Showrunner Steven Kane on honoring the ‘Halo’ spirit
May 17, 2022
The rest of the world is discovering what gamers have known for two decades: Halo isn’t just a great first-person shooter game that launched a billion-dollar franchise, it’s sci-fi at its best. Steven Kane serves as showrunner on Paramount+’s new series and it's raking it in for the streamer. For the uninitiated, Halo is an epic battle between humanity and an alien threat known as the Covenant in the 26th century.
Honoring Halo canon: From Xbox to the big screen
"I always believe that sci-fi should be grounded in humanity. Because it's really about—whether it's the future or an alternate universe—how it affects us as people. The game came with a novel, graphic novels, and a whole Halo extended universe. So, they always thought of it as a story about people living in this alternate timeline, doing these crazy things, fighting aliens, and whatnot. And so, there was a deep well from which to draw,” says Kane.
“That said, you walk in knowing you’re going to make a lot of people angry, and a lot of people happy, and hopefully make more of them happy than angry. We worked very closely with 343. We would ask ‘is this appropriate for the canon?’ It’s almost like taking someone’s life story and saying, can we draw from it? And then take some creative liberties, but always honor the spirit of the game and the stories.”
And the canon is extensive. Halo is up there with the DC Extended Universe, Mortal Kombat, and Jurassic Park. The latter is particularly fitting, since Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment is one of the companies behind the show, along with 343. They entrusted Kane with seeing through the vision when original showrunner Kyle Kinnen left.
Kane is the first to credit those that came before him on the show, saying, “Kyle laid the groundwork for sure, the central concept and conceit of the season was from the work he and his team had done and I redeveloped and then broke off from there, and honored as much as I could... then added some of my own to make the show what it is today. Their names are still mostly on the scripts because I wanted to make sure that their work was acknowledged, even if I went a different direction.”
Showrunning one of the highest-grossing media franchises of all time
From independent film and theatre to showrunning TNT’s The Last Ship and working on Jack Ryan, Kane was a writing force that could rival Master Chief on the field: “I found myself writing sometimes 12 - 13 hours a day just to keep up. That's not normally my process,” says Kane, who was writing multiple episodes at once to keep on production schedule.
“The process is completely iterative. You write your script, all these meetings come up, ideas come up, you change your script because you have a new idea or limitation because of the location... you end up writing sometimes 10, 20 drafts of one script because you're constantly either adapting or getting new, cool ideas that you want to include. It’s never done until it's actually shot and then, of course, you have a lot of editing where you change it again,” Kane smiles.
“The biggest challenge was getting 1,000 people on the same page to make the same show,” he says of the massive, multi-year undertaking. “Not because they were stubborn, but because we're 1,000 people with different tastes and talents; staying open to great ideas yet staying strong about the ideas that you want to fight for while making sure that we’re all on the same path.”
Master Chief John-117
In the game, he’s you. In the show, he’s brought to life by a nuanced Pablo Schreiber (Orange Is the New Black) and the show largely focuses on Master Chief.
“It's definitely our version of Master Chief. But the thing about that is, there are as many versions of Master Chief as there are people playing the game and reading the books. Especially when you play the game, you are Master Chief, you're in the helmet, so we had to personalize it, make it one person for the show. We made the show about him discovering who he is, and we took the audience along for the ride—to discover this version of Master Chief, with Master Chief.”
And then there’s the world he operates in; a giant sci-fi playground for any writer.
“It was a great balance because a lot of stuff existed in canon, so we would get elements from the game and give it to the production designer and the props makers and figure out how to make it look good in real life. [Some] planets were just mentioned in the games or books, you'll find like one reference to a planet, but you never saw it. We got a chance to build it from scratch. We were always working with people from 343 to make sure that we're keeping a consistent canon to what you would expect, but also lot of opportunity to create—like the capital city of Madrigal.”
“It was a lot of fun because the great thing about sci-fi like this is, [is that] nothing is taken for granted,” Kane extrapolates. “You don't just go, well, he's sitting down having a hotdog. Well, hang on. It's the 26th century. What do they eat? What do they sit on? Especially because in the game, they don't show you outside of what you're playing. So to humanize it and show 'where does Halsey asleep'? That was one of the questions we talked with Natascha McElhone about when we were building her character. Natascha used to say, ‘I want to live with the birds, I want to live up in the air; my mind is up here’ and so we gave her this ginormous high rise; this giant window looking out at everything. Very sleek and open…so it kind of spoke to who her character was.”
Kane just wrapped his role as showrunner on Halo about a week ago, and he seems optimistic about handing the baton forward to the production’s season two writing team. After spending two years of his life devoted to Halo, in Hungary where the production took place, apart from his family, it feels like a bittersweet moment.
His hope for this season, with a couple of episodes yet to be dropped, is that people will enjoy John’s journey for what it is, a fresh take on an old favorite.
“The Halo game changes from game to game. The way Cortana looks changes from game to game. There's been how many versions of Batman and how many versions of Spider-Man? So this is a version of Halo which we think is really enjoyable and, luckily, lots of fans are enjoying it, too.”
Written by: Karin MaxeyAfter seeing her first big screen movie 007: License to Kill at age six, Karin naturally became obsessed with writing action-infused stories. The next time she’d see Benicio del Toro was in person, at the 68th Cannes Film Festival—he was there for the Sicario red carpet, she was there for her first produced short film in the basement of the Palais…same-same. In between, Karin earned a Creative Writing Degree and landed management at Echo Lake Entertainment. Her scripts have been a Big Break Top 3 finalist, HollyShorts Film Fest Official Selection, and a multi-Screencraft competitions semi-finalist. Karin is also a screenplay editor who delights in the process of polishing writers' work for submission. You can find her at www.writergirlkarin.com.