Visiting the New Orleans set of Ender’s Game was a moment many would have never thought would happen. Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel was a landmark for many who consider its themes of youth trained to do battle with alien aggressors to be both poignant and, well, awesome. Its tortured three-decade trip to the screen was hampered by the enormous budget it would necessitate, not to mention the potential outrage of audiences who don’t want to see middle school-aged kids turned into junior General Patton’s.
Then a little movie called The Hunger Games made such a project all of the sudden very commercially viable, which is why the studio that put that picture out, Summit/Lionsgate, ponied up some of the dough.
So here we were at Big Easy Studios in eastern New Orleans, where shooting had also commenced on the Sly Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger actioner Escape Plan. Our first stop was the Control Room, which has all the storyboards pasted on the wall, telling the events of the whole film. One particular section of interest are the Mind Games, dreamy sequences featuring a giant castle, leaf fairies, a Formic (alien) Queen communicating with Ender inside the fairy land, and the dreams start revealing a fallen castle.
In this iteration Earth is a green world, a post-oil economy, utilizing windmills for power. Artwork shows Ender, played by Hugo star Asa Butterfield, during his struggles with isolation, being picked on at school for being a smartypants, etc. Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) sees the potential for military greatness in Ender, and recruits him to go to Battle School, a training ground in space breeding a new generation of soldier without sentimentality or childishness.
Battle School is depicted like a boarding school, with logos for each group of kids, including Ender’s Dragon Army. Yes, it’s essentially like Harry Potter in space, or maybe Harry Potter is like Ender’s Game on the ground. Classrooms show every kid has a screen desk.
The fan favorite sequence from the book is the Battle Room, and we witness a reel of anti-gravity animatics set to obligatory “Dark Knight” temp music, mixed with actual rehearsal footage of stunt coordinator/second unit director Garrett Warren putting the kids through the wringer on elaborate wire rigs to simulate Zero G. During training, students fire lasers that don’t injure you but freeze part of your suit, forcing you to move through floating star-shaped/triangular objects that serve as obstacles. Suit colors correspond to teams, i.e. red = Dragons.
Effects studio Digital Domain, which went into bankruptcy in the middle of production, created a 45-second teaser sales piece that would set the audience in Comic-Con’s Hall H on FIRE. It featured full CGI footage of kids in Battle Room action, moving precisely through the triangles before blasting the screen. An off-screen voice utters, “He’s ready.”
More artwork shows Eros, staging area for the Formics, now our planet’s staging area. The planet surface looks cobwebbed, inspired by the giant anthills of South Africa, where director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine) hails from. A Formic ship is very spikey, molded organically. Unlike a lot of alien races portrayed on film as purely war-bent, the Formics have culture, art, and religion.
We see images of the area for Ender’s final exam. His platform is like an orchestra conductor’s, with a viewing theater above for military brass. Hood envisions it like the world’s largest video game, with huge “simulated” ships vs Formic Drove ships. Pics of Harrison Ford and Viola Davis in military outfits and Ender getting bullied in school give off a distinct Full Metal Jacket vibe.
Of course, when you make a film as big as this, potentially the most expensive independent production ever made, there are franchise issues to consider. They’ve consolidated the entire story of the first book into a year, leaving room open for a direct sequel that would still exist within Card’s Enderverse but likely feature Asa Butterfield’s young Ender as opposed to the adult version that appears in later novels.
Then came time to visit the living, breathing sets. We’re brought to the shower room, where a scene critical to the story takes place despite being controversial for underage nudity. The set is on the ship they take to Battle School, and there is extensive toilet instructions on the bathroom door as a nod to 2001: A Space Odyssey. This is also where Harrison Ford shot some Zero-G scenes, perhaps to comical effect?
We see the jet cockpit of war hero Mazer Rackham, played by Ben Kingsley with Maori tattoos (reuniting with Asa Butterfield after Hugo). The cockpit is for a flashback to jet fighters engaging a swarm of Formic droves, including Mazer Rackham’s victorious dogfight, ejecting right before hurling his jet into the Formic ship. The Formics themselves look similar to creatures you may have seen before in Starship Troopers or this summer’s Pacific Rim.
The medical lab set has a robot gurney where they operate on Bonzo (Moises Arias). Ender’s bedroom contains single quarters, while the barracks of Salamander, Dragon, etc. are made up of bunks, with Ender on the bottom. There are rollout desk pads where he plays strategy games. They’re held in place by High Force Magents, as warned on signs that say it can be harmful to pacemakers and other sensitive devices. All in all these sets have a very “Aliens” Sulaco vibe, something the production designers are quick to admit they were inspired by. It’s ironic that a film that could have been made in the mid-eighties is going to wind up looking like one.
There is a curved corridor which leads out to the hallway, with a gate that goes from the tunnel area, setting up the desks for the Battle School finale. This underground set is large and grungy, with lots of mist and grime, pipes and a circular doorway with viewing gallery above.
We see them shoot two takes of a dialogue exchange between Ender and Sergeant Dap (Nonso Anozie) as they walk down a hallway:
ENDER: “I didn’t expect to see you here, Sergeant.”
DAP: “Someone’s gotta keep you in line, sir.”
After this they move on to another scene featuring Harrison Ford addressing Asa, shot through a control room window. When the legendary actor walks on set, he declares facetiously, “Alright, I’m already acting.” The man who played such maverick heroes as Han Solo and Indiana Jones is taking a more sedate, authoritative approach to Colonel Hyrum Graff, necessitating multiple takes to get it to just the right tempo he wants.
“Not very hospitable, is it?” says Graff of the bunker. “We took it from the Formics 27 years ago after Rackham’s victory, drove them out of these tunnels like rats in a sewer. Drove them all the way back to their home planet.”
We later got a surprise chance to meet the actor, who we were told was not doing press, but he agreed to hang for a few minutes without being recorded. He was extremely cordial, even a bit shy, not the swaggering action hero you’d expect. You get the sense that the incredibly fit 70-year-old leads with his intelligence, not his brawn.
There was also ample time to talk to the film’s young leads, including Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld, as well as director Hood, which we’ll include in part two of our visit.
Summit Entertainment has also provided us with new VFX images from the film, which you can check out by clicking here or on the image below!
Ender’s Game will be released nationwide on November 1.