Interview: Gavin Hood Captures The Feelings of ‘Ender’s Game’

By  · Published on November 1st, 2013

Director Gavin Hood received mass acclaim for his 2005 film, Tsotsi, before moving on to direct Rendition and eventually land the gig for 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That comic book adaptation didn’t sit too well with critics or fans, but its shortcomings don’t all fall on the feet of Hood.

That production was reportedly plagued with creative differences and had a script constantly in flux, which is likely why Hood says, while discussing his new film, Ender’s Game, how beneficial it is to have a completed script before shooting. His adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s sci-fi classic centers around a young boy, Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), who literally has the world’s fate placed on his shoulders, and it’s a remarkably faithful adaptation when it comes to the book’s emotion and the finale its fans are familiar with.

Hood sat down with us at the film’s press day to discuss the challenges of remaining faithful to Card’s book. Here’s what he had to say:

We discussed the difficulties of adapting Ender’s Game at Comic-Con. I have to say, as a fan, I was really happy with the way film turned out.

I’m so glad to hear it. Dude, I am so relieved. This interview can continue! [Looks to his publicist] We spoke at Comic-Con and he was so afraid I was going to cock this thing up! Maybe he’s just saying that to be nice, but, mate, I will take that. It’s a big, scary thing this adaptation, because you know some people aren’t going to be happy. You hope more people are going to be happy than aren’t. I mean, it was a bitch to make, so it’s a good thing it’s done now [Laughs]. Want some coffee?

[Laughs] I’m good, thanks. Was it a “bitch” because of the script or the whole process?

It came from the script stage. I read and loved the book, with the way it was intelligent, emotional, the way it was speaking so eloquently about drone warfare, and all the things we talked about before. Forgive me if I’m repeating myself, but it was about translating that inner-world. I knew I’d have to make adjustments with the film when it came to that inner-life, unless you create scenes that create moments for the character where he’s affected and you see the emotion on his face. When Bonzo punches Ender in the gym that night and then you see him later lying in bed, it’s a little moment but you have to have an actor who can deliver that moment emotionally.

The writing process was: the only way I can deliver that feeling from the book to the film is by staying with that young actor in every scene of the movie. That’s something nobody had tried before, and I hadn’t known that because I didn’t read whatever people tried for before. The only way to understand and feel for this kid is to have him in every scene. Now, there’s a couple of scenes where he is not present with Graff and Anderson, but what are they doing? They’re talking about Ender. We’re going to attach to Ender Wiggin and not let go, because he does some things that aren’t so cool. I mean, he beats the shit out of a kid, and some people were saying we can’t have that scene. If you can’t have that scene, then you don’t have Ender’s Game. If he doesn’t go too far, he’s not appealing to Graff or being like [his brother] Peter and hating himself.

You might alienate an audience, but the audience who read the book won’t be alienated. Remember, a huge percentage of folks will go, “Oh, I don’t like this movie. Fuck this kid. He’s so aggressive.” [Laughs] Know what I mean? The way to counter that feeling is immediately expressing regret in the next scene, which will bring those people back. That’s the push-and-pull, because Ender is not the traditional hero.

You have advantages over the book too. The most dramatic scene is maybe a two second shot of Graff heaving to look away from Ender and Valentine.

Thank you. The way I talk to film school rejects or film school folks ‐ which I do at UCLA to their masterclass ‐ is when it comes to the adaptation, I say, “Try and imagine Ender Wiggin really exists, and an author who has been asked to write a book about him and a filmmaker has been asked to film him. My tools are different to that author. Both of has to achieve that feeling with our different art forms.” When you film someone, you’re observing different details. My job in making the film was generating those same feelings, which Orson generated using prose, with different tools. That doesn’t mean making every scene the same as the book.

If every scene was the same without Orson’s insights with the book, then it wouldn’t work. You’ll just have sequences of dry scenes. I think this is a mistake made with a lot of adaptations, thinking, “Oh, I’ll just cross out all this stuff where the author talks about what he’s thinking. I’ll just use the scenes I like.” You’ll end up with a film true to scenes, but not to the emotion. For me, emotion comes first. If I have to change a scene, invent a scene, change dialogue, or put Graff by the lake in order to feel that dynamic and the end results feels like Ender’s Game, then hopefully it works.

Plus, when you’re adapting a book, the film is going to represent your interpretation of it.

Right. It has to be, because they’re different tools. But believe me, mate, people are going to say, “You didn’t put this scene in!” They’re going to be right, too. What I’ll say is, “Guys, the book will always be the book. Imagine a real Ender Wiggin. I’m making a movie, so I have to be selective, make a two hour movie, and I have only chosen to watch him between 12 to 13.” By the way, I was at the lake with Graff when Orson wasn’t it. You know what I mean? When I was there shooting, I saw other stuff. Does it feel like the same guy? Then I did my job. If you go word-for-word on a film, then it’s never going to be there. I hope that’s not a bullshit excuse, but that’s the best answer I can give you.

To capture that inner-life, your films, especially Ender’s Game, will often have actors staring at the frame.

Pretty much, yeah.

Is that to capture that inner-life?

Yes. Jake Gyllenhaal’s journey in Rendition, for all its flaws, is him trying to take moral responsibility. Tsotsi and Ender Wiggin are the same in that way, so I guess I have a hangup with this idea. If you have a character who the film tells you is a good guy just because the filmmaker says so and something terrible happens to him, then you’ll go, “Oh yeah, I can relate to that. Let’s kick some ass.” When you have a character you may or may not like, if we observe them from a distance, it’s much harder to get to know them. If we observe them from here [Hood puts his fingers close to my eyes, representing a camera], then you’ll really see a character isn’t comfortable by what he just did from that eye-line. You’re looking into his bloody soul, which is why I tend to shoot that way when I’m dealing with these characters who aren’t necessarily likable; it bonds them to you.

This a tangent, but I’m curious, when you say flaws and all, do you mean in terms of Jake Gylleenhaal’s character or what that film was trying to achieve?

I think there are parts of Rendition that work better than others. I’m very proud of the movie, but I think that part of Jake’s journey to the end is the part I’m proud of. I’m proud of the family drama as well, but, to me, it’s ironic the torture scenes make for the best drama. It was a tricky film, because the torture sequences are where you realize he’s lost everything because of what he’s done. There was a struggle [on that film], because we had to make certain cuts. All right, Ender’s Game. Let’s keep going!

[Laughs] No problem. Do you miss the freshness of Tsotsi or do you thrive on the pressure from fans?

I don’t think I realized how stressful it would be. Honestly, I didn’t. When it comes to Ender’s Game, we all read a book and when it means something to us we assume others like it for the same reasons we do. Let me ask you, what is your favorite part of the book?

The relationship between Graff and Wiggin.

All right, then we’re in sync. What if you were a person who really liked the relationship between Peter and Valentine? Then I’m you’re fucking enemy, man! I’m just wrong, right? At that point you realize this movie is the way I saw that battle room. It’s a black room in the book and I think, “Fuck this black room! I want to jump out into space and see space. Let’s change the light, to let there be a golden light coming through or sometimes a pitch black battle.” I can’t do that in a black room, so I hope the purists understand that.

The simulation cave at the end is a kid playing on computers, but that’s not very cinematic. The challenge of that end is the characters are in no real physical danger, which most movies use in the climax to make you feel the danger. What matters at the end is if Ender feels humiliated. How can you make that space not be a kid playing a game on a computer? You have to give it a reason to feel like a big tentpole movie.

After I saw the movie people kept asking me whether the twist was there.

Oh, really? Did I tell you the story about the studio executive?

You did not.

Okay. This is fun. This is good for your readers. When they see the movie they’ll understand. After we got the script and were sending it out to studios, one particular studio ‐ and they shall remain nameless ‐ we had a meeting with. The executive said, “So, Gavin, I really like your script, man…but I don’t understand this ending twist thing you got going on.” He went on to say, “Why can’t he just kick the alien’s ass? That’s how these movies end.” That is a direct quote. I thought we were going to struggle to raise money on this movie.

When we walked out of the meeting I was with our producers [Roberto] Orci and Gigi Pritzker and I was ready to say we can’t make this movie that way, but I didn’t even have to say a word. Gigi just said, “Gavin, we won’t be making the movie here. We’ll have to raise the money independently. This ending is just too unusual for studios.” That’s when we put together the 45 second promo piece of the battle room, which we took to Cannes [film festival], and gave the script out to these foreign distributors, and they are the people who came up with half the money on this picture. The rest of the money came from Gigi and Summit. We needed independent financiers who liked that twist. By the way, dude, after November 1st, if no one goes…ah man, let’s hope. Let’s hope we’re right.

Ender’s Game is now in theaters.

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Longtime FSR contributor Jack Giroux likes movies. He thinks they're swell.