‘Ender’s Game’ director Gavin Hood on sci-fi battle sequences, integrity

Aug. 30, 2013 | 9:55 a.m.

Hailee Steinfeld, left, and Asa Butterfield star in “Ender’s Game.” (Richard Foreman / Summit Entertainment)
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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)

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.”

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“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)

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)

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)

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

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Barnes & Noble Is Suffering a ‘Hunger Games’ Hangover

Per Bloomberg Business News:

 

A Barnes & Noble store in Emeryville, Calif., in February 2012

 

Barnes & Noble (BKS) continues to spin downward, and it wants everyone to know who is to blame. The Nook? Nope. It’s Suzanne Collins, who hasn’t written a single installation of The Hunger Games this year, and E.L. James, who has stopped writing Fifty Shades of Greybooks without any concern for the impact it would have on the bookseller.

On Tuesday the company announced it had lost $87 million in the most recent quarter. Retail revenue, which makes up about 75 percent of its total revenue, dropped 9.9 percent. The company also said Leonard Riggio, its chairman and largest shareholder, was dropping his effort to buy that part of the business. Barnes & Noble’sattempt to grow a Silicon Valley startup—which Riggio did not include in his buyout effort—continues to be a drain on its traditional retail business. Revenue in the Nook portion of the business was down 20.2 percent, with the money it brought in by selling Nook devices falling 23 percent.

Many analysts, and this magazine, figured that Barnes & Noble would bring the effort to an end. Instead, the company says it plans to further integrate its Nook and retail businesses. It thinks that its digital efforts still have potential to bolster its retail business, even if they are burning through cash for now. Barnes & Noble now claims 22 percent of the U.S. e-book market, and says it has sold 10 million Nook devices. “If we want to be in the device business, we have to be in the content business no matter how they’re produced. We think our people can produce better devices than anyone else,” Michael Huseby, company president, told investors in a conference call on Tuesday morning.

Even today, Barnes & Noble should have a natural advantage in the bookselling business, because most readers seem to want a mix of digital and print, says Michael Shatzkin, chief executive of Idea Logical, a consultant for publishers. “Only Barnes & Noble has e-books, print books, online and offline. The challenge for them is to keep the customers as customers change their patterns of consumption,” he says. “It’s very hard to discern, because Amazon (AMZN) buries its numbers so much, but it’s my impression that the gap between Amazon.com and BN.com is growing.”

The company said more than half of the drop in retail sales was basically a hangover following the 2012 binge on The Hunger Games and Fifty Shades of Greytrilogies. And while digital content sales dropped 15.8 percent in the quarter, Barnes & Noble said that, excluding the impact of those titles, they only fell 6.9 percent. Digital content isn’t selling very well because Nooks aren’t selling very well.

It’s not just Barnes & Noble. According to the Association of American Publishers, net sales of trade books in the first quarter of 2013 were down 4.7 percent from a year earlier, with almost all of the losses concentrated in the young adult category. It should go without saying thatFifty Shades of Grey, which wasn’t published in the U.S. until April 2012, is not included in those young adult numbers.

Barnes & Noble said it also expects to see sales lag this quarter, when compared to 2012′s hit-fueled performance. It looks on the horizon and sees John Grisham and Stephen King riding to the rescue with new novels coming later this year. It just has to hope that everyone doesn’t just put them on their Kindles.

Campbell, Sturgeon, and Lifeboat Winners Announced; Frederik Pohl Honored for Sturgeon Award Service

from http://www.sfcenter.ku.edu/news.htm

 

Campbell, Sturgeon, and Lifeboat Winners Announced;

Frederik Pohl Honored for Sturgeon Award Service

LAWRENCE, KS – June 17, 2013
for immediate release

The winners of this year’s John W. Campbell Memorial Award for the best science fiction novel, Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for the best short science fiction, and Lifeboat to the Stars Award have been revealed, announced Christopher McKitterick, Director of the Gunn Center for the Study of Science Fiction. The awards were presented during the Campbell Conference Awards banquet on Friday, June 14, as part of the Campbell Conference held annually at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

The first-ever Lifeboat to the Stars Award went to Tau Ceti, a unique combination of novella by Kevin J. Anderson and sequel novelette by Steven Savile; Anderson was on hand to accept the award. The Lifeboat Foundation established this new award to recognize the best work of science fiction published in 2011 or 2012 that contributes to an understanding of the benefits, means, or difficulties of interstellar travel, in the hope that it will assist with the Foundation’s goal to improve humankind’s long-term survival. Eric Klien, President and administrator of the Foundation, said, “science fiction has the ability to explore the unknown and its human implications. We want to encourage writers to contribute their imaginations to these vital purposes.”

Molly Gloss won the Sturgeon Award for her short story “The Grinnell Method,” from the September, 2012, issue of Strange Horizons. Though she was unable to attend, Gloss provided a video of her acceptance speech. Linda Nagata won second place for “Nahiku West,” published in the October issue of Analog. Robert Reed took third place with Eater-of-Bone, a stand-alone novella by PS Publishing. The jurors note that the voting for this year’s prize was especially close, and that all of the top three stories deserve recognition. The Sturgeon Award was established in 1987 by James Gunn, Founding Director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at KU, and the heirs of Theodore Sturgeon, including his partner Jayne Engelhart Tannehill and Sturgeon’s children, as an appropriate memorial to one of the great short-story writers in a field distinguished by its short fiction.

Adam Roberts won the Campbell Award for Jack Glass: The Story of a Murderer; due to other obligations, Roberts was unable to attend, but sent his video acceptance. Terry Bisson’s Any Day Now, published by Overlook, won second place. Third place was a tie between M. John Harrison’s Empty Space, published by Gollancz and Night Shade Books; and G. Willow Wilson’s debut novel, Alif the Unseen, published by Grove Press. As with this year’s Sturgeon Award, the Campbell Award voting was extremely close, which is why the jury wished to recognize four books this year instead of the usual three. Writers and critics Harry Harrison and Brian W. Aldiss established the Campbell Award to honor the late editor of Astounding Science Fiction magazine (which later became Analog) as a way of continuing his efforts to encourage writers to produce their best possible work. Campbell, who edited the magazine from 1937 until his death in 1971, is called by many writers and scholars the father of modern science fiction.

Depending on your reading tastes, your favorite book or short story for 2012 might turn out to be any of the finalists, so the jurors recommend that you read all the works on both the Sturgeon short-list and the Campbell short-list.

Additionally, James Gunn presented a special Sturgeon Award to Frederik Pohl for his long and distinguished service to the Award and the Center. Starting in 1995, when the Sturgeon Award became a juried award, Pohl served first with James Gunn and Judith Merril, and since then with several other highly respected jurors. Pohl also presented many talks, recorded a fantastic discussion about “Ideas in Science Fiction” for the Literature of Science Fiction Lecture Series, served the Intensive Institute on Science Fiction and Science Fiction Writing Workshop, and lent his understanding to the Center in countless other ways. We very much appreciate his insight and friendship, and will miss him.

Using the theme “To the Stars” (“Ad Astra Per Aspera” is the Kansas state motto), this year’s Saturday morning round-table discussion explored SF’s long relationship with off-planet travel, its promises, and the future of the human race as a galactic species. We also discussed the important steps along the path to the stars, and of course science fiction and its role in these themes. On Saturday afternoon, Kevin J. Anderson, Andy Duncan, and James Gunn read from new works, and the second issue of James Gunn’s Ad Astra journal was released. Attending special guests included authors Andy Duncan, James Gunn, and Kij Johnson; editor Eric T. Reynolds; and film-maker Kevin Willmott, who hosted a special screening of his upcoming film, Destination: Planet Negro!; plus many others.

Congratulations to all the honorees! Many thanks to all who attended, and thanks to the winners for providing us all with such fine reading – Ad Astra!

www.sfcenter.ku.edu