Interview: 'Ender's Game' Director Gavin Hood & Producer Bob Orci
by Alex Billington
July 24, 2013
How did they pull it off? Can it live up to the book? These are few of the questions running through my mind to ask the team behind the Ender's Game movie, which we've been following closely for years. With the release of the movie a few months away (in early November), Comic-Con was their big launching grounds. I met up with director Gavin Hood and producer Bob Orci (aka Roberto Orci of K/O Paper Productions) for a brief but invigorating discussion on Ender's Game and this sci-fi adaptation. While they're still keeping secrets, we did talk about spoiling too much in the trailer, pulling off the Zero G, and plenty more. Read on!
My interview with Gavin and Bob was shot on video, but the room was backlit by a window and it turned out too dark (you can't even see their faces). So, I've transcribed the interview in full below, as it's much better to read anyway. If you still prefer to listen/watch, the video is available on YouTube embedded at the very bottom of this interview. Other than that, this turned out to be a considerably fascinating interview for a 10-minute Comic-Con chat, so please enjoy - especially if you're as big of a fan of Orson Scott Card's novel as I am. Photo below is of Gavin Hood, Bob Orci & Harrison Ford in the Hall H panel Friday afternoon.
I'm a huge fan of the book and, for those who have read it and know all that happens, it would seem like daunting adaptation. So my question is: why now? And why you guys? What made you think you could pull this off now?
Bob Orci: Well, on the producing side of it, it felt like audiences were sophisticated enough. They've seen everything. They are tired of the usual fare. This is a book that has a unique structure and has complicated themes. But it's also a grand space adventure. I think audiences want and are ready for this movie.
On the other side of it, technology finally got to the point where it could be made responsibly and still be a fantastic spectacle. And that's the easy part. What made you [Gavin] think you could write this script, you crazy madman? [laughs]
Gavin Hood: I was just naïve and stupid and not as smart as him. [joking]
Bob: It could have been attempted forever. When we found out Gavin was going to take a crack at it, I literally… my thought was: "God bless you. Good luck with that. That's going to be incredibly hard." And he just distilled it down to its essence and the script that he wrote was totally faithful to it and yet, was a movie. When you are adapting something you are not just literally doing what you're taking. You have to translate it to the screen. His script did that. But you were a fan of it, so…
Gavin: No, I was. And there's also something you mentioned, which I hadn't realized, when you talked about my adaptation of Tsotsi, which I hadn't… You do your thing as a writer. You go, "Wait a minute. I have kind of done this before." As different as those two books seem to be, they are both about an inner struggle of a character. You may not know anything about that film, but there is a film I made called Tsotsi. It was a little $3 million movie. So I adapted that book… so let's jump to Ender's Game. The point is, in making an adaptation about a book that involves a great deal of examination of the character's conscious, and what he's thinking, and his internal world, whilst, of course, set in this fabulous environment.
As a writer, you look at this and you go, "Wait a minute. I've got this super cool environment that Bob's saying is unusual. Everybody is wanting to see Battle Room. How can we realize it? We now can with the technology we have." But, at the same time, I've got an incredible character journey, which is kind of unusual. Usually a big spectacle movie is just good versus evil and good somehow has to defeat evil. I guess I just grew up in a country [South Africa] where good versus evil was not… How do you examine your own potential for evil or your own potential to be unpleasant or do the wrong thing?
That's what attracted me to Ender's Game. I read it as an adult. I'd already spent time in the military. I was drafted at 17. I'm reading this book as an adult and I'm going, "Wow. This book really gets that feeling of what it's like to be taken from your home, forced into an environment where people start to celebrate the part of your personality that's maybe not so cool, which is the capacity to really lash out." I remember running on the friggin' beach. I realize, "I've got a freakin' bayonet on the end of this thing and I'm stabbing… I've never said this before… and what are they going to do? 'Yell louder!!!'" [makes yelling noises]
And I just realized this is what happens with Ender's. He says in the movie, he says to Alai, "That's what they want from us. Choose violence, you win." What is that? Man, that's horrible. But there are themes in this book that are profoundly adult, and, yet, they are themes that are apply to young people who are drafted. So… Bob has a wonderful story about when he read it when he was 11 years old. And there's a whole other… so, go ahead. We've discovered this about each other and I find it very interesting…
Bob: I think what some of the adaptation proposals that I have heard tried to do, which is what Gavin was warning against, which is reduce it to somehow being simplistic and actually straying from what's unique about the book. So I think you were both true to it in terms of the adaption, but also turning it into a movie. It can't be a one to one ratio adaptation. Its got to take on its own life.
Gavin: But the book has these great environments and the book has these great characters. The tricky thing in the adaptation of this is how do you make these characters and what's going on in their heads real on screen when you can't use what the author can use, which is lots of description of what he's thinking. Well, you need great actors who can really react with one another. You need to film with great, tight close-ups so you can get inside their head and see those reactions. You need to structure scenes where the scene puts the kind of pressure on the character that allows you, as an audience, to intuit what he's thinking and feeling.
So there's a lot of stuff you have to shift in order to be true to the script of the book. So, for me, when I'm looking at a book, I go: "Okay. I have to be true to this amazing character that Orson Scott Card has described." And I imagine that character as living outside the book. And he has given me this incredible insight into this character. Now, how do I use different tools, the tools of cinema—lensing, long lenses. When do I go tight? When do I go wide? What kind of structure do I put into the scene? How do I put these characters against each other? To generate the same feeling in the audience that those descriptive passages generate in the book. I can't do the book. I have to approach the characters as something outside the book. And, yet, he's given me all this amazing material. I don't have to invent this character. I just have to look at him through a different medium and try and generate the same feeling.
While you're adapting, do you envision these challenging moments like Zero G in the Battle Room and know how to pull it off from the beginning, or is it a matter of working through it during the process of shooting? As in, you have the themes and you know what you're doing with the characters, we're just going to pull this off somehow…
Gavin: It's a great question. As Bob said earlier, I think we kinda knew… Both of us had done digital effects movies… We know how the technology has evolved. We knew that the tools were there.
Bob: But we knew it was going to be hard.
Gavin: We knew it was going to be hard. And it was.
Bob: And we were talking at one point, like, "Do we stick everyone under water and that's how we simulate zero G?"
Gavin: No - exactly. But we were very fortunate. We got a great stunt departments who really worked the kids hard on the wires. Then we go a great visual effect department run by Matthew Butler, who is an MIT Master's graduate in aeronautical engineering. He's bringing all of this amazing science to it. And so, combining him with stunt guys, it was really interesting. People like Matthew really understand the physics and the science of that. And they can help you translate it into something beautiful. For us, it's really about getting those young kids into the emotionally right place to perform as actors in a scene. And then, having these incredibly skilled guys in visual effects who will help us realize that in-motion. There's a lot of very talented people who come together to make a movie. You know, you don't do it by yourself!
Of course. I want to ask about spoilers and showing too much in trailers. Are you worried about presenting too much that fans might see in the trailer, or do you just want to say 'Hey, we know this will happen…'?
Bob: It's only because you know what happens that you think those are spoilers, though.
There's the shot at the end where he's like, "Let's do this!"
Bob: Yeah, but you don't know…
Gavin: Let's do what?
Right. But that's my question - does it matter that you are showing this?
Gavin: For the people who have read the book, it clearly doesn't matter because they've read the book. So the question for us is - what does this mean to people who have not read the book? Which, whether you like it or not, is going to be huge, if not the majority of the audience. So what are they getting out of that trailer? What do you think they are getting out of that trailer? They… shot at something. Did it do this, or what? Did it do that? I'm asking. I'd love to hear you. We want to interview you on this! What do you make of it?
Bob: You read it, though. You've read the book.
Gavin: You've read the book, so you can't come to it with that!
My interpretation on this is… they may not know what they are seeing initially, but through people who have read the book, we're conversing enough that they know they're seeming something they shouldn't. And they're questioning why they are seeing this and what it means in the bigger picture before they've even seen it. When, it would be better if they've never seen it before and don't have any hint at what's happening when it eventually does come.
Gavin: That's such a great question and I'm not sure how to answer without spoiling it. The question is: Well, what is the big reveal? There are many reveals. Which particular real reveal is not being revealed? [laughs] Because something is not being revealed. You've read the book, so I'll just speak elliptically. You know that, at the end, it turns out to be something that Ender didn't think. That's not in the trailer. But it's tricky because it's a very valid question.
Bob: When you are talking about sci-fi classic, I think it's worthy to see it realized no matter what you know about it. And part of the appeal is, if you know about it, "How the hell they going to do that? What is that really going to look like?" So there's other reasons to see it besides it just being a surprise ending.
Gavin: And I assure you there's stuff in the movie that is not in the trailer. Is that good enough?
That's a perfect place to end…
Thank you to Gavin Hood and Bob Orci for their time, and to Summit/Fons PR for arranging. Here's the original video version of my interview with Ender's Game director Gavin Hood and producer Bob Orci:
We'll continue to keep you updated on Ender's Game news from Comic-Con and beyond. Stay informed.
70 years after a horrific alien war, an unusually gifted child is sent to an advanced military school in space to prepare for a future invasion. Ender's Game, based on Orson Scott Card's beloved 1985 novel of the same name, is written & directed by Gavin Hood (Tsotsi, Rendition, X-Men Origins) produced by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci of K/O Paper Products. Asa Butterfield stars as Ender Wiggin, with Harrison Ford as Colonel Graff, plus Nonso Anozie, Moises Arias, Ben Kingsley, Hailee Steinfeld, Abigail Breslin and Viola Davis. Summit/Lionsgate will be releasing Ender's Game in theaters November 1st later this year.