When a video game finally makes the leap to live-action it’s always difficult to figure out what the end result will be. While gamers sit patiently waiting to see the first screen or snippet of footage, a team of creative talent is tirelessly working on said project trying to make a series of polygonal models set within a dense world into something that can be tangible in a real world setting without ballooning the budget to near John Carter levels all while trying to make sure the fan base actually likes the end result.
Fans of the Halo series have been waiting nearly a decade to see the live-action arrival of Master Chief. There are definitely elements of Halo that were influenced by popular sci-fi action movies, but there’s enough lore within Halo and fantastical designs that would make it be an amazing film - that’s if everything is executed properly. At one point we were close to seeing a Halo film thanks to Peter Jackson and director Neil Blomkamp (District 9), but due to some creative and budget issues the long awaited film debut of Master Chief was put on the backburner.
At long last the world of Halo is finally being told through the medium that is film thanks to the arrival of Halo: Forward Unto Dawn. A new five-part live-action web series, Halo: Forward Unto Dawn serves as a prequel of sorts to Halo 4 as it sets up the back story of Thomas Lanksy, a new character that Master Chief will run across during the campaign of Halo 4. Besides building up the character of Lanksy, Forward Unto Dawn also shows what it’s like for a group of new cadets to go through the ropes at UNSC military academy and ultimately go into battle standing right next to the legend that is Master Chief.
Halo: Forward Unto Dawn director Stewart Hendler spared some time from his schedule to discuss the project and what it was like to adapt the popular video game into a web series.
Ian Fisher: This may be a basic question, but can you tell us a bit about yourself and what made you want to become a director in film & TV?
Stewart Hendler: I’ve always wanted to be a director. I grew up in the 80s with Star Wars and all that stuff and I think that movies are magic. The ability to make a two dimensional box with colors in it and evoke emotions that make people laugh and cry is simply magic. I think it’s awesome so I’ve always wanted to be a part of it.
Ian: Halo: Forward Unto Dawn marks the first time the series has successfully gone the live-action route since the Halo movie was cancelled due to budget issues. So how did you manage to land the much desired gig of directing the series? Were you approach to lend your services or did you hear about the project and put together a small pitch of how you would direct everything?
Stewart: Both actually. I got approached by one of the producers on the project because I had worked with her when she was an executive at Warner Bros. on the last web series I did. So we had a great working relationship. We sort of had done a lot in terms of doing something incredibly ambitious but with a really tight budget and she was looking to do the same although the budget was much more substantial on this we still had wanted to deliver way more than the actual dollar value of the budget.
So she asked me if I would be interested and I said obviously that I would and from there I pitched to Microsoft along with a bunch of other directors as to why I thought I could their franchise awesome and they believed me.
Ian: The Halo series has a defined style to it that people absolutely love. So with that said what was it like trying to go into Forward Unto Dawn and present a style that stays true to the series but would make it visually different from other sci-fi film/TV projects we’ve seen in the past?
Stewart: That’s a really good question. One of the really cool things about working for Microsoft is that they gave us a lot of creative latitude. Basically as long as they felt like we were treating the franchise with tons of respect, which we obviously were, they were cool to let us experiment and expand. As long as nothing contradicted itself in the canon then it’s pretty wide open.
The other thing that I pitched on and that they were really stoked about is that the one thing live-action can do apart from the games is connect the audience with real human beings. You can look into someone’s eyes and feel that real emotion and tell real stories. So we never set out to compete with the game or one-up it in terms of sci-fi grandeur. The games will always win in terms of all that stuff. So we made our primary goal to tell interesting stories about compelling characters and set that against the obviously big backdrop of the Halo world.
Ian: Did you ever have any major worries during the project that the direction of the series wouldn’t fit the vision that the millions of Halo fans may have dreamt up in their heads? Was it perhaps daunting having to please such a huge audience and have your work be watched under their critical eyes?
Stewart: Yeah dude it was horrifying and daunting. The world of Halo is something that I respect immensely and have loved forever. It’s something that arguably has one of the most active and passionate fan bases of anything out there right now. So that kind of created conflicting emotions of excitement and horror on a daily basis of trying to bring these things to life.
I think you realize that we were never going to match what was in everyone’s heads, but what I really want people to feel like is that we made this with an insane respect for the franchise, the world, and for them and that we were legitimately trying to make something that they would find awesome.
Ian: As a director was it somewhat difficult for you to adhere guidelines about the lore and how things had to look or did such a thing challenge you in a good way in making sure the series looked and felt as good as possible?
Stewart: The nice thing from a filmmaking standpoint about diving into a world that already exists is that there’s so much to work with. The flipside of that is that there are so many details you need to make sure are right. So we had somebody on our staff whose fulltime job was to make sure every piece of armor, costume, vehicle, visual effects, were completely legitimate, authentic and approved by 343 Industries. That was their twelve hours a day, three month long job.
So there are a lot of details to make sure of, but the kind of cool thing is that we got to set the story in a place of the timeline that’s unexplored in the fiction and certainly not in the game. So I don’t think a lot of people will have a preconceived notion with specifically where we’ll telling the story in the world. Hopefully we’re taking people in a place that’s new and from a creative standpoint that gave us the latitude to experiment.
Ian: Halo: Forward Unto Dawn may not be a massive Hollywood action movie with a colossal budget but it’s still a huge effort in which lots of time and money has been put into it. So during your time on the project what was the biggest challenge in directing everything? Was it a case of simply not having as much time and or money to do an elaborate sequence or did everything go rather smoothly?
Stewart: Well you never have as much time or money as you want or think you may have. In terms of how you view this thing if you look at it as a web series it by far has the most resources put behind it of any web series made so far. So that kind of puts it in a league of high quality TV but certainly doesn’t put it in the league of the gigantic Hollywood blockbuster movie that we wanted to make out of it.
So the goal was to really stretch the resources and deliver production values that were absolutely essential and that the fans got what they needed out of the first live-action thing to feature Chief in it. I think we were really strategic about that so we spent a lot of time looking into what the fans wanted and spent our time and energy into that payoff. And then to support that with the backbone of a set of strong characters and a character driven story since at the end of the day pretty pictures and things exploding don’t really matter unless the story is good.
Ian: Halo: Forward Unto Dawn may feature plenty of action and elaborate effects but it’s still a character driven experience just as the Halo games are. What was it like working with the relatively young cast that comprises of the cadets that Forward Unto Dawn revolves around?
Stewart: The cast was amazing. We really wanted to make it feel like these were super young kids being sent into a conflict that they had difference of opinions on. So they’re intentionally not the beefed up already built soldiers you’re used to seeing in a war movie. This is kind of like a Band of Brothers in which these are average kids, in fact younger than Band of Brothers since they’re around 15 years-old, are getting swept up into a war whether they like it or not.
I think it’s a cool age to tell the story since they’re finding their voice as people and forming their opinions and impressions of the world so it’s just a cool narrative age to work with. In terms of the actual human beings, the cast that we had, they were really excited about the project. We actually beat them up a lot since it was a really grueling shoot. It was constantly tough, cold, dirty, and long and they never once complained. They were always in it until we got it right and it was a lot fun.
Ian: What was your favorite element of Halo: Forward Unto Dawn looking back at everything? Are you just pleased with the overall product or was there a specific sequence that you’re beyond happy with how it turned out?
Stewart: Obviously I’m happy with the complete project. If I had to pick one element it would have to be bringing Chief to life. He’s such an icon and it was really a big challenge so I think the fact that it worked was really gratifying. It was amazing to see him standing there, all seven feet of him, in reality and my brain couldn’t process it since it felt like I was standing in the video game since it was so amazing. It was surreal and I’ll never forget that since it was one of the coolest experiences in my life.
Ian: If given the chance to continue your work with the Halo property in either another web-series or a movie what elements would you like to expand upon? Was there something that you wanted to try to do in the first season that you couldn’t or an existing element that if given the chance you would want to add on top of?
Stewart: Dude I haven’t thought that far forward, I’m just trying to finish this one. I think that the world is so enormous that there are certainly a million other things that I love about. Halo 4 is going to be awesome, I played a bit of it and I knew the story since our series kind of connects with it narratively. I think it would be fun to explore Forerunner stuff and some of those crazy ancient civilizations since that part of the lore is really neat. So that would be a blast if I had to pick something but there are a million different things you can do.
Ian: Unlike other video game projects that go the film/TV route, Halo: Forward Unto Dawn is a prequel to Halo 4 so it doesn’t have to retell an existing story. With that said what elements do you think directors should focus on when it comes to adapting video games into film or TV? Do you think they should retell things in a 1:1 way or should they just select the essence of the property and build a fresh experience around that?
Stewart: That’s the million dollar question right? There have been a bunch of different attempts bring video games to life with varying degrees of success in the past. I think every case is different so I’m not going to pretend like I can give advice, but we definitely felt like it was smart for us to base the tone and the vibe of the Halo world and plant our flag in a part of the universe and timeline that was not as explored so that we could kind of launch it from there and give people something new to check out that obviously overlapped and intersected with what they loved but wasn’t trying to be the first and last 1:1 sort of retelling of the game.
Ian: Other than Halo is there another video game property you would like to get the chance to direct or will your spirit forever be attached with the Halo property?
Stewart: I would say that if I had to make something it would have to be Assassin’s Creed because I like the story a lot. I know that Fassbender [actor Michael Fassbender] is trying to put that together and it’s looking like it may happen, but that would be the one right off the top of my head. But I think Halo holds a really specific and special place in my heart and I don’t think there’s anything else quiet like it.
Ian: Besides Halo: Forward Unto Dawn do you have any upcoming projects you would like people to know about so they can scope it out?
Stewart: I have another web series that’s running right now called H+ I did for Warner Bros. It’s halfway through its run and that’s kind of like a sci-fi/post-apocalyptic thing in the vein of Lost. In terms of future projects I’m working on a bunch of stuff but there’s nothing I can talk about just yet.