Coming into his role as the director for the first two episodes of the new, live-action ‘Halo’ TV series, now on OSN, Otto Bathurst said he had little knowledge of the franchise.
“I was what we affectionately called a Halo virgin,” Bathurst said during a video interview with The Washington Post. “I knew the game. I’d heard of it, but I’m not a gamer at all, and I never was as a kid growing up.”
Familiarity with the gaming franchise for its TV adaptation became something of a hot-button issue when executive producer Steven Kane told Variety that the showrunners “didn’t look at the game.” The snippet of Kane’s interview made waves among fans of the revered video game series and generated multiple stories speculating how the games’ stories would be treated in the series. Kane clarified his comment later that week, noting the TV team had indeed learned about the game, referencing a Halo “boot camp” put on by the franchise’s maker, 343 Industries.
In Bathurst’s interview with The Post, the director explained further, detailing how the team at 343 walked the newcomers through the nuances of the Halo universe and how the lore of the games, along with their spin offs in novels and other media, impressed him.
“They took me through the whole history of Halo,” Bathurst said. “And they have this timeline, this massive long timeline, you know, and then the actual games sort of exist in like [he holds his finger and thumb up an inch apart] that much of the timeline. There’s like thousands of years this way, thousands of years that way [on the timeline] that haven’t even appeared in kind of anything, but they’ve all been kind of thought out and laid out. It’s extraordinary. It’s mad. It’s mad.”
He also noted the delicate task of placating existing fans of the game franchise and educating those coming in cold to the TV series. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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So when were you first introduced to the franchise during the course of this project?
As soon as the job was on the table, then yeah, immediately. I did my research and dived in. Then three years ago, it was amazing, I went up to Seattle and hung out with [343 studio head for Halo transmedia and entertainment] Kiki Wolfkill and [Halo franchise director] Frank O’Connor and the rest of the team at 343 and just did what they call a boot camp and spent the best part of the week kind of immersing myself in the lore and the kind of whole vibe and the whole thing and just really getting to, frankly, to scratch the surface, to be honest. Because it’s so, so deep and so complex.
Is that intimidating to just have a tidal wave of information thrown at you? Coming into a beloved franchise cold like that?
No, no, no. I mean, you know, yeah, it was intimidating to start, but then you see how supportive they are. What was amazing about 343, you know, making a TV show is completely different from making a video game — completely, completely different. The narrative, the narrative tools, the narrative expectations. It’s a completely different method of storytelling. And very quickly, it was very clear that 343 understood that and embraced that.
The fact they’ve done comics and anime ... they’re very aware of the fact that this a world and you come in and you take the bits out that you need and you go off and do your version. Whether you’re writing a comic, whether you’re writing a novel, whether you’re writing or making a TV drama, you know. And they’re very, very supportive of that and very kind of embracing of that. Once I got a sense of that, then I thought, “Okay, cool.”
I always maintained that — because we’re not making the show just for the fans but for a much, much, much wider audience than that — I always maintained, and I think it’s supportive, to actually have a Halo virgin in the mix. There were lots and lots and lots of questions I had.
That’s the massive challenge of taking on an IP like this, when you’re trying to cater to the fans and appease the fans, excite the fans and thrill the fans. And then you’re also going to bring this whole audience up to speed in, I don’t know how long, [and] get them on board.
What was a general day like during the boot camp at 343?
I don’t quite know why they call it a boot camp, because there isn’t any kind of physicality at all. You’re just in the offices of 343, and they basically take you through every single aspect [of the franchise]. So you get a broad history, you get a focused history, you go through every single one of the characters, you go through the lore behind the Spartans. It was clever, though, because we roughly knew what the story was, so they focused the boot camp to be relevant. I mean, there’s tons and tons and tons and tons of stuff that we didn’t even talk about, but we didn’t need to. And then we’d go into weaponry design and sound design, expectations of the fans, the world, the planets, the geography of the whole universe. We went through everything.
It was really amazing. And I think what I came out of it [with] was a sort of reverence of this franchise and what we were taking on. It’s so, so different making a TV show from making a game. The whole point of the show is to try and ground it in reality ... and also the physicality. We talked about physics a lot. We talked about how would things actually work. Because in the game, you just do it.
Coming out of the boot camp, was there anything you gained an appreciation of — about Master Chief’s character or the Halo universe, etc — that you didn’t have going into it?
Oh, I mean, tons. I tell you one thing that really, really blew me away and continued to blow me away throughout the whole of the shooting was just the design of the show. That suit, that helmet and that visor, just the design of the outfit. Just the whole vibe — it’s very, very clever what they’ve done. It’s set 500 years in the future, or more than that, but the military aspect of it is very today. I mean, it makes no sense, you know, I would presume that far in advance we wouldn’t still be using ballistic weapons and driving around in Warthogs. But it’s cool because it makes it very relatable. And you got this kind of crazy alien show, but yet you recognise humanity’s weaponry and their modus operandi, and it’s based very, very tightly on the American armed forces and the way they operate in the hierarchy and the structures and the movements.
What do you want to get across, as a director, in the first two episodes?
I wanted to get the non-fans on board. I wanted it to feel that there was a purpose and a human connection here. I know how Halo has a big story behind it, but ultimately, on a very crude level, it’s [a] first-person shooter. So you’re taking that, and you’re trying to expand that to something that has some kind of purpose and connectability to an audience so that people are engaged on a human level to what’s going on. That was what I hope we’ve done.
The production value and scale of it and all that kind of stuff is out of this world. But after a while, that stuff ... Okay, whatever, you know? What’s the story? What am I actually connected to? That’s the challenge. And I think that will be the sort of test of the show, whether it stands up.
So you have the two audience components, how do you balance that audience service to fans of the game with onboarding newcomers?
It’s super challenging. You’ve got the gaming crowd. And the gaming crowd is split very, very roughly into those who just game and don’t really know the universe and those who are, like, fans. And there’s some crazy, crazy committed fans out there who really know that stuff and that whole terminology, that language. And I’m sure [the show] is going [to be] nitpicked, and I’m sure there’ll be terminologies we got [wrong]. But even just in describing a planet, you can’t call it by its full sci-fi sort of galaxy name. For a Halo virgin, you have to have them actually understand that it’s a planet out in the outer reaches of the galaxy and in the inner reaches is this place called Reach, which is actually the sort of Pearl Harbor of this planet called Earth. I mean, the disparity in the knowledge of your audience literally couldn’t be bigger.
It’s one of the most challenging parts of the project. I can’t think of any other show like that where you’ve got some people who just know way, way, way more than anybody involved in the film, apart from Kiki Wolfkill, Frank O’Connor and a few other people. And then you’ve got another part, like my friends who are going to watch it for the first time. I mean, with my friends I’d go, “I’m working on Halo,” and they say, “What’s Halo?” That’s the extremity of what you’re dealing with. So you just have to kind of find a happy place.
There are a lot of Easter eggs in there for the hard-core fans — a lot — that most of the audience will miss. And there are some really, really, really, really deep, deep, deep Easter eggs that only if you pause your frame and zoom in you’ll actually spot them. I hope that will sort of satiate and excite and enthral the fans. But on a much, much, much more kind of macro, broad, basic storytelling level ... we had to educate. We had to bring people along for the ride, you know, and that’s a real balance.