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.
* Director Gavin Hood—who sat in on the group interview we conducted with the Battle School kids– seemed enormously passionate about the film, and one can’t help but wonder if he feels like he may have something to prove after the disastrous critical response to X-Men Origins: Wolverine. When one of us noted that Ender’s Game absolutely seemed to be a passion project for him he said:
“Absolutely. I admit that—growing up in South Africa—I hadn’t read the book. My agent got the book to me, actually, as it happens to be one of his favorite books. And it turned out that I felt quite a connection to it: I was drafted into the military at 17, so in many ways I felt like Ender. I was forced a long way from home into this crazy military environment. I wasn’t sent to Battle School, but I was put on a train and sent a thousand miles away, ended up having this bonding experience with total strangers…so I think (I responded to) a lot of the themes that are great in this book about friendship, identity, and dealing with the pressure of being in this institution that encourages a more aggressive side to you and rewards that.”
* The “bonding” that Hood mentioned there was evident to all of us when speaking with the kids: almost every one of them seemed wise beyond their years, exhibiting that same slightly-bizarre advanced level of maturity that one often finds while interviewing child actors. But moreover, they all seemed liked they genuinely liked one another, and talked at length about the parties and hangouts they engaged in during filming. Could’ve been my imagination, but it also seemed like more than a few of them were in some sort of unspoken competition for the affections of Ms. Steinfeld.
* Later on, one of us pointed out that the book—written in the late 70’s—contains a number of elements that were futuristic at the time, but are now commonplace. Asked how he’d updated elements of the story to still seem futuristic in the year 2013, Hood told us:
“We decided we wouldn’t be ‘excessively sci-fi’, if that’s an appropriate phrase. Because in some ways, the more you try to be ‘gimmicky’, the more you’re pulling the audience’s attention to the gimmick that may not be terribly hip in two or three years’ time, since technology is moving so fast these days. We focused on the things I thought were very original about the book, which were: the Battle Room, the Battle School, the relationships between the characters, (Ender’s) character arch, and the emotional parts of the story. We didn’t want the technology to dominate the characters’ journey. We tried to think of this tech in a forward-thinking but relatable way. We may the desk pads newer, slicker…but we didn’t want it to be all about the tech. Change it too much and it’s ‘Well, that wasn’t in the book’, but don’t change it enough and it’s ‘Well, that’s dated’. It’ll look amazing, but it’s still relatable.”
** The Battle Room that Hood mentions above is one of the book’s (and the film’s) key elements: it’s a massive, spherical chamber where the Battle School students float in zero G while fighting the futuristic equivalent of targets popping up at a shooting range. The room where they filmed these scenes was enormous, with a complicated series of tracks and wires crisscrossing the ceiling. Filming for these sequences took weeks, and often left the cast suspended in mid-air for hours at a time.
** Having a giant, spherical chamber with a dozen cast members floating around and shooting at things was—as you might expect– quite a challenge, but one that Stunt Coordinator Garrett Warren was totally prepared to handle. Asked about bringing Card’s Battle Room vision to life, he told us: “You know, fortunately, I am one of the bigger people in the business that does zero G or does the flying idea, I guess is what you could say. I really did start researching it back on Avatar. And that was when we really started to experiment with various ways to do it. Of course, back with Avatar, we looked for ways to do it underwater as well as in zero G… So, I’d already done a lot of research. I’d already done a lot of development. So, they were able to benefit from the trial and error we’d had done from the years of doing that movie.”
** If you’re curious as to what these zero G/Battle Room sequences are going to look like, you can get a few glimpses of the footage in the film’s trailer.
** Incidentally, Avatar wasn’t the only film that helped realize Warren and Hood’s vision for the Battle Room sequences: the aborted Paradise Lost also played a role in the development of the “flying tech”. Said Warren:
“I had just started on another movie that cancelled and we had started coming up with new apparatus to fly actors so they could do it themselves. It was a movie called Paradise Lost…and I was on that, just before this, and we had developed some ideas for helping actors fly of their own accord. And then this came up and fortunately, as you said, the producers knew of me as well as a number of people and they said this is the go-to guy for this work in the field of what we do. And they brought me in and I said, Lucky for you, I’ve been experimenting with an awful lot of tools that we’re gonna use now. And then, when I got on this, we took it one step further.”
I’ve looked everywhere for people, not just the stunt world. I can tell you that the reason why I went with the Cirque du Soleil people was because in one show, Le Reve… I don’t know if you guys have seen Le Reve, but there’s one show called Le Reve and it’s not Cirque. It’s actually Gregon, who is the guy who helped create Cirque. He created a show over at the Wynn hotel called Le Reve. There’s a girl in there, who’s on a wire, and she’s actually the star, she’s the figurehead of the show and at one point she was in the water and I was there with my wife and she had to get yanked up out of the water. You know, she was on the ground on her back on the water and she gets yanked up from the ground and as she does, she does a front flip and then she stops midair and then she just starts to walk, which is close to impossible to do on a wire without some kind of pendulum or some kind of swing. And when I saw that, my wife thought I was an ass. I don’t know if I can say that word, but my wife thought I was an idiot, because all of a sudden, I went “OH, that’s it! I need her!” and the whole audience is like this, looking. I said, I’m so sorry (laughter all around).”
** The Battle Room sequences clearly lend themselves to the 3D format, and when asked if there’d been any discussion about filming the film in native 3D, Hood told us: “There was. But first of all, it’s considerably more expensive. And frankly, that was…well, it was a huge part of (that decisions). And as an independently financed film, that was difficult. People have been trying to make this film for twenty, thirty years, but because of those complex character archs and development I mentioned before—it wasn’t just a sort-of ‘Let’s go kick the aliens’ ass!’ sort-of thing—it wasn’t going to attract the sort of blockbuster money that would’ve allowed us to shoot in 3D.”
In part two, I’m going to go into a little more detail about what it was like walking around these sets, meeting Harrison Ford, and offer some other choice quotes from the interviews we conducted on the day. That writeup will run next Wednesday, so check back in with us then to get filled in on the rest of what we learned during our Ender’s Game set visit! As always, special thanks to Gavin Hood, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Harrison Ford, the rest of the Ender’s Game cast, and the fine folks at Fons PR for getting this one set up for us! Sound off in the comments section below if you’ve got anything you’d like to add to all this.