Exclusive Interview With Gavin Hood On Ender’s Game
USINFO | 2014-01-10 12:02


The last sci-fi blockbuster of the year, Ender’s Game, is right around the corner, but don’t be surprised if fans are still skeptical about whether the film has finally escaped development hell. The original novel of the same name is considered a modern classic of sci-fi literature, but the road to the big screen has been tumultuous for Ender’s Game, and its author, Orson Scott Card. Luckily, award-winning writer and director Gavin Hood entered the picture back in 2011, and Ender’s Game at last found someone able to lead it into theatres.

The film stars Hugo‘s Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin, a young military cadet who may represent humanity’s last hope of defeating a rampaging alien menace of the near future. In tow are fellow up-and-comers Abigail Breslin and Hailee Steinfeld, as well as Harrison Ford, Sir Ben Kingsley, and Viola Davis.

At the film’s recent press day, we sat down for an exclusive 1 on 1 chat with Mr. Hood, where he spoke about his relationship with the source material, what he learned from troubled times working on X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and taking to the challenge of adapting a seminal sci-fi novel.

Check it out below and enjoy!

Before you got attached to the film, what was your experience with Ender’s Game?

Gavin Hood: I read the book, my agent had sent it to me while it was still with Warner Bros. They had done various drafts, and I think my agent was rather hoping I might have a take on it, that I might pitch to them. I read the book and I got very excited by it.

It resonated very strongly with me in ways that I found quite disturbing, in some ways, because it brought back many memories of my time when I was in military. I was drafted when I was 17, and I spent two years, and I lost a friend in war. I was just amazed, you know, “wait a minute, I’m reading a science fiction book and it’s bringing up all these feelings of my time,” and it was many years later.

Anyway, I thought, “wow, this is an opportunity to do a big, spectacular, exciting, big popcorn movie! On the one level, with this battle room, and these fantastic setpieces, but that’s actually also got really great themes and ideas and great characters, and complex characters.” This is not just, “evil attacks the world, and good must triumph!” Ender is not necessarily perfect, he’s most certainly not a perfect person. He’s very flawed. He has a tendency to overreact in ways that are violent, and aggressive. And yet, he has this equal and opposite capacity for great compassion, and I think that’s what’s interesting about us as a species, as human beings: we are capable of great kindness, and great compassion, and we are capable of terrible violence, and terrible aggression.

So to have all this sort of compressed into this character, this one boy, and then watch him struggle with his own nature –but in a spectacular kind of big movie setting- was really exciting. So I was really excited and I wanted to go off and pitch, and my agent said, “well, actually Warner Bros. is abandoning this picture, and they’re probably not going to go ahead, and we don’t know where it’s going to be, so just forget about it. I’m sorry.” Okay.

So, about a year goes by, and I’m called again, I’m looking for something to adapt, and I’m reading a lot of stuff, and my agent says Warner Bros. has let the book go, and the rights have been picked up by an independent company. “Gonna be tight on money, but looks like they want to do it, and they’re looking for a writer and they want to go meet someone.” I pitched my take, and luckily I got the job.

What about your history prepared you for a project of this scale?

GH: Well I think I come from two worlds now. I worked initially in very low-budget independent films that I often wrote. My early work was all written by myself, and then I adapted Tsotsi, so I was used to the writing process being, in a way, integral to my directing. I felt it really prepared me. And then I got hired to do this huge Wolverine movie, which I had not written, and that was, frankly, being rewritten while I was shooting. I had never experienced this kind of crazy corporate way of working. But now I have [laughs].

It was a learning experience?

GH: I learned a lot doing Wolverine, and I was also very fortunate, in the sense that I got to do a huge number of visual effects shots. So I think what happened with Ender’s Game was this combination. Having made independent character-driven pieces, and then having had the experience of making a big visual effects movie, I was now ready. And I really wanted to adapt this work myself, so that I had –let’s just be blunt- a little more creative control over the script than I had had when I did Wolverine, and they allowed me to do that. I think that having the big visual effects experience, plus being able to do the adaptation, plus having worked with actors in more intimate, personal stories really did help me be prepared for this film, which is an interesting combination of big visual effects and spectacle, and intimate character study.

Tsoti showed you’re really capable of working with younger actors.

GH: I love working with younger actors.

That’s not something most directors would say! Yet half your cast is under the age of twenty – they can’t even drink. How did you find your process was affected by working with so many younger actors?

GH: It’s very helpful they can’t drink. At least they show up sober [laughs]. I was an actor when I was young, and my parents were actors, and my dad directed theater, so I grew up around theatre actors. I still at heart love acting and actors and performance. So for me it’s anything but a chore, it’s not a chore at all to work with young people on a scene and rehearse, and that’s what we did on this movie. The producers gave us the time to send the kids both to physical training –we sent them to a space camp where they worked with astronauts and they learned about zero gravity and they worked in all the machines that simulate zero gravity- and then we also had them with military training instructors who taught them to march and salute, and do millions of pushups. We literally put them in their dormitories and their parents had to take their cell phones and all go away.

They would do that kind of thing in the morning, and work with stunt coordinators on aerial work on wires, and they worked with Cirque du Soleil people, it was a fantastic time. But they worked really hard. And in addition to all that, they still had normal school. They had an intense program. They would rehearse with me in the afternoons, and I would pick certain scenes and certain actors, and we’d rehearse without the adults. The point is, by the time they got to set, and stepped in front of Harrison Ford, and Sir Ben Kingsley, and Viola Davis [there was] a wonderful, perfectly useful bit of intimidation feeling that was useful to exploit, because that’s the dynamic of Ender and Colonel Graff. The way Asa Butterfield felt facing off against Harrison Ford on day one, was just wonderful; it’s exactly what Ender is supposed to feel. But the point is that the preparation, and the rehearsal, and the training meant that when we were working with those senior actors, the younger actors were fully prepared, knew their lines, had discussed, and asked as many questions as they wanted about the themes, the purpose of the scene, the subtext that I was looking for, and they could really focus on the interaction.

They could take the focus off themselves, and focus on what the senior actors were throwing at them, which is always what I try to do with young actors. If you’re nervous, stop worrying about what you’re doing, watch that other actor, because acting is about reacting: you can’t react, unless you’re open to what’s coming at you. Having them well prepped meant that they could focus, because there’s nothing worse than an actor that’s not prepared, who’s floundering for a line, they’re not in the scene, they’re looking for their lines. I don’t want that, I’m quite strict about that: know your lines perfectly, so that we can focus on the emotion. And they deliver.

A lot of people don’t give credit to what younger actors go through to keep up in the industry.

GH: They have to work hard, they do work hard. People just think, “oh they just have fun and they got lucky.” No, these kids put in the hours, they really do.

You seem like a director who’s very open-minded to having politics and themes enter into the movie. Why is it only now that we’re getting Ender’s Game? Is it because of the darker, murkier material?

GH: There seems to be, with big movies, a fear of themes and ideas that might be a little complex. It’s so much easier for a corporation to sign off on an essentially good vs. evil story, where, you know, lead character is a good guy, and some bad guy wrongs him in some way, takes his daughter, and the good guy must go and set the world right. Okay, we all get that, good triumphs over evil. And yet somehow those things don’t seem like very exciting ideas, and so we’re drawn to independent cinema to feed us.

I think we love spectacle, we love a big visual spectacle, but we also want something a little more complicated from our characters.
So I think the best big films also have great characters, and Ender’s Game just offers this opportunity to have great visual spectacle and wonderful intimate characters. So you get to, as a director, play with big visuals, which I love doing, and you also get to put on the long lens and really look into the actor’s eyes, and try to read their thoughts -which is important with a book like this, because it’s so much about what’s going on in the mind of the character.

The book is very much an exploration of what Ender is thinking and feeling, and to translate that into a screenplay form, and into a film, where you don’t want to write pages and pages of voiceover.

We have some, but it’s mostly just short letters that he writes to Valentine. It’s really about creating scenes that setup a conflict, an emotional stress on the character so that when you’re on that close-up, and he’s reacting to what’s happening, you the audience are intuitively sensing what he’s thinking without having to be told. It sounds easy, but it’s kind of tricky!

That’s part of the difficulty of taking a book, one that’s 25 years-old, and making it into a film. Already it sounds like there were some changes from the source material in order to adapt it.

GH: Well let me cop to those. Here’s what one hopes: I believe and hope that for fans, I have been true to the spirit of Ender Wiggin, the essential conflicts that he faces as a character, his struggle with his capacity for violence and his equal but opposite capacity for compassion, which I think is a core central theme of the book and the movie. That’s where I have to be true. I also want to be true to the essential notes of conflict that happen through the book. So those are all there.

I also want to say straight-up: the book is the book, and stands as the book, and I think one must never expect, can never expect a film to be a book. The book’s the book. It’s a way of describing a character in a situation in a totally different way to the way visually things are done. It’s a little like saying if I did a pencil portrait of you, and somebody else did a sculpture. Instead of saying, “does the sculpture capture your essence, or does this pencil drawing,” I start arguing why the pencil drawing doesn’t match the sculpture. Well it’s a pencil drawing and that’s a sculpture! Let’s talk about whether each one does a good job in its medium of capturing that character.

So let’s quickly talk about these challenges then. So the first one is being true to that spirit and that character. The problem was that the book starts with a six year-old, and ends up with a 13 year-old, so right off the bat you’re going, “okay, does that mean I’m casting a six year-old, then change to an eight year-old, then change to a ten year-old? This is hard!” In movies, you can often have a little flashback to someone’s youth, but you want to bond with an actor and stick with him. You bond with someone for 15 minutes, and they change the actor, and you’re out of the story while you go, “yeah, but he doesn’t quite…I’m sure he had smaller ears, and a bigger nose.” So I very early on said, “I’m going to compress this thing into a year.” So I’m going to take some heat for that, but I think it’s essential for the film, for the audience to experience the journey of a young person. Now that compression means other things get knocked aside. Also, we’ve only got two hours: there’s a lot in the book that is fantastic about Valentine and Peter, and Demosthenes and Locke. I must cop to it, that’s not in the movie.

Even Card said he’d get rid of a lot of those sideplots. It must be helpful knowing that the author realizes you’re going to have to chop and amputate a little bit to fit it in.

GH: Orson knows because Orson tried, and at one point he thought it wasn’t doable. So I’m very proud that it’s even happened, but I have to say, it comes at a price, in the sense that this is a different way of looking at Ender Wiggin. I’m almost documenting his life in a visual way, and in a compressed way, where as the book is a far more detailed exploration. If we imagine Ender Wiggin outside of both pieces of material, that he’s a real character, which is how I like to think when I’m doing an adaptation, I think, “wow, this author has given me unbelievably detailed insights into a character that actually exists.

Now, if I was filming this character, and I wanted to create that same sensation in the viewer as the novel is creating, that feeling for Ender, what do I do?” I simply can’t take the chunks of dialogue of what he’s thinking and have Ender sitting there going “well I was thinking that I really hated Bonzo, and I was going to get him, and blahblahblah.” It’s just a disaster! I have to create a scene between him and Bonzo, and then linger on a closeup of Ender and say, “have I got the sense of conflict in Ender, that is then described in the book? Can you intuitively feel that?” So it’s a really intimidating thing, adapting, it’s much trickier than people realize.

You’re the narrator in this case, with the camera.

GH: And it’s a very different tool. Here’s the rule I made: I said, “the only way I’m going to make sense of this is if I keep Ender in virtually every scene in the movie.” He’s a complicated character you get to know, he doesn’t always do cool things, we sometimes may not even exactly like him for a moment, and yet we get to understand him as he begins to wrestle with his own nature.

I need the audience to be bonded to that character, so I’m going to start by saying, “if Ender is not in the scene, the scene goes.” That was a pretty brutal thing to do, except I kept scenes between Graff and Anderson, where they’re talking about Ender. It’s still about Ender: it’s Ender’s game. It’s not Valentine’s Game, or Peter’s Game, it’s Ender’s Game.

That helped me truncate it, and then by compressing time, I was able to truncate it further. And then, frankly, I wanted to do justice to the visual possibilities of the battle room, and the simulation cave. The longer you make the movie, when you are also, I hate to say this, dealing with a limited amount of money –albeit, a large amount of money- it’s still a very tight, independently funded movie. Do you have eight battle room scenes, and do them okay, or do you have four, and make them fantastic? I’d rather have people going “I wish there was more battle room,” than them going, “the battle room wasn’t very cool.” You constantly are playing this game of shifting things around.

And in the end, I believe what we’ve got is a film that might even exceed some people’s expectations of the battle room, for example, or the simulation cave, where in the book he’s playing on a computer terminal. Here, we’re in a big three-dimensional world where he’s essentially conducting a three-dimensional game in space. I was proud of that, and I’m proud of the battle room being a glass sphere, and you see out into space –I think that’s what films like this need, they need that scale. So I hope there are areas of the film that will exceed fan expectations, and I have no doubt that there will be areas that they’ll go “why did they cut that out?!” And it was really in the interest of giving it narrative drive in what is essentially a two-hour continuous experience, as opposed to something you pick up and put down, come back to the next chapter. It’s just an interesting challenge.
That’s all for now but we’d like to thank Gavin very much for his time. You can catch Ender’s Game when it releases worldwide on November 1st.


©2012-2014 Bywoon | Bywoon