Ahoy, squirts! Quint here. I was intrigued when an Ender's Game adaptation finally pushed past the development stage and made it into production. That book has been a hot property for as long as I've been covering movie news. I remember back in the Phantom Menace days Jake Lloyd was attached to play Ender... thank God that didn't happen.
If you've read the book then you know it's a tough nut to crack. High on character and moral ambiguity, the novel isn't like the current crop of young adult fiction being adapted in an attempt to grab some of that Potter/Twilight/Hunger Games money, although I'd be surprised if the successes of those films didn't help in some way push Ender's Game over the financial hump.
The action in the book all takes a backseat to character development as we follow a brilliant child made even more cunning through cruel mind games from the adults in his life, all for a purpose that is about as far from heroic as you can get.
The worry with any adaptation of this novel is that it would be stripped down to a simple “chosen young man” story, leaving behind all the elements of Orson Scott Card's novel that actually set it apart from the rest and kept it on best seller lists for years.
Summit graciously offered me my own exclusive day on the set to check it out for myself. Going in I was hoping for the best, but was cautiously optimistic. Gavin Hood's Tsotsi was fantastic, but X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a huge mess. It was such a huge mess, however, that it's pretty clear that Hood couldn't have shouldered the entire responsibility for that movie failing so miserably.
All this was kicking around in my head as I headed to the New Orleans set. I knew that no matter what Hood had cast his lead well. Asa Butterfield might be a tad old for the Ender of the book, but he's one of our best working young actors and I'll take a great actor that's slightly different from the book over “he's good enough” and the right age. He had a good Ender, all that was left was to see how seriously he was taking the job and how much of weirdness of the book survived the adaptation process.
Almost as if they knew my biggest worry about the movie was the homogenization of the source material my first stop once getting past all the ridiculous security (they were filming inside an old NASA hanger that still had rocket parts hanging from the cavernous interior, believe it or not) was to the production office where producers Linda McDonough and Roberto Orci were waiting for me in a room with walls lined with production art and a TV sitting on the conference table.
I got a look at the art before the video was ready and the first big sign that this might work as an adaption were in a little corner featuring some pretty crazy storyboards. The first thing I'd assume would be gone from the book in a movie version of Ender's Game is Ender's video game. In the story he has a rather psychotic psychological game he is given to play that forces Ender to abstractly deal with his various issues.
It's supposed to be a kind of Kobayashi Maru, an unwinnable game that has the player meeting a giant who offers two cups. The player has to choose one. If he chooses right, he's taken off to “Fairyland” and if he chooses wrong he dies. The problem is both cups are poison, so most kids get frustrated with this game right off the bat, but Ender figures out a quite violent way to beat it.
Needless to say, seeing storyboards featuring a dead giant from this video game was the first sign that they were keeping at least some of the weird shit in play. I was told they were going to do a whole Mo-Cap shoot for the video game element once they wrapped principal photography.
The prepared video was a lot of animatics and early VFX tests, mostly surrounding how Battle School would look and how the flash gun games would be explained visually. I guess I should back up a bit and explain the set up in case some of you folks reading this aren't hip to the story.
Basically there was a massive alien invasion of Earth many years prior to this story. Humanity was almost overwhelmed, but through a combination of luck and the work of a combat fighter with a keen strategic mind the aliens were repelled. As the story starts the grown ups of the world are saying another attack is imminent and if humanity is going to survive it this time they need to find another brilliant strategist who can think like the aliens, so a program is created to find, train and mold young children to be these minds.
Ender is found and one of the top brass, Col. Graff, feels like he's one of their best shots, but in order for him to reach his full potential his humanity has to be squashed through a cruel combination of reward and punishment.
Battle School is a space station above Earth, this is where the brightest kids are brought. Lots of egos are involved and it being a sort of militarized program that means violent solutions are often the solution to conflict amongst the cadets.
This Battle School has regular games in Zero G environments that let the children test out strategic theories and train them to think in three dimensions when coming up with battle strategies. Two armies fight each other with flash guns that paralyze the target hit (think of an epic laser tag battle in Zero G) and the goal is to capture the other team's gate.
Being so central to the story, the actual battles themselves had to stand out and I was curious how they were going to make it look engaging and not just a bunch of kids floating around in a dark room. The filmmakers' solution was pretty interesting. The space station itself is very Kubrickian mixed with a Mass Effect cold sci-fi style with the Battle Room a big crystal-like orb in the middle.
So, instead of a cold black room the kids will be floating against a star field, the Earth and even the sun, which I was told could very well play a part in some of Ender's battles.
One of my favorite bits of pre-vis showed how they're visualizing the effect of the flash guns paralyzing the battle suits. The sequence I saw had Bean and Ender testing things out. One of them gets shot in the leg and the camera zoomed in to a macro view of the suit's fabric, which responds to the laser and stiffens. So that's how they explain the paralysis and how if you're shot in the leg it's only your leg that is locked up. The shot, even in this early form, struck me as a smart way to show how the battles work instead of telling us in exposition.
It was time to leave the pre-production tour and go to the actual set to watch some filming. I was especially eager because I was told Harrison Ford was filming that day.
I met Ford once before on my visit to the set of Cowboys and Aliens (read that report here, even though the server switched messed up the formatting) and I was proud of myself for not geeking out on him. The only movie of his I brought up was The Mosquito Coast, but when I took a seat behind the monitors and saw him working with Butterfield I could tell immediately that I wasn't going to play it quite so cool this time around. I don't know if I was in a friskier mood or if I viewed this as my second chance that I couldn't let pass me by.
I was sitting with Harrison's assistant and Orci and I was told I'd be getting 1:1 interviews with most of the cast and Gavin, but that Harrison didn't want to do an official interview, however he would come over and have a more informal chat. It was then that I told those two to prepare for me to let loose a little geekout on Mr. Ford. The response was in the “good luck with that” ballpark.
Ford had his shot to finish before he would head over and the great 2012 Geekout would commence. The camera was behind him on Asa as Graff was reprimanding Ender for not taking the orders of his commander, a vicious little guy named Bonzo (The Kings of Summer's Moises Arias). Graff sits behind a desk, which has a glass top and he's flicking his finger across it as if it was a giant iPad and he's scrolling through various files while talking, Ender standing at attention in front of him.
Apparently Ender is top in everything... battle room ratings, test scores... but “you have a habit of upsetting your commander.”
Ender replies “I find it hard to respect someone just because he outranks me, sir.” At this, Graff leans back in his chair, giving Ender his full attention, rocking back and forth slightly.
”That puts you in a difficult position, doesn't it? You don't like taking orders from Bonzo... perhaps you'd prefer to give them,” says Graff slyly, kind of like a parent about to unveil a Christmas present. Ender is confused. “Sir?”
Graff: “How would you like your own army? Dragon Army.”
Ender: “Sir, I've never heard of Dragon Army.”
Graff: “We discontinued the name four years ago. No Dragon Army ever won a battle.”
Ender: “Why not a new name, sir?”
Graff: “Because we already have the uniforms.”
Ender: “Who will be in this army?”
Graff: “Misfits, like yourself. Outcasts who might just be brilliant with the right commander.”
That was the scene, the focus being on Ender's surprise to be given his own army when he thought he was going to be chewed out for insubordination. Ford got looser as each take went up. He messed up an earlier one, missed a line, and said to Gavin “Can we start again?” After getting a yes and as the camera was moving back to starting position he finished with a “Why not? It's the same price.” I don't know why that stood out to me enough to make a note of it, but it did and I still love it. It fits Harrison for some reason.
With my headphones I could hear everything the mic picked up, so I could hear Hood giving direction and tweaking performances over the handful of takes he needed to get the shot. The biggest one was for Asa to not get in a rehearsed pattern when responding to Harrison. He felt it was getting a bit too rigid and told Asa not to take the same amount of time with each response. Asa changed up for the next take and it felt more natural.
At one point Hood went up to Harrison and asked him to really put Asa on the spot with the “You don't like taking orders from Bonzo” line. “Make him squirm” is how Hood put it. And when you tell Harrison Ford to make someone squirm goddamnit they squirm, as I was soon to find out myself.
I could hear Hood talking to someone near camera, but out of earshot from the actors and he was telling them the moments he needed to get because he wanted to cut in to closeups for most of the scene, but wanted the wide establishing shot as an option. He said he was actually using the wide as form of rehearsal for Harrison and Asa before getting in close where they had to be 100% on point.
On the next take, Hood called out “Nailed it! We're matching to that take.” The crew started moving equipment for the next shot in Graff's office. The actors left and while I expected to get some time with Harrison I didn't expect it right away, so I was a little taken aback when he almost seemed to walk off the monitor and into my reality, taking a seat in the director's chair next to me.
Orci introduced us and I reminded him that we met once before. I couldn't tell if he remembered or not, but we started talking about the impressive set design and how that was what convinced him to join the production. He also started complimenting Hood's script, saying he found a way to take the film out of Ender's head and opened up the scope.
I could sense Orci waiting for the promised geekout... he might as well have had some popcorn out. There was a long silence and I kind of blurted out “When I met you last time I didn't want to geek out on you and freak you out, but I have something geeky I want tell you.” He smiled (that trademark Indiana Jones half smile) and said, “Okay...” and I could feel Orci and Harrison's assistant lean in, ready for the show.
”I just wanted to tell you that I think Temple of Doom is incredibly underrated.”
Silence. Harrison was just kind of looking straight ahead. “Oh, fuck me,” I thought. Now he's just going to sit for a second, then calmly walk away and probably curse out one of the producers for letting me near him.
But that didn't happen, thankfully. After an incredibly long silence, as if he was trying to find the right words, he said that he appreciated me saying that. He's always liked it, too. Sweet relief!
”There's only one scene I don't like in it,” Ford continued. I asked which scene, genuinely curious, and he said it was the monkey brains scene. Now, I love this scene and was about to voice a rebuttal, but... well, Harrison was still talking and you do not interrupt Harrison Ford. If you do you could very well get the Finger of Doom and God help you if that happens.
He said that when the movie came out a lot of Hindu and Indian groups bashed it for stereotyping and he disagreed with them when considering most of the movie, but said that that one scene is so comical and over the top that it fed that particular fire unnecessarily.
I mentioned that I had recently tried to change Spielberg's opinion of the movie when I did my big interview with him, going so far as to tell him he needs to quit beating up on Temple of Doom so much. Harrison said that he thinks Steven was really hurt by the ratings controversy that sprung up around the movie. Ford isn't kidding about that, by the way. I've read a lot of reviews from the time of Doom's release and the critics were cruel, saying Spielberg's movie was mean-spirited and harmful to kids. Hell, Harlan Ellison wrote that between producing Gremlins and directing Temple of Doom Spielberg was actively ruining childhoods.
Spielberg sees himself as a big kid (just watch the extras on the ET blu and see him geeking out about arcade games with the kids if you don't believe me) and I bet you that stuff took its toll on him. At any rate, Ford said he thought that might have helped color the experience for Steven.
There was a little more smalltalk, but pretty soon Harrison was called away and I got to take a wander around the sets sporting a big dumbass grin on my face because I successfully talked with Harrison Ford about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
One thing that stood out to me about the first series of sets was that the monitors and displays set in the gray, military style walls were actual backlit panels instead of green cards that would be filled in later with some CG wizardry. It was a small touch that I hope translates as something noticeable on film, but I can definitely say it stood out in person, helped create the illusion of actually being on the space station.
Orci led me over to a second stage that had the gate to the battle room and the battle room itself. Walking up to the Gate was pretty impressive. The stairs were industrial steel and the warnings on the walls and floors all helped sell the illusion of the set. On the floor, just before the gate, the words “Warning: Null G Beyond This Line” were stenciled in.
Before exploring the actual battle room, I was allowed to hold one of the hero Flash Gun props, which was a sleek, metallic pistol that actually lit up when you pulled the trigger. Naturally the laser will be CG, but it was still cool.
Looking through the gate I could see the polygon shapes called “stars” that are moved around from fight to fight, and can provide cover becoming crucial keys in winning strategies. They were placed around the room on gimbals. The room was huge, by the way. A green curtain draped along the wall... or at least I thought it was the wall. Orci and I ventured behind this curtain and found that the big room we were in was actually about 20 times bigger. This was the massive hangar that still stored a ton of NASA's stuff, including house-sized structures draped in plastic and the pieces of space shuttles that fall away as the shuttle takes off into the atmosphere. A few Raiders of the Lost Ark and Area 51 jokes were made and then we moved on.
I didn't spend much time in the Battle Room set, but I did see Hailee Steinfeld film a scene with Khylin Rhambo, who plays Dink Meeker. It's one of Ender's gambits where one person from his army is sacrificed and used as a human shield. In this case Dink is frozen into place and Petra (Steinfeld) takes his flash gun and fires John Woo style as Dink hugs her, protecting her from enemy fire.
In order to get this shot they had to get on a weird little contraption that the wire team called the lollipop. Imagine a bar stool seat attached to a long stick with one affixed wire attached at the middle. Hailee sat on the seat, Dink on the bar, his arms over her shoulders and her legs wrapped around his waist with both her arms shot out under his shoulders firing away as they float away from the enemy gate.
Dink whispers “Did you get him?” Petra smiles and says, “Oh yeah.” He's looking behind her and sees their momentum is taking them on a crash course with a star and they both cringe, anticipating the impact.
We watched them set this up and shoot a few times, but ended up back at main unit for Harrison and Asa's close-ups. Asa was first to go and while he was good in the wide it was in these close ups that I really saw Ender come alive. Asa was doing small things, like grinding his teeth when he thinks he's in trouble causing his jaw muscles to pulsate... it made him look both nervous, impatient, angry and eager all at once.
Hood tweaked the moment when Graff gives Ender Dragon Army the most. His key direction was a subtle shift in eye line so that Ender goes from avoiding Graff's gaze throughout the scene to his eyes shifting over to meet Graff's when he surprises him with Dragon Army. When he got that down, I heard Hood say “That's it! I read the thank you on your face.”
I could tell Hood was excited about how the scene was coming together as he worked with Asa and when he called cut on the last take he exclaimed “You have no idea how nice it is to see scenes that have been hanging around in my head for two and a half years turn out better than I imagined!”
While they were changing angles for Harrison's close up, I caught Orci flipping through AICN talkbacks on his iPad. I wish I could remember which story he was on, but yep... when you see him pop up that's for sure him, which probably means he's read almost as much shit talk about himself as Harry has.
When he disengaged from the talkback, he told me a cool piece of Ender's Game trivia: Apparently Asa Butterfield has grown two and half inches since beginning the movie. Orci said it works because they were shooting in sequence so we'll actually get to see Ender grow up a little bit in the movie.
Harrison's close ups were varied. He gave Gavin a lot of choices (something he mentioned in our official interview at Comic-Con this year). His first few takes he played it unblinking and intense and by the end he gave a more relaxed performance with a more humorous reading of the “we already have the uniforms” line. That gives Hood his choice of how to portray Graff in this scene when they hit the editing room.
My favorite moment from Harrison's closeups was when he flubbed a line in one of the first takes. He leans forward dramatically on the line “Perhaps you'd like to give them yourself,” the moment he indicates he may be promoting Ender. On one take he leaned forward dramatically and says “Perhaps you'd like to... fuck shit...” then indicated he needed the line read back to him.
One of the last sets I got to tour was Eros, a bug planet that the Earth army has taken over as their command base for the big events of the third act.The hallways and rooms have a very ant farm feel, but as if an ant farm was blown up to larger-than-human proportions. The military has built into this architecture so what you're left with is a weird hybrid of two different intelligent species.
It was a massive build, which I'm always happy to see. I love the artistry of crafting a set. It's part of the illusion of cinema that I'll always appreciate.
One final stopoff before my visit came to a close was the shuttle that brings Ender to Battle School and it was here that I beheld the most amazing sight.
Harrison was testing out the Zero G wire rig for a moment where he unbuckles from the cockpit and floats down to speak to his young recruits. I mentioned in my Cowboys and Aliens report that Harrison's real-life glasses are the Professor Jones wire rimmed glasses. He was wearing those glasses, a black tee shirt and, for some unknown reason, neon green bike shorts and black shoes and socks.
So, imagine that get up and then take it a step further and imagine him hung up on wires, trying to get his balance while the wire rig bunches up the neon green bike shorts area. I was out of sight for the 45 seconds or so I watched, but quickly figured it was decent to let Harrison have his privacy as he figured that rig out with the crew.
It's a hell of a closing image to leave you on, but that's pretty accurate to how I left the set. I did do a ton of interviews which I'll be feeding out over the next few weeks. First up will be Asa Butterfield discussing the challenges of playing a character like Ender. Following that will be a rather lengthy chat with Gavin Hood where he's brutally honest about Ender's Game being his chance at redemption after X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
I liked what I saw, I liked that they're keeping at least some of the weirdness of the book and Asa seemed to be kicking ass in the lead, balancing Ender's empathy and the cold-hearted persona Graff is trying to create within him. You never can tell how something will come together, but the pieces were all there for a damn good movie. I guess we'll be finding out sooner than later as the movie starts to screen. Fingers crossed they pull it off.
Thanks for reading along on this journey. Hope you enjoyed yourselves! Stay tuned for those 1:1 interviews. Some good stuff in 'em, I swear.
I leave you with some images from the studio chronicling the locations of the film from Earth to Battle School to Eros. Enjoy!