SSN spoke with Gavin Hood, the acclaimed writer-director of Ender’s Game. In describing his goals for the project, the thoughtful and forthright Hood gives the sense that the end result wasn’t about him but about threading the film with meaning and purpose. As a director, his aim was to craft an entertaining, spectacular blockbuster that, at the same time, deepened our gaze into our collective moral conscience. It was in that spirit that Hood embarked on a years-long journey to translate the Hugo Award-winning novel Ender’s Game into an epic feast for both the eyes and mind.
Gavin Hood’s journey goes into the dystopian world of Ender’s Game, in which children are used as unwitting soldiers against an alien invasion. The children are trained in a military school by gruff Colonel Graff, played by Harrison Ford, to fight the forces using a videogame to orchestrate the action. The novel, Ender’s Game, written by Orson Scott Card in 1985, was originally at Warner Bros. for years before being picked up by Oddlot Entertainment.
Hood read the novel five years ago when his agent sent it over. He was immediately taken with it and thought, “Wow! I really like the themes and ideas. I was a little naïve, I didn’t realize how complicated it would be to bring to the screen. So I said yes, I’d love to take a meeting on this.” He took the meeting at Oddlot and signed on to adapt the novel himself. This isn’t the first time the director has adapted screenplays he later directs. In Desert and Wilderness and the critically acclaimed Tsotsi precede his work on Ender’s Game. As a filmmaker he likes molding a script at the onset because, as he says, “Without a great script, you’re really battling.”
Hood is known for his unflinching look at reality. In 1993, he won the Diane Thomas Screenwriting Award for his script A Reasonable Man. Steven Spielberg and Michael Douglas were among the judges. The win opened doors for him, but he also encountered Hollywood meddling from the start. For instance, producers wanted to put an American spin on his South African story and change the stark tone with a happy ending. But, instead of allowing Hollywood executives to dismantle his story, Hood declared he would direct the project himself. And, thus, the opened doors slammed shut. He made the film in his home country, South Africa, and in 1999, A Reasonable Man won the Ecumenical Jury Award at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Not one for light material, Hood was pulled into the Ender’s Game novel by, “the core idea of a young person who is capable of great compassion but is also capable of terrible violence. The way he needs to find his own balance between those emotions, in order to be a decent human being and also a good leader was an interesting idea you don’t often see in mainstream film. It’s tricky and much easier to do a film about a good person who is wronged and spend the rest of the movie taking revenge and by the end they set the world right.”
After a year and a half of adapting the material, Hood was ready for casting. In the novel, the lead character, Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, progressed in age from six to thirteen, but Hood decided to compress the story into a year’s time in order to build consistency with one actor. After auditioning children of all ages, he found in Asa Butterfield an actor, “right on the edge, a boy on the verge of manhood.”
The novel is set in a militarized culture where soldiers are under immense pressure to win at all costs. “Ender is still trying to please until … he takes responsibility for his own moral direction in life.” Hood adds, “We needed a young actor who could be both believable as young and vulnerable and looking up to authority but by end of film you would believe he’d be able to stop Colonel Graff in his tracks. He becomes a man when confronting that character.”
On the questions Ender’s Game raises, Hood says, “How do we navigate in a world where videogames are more and more realistic and wars are more and more fought at a distance and still maintain our humanity in that world?”
While the novel exquisitely captured the internal conflicts of the character while playing a videogame, translating those internals to the visual medium presented challenges. “The jeopardy is what’s happening in his head. Is he going to succeed or fail at this test? It’s a little bit like the jeopardy you get when watching Bobby Fischer playing chess. The stress isn’t that someone’s going to cut his head off, but rather its intellectual strain and it’s a hard thing to make cinematically appealing. By creating a beautiful, magnificent game with amazing battleships and action going on around him, you give it cinematic energy.”
So after giving ample consideration to the visual translation, Hood found his inspiration for creating the battle room by hanging out with his kids. “I was in the planetarium with my kids and I said, ‘Well, there’s a huge projector above my head projecting stars and planets all around me in this giant dome. What if I took that idea and projected not only onto a surface but actually created a holographic kind of game all around my characters so that he’s immersed in the game?’”
Tsotsi, Rendition and even X-Men Origins: Wolverine were all shot on location, but Ender’s Game was a different matter. “The only thing we built in the battle room environment was the gate they jump out of. After that the entire room is entirely CG, and it has to look photo-real,” explains Hood. “We built the battle room in the computer in real dimensions so I could take virtual cameras into that space and use animated little characters to block out those battle scenes.”
Directing a film with child actors presented its own challenges since they could only work five-hour days. To keep the production on schedule, Hood’s mantra became prepare, prepare, prepare. “We sent all the actors on a training period before we started shooting. We did a lot of work on wires and trained with Cirque du Soleil performers to build their core strength, because it’s really hard to work on wires and not look like you’re breaking out in a sweat. They needed to be fit and to train on those wires so that by the time they got to the set, we could concentrate on the emotional work between them and not worry about harness mechanics and balance.”
Hood was more than ready to shoot after extensive pre-viz, “We had a lot of pre-viz and concept art and design in order to show the actors what on earth it was going to look like. You’re jumping out into green screen, what is the world I’m in? We pre-vized the battle and cave simulation scenes extensively so I could show the stunt department, visual effects departments and actors what we’re trying to execute today. It’s a complicated ballet of different departments, but it only works if you prepare well.”
Even with an estimated budget of $110 million (according to StudioSystem), the money was tight. And much of it went into creating dazzling visual environments. Practically the entire film was shot on green screen so the battle room, alien planet and simulation cave all had to be conceptualized from scratch. “The amount of money needed to develop each of those environments, never mind create the shots themselves, is enormous,” says Hood.
Creating four environments almost entirely in post was no easy task. “It’s easy when you watch the film and forget how many environments Digital Domain had to create,” Hood recalls.
In the novel, the battle room was simply a black box, but Hood transformed that idea for film. After visiting the Disney Concert Hall, he was inspired and modeled Ender’s movements within the battle room on the energy orchestra conductor. In order to see all the action going on around him, he envisioned a glass sphere in which Ender uses iPad like gestures to interact within the game. “I wanted to play with light in different ways in each scene. There are four battles in that room and each time I wanted the mood to be different. One of the advantages of a giant glass sphere is you can have the sun streaming through in one scene, an eclipse in another scene, or have the sun singe the edge of the earth with softening amber light. Each of those scenes has a different mood depending on the emotions of the scene.”
But accounting for reflections was a challenge. Hood says, “The glass sphere requires you have artists dedicated to virtually creating glass, how reflections hit that glass, how light bends through that glass. The amount of technical challenges in creating that room were utterly enormous.[Visual effects supervisor] Matthew Butler and his team deserve massive praise for the way they tackled that.”
Hood relishes delving into the yin and yang of human nature. “What’s distilled into this one 12-year-old boy is the human struggle. Humanity as a species is capable of great kindness and compassion and equally capable of horrible destruction and violence.” Reflecting on that paradox, he adds, “How are we as humans, capable of caring so much about three whales stuck under the ice that we’ll send tons of money and ice breakers, and yet we can be indifferent and participate in terrible destruction?”
Hood wants his audience to experience an entertaining spectacle that engages them by asking questions about profounder themes. “Ender’s journey,” he says is, “our journey as we struggle to define our better selves and to reconcile within ourselves these conflicting impulses.”
After years playing in the futuristic sandbox of Ender’s Game, an exhausted Hood says of his future plans: “I just want to crash for a minute and play with my kids.”
Ender’s Game opens wide in the US today, November 1.
Alfonso Cuarón in His Own Words: From Film School to ‘Gravity’
Behind the Headlines and Inside the Production of ‘The Fifth Estate’
ROI Insight: Why It’s Better to Double-Down When it Comes to Ridley Scott