Tsoti showed you’re really capable of working with younger actors.
GH: I love working with younger actors.
That’s not something most directors would say! Yet half your cast is under the age of twenty – they can’t even drink. How did you find your process was affected by working with so many younger actors?
GH: It’s very helpful they can’t drink. At least they show up sober [laughs]. I was an actor when I was young, and my parents were actors, and my dad directed theater, so I grew up around theatre actors. I still at heart love acting and actors and performance. So for me it’s anything but a chore, it’s not a chore at all to work with young people on a scene and rehearse, and that’s what we did on this movie. The producers gave us the time to send the kids both to physical training –we sent them to a space camp where they worked with astronauts and they learned about zero gravity and they worked in all the machines that simulate zero gravity- and then we also had them with military training instructors who taught them to march and salute, and do millions of pushups. We literally put them in their dormitories and their parents had to take their cell phones and all go away.
They would do that kind of thing in the morning, and work with stunt coordinators on aerial work on wires, and they worked with Cirque du Soleil people, it was a fantastic time. But they worked really hard. And in addition to all that, they still had normal school. They had an intense program. They would rehearse with me in the afternoons, and I would pick certain scenes and certain actors, and we’d rehearse without the adults. The point is, by the time they got to set, and stepped in front of Harrison Ford, and Sir Ben Kingsley, and Viola Davis [there was] a wonderful, perfectly useful bit of intimidation feeling that was useful to exploit, because that’s the dynamic of Ender and Colonel Graff. The way Asa Butterfield felt facing off against Harrison Ford on day one, was just wonderful; it’s exactly what Ender is supposed to feel. But the point is that the preparation, and the rehearsal, and the training meant that when we were working with those senior actors, the younger actors were fully prepared, knew their lines, had discussed, and asked as many questions as they wanted about the themes, the purpose of the scene, the subtext that I was looking for, and they could really focus on the interaction.
They could take the focus off themselves, and focus on what the senior actors were throwing at them, which is always what I try to do with young actors. If you’re nervous, stop worrying about what you’re doing, watch that other actor, because acting is about reacting: you can’t react, unless you’re open to what’s coming at you. Having them well prepped meant that they could focus, because there’s nothing worse than an actor that’s not prepared, who’s floundering for a line, they’re not in the scene, they’re looking for their lines. I don’t want that, I’m quite strict about that: know your lines perfectly, so that we can focus on the emotion. And they deliver.
A lot of people don’t give credit to what younger actors go through to keep up in the industry.
GH: They have to work hard, they do work hard. People just think, “oh they just have fun and they got lucky.” No, these kids put in the hours, they really do.
You seem like a director who’s very open-minded to having politics and themes enter into the movie. Why is it only now that we’re getting Ender’s Game? Is it because of the darker, murkier material?
GH: There seems to be, with big movies, a fear of themes and ideas that might be a little complex. It’s so much easier for a corporation to sign off on an essentially good vs. evil story, where, you know, lead character is a good guy, and some bad guy wrongs him in some way, takes his daughter, and the good guy must go and set the world right. Okay, we all get that, good triumphs over evil. And yet somehow those things don’t seem like very exciting ideas, and so we’re drawn to independent cinema to feed us.
I think we love spectacle, we love a big visual spectacle, but we also want something a little more complicated from our characters. So I think the best big films also have great characters, and Ender’s Game just offers this opportunity to have great visual spectacle and wonderful intimate characters. So you get to, as a director, play with big visuals, which I love doing, and you also get to put on the long lens and really look into the actor’s eyes, and try to read their thoughts -which is important with a book like this, because it’s so much about what’s going on in the mind of the character.
The book is very much an exploration of what Ender is thinking and feeling, and to translate that into a screenplay form, and into a film, where you don’t want to write pages and pages of voiceover. We have some, but it’s mostly just short letters that he writes to Valentine. It’s really about creating scenes that setup a conflict, an emotional stress on the character so that when you’re on that close-up, and he’s reacting to what’s happening, you the audience are intuitively sensing what he’s thinking without having to be told. It sounds easy, but it’s kind of tricky!
That’s part of the difficulty of taking a book, one that’s 25 years-old, and making it into a film. Already it sounds like there were some changes from the source material in order to adapt it.
GH: Well let me cop to those. Here’s what one hopes: I believe and hope that for fans, I have been true to the spirit of Ender Wiggin, the essential conflicts that he faces as a character, his struggle with his capacity for violence and his equal but opposite capacity for compassion, which I think is a core central theme of the book and the movie. That’s where I have to be true. I also want to be true to the essential notes of conflict that happen through the book. So those are all there.
I also want to say straight-up: the book is the book, and stands as the book, and I think one must never expect, can never expect a film to be a book. The book’s the book. It’s a way of describing a character in a situation in a totally different way to the way visually things are done. It’s a little like saying if I did a pencil portrait of you, and somebody else did a sculpture. Instead of saying, “does the sculpture capture your essence, or does this pencil drawing,” I start arguing why the pencil drawing doesn’t match the sculpture. Well it’s a pencil drawing and that’s a sculpture! Let’s talk about whether each one does a good job in its medium of capturing that character.
So let’s quickly talk about these challenges then. So the first one is being true to that spirit and that character. The problem was that the book starts with a six year-old, and ends up with a 13 year-old, so right off the bat you’re going, “okay, does that mean I’m casting a six year-old, then change to an eight year-old, then change to a ten year-old? This is hard!” In movies, you can often have a little flashback to someone’s youth, but you want to bond with an actor and stick with him. You bond with someone for 15 minutes, and they change the actor, and you’re out of the story while you go, “yeah, but he doesn’t quite…I’m sure he had smaller ears, and a bigger nose.” So I very early on said, “I’m going to compress this thing into a year.” So I’m going to take some heat for that, but I think it’s essential for the film, for the audience to experience the journey of a young person. Now that compression means other things get knocked aside. Also, we’ve only got two hours: there’s a lot in the book that is fantastic about Valentine and Peter, and Demosthenes and Locke. I must cop to it, that’s not in the movie.