didn’t sound as though we’d get a chance to speak with him at all…but at the end of our lengthy interview with the kids and director Gavin Hood, Ford made a surprise appearance, and was gracious enough to speak with us (all of it off the record) for a good ten minutes about…well, anything we wanted. He was warm, friendly, and left every one of us swooning. I’ll have more about this in part-two of this writeup.
* Sir Ben Kingsley (who, sadly, was not on-set when we visited) plays Mazer Rackham, a legendary pilot who was instrumental in kicking serious Formic ass during a key battle between the race and humanity. We were shown pre-viz animations of Rackham’s legendary battle, and it was pretty damn impressive.
* Speaking of Rackham: in Card’s novel, the character is described as a Maori-New Zealander, which—as you probably know—Sir Ben is most definitely not. To better illustrate Rackham’s heritage, Hood and company have covered Sir Ben’s face in traditional Maori tattoos, and…well, there’s no other way to say it: Sir Ben Kingsley looks like a badass with full-on face tattoos (Side Note: according to an interview Card gave in 1998, he would’ve wanted Will Smith or Andre Braugher for the role).
* We were shown the entire film, in a way: before being shown to the actual sets, we were placed in an enormous conference room whose walls were covered—and I mean covered—in storyboards, notes, pre-production art, photos of costumes and makeup effects, and frames from the pre-viz animatics that had been created for the film. From end to end, it told the film’s entire story, right up to its final scene (which—spoiler alert?—definitely leaves room for a franchise, should Hollywood decide to adapt the other books in Card’s series).
* It seemed very much on everyone’s mind that fans wanted more than SFX-heavy set pieces. Said production designer Sean Haworth: “It’s fantastic, but we want it to be realistic, too. At the end of the day, it’s a dramatic story, not just spectacle. You want the world to be believable and take an emotional journey with these kids.”
* To that end, Haworth had done an amazing job: the military base mentioned above had been fully built, with branching pathways that weaved through the boulders (which, it’s worth noting, were actual concrete, not carved Styrofoam), catwalks, windows, and so on. There was also an extensive network of hallways and dormitory rooms in another area, all of which composed the area where the Battle School students lived (at one point, they piled all of us into Ender’s bunk to take a photo, which was both as awesome and as awkward as it sounds). Every one of the kids had his own bunk, locker, and a spot to stand at attention in whenever Colonel Graff would stop by.
* Speaking of “the kids”, the film’s filled with ‘em; it is, in fact, a cast that’s primarily made up of performers who aren’t old enough to drive. At one point we conducted a group interview with virtually every Battle School cadet, all of them sitting around one table. Stars Haillee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield were clearly running that particular show, and when asked what their “highlights” had been filming on-location, Butterfield immediately responded with, “Harrison Ford. He’s quite a character, just amazing. I love working with him. He’s the ideal Graff…in fact, when I read the book, I imagined Ford (in that role.”
* One of the things that stuck with me the most after the visit involved watching Ford play Graff in front of the cameras: when he was ambling about the set, he absolutely looked every one of his 70 years (a certain line about years and mileage comes to mind), but whenever Hood yelled “Action!”, two decades seemed to instantly vanish. Ford stood straighter, talked louder, seemed stronger. Hood will yell, “Cut!”, and he’d go back to being Harrison Ford. As ridiculous as this sounds, it really seemed that being filmed fed his vitality in a perceptible, clearly-visible way.
* Fun Fact: A number of props used in the film were created using 3D printers, including a model of Mazer Rackham’s ship that you’ll see hanging in Ender’s quarters (not the dorm room, but the room he gets promoted into after Battle School). They showed us some of these props—along with some truly badass looking weaponry—and the level of detail was pretty astounding. One can only assume that it’s just a matter of time before George Lucas is 3D printing entire sets.