Special Report: Defying Gravity On The Set of ‘Ender’s Game’

By  · Published on August 28th, 2013

Unadaptable. It’s a scary word for filmmakers with a passion project, and an even scarier word for major studios with their eyes locked on the bottom line. With the trend in Hollywood ever leaning toward the edict of brand recognition, a great many books (mostly the ones filled with panels, capes, and conversation bubbles) are being translated for the big screen. And why not? If the audience is built-in, and the production demands aren’t too unreasonable, it would seem like a slam dunk.

Yet there are written works that, for one reason or another, studios feel aren’t viable. These become earmarked as unadaptable, typically from a purely financial standpoint; shackled by the cost of logistics. Then there are occasions in which the content or themes of a written piece are deemed too edgy or risky for a studio to want to touch. Orson Scott Card’s “Ender’s Game,” has the rare and unfortunate distinction of facing both hurdles. It’s the story of a young boy ripped from his home and trained by the military to kill an alien species in spectacular zero gravity simulators. These hurdles proved to be insurmountable for many major studios, which explains the project’s long gestation.

But as we all know, limitations have a habit of becoming the footnotes of monumental achievement. The obvious science-fiction-to-actual-science parallel comes to mind. At one time it seemed impossible that people could communicate via a wire with folks across the country, then across the planet. For generations, the idea of actually putting a man on the surface of the moon seemed one destined to be confined to the pages of Jules Verne. In entertainment terms, only a few years ago it would have seemed at the very least an immense improbability that Louisiana would become a major hub for feature film production.

And yet it was just outside of New Orleans, in a NASA storage facility no less, where we found ourselves on the set of Summit’s very much alive production of Ender’s Game. Though Summit was distributing the film, director Gavin Hood and his producers finally overcame their chief obstacles by funding the movie independently.

Producer Linda McDonough informed us that, at least at the time we were visiting, Ender’s Game was the largest independently financed film ever put together. They amassed their financing through foreign sales; taking it to Cannes with Bob Orcci, Alex Kurtzman, and Gavin Hood attached. They also partnered with Digital Domain, incidentally a full financing partner on the movie, to make a 45-second teaser. That teaser ultimately got the film made. Her assertion has likely been challenged in the interim by the release of Cloud Atlas, but it’s still commendable when considering the scale of the film.

“The big advantage [to doing the film independently],” admitted Hood, “is the genuine passion that the producers have for the book. They’re taking a massive risk because they believe in the story and the ideas and the themes.”

As the writer and director, Hood tackled themes of child soldiers and state service head-on. As we chatted with him, it became clear that they offered a special significance for him. Hood was drafted into the military when he was seventeen years old. He was put on a train and sent thousands of miles from home, forced to bond with strangers. This personal connection may also explain the narrative crossover between Ender’s Game and his 2005 film Tsotsi; both centering on youthful violent culture in an environment that encourages it. We asked Hood about this connection, and while he said the similarity of content hadn’t initially struck him, McDonough confirmed that it was in fact Tsotsi that convinced her that Hood was the right man for the job.

McDonough also weighed in on the darker material of the book; how it proved to be a roadblock for so long and how it was finally overcome.

“The inherently darker nature of material, the combination of young people and issues of violence, have always been challenging for marketing departments, particularly at the larger studios. I think it was a real victory for us that Hunger Games did so well. Neither film is dealing with violence for exploitative reasons. They both have intellectual and sociological reasons for telling the stories that they’re telling; treating young people with the respect to acknowledge that they live in a world where violence is a reality; in a world where Columbine happens. I think that hit a note in the Hunger Games books and that was reflected in how well they did at the box office. We were watching that carefully.”

“I am a father of three,” added stunt coordinator Garrett Warren, “so I do worry an awful lot about what my children see. This movie is one of those things that the whole family will like. I took this movie over others because of its ideals. The way that these children have to deal with a very serious subject matter, I believe it’s what’s happening right now in this world today. Our children are growing up incredibly fast; faster than I ever did. Ender is that kid. He’s the solution. It’s the movie that parents do want to see with kids; it’s the movie that kids do need to see with their parents.”

So the thematic concerns addressed, all that was left was to bring the fantastic world of the book to the screen, and yet still ground it in a sense of reality. Root it to the world we know even as its characters are unencumbered by gravity.

“We decided we wouldn’t try to be excessively sci-fi,” Hood explained, “the more you try and get gimmicky, the more you pull the audience’s attention to the gimmick that may actually be no longer terribly hip in a few years time because technology is changing so fast. We focused on the technology we needed to support the character journey.”

Aiding him with the task of realizing the world of the novel were production designers Sean Haworth & Ben Procter. Two filmmakers with a staggeringly impressive list of previous gigs between them. Avatar, Tron: Legacy, and Thor just to name a meager few. The very first insight into Ender’s Game offered to us during this entire set visit was a slideshow of Haworth and Procter’s concept art.

We watched a pivotal air battle between our own Air Force and the invading ships of the Formics, the insect-like alien race that will serve as the antagonists of piece. The Air Force jets use conventional air combat, but are swarmed by the Formic ships in a movement very much mimetic of actual insects. We then saw beautiful images of homes and structures on an Earth fifty years in the future. One thing we kept hearing from people was that the idea was to create “an Earth worth saving.” In other words, it’s not an over-industrialized wasteland, but a post-oil society with plenty of wind turbines and solar panels throughout. The designers are even adopting biophilia, a concept that embraces nature as a basic interior design element.

After the slide show, we sat down to interview these two designers within the fuselage of their own fabricated space station, a set piece that serves as three locations in the film.

“At the end of the day, it’s a dramatic story,” Haworth stated, “it’s not just spectacle. You want the world to be believable, maybe this is a real future, not some cool imaginary future. This thing [the space station] looks like it may be made by NASA sixty years in the future. You pull as many motifs as you can from real materials, real NASA styling. That extends to our spacecraft as well, which are kind of like if you did a DNA hybrid of a typical combat ship from a movie and a NASA lightweight modular ship. If you mashed those two together, you’d end up with what we have.”

Of course, it helps that it was built with actual NASA parts. These were parts and sections of structures that had been deemed unusable by the space program and were being hauled away when Haworth and Procter stopped them. It was very utilitarian and a unique way to keep a sci-fi movie grounded in our world.

This echoes Hood’s comments about trying to avoid being “excessively sci-fi.” As we continued to chat with Haworth, we learned that Gavin Hood’s involvement was far more hands-on than we could have imagined. For example, in discussing the Formic world, Procter and Howart stated that they wanted to make it beautiful in its own way in order to give that society its own identity so that war is the real tragedy. But then they also admitted:

“Gavin himself pulled a lot of reference and did a lot of style guide stuff on his own before we even became involved. He’s a very visual guy. He looked at actual insect colonies and what termite mounds look like. Gavin encouraged us to look into how those things actually worked. So when you see one of our paintings, it has what looks like Formic skyscrapers. They’re not. Nothing’s living in there. Those are wind, air, and temperature management devices essentially. Those are like the thermal management flues that actual insect colonies have. We’re incorporating things from the real insect world.”

Producer Linda McDonough enlightened us as to the origins of Hood’s concept here. Hood is from South Africa, which is home to enormous anthills. She also echoed the idea that the formic society is largely subterranean so what we’re seeing “is really the tip of the iceberg that indicate a much larger life going on below the surface.”

Now came the question of designing the Battle Room. This daunting set piece is probably the most iconic from the novel. It is a massive section of the orbiting Battle School in which students engage in zero gravity war games. Forgoing for a moment how that Zero-G effect would be accomplished by the second unit, would these two designers be able to recreate this structure, or rather multiple structures as the source describes several Battle Rooms, as it was described in the book?

In fact one of the major changes from page to screen is the transformation of the Battle Room from multiple big boxes to a more circular sole centerpiece for the entire school. Even though one big glass bubble in space is not the most practical, it’s more cinematic and roots the school to its real purpose. The idea being that it’s like the school’s football field. There is only one, and it ties the school together like a nice rug.

Here again, Gavin Hood had a hand in the design of the now solo Battle Room. Hood evidently has a friend who earns is living as a satellite engineer. This friend, according to Howart and Procter, examined the Battle School and Battle Room to give pointers. His main concern:

“The heat going in that thing, you’re gonna cook these kids. It’s a greenhouse,” Howart recalling the words of Hood’s friend/technical advisor, “so we have elements in the space station that are just heat radiators that just pump that heat out of the battle school. Lots of little details that maybe nobody will ever notice but where we attempt to a degree of realism to the whole thing”

So conceptually, we have our movie. But it’s one thing to design, say, a Battle Room, and quite another to realistically achieve the necessary weightless effect of multiple youths flying in formation.

“You inherit these images from your previs artists,” McDonough told us, “and then everyone sits around this table and stares at the stunt coordinator. A windfall for us, and one of the most rewarding professional experiences we’ve all had on the film is working with Garret Warren. He’s spent over a decade trying to figure out zero gravity.”

Garrett Warren ‐ whose career in stunts lists credits such as Iron Man II, Mission: Impossible III, and Sin City ‐ is one of the foremost authorities on Zero-G in film, though prior to speaking with him, we had no idea that was even an accolade to which one could aspire. He worked on Avatar, which is where his research and experimentation with flying stunts began. Warren was working on Paradise Lost before it was shut down, and one of his job duties there was to develop new ways to make actors fly. His pre-production work there proved colossally beneficial to the Ender’s Game production.

As he walked into the room for our interview, you wouldn’t have needed to know one iota about his impressive body of work to recognize his function on the set. He was every bit a stuntman, replete with, and this is no joke, an honest-to-goodness eye patch.

An eye patch, people.

Here was their miracle-worker, another in a long list of professionals called upon to do the impossible so that they might adapt the unadaptable.

“[People flying in formation] was the death of me,” Warren admitted, “I was ready to put the patch on the other eye. By all means it was one of the greatest things that we’ve done in this movie. We flew everyone in a thirteen-man formation. It was beautiful and it looked Zero-G, but it was death trying to get there.”

For a long time, flying in movies was thought to only be possible to achieve practically by means of underwater photography or by shooting in the affectionately titled “vomit comet,” a high-altitude aircraft based in Burbank. But instead of stocking up on airsick bags or shipping a massive water tank to this New Orleans set, Warren called up a Cirque du Soleil headliner.

“I look everywhere in the world for people [with whom to collaborate], not just the stunt world. The reason I went with the folks from Cirque du Soleil is that in one show, Le Reve, there’s a girl on a wire. She’s the figurehead of the show, and at one point she’s in the water. Then she gets yanked up out of the water, and as she does, she does a front flip and then she stops midair and just starts to walk. That’s close to impossible to do on a wire without some kind of pendulum or swing. I went, ‘that’s it, I need her!’”

He and his crew crafted a pioneering rigging system that not only allowed them to accomplish their intimidating objectives, but one that may also change the way stunt coordinators believe a man, a woman, or flock of children can fly. Warren’s excitement as he described his Ender’s-Game-changer was incredibly contagious. The gleam in the eye not obscured by the patch was inspiring.

“The lollipop arm was what was so innovative for Zero-G work,” he explained, “it’s a teeter rig where we put a wire in the middle of a metal arm, and then we counterbalance with weights. While you’re in that rig, you’re able to spin in any direction and if you touch something, you can float and move around. All of you could float in it no matter your weight, height, or experience. You can absolutely float, spin, twist, anything. All the kids were able to do all the work themselves without anybody touching them.”

And then once again, Hood was credited. Warren shrugged off the notion that the Zero-G flights could have been easily achieved in post. He recalled his director’s passionate refusal to lean on a digital crutch.

“When the Zero-G question came about, there was no budgetary concern. As far as Gavin was concerned, it was all about reality. He wanted to see someone do it for real. I love it because we’re going back to the old days of Star Wars and Indiana Jones. It was no longer something for an animator to do. We did it for real, man, just like the real shark in Jaws.”

As if working miracles weren’t enough, Garrett Warren was also tasked with choreographing the fight sequences in the film. Though his career is prestigious and prolific, Warren surprised us by claiming that one of the fight scenes in particular was among his favorite he’s ever choreographed, though he was rather coy about to which he was referring.

“I can’t give away a whole lot,” he stated, “but the fights that are in this movie go down in the annals of an academy-driven performance-based fight sequences. It’s not gratuitous action whatsoever. It’s not about whether it’s violent or not violent. It is all 100% true to his character and the idea of the story. But man, you do not get better than Asa when it comes to this physical performance and this fighting style. He is the next breed of actor, not just action star. He will make your gut twist and turn.”

Asa is Asa Butterfield, the young actor who garnered a great deal of mainstream attention when he starred in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. Butterfield will be playing the titular hero of the film, and is joined by equally formidable young actors like Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit) and Abigail Breslin (Zombieland). Butterfield, like all the young performers, worked very closely with Warren not only for the wirework but extensive fight training as well.

“We learned different types of fighting styles, including aikido and judo,” offered Moises Arias (who plays Ender’s rival Bonzo), “at the same time we would be doing the wirework. We learned a lot during our month of that training.”

As expected however, questions about the Zero-G sequences prompted the most vocal responses. They spent four months shooting those Battle Room scenes after all.

“Once you got over the uncomfortable factor,” Steinfeld confessed, “it just became a lot of fun.”

“An astronaut came in during the first week of filming,” Butterfield recalled, “and showed us a lot of videos about what Zero-G does to your body and the ways you move in it. Because a lot of films make Zero-G look like you have to move in slow-motion but he said you can do whatever you want.”

Butterfield, who got this part while doing the press tour for Hugo, will also be joined by an imposing lineup of adult thespians. He’ll be reuniting with Sir Ben Kingsley, who plays war hero Mazer Rackham as well as the one and only Harrison Ford, playing Ender’s mentor (of sorts) Colonel Graff.

“He’s quite a character,” Butterfield said of Ford, “he is the ideal Graff. He’s amazing to work with. When I read the book, I imagined Harrison Ford being Graff.”

McDonough admitted that casting Butterfield to play Ender throughout was the most significant change from the novel. The book takes place over many years of Ender’s life that would have required the casting of multiple actors. They adapted the age of the character to fit the actor they felt was giving the most believable performance. They then shaped the ages of the other characters to fit. They also sought to avoid the idea of them being teenagers, because the whole reason that the government recruits children in the book is that they are able to follow orders without question.

Though Ender is the star, another character to keep an eye on in the filmic adaptation is Bean (played by Aramis Knight). According to McDonough, Bean will have a bigger role in this film than he may have had in the book, owing to the fact that he has a bigger part to play in the potential future of the franchise, the Enderverse. There was talk that, should Ender’s Game be successful, there could be a followup based on “Ender’s Shadow.” That novel runs parallel to the events of “Ender’s Game,” a paralleloquel if you will, but shows the events from Bean’s perspective.

How does the author feel about these changes? McDonough mentioned that Orson Scott Card has been involved since day one, and that he is very supportive of doing it as an independent project. They all seemed to be on the same page about what was truly sacrosanct and Card has even given feedback on drafts. She also revealed Card’s cameo in the upcoming film: he’s the voice of the pilot in the transporter.

Card has become a pariah for both his less-than-progressive social views and his uncanny ability to chew his own shoe leather when speaking publicly. Given the additional hurdle of a controversial author, shooting Ender’s Game in 3D might have instilled enough mass appeal to offset any potential backlash and ensure a return on investment. Hood and his team however were steadfast in their opposition to the medium for this type of narrative.

“There’s something pure and honest about shooting in 2D,” Hood espoused, “what conventional two-dimensional filmmaking is better at is isolating performances and faces by the use of lens and depth of field, and narrowing that depth of field to allow us to look into the characters’ eyes. There were two basic ways of shooting this movie: big spectacle wide lens or long, detailed lens that examine what the heck this boy is going through. Those kind of shots are not good in 3D.”

Hood also mentioned the ancillary benefit of financing this film independently in that the studios big enough to mandate 3D were all scared off by the novel’s themes in the first place.

It may have taken many years, a bold independent strategy, and finding the right collection of miracle workers, but “Ender’s Game” has finally been adapted to film and will see screens on November 1st. Why is it that this book, this story has refused to yield, bested all odds, and ultimately found purchase on the big screen? As Hood puts it:

“Those essential mythic coming-of-age stories are timeless and universal. In some ways we all go through the feeling of being the outsider who must find our place. This feeling of being misunderstood in an environment where you’re not quite sure what to do. There are many ways to access and connect with Ender’s Game.”

Longtime FSR columnist, current host of FSR’s Junkfood Cinema podcast. President of the Austin Film Critics Association.