Director Gavin Hood on Challenges and Rewards of Making ‘Ender’s Game’
Gavin Hood has experienced an interesting trajectory as a director, from producing short educational dramas for the South African government to earning the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film for this third feature Tsotsi to helming the big-budget X-Men Origins: Wolverine.
Although it made money, the X-Men spinoff received mixed reviews, as critics hypothesized that Hood wasn’t yet ready for the scope of filmmaking a superhero movie demands. However, Ender’s Game seems to right the ship, perhaps because it strikes a balance with strong ideas, sensitivity to its characters and the kind of action that gets behinds in seats.
On the eve of the film’s release on home video, Hood spoke to Spinoff Online about the challenges, and complexities, of transforming Orson Scott Card’s iconic sci-fi novel into a suitably sophisticated, and yet entertaining film for audiences of all ages. Additionally, he offered his thoughts about the film’s “truncated” ending, and reflected on the rewarding experience of making a film that inspires discussion between parents and children that’s more mature and introspective than how cool it is to watch stuff blow up – even if he wanted that to be cool, too.
Spinoff Online: One of the things I really liked about Ender’s Game was how adult it was for a movie that I think, by necessity, has to be designed for kids.
Gavin Hood: Thank you for putting it that way, Todd, because I think that is very critical is that we are making a movie for tweens, which is very unusual, and their parents. And so thank you, because it’s targeted at the 12/13-year-old core – hopefully it’s got from 10 to 16, and hopefully parents and older folks also really enjoy it, but after all, the heroes of the movie are these younger people. And that is mostly the age at which many people read the books in school. And so you wanted to frame the moral questions and the challenges that come about drawing warfare and leadership and bullying and compassion versus aggression and what is the best way to lead young people. You want to frame it in a way that is not so philosophically above everyone’s head as to appeal to a small group of intellectuals, but also not dumbed down. And kids are pretty smart but hopefully the journey for them is that it might be the first time many of them are being asked, well, what do you think about preemptive war? Or what do you think about drone warfare? And those are the conversations that I found most gratifying, when parents call me up and say, man, I had a great conversation with my 13-year-old on the way home from this movie and we didn’t just talk about how cool it was, we talked about things that you normally don’t get to talk about in a movie. And that’s kind of great when parents and their teenagers are able to engage in a real conversation based on a fun action movie. It’s kind of fun.
It’s interesting to me that Graff sort of protects Ender from the repercussions of his actions, until the end. Narratively and thematically, how important was it to insulate him from culpability as the movie sort of progresses?
I think this is a very important question. I think firstly let me say that I think it’s very important for us to say that Ender is not necessarily a good kid. So he is a kid who is struggling with a propensity for violence and he could be his brother, but he’s smart enough to know that that hasn’t really served his brother, and yet it’s within him; it’s part of his DNA. And indeed, it is praised by authority figures. “Oh, wow, that kid really knows how to beat the crap out of someone who’s bullying him. He could be useful as a soldier.” But he intuitively knows, because of his relationship with his sister Valentine, that compassion is actually a powerful tool in negotiation, if you like, as well. And yet at the beginning of the movie he’s torn – he’s a young kid, he hasn’t figured out his own moral path. And Graff senses, as we know, that he may have a bit too much of his sister in him to be able to pull off what Graff believes is the right thing to do. Graff is concerned that Ender won’t be able to do it. In fact there’s a scene on the DVD I think that’s an extended scene where he actually expresses that. I hope that one made it on, I’m trying to remember, where he expresses it to Mazer. So the question becomes when Graff thinks he has one of the smartest kids in the world, if not the smartest kid in the world, as a strategist who’s brilliant, provided that he thinks he’s in a game, he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win because Ender’s need is to prove himself to authority figures as a young person. We want to be liked or respected or whatever by these authority figures.
And yet in Ender’s mind, because he’s been groomed to succeed and his dad didn’t succeed and his brother didn’t succeed he has the sense that I have to succeed at proving my worth to Graff and the international fleet. And [his friend] Mick’s going, “Why?” Take control of your own destiny. You decide. And Ender’s not ready to do that. He’s ready to do that by the end of the movie, but by then the damage has been done. He’s been used. So part of what Ender’s frustration is at the end of the movie is he’s not only angry at Graff for lying on him, he’s angry at himself for allowing himself to be lied to. And why was it possible to lie to him? Because his own ego wanted to win. Provided it’s a game, I can gouge the giant’s eye out. Alai’s not like that. Alai goes really? Come on, even in a game you’re showing your moral colors. I wouldn’t do that. Well, Graff’s not using Alai to do this. So part of what Ender is angry about in terms of his own moral evolution is that he has allowed his nature and his desire to win and his ego needs to win. When he wins that battle the throws his arms up and he goes, “How about that, game over!” And then he goes, “Oops, I shouldn’t really be so egotistical.” And when we were on set I remember Asa saying, “Well, should I be so triumphant?” And I said, “Yes, because if you’re not triumphant like ‘Fuck you, I’m the guy, you thought I couldn’t do it then you yourself don’t have anywhere to fall to.’ It’s only about Graff lying to you. But actually your ego moment is part of why Graff was able to use you, your ego need.”
I don’t know if I’m answering your question, but the point is that the film ultimately is about a young person who initially feels he has to impress his elders, impress adults, impress other people, and finally realizes that the only person that he has to impress is himself and he has to take responsibility for his own actions regardless of the pressures brought to bear around him. At some point as we grow up we have to stop blaming other people saying he made me do it, she made me do it, they made me do it, my parents made me – at some point we become an adult. And an adult has to objectively look at their behavior and make their own choices and own the responsibilities for those choices. And that’s really the journey of the movie is about a young boy becoming a young man and realizing the disappointment of being lied to by authority figures and how will I deal with that? Will I cry and hate them forever or will I say no, I now will decide my own way of being in the world.
But what I do want to say is that Ender is not only angry at Graff for having lied to him, he’s not only angry because they’ve destroyed a species, he’s angry because if you told me the truth Graff, instead of thinking you’re actually ultimately smarter than me, maybe I’m smarter than you thought. If you’d told me the truth I might have strategized this differently. Why? Because we have not only made a moral error here but we’ve made a strategic error. And why is it a strategic error? Because in a game, which is a closed system, when you win it’s over, and so it doesn’t matter how you win in many of these games, right? But in the real world life continues and the way you win is remembered. The way you play the game, whether it be the way the Japanese fought in World War II, what the Germans did to the Jews, whatever these things are, the way you fought takes people a long time to say, OK, we will treat them differently. And if our modus operandi is to annihilate an entire species and that’s what we will do to win, then next battle down the road when we might meet another alien force or another group of people, their response to us is going to be don’t trust those guys, don’t negotiate, they’re freaking genocidal maniacs. Wipe them out or they will wipe you out. And we’ve lost part of our bargaining power. And if we want to get political about it, that’s part of what I think the struggle is right now with where we are in the United States, where when I was a young person growing up, we had this tremendous love and we were in awe of the American Constitution. I come from South Africa; we didn’t have a Constitution worth shit in those days, and America’s credibility, to a large extent, rested on the way, at least the way we perceive, America to go to war. And we know what’s happened in the last 10 years, what are we losing? We’re losing our moral high ground. And if we’re losing our moral high ground, what do we have? Because so many people wanted to be in America because it was just and right. And the more we lose that the more we lose the battle. So if Ender’s Game is a parallel for that, then to some extent it is. Anyway, that was a terribly pretentious answer.
Not at all. But talking about the journey that he goes through, those themes are things that as adults we sort of see more in a sense of reflection. How difficult and what was the process of rendering that in sort of a primary color so that they could identify with those ideas or that experience?
I think you put it perfectly. I think it’s got to be rendered in primary colors, which is sometimes maybe not subtle enough for a more sophisticated adult of 60, but it is rendered in the primary colors. And those are the conversations that are surprisingly wonderful to hear between — for example, I was at my kid’s soccer game a week ago and a woman came up to me and said, you know, “I just want to say thanks, man.” And I was like, first I was like oh, my God, maybe she hates the movie, which is perfectly fair. And she said, “I just want to say thank you. You made Ender’s Game?” I said, “Yes,” and I was a little embarrassed. And then she said, “Well, I just want to say thanks. I had the most wonderful conversation with my 13-year-old on the way home about these very questions. And yes, it was the first time that he had confronted the notion of preemptive war. He had never heard of the concept, but we were able to talk about it.” But it generated a conversation between a mother and a child. And I think that kids of that age are capable of having these conversations. And if this is a way into that conversation in a medium that they love, big movies, cool action, and yet it compels them to go, well, I don’t know if I like Ender. Well, did Ender do the right thing? Even if they don’t quite understand something that an honors graduate in the philosophy will understand, that’s not the point. The point is they’re being introduced through a medium – that’s why I wanted to do the film.
This is an opportunity as someone who has young kids to give them a big, cool action visual effects movie experience, and then just a prod them to ask some questions, not to give them answers, just to prod them. Say, is Ender the perfect kid? How much is his own behavior a part of the reason why he was manipulating, his own ego? The way he behaves that Alai find distasteful in the mind game. People can’t really use you to commit violence if you don’t display a tendency to do it. And maybe the flip argument is well we need violence. Yes. When do we need violence? When is it appropriate and when should we negotiate? And there’s no right answer to any of this but it’s introducing concepts in a fun entertaining way. And I think that those are the conversation that I’ve really enjoyed.
I was up at MIT a week ago; they invited us to a high-school robotics competition. And we were just there to show some cool stuff once the kids had done this amazing robotics stuff where they were literally connected to the International Space Station and having this space war in zero gravity inside the space station. These are really bright kids, but they’re all high school kids. And those were the questions that they asked about the movie. And that was fun to be in an audience of young people asking questions about ethics and morality. And they didn’t all agree, but the window of the conversation was open. And that made me feel good about making the movie.
Sure. Well, you talk about sort of not answering all those questions. But how difficult was it to find a conclusion to this story that was satisfying in terms of the arc of the character, and yet was not so abrupt that it wasn’t like, well, that sucks, the end?
Well, you raise a really tough question, Todd, because I do think the film is a little rushed as a result of having to cut it down a bit for various reasons. That’s my feeling; I feel like the film is a little rushed. I was hoping to have a sort of 25 minute longer version and various things happened, including the fact that the parent company of this company went bankrupt, which I think you know, and due to not operations here but operations in Florida, we had to cut $15 million out of the movie. So I do think the film is a little truncated for me. I don’t know if you agree. But having said that, I do think that not everybody feels that way, and that the essential journey of a young person starting off wanting to please authority, wanting to prove himself and ultimately going, wait a minute, I have to take responsibility for my own view of the world and my own morality, is there, and you don’t have to agree with what Ender decides is moral. The point is that it’s a journey, and what I think the film does leave an audience with his saying OK, well, what do you feel? If you feel it’s OK to go out and crush the living hell out of the enemy and hope to hell that there are never any ramifications there after about your behavior, then that’s a point of view.
So I think that the film is really a journey for a young man who has the capacity for great compassion and an equal and opposite capacity for terrible violence coming to terms with the fact that he needs to temper that capacity for violence with compassion and approach things, first of all, by asking whether diplomacy can work before he resorts to this ultimate violent act of war. And that’s I think is something that would serve us all better. I come from a place where were we very nearly entered a civil war, and it was very nearly, very bloody and very terrible. And because of the extraordinary diplomacy and compassion of people like Nelson Mandela, and to a lesser extent de Klerk, who he negotiated with, that we got a constitution and did not end up in a Syria, I mean, we really could have. We really could have. So I do come from a place where I’ve seen compassion work. And a lot of people are quite cynical about that. And I refuse to be because I’ve seen it work.
I was drafted into the military myself. I lost friends, so I’m not talking about in theory, I know what it’s like to look at two sides or actually multiple sides, because there are 12 official languages in South Africa, multiple sides all with a grudge with each other who could happily end up in what we’re seeing in Egypt or Syria or worse, or it’s starting to happen in the Ukraine. And so if we don’t engender through art, a sense of compassion in young people, and all we show them is that revenge and violence are the way problems are solved, which so many movies do. Most movies are about a good person is wronged, goes on a revenge mission and kicks the other guy’s ass and sets the world right. But the truth is, the world is seldom set right by going on a revenge mission and kicking someone’s ass. It normally just generates more conflict and more conflicts. The world is set right when people sit down and listen to the point of view of the other person and say these are my fears. And that was the genius of Mandela. He knew how to say, what are you afraid of? As opposed to I hate what you do. He knew how to say, what are you afraid of that’s making you do what you do? Why do you fear me? Let’s see if we can iron that out. And that’s really, I guess, subliminally why I wanted to make Ender’s Game.
Ender’s Game is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.