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Set Visit Report #2: Interview With Director Gavin Hood

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As far as directors go, Gavin Hood seems to be the perfect choice for a film which requires working with a fleet of young actors. He's the kind of guy who could be your neighbor, one who'd play soccer with your kid and grin winningly from the ground after he tripped over his own feet. I've heard him described by those who spent time on the Ender's Game set as a "grown-up kid" and "our very own Peter Pan." He's likable, unassuming, and has a charming tendency to throw his hands up in the air when he's talking.

He is also a man filled with a deep passion for his work and an understanding of film adaptations that comes not only from him being a brilliant director and scriptwriter, which he is, but because he is first and foremost a fan of the material. And it's his fan side that seems to be what fuels his desire to get Ender's Game right, not just for box office numbers -- but for us.

On the day of our set visit, he snuck quietly into the press conference toward the end of our talk with a few of the film's stars, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, and Nonso Anozie. He looked a little like he wasn't quite meant to be there, standing smiling off to the side of the room while Asa told of his first meeting with Orson Scott Card, admitting that he hadn't had many questions for the author; it was Card, rather, who had the questions for him.

"He hasn't read his books for a long time. He was checking with the kids," Hood quipped, to roaring laughter.

"Gavin Hood, everyone."

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The first question everyone saw coming: What's Hood's favorite sci-fi film? Unsurprisingly, it's 2001 A Space Odyssey by Stanley Kubrick, a film which he claims influenced his decision to direct Ender's Game.

"I've always been a big fan of Kubrick, and on some level, that's what attracted me to this movie. You have these amazing visual opportunities that are big and epic and beautiful -- and you're in space. It's literally awe-inspiring. And if you watch, if you spend a lot of time watching footage that's been shot on the Hubble telescope, you get all those fantastic, big visuals. And of course there is the Battle Room and they do all this wonderful stuff - you're in the Battle School and you get all this zero-gravity stuff at the same time."

He could have probably talked Kubrick forever, and to be honest, we would have let him. However, it was then that several of the supporting cast members popped in -- Ender's jeesh.

"Come on, you are all kids," he grinned. "This is much more important."

After a lot of laughing and rearranging of the seats, the cast gathered around their director and Nonso Anozie brought us back to the topic at hand.

Physical Sets vs. CGI

"You know what's amazing? When you say 2001 A Space Odyssey, a lot of the sets, a lot of stuff which surprised me coming onto this film, are real built sets. They're real. You're not just looking at green screen all the time. There's a lot of reality there. And as an actor it's so good," Anozie admitted. "And kind of that James Cameron/Kubrick-kind of feel, that symmetry? It's like a lot of that beauty is captured sometimes in this film, in some of the stuff we do."

"And that's really the key," Hood agreed. "You have both these awe-inspiring, epic moments and you have these very intimate close-ups, detailed emotional moments, what's going on between the characters. Which I think is what's amazing about Ender's Game. It's really a fantastic set of characters. It's obviously a single wonderful character study of Ender but he's also surrounded by amazing characters like Bean, and Dink, and Alai, and Bernard, and obviously Petra. [...] You've got all these marvelous, strong, well-defined characters engaged in really human and emotional stories. And yet it's set in this wonderful, sort of epic space."

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It really is an epic space, as we would witness all day while wandering around the sets -- huge set pieces which were built to scale there at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, including the cavernous room of Ender's final simulation. And when walking down the Formic tunnels, amber pathways with metal walkways bolted in, it wasn't hard to understand how easy it would have been for the actors to become lost in the world of Eros.

"What we wanted to create were spaces where the actors could genuinely feel the world. And then obviously there are certain worlds, like when you really are out in space, that have to be fully visually created by us. But certainly when you're in the space tunnels and in the dormitories and moving down those corridors or inside the command center on Eros..." he drifted off, possibly a little lost in Ender's world himself.

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But what about the set pieces which couldn't be realistically built? Gavin spent some time explaining exactly how he and the VFX team went about filming scenes which were very greenscreen-heavy, such as those which take place in the Battle Room or the Mind Game. Bringing a beloved character to life is daunting enough as it is; how did Asa manage to interact with characters and objects he couldn't see?

The team made it a bit easier for him: before Asa was expected to perform, he was shown a previsualization of how everything should eventually play out. After spending quite some time working with movement coaches, he then tried out what he had learned based on what the scene was tentatively supposed to look like.

Fortunately for Asa, it wasn't necessary for him to base his actions on what the visual team expected; rather, they added in the visuals based on where he grabbed, reached, and moved.

"If he reaches here and pulls something here or he reaches slightly off there, it's fine because we're putting in those graphics certainly in relation to what we see on him. [...] It's not like, 'Oh my god, you have to point at exactly THAT because THAT is where that graphic is.' Well, the graphic isn't there yet."

But it would be.

Themes of Leadership

Gavin Hood was drafted into the military at the age of 17, and it was his time spent in service which he says helped him connect emotionally to Ender's story.

"A lot of those feelings - feeling like you were just a number in an organization with strong authority figures that you were not supposed to question, feeling like you wanted to rebel against it… I connected with this book in many ways based on feelings and experiences that I'd had. And I also really think that the ideas and themes of leadership in the book and hopefully in the movie are timeless and classic. You know, what is good leadership? What is bad leadership? What is responsible leadership?"

These are themes which Hood feels are important to address with young people today. And what's a better platform for reaching teenagers than a huge Hollywood blockbuster?

"So often there are films that we go to and they're fantastic and they're fun and they're wonderful. But it's like, 'Well, that was great. Wanna get pizza?' as opposed to a story like Ender's Game where kids really talk about it. 'Well, what do you think about the way Ender made that decision? Was he too violent, or wasn't he?' These are important conversations, I think, for young people to engage in, but in an exciting way. If you can deliver that kind of debate and conversation  in an exciting, visually powerful way, then I think you're getting a little more than just spectacle. We can combine spectacle with a good old-fashioned argument afterwards and that's kind of fun."

Book Adaptations and Locke and Demosthenes

One complaint heard most often from fans is that the Locke and Demosthenes storyline has been cut from the film. In what might have been my favorite part of the set visit, Gavin Hood addressed this question and the challenge that inevitably awaits every book-to-movie adaptation.

"The film making experience is very different to reading a book. It is a contained 2 hour experience in which you have a beginning, a middle and an end and you leave before your bladder hurts," he stated, grinning. "These are the facts, right? The medium is different. And one of the facts I think we have to own up to is that saying, 'Is the movie like the book?' Wait a minute, the book is the book. It exists, it can never be taken away. It is a different experience to sit and read over a period of weeks or days, chapter by chapter, put it down, reflect, pick it up. So that is why movies are based on books. They cannot be the book."

At this point, everyone in the room was nodding, including the boys sitting around him. Everyone could tell that this was a conversation they'd had many times and a topic which Hood had given a great deal of thought. He gestured to Alai actor Suraj Partha who was sitting to his right.

"If I said to you, 'Here is a young Suraj. I want you to take his photograph and I'd like you to sculpt him, I'd like you to paint him in oil.' And these 3 pieces of art were presented to the class. Would the class say, 'Hold on, this oil painting looks nothing like the sculpture!' You'd go, 'Of course it doesn't. That's an oil painting and that's a sculpture.'

"So the question becomes: Does the oil painting capture the spirit of this boy in some unique way? Does the pencil sketch capture his spirit in a way that moves you? Does the sculpture capture the spirit in a way that moves you? And that for me is the same with books, I did it with Tsotsi - it was an adaptation in which I made many changes -- and Athol [Fugard] was very pleased with it. He said, 'Because you stayed true to the spirit of the character.'"

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But if Locke and Demosthenes are cut from the film, how is Hood going to reveal Peter's depth, his better qualities? How will we ever relate to a boy who is found skinning squirrels alive halfway through the novel?

"I've tried to do it without giving it away, and had to do it in a matter of about 3 very economical scenes," he replied. "We meet Peter at the beginning of the movie, and he has everything I think that the book has - that aggression and bully and nastiness. But to your point, if you had interviewed Peter and said, 'Why are you doing this?' he would say, 'Because this kid has to toughen up or he's not going to make it.' He's engaged in what he would justify as tough love. And at some point in the film, somewhere in the third act, you will find a scene in which that idea presents itself. [...] I've tried to do it in a very subtle scene between him and Valentine which is not a scene from the book."

The door opened then and the director was called back to set, but he took a moment to turn and thank us all for being there. "I love these questions because they’re so tough to answer but they're so honest. You're right to ask them so I hope I’ve given you some idea. Thanks, guys. Thank you very much."

He left then, back to the realization of an adaptation he had been working on for over 2 years before he had created something he believes to be good, something true to Ender's spirit.

I have no doubt that he has succeeded.

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Coming tomorrow: Part 3 - Costumes and Props
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