The studios were keen, big names were attached. Crucially, the script was ready.
Perhaps they shouldn’t have bothered with the screenplay: the team behind a new web series celebrating the launch of Halo 4 were still writing during the middle of shooting - and unlike Peter Jackson’s sci-fi shooter that never was, you can actually watch it. Today.
“We were laying the tracks in front of the train, it was really crazy,” says Stewart Hendler, the director of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, a five part mini series that’s being released weekly in the run up to the launch of Halo 4 on 6 November. Set several decades before the events of the game, it tells the tale of a group of cadets at a military academy, just as first contact with the deadly Covenant is made.
Halo is a billion dollar industry: there are gamers who even play it professionally for a living. As such, it’s a web series in name only: the five episodes play as one full length feature, the series is helmed by a Hollywood director (Hendler’s last movie was 2009 slasher flick Sorority Row) with a multi-million dollar budget, and it boasts stunning action sequences and special effects from some of the biggest names in the industry.
Oh, and then there’s Master Chief. Played by Daniel Cudmore (Colossus from X-Men), the star of the Halo games that turned Microsoft’s Xbox into a living room essential, the silent giant, makes his screen debut here too, though we’re not allowed to reveal his role just yet.
This is the Halo movie that never was, in other words, and with it came the same crippling concerns. How do you stop yourself from making another Super Mario Bros, universally acknowledged as the worst movie-of-a-game of all time?
“We were super scared,” Hendler tells Red Bull UK. “I think part of the reason why we made this about this new group of characters and this little world is that movies that have tried to be the be-all, end-of-all feature version of the video game you’ve already played don’t seem to work so well.”
The Halo movie might have been just that. By 2006, it looked ready to go, with Peter “Lord Of The Rings Loves New Zealand” Jackson as executive producer and Neill Blomkamp (District 9) as director. But it got stuck in production limbo, reportedly bogged down by Microsoft’s huge box office demands. Nobody in the know has commented on the situation on the record in years. The only live action Halo we’ve seen in that time has been a couple of live action trailers for the various games - all without Chief.
Of course, doing that with Halo’s millions of fans poised to pick it apart frame by frame has pressures of its own.
“It’s terrifying but it’s also great because there’s that many people that are eager to see what you present,” says Anna Popplewell (The Chronicles Of Narnia), who plays one of the cadets in Forward Unto Dawn, Chyler Silva.
“It’s so daunting that you don’t want to disappoint people but it’s wonderful because hopefully you make something that a lot of people have been wanting for a long time. And they’re interested and critical.”
“This is such a huge challenge to make, for everyone involved to try and something which conveys with adequate scope and scale a sense of the Halo universe that has a strong narrative that supports the action, that has some really killer action sequences, that pleases both hardcore fans of the game and is a interesting and full introduction to those who don’t know the game.”
Hendler is a self-confessed fan of the series - when the producers came calling with a chance to direct a series about a high profile video game for the internet, he flat out said no unless it was Halo - and when he found out, he “begged his face off” for the chance.
Though set before the events of the games, there are plenty of references in the script that show Hendler’s love for all things Halo, from cadets calling each other “noobs” to the warthogs and Chief’s high-tech arsenal. Microsoft’s Halo spokesperson in all but job title Frank O’Connor even makes a cameo as a janitor.
“We definitely spent as much time as we could trying to like squeeze as much as fit organically into the story,” he says.
“It’s been fun to watch online people like watching stuff and noticing little details that we put in. Sound effects and stuff that they’re familiar with from the games, because you spend a ton of time trying to get the details right...and then you see somebody comment on it and you’re like ‘Oh, they actually noticed it’. It’s an amazing fanbase.”
Microsoft weren’t taking any chances though: O’Connor and a team of fact checkers were on set every day making sure everything was strictly canon. Not that shooting went on for too long: meeting the deadline of the game’s launch meant everything happened at light-speed. Fitting for the biggest space opera since Star Wars, really.
“We officially got greenlit by Microsoft in mid-January,” says Hendler. “We were prepping instantaneously after that. So we were prepping having a very crude idea of what was going to be in there, and the script was going to be written as we were prepping.”
If filming Unto Dawn sounds like improv, it doesn’t show it: the series’ first three scene-setting episodes have racked up almost eight million views on YouTube so far. Hendler’s open about the budget for the series, which towers over the sums you’d typically expect for a web series like Master Chief himself: between five and ten million dollars (£3.1m- £6.2m).
That’s still chicken feed compared to Hollywood budgets (Microsoft paid author Alex Garland a million dollars alone just to write the screenplay for the unfilmed Halo movie), but Hendler still managed to squeeze in almost 500 visual effects shots. Thank Master Chief for that, he says.
“We got a lot of mileage out of the fact that everybody really loves Halo. We had this amazing phenomenon where we’d call a crew member or a visual effects house or a prop manufacturing company and say, ‘Hey we’re doing this web series’, and they’ll be like ‘Ha’”.
[Then you’d say] it’s for Halo and they’d say ‘Ohhh’. And suddenly the door swung wide open because everybody wants to be in the Halo business, because they’ve grown up with the brand.
Hendler even says that Legacy Studios, the team behind Iron Man’s costume, “practically begged us” to do Chief’s suit. “Had it been My Little Pony, probably not.”
Maybe the same tactics could be used to resurrect the Halo movie. After all, if the biggest names on Hollywood are battering down the doors to do a web series, maybe there’s some good will still left in the bank. Make some calls, Microsoft.
Episodes 4 and 5 of Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn air on 26 October and 2 November on halowaypoint.com. You can watch the first three episodes below.