Child’s Play: On the ENDER’S GAME Set With Sir Ben Kingsley
By Luke Y. Thompson on October 30, 2013
This is part 2 of Luke’s visit to the set of Ender’s Game. Read the first here.
After we thoroughly inspected the location, we got to sit back and watch scenes be shot on it. Brief as they were, it was something to see. Ben Kingsley, as battle veteran Mazer Rackham, was on set alongside Asa Butterfield (Ender), with whom he had previously acted in Hugo, and yes, everyone addressed him as “Sir Ben.” But he returned the manners – after every successful take, and each note given by (director Gavin) Hood, he would always say, “Right, right, thank you very very much.” (If you’ve seen Time Bandits, imagine John Cleese’s Robin Hood, minus sarcasm.) Conversely, if he missed a mark, he’d apologize profusely. “Frightfully sorry, old chap. Terribly sorry; I won’t do that again.” It should be noted that Kingsley’s face is covered in Maori tattoos, which could lead fans of the book to wonder how Ender does not recognize him at first, given that he’s studied old videos of this hero. The producers won’t say how – their pre-viz for the Mazer flashback battle make his tats clear – but they did say they’ve figured out a way to preserve that reveal.
And then, between takes, we were ushered into a small cell that was part of the elaborate underground Eros set, and got to talk to Sir Ben himself. Here is the conversation that ensued:
Question: How long does it take to put the tattoos on?
Ben Kingsley: It takes an hour and a half. I sit very still.
Q: What was it about this story and this world that attracted you to the part?
BK: I was completely ignorant of the novels and the story, so I came to it very fresh, which is probably a good thing; I had no preconceptions of what it was going to be about, and whom I was to portray. I liked the combination of the warrior from the past and the warrior of the future. These are some very ancient markings on me – thousands of years old, and yet it’s projected into the future, so I like that continuity.
Nerdist: Do you feel more of an affinity for science-fiction directors now that you’ve portrayed the original one?
BK: Which director was that? Georges Melies? Well-spotted, sir. Well, I do, yes. It takes a tremendously uncluttered, inventive mind to see through the present and into the future. Very often, bad science fiction is completely locked into the present and they have no perception – who could? – of the future. It takes a great imagination to transcend the limits of what we know; we tend to think within the limits of what we know, and I think Gavin and the wonderful writer have transcended our narrow limits. We have no idea what the future holds for us. We’re guessing. But it’s good to be curious and to speculate on what might happen.
Q: What has it been like working with Asa again?
BK: We have a very good working relationship. He’s pure, he’s simple, he’s uncluttered, he’s highly intelligent, so there’s no wasted time on set.
Q: Do you think he’s changed as an actor since Hugo?
BK: Yes; he’s six inches taller. But the essentials are exactly the same, and they probably will be for life.
Q: Have you given him any advice?
BK: That’s by osmosis. You never give each other advice. The wonderful thing about making a film is that it’s collaborative, and if you are alert to what’s around you, you will learn and you’ll probably teach, but it’s not a conscious process.
Q: What about this production has impressed you most?
BK: Collaboration. So many people out there getting one perfect shot and scene. Different departments, different heads of departments, and to see it all being coordinated is a great sight.
Q: It’s fun to see you switch from The Dictator to this – do you purposefully choose these roles to switch them up?
BK: Well, change is one of the most exciting things about my life. Every role’s different, every director’s different, every script’s different. If you’re blessed, it’s going to be a bonus and a part of your life, and actors tend to play the same role over and over again. But I’ve been really fortunate. It’s great to change.
Q: Is the fight scene between you and Ender reproduced, and if so, what it was it like having a kid beat you up?
BK: Ah…I beat him up. Yeah.
And on that note, he went back to the fray. For us, there was still more, like the rooms full of costumes and props. Mini-maquettes of the Formics revealed them to be like a cross between giant amber-colored ants and the Brood from X-Men, but with 12 legs rather than six, the top forelegs being stumpy like T-rex’s. One of the unusual and potentially frustrating aspects of the movie for newcomers is that we won’t ever really see these aliens in action, but know them only by what they’ve left behind – an organic-looking society with a continuity of vision that’s inspired by fractals and seashells, and designed as if it were made by swarms of giant insects secreting and licking things into shape. In the flashback reels of Rackham’s triumph, their warships look akin to flying horseshoe crabs.
Also on display: zero-G barf bags, clear computer tablets (think iPads made of a block of a clear plexiglass; and no, they don’t actually work), the latex bug mask that Ender’s brother Peter always makes him wear at home, and a look at the monitor removal device, which looks something like what you’d imagine if Alfred Molina’s Dr. Octopus designed a dentist’s chair.
The costumes are very tight and form-fitting, so as not to show wrinkles. though they were designed with certain hidden overlaps in mind to allow for the young actors to have growth spurts. The tightness led to one awkward note for Aramis Knight, who plays Bean. “You know what? One of the wardrobe ladies told me the other day, and this is a true story, I’m not making it up, she told me ‘You need to stop playing basketball, because you’re going to get bigger, and this is not going to fit! Just wait two weeks!’ I was like ‘Eww… I don’t know if I can do that one.’” The clear visors on the helmets are digitally added later, so as not to affect the lighting.
The costume designers read every blog, and recall a mini-outcry when an image leaked of some of the kids wearing socks, yet they went through the canon of Ender stories and did indeed find a justification for it, one bit of text that mentioned socks.
And speaking of blogs, one of the biggest omissions from the movie simply for time is the subplot in which Ender’s brother and sister basically become proto-bloggers (the term didn’t exist at the time, but the concept was nailed by Card years before it happened) with the pen-names of Locke and Demosthenes. “I just can’t do all of those scenes; it would be seven hours!,” says Hood. How, then, do you get to see big brother Peter transforming from bully to sympathetic character, if most of his storyline is deleted? “Now in the book, there’s Demosthenes, and you’re told, and it’s reflected, and the author explains in the author’s voice how Peter’s undergoing change. I’ve tried to do it without giving it away, and had to do it in a matter of about three very economical scenes. We meet Peter at the beginning of the movie, and he has everything I think that the book has of that aggression, and bully and nastiness. But if you were to interview Peter, and say ‘Why are you doing this?’ he would say ‘Because this kid has to toughen up or he’s not going to make it!’ He’s engaged in what he would justify as ‘tough love.’
“And at some point in the film, somewhere in the third act, you will find a scene in which that idea presents itself, and may or may not satisfy the question. It has to be addressed, A:, in a more economical way than the book does, because it’s Ender’s Game and I’ve got two hours, and B:, without an author’s voice explaining it, and so I’ve tried to do it in a very subtle scene between him and Valentine, which is not a scene from the book.” On the plus side for fans, it was hinted that Locke and Demosthenes may make an appearance in viral marketing for the film.
One of the key moments in the book is a fight scene that takes place in the shower between two fully unclothed boys. In a PG-13 movie – heck, in any movie! – that would seem to present some problems. But fear not – it’s uncompromised, intact and completely (hat tip to Hard ‘n Phirm) not illegal. Asa Butterfield explains: “It was one of the first scenes I did with Moises. Back at the hotel, we were talking – I’m gonna do a back flip over you or something. Of course it’s a lot more realistic than that, but we had our fantasies of how epic it would be. It was difficult to shoot because they could never show me naked – they had to always shoot me from the waist up, but yeah, it’s an amazing scene.” The fighting styles learned by the kids included aikido, MMA and Krav-Maga.
At the end of the day, on the way out, we observed the construction of the Formic “Cathedral,” out of layers upon layers of what looked like Styrofoam. The sheer scale of these sets was most impressive – fans of practical visuals will find a lot to enjoy. Whether or not there’s a religious element to this climactic set will have to be left to the imagination; it was decided that there was no easy way to introduce the concept of an alien religion that late in the game, with so much else going on. We never did catch sight of Harrison Ford, who plays the key role of Col. Graff, the man who recruits Ender, but after a day of wondrous sights and sounds, it did become clear that the concept here is larger than any one big name.
Does Summit have its next big franchise to fill the Twilight void? We’ll find out this Friday when Ender’s Game hits theaters and IMAX 3D. For more on Ender’s Game, check out the Nerdist Podcast with star Harrison Ford.