What would a Halo movie look like? For years, that's been a question that Hollywood and Microsoft have been trying to answer to no avail. The long and winding road of making a live-action Master Chief adaption is full of stumbles but, today, Microsoft's 343 Industries begins the rollout of a new webseries set in the Halo universe. But Master Chief's not really in it. Except that he is. Sort of.
Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn focuses on a group of young UNSC cadets, just as humanity begins to wage war against the invading Covenant. The webseries just had its first episode debut on Friday, with only a quick glimpse of a familiar gold visor and green helmet. But director Stewart Hendler says not to expect lots of screen time for Halo's lead hero. Forward Unto Dawn is more of a story about people in the Halo unviverse coming to grips with life during wartime.
I spoke to Hendler on the phone recently and he said that the responsibility of helming the first longform live-action Halo adaptation was "pretty daunting." The live-action commercials and teasers that had come before FUD set a pretty high bar, he continued. "I think why the Halo commercials are so cool, is they never shied away from being dark and bittersweet and telling the honest story of the loss of war. They're not all about reveling in the pyrotechnics and the gunfire. That's there but it comes with a cost." Coming after live-action interpretations that were already striking put Hendler in a certain frame of mind. "There's a huge sense of responsibility for everybody on the team—myself, of course, included—and we want to do it right."
Former Warner Bros. film producer Lydia Antonini was working with Microsoft and brought Hendler in on the project, which he almost walked away from. Antonini e-mailed Hendler with an opportunity to work on "a perfect video game franchise."
I wrote back and I said, 'You know what? Probably not up my alley. Of course, if you were going to say Halo that would be a different story.'" Hendler remembered. "Thirty seconds later, she told me what she was up to. From then on out, it was like I was doing whatever I could to get it." Hendler's desire to work on Forward Unto Dawn comes from a few special reasons.
"I'm not a very talented gamer," Hendler admitted. "Halo was the one game that captivated me more than any of the others. When I was in college, my roommates were the heavy gamers. I was the dude who would wander in and occasionally pick up a controller, miserably fail and walk away. But Halo was the one game that I kept coming back to and that really sucked me in."
What was it about Bungie's sci-fi franchise that hooked Hendler? "I think it was the richness of the story," he said. "That mystery and mythology that came with it. There was a sense in Halo 1 that this story and this world extended way beyond the edges of the TV screen you were playing on."
Talking to the director, I admitted that the blank slate nature of Master Chief as a character generally left me cold, as I said in a recent preview of Halo 4. Essentially, he's kind of like an empty suit for players to step inside of. That's why the other characters get such a prominent focus in the webseries. But Chief's silent heroism does present a unique storytelling challenge.
The pressure might be even more intense when you consider that Hendler and company aren't really able to use Halo's most recognizable persona in the webseries. Master Chief inspires one of the FUD characters who eventually becomes the captain of the Infinity—the giant ship where the multiplayer portion of Halo 4 happens. But Chief only appears in the briefest of cameos in FUD, akin to a force of nature. "We didn't want to tell the definitive one and only Chief story the way that a blockbuster movie might," Hendler explains. "The idea is putting him in as an inspiring character, somebody who comes in, and we can see his effect reflected on the characters around him. We loved that. So, basically, we get to see through their eyes why he's so awesome."
Forward Unto Dawn happens early on in the Halo mythology, Hendler explains, earlier than most of the games deal with. "The idea that these would tell the backstories of characters that were actually in Halo 4 evolved as we put it together," he continued. "The actual original concept was 'How do we use Chief in a way that hasn't been done before?' It sort of tells it an interesting, different slice of the Chief story. So we started looking early on in his career. And that's what led us there." "The Chief's really interesting because he's such a huge part of the univerese, but he's also somebody's whose face is never shown. It's part of the myth and the legend of him that if you show his face, he'll never be as awesome-looking as he is in everyone's head," Hendler told me. "In order to have a central character that you can't see, we were really trying to figure out how to make a movie that incorporated him, but was serviceable from a narrative standpoint and from a visual standpoint, and also it didn't try to bite off more than it could chew."
As for the actual characters viewers will be meeting in FUD, anyone who's watched the teasers for the series knows that it's a very young cast. Part of it is connect with the younger part of the Halo game-playing audience. But Hendler also says that it's because Forward Unto Dawn deals coming-of-age and learning about harsh political realities. "We're definitely looking at this concept of 'induction into the war without much choice in the matter.' There's a notion of innocents being pulled into a war—the virtues of which have been decided long before you ever got involved—and being forced to participate in it whether you like it or not."
Hendler says that one of the best parts of his directing gig was early access to Halo 4. "I'm such a story nerd," he said, "and I love the origins-of-mankind backstory that they are hinting at, with relics that lead you to wonder what mankind's real history is and all that stuff. The fact that we're going back into deep, deep history [in the Halo universe] is exciting to me."