From Horror to ‘Halo’: An Interview with Stewart Hendler


Halo is not a game that we would normally cover at FEARnet, but with the upcoming release of the Machinima web series Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, we thought we’d make an exception due to the involvement of Stewart Hendler, the director behind movies like Sorority Row and Whisper.  Hendler is giving a darker take on the Halo mythology in the prequel web series, delivering his take on both genres.  We got to chat with him recently regarding Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn, gaming, and his plans for the future.

In your own words, describe Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn.

Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn is basically about a group of young in training to fight…an insurrection of humans who are unexpectedly attacked by an alien race that they didn’t even know existed, and their battle to survive and escape their school with the aid of one of the UNSC’s sort of secret super soldiers, Master Chief.

What’s your own personal gaming experience?  Do you consider yourself a gamer?

I’ve always been a Halo gamer, but I would be well overstating my gaming ability if I said I was anything beyond that, or even really in Halo.  I sort of discovered Halo because in college I had roommates who were heavy gamers and I would always sort of wander past whatever they were playing and Halo was the one game that kinda sucked me in, so I’ve been a fan and an addict of that ever since then.  I’ve dabbled in other games, but I’m not particularly talented (laughs).

Your past output has delved a lot into horror and darker elements that Halo doesn’t really fall into.  How do you feel that your experience influenced Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn?

Halo is the second sci-fi thing I’ve done…I did this web series called H+ for Warner Bros. which was sort of my first jump into sci-fi that was much more character driven, [as opposed to] more straightforward sci-fi that’s spaceships and aliens.  It wasn’t always what I had a sort of passion for in sci-fi…I love horror but I’ve always had sort of a soft spot for sci-fi so it was kind of a dream come true when I got this offer.  But the funny thing was that we were trying to make a movie about an alien invasion [without] a ton of resources.  It’s an amazing amount of money for a web series, but compared to the sort of blockbuster Halo movie that everyone was looking forward to we felt like we had huge expectations to live up to.

The cool thing was I got to pitch it as an Aliens-style horror movie set in the future…and we used some of the tricks of the trade [that] we use in horror in terms of, like, making what you can’t see more scary than what you can see and all that stuff…work within the constraints that we had and the fear factor of the story.  We want to be as much a scary horror movie as we are an action movie, and hopefully we’ll land somewhere in between.

Master Chief has become an icon for the past two console generations due to Halo’s rabid fanbase.  Was there any apprehension on your part in being “the guy” who finally adapted Halo to a longer, cinematic form?

Dude, there’s been apprehension every night for the last year of my life…it really keeps me up at night.  It’s been a huge, scary task and a big responsibility, but I think we all worked super hard to be able to do it and we came in with…crazy reverence for the material.  Everyone that we chose for the team is a fan or is in some way sort of connected to the Halo mythology and really, really passionate about it, and everyone took this job super seriously.  It was amazing to be on the set, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like it…it was standing there with 120 people around me that were all there because they were extremely passionate about making the best possible version  of this project, and just loved the idea of a passion Halo project.  It wasn’t your average day at the office; it was just an electric experience.  I guess we’ll see the crowd reaction…I’m super excited, I think we did a good job, but fuck yeah, I am scared out of my wits to see if we did justice to the universe, and to [Master] Chief, for sure.

Speaking of Chief, kind of a nerd question for you: how exciting was it to see the live, full [Spartan] suit for the first time?

I nearly fell over…it was fucking crazy!  We’d been building this suit down in L.A. while we’re prepping…we’re watching the progress by photo, and they’d send over official renderings and stuff, and they’d send over like half an arm for a camera test, but we hadn’t seen the whole thing assembled in person until we did this Saturday still photography shoot.  The suit had arrived and there was gonna be a press release on Monday so I asked “Hey, do we have any pictures of the suit,” and they were like “No, it’s just getting there today.”

So I drive over to the set and walk in and there’s this little pool of light around the photo shoot area in the sound stage, so I walk over and the crowd kinda parts (laughs) and Ben is standing there, like seven feet tall and…it’s fucking Chief!  It was the craziest, most surreal experience of my life, like, I really had this sort of out-of-body, “am I in a video game” moment because this suit is so fucking cool looking.  Everyone there was in this quiet, church-like reverence.  Nobody was goofing off, we were all just sort of in awe of what we were looking at.  It was pretty epic; it was awesome.

Now that you’ve cut your teeth on video game adaptations with Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn and worked on horror films like Sorority Row, there’s the obvious question…are there any horror games that you’d like to bring to life, either as a web series or a feature length movie?

I literally haven’t thought about it.  I’d certainly be open to it, I’m kind of in an interesting place where I’ve gotten to do sci-fi, I’ve gotten to do horror, and the awesome thing is I keep getting material for both genres, so hopefully it comes down to what is a cool, awesome, smart story.  My big favorite movies in the sci-fi world tend to be those that are horror adjacent, so if I could find some way to combine both, that would be awesome.  But in terms of specific franchises, I haven’t even thought about it.

What’s next for you?

Sleep!  I’m going to take a long nap, and then…I don’t know.  I’ve been reading a ton of stuff, definitely going to see where this goes…but it’s kind of a wide open thing.  People ask if I’m open to do a web series or a movie or whatever, and I guess the cool thing is having done the Machinima series…it was a total blast, and the most fun I’ve ever had directing. So…I don’t worry about what sort of specific medium it is and more looking for what the stories are exciting to me…I’m wide open right now, so I’ll just take it as it comes.

Any closing thoughts for Halo fans, horror fans, or anyone else?

Hold on tight, I think we got something awesome here, and we really, really hope people dig it.  We’re excited to hear people’s reactions, we think’s it’s gonna go well!