Cast: Harrison Ford, Asa Butterfield, Hailee Steinfeld, Viola Davis, Abigail Breslin, Ben Kingsley
Director: Gavin Hood
Running Time: 114 minutes
Synopsis: A brilliant and remarkably gifted 12-year-old is trained to become Earth's ultimate military leader in Ender's Game, the long-awaited big-screen adaptation of the classic, Hugo and Nebula Award winning novel.
After surviving a devastating attack by the insect-like Formics, the people of Earth have spent years readying themselves for a repeat attack by nurturing a new generation of child geniuses to be trained as warriors. The planet's best and brightest youngsters are selected to attend Battle School, an orbiting space station where they compete for a chance to become a commander of the International Forces. Using advanced computer simulations and rigorous game-like exercises, they train in an atmosphere of violence and intense competition, knowing that only one will be selected to lead.
Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield) is exceptional, even among his extraordinary classmates. His unique combination of intelligence, empathy, and strategic brilliance makes him a standout in the classroom and in the Battle Room"a zero-gravity playground where games of futuristic laser tag test the trainees' strategic and physical abilities. But Ender's singular gifts inspire envy in his fellow recruits, and the school's commander, Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford), deliberately alienates Ender from the other children in order to hone his individual leadership skills.
An outsider at first, Ender, with his preternatural understanding of human nature gradually builds a coalition among his peers, and is soon promoted to command school"located on a distant planet once used by the Formics as a forward staging post for their invasion of Earth. Under the severe tutelage of Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), the brilliant general who defeated the Formics years earlier, Ender is rapidly promoted to lead his fellow students in simulated war games against enemy forces.
Certain that another attack by the Formics is imminent, Graff and Rackham believe they have only weeks to ready Ender to lead the International Fleet in a battle for planetary survival. But as the boy prepares to face his final test, he develops gnawing doubts about the monumental task that lies ahead. Is this the best strategy for achieving peace?
Release Date: December 5th, 2013
Orson Scott Card's acclaimed futuristic novel Ender's Game debuted in 1985 and became an instant classic, earning the coveted Hugo and Nebula Awards, as well as the devotion of millions of fans worldwide. A startlingly original adventure as well as a poignant and inspiring coming-of-age story, Ender's Game's prescient view of future technology and insights into human nature have made it a perennial favourite with adults and children for almost 30 years. It has been translated into 28 languages and is included on the United States Marine Corps' Professional Reading Program list, as well as the American Library Association's list of 100 Best Books for Teens.
The novel's immense popularity and vivid imagery made a film adaptation seem inevitable, but creating Card's gorgeously imagined future and intricately plotted storyline would take an exceptionally determined and talented team of filmmakers.
Producer Lynn Hendee, president of Chartoff Productions, has spent more than a decade shepherding Card's book through development. She and her colleague Robert Chartoff have become close to Card over the years, and serve as the North Carolina-based author's trusted ambassadors to the film industry.
'I became involved with the book about 15 years ago," Lynn Hendee says. 'Bob Chartoff asked me to read it. I was not a science fiction aficionado, but I wasn't able to put this book down. The idea for the film has gone through several incarnations since then, but it wasn't until we met Gigi Pritzker and Linda McDonough that things really started to happen. It has been a fascinating journey getting here."
Gigi Pritzker, CEO of OddLot Entertainment, had been tracking the rights to the novel ever since her teenage nephew handed her the book, saying it would make a great movie. 'That was the beginning of the journey for me," Gigi Pritzker says. 'Not only did the book have the ability to inspire an ongoing conversation between a 14-year-old and an adult, it had all the elements to make a great movie. It deals with universal themes that people of all ages grapple with. It's set in an environment that's unique and exciting and compelling"and it's all wrapped up in this fantastic adventure."
She shared the book with her colleague Linda McDonough, executive vice president of OddLot Entertainment and another of the film's team of producers. Linda McDonough was struck by the intelligence and perceptiveness of a story about a gifted boy thrust into the single-minded world of military training. 'It's a compelling story that inspires important discussions about leadership, conflict resolution and empathy," she says. 'For young adults, there's also a recognition of what it was like to feel isolated, to feel like you are on the outside. The world can be a scary place when you feel that way."
Approached by Gigi Pritzker about partnering on a film version of Ender's Game, Lynn Hendee was impressed by her passion and respect for the novel and quickly agreed to work with OddLot. Gigi Pritzker and Linda McDonough then began assembling a production team that is unusual in its depth and breadth. 'We always knew that to try to bring a book like this to the screen was going take a lot of people pulling on the same oars, really working together as a team," Gigi Pritzker says.
Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci of K/O Paper Products were asked to lend a hand. Linda McDonough knew the pair's previous experience with epic adaptations like Transformers and Star Trek would be invaluable to the ambitious project. 'We felt strongly we needed an 800-pound gorilla as a producing partner," she says, 'because the film is enormous in its scope and its budget. Alex Kurtzman and Bob Orci helped pave the road to production."
'They gave the project some heat," adds Lynn Hendee. 'It was understood in the film industry that if they loved it, it had to be good."
It turned out that Bob Orci had read the book when he was 12 and always wanted to see it made into a movie. 'I think that finally enough people who read this book when they were young have come of age and achieved a certain amount of success in Hollywood," says Linda McDonough. 'Combine that with the advances in film technology and Ender's Game is finally coming to the screen."
Bob Orci says that both he and Alex Kurtzman are longtime fans of the novel. 'It captured our imaginations when we were teenagers and it has stuck with us ever since," he says. 'It's a challenging book, but it's also extremely fun and accessible. It's rare that you get that in one package. We never thought we'd get to work on it, even though it's one of the things that made us want to come into this business."
The producing team continued to grow when the filmmakers took an unusual step by enlisting Digital Domain as a partner. For the first time ever, the visuals effects giant is helping to produce a film beginning at the development stage. 'Ender's Game has a multitude of rich environments, so we brought on Digital Domain as soon as possible," says Gigi Pritzker. 'Having them join us as an integral partner gave us the ability to delve into the look of the film in a much richer way."
Ed Ulbrich, former CEO of Digital Domain and a producer of the film, says that this is the realisation of a 20-year vision for the company. 'When Digital Domain first formed in 1993 with James Cameron, the idea was to build a digital studio that would become self-sufficient and create films in a new way," he explains. 'We've approached this film that way. We were involved during the writing process, and the visual development was as important as the story development."
Even as the script was evolving, Digital Domain was already creating the world of the film, a world Ed Ulbrich likes to refer to as the 'the Ender-verse." 'This is a very ambitious movie even for Digital Domain," he says. 'Coming in early was critical. Having everybody on common visual ground from the very beginning facilitated the storytelling and the performance. Saying that we did -visual effects' doesn't really capture the scope of our involvement."
The producing team spent a year interviewing writers to adapt Card's novel for the screen before selecting Gavin Hood, who would also direct Ender's Game. Hood's unique résumé includes films that range from the intimate Tsotsi, the 2005 Oscar® winner for Best Foreign Language Film, to epic blockbusters including X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
'Gavin Hood had worked on small, independent films in South Africa that had great personal meaning," says Gigi Pritzker. 'But he had done big studio special-effects films, as well. He could handle both sides of the equation. In addition, he'd been in the military in South Africa as a young man and that brought an understanding of the hierarchy of power in that environment, giving the story a real layer of depth that we might not have gotten with a different writer."
In their initial meeting, Gavin Hood won over the producers with his enthusiasm, imagination and emotional connection to the material. 'Meeting Gavin Hood was a transformative moment," says Linda McDonough. 'I cried at the end of his pitch. That's what we want people to experience when they see this movie."
'Gavin Hood was the one, just as Ender is the one," Lynn Hendee says. 'He's a force of nature. Many directors were interested in this film, but his passion and his vision were contagious and compelling. His core ideas for both the writing and the directing of the film, the visual components and the style were all there from the beginning."
Gavin Hood was excited by the potential of this story to transport audiences to a future world very different from our own in order to illuminate issues humans face today. 'Science fiction is wonderful at generating discussion about themes and ideas that are important in the contemporary world," he says. 'It allows conversations that might become inflammatory in a political context to take place in an imaginary space."
Ender's Game examines critical and timely ideas such as the true meaning of leadership, the balance between good and evil and the justification for war. 'Is the way we win as important as winning itself?" says Gavin Hood. 'Where's the line between good and evil, and don't we all contain both, sometimes in the same moment? Is real leadership the exercise of brutal authority in order to get people to do what you want? Or is it more about drawing them in to get the best out of them? Ender is struggling with these questions throughout the film."
At its heart, Ender's Game is a true hero's journey, according to the screenwriter and director. 'A young man leaves the safety of his home to embark on an incredible adventure. He meets various characters who influence him one way or the other, both adults and other children. In some ways, it's very much like Tsotsi in that it follows one particular character's journey and growth closely. On the other hand, it's quite spectacular visually, so my experience on big visual-effects and action movies was very helpful in achieving environments like the zero-gravity scenes. I hope that Ender's Game brings the best of both worlds together."
Adapting any book into a movie is difficult and Ender's Game, with its myriad characters and array of subplots, presented some unique hurdles for the screenwriter-director. 'In addition," notes Gavin Hood, 'the book is written almost entirely from Ender's point of view. The author tells you a lot about what the character is thinking and feeling. Our biggest challenge in adapting this was how to preserve the spirit and the intellect of Ender Wiggin without resorting to a great deal of voiceover."
Faced with Card's sprawling narrative, Gavin Hood compressed the story from six years into one. 'At the beginning of the book, Ender is six years old," says Gavin Hood. 'At the end, he's 12. Practically speaking, that would be very difficult to do with an actor, so the first order of business was reorganising the timeline. Setting it over a period of about a year allowed us to use the same actor throughout."
He also winnowed the storyline down to a more manageable scope by concentrating on Ender's struggle to become the leader everyone believes he has the potential to be. 'A film is a two-hour experience, whereas a book is something you read, put down, come back to," Gavin Hood says. 'We had enough material for several films, so we had to decide what aspects of the book were most important. We came to focus on Ender's story."
Gavin Hood worked with the producers for about two years to complete the script"time that gave him a deeper understanding of the characters and the story he wanted audiences to experience. 'The process of writing a script gives me a massive amount of preparation, so I think I direct better when I'm working with material that I've also had to wrestle with as a writer."
After dedicating so many years to bringing Ender's Game to the screen, Lynn Hendee is more than satisfied with the outcome. 'Ender's Game has endured almost 30 years because it asks its audience to consider questions about humanity and society, and it never offers easy answers," she says. 'From one end of the political spectrum to the other, no matter what gender or culture, people relate to it."
And it's all wrapped up in a rip-roaring, eye-popping, sci-fi adventure, adds Bob Orci. 'The themes are adult-oriented and so is the film," says Bob Orci. 'But there is also the wish-fulfillment of going into outer space, learning how to essentially fly in zero-g, piloting these ships"there's a true adventure to it. This really is an epic and it doesn't patronise the audience just because there are young people in the cast. It would be a great story in any venue."
Joining The International Fleet
Ender Wiggin is a pre-teen genius, born and raised to be the potential saviour of his species. He bears the weight of the world on his shoulders, constantly struggling to do the right thing, even when it breaks his heart. The character is central to the story, incredibly difficult to play"and critical to the film's success. The role would be an enormous undertaking for even an adult actor. Finding a child who could convincingly embody Ender's inner conflict was a daunting task for the filmmakers. 'The book's millions of fans have been projecting themselves onto the character for years," says Lynn Hendee. 'People who love the book see themselves in him and it was crucial for the story that we allow them to continue to do that."
The filmmakers launched a worldwide search before selecting Asa Butterfield for the role. The young actor was fresh off a huge success, starring opposite Sir Ben Kingsley in Martin Scorsese's Hugo. 'We were aware of Asa Butterfield because of his work on Hugo, which we thought was fantastic," says Linda McDonough. 'His first audition was extraordinary, so we flew him to Los Angeles to work with Gavin Hood in person. Once they connected, there was never another option. No one else was even close."
'When we found Asa Butterfield, it was like a light bulb went on," says Gavin Hood. 'Asa Butterfield is mature beyond his years, genuinely kind, compassionate, intelligent and everything else we needed for Ender. The character is amazingly complicated in terms of both intellect and empathy. The biggest challenge was how to preserve his spirit. Asa Butterfield does that superbly. Once we had him, we knew we had a movie."
Asa Butterfield says this was his favourite among the numerous scripts he received after Hugo was released. 'Kid saves the world and fights in zero-gravity"what more could you want?" he asks. 'I knew it would be an exciting and fun shoot."
Ender is a child savant who has been bullied throughout his life because he's a 'third," an additional child in a world where families are strictly limited to two. Like his parents and his brother and sister before him, he is chosen to go to the Battle School where he undergoes a series of training exercises that lead him ultimately into the Battle Room. 'He's come further than anyone else in his family," says Asa Butterfield. 'He has to get past enemies within the program, but he is able to look at both sides of every conflict he has. Every human is capable of extreme selfishness and selflessness. Throughout the film, Ender is stuck in the middle of that contradiction."
In many imaginary futures, the Earth has become a blasted shell of its former self, but in Ender's Game, it is a verdant utopia. 'That heightens the threat of a Formic invasion," explains Asa Butterfield. 'There's so much to lose and that's one of the main reasons Ender is so determined to save his planet."
The filmmakers have surrounded their young star with a distinguished adult cast, starting with Harrison Ford, as Colonel Hyrum Graff, commander of the Battle School and the man who singles out Ender as a potential hero.
'We're very happy to be the ones to put Harrison Ford back into outer space," says Bob Orci. 'Colonel Graff has to be commanding, but not so gruff that a child would be put off. There's a warmth to him, which is something Harrison Ford naturally has. There's always a little twinkle in his eye and a little humour behind everything he says."
Harrison Ford recognised the complexities and contradictions of the character's motivations. 'He has a tremendous burden," says the actor. 'His job is to win this war for humanity. Failure is not an option. Graff uses extremely young people to fight the war because their minds operate at a higher speed and can deal with a tremendous amount of technology and input without getting frazzled.
'In the real world, soldiers are young, but there's something terrifying about asking children to go to war," Harrison Ford continues. 'I don't believe he is without compassion for these young people, but that compassion has to be pushed aside in order to achieve a greater objective. That makes him a person who does not wish to engage or allow too much intimacy."
Colonel Hyrum Graff has to be highly manipulative to mold his charges, and Ender is no exception. 'He's very kind and friendly in order to recruit him," says Gavin Hood. 'Ender arrives at school thinking he has an ally, but Colonel Hyrum Graff not only abandons him, he subtly turns the others against him. In a way, it backfires, because had he been honest with Ender, he might have had the benefit of Ender's greater intelligence." 'Harrison Ford brings great credibility and charm to the role," adds Gavin Hood. 'His dry humour comes through beautifully. He never overplays anything and he was lovely to the kids. He understood that he was there to support them and be the mentor both as an actor and as a character."
Harrison Ford says the opportunity to work with Gavin Hood, as well co-stars Ben Kingsley and Viola Davis, was an additional draw for him. 'Ben Kingsley is one of the great film actors of our time," he says. 'Viola Davis is an extremely talented actress who thought deeply about the part she was playing and added a lot of important emotional reality to the story. And Asa Butterfield is enormously gifted. He is hardworking and focused. I'm proud to have worked on a film like this with such a great cast."
Viola Davis plays Major Gwen Anderson, who is responsible for the psychological well-being of the children who go through the battle school program. Although she has devoted her life to identifying the next great military leader, she is unsettled by Colonel Hyrum Graff's emotional exploitation of the vulnerable youngsters in his care, especially Ender.
The decision to cast Viola Davis initiated a key change in the character of Major Anderson, who in the book is a male Battle School instructor. The filmmakers agreed it was appropriate for the movie to reflect the way in which women's professional roles have changed in the nearly three decades since the novel was published. 'Lynn McDonald suggested Major Anderson be reimagined as a woman and we all loved the idea," says Lynn McDonough. 'It created a more interesting and complex dynamic between Colonel Graff and Major Anderson."
'In just a scene or two, Viola Davis can deliver an arc and a feeling of a character that might take other actors an entire movie to achieve"if they can achieve it at all," says Gavin Hood. 'Major Anderson tries to go along with Colonel Graff's notion that it is necessary to psychologically manipulate children for the greater good, but ultimately she can't. In the end, that is what sets her and Colonel Graff at odds. She is more interested in Ender's personal well-being than the ultimate goal. Harrison Ford and Viola Davis embrace those two points of view and clash fantastically in the movie."
Viola Davis, who was nominated for Academy Awards® for her roles in Doubt and The Help, approached her role thoughtfully. 'Young men and women are always the core of the military, but they don't understand the cost of becoming a hero," she observes. 'This is an extreme version, because the kids are so young. But by going to the extreme, it brings the point home that these children are being trained to die.
'My character is a psychologist, a nurturer, a mother and emotional investigator of sorts," she says. 'I help train these kids to be warriors and leaders. Ender turns out to be an ultimate leader, fearless and passionate. But the difference between Colonel Graff and Major Anderson is that she still sees the boy and she will have to deal with the aftermath."
Gavin Hood's early film, Tsotsi, is one of Viola Davis' favourites, she says, and one of the reasons she agreed to appear in Ender's Game. 'I have great respect for Gavin Hood as a director. Tsotsi humanised an unusual element in our culture. When you can walk away from a movie looking at a character that is so absolutely despicable in nature and something in your heart shifts while watching it, that's pretty masterful."
The students in Battle School have been raised on tales of a legendary military commander, Mazer Rackham, the hero of the first Formic War, who almost singlehandedly repelled the alien invasion with a blazing flash of insight. 'Now the hope is that Ender will become the new Mazer Rackham," says Orci. 'Ben Kingsley plays Rackham. He and Asa Butterfield worked so well together in Hugo and it was amazing to be able to reunite them in our film."
Gavin Hood says he imagined Ben Kingsley in the role as he was crafting his script. 'Of course, I couldn't know then that we would actually get him for the movie, but I was thrilled that we did. He has extraordinary stillness filled with enormous pulsing energy. We needed an iconic, heroic warrior who had saved the human race. There are very few actors who can stand dead still and give this amazing vibration of energy the way Ben Kingsley does."
Ben Kingsley says he signed on because of the quality of the script, as well as the opportunity to work with Gavin Hood and Ava Butterfield. 'Gavin Hood has a great deal of energy and enthusiasm, which he shared with us," says the actor. 'He was extremely sensitive to the story of the child being taken advantage of by the adults around him, which is the pulse of the film. He made a magnificent film"powerful, adventurous, thrilling, and deeply moving. It's not a confection. It is actually rooted in the truth of human behaviour."
Rackham is descended from the Maori warriors of New Zealand and has the ritual facial tattoos to prove it, a striking visual in a film that is already rich with unforgettable imagery. 'The Maori are an extraordinary race of people with a hallowed and ancient culture," says Ben Kingsley. 'I was privileged to be allowed to enter into it and was given a lot of information and encouragement. The tattoos I wear were designed according to family history in the context of the screenplay."
Director Gavin Hood was initially concerned that Ben Kingsley wouldn't want to wear the tattoos. 'But Sir Ben has an amazing approach to acting. He is an actor from the theatre tradition and his love of language shows up. He's word perfect, he knows what you need from the character and he gives you that. He says"and he means it"-I am a blank slate. Put it on me and I will wear it and be what you need for your story.' He sat in make-up everyday about an hour and 10 minutes to put on the tattoos. It took almost as long to get them off at the end of the day."
In addition to the adults who shape Ender's journey, the young recruit is influenced by the friendships and rivalries he develops with the other young people around him. In keeping with Card's concept of an ongoing international military alliance to defend the Earth, the young actors cast in these roles represent a global gathering of potential.
'It was challenging to have some of the themes in the book articulated by the child actors," says Roberto Orci. 'You want them to be true to their ages, but also have an awareness and understanding of what the movie is about. It was a tricky thing to find."
Two of the key characters in Ender's life are his sister Valentine and his brother Peter. Both have already been cut from the International Forces Battle School when the film begins. Valentine's innate compassion kept her from being an effective warrior and Peter's propensity for violent outbursts overrode his intellect and empathy. That duality is what Ender struggles with throughout the movie, but it is also what makes him the leader he becomes.
His relationship with his siblings is one of the very important aspects of the character, says Ava Butterfield. 'It was the fact that he combines the strengths of both that made me to want to be Ender. He has Valentine's ability to relate to the enemy, even to love and understand them, as well as Peter's ability to destroy them if necessary. And that's why Graff chooses Ender."
Academy Award® nominee Abigail Breslin brings genuine sincerity, compassion and intelligence to the role of Valentine. 'It always seems like Abigail's not acting, she's just being," says Gavin Hood. 'Of course, that is the best acting. She's truthful and honest to the emotional reality of the story. I love the scenes between her and Asa Butterfield. They connected in a real way and I think that comes through in the movie."
Abigail Breslin, who was 16 when the film was shot, found many of the scenes between the two siblings heartbreaking. 'They're really best friends," she explains. 'Valentine has been Ender's protector in the family and vice versa. When he has to go away, they have no way of knowing if they will ever see each other again."
Valentine is Ender's heartbeat, says Hendee. 'With limited screen time, Abigail Breslin makes every second count. I cannot think of anyone who could have nailed the role the way she did."
The actress was immediately attracted to the script, but she says she had no idea how many devoted fans the story already had until she started receiving messages on Twitter from them. 'I hope the fans really like it. Everybody involved in the movie loves the book and wants it to do it justice. Gavin is so passionate about the story that he had the fans in mind the entire time. It's just a really cool movie. There are parts of it that are scary and parts that are sad. All the emotions that you go through when reading the book are there in the movie."
Peter, played by Jimmy 'Jax" Pinchak, is a far less sympathetic character than Valentine. Ender's older brother is still smarting from his dismissal from the program and bullies his younger sibling relentlessly.
'Jimmy manages to capture Peter's pain very effectively," says Gavin Hood. People with a lot of pain can do terrible things and that to me is more interesting than aggression without reason. Peter was set up early in life to succeed, but he was dumped from the program at 16. Part of what fuels his violence towards his brother is a kind of distorted tough love. He thinks Ender better toughen up, or he's going to fail. I think Jimmy cracked that."
Seeing Ender negotiate the complex social structure of the school is one of the reasons Colonel Graff believes he has the combination of skills that the International Fleet has been looking for. Students from all over the world compete in a series of games and exercises designed to ready them for the battlefield, but they all know that only one will come out on top.
When Ender arrives at Battle School, the only student willing to befriend him is Petra Arkanian, one of the few girls there. Petra Arkanian is a star in the Battle Room, the zero-gravity training ground central to the school's program. 'It was important that we cast an actress who makes us believe that she really can compete with the boys," says Linda McDonough, who likens Petra Arkanian to women's soccer star Mia Hamm. 'She's as good as any of them"better, actually. Hailee Steinfeld does a terrific job bringing that energy to the role."
Hood describes Hailee Steinfeld, an Oscar® nominee for her role in the Coen Brothers' remake of True Grit, as 'the most charming, enthusiastic, bubbly young person. She was brilliant as Mattie Ross, but she really had to restrain her personality to play that role. I watched a lot of interviews with her and thought, wait a minute"is this the same person? This is one hell of an actress.
'Petra Arkanian is the polar opposite of that character," he continues. 'She is lively and full of wit. She's a sharpshooter who is not afraid to express her opinions in a dormitory full of extremely competitive boys. But she's also warm, kind and compassionate. So I think in this film, she will truly show her range as an actress."
Hailee Steinfeld says she joined the cast of Ender's Game because the film looked like a lot of fun. 'After I read the script, I was picturing how it would be shot and how it would look," she recalls. 'It seemed like an adventure I wanted to have. Petra Arkanian is a very independent, strong character, which I love. She's the only girl in Salamander, which is the top army at Battle School."
Petra Arkanian reaches out to Ender because she sees herself in him, says the actress. 'All either of them wants is to get the job done and go back to their families," she explains. 'They make a very close connection, quickly, but not in a romantic way. They just feel like they have known each other for the longest time. Asa Butterfield and I hit it off just as quickly. He is intelligent and creative and always so on point."
Hailee Steinfeld's professionalism impressed everyone she worked with, especially given her youth. 'She is so solid in her acting, which is appropriate because Petra Arkanian is such a solid character," says Hendee. 'Petra does not suffer fools and neither does Hailee. They are both full of energy and a little bit roguish."
Ender arrives at school with a crew of other newcomers, dubbed 'Launchies" after the craft in which they arrive. His first contact is with Bean, played by Aramis Knight, who previously worked with Hood on the film Rendition. 'Aramis was just 7-years-old the first time we worked together," says the director. 'Even then, he was full of personality and intelligence, and he also has an amazing attitude. Aramis would be in the Battle Room hanging on the wires, obviously tired and uncomfortable, and I would say said, Aramis, you got another one in you? His answer was always, -I got a hundred in me!' He is so dedicated and capable of delivering extraordinary emotion."
Aramis Knight was eager to tackle his first sci-fi adventure. 'I'd never really done anything like this, so I was excited," he says. 'My character, Bean, has a hard shell, but he's nice inside. He and Ender become the kind of best friends who like messing with each other and always try to one-up each other."
As one of the youngest actors on the set, Aramis Knight found something in common with the character. 'I did feel like an underdog at first," he says. 'I honestly didn't know if I was going to be able to fit in. I had to push my way through and fight to feel like I belonged there. I think that's how Bean feels too, because he's only 10, so it's tough for him."
Being a part of such a distinguished cast was exciting, but one of his co-stars made an especially big impression on Aramis Knight. 'Sir Ben is such an incredible actor," Aramis Knight says. 'Just getting to meet him and learn from him was amazing. And at the end of the day, he would shake my hand and say, -very nice to work with you today.'"
Ender finds another friend in Alai, played by Suraj Parthasarathy. 'Suraj Parthasarathy is super smart for his age," says Gavin Hood. 'He has these big, innocent eyes and really calls Ender on his acts of violence. The part required real talent and understanding of human nature, and Suraj Parthasarathy has that in spades." Suraj Parthasarathy says he read the book before auditioning. 'I loved it and loved my character. I know people worry that the script won't do justice to the book, but if you compare them, you'll find a lot of the same dialogue and progressions in plot and character. I was really, really impressed."
The young actor says he is similar to his character in some ways. 'Alai is a know-it-all," he says. 'And if you ask any of the other guys, they'll tell you that I'm kind of like that. I love learning and going to school, which is something I share with Alai. On Earth, Ender has Valentine to be compassionate for him, which helps him deal with life. I'm sort of her counterpart in space. I'm one of Ender's first friends and I help him through those first weeks in Battle School."
But not all the other Launchies cotton to Ender immediately, most notably Bernard, the largest and strongest kid on the team. 'Bernard is a bit of a bully," says Gavin Hood. 'He's bigger than all the other kids and uses his bulk to intimidate them. But Conor Carroll, who plays Bernard, really got the idea that a bully can be someone who's actually lonely and looking for acceptance. Conor Carroll was only 12 at the time and he's amazing in the part."
Ender faces his most serious opponent in Bonzo Madrid (Moises Arias), leader of Salamander Army. Bonzo rules through fear and violence, the polar opposite of Ender. 'Moises Arias, who plays Bonzo, is just an amazing force of nature," says Gavin Hood. 'He's actually such a nice guy, so seeing him playing someone this bad is a measure of him as an actor. He threw himself into the complexities of this character and found someone whose own fears don't allow him to be challenged. He becomes resentful of Ender's ability to lead through example, while he is only able to lead by intimidation and by abusing his authority."
'Bonzo's not to be messed with," says Moises Arias. 'He does everything his own way and if his army doesn't listen to him, they get reprimanded or even hurt. He knows he is one of the best, but he's immediately threatened by Ender, who catches on to everything super quickly.
Mosies Arias is eager to see fan reaction to the film, which he believes is faithful to the characters and ideas in the original. 'The book was beautifully written by Orson Scott Card and the script is just as beautifully adapted by Gavin Hood," says Mosies Arias. 'When I got to the end of the book, I was shocked. I thought, there is no way that just happened. It was such a surprise and I know movie audiences will be just as blown away as I was!"
The filmmakers scoured the world trying to locate the ideal environment to shoot Ender's Game before finding exactly what they were looking for in an unexpected place. 'We needed studio space and lots of it," says screenwriter-director Gavin Hood. 'There aren't many places where we could find the kind of expansive soundstages we needed to build our sets. Serendipitously, we discovered that NASA has vast warehouses in New Orleans that were not being used. We turned them into studios. It seemed oddly appropriate to make Ender's Game, which is set in space, at a NASA facility."
NASA's Michaud Assembly Facility would serve as home base for the production, providing them with the extensive square footage they required, as well as easy access to top film craftspeople and technical support. 'The film was shot in rocket ship-building warehouses, repurposed as sound stages," says Linda McDonough. 'It had very big set pieces, so we needed a space that could accommodate our build and there are a finite number of places like that in the world. We also needed to have access to resources and labour that could help us create a futuristic world. New Orleans is a three-hour flight from Los Angeles, which has the world's best sources for making Hollywood sets.
'It ended up being a great cultural exchange between the space industry and the film industry, which benefited us both," says Linda McDonough. 'For us, there was an added research dimension that wouldn't have existed otherwise. All of the kids and all of the crew could take a tour of the facility. Anybody could ask questions about physics and astrophysics. They got to meet an astronaut and ask about what being in zero gravity was like. Having these experiences wasn't a part of the planning of the film but was an outcome of being able to shoot at NASA."
New Orleans also provided other locations: for the Wiggins' home, a house on a residential street in the Uptown neighbourhood near Tulane University; for Ender's earthbound school, St. Mary's Academy; and for the International Fleet's Veterans Retreat, Fontainebleau State Park on the north shore of Lake Ponchatrain.
But even before the filmmakers found their locations, Gavin Hood was working with production designer Ben Procter to begin to conceptualise the extraordinary settings for Ender's Game. 'Because the visuals were going to be so essential to the film, I wanted to create a teaser to show investors," he says. 'I needed a production designer who was adept at creating a computer-simulated world. Ben is one of the most extraordinarily talented, hard-working people you could hope to find."
Gavin Hood wanted to give his audience a glimpse of the Battle School's stunning centerpiece, the cavernous zero-gravity Battle Room in which the young trainees face off in mock warfare. The novel left the specifics of the space to the readers' imaginations, but Gavin Hood had an image in mind. 'It couldn't just be a black box," says the director. 'I had this idea of a giant glass sphere that would allow you feel as if you were truly in space, even though you were contained. I gave Ben and Scott Meadows, the pre-viz supervisor, images of geodesic domes and glass balls, and asked that there be a Rubik's cube-like star element that would fit together in different configurations to define the area. Two days later, they came back with the beginnings of this extraordinary space we created."
When the filmmakers screened their teaser to an invited audience of about 250 film distributors from around the world, they were greeted with thunderous applause. 'We just stayed out of the way for the next two days while the sales team raised the balance of our budget from foreign pre-sales," says Gavin Hood.
Procter's innovative work on the demo earned him his first job as the production designer on a film, a title he shares with Sean Haworth. 'Working in independent film sometimes gives you an opportunity to look outside the box for creative ideas," says Linda McDonough. 'Teaming Ben, who was concept art director on Avatar and art director on Transformers: Dark of the Moon, with Sean Haworth, who was an art director on films like Tron: Legacy and Thor, resulted in some truly remarkable work being done on this film."
Procter and Haworth not only had to create a live-action version of the Battle School that had been created in CG for the teaser, they tackled a variety of worlds that stretch from an idealised version of Earth to the planet Eros, a former Formic colony now occupied by the International Forces.
In the film, Earth is a peaceful, lush paradise, a place Ender would yearn to return to. 'We needed for Ender to come from a world that is worth saving," says Sean Haworth. 'It also needed to feel like home in contrast to the rigors of military life in space."
For Battle School, Hood's vision was futuristic and utilitarian, to reflect the harsh reality of young people being forced to grow up quickly. The Battle Room is a sphere 100 meters in diameter, where young trainees participate in competitive squad battles in a zero-gravity environment. Huge metallic stars can be configured in a variety of ways and can be used as obstacles or to provide cover.
'Ben and Sean's designs are not sterotypically sci-fi and futuristic," says Gavin Hood. 'They are very grounded in the world of the military. When we're at Battle School, it's like we're on an aircraft carrier. Their attention to detail is superb. They give amazing dimensionality and texture to the sets."
After graduating from Battle School, Ender is sent to Eros, a onetime Formic colony now occupied by the International Force, where he works through advanced battle simulations as final training for becoming Commander of the International Fleet. For the Eros Command Center Battle Simulation Room set, which completely filled the 10,000-square-foot soundstages, the designers referenced NORAD's operation center in the vast underground nuclear bunker at Cheyenne Mountain in the Rockies.
For the Formic underground network of caves, in which the humans now take shelter, Gavin Hood took inspiration from the eerie and elegant termite mounds of his African childhood. 'It was critical for Gavin Hood that the Formic architecture be beautiful," says Procter. 'There's something quite grand about them, even in the designs of their spacecraft and cities, which leads Ender to question even more why they are his enemy."
Renowned creature designer Tully Summers contributed the Formic Queen, the regal, insect-like leader of the enemy forces, and helped with the interiors of the caves. 'Creating the Formics took a lot of development," says Linda McDonough. 'We didn't want creatures that lent a visual hokiness to the tone of the film. They're not stereotypical evil aliens, but when we reveal the Queen, she has to be intimidating."
To create the Queen, Tully Summers used digital tools, including ZBrush, that provide rich surface textures and even translucence to the creature's skin. 'We quickly realised we should bring him into our work developing the environments," says Procter. 'The result was just as organic and flowing and mind-blowing as his creature designs."
For all of his emphasis on visuals, Hood's mandate throughout the production process remained that character and story come first. 'The design is aesthetically beautiful, not glitzy or traditionally pretty, but clean, lean and perfect for the material," says Hendee. 'Individually, Ben and Sean are brilliant designers. Together, the synergy between them created a whole new level of work."
The director of photography for Ender's Game was legendary cinematographer Don McAlpine, whom Hood met on X-Men Origins: Wolverine. 'They developed a creative spark that greatly benefited Ender's Game," says Linda McDonough. 'They spoke to each other almost telepathically. Then Don would communicate to his team and we'd be shooting."
The director thinks of McAlpine as his mentor when it comes to cinematography. 'He's full of warmth and enthusiasm. He and his chief lighting technician, Steve Matthis, are brilliant at lighting. Because the battle school has low ceilings, Don and the production designers integrated the lighting into the sets. Everything was wired through a computer system, so it could be customised and we could change the mood within that space. But the lights you see on the set are actually lighting the scenes. It was far more complex than you would imagine. Inside the Battle School sets alone, I think we had about 4,500 individual lights."
It was the first time McAlpine used such an extensive LED lighting system. His team had to devise schematics for thousands of lights wired through a dimmer board and controlled by a computer system that could lower, raise or pulse the lights as needed. 'No additional lighting could be used," he says. 'We lit the actors with the practical lights of the set, which has limitations but also amazing possibilities."
This is also only the second film McAlpine has shot with digital cameras. He says the freedom afforded by the technology is fantastic. 'Film exaggerates differences in color far more than the eye does. Digital reproduces colors more accurately, giving us the ability to mix color in light, which happens in nature all the time."
Although he was working with new technology, McAlpine's years of experience were a huge asset to the production, says Hood. 'It is astounding how fast and efficient he is. He's all about quality. The images that he captured are perfection. It's quite an achievement on a shoot this complex to get that as quickly as he did."
Knowing that Gavin Hood wanted to focus squarely on the actors, costume designer Christine Bieselin Clark, with whom the director also worked on Rendition, took a low-key approach to wardrobe. 'This is a futuristic, sci-fi film, but it is also an intensely emotional story and a character-driven drama that just happens to be set in the future," she says. 'We wanted to tell the story in a beautiful way, but without jamming it up with too much spectacle."
'Costumes and colour palettes are very important to me," Hood says. 'They can easily distract from what's going on in the eyes and the face of the actor. The costume should frame the actor's face and support the character while allowing the actor to stand out."
Christine Bieselin Clark broke the story down into three chapters: Earth, Battle School and Eros. For each, she developed a look that was distinct, but still similar enough to provide continuity. 'We used color as a tool to take us from chapter to chapter," says Christine Bieselin Clark. 'Earth is where we used the lushest colors. There are lots of greens and ambers with grayish undertones and natural fabrics. It's very organic and easily and identifiable to today's audience in order to ease them into the story.
'As soon as we go to Battle School, it's very steely and cool with a lot of blues and synthetic fabrics. The uniforms are made of Tweave, which is a futuristic wool gabardine, like what contemporary uniforms are made out of, but with a luster that hints at the future. The only colour you really see is the Launchie yellow uniforms at the beginning. When we move over to Eros, which is a much more serious place, we retain the cool tones of the uniforms but it's a darker, richer palette."
Uniforms for the International Force officers were drawn from military garb across the world. With a strong shoulder line, clean, classic jackets and pants and a Mandarin collar, the uniform is distinctive, speaking of no particular time or place.
The Flash Suits, worn in the Battle Room during zero-gravity execises, were the subject of the most discussion. They needed to be exciting and interesting, but not fantastical. Using extreme-sports gear as a model, Christine Bieselin Clark experimented with fabrics and designs until arriving at the final, head-to-toe, one-piece design.
'The helmet in particular had to be sleek and expose the face," says Gavin Hood. 'The curvature of the visor had to manage the inevitable reflections in a way that made them attractive and interesting. They were custom molded for each actor's head and fitted with a small fan to eliminate fogging when the kids breathe and speak. All in all, Christine Bieselin Clark did a phenomenal job of meeting some pretty big challenges."
The teaser that showcased Gavin Hood's vision for the zero-gravity scenes was created entirely in CG, but for the film, he was determined to recreate the effect in live action. 'The sustained period of time that we spend in zero gravity was extremely challenging," says Linda McDonough. 'That was made even more difficult by intense dramatic moments that take place during intricate stunt-flying sequences. Stunt coordinator Garrett Warren has spent more than a decade researching how to create zero gravity, and the tools he brought to the table allowed Garrett Warren to balance performances with technical prowess."
Garrett Warren also has the kind of enthusiasm and warmth that made him an ideal choice to work with the child actors, says Gavin Hood. 'He trained them for months and brought them up to a level where they did 90 percent of their own stunts."
'Simulating weightlessness is one of the hardest stunts, even for trained gymnasts," says Garrett Warren. 'What we didn't anticipate was that they would enjoy it so much. They perfected their moves to the extent that we were able to do more than we ever thought we could, so our use of stunt doubles was minimal."
In the Battle Room, the armies play a futuristic version of laser tag that tests their physical limitations as well as their skill at military strategy. 'It is one of the most difficult places anyone could fight," says Warren. 'You can't get any traction. This is where we see Ender really excel past the point that any other soldier has reached before."
In tandem with a variety of camera techniques, Warren employed several state-of-the-art stunt-flying devices. He retrofitted the stage with a dual-axis, multi-track gantry system, as well as a winch and descending rig that guided each actor through the air.
He also designed an apparatus specifically for this movie called 'the lollipop." 'It's a suspended, counter-balanced speed-rail arm that has a fork or a ring on one end for the performer to sit in, and allows them to spin in any position they like. On the other end is a ring used by us to manoeuvre them as needed, as if we were grabbing a puppet in space."
In addition to Garrett Warren's intensive training regimen, the young actors spent time in Boot Camp, to learn basic military discipline, as well as Space Camp, to learn about living and travelling in zero gravity. Both were a dream come true for many of the youngsters.
'The kids were so wonderful," says Pritzker. 'While we were in pre-production, they were already training, marching with a drill instructor around the stages in cadence, becoming little soldiers. They were put through their paces physically. If you followed any of their Twitter accounts, you knew that they were hurting after their boot-camp drills and their flying lessons, but they loved every minute of it."
The filmmakers all agree that Ender's Game simply couldn't have been made without a superb visual-effects wizard. Matthew Butler is an Academy Award® nominated visual-effects supervisor with a master's degree in aeronautical engineering. 'Matt's love of science and art is a wonderful combination," says Gavin Hood. 'Too often, we're told you can be either creative or scientific. Matt Butler is living proof that it's not the case. He blends scientific knowledge with visual style and skill." With his engineering background, Butler was able to advise the director on the effects of zero gravity and how it affects different types of ships in space. 'As a bonus, his former roommate at MIT, Greg Chematov, is a real, live astronaut," says Gavin Hood. 'Greg Chematov lived on the space station for months and he shared his experience with us. That information was critical to what's going on in our virtual space battles, where I wanted to achieve two things: the feeling that this is the greatest video game you could possibly play and, at the same time, a truly immersive experience."
Gavin Hood hopes they have found a good balance between the entertainment value and the moral issues of the story. 'That was also the most exciting reason to do the film," he says. 'It's rare that you get a story that both challenges you intellectually and ethically and also truly entertains you. The richest works of art excite you visually and emotionally, while challenging you mentally. For me, one of the great things about Ender's Game is its amazing ability to feed you on both levels."
Pritzker agrees: 'We want the audience to be uplifted. It's a great, fun action movie, but it also raises important issues that you can grapple with and talk about. We never want to be preachy, but we do hope that whoever sees the movie will consider the ideas we explore. I think there are a variety of things that people will think about and talk about after seeing this movie and that makes me really happy."
Release Date: December 5th, 2013