New Orleans is known for voodoo, Mardi Gras, Cajun culture, and the Superdome; lesser known, perhaps, is the massive NASA facility a little ways outside of town. Giant hangars are flanked by things like space rockets that have been sliced in half as if by a superhero with perfectly aimed heat vision, and access requires a government ID, in addition to the invitation of the Summit publicist in our company.
Inside the gigantic facilities, spacefaring gear of a very different sort is being made. This is the set of Ender’s Game, the long-awaited adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s seminal sci-fi novel about kids learning to fight wars in an orbiting space station. For those who haven’t read it, a brief synopsis: Earth has narrowly managed to survive an alien invasion after one heroic jet pilot named Mazer Rackham pulled a Hail Mary move and destroyed the mothership (Randy Quaid’s last sacrifice at the end of Independence Day was undoubtedly inspired by this). Expecting a vengeful counterattack from the bug-like creatures, Earth governments begin training particularly qualified children for space combat, so that they’ll be ready for round two if and when it occurs. The bulk of the film takes place in Battle School, as protagonist Ender Wiggin and his fellow trainees learn how to strategize and fight in zero gravity situations; when an unexpected turn occurs late in the story, the book stands revealed as metaphor for those soldiers, who look on combat as a game until the moment they must finally face the real-world consequences of their actions.
If you’re not familiar with the book, I suggest you be very cautious in reading further. Fans want to know how true the movie will be, and after visiting the set, I have a pretty good idea, up to and including what the last shot of the movie is. That part, I will not reveal; however, anyone wishing to go spoiler-free for a story that’s been around since 1985 has been warned.
The man at the helm of this adaptation is South African director Gavin Hood, who previously gave us the thug-turned-babysitter drama Tsotsi and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Naturally, I had to ask him about his affinity for lead characters conditioned to a life of violence who question their destinies.
“I was in the military; I was drafted when I was 17 years old,” he says, “and it had a profound effect on me. And when I read Ender’s Game, many of those feelings, a lot of those feelings – that you were very much a number in an organization with strong authority figures that you were not supposed to question, and yet feeling that you wanted to rebel against it – I connected with this book in many ways, based on feelings and experiences that I’ve 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, and what makes good leadership? What makes bad leadership? What makes responsible leadership? So what I love about the book is that it’s both an epic adventure, it’s a fantastic (for me) coming-of-age story, not just for the lead character but in many ways for all of the characters, especially obviously for Ender, and I’m interested in those, if you like, defining moments in a character’s life, where they choose a path, or are compelled to reflect on a path they’ve chosen, and maybe change it.”
With no shortage of ideas, he expands on that thought: “So those are fascinating moments to me, those defining moments of encountering something where you are truly confronted with yourself and with aspects of yourself that you may not necessarily like, and you have to face up to those aspects, and then figure it out. So there’s that, and then of course it’s set in this fantastical universe of space, which is visually exciting. And the idea of many young people who’ve read this book, they way they talk about it passionately; so often there are many films that we go to and they’re fantastic and they’re fun and they’re wonderful, but it’s like ‘That was great, do you want to 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?’ and ‘Is that right?’, ‘Is he too violent?’ and these are important conversations, I think, for young people to engage in, in an exciting way, and 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. If we can combine spectacle with a good old-fashioned argument afterwards, then that’s kind of fun.”
Many have tried to adapt the book over the years, but Card has rejected a great deal of those attempts when producers asked to either make the kids into older teenagers with romantic subplots for more marketability, or change key aspects of the climax so that it doesn’t have the same sting in its tail. There are differences in this adaptation, but they’re primarily aesthetic and/or condensing for the sake of time. “In the book, the kids range in age from 6 to I think 13 – well, that’s another challenge,” says Hood. “So do you cast a 6 year old, and then an 8 year old and then a 10 year-old and a 12 year-old and a 13?” The apparent answer is no – he cast Hugo star Asa Butterfield as Ender, True Grit‘s Hailee Steinfeld as his friend Petra, and an ensemble cast of other pre-adolescents who were all put through their paces in Space Camp and an abbreviated military boot camp. “We learned a lot about astronauts, team-building exercises,” says Butterfield. “There’s something called aviation challenge, in which we went in these fighter jets – sort of practicing for the simulation room, almost. We performed missions in which we’d have to communicate with each other in fighter planes, or blow up a nuclear facility or something.”
Other key changes: the space station now has only one battle simulation room, and it’s a large, transparent sphere at the center of the station, with deep space as a backdrop. The passage of time since the ’80s has necessitated some others – the Cold War is no longer a plot factor, and the finale, which once took place on an actual, charted asteroid called Eros, now takes place on a distant world that’s an abandoned colony for the alien Formics. Yes, Formics – early books had the ant-like adversaries originally named “Buggers,” until Card, a conservative Mormon, was finally made aware that that word had another meaning he hadn’t anticipated. At any rate, Eros will probably not even be referred to by that name on screen, and it also now serves as the setting for the book’s all-important final revelation as well.
The battle room, which we saw being taken down, was mostly green screen; however, it was a practical set, and rather than use CG to float the kids into zero-gravity battles, much was achieved with wire-work and the guidance of several Cirque du Soleil members. But while the Cirque team advised, the kids ended up doing nearly all of their own stunts, with some devices invented just for this movie (the crew hopes the Academy will recognize this when the 2014 Oscars honor special effects). Child labor guidelines officially say no kid can be in a wire harness for more than 5 minutes at a time, and physical training should not last more than 30 minutes per day, but these kids were unstoppable, testing out the wires for fun on their down time because they enjoyed it so much. When it came time to shoot, Moises Arias (Bonzo) even surpassed some of the Cirque team at simulating weightlessness, while Aramis Knight (Bean) was the showoff of the group, always wanting to do flips and flying.
The space station sets look not unlike other things we’ve seen before in sci-fi – “corridors and pipes and airlocks,” as the production design team called the visual style, but with some twists; they got to use leftover NASA junk parts to augment the set (and then had to give most of it back afterward!) and now, they noted, “it looks like a spaceship should… so now, when you see kids in that environment, it’s a different experience, because you’re used to it in a grown-up context.” The floor of the set was slightly curved to suggest a ring-like structure. As for the military costumes, think Star Trek: Enterprise – mostly gray with selective color piping.
The set that was most active that day was the Eros cave in which the final battle simulation takes place – to be more appreciably cinematic, this sequence no longer isolates Ender in his own room, but in a massive staging area not unlike Cerebro in the X-men movies. A catwalk leads out into the middle, to a platform where Ender and several others can stand, while all his team are seated down below, linked up to each other. The cave stalactites and stalagmites will be green screened in, but the catwalk, rows of seats below, and observation deck above were all very real, and convincing down to the last detail. Some movie sets look fake in real life until they’re lit well, but this looked like a genuine space station section.
Stay tuned for more from the set, plus an interview with Ben Kingsley in Part 2, coming soon!
This article was written by former Nerdist contributor Luke Y. Thompson. You can catch his work as Editor-In-Chief of Topless Robot.