South African filmmaker Gavin Hood is best known for directing “Tsotsi,” the 2005 Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film. Since then, he has directed “Rendition” which starred Jake Gyllenhaal and Reese Witherspoon, and he helmed the superhero film “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” which is better known for its troubled production more than anything else. Now Hood is back with “Ender’s Game,” an adaptation of the Orson Scott Card’s well regarded science fiction novel.
I got to catch up with Hood when he was at the “Ender’s Game” press conference which was held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, California.
What did you see as your biggest challenge with this movie? Was it the casting ot taking the story from this novel and adapting it for a movie?
Gavin Hood: Obviously a film like this has a number of challenges, first in the adaptation of the book which I’m a huge fan of. The tricky thing about the book of course is that it is a very internal story. The author writes beautifully about the characters’ thinking and feeling, and translating that into film is not always so easy. But we worked very hard, all of us, during the script writing process on how we could capture the spirit of the book using our medium. Of course, we have living breathing actors who can reflect an emotion in a second which the book doesn’t have, so in some ways it is difficult but in other ways it is easier because the book might need two or three paragraphs to describe what a character is feeling. And with great actors like Harrison Ford, Sir Ben Kingsley, Viola Davis or our young actors like Asa Butterfield or Hailee Steinfeld, you can get in a second off of a great reaction shot a great deal of information about what the character is feeling.
To your question about casting, once we stretched the script in ways that the conflict is good and the reaction should follow, you need actors that can really deliver on those reactions. I think we were very fortunate to get the kind of cast that we got and that came onto this movie because the layers of complexity would not be easy to reveal without a cast as good as the one we have gotten.
How many kids did you see to find Ender?
Gavin Hood: We saw hundreds. We auditioned all over the world, and of course until we found Asa Butterfield, we were very nervous. We saw some amazing kids of younger ages, but the emotional demands of this movie on that young lead are enormous, and the subtleties he needed to convey were enormous. We saw some wonderful young actors but not all of them could deliver up against Harrison Ford, and Asa could.
The movie has sort of a romance between Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld that’s not really a romance.
Gavin Hood: I think there’s a very interesting thing there. You’re in a military environment where discipline is very strict, and yet these are young people. What I like about that is that in the midst of all this harshness is a need for gentleness and for compassion and frankly friendship. I think that, given the young ages, Hailee and Asa deliver beautifully on this genuine, kind, amusing and intelligent friendship. Obviously we didn’t want to nor could we take it further; these are young people in a military environment. In the scenes where they are floating in zero gravity, we wanted a sense of ballet and beauty to that moment when they go out in the moonlight. That moment where they jump out together in the moonlight is a moment of gentleness in a rather harsh environment.
The movie is being shown in IMAX but not in 3D. Is this not going to be a 3D movie, and if you made the choice not film this movie in 3D, why? This seems like the perfect movie to film in that format.
Gavin Hood: That’s a great question. The battle room fights would have been great in 3D, awesome. However the place we struggled is in the deep space battles in the end. What’s genius about “Gravity” is that you are close upon the actors, but 3D works best when you have foreground, middle ground and background. Our problem when we tested for 3D in the deep space stuff, when he is looking at a distant planet, is that it doesn’t go 3D. If you look at the moon, it looks 2D because the distances are so great, and what happens is your spaceships at great distances start to look like little toys and it detracts from the moment. Parts of our movie would be awesome in 3D, and parts of our movie would not have worked in 3D. Frankly this is an independent movie where my wonderful producers really did whatever they could to get the money we could to make this movie as well as we could in 2D, and I think we would’ve been overreaching.
The other reason is this is a very intimate story about a boy, and one of the things that we are able to use in the film is longer lenses to isolate him below the backgrounds out of focus and get inside his eyes. 3D doesn’t like that. 3D prefers you to use wider lenses because when things are out of focus and yet it’s in 3D, it bothers you. So in the end we feel like 2D was the right format for this film to study the characters intimately and to really have that feeling in our final battle scenes of something of scale. Ironically the 3D was making the scale feel less and not more in that section.
How did you get introduced to the book “Ender’s Game?”
Gavin Hood: I read it five years ago because my agent was looking for an opportunity to do an adaptation. I had done it on “Tsotsi” and really enjoyed it, and I felt I would like to write the script for my next project as opposed to doing one that was being written by 20 people while shooting, but that’s another story. So this book was sent to me and I read it and I had no idea of its history. I just read this book and I went, “Wow, why am I relating to this book?” I was drafted when I was 17 years old and it was bringing up all these feelings of being taken from your home far away and being in this environment where people are yelling and screaming at you and frankly praising you for aspects of your personality that are not the aspects of your personality that your mother would praise; being more aggressive, being less sympathetic, just as more aggressive environment. It was a very disturbing time of my life and I came out questioning my own nature and my world, and I thought that’s what this kid is doing. He’s in this environment where he’s ultimately compelled to take responsibility for his own choices and his own nature.
To me, Ender is not a good kid fighting bad things which we have seen in many movies. He’s a complex kid who is capable of tremendous compassion but also capable of real aggression, and at some point he has to find his own balance and take responsibility for his own moral choices in the world. In that sense, it’s a beautiful coming of age story and one looking back I related to. I have a nephew who is now finishing high school who loves this book, and the conversations that we are able to have as adults with younger people about the themes, if they can generate a conversation between you and your nephew, that’s something that I don’t always get in a movie. It’s either their kind of movie or my kind of movie.
I’m hoping that this crosses over with parents and kids and forges a little bit of conversation while at the same time being hugely entertaining.
I love that the characters here look like outsiders instead of jocks. In the book, was it as diverse or where did it come that you needed to have a diverse cast?
Gavin Hood: In the book it’s diverse but some characters are not specified of a particular origin. For me this is the international station and it needs to be diverse, and we found kids from all over the world that we auditioned and I think we were very lucky. I think what was most important in casting this movie was to find kids who were genuinely smart. You can fake a lot of things but you can’t fake smart and you can’t fake deep compassion. These kids have it. They are genuinely nice, intelligent, thinking kids and they got on with each other so well and had so much fun.
We sent them on to space camp before we started the movie. We sent them for six weeks of training and they trained with astronauts, they trained with military instructors on how to march and salute and they bonded, and they trained with Cirque du Soleil performers and how to work on the wires. So by the time we got to the set, that kind of physical stuff was out of the way and we could focus on the emotional work that was deep for kids of this age. It’s a kids’ movie, but it’s a deep kids’ movie.
Asa Butterfield was born in London and has a British accent, but he manages to pull off a believable American accent in this movie. How did Asa pull off such a convincing accent?
Gavin Hood: In the book, Ender is in America. His father is a Polish immigrant in the book, so he speaks with an accent in the movie. So we were trying to be true to the book in that sense because in the book he’s a young American kid and his dad is from Poland who was brought on to the program and failed. His sister and brother have been through the program and failed, so that’s the only reason. He has to speak the same accent as the rest of his family.
What we tried to do in some of those views from space of the world is really feel how beautiful our planet is, but at the same time our political institution is paranoid. The world that’s worth saving is our beautiful planet, but the political institution that is becoming more militarized because of fear and paranoia is definitely something that needs to be changed. Part of Ender’s journey is to question that.
The important thing for me at the end is Ender’s not only mad about the fact that he feels they made a morally bad choice. He also feels that it is strategically stupid that the way you win doesn’t matter. He’s still strategically smart and that’s the impact that Harrison talked about of, “Oh my god, this kid is smarter than I even thought. I thought that if I manipulated him to win that’s all that mattered. But actually if I had given him the real information, he might have strategically been better equipped because we’ve now given ourselves a reputation as genocidal maniacs.” Maybe Ender’s anger is not just that it’s morally stupid, it’s also strategically stupid and I hope that comes across.
Gavin, were you totally excited that you had Han Solo in your movie?
Gavin Hood: Yes (laughs)! The crew kept saying, “Oh Gavin’s the biggest kid on set.” I kind of am in a way because there are so many powerful feelings you have when you are that age. When I was young I jumped out of airplanes, I climbed mountains and I did all sorts of stupid things for adrenaline rushes, so the notion of leaping out into a zero gravity battle school, I wanted to do that. I still want to do that. I think we all want to do that. That was just great, but at the same time we are up against Harrison Ford, and both I and Asa Butterfield had a moment where Harrison Ford walked on the set and my inner 12-year-old and his literal 12-year-old were a little intimidated. But this was good, this was awesome. We used it and not even spoke to Harrison about it, and we shot the film in sequence partly because our little Asa grew two inches during the course of shooting which made wardrobe crazy, but partly because he grew emotionally through the course of that film, and Harrison very much used that slight intimidation from the beginning not in any way unkindly. He just kept him a little bit at a distance, and the intimidation of Asa Butterfield to icon actor Harrison Ford was perfect for Ender Wiggin to Colonel Graff. Gradually through the course of shooting as Asa’s confidence grew, he became more and more ready to take on that final scene where he yells at Colonel Graff, “You lied!” This animal man comes out of this little boy and hits Harrison Ford in the face. I think Harrison’s iconic status actually really helped us from a performance point of view.
“Ender’s Game” had a long journey from the page to the silver screen. What would you say you have learned about yourself or taken away from this experience of bringing this book to life?
Gavin Hood: What I learned out of this is the same kind of thing that Asa learned, that at some point you have so much emotional reserves and I was just lucky to have an incredibly strong supportive group of people around while making this. I know this sounds melodramatic, but it’s exhausting trying to bring a film with this kind of fan base with the young actors who can only work five hours a day, working up against icons. There were times it was really, really stressful for all of us from the kind of physical effects, digital effects. I just learned to appreciate the fact that you need a strong support group, and you’ve got to trust that support group. I was lucky to have an incredible crew and an incredible cast. The movie stars in this movie were anything but movie star-ish. They were people who loved what we were trying to do and genuinely supported the fact that we were trying to make a film for young people that didn’t talk down to them. I’m glad that everyone on the movie wanted to make that movie because otherwise it would’ve been just too hard.