Jeremy Checks Out the Massive Scale of the 'Ender's Game' Film Set
by Jeremy Kirk
October 30, 2013
“My God, that’s a massive set,” I thought to myself as the small band of journalists in which I was included was led through the command centers and alien walkways making up the set of the sci-fi epic, Ender’s Game. Summit Entertainment and writer/director Gavin Hood have done the unthinkable, braving Orson Scott Card’s “unadaptable” work that has kept audiences young and old engrossed for nearly 30 years. A novel this grand with a history this dense demands a certain level of scope, and just from the first glimpse of the magnificent sets they had to show us, that required scope has absolutely been achieved.
Summit and Hood found the perfect location in which to house those massive sets just outside of New Orleans (check out some photos of real set pieces from Comic-Con right here). A NASA assembly facility - basically the building where they build and store their monstrous rockets and shuttles - is the ideal choice for such a job and for several, different reasons. The size of the place speaks for itself. The history behind both NASA and Card’s novel are comparable, to say nothing of the sci-fi/space-oriented aspects found in the novel and film. The secrecy required to use one of NASA’s facilities is another element entirely and goes hand-in-hand with the filmmakers not wishing to give away too many of their secrets. Fortunately, the day on which this set visit took place was loaded with surprises. Don’t worry. We’ll get to Harrison Ford.
For those unaware, Ender’s Game is set in a future where an alien race, the Formics, has attacked our planet. Through the heroics of the legendary Mazer Rackham, played in the film by Ben Kingsley, the aliens were held at bay, but the threat of their return remains. Years later, students train at the Battle School for that very return, learning space-set military tactics and maneuvers that will aid us should that disastrous day ever come. Ender Wiggin, played by Asa Butterfield, is one of the newest recruits to the school, and he could very well be the savior of us all.
An epic story such as this with a built-in franchise opportunity - The series that follows Card’s original novel spans over a dozen books - doesn’t seem as if it would have a problem getting made for the big screen. Yet Ender’s Game has been that film whose adaptation was always on the horizon, and even this version went the independent route in order to get made. According to producer Linda McDonough, Ender’s Game is the largest independently financed production of all time. A CG reel, backed by producers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, of Ender and his classmates' first time entering the famous Battle Room was created by Digital Domain for the Cannes 2011 market. It served as essentially a before-the-fact teaser for the movie to come. That pre-vis footage is what convinced investors this was the right team to finally bring Ender’s Game to cinematic reality.
“We’ve all sat around and thought ‘It probably took people who read this book as a kid to grow up and get enough success in Hollywood to get it made.’,” says McDonough discussing the love she and the fellow producers brought to the project. She also notes it was Orci’s favorite book as a child. McDonough also mentioned this pre-vis footage of the Battle Room may be a special feature on the eventual DVD/Blu-Ray.
We were shown this Battle Room footage as well as pre-vis footage of “Rackham’s Run”, the famous maneuvering and fighter tactics the legendary pilot displayed during the Formics’ first invasion, and a stunt reel of stunt coordinator Garrett Warren working with the child actors - and with the help of some Cirque du Soleil performers - as they attempt to perfect the look of zero gravity without actually going into space. As McDonough shows us this footage and the concept art they already have digitized, we were seated in a conference room with storyboards, notes and concept art lining the walls. These displayed the entire film beginning to end. It’s an amazing advantage to see the visualization at work on the film well before a single frame of footage is actually shot.
From there, we were taken to those massive sets mentioned earlier. Everything from the students’ barracks to the long corridors of the space station-based Battle School to the long, narrow tunnels in which the Formics burrow on their home planet are on display in the sets through which we’re allowed to walk. The size of the sets, their authenticity, and fact that many of them are complete, 360-degree sets were all very important aspects to Hood as well as the production designers, Sean Haworth and Ben Procter.
“At the end of the day, it’s a dramatic story,” says Haworth, as we spoke with the production designers about the authenticity of the Battle School sets. “It’s not just spectacle. You want the world to be believable. You want to be on an emotional journey with these kids, as if this is a very real future, not some kind of cool, imaginary future. This is the future.” He went on to state they wanted to stick as close to NASA as possible with the ships and equipment displayed in the film.
But Haworth and Procter didn’t only have to contend with creating space stations and alien worlds. The Earth found in Ender’s Game is that of a post-oil society, and the landscape they created is loaded with solar panels and wind turbines. “He liked the idea that this place, this Earth would be a place worth saving,” says Procter about the director’s vision. “There would be a reason for you making these kinds of commitments, to go off from your family and going off and sacrificing your life to save this beautiful place.”
Likewise, Hood wanted them to create a beautiful society for the Formics, so that there would be real emotion when it came to the war between their kind and our kind. Haworth and Procter took many elements from insect colonies to create the alien race, but they also questioned whether or not the aliens had a kind of culture or art. “What we ended up coming up with was that their whole society is a piece of art,” says Haworth, who mentions the Formic Queen is viewed as an artist who controls a million, different hands.
Walking around the sets used in Ender’s Game and seeing the ambitious vision for which Hood and his production designers are aiming is very encouraging and even more so when it came time to view filming underway. The bit of footage being filmed when we entered the the video village involved Butterfield as Ender and Nonso Anozie as Sergeant Dap walking down a hallway. The size of the sets requires all non-essential bystanders to watch from a separate room altogether, and the video village where we were seated was stationed underneath the massive - there’s that word again - set for the Battle School’s Command Center. The scene plays out a number of times, and it’s nothing too dramatic.
However, it was here when the air in the room changed ever so slightly. As we were watching on the video monitors, some of us scribbling notes, others looking up and around the Command Center set, Harrison Ford, who plays Colonel Graff in the film, casually walked up to us sipping his morning coffee. He stood by the video village watching the ongoing filming for a few moments, and then walked off presumably towards the actual set. Most of us in the visiting group noticed his presence, but all of us felt it. That small instance of being on set side-by-side with the iconic actor kept the energy level among the group at an all-time high.
Late in the day, as our set visit was ending, we got the thrilling opportunity to speak with Ford. It was made all the more thrilling as any time we might get with him was dependent on his own schedule. We were only allowed a few moments, and it was all off the record. I will, however, dare to note that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, particularly when I asked him about the International Fleet (IF) ring he was wearing. He mentioned he might turn it into an earring, which I thought sounded like an excellent idea. Butterfield shared in the excitement of being able to converse and work with Ford. “He’s the ideal Graff,” said the child actor. “When I read the book, I imagined Harrison Ford being Graff. I’ve worked with a lot of amazing actors, and he’s definitely up there.”
Along with Butterfield, actress Hailee Steinfeld and the other members of the child cast agreed the most daunting part of filming was the military training. Hood - Who was drafted into the military when he was 17 - noted he felt it was important for the group to bond and to learn to work as a team long before filming even began. Of course, this was after a brief trip through space camp, which they agree was the best perk.
“In many ways I think I felt a lot of things Ender felt,” says Hood about connecting to the story. “I’m forced into a place. I’m in this military environment that seems crazy. I’m a long way from home. I wasn’t put on a shuttle and sent to Battle School, but I was put on a train and sent a thousand miles away. Suddenly you’re with all these people and this bonding experience with total strangers, some of whom you bond with.”
Hood also mentioned he feels the themes and what the novel says about leadership and childhood is one of the many reasons it’s so beloved by young readers. They are also the reason he feels the story will play so strong for movie audiences. The director also mentioned the theme of someone finding their identity and how strongly he is drawn to such a story, one he finds Ender’s Game shares with his previous work, Tsotsi. “We have this incredible capacity for compassion and kindness as human beings, and we have this capacity for terrible destruction,” Hood goes on to say. “How do we navigate those competing forces? It’s a similar thing where it’s very focused on the development of an individual rather than an ensemble.” McDonough noted that Tsotsi was one of the main reasons they chose Hood as the writer/director of the project.
Hood also mentioned a story from when the project was looking for investors and a studio they went to. The executive they spoke liked the script but didn’t understand why Ender couldn’t just “kick the aliens’ ass” in the end. Hood and McDonough agree they immediately knew this wasn’t where they wanted to make the film. Their passion and vision for how best to capture the themes in Ender’s Game is always evident in the energetic way with which they speak about the film.
After speaking with the filmmakers and actors involved in the project, we were allowed back to video village, this time to watch a scene being filmed between Ford and Butterfield. Ford’s Graff is explaining to Ender the dangers of the Formics’ homeworld of Eros, which the two are looking upon through a window. Of course, the planet isn’t there, and the two are rather looking out onto the set of the Command Center.
It goes without saying, though, that whatever ultimate visualization of Eros we have in Ender’s Game is sure to be massive. That’s the principal word when it comes to Ender’s Game. Massive story. Massive themes. Massive vision. And the size of the passion behind getting the film made is no small order. If the visual wonders we were shown and the heated passion for this story is any indication, Ender's Game will be worth the 30-year wait it's taken to get it to the screen. At the very least, it's bound to be massive.
Here's a video blog featuring myself with Germain Lussier from SlashFilm talking about our set visit:
Ender's Game arrives in theaters Friday, November 1st. Watch the trailer right here and see the movie!