Aug. 30, 2013 | 9:55 a.m.
NEW ORLEANS — The Michoud Assembly Facility just south of Lake Pontchartrain is the place where Saturn V rockets and the space shuttle’s external fuel tanks were put together. But on a muggy spring day last year, NASA’s largely abandoned manufacturing plant was the site of an intergalactic mission of a very different kind: bringing “Ender’s Game” to life.
Inside the massive complex, filmmaker Gavin Hood (“X-Men Origins: Wolverine”) was barking out directions over a public address system to the movie’s young cast, which includes “Hugo’s” Asa Butterfield and “True Grit’s” Hailee Steinfeld.
“Boom, boom! It’s really unbelievable,” Hood yelled to his cast. Except it wasn’t, yet.
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The young stars, arrayed at computer terminals inside a deep-space military academy, were looking around frantically at an empty stage, Hood trying to help them visualize what that blank area would look like thanks to visual effects added in post-production: a 360-degree showground of space combat, human and alien crafts whipsawing through the heavens.
“This is where it’s going to hell in a handbasket. What the hell is going on?” Hood shouted over his microphone at one young actor, Suraj Partha, who was playing Alai, one of a team of pilots under Ender Wiggin’s command, all of them controlling their spaceships remotely. “I want you to get angrier. You’re yelling at Ender, ‘I’m losing all my carriers!’”
Director Gavin Hood and actors Suraj Partha and Asa Butterfield on the set of “Ender’s Game.” (Richard Foreman / Summit Entertainment)
The film’s battle sequences represent a critical twist in Orson Scott Card’s award-winning 1985 book of the same name, and their staging was one of the greatest challenges facing Hood, who also adapted the novel for the screen.
That the production had even reached this point was momentous and dramatized the convoluted path “Ender’s Game” journeyed through three decades of development. Once set up at Warner Bros. with Wolfgang Petersen (“The Perfect Storm”) penciled in to direct, “Ender’s Game” is among the most expensive independent films ever put in production, although its $110-million budget was recently eclipsed by the $180-million “Pacific Rim.”
“It has to be big enough to capture the scope of the book — to give a sci-fi classic what it deserves — but also be a tent pole that is financially responsible,” said producer Roberto Orci.
Responsibility, fittingly enough, is one of the major themes of Card’s novel and the film.
Set several decades in the future, “Ender’s Game,” which opens Nov. 1, imagines the planet teetering for its survival after devastating clashes with alien creatures called Formics or Buggers, wars that have cost the lives of tens of millions. The insect-like aliens are suspected of preparing for a final invasion, and the globe’s military options are dwindling.
As a last resort, children have been drafted to train as military commanders, and into the ranks of Battle School candidates comes Ender Wiggins (Butterfield), a slight but clever young man. Unlike his older brother, Ender is not prone to irrational outbursts, and he also isn’t as compassionate as his younger sister.
To become a great leader, however, Ender must learn to be more like both of his siblings, all while fending off rival cadets, at least one of whom would rather kill Ender than be commanded by him.
At the heart of the book’s action are two set pieces: a zero-gravity Battle Room, where teams of students perfect their fighting strategy, and the concluding battle itself, which to the young combatants feels like a complex video game simulation but may be something very different. The film’s cast includes Harrison Ford as Ender’s principal teacher, Hyrum Graff, and Ben Kingsley as famous pilot Mazer Rackham.
Ben Kingsley, Harrison Ford and Asa Butterfield star in “Ender’s Game.” (Richard Foreman / Summit Entertainment)
As with the best science fiction, Card’s novel presciently anticipated several things, including blogging and drone warfare. The novel’s take on leadership placed the book on the official reading list of the Marine Corps, to enhance “thinking and decision-making skills,” as the Marines put it, alongside “The Red Badge of Courage” and “The Art of War.”
Yet one of the book’s strongest and more enduring themes is its timeless take on integrity and compassion, somewhat surprising given Card’s recent remarks about homosexuals (whom he’s called sinners) and President Obama (whom he compared to Hitler). Even amid so many explosions, “Ender’s Game” ultimately is a coming-of-age story about the personal and psychological cost of warfare and the inherent goodness of children such as Ender.
“It’s about young people finding themselves in a place they are not emotionally ready for,” said Hood, who equated parts of the story with his being drafted into South Africa’s armed forces at age 17 during that country’s apartheid era. “And in that place, they have to find their moral sense.”
Producer Gigi Pritzker, who was joined by the visual effects company Digital Domain and distributor Summit Entertainment in financing “Ender’s Game,” was introduced to the book 13 years ago by her nephew. “That was the beginning of my journey to get it made,” Pritzker said.
She made acquiring the book’s film rights top priority for her OddLot Entertainment, but it took years to pry the project from Warner Bros. Once she had the rights, however, she was met with constant rejection by the studios, whose executives alternately worried that the film was too much like “Star Wars” or that it didn’t fit into a definable genre — were the battles real or a video game?
“The general fear was that it was intense — there’s some violence, and there’s a very young kid at the middle of it. And it’s funny — this was before ‘The Hunger Games,’” Pritzker said. “I don’t think we realized until we got very deep into it how complex it would be to get it made.”
Hailee Steinfeld and Asa Butterfield star in “Ender’s Game.” (Summit Entertainment)
Hood recalled that one studio executive even suggested that Ender in the film’s epilogue should kill all the surviving Formics, a total repudiation of the novel’s coda.
The challenge in adapting the book, besides compressing the years over which the novel unfolds into nine months, was to steer away from any “Star Wars” associations, a choice somewhat undermined by Ford’s casting. The next and more imposing step was to find a more cinematic way of presenting Card’s rather cloistered training sequences and two-dimensional battle scenes, all without losing the story’s heart.
As written in the novel, the Battle Room feels like a big, dark room, and the “Ender’s Game” combat situations unfold on something akin to personal computers.
“You had to feel it was the real thing — not a video game on a screen,” Orci said. “Visually, it had to be visceral, a you-are-there experience.”
Hood says two chance visits to Los Angeles landmarks — Griffith Observatory for a planetarium show and Disney Hall for a symphony concert — helped him solve two of his most pressing visual obstacles.
During the planetarium show, Hood realized that the battling spaceships could fly around Ender and his subcommanders like so many spinning galaxies inside the domed Griffith theater, immersing the cast (and the audience) in the clashes. And in watching Gustavo Dudamel lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the filmmaker figured out that Ender could conduct his team of pilots as if he were guiding them through a prestissimo symphony — front and center, orchestrating everyone’s movements in harmony.
Aramis Knight and Asa Butterfield in “Ender’s Game.” (Summit Entertainment)
Hood’s production designers also enveloped the Battle Room with panoramic windows, so that the cadets were both figuratively and literally floating amid the stars. “What is the point of going into space and being stuck in a black box?” Hood said.
But none of those cinematic ideas was as important to Hood as preserving the novel’s soul. And in some scenes, that meant toning down some of the book’s more brutal passages, particularly involving children.
“One of the points of the book is that power wielded aggressively and without compassion is ultimately doomed to fail,” Hood said. “We as a species are capable of terrible acts of violence but also incredible acts of kindness. I don’t want people to feel we’re setting up Ender as a good person. He’s a really great leader, but his ambition gets the better of him.”
Until Ender realizes there’s a better way.
“You can retain your integrity as an intelligent person,” Hood said, “and still come out a winner.”
– John Horn