Our Visit to the ‘Ender’s Game’ Movie Set (Part 2): Adapting a Classic with Gavin Hood

cast partyEXCLUSIVE

We’ve had the privilege of interviewing ‘Ender’s Game’ writer and director, Gavin Hood, three times. If there is anything we’ve learned in those three meetings, it is that Hood is a huge ‘Ender’s Game’ fans. It’s obvious in the way that he talks about his work, that he’s passionate about bringing fans a great adaption. What other director would shave his head in solidarity with this his cast? Enjoy our interview with Gavin Hood on the ‘Ender’s Game’ film set in New Orleans last May and be sure to come back tomorrow morning where we’re giving details about costumes, props, and stunts.

Q: When you’re doing scenes like the final simulation and the mind game you’re obviously looking at things that aren’t there on set. How specificly do they tell you what you’re looking at or how much do you have to imagine completely out of full cloth?

Gavin Hood: What we did is we PREVIS [previsualize] it so we have the sequence played out in rough animated form and we show Asa so they have a sense of what it is. And there are certain movements that he makes to change things. We have him working with an amazing movement coach. He’s working on those movements based on movements we’ve designed that are good for the kinds of rotations and pullbacks and changes of positions. He works on those movements and then we’ll let him do a scene. He knows what’s happening in the scene as it unfolds. If he reaches here and pulls something here or he reaches slightly off there, it’s fine. Because we’re putting in those graphics in relation to what we see on him after. It doesn’t really matter. It’s quite tricky to explain, but I think you get the gist. It’s not like ‘Oh my God, you have to point at exactly that, because that’s where that graphic is!’ Well the graphic isn’t there yet. The graphic will be there, but if I said it’s there or it’s there or it’s there, we will build it around. So it’s kind of organic. It’s ‘Here’s what we want,’ which we show him and then ‘Don’t feel confined, study the movements.’ Then we work the movements and then it’s back and forth and eventually you hone it down to the exact visual.

Q: What are some of your favorite science fiction films or space films?

Hood: I’m a little older so it’s ‘2001 Space Odyssey’ by Kubrick.

Q: It seems like there’s a lot of references it seems, like within the build of it too.

Hood: Yeah, I just think he had an amazing visual sense and an amazing ability to combine an adventure with thought-provoking material and give you a sense of an epic journey and an awe-inspiring journey as well as an emotional story. I’ve always been a really big fan of Kubrick. On some level that’s what attracted me to this movie. You have these amazing visual opportunities that are big and epic and beautiful and you’re in space. It’s awe-inspiring if you spend a lot of time watching footage that’s been shot on the Hubble telescope and all those fantastic big visuals. And of course there in the battle room they do all this wonderful stuff. In the battle school they do all this zero-gravity stuff and all that at the same time  […] yes and we all really like ‘Star Trek’!

Hood: [In reference to the ‘Ender’s Game’ movie] It’s this thing from big visuals to very intimate performances, and that’s really the key. You have these awe-inspiring epic moments, but then you have these very intimate close up, detailed emotional moments that go on between the characters which is what I think is so amazing about ‘Ender’s Game’. It’s really a fantastic set of character studies. Obviously, a singular wonderful character study of Ender, but [we’re] also surrounded by amazing characters such as Bean, and Dink, and Alai, and Bernard, and obviously Petra and Sergeant Dap. I just think it’s rich in character and every one of these kid brings something special and unique and different in terms of a way of being, and an energy, and a personality. […] In some sense it’s like ‘Lord of the Flies’ in space. You’ve got all these marvelous, strong, well-defined characters engaged in really human stories and yet it’s set in this wonderful, epic space. […] What we wanted to do was create a space where the actors feel the world and obviously there are certain worlds, like when you really are out in space, that have to be fully visually created by us. Certainly when you’re in the space tunnels and the dormitories, moving down those corridors inside the command center on Eros. I think the people who deserve an enormous amount of credit are our production designers. They’ve done an amazing job, Sean Haworth and Ben Proctor. People like Jamie, who’s a sculptor who just sculpts this stuff…. Concept artists like David Levy. I don’t know if anyone always realizes just how much work has gone into pre-filming. You don’t just arrive and say ‘Oh hey, what does the set look like?’ All of that stuff has been designed and worked out- figure where the cameras can go and can’t go- for many, many, many, many, months in order to make it easier for these guys to come in and really sense that world. I think the design team really did an amazing job.

Q: Thematically, as a director you show a real affinity for lead characters who are born or destined to be weapons, who then try to fight against that inherit nature. Is that a theme you’re consciously drawn towards?

Hood: I think any writer or director or artist finds themselves often drawn to certain themes based perhaps on- I was in the military. I was drafted when I was seventeen-years-old and it had a profound effect on me. When I read ‘Ender’s Game’ many of those feelings… feeling that you’re a number in an organization with strong authority figures that you were not supposed to question, and yet feeling that you wanted to rebel against it. I connected with this book in many ways based on feelings and experiences that I have had. I also really think that the ideas and themes of leadership in the book, and hopefully in the movie, are timeless and classic. What is good leadership? What is bad leadership? What is responsible leadership? What I love about the book is that it is both an epic adventure. It’s a fantastic coming-of-age story, not just for the lead character, but in many ways for all the characters, but especially obviously for Ender. If you like defining moments in a character’s life where they choose a path or are compelled to reflect on the path they’ve chosen and change it. Those are fascinating moments to me, those defining moments of encountering something where you are truly confronted with yourself and aspects of yourself that you may not necessarily like and you have to face those aspects and then figure it out. There’s that, and then of course it’s set in this fantastical universe in space where it’s visually exciting. The idea of many young people who have read this book, the way they talk about it passionately… So often there are films that we go to and they are fantastic, and they are fun, and they are wonderful, but it’s like, ‘Well that was great. Now I wanna get pizza,’ as opposed to a story like ‘Ender’s Game’ where kids really talk about it. ‘What do you think about the way Ender made that decision and is that right? Was he too violent or wasn’t he?’ These are important conversations for young people to engage in an exciting way. If you can deliver that kind of debate and conversation in an exciting, visually-powerful way then I think that you’re getting a little bit more than just spectacle. We can combine spectacle with a good old-fashioned argument afterward and that’s kind of fun.

Q: If the Locke and Demosthenes stuff is taken, you’ve taken away some of the chance to reveal some of Peter’s redeeming qualities. What are some of the ways you’re choosing to reveal those redeeming qualities if you’re not including Locke and Demosthenes?

Hood: Well, it’s a very powerful question. Let’s back it up even further. In any adaptation of a book to a film format of two hours, you face the terrible reality of something’s got to go. So what goes? And what are the core themes that really resonate? We have to be honest and say that in order to create a film of two, two and a quarter hours, you’re not going to do what might be a thirteen episode experience. That’s the first challenge. The second challenge is that in the book the kid ranges from, I think, age six to thirteen. Well that’s another challenge. Do you cast a six-year-old, and then an eight-year-old, and then a ten-year-old, and then a twelve-year-old…? A film experience is very different from reading a book. It is a contained two hour experience in which you have a beginning, a middle, and an end and you leave before your bladder busts. These are the facts, right? So the medium is different. One of the things that I think we have to own up to is that saying, ‘Is the movie like the book?’ … Wait a minute; the book is the book. It exists; it can never be taken away. It is a different experience to sit and read over a period of weeks or days, chapter by chapter, put it down, reflect, pick it up. That is why movies are based on books. They can’t be the book. You’re into a very, very important and challenging question for all adaptations and I am going to get into the Locke and Demosthenes, but I think it’s important. If I said to you, here is a young Suraj, I want you to take his photograph, and I want you to sculpt him, and I want you to paint him in oil. These three pieces of art are presented to the class. Would the class say, ‘Hold on. This oil painting looks nothing like the sculpture!’ You would go, ‘No, of course it doesn’t. It’s an oil painting and that’s a sculpture. You’re not making any sense.’ It’s a wonderful debate. The question becomes, does the oil painting capture the spirit of this boy in some unique way? Does the pencil sketch capture his spirit in a way that moves you? Does the sculpture capture his spirit and move you? And that for me is the way it is for books. I did it for ‘Tsotsi’, because it was an adaptation of which I made many changes. Athol was very pleased with it, he said so, because you stayed true to the spirit of the character. So I try to think of my characters when I’m adapting as existing outside of the material. I’m not adapting the book. It sounds like sacrilege. I am not adapting a book. I am collaborating with an extraordinary artist who wrote that book who described the character in his medium, but now has to be translated into another medium where the overriding author’s voice doesn’t exist, where he can’t tell me what he’s thinking. We have to create scenes where you generate what that character feels from another way. Hopefully at the end of this you go, ‘My God, that was an amazing representation of Ender Wiggin and those characters in a totally different medium. If we fail at that, we’ve failed. But if we look at the film and say, ‘The book had this and it’s not in there,’ then the movie is going to fail. It just is, unless the author read voiceover all the way through the film. It is a very internal book. He describes what Ender is thinking all the time. ‘What do you do?’ is your first challenge. Do you have voiceover describing that? Or do you find scenes and dialogue interactions that hopefully generate that same feeling in the audience of what Orson said he was thinking? Now, the same thing applies for Locke and Demosthenes. Give me your question again.

Q: How are you going to reveal Peter’s character duality? In the beginning you see him as a menace, but as the story goes on you realize that he has some qualities that aren’t terrible.

Hood: I think that’s beautifully put. Now in the book, there’s Demosthenes, and you’re told, and it’s reflected, and the author explains as an author voice how Peter is undergoing change. I’ve tried to do it without giving it away, and had to do it in a matter of about three very economical scenes. We meet Peter at the beginning of a movie and he has everything I think that the book has of that aggression, and bully, and nastiness. But to your point, if you were to interview Peter and say, ‘Why are you doing this?’ he would say ‘Because he has to toughen up or he’s not going to make it.’ He’s engaged in what he would justify as tough love. At some point in the film, somewhere in the third act, you will find a scene in which that idea presents itself. It may or may not satisfy the question that you raised, which I think is completely valid. But it has to be addressed in a more A) economical way than the book does, because it’s ‘Ender’s Game’ and I’ve got two hours, and B) without an author’s voice explaining it. I’ve tried to do it in a very subtle scene between him and Valentine, which is not a scene from the book. […] It is both an exciting thing as a person adapting and a terrifying thing. Absolutely terrifying! How do I do exactly what you’ve asked, generate these feelings about Valentine and Peter? I can’t just do it all of a sudden, it would take me seven hours.

Q: Was there a particular part of the adaption that you had an especially difficult time working on?

Hood: It’s particularly difficult in general to translate. ‘Tsotsi’ was a very similar book to ‘Ender’s Game’. It’s particularly difficult to translate books that are very much about what characters are thinking into films. […] Where characters are deeply reflective, you have to find scenes and moments, not just lines and dialogue, it is kind of the most cumbersome way of doing it. You have to find the moments that float underneath the lines, and between the lines, and the way these two characters both react. There’s a wonderful moment in the movie, which is also in the book, but in the movie where this young man and Ender are together and Ender is playing that Mind Game and he gauges the giant’s eye out. Now you read that and Alai says, ‘Why’d you do that?’ In the movie that’s a pretty visceral experience. He’s playing a game and his little mouse gauges into that giant’s eye. How far can you take that given PG-13? And what is his reaction? Does he give him as many speeches and words? Or does he simply look at him and say, ‘Why’d you do that?’ Now I’m on him. I’m on Asa, ‘Asa, all I want is that discomfort moment.’ What’s the body language, which is what acting is all about, that reveals the internal thought process as opposed to ‘What’s the description and the verbalization of the thought process?’ That’s what great acting is, it’s that moment when that awkwardness from that little actor tells you volumes in an unspoken way. He says, ‘That’s what they want from us here. Choose violence. You win. I’m just like my brother Peter.’ If he says that line wrong, […] that’s an entirely different meaning. Hopefully in that scene, we have done what Orson wanted us to do and explained what was going on inside Ender’s mind. We have generated a sensation that Ender totally regrets that moment and feels uncomfortable being asked the question by Alai. That’s the beauty of working with these amazing, young actors. They’re really amazing and mature about getting to grips with our scenes. I’m very proud of them, very proud.

The ‘Ender’s Game’ film will be released in U.S. theaters on November 1, 2013.