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Ahead of the Ender's Game panel at Comic-Con today, I had the chance to sit down with director Gavin Hood and producer Roberto Orci to chat about the adaptation of Orson Scott Card's popular sci-fi novel. In addition to discussing the task of bringing Ender Wiggin to life for the adaptation, Orci and Hood spoke about the dark tone of the story, the violence and how they adapted the "mind" game that's played in the book.
Ender's Game is set in the future when man is preparing for a second war against an alien force. Gifted children are recruited to go to a space-set orbiting battle school where they're training for the approaching war. The story follows Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a particularly gifted child who may be the one to lead humanity to victory. If you've read the book, you may recall that Ender plays a game on his tablet, during which he has to get through various challenges and make different choices in an effort to progress through the game. Like many other aspects of Battle School, the people in charge, including Harrison Ford's Colonel Graff, use the game as a way to study the students' psyche, evaluating the decisions they make while playing, to analyze their mindset. Hood and Orci talked about setting up that part of the movie through a blend of animation and motion capture. It sounds like we'll see less of it than what's in the book, but it will be in there.
They also had some interesting things to say about the violence and the tone of the story. Ender is set up as an underdog from the start, and he's no stranger to being bullied. Things come to a boil between Ender and one particular antagonist, and it sounds like that scene will also make it into the movie, though it's unclear just how much of that scene we'll actually see, as Hood also discussed not wanting violence that's indulgent. Both he and Orci agree that they were aiming to find a balance between spectacle and thought-provoking.
Can you talk about your hopes for bringing the book to the screen and kind of capturing everything thats in the book, but also making a really great movie?
Roberto Orci - Well, the first rule of a book - you know, the fans have kept it alive for years, is - not to betray them. So, I think goal one is let’s be true to the book. I think a lot of the development of this movie languished for a lot of years, because the proposals for what the movie should be strayed wildly from the book, and yet, the book was a challenge to studios because it’s very nontraditional. It’s an interesting structure. It’s adult themes, young protagonists and so, once you get past the hurdle of making sure it’s true to the book and that the fans like it, then it became, how do you just make it a cool movie and just milk everything that’s in there and that’s where Gavin’s script started that process and then, in actually directing the movie and making it, it surpassed my expectations of what could be done and how it would look.
Gavin Hood - Thanks, buddy. I’m glad you feel that way. We nearly died making this movie, but, no, Bob’s right. It was a challenge and I think we kind of hit a moment in time where the technology has got to the place where we can actually pull off the zero G, I mean visual effects technology plus amazing stunt work by our stunt coordinator Garrett Warren, plus the Cirque du Soleil performers that he hired to help train the kids in really graceful amazing movements. The other thing that the producers gave us was the opportunity to put the kids through real training. They went to space camp. They were trained properly by the Cirque du Soleil performers. They spent time with army drill sergeants. All of that preparation, so when they get on the set, they are physically prepared and they understand what the environment of space is and so we could focus on the emotional performances between the characters and not being, “How does this harness work?”, you know, you’ve got to have that down when you’ve got kids hanging on a harness and you want them to interact as if they’re not. They better not be worried about how they’re spinning. They have to gave that work down, so there was a lot of committed work from a lot of departments to make it real.
Orci - And that goes back to your question. Our hope is, it’s hard to have a big, big movie that’s actually about something that you care about, that’s actually about something smart, that’s actually challenging. So, we can both, you can eat your popcorn, but you stop munching occasionally to actually hear what’s going on and think about it and then you get back your popcorn. That’s our goal.
Hood - Have a great deal of fun and then have something to talk about after. That’s our goal.
How dark does it get, especially by comparison to the book? Some of the things that happen and even just the overall theme of the story of kids being sent to space and training for war. Can you talk about the tone of the movie and what you’re aiming for?
Hood -Yeah, I mean, I think that all those elements of bullying, which is a great theme in the world right now, and how kids deal with being bullied, which we know is so powerful in the book, that’s in the movie. But what I try to do as a filmmaker in terms of handling questions of violence, is I don’t believe in showing violence for violence’s sake and repetitive violence. For me, what I have found is an act of violence can be so sudden, what’s more interesting is the aftermath. And so, our movie is not, I hope, in any way, reveling in violence. I don’t want it to be a violent film, but the effect of the moment of violence on the psyche of the protagonist and the people around him is profound as it is in the book. It has to be, and so those key scenes in the book still seem - Bonzo in the shower are absolutely in the movie, and they shock in their suddenness, but they are not in any way indulgent.
I’m not interested in showing blood flying around the room or any of that. What’s more important is to see how these young character handle it and that’s why I think it’s an important film. And families, as a parent, I want my kids to go to a movie and not be spoken down to, deal with difficult themes, but be able to talk about it, not celebrate that, just talk about it. And at the same time, as Bob says, get back to your popcorn and have some fun, because all this battle room stuff is so wonderful and then there are moments of shock and if we can achieve that and find that balance between spectacle and thought-provoking material, then I think we’ve got a great movie. That’s our goal.
Well, that brings me to my next thought about the movie, or my hope, I guess. One of the things I love so much about Ender’s Game, Ender is very intelligent and strategic, and also extremely compassionate and so much of that is in his head, and then there’s the little things that he does and the decisions that he makes. How is it in adapting this character to bring out those traits in him?
Well, you’re raising the question of how the film medium reveals characters traits as opposed to what you can do in a novel, right? Yeah, a novel is able to tell you what is going on inside a kid’s head, and it does so magnificently, but what the novel doesn’t have, that we have as an advantage, is real actors, really reacting. So, in adapting, you try to structure scenes that create a situation in which a character’s reaction speaks to what they’re thinking and feeling, without actually saying, “I am now thinking this,” in some voiceover way. “I am now feeling very sorry for myself.” You see the moment and if you create a scene where, in the book, unfortunately, you don’t see the actors. In the movie you see the actors. So, they’re two different mediums and the idea is to try and generate the same feeling in the audience watching the film as the feeling that was generated by the author in the readers of the book, but you’re using different tools to do that.
And you think Asa pulls that off?
Hood - I do. I do. I’ve no doubt whatsoever and I think him and Harrison together pull it off magnificently and Hailee Steinfeld too, all of these actors. I mean you’ve got Sir Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis. These are A-list actors delivering really nuanced performance and these kids rise to that occasion. The one thing I feel confident in is I think these actors deliver. I’m proud of their performances and the dedication that all of them had to this project. They loved this story. All of those young actors.
Orci - And Asa, you can’t fake being intelligent and compassionate. He’s truly both. So, in addition to actually being a good actor. I mean, that was like, how are we going to find Ender? Where are we going to look?
Hood - And we looked at a lot of people and that’s what Bob’s saying. You can’t fake intelligence. So, we were lucky. In the end, we found the right actors for these roles and it finally came together, but we looked long and hard.
How much of the the mind game, is going to be in the movie?
Orci It’s in the movie.
Is it? I don’t think we’ve seen anything from it.
Orci No, you haven’t.
Hood - We have to hold a few things back. Some guys come in here like, “Why’d you show us so much?” and others are, “Why didn’t you show us more?”
Orci - It’s beautiful what they did.
Did you do like, is it CG? Is it animated?
Hood - It’s animated.
Orci - Motion capture.
Hood - We did motion capture.
Orci - It’s a blend of stuff.
Hood - We did motion capture, put on suits, ran around the room. They filmed it in a virtual world. Once you’ve captured that motion you can film what you captured digitally and then we handed that off to an amazing animation company in Barcelona, who’ve done the most beautiful work. Obviously, we did a lot of drawings and how's it going to be? And drawings of the mouse and all those things, but it is a shorter version than in the book, because the whole story of the book is compressed into about a one year period as opposed to happening over 18 years.
You know, we’re kind of in this franchise era. Have you guys talked at all about that might be beyond Ender’s Game?
Hood - Just want to finish this one.
Orci - We always are superstitious about counting sequels before they hatch and we’d like not to save anything, as a discipline, just make a good movie, put everything we can into that movie. We’re not even done with this one. So, we feel like it’s jinxing ourselves to discuss anything, but obviously you point out, there’s a series of books, and if we do our jobs right and people like this movie and there’s an appetite for it, then of course, there will be an appropriate time to see if we’re the right guys for the next job.