ENDER’S GAME Set Visit, Part Two: The Surreality of Meeting Harrison Ford

     October 29, 2013

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Midway through February of last year, the good folks at Lionsgate invited about half-a-dozen members of the online press (myself included) out to New Orleans, where director Gavin Hood was midway through production on his $110m adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s  seminal sci-fi novel, Ender’s Game.  Initially, it sounded like it’d be the usual studio-sponsored field trip:  we’d take a tour of some sort, watch a scene or two being filmed, cast members would be made available for interviews, and at some point the film’s director would find the time to talk to us about how things were coming along.  Pretty standard, far as set visits go.

As it turns out, our day on the Ender’s Game set was anything but “standard”.  Meet me after the jump to find out why we needed NASA clearance to get on Hood’s set, what kind of sets you can build inside a 1.87 million square foot building, and what happened during our two separate run-ins with Colonel Graff himself, Harrison Ford.

Once we assembled in New Orleans, the trip quickly lost its par-for-the-course flavor.  In fact, the first curveball arrived before we’d even made it out of the hotel lobby:  someone associated with the production went around handing out ID badges, each marked with our personal info.  Badges at press events aren’t unheard of, of course, but these weren’t marked Press.  These read:  NASA Michoud Assembly Facility:  Visitor’s Badge.

“That’s right,” our badge-distributor told us. “We’re headed to the Michoud Assembly Facility, which is NASA property.  You’ll need these IDs to get on-site.  And make sure ya don’t lose ‘em!”

Our destination seemed to come as a surprise to just about everyone, though not an unpleasant one.  If anything, it gave us something to chatter about once we were en route.  Was there something a NASA facility could offer Hood’s production that he couldn’t find elsewhere?  And what the hell did “Michoud Assembly Facility” assemble?  How big could the place be (and how old)?  Well, here’s some trivia:  turns out that the Michoud Assembly Facility was built in 1940 and ended up appropriated by NASA a few decades later.  From 1973 until 2010, Lockheed Martin used the joint to construct the massive external fuel tanks used on NASA’s space shuttles.  The place sits on 832 acres of land and features 1,870,000 square feet of space.  That’s 1.87 million square feet.  Under one roof.  Here’s what it looked like from the outside:

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And here’s a few shots that show off the building’s interior:

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Neither of these photos truly conveys just how massive and sprawling this entire place was, but they’re the best representations I can find online (we weren’t permitted to take photos on-set).  The view inside was genuinely staggering, appearing so expansive in every direction that staring at it for too long had a way of making one feel as though they’d stepped into some sort of optical illusion.  Once we picked our jaws up off the ground, we were told that the Ender’s Game crew had converted a number of areas within the Facility to suit the production’s needs.   Most of these spaces were given over to stunningly thorough practical sets (and/or certain types of vehicles).

The first such area housed what appeared to be a massive pile of boulders…which upon closer inspection turned out to be a human command center constructed atop an intricate network ofpassageways.  The command center itself is housed in the largest of the boulders, with a window running the length of the place.  You can see Harrison Ford’s Colonel Graff standing that window (with the interior of the command center behind him) in the photo below, which comes from a scene we watched Hood film the day we were on-set.

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The second area contained an even bigger set:  a large chunk of Ender’s Battle School.  This set contained a series of hallways, a medical lab, a Battle School dorm room containing bunk beds and gear lockers (yes, our tour guide pointed out which bunk was Ender’s, and of course all of us piled into it and got someone from the crew to take a photo), a set of “private chambers” that end up being utilized by a character whose identity I’ll refrain from mentioning, and more.  You can get an idea of what these areas looked like in the production photos below, all of which were taken in this set.

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Another area was overrun with tumbling mats, wire harnesses, and large geometric shapes designed for use with a green-screen.  If I’m remembering correctly, this area pulled double duty as both the real-world training room for the film’s young cast (a place to practice fight choreography and wirework skills) as well as the place where Hood and his crew plotted and shot some of the film’s complicated, “zero-G” Battle Room sequences.  As one of the most iconic elements of Card’s novel, Hood seemed to understand how important it was that the film’s Battle Room sequences be incredible.

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There were other areas (one area, for example, had been given over entirely to the film’s costume department), but those were the most notable.  I think it’d be fair to say that we were all impressed by the sets, costumes, and props we were shown.  Everything had weight to it, and everything incorporated as part of the set design seemed to have a function; there didn’t seem to be a lot of “Hey, let’s shove this into that cuz it’ll look badass!” going on.  Once we’d been given a tour of the entire operation, we were returned to the “Boulder/Command Center” set, where Hood was filming a tense dialogue exchange with Asa Butterfield and another actor.  It was at this point that we had our first of two run-ins with Harrison Ford.

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Let me set pause here to provide a little background, if only to put these encounters in context.  We’d all arrived in New Orleans hoping that Ford would be on-set during our visit, and of course we were also hoping that he’d be one of the many interviews we’d end up tackling over the course of the day.  On the ride from the hotel to the set, however, we were told that Ford wasn’t on our to-do list, and that it was likely we wouldn’t end up having much—if any—interaction with him on-set.  The implication was that Ford would prefer to keep to himself, that doing interviews on an already-busy day simply wasn’t something he wanted to sign up for.  This jibed with stories we’d all heard about Ford in relation to the press, so it wasn’t exactly shocking.  Everyone was bummed about this turn of events, but…well, them’s the breaks, y’know?  No sense sulking about it.

Now it’s five hours later, and we’re standing in front of several monitors watching as Hood directs Butterfield and his co-star through their scene inside the Boulder/Control Center.  All around us, production assistants and various crew members were quietly milling around, sometimes stopping to watch the action as it repeated on the monitors but mostly just going about their business.  This went on for fifteen minutes or so before someone approached on my left, stopped, and began watching the scene along with us.  A few moments passed before I looked over and realized that the new spectator—the guy standing about a foot away—was Harrison Ford.  My brain promptly imploded.

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Perhaps sensing that the guy standing to his right had just gone into a profound state of overstimulation, Ford turned and looked at me.  His eyes narrowed a bit, and then he looked beyond me to the people standing nearby.  You could see the wheels turning in his head as he did the math (“Who the hell is this guy?  Wait, who are these people?!  Wait…what’s today, Wednesday?  Aw, shit, this must be the visiting press.  Time to retreat”), and once he’d figured it out he offered a little nod before quickly escaping to less potentially-inquisitive (not to mention geeky) environs.  Those of us who’d noticed him standing spent the next ten minutes shaking off the utter surreality of the moment, while those who hadn’t seen him spent the next twenty minutes repeating variations on, “I can’t believe I didn’t see him standing there!”

Soon after, we were brought into a sparsely-decorated conference room to begin a lengthy, mass-interview with the young stars of the film.  They were a fun group to talk to, proud of the work they’d put into the project and excited to be involved with something so huge.  Stars Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld– both of whom have experience dealing with the press thanks to their work in other high-profile projects (Butterfield in Hugo, Steinfeld in True Grit)– were clearly considered leaders among the other cast members, and ended up fielding many of the questions themselves.  Eventually, Hood entered the room, sat down, and joined in the fun, and by the time we wrapped up our chat with him another hour had passed.  Hood and his small army of young actors filed out of the room, while our handler stepped outside for a moment.

After a few minutes, we all stood to stretch and put away our audio recorders.  Idle chit-chat took place as we waited for our chaperone to return, presumably bearing news regarding our next on-set appointment.   We were all standing along the room’s front wall when the conference room door opened and Harrison Ford walked in, trailing our PR handler behind him.  This time, everyone saw him.  The room went silent, nobody moved.

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He looked around, then approached further.  Thanks to the way we’d ended up standing along the room’s front wall, we’d inadvertently formed a half-assed greeting line for Ford’s arrival.  I was closest to the door, so he stopped at me first.  Ford stuck out one hand and said, “Hello.  I’m Harrison.”

“I know,” I replied.

He asked my name and I told him, and then—one-by-one—he went around and introduced himself to everyone.  With that out of the way, he started talking about how the film was coming along, and before he’d even finished his first sentence everyone in the room was diving for their audio recorders.  Our handler saw what was happening and reacted immediately, lunging forward and quickly explaining that this wasn’t an interview:  Harrison Ford had agreed to swing by and shoot the shit with us for a while, but it was all off-the-record and informal.  Apparently he’d been told how bummed we were upon hearing about his “no press during production” policy, and had either decided or been guilt-tripped into paying us a visit.  Our audio recorders disappeared in record time.

For the next ten minutes or so, the six of us stood in that empty, little conference room, chatting up one of cinema’s most iconic performers.  I wish I could remember more details about that conversation, but—quite frankly—it’s a blur.  In person, Ford is gracious, charming, a little warmer than you might expect given his reputation with the press, though a bit quiet.  He also looked and sounded a tad weary, older than I expected and thinner.   This observation led to an interesting moment towards the end of the day.

We’d returned to the monitors, and were watching Hood film a scene wherein Ford’s Graff delivered a chunk of stern dialogue while Hood dollied in on him, the camera coming to a stop just as Ford’s mini-monologue ended.  The timing of the camera and Ford’s lines wasn’t quite lining up, and Hood had Ford run through the bit several times, with each attempt broken up by a minute or two while the camera was being returned to its original position on the dolly track.  We all noticed the way Ford’s shoulders squared up when Hood yelled “Action”, the way his chest seemed to swell a little while delivering his lines, the way his eyes seemed more alert and powerful with the camera rolling.  As soon as Hood yelled “Cut”, you could see Ford wilting a little.  As hackneyed and absurd as this may sound, Ford literally seemed to be drawing energy from Hood’s rolling camera.

What were we seeing there, exactly?  Was it the obvious thing:  a lifelong actor reacting to a running camera the same way that a shaded flower reacts to the sun?  Maybe we were seeing Ford’s attempt to bring a military physicality to the role?  Hey, who knows?  Maybe he was just genuinely engaged by the material.  Y’know, I kinda hope that’s the answer:  it’d be great to see Harrison Ford firing on all cylinders again.

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Will Ender’s Game provide us with a fully-engaged Ford performance?  I’ve not seen the film yet, but I’ve been told that he’s great in it.  I’ve also heard he and Asa Butterfield seem to have work off one another well on-screen.  Could be hype, could be the real deal.  Guess we’ll find out soon enough:  Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game opens on November 1st.

Special thanks to Lionsgate, Summit, the folks at Fons PR, Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, and everyone else who made our day on the Ender’s Game set so memorable.

For more on Ender’s Game, here’s the first part of my set visit, where I list 25 things to know about Gavin Hood’s epic sci-fi adaptation.

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