The Great (Hollywood) Journey, Part One
by Joseph Staten
A few months back word got out that Alex Garland had written a Halo movie script, and that Universal and 20th Century Fox were interested in double-teaming it into a film. We didn't say anything at the time because the deal still needed massaging. But today I'm happy to announce that Microsoft and the studios have worked-out all the kinks, and we're ready to get cracking on the fun, creative part of the process.
You've undoubtedly got questions: "What's the plot? Is it the same as Halo1? Halo2?" "Who's gonna play the Chief? Scratch that – who's gonna play Cortana?" "I read somewhere that the script had ‘bad buzz'. Does that mean the movie's gonna suck?"
I can't respond to any "who, what, where" queries without ruining a bunch of cool surprises, (there will be Grunts - that I guarantee), but as far as the quality of the finished film goes…well, the only thing I can say is: so far so good.
Let me tell you a story…
About six months after Halo1 shipped we started getting calls from Hollywood. This was the summer of 2002 and we were just starting to crank on Halo2, but Pete Parsons (Bungie's studio-manager) decided it was worth me spending a few days in LA to suss out our options.
While I knew that Halo1 had sold well, I didn't know just how far outside the hard-core the so-called "Halo Phenomenon" had spread. So it was pretty shocking to meet a bunch of film producers, writers, etc. who not only claimed to be "big, big fans" of the game, but were able to back-up their assertions with detailed descriptions of their favorite legendary co-op moments, vivid war-stories from recent LAN parties, etc.
Though, to be honest, when I say "shocking" I really mean alluring.
Here were a bunch of smart, talented folks eager to make a film that would be "not just the first great video-game movie, but one of the best sci-fi action movies ever made." And I could see in their eyes that they meant it. You'd think it was a classic "where do I sign?" scenario…but something wasn't right.
Back then the plan was to license the Halo universe lock, stock and barrel with no guaranteed Bungie collaboration. Sure, Halo was a hit, but Hollywood has its own way of doing things. In the case of video-game properties that way is usually "throw me the idol, I'll throw you the whip" – an all-or-nothing proposition in which game-developers accept a whack of cash in exchange for a "we know how to make movies, you don't" assurance of quality.
Cashing-in was much less important to us than securing a seat at the creative table, but that wasn't the only reason why we baulked. Parsons and I knew that any time we spent listening to Hollywood's siren call would be time not spent thinking about Halo2, and that loss of focus could be very, very dangerous. After some sincere "thanks but no thanks," we put the movie project on hold.
Fast-forward two years.
As Halo2 was coming to a particularly crunchy finish, Parsons introduced me to a guy named Peter Schlessel who, among other things, used to be President of Columbia Pictures. Peter's serious Hollywood resume made me worry he'd be pitching a variant of the cruddy idol-whip transaction, but it turned out he was as dubious as we were about selling the Halo IP outright.
In fact, he thought it would be crazy.
"Finance the script yourselves," Peter urged, "Hire a writer, have him write something you love, then bring it to Hollywood with a simple message: ‘This is the movie we want to make. Who wants to make it with us?'"
It was a ballsy plan – just the sort of plan we like – and if Schlessel thought we could shake-up the status quo without pissing it off in the process, Parsons and I were all for it. A few days later Schlessel sent me a short list of writers he thought were up to the challenge.
During Halo2 production, Marty O'Donnell (Bungie's audio director) and I were making regular trips to LA for voice-recording sessions. On one of these trips a reservation snafu resulted in the two of us sharing a room – not something either of us was all that excited about, room-service club-sandwiches being decidedly solitary delights.
"C'mon, Marty," I said gamely, "See? Two twin beds. We'll pull a Ricardo."
"Deal," he grimaced, "But I'm Ricky."
Eager to forestall the inevitable, awkward reveal of our preferred bedtime attire, we decided to catch a late-night show of a film called "28 Days Later" that had been getting a lot of praise around Bungie – praise that, a few hours later, Marty and I agreed was well deserved.
"If we ever make a Halo movie, who would you want to write it?" I asked Marty as we exited the theater, "I bet that Garland guy would be all over the Flood."
We played "what if" – "what if we got this director", "what if actor so-and-so was the Chief" – as we strolled back to our hotel, and this amicable exchange would have continued into the wee hours of the morning if it hadn't been soured by something that shall forever be known as "The Spectravision Incident."
But I digress.
All this is to say that when I read Alex Garland's name on Schlessel's list it felt a little like fate. I recently asked Alex if he felt the same way – if he ever played "what if I got to write a script about Halo" while he was playing it?
"My impression while playing Halo was often of being in a movie - or of having a movie come to life around me. I'm particularly thinking of moments like the fight for the beach, or the first contact Master Chief has with the Flood. So I never really thought about the 'what if' scenario, because, to my mind, something more interesting than the 'what if' was staring me in the face."
In our first phone conversation Alex and I spoke briefly about the pros and cons of a strict adaptation vs. a film that covers events in one or both of the games but is mindful of the larger universe (especially as manifest in the Halo novels). It was an invigorating discussion, and Alex suggested he fly over from London so we could continue in person.
Now we've had a number of famous folks visit Bungie, and it's always clear in the first few minutes if they "get it" – if they're card-carrying members of Halo fandom. You can tell by the questions they ask, by the conspiratorial grins that creep onto their faces as the designers brief them on the arcane relationship between base health and target magnetism.
Alex definitely got it, and once Parsons and I heard his pitch we knew we'd found our man. Alex and I spent a few weeks working through key questions (both mine and his), and then he went dark – disappeared down a writer's hole to crank-out the first draft.
How did that draft turn out? Let me put it this way: I wrote the script for both Halo games, but as Alex's interpretation rumbled from one climax to the next I found myself wondering (sometimes aloud): "Damn! How's the Chief gonna fight his way outta this?!" Only to follow-up a few pages later with: "Oh man, I can't wait to see that on screen!" Good stuff.
And it kept getting better with each successive draft.
So we've got a great script, we're working with two great studios. Should you still worry about the movie turning out, well, not great? Again, Mr. Garland:
"I'd say people are right to worry. I'm worried. In fact, everyone - in particular those working on the film - should be worried. In the case of Lord Of The Rings, I'd guess that Peter Jackson had plenty of sleepless nights, thinking - am I doing the right thing? Am I doing the books justice? And Lord of The Rings shows Jackson's efforts to avoid his fears on pretty much every frame. So I'd hope the director of Halo has exactly the same level of commitment and concern."
Indeed, that's exactly the sort of director we're looking for. Someone who's as committed to the Halo universe – it's characters and their stories – as Mr. Jackson was to Tolkien's Middle-Earth. The same goes for actors, production designers, you name it.
Ultimately, the Halo movie's gonna be great because it's in the best interest of Bungie and our partners at Universal and Fox to find great people to make it. People who get it. People who care about the games as much as we do. Heck, as much as you do.
Because the question isn't so much "will the movie be good?" but "will I, someone who's played both games, read the novels – you know, someone who's an unabashed Halo fan – will I think it's good?"
We sure hope so. Because we're making it just for you.
And that's not just me tweaking the 'ol food-nipple. Like every project (novels, action-figures, etc.) that takes inspiration from the Halo universe you know and love, we're going to do everything we can to make sure it gets done right…though "right" is a highly subjective term.
In all seriousness, let me give two good reasons to have faith that Bungie's not gonna drop the ball on the Halo movie - let it turn into something we don't want to see let alone make you suffer through.
First, our community team (along with some great folks in Microsoft's Franchise Development Group) assembled an exhaustive "companion" that will accompany the script during the film's production. We built this universe bible/style-guide to inspire and inform the filmmakers as well as serve as a point-of-reference for all parties in the event of creative disagreements.
Here's one of the companion's reference pages. Imagine this level of specificity for every character, weapon, vehicle, environment - you name it - in the known Halo universe. That's a lot of inspirational and argument-settling goodness.
Second, over the next month or so Peter Schlessel (who's signed on as Producer), Parsons and I will be meeting with potential directors, and picking the best person for the job. I recently saw a list of "available and interested" candidates, and trust me: it's an embarrassment of riches.
That's the story of the Halo movie thus far plus a little insight into the process moving forward. It'll be a great journey, and I'll do my best to keep you posted as we walk the path.
I will just say that I am EXTREMELY excited and leave it at that.
PS: has anyone seen 28 Days because I haven't, and all I heard is that the zombies are pretty sweet...