A quest: Bringing Halo to the (not so) big screen
FORTUNE – Many of us are watching more videos online these days, but how do you pack all the gore and sexy graphics of a sci-fi action film onto a web-sized screen?
That is director Stewart Hendler’s charge. He started out behind the camera, shooting horror flicks — he directed 2009 slasher “Sorority Row,” for example. Hendler then moved on to an experimental science fiction web series called H+ that was released in 2011. That led him to his latest project, a new live-action web series — five episodes total — based on Microsoft’s wildly popular first-person shooter video game Halo. The series, called Halo 4: Forward Until Dawn, hit the Internet last week.
Hendler spoke with Fortune about how to crunch production value and rich mythology into an online video and a phenomenon he calls “the H word.”
An edited transcript is below.
Fortune: What has your experience making films taught you about leadership?
Stewart Hendler: The most powerful force I’ve discovered in terms of getting people to do their best work is a passion and belief in the material. So I felt like my job was to remind everybody daily how awesome what we were doing was.
The amazing thing about working on a film is you’re surrounded by 150 people who are some of the most talented in the world at their particular craft. I could never do most of those people’s jobs. So my job is just to get them excited about doing their jobs, then step back and let the symphony begin. It’s about maintaining the excitement while you’re standing in the freezing cold, pretending there’s an alien on a stick.
That sounds tough. Is it difficult to convince people to join a web project in the first place?
You know, when you’re casting for a web series, there’s absolutely a stigma for people who are established in the film and television industry. But you mention the word “Halo” to agents and actors and suddenly that stigma is quickly forgotten. We call it “the H word,” and it’s sort of magic, it just gets people energized.
What are some differences between shooting for the big screen and shooting for a web series?
At the end of the day, the fundamentals are the same: you get a camera and you get actors and you have them say words while you film them. I think the thing that’s really different is what is missing behind the scenes in web series. There’s a really big infrastructure that goes into making a studio movie, and that way of doing things is relatively inflexible and the amount of resources, energy and time put into servicing that machinery is sizable in terms of a proportion of the overall time or money you’re spending on a project.
As it gets more established, I’m sure this ratio will equalize, but right now, for the web, there’s a lot of opportunity to experiment. There’s just this sense of shared adventure. It sounds super romantic, I know, but you’re blazing the trail as you go in terms of what the format should be.
It must help that the tools to film a high quality movie have shrunk and become cheaper, yes?
You know, I think it’s probably a combination of the fact that technology is in some ways more readily available, but I wouldn’t say that it’s suddenly super cheap to make something that looks really polished and gorgeous. The tools are just tools and it’s about finding an amazing crew that knows how to use them. Owning a pencil doesn’t make you a poet.
Do you have different ways to get actors to perform for a horror vs. a sci-fi film?
Yeah, I mean, I think horror brings with it a specific language. You spend an exorbitant amount of time focusing on particular moments and making sure you get people jumping in their seats.
There’s a little bit of freedom in science fiction in that you don’t have to hit those exact beats as hard. But the challenge is immersing people in a world that is so big and does require such an extensive amount of research on the part of the cast. We spent a week and did a physical boot camp as well as a mental boot camp with the kids.
You made your actors go to boot camp?
Yeah, oh for sure. We beat them up a lot, poor things. But we also spent a lot of time fleshing out their characters and their backstories in a way that may never be visible to the audience, but they all knew what planet they come from and what their parents’ roles in this conflict were.
Halo has such a complex mythology, such dedicated fans. Was it intimidating to take on something with a cult following like Halo?
It has an insanely loyal and insanely passionate fan base which, on the one hand, is crazy exciting because you know you have a built-in audience and people who are going to engage, and horrifying because you know people are going to come with their knowledge and expectations of what it should be.
Well, the creators had had some problems with making a Halo movie in the past. How did you sidestep those?
The history of the Halo franchise in big budget Hollywood movie land is pretty well documented. There’s certainly a sort of palpable sense that the Halo folks at Microsoft (MSFT) don’t want to go down a road like that again. And this is me speaking off the cuff, but I get the sense that this project is them tipping their toe back in the narrative waters. This a relatively low risk proposition, where they get to see how making long form can work.
Their basic edict to us was, “as long as it doesn’t contradict something that exists within the canon, the sky is the limit.” So I felt myself spending a lot of time making sure that we were being hyper respectful of what they know and love and have created in the franchise. We had a staff member whose full time job was to fact check and make sure that every weapon and piece of armor and vehicle and graphic was legitimate within the Halo world.
They were rightfully skeptical in the beginning, and now it’s bear hugs all around when we see them.