Imagine a chubby, pasty high school kid who, to my great embarrassment, wore a military-style Red Hot Chili Peppers jacket. Tacky, I know, but also picture him obsessively reading Ender Game‘s — Orson Scott Card‘s incredible piece of science-fiction — during his sophomore year. That kid dreamed of making a movie of it one day, preferably with George Clooney as Colonel Graff.
Sadly, that boy’s dream is dead, thanks to director Gavin Hood.
But Hood can’t be blamed for crushing a wonderful child’s will to dream. One thing is for sure, Ender’s Game is a big ambitious swing of a project for Hood. Card’s novel is not a sure thing of a blockbuster, and considering its source material, it’s a story that isn’t exactly suited for all kids. Hood’s past film, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, felt watered down all around, but with this latest project Hood seems to have captured the spirit of a sprawling space adventure.
When did you first read Ender’s Game?
It was about five years ago. I read it in adulthood, but it spoke to me. I was drafted into the military when I was 17, so seeing this kid being taken away from his home environment, being pushed into a world where people are yelling and screaming around you, and trying to find your identity, I strangely related to this book. My producing partner Bob [Orci] was a fan of the book when he was 11 years old. I think this book appeals to you at whatever age.
Did Wolverine prepare you for the technical challenge?
Oh yeah, thank God for that. I did 1,100 visual effects shots in that, while my other films had, like, 40. In Rendition there’s an explosion scene that hopefully people know was air blasts. Wolverine certainly prepared me for the scale of Ender’s Game. This was about having a great team of stunt coordinators and a visual effects supervisor where you could say to them, “How much can you bring to the party before you have to take over?” It was bringing those together.
Why do you think this was so difficult to get made? Why it took so long?
I think there’s the technological issue, which is: how hard is it to make zero gravity look great? Fortunately, technology is now helping us to show it. I’m very proud of those scenes. We had a great team with the special effects and stunt department, working together to achieve the zero gravity look. Technology not being up to speed for this project probably held it back.
The other thing is the book is very internal, in the sense it’s very much what’s going on in the mind of young Ender Wiggin, even while it has these magnificent environments. Those sort of books are tricky, but I was lucky enough to have done a movie like that before. Tsotsi was about a deeply troubled kid with a lot of internal stuff. I found a way through that of looking at characters existing outside of the book.
As a filmmaker, the book was a huge research document. It was, “Here’s how this character thinks now, so how can I take all of that and say what he’s thinking? Intuitively, how can I take all of that, as a filmmaker, let the audience know what he’s he thinking.” I did that by the way I stretched the scenes and shot them. By that, you create a scene where he’s under pressure, and then with that giant close-up, you get in there with great actors. And that’s when you start to know what Ender is feeling and thinking. You don’t have to describe it anymore, because we have the advantage of live-actors reacting.
If I can’t capture that spirit and feeling of Ender Wiggin, then I’m not doing it right. You can’t take the book and just make the movie, because they’re just two different mediums. That’s both tricky and exciting.
And those internal scenes rest on the casting of Ender. How thorough of a search was it to find the right actor?
We looked at a lot of people. As I’m sure you know, he ranges from the age of six to thirteen. I started looking at actors at age six, but then that wasn’t going to work. That happened again for age eight and nine. In the book you buy this, but when you have an eight or nine year old yelling at Colonel Graff, it was hard not to laugh [Laughs].
We struggled with it, so I had to age up. Fortunately, along came this kid, Asa Butterfield, who is so smart, present, intelligent, and, like Ender, slightly distant from the other kids. The most important thing there was to find the emotional truth in that character.
The story ends when he is thirteen, but in our movie he goes from twelve to thirteen. Now Asa is taller than me! He’s just perfect, because he’s on the edge of becoming an adult, wrestling with these themes of, “What kind of adult am I going to be? Am I going to express myself aggressively or with compassion?” Those are the themes I love from the book. It’s not just a movie about good guys and bad guys and revenge…
I recall you saying the same for X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Yeah, it’s interesting you mention that. It’s just so odd for me. The properties seem different, but Wolverine is also a guy struggling with his identity. So is Tsotsi! I must be revisiting that same dang hangup [Laughs].
[Laughs] For a lot of fans the relationship between Graff and Ender is the highlight of the book. There’s a great tough love to their relationship. Was that something you, Harrison Ford and Butterfield specifically wanted to capture?
What’s interesting, the adults really wanted to support the kids. They were very generous, kind, and patient. The kids felt slightly intimidated by Ben Kingsley and Harrison Ford, which is exactly right for Graff and Ender. I mean, “My God, I’m working with Harrison Ford and dealing with Colonel Graff!” is the same kind of stress, right?
Asa, as a human being, is very smart and he’s up against Harrison Ford, who he’s not going to let beat him as an actor or character. I think that dynamic works really well. They all understand the themes and dynamics of the book.
Ender’s Game opens in theaters on November 1st.