I was lucky enough to trek to Leicester Square’s Odeon theatre on Monday to attend a Q&A for upcoming sci-fi blockbuster Ender’s Game. The panel included the director, Gavin Hood, producers Gigi Pritzker and Bob Chartoff, and major Hollywood names Harrison Ford, Sir Ben Kingsley and rising stars Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld. My knowledge on the film beforehand was limited, so I was taken aback by how much time, effort and vision had gone into taking Orson Scott Card’s book to the silver screen.
Three exclusive clips were shown before the cast and crew came out. Although short and giving little away, I can honestly say the visual effects are amazing. Ender’s Game has been in the works for 4 years as director Gavin Hood told us. For those unfamiliar, it is a story of Earths future in which mankind is embroiled in a war with an alien species. The most adept children are recruited to the Battle School to be trained and prepared for war. The central plot revolves around prodigy Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) pulled from his Earth school to join the International Fleet in Space who is then ordained by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) as the next potential great warrior before training alongside Mazer Rackman (Sir Ben Kingsley) to lead the military into war.
The interview was undertaken by a giddy speaker, donned in a grey suit to rev up the audience first. The interior of the Odeon was so grand and the audience were surprisingly tame with anticipation. It felt almost as soon as the cast and crew stepped on stage, each of the audience would drop to their knees and do a ‘Wayne’s World-esque’ “WE’RE NOT WORTHY” skit (I know I did in my head).
The Q&A Event:
Ender’s Game [the novel]was released 30 years ago, why has it taken this long to become a massive motion picture?
Bob [to Gigi]: Why did it take you so long to get the rights to the book?
Gigi: I had a nephew who had a hard time reading and he loved the book so I decided I needed to read it myself. And It took 13 years to find Bob!
Bob: Audiences needed to be ready for it. They’ve seen so many things before and the book is so original so hopefully this will be something they will never have seen before.
With the advancements of CGI, was this a film that could have been made only now?
Gavin: I’m hesitant in the presence of Harrison Ford to say something in science fiction could not be made. We’ve finally reached a point where visual effects are really that good and they can be well used or abused. You can slam visual effects all over a movie and audiences can say “cool… is there a story in there?” What I love about Ender’s Game is that it has these fabulous visual effects especially across the battle field scenes and still has an amazing story. It has the mark of great characters as well as the strong themes and emotions from the book.
Harrison, you’ve seen CGI change across your career, what are the fundamental differences on Ender’s Game that you may not have seen working back in the 1970s and 1980s?
Harrison: Well, when I was there in the olden days, we had sort of horse drawn effects. You put props together, now today you can do it all on a computer. Both methods work except computer graphics have a little more latitude but they also have the ability to exceed human scale, to get beyond and overpopulate the screen in a way that confuses the eye and the emotions. I think we’ve done a great thing here and the great thing about science fiction is the bandwidth of imagination. A realistic film only has a certain potential but with these effects in space, we can see things visually that we may never have thought about nor could imagine fully. There’s a lot of wisdom in the book too that I hope we’ve captured.
How was it for you Asa and Hailee working in science fiction and with CGI for the first time?
Asa: It was really exciting, neither of us had done a film with this level of special effects. When you’re hanging there- 20ft in the air green screening with other actors and the wonderful Gavin Hood shouting instructions at you, “so what’s going on?!”. It’s a really interesting experience and we couldn’t have done it without Gavin’s instructions and deep understanding of what he wanted to create. But nothing can compare to the final image.
How familiar were you all with the book? In the UK it is not as brightly on our radar!
Bob: I read it when I was 12 years old and always dreamt of a film adaptation. It had complicated themes of adventure and pushed all of the right buttons for me and still does.
Gigi: I read it as an adult and talked about it with my nephew. I think it’s great that it could spark a conversation between different generations.
Ben: I wasn’t aware of it at all until Gavin approached me with a laptop telling me his pitch and showing me the graphics. It wasn’t until I realized I wasn’t watching the screen, just listening that I realized that this had potential to be a great film. He’s strong, intelligent and full of character! I know Gavin struggled to adapt the book because the book deals with internal struggle and what he had to do was externalize this all on a grand scale for which I think Gavin did an impeccable job.
Asa: I read the script and then the book soon after. I think it’s such a beautiful backdrop and wasn’t sure how it could be brought to the screen but somehow Gavin has made it happen.
Gavin, when adapting [a book to the screen]do you not think it would be too easy to change details?
Gavin: Firstly, I’m hugely supported by my cast and the special effects technicians. In terms of adapting it is a very internal journey but it is also a fantastic sort of spectacle of battle scenes, the backdrop and the final battle simulation. We were challenging the aesthetics because in the book it is a black box room and reads well but suddenly I’m taking on this job and I was all keen and I was like, “Oh boy… now I have to decide what it actually looks like”. Inspiration comes from all over but then I thought of a huge glass sphere- earth down there and the sun above! I took this idea to the producers (Gigi and Bob) and they just said “budget… BUDGET”. But they got on board and we hired a fantastic concept artist and designer who build this up. We eventually took this out on to the world as a 45 second teaser clip. We took it to Canne and to Hollywood who feared making this film for many years and eventually had to raise the money ourselves.
Bob: I sold my house…
Asa and Hailee, your characters are at the real heart of this film, what are your character’s relationships like?
Hailee: When you meet my character, Petra, she’s been at the school for a long time. When you meet Ender you can tell he’s a bit shut down and he’s instantly doubted by everyone at the battle school except our tutors who keep telling us he’s the best of the best. Petra, being one of the only girls in the school faced with doubt herself, she sees a friend in Ender as two underdogs. They have a really special friendship.
You have the great characters in this film but you also have the action on top of this. Was this frightening, exciting or a challenge?
Asa: For me this was a bit of everything. Here, I’m giving a chance to work on a major science fiction motion picture. I got to do all of the cool stuff and on the way I felt I found my character.
How was Asa and Harrison’s characters relationship? It’s quite fraught, he’s quite scary. How did you manage off screen so the on-screen relationship worked?
Harrison: [British accent] That’s acting… Nah! He understood perfectly, we both had responsibility to the roles. My character is a mentor and emulator, Asa saw through Ender’s eyes the obstacles he had to get through. When I’m acting in a role, I’m not interested in deciding for myself whether he’s a good guy or bad guy, he is charged with a responsibility fictionally and being able to play the part so Asa and I had a distance off screen. Gavin also, had a good idea to put all of the kids through bootcamp. There were drill instructors to teach them marching and all of the military behaviors for them to replicate on screen. Asa understood I was there purposely to keep at a distance.
Asa: I grew up on with Star Wars and Indiana Jones so this was [laughing]very intimidating…
Gavin, are you considering a sequel yet?
Gavin: Yes, [laughing]. We have a title, obviously but we’re gonna wait a while to see how Ender’s Game goes down and see how the audience respond.
Ender’s Game is released nationwide in UK cinemas on 25 October.