I ask Forward Unto Dawn director Stewart Hendler how he prepared to tackle the franchise and what kind of research went into his work. “I knew a lot about it already, but now I know more than any human being should.” Hendler, admittedly not a huge video game guy himself, but he’s no stranger to long-form web series, having helmed the Bryan Singer-produced H+. Now, he’s bringing his experience to bear on the five-part story of the beginnings of the human-Covenant War which occupied much of the Halo series.
Again, he’s no stranger to the Halo franchise–Hendler says he got hooked on the series during college thanks to his roommate who picked up the then-current Halo release. “So that franchise has had a special place in my heart for a long time,” he tells me, explaining that the story was what got its hooks into him: “And I think part of the reason I love it so much is because the narrative is so rich, and the mythology is so powerful.”
For the director, this left a lot of the story filled in that they could work with in conjunction with 343 Industries to tell this early story in the human-Covenant conflict. In the fiction, Forward Unto Dawn takes place in the midst of a civil war where an insurrection has broken out among the colonies, and the UNSC has ramped up its forces as a response. In fact, the Spartan program was actually in part a reaction to the increasing tensions between the central government and the far-flung colonies.
He worked closely with Halo 4 developer 343 Industries on the story, the studio initially giving him carte blanche across the 100,000 years of history across which the various books, comics, animated shorts, and games take place. That brad canvass was “daunting,” according to Hendler, but ultimately they centered on a story surrounding cadet Thomas Lasky, played by actor Tom Green. “We wanted to put a character in the middle of this conflict,” he says about Lasky, “where he’s coming of age, learning what he believes in, and he doesn’t know if he completely trusts what his superiors are telling him.”
Lasky is surrounded by other cadets, and it presented an opportunity for Forward Unto Dawn to show some younger characters in the Halo universe for the first time while exploring some of the issues of identity and sacrifice.
For Hendler, Forward Unto Dawn has a nice pairing effect with Halo 4 which is, as he describes it, “the dawn of a new conflict,” with the Master Chief encountering the ancient Prometheans for the first time. “And it kind of gave us a chance to explore a bit of the Chief’s history that maybe hasn’t been explored before, and to set up a couple of characters would who become important to the Halo 4 campaign.” He looked at the insurrection as a compelling period to spring the new story from since that human on human conflict has never been shown in the game (it’s really only gotten the merest mention in 2010’s Halo: Reach. The conflict has “significant shades of grey” according to Hendler, with the insurrectionists revolting because of their perceived lack of representation (in some of the novels, they resort to terrorism to get rid of UNSC forces).
One of the big challenges was bringing the Master Chief to the screen, Hendler describing the armored super soldier as both iconic and enigmatic. “You know, the games do a good job of allowing you to just play as him with the other characters around him sort of serving as a portal. Truthfully, I think that mystery, and that enigma is what people have come to love about him.” With that in mind, in telling the story of Forward Unto Dawn, they didn’t want to fill in too much about the Chief and ultimately ruining some of the mystery. So they chose an approach that allowed them to write to “the myth and the legend” of the character by showing how a group of young people reach to him and are inspired by him.
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