Ender's Game - Gavin Hood interview
Interview by Rob Carnevale
GAVIN Hood talks about bringing Ender’s Game to the big screen and why he made some of the creative decisions he made and had to finance the film independently in order to preserve the integrity of the ending.
He also talks about casting Asa Butterfield as Ender, and working with icons such as Harrison Ford and Sir Ben Kingsley.
Q. Where do you start with such a hugely complex story and so many ideas?
Gavin Hood: It’s a great question and you have to start by being a little naive I think [laughs]. I was lucky enough, perhaps because I was foreign or something, but I didn’t grow up with the book. I was sent the book by my agent and I read it and I really found that for a very strange reason – and one that I’m not necessarily proud of – that I was connecting to it because I was drafted into the military when I was 17 in South Africa back in ’81-‘82. I’m 50 now, so it was a long time ago. But it was a very, very strange, life-altering, eye-opening, distressing, strange experience. One of my friends was killed in Angola and I was taken far away from my home. Of course, when you’re young and your mates are around you, you’re like: “Oh, we’re going to jump out of airplanes, and it’s all like a big game!” Of course, it isn’t a game and you very quickly realise that and you’re also being encouraged, or an aspect of your personality is being nurtured, which is the more aggressive side of your personality, and the side of your personality that your mother would strong disapprove of nurturing. So, here I am running around on a beach… I have this distinct memory of being on a beach on this one particular day and thinking: “This is blood crazy man!” We were running up and down this beach in our boots and uniform, these salt-soaked boots, and there were these straw men all along the beach, and you had this bayonet and you’re going “aaagggh!” If you don’t yell loudly enough or aggressively enough you had to do it again. That’s what they need.
There’s a line in Ender’s Game where when he kills the giant and his little friend is so horrified and says: “Why did you do that? It’s not the rules. It didn’t say gauge his eye out.” And he is uncomfortable with what he perceives as a rather aggressive streak in Ender. But I wanted that because Ender is not a perfect kid. I mean, this is a kid who is torn between his capacity for great compassion but his equal but opposite compassion for terrible aggression and violence. And this is true of us as a species: we can do beautiful things, the whole of a nation can get behind saving three whales that are stuck under the ice, and everyone gets all emotional and implores us to do what it takes. But then we can turn a blind eye to terrible suffering or inflict terrible suffering in things like Mai Lai massacres. So, I thought it was very interesting that here was a book that spoke to young people in a way that in no way spoke down to them. It presented them with characters that are not just good kids fighting bad forces… in fact, quite the reverse. This was a kid that’s capable of great kindness and compassion but is equally capable of terrible aggression and violence and the central idea is which aspect of his nature will he allow to blossom more, and where will he find himself in the end?
But of course all of this is set in a fantastic futuristic space environment, which as a filmmaker is great fun because you kind of want to do two things with the movie. You want to have great, fantastic visuals and you want to create these images of zero gravity and do all this great fun stuff in the big glass sphere, and then at its heart you also want to have a great character-driven story. Big beautiful visuals without a great story or characters that we’re actually interested in are nothing more than glossy packaging.
Q. So, how do you cut down a book to just two hours?
Gavin Hood: That is the fundamental question. OK, so how do you do it? First of all, the book could go on for 15 or 20 hours and the movie is going to have to be two. So, the first thing you say to yourself is “alright, I have to compress time”. The book begins with the boy at six-years-old and ends when he’s about 13. And what I thought was that it’s not going to work to have an audience bond with a six-year-old and then shift into an eight-year-old and all the time you’re changing the actor until you get to 13. It’s really hard enough to bond with this complicated kid with all these complicated emotions going on, so God forbid you’re also changing the actor as well. So, first of all I compressed time into a period of a year or less and have one actor play the role. And to do that I would also then start him straight away, when we first meet him, already in a certain military environment so that I don’t have to waste time showing the audience how he learned to march and how he learned to salute. We just accept that he’s already a part of this established, paranoid order and we’re going to follow the next stage of his journey, which is the most exciting stage, when he goes to battle school and he jumps around in zero gravity and is training to be a real leader. I also auditioned a lot of very young actors and, frankly, it’s very hard when you put an eight-year-old into this situation to expect them to be able to deal with the emotional complexities of this project without them being traumatised. So, you’re looking for a young actor that’s someone who is also capable of standing up to an actor like Harrison Ford playing Colonel Graff and believably standing up to him. At the end, when he says “you liked to me” in that guttural raw, if it’s an eight-year-old, it doesn’t work. So, I kept using that scene in auditions and realised I was going to have to go with someone who could handle the emotional complexity.
So, that was number one. So, now I’ve compressed the time. Number two, what in the book is going to have to go in order to accommodate Ender’s story? Well, you have these fabulous characters of Valentine and Peter whose stories I love in the book. In 1984, when the book was written, foreseeing the Internet and blogging and the way a blogger can develop a fan following and have influence on the world was incredibly prescient and innovative. But of course today a lot of people blog or Facebook and two people behind a computer blogging is not the most visually exciting thing. It works really well in the book but cinema wants visuals. So, with great, great regret I had to let that part of the story go. But now I have a tighter story and now I’m focused on Ender’s Game and because I’ve got a difficult character to put on the screen, because he’s emotionally complex, it really helped me to say that I wanted the audience to bond with this kid. And OK, sometimes they won’t like him but I’m never going to allow him to let go of him because they’re going to be with him all the time. And so every scene in the movie is going to involve this kid. There’s only a couple of scenes he’s not in and those are scenes between Graff and Anderson and in those scenes they talk about him. So, now I have a set of rules and some parameters to work with.
And then were some of the more fun challenges which had to do with the visual stuff, such as creating the battle room in a visually exciting way because in the book it takes place in a dark room. But I thought: “Why go to space and then be stuck visually in a dark room?” When you’re reading the book and the battles, you’re not necessarily worrying about what you see beyond that interior world of the battle room, but in the film we’re up in space and you jump out into a black box? So, I came to my producers and production designers with this idea of a big glass sphere. I was pitching it like crazy. There would be scenes involving the sun shooting across from the bottom when we’re in one battle but when we’re in the final battle I can have this total silhouette and it’s all this film noir darkness, and when he’s with Petra it’s more moonlit and slightly more romantic. But they were just looking at me and eventually Bob said: “Gavin, this is great, but fo you have any idea what you’re doing to the budget?” But I did a lot of drawings, I worked with my production designers and we did a 45-second teaser piece… it’s important to point out here that we are an independently financed movie. None of the big studios would make the movie. Certainly, they wouldn’t make it with being true to the final twist in the book and the moral dilemmas that they have. It is an expensive movie. I think it’s one of the most, if not the most expensively financed movie, ever. We have a lot of partners involved and I’m pleased to say that all of them came on board because they loved the book and the themes and ideas in it.
I’ll tell you one quick funny story. We go to a certain studio while we’re trying to raise the money… the script was finally done and it had taken me a year and a half on that. So, we’re pitching and they’ve read the script, although not necessarily the book, and the one executive says: “Look, look, we really like the script but ‘we don’t understand, why at the end can’t he just kick the aliens’ ass – that’s how these movies work’?” Well, if you do that as a fan… I hope fans will forgive me for cutting out Valentine and Peter and I hope they’ll forgive me for compressing time and I hope they’ll forgive me for one actor playing this role, but no one would forgive me if I cut out the ending and said Ender just kicked the aliens’ ass [laughs]! So, we got out into the parking lot and my producer, who originally optioned the book when it was freed up at Warner Bros, said: “Well, we won’t be making it here!” And that was a huge relief for me. I think that part of the reason it languished at Warner Bros for such a long time was that there was a genuine understandable fear – and we may be proved wrong, maybe no one will agree with this less Hollywood ending…
Q. But The Hunger Games is really quite dystopian. There’s some really terrible things coming in those films… Maybe there’s a better appetite for it now?
Gavin Hood: I think there is. Hunger Games is very interesting and I’ll only say this. I think it’s fantastic movie but I would love to have seen the moment where, instead of her killing bad people and every kid that she is forced to kill is bad, I want to see the moment where she’s forced to let that arrow fly at someone we really like. I mean there’s the moral dilemma, right? The moral dilemma is not, ‘oh the kid that’s just awful is the one I’m going to bump off now’.
Q. What was it about Asa Butterfield that grabbed you?
Gavin Hood: Well, first of all I had looked at a lot of people and was beginning to think that maybe I wasn’t going to be able to make the film. It’s not that they weren’t talented. But Asa is very intelligent, genuinely humble, and quite internal. He’s not some sort of extrovert, dancing performer who wants to be noticed. This is a chap who really can bring an inner life to a character… and just his incredible sincerity and commitment to the work. He really just focuses on the work. He’s amazingly calm and very smart and very hard working. We put all the kids through six weeks of training before we started the film, sent them off to this space camp/boot camp where they worked with NASA astronauts and zero gravity simulation type things. They worked with military training instructors on marching and saluting and about turning and getting yelled at. And they also worked with Cirque du Soleil performers who worked with them on the wires to give them some sort of balletic grace.
And then I’d work with them for an hour or two every afternoon just on rehearsals, by which I mean going through scenes and making sure there wasn’t a line that they didn’t understand. Not so much on how to say the line, because I like my actors to learn their lines perfectly in neutral and then you throw them up against the other actor and it becomes a game of tennis. You don’t know how you’re going to return that shot until it’s been hit at you, so the way it’s delivered fundamentally affects the way you react. But to know the trajectory of the character and the emotional arc we were going for. So, they were really well prepped physically and I hope emotionally.
Q. How did Harrison Ford feel about going back into space?
Gavin Hood: Well, you’d have to ask him. But for me it was great because you’ve got an icon of space movies in your movie and what I loved about Harrison and Sir Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis was that they’re incredibly generous with their time and energy with the kids – no egos. Sir Ben said something really lovely. At one point I was worried that he might want a bigger part, and he said to me: “Gavin, my job is to serve the story. This is a story about Ender Wiggin. And the only purpose of myself or Harrison or Viola is to be there for when he needs to butt up against us and then move on his way. And the minute he doesn’t need to do that, then we need to get out of the way. We don’t need to know more about Mazer. We need Mazer in order to tell the story of Ender.” And that kind of understanding of where your role is in the film… he and Harrison talk about it a lot – they talk about their job being to serve the story.
It was also great that Asa and Hailee [Steinfield] were younger actors somewhat intimidated by these icons that walked on the set. I did shoot as much as possible completely in sequence, partly because Asa grew by two inches over the course of the shoot, which drove the wardrobe people crazy, but more importantly because he grew emotionally. So, at the beginning he was a little frightened and intimidated by Colonel Graff, which was great because Ender is meant to be, but by the end of the movie he’s less intimidated and finally stands up to him. And by then he was four and a half months older, two inches taller and a lot less fearful of Harrison Ford.
Ender’s Game is released in UK cinemas on Friday, October 25, 2013