More Than $90 Million and 265 Script Drafts Later, ‘Halo’ Is Finally a TV Show
For much of his childhood, Pablo Schreiber didn’t have a TV, let alone a video game system. So it wasn’t really until the 43-year-old actor was hired to star in “Halo” — Paramount Plus’ upcoming adaptation of Microsoft’s crown jewel Xbox franchise — that Schreiber sat down to play as the genetically engineered super soldier he’d been hired to embody: Petty Officer John-117, aka Master Chief.
“I quickly realized just how new I was to this medium,” Schreiber tells Variety. “I spent the first few days of my Halo experience getting killed by grunts.”
When the show premieres on March 24, it will be the culmination of 17 years of false starts and dogged striving, including a Peter Jackson-produced feature film that fell apart in the 2000s, more than six years of development by Amblin Television in the 2010s, and a pandemic-split production in Hungary for the nine-episode first season that lasted nearly two years.
All of that effort will have been worth it should the gargantuan popularity of the Halo game franchise — which has grossed more than $6 billion in total sales since it launched with the original Xbox in November 2001 — translate into an equally massive TV sensation. Paramount Plus is banking on it: With a budget running more than $10 million per episode, “Halo” (already renewed for Season 2) is easily the streamer’s strongest argument yet that it belongs at the big kids table with Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime Video and HBO Max.
“This is a swing for a broad audience,” says Tanya Giles, chief programming officer at the streamer. “My hope is this expands what the Paramount Plus brand can mean.”
Giles puts “Halo” alongside Paramount Plus tentpole series like the five ongoing “Star Trek” shows and Taylor Sheridan’s “1883” — widely appealing experiences that an “NFL dad can enjoy with his teenage son.” And, one presumes, mothers and daughters as well: As the parent of 13- and 16-year-old boys, Giles says the show “makes me a really, really cool mom.”
Until just the past few years, however, video game adaptations have rarely been called cool, let alone successful, and almost all of them have been feature films, not TV series. But even recent big-screen hits like “Pokémon Detective Pikachu,” “Sonic the Hedgehog” and “Uncharted” haven’t dispelled the reputation of video game adaptations as mercenary cash grabs guaranteed to disappoint fans and non-fans alike.
“They’ve had quite a bumpy history, haven’t they?” says “Halo” executive producer and director Otto Bathurst. Like Schreiber, Bathurst had never played the game before he landed the job to direct the pilot, and at first glance, he was at a loss for how to translate a video game that puts players inside the perspective of Master Chief as he and his fellow Spartan soldiers mow down hordes of alien warriors.
“I was nervous,” he says. “How do you take a first-person shooter and expand it?”
As Bathurst and his collaborators quickly discovered, the problem with bringing Halo to TV wasn’t how to expand it. Quite the opposite, in fact.
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On June 6, 2005, in a stunt that instantly became the stuff of Hollywood legend, Microsoft sent a small platoon of actors dressed in full Master Chief armor to the major film studios (other than Sony Pictures, naturally). They were armed with a “Halo” screenplay written by Alex Garland and take-it-or-leave-it deal terms heavily weighted in the company’s favor.
The result was a movie co-financed by Universal and 20th Century Fox and produced by Peter Jackson, who hired up-and-coming director Neill Blomkamp to make his feature debut with the film. According to Jamie Russell’s book “Generation Xbox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood,” Microsoft was an uneasy and at times overbearing creative partner, and the project ultimately fell apart in October 2006. (Blomkamp and Jackson instead made 2009’s “District 9,” which was nominated for four Oscars, including best picture.)
By 2011, Microsoft had parted ways with Halo’s original developer, Bungie, and created an in-house studio, 343 Industries, to keep the franchise alive. As part of that effort, veteran Microsoft executive Kiki Wolfkill began exploring anew how to expand the game into a live-action adaptation — or, in Wolfkill’s words, “linear entertainment.”
After licking their wounds from the Jackson-Blomkamp debacle, Microsoft and 343 appear to have learned two valuable lessons: One, Halo, a game that can take as many as 10 hours to complete, was likely better suited to long-form TV than to a two-hour movie; two, it’s far better to find collaborators before settling on a finished script.
“Especially coming out of the movie experience, it’s like, we get one big swing at this, so let’s take the time to do it right,” says Wolfkill.
So Don Mattrick, then the head of Microsoft’s Xbox unit, called his friend Steven Spielberg, himself a passionate gamer and a Halo fan. Soon after, 343’s executives found themselves pitching Amblin Television presidents Justin Falvey and Darryl Frank.
“They asked for permission to get in before we came into the room, and they covered a large conference table with the canon of Halo,” says Falvey.
That canon — a vast science fiction saga that spans hundreds of millennia and involves ancient aliens who created colossal, ring-shaped structures called the Halo Array — comes as much from dozens of tie-in novels, comic books and exhaustive guides and encyclopedias as from the games themselves. “It was aisles deep,” Falvey recalls. “It was incredible.”
Everyone who spoke with Variety, actually, cited Halo’s expansive mythology as the factor that differentiated the series from other video game fare and made it so attractive as source material for event-size television. Many of the show’s lead creatives spent several days at 343’s headquarters outside Seattle just to be able to learn about it.
“We didn’t look at the game,” says Season 1 showrunner Steven Kane (“The Last Ship”). “We didn’t talk about the game. We talked about the characters and the world. So I never felt limited by it being a game.”
“The richness and the depth of the universe was immediately kind of mind-boggling,” adds Schreiber. “And incredibly exciting, because what it means as a storyteller is that there’s already been a huge amount of preparation and groundwork.”
That can cut both ways: One of the sticking points with the failed movie adaptation was reportedly Microsoft’s rigid fealty to the game’s backstory. But early in the development process for the series, Wolfkill says 343 and Amblin came to a crucial decision: While the show would draw heavily from the mythology, it would chart its own separate storytelling path. Similar to how Marvel Studios pulls from thousands of Marvel comics to create the distinct Marvel Cinematic Universe, the “Halo” TV series exists in what 343 is calling “the Silver Timeline.”
“Early on, we were thinking about doing something that could tie very closely with the game,” Wolfkill says. “What we were finding was, trying to verbatim stay with everything that’d come before wasn’t serving the medium. It also wasn’t serving the creative teams and their need to express a story and build the world through their eyes.”
Bathurst says this approach was the best of both worlds. “There’s no way I was ever going to grasp the whole thing, so there was a lot of phone-a-friend,” the director says of his collaboration with 343. At the same time, “they were extraordinary in their acceptance of the fact that they couldn’t just try to square-peg-round-hole their 20 years of history. Gaming is a completely different medium.”
A great example of how this will work on the show is the character of Cortana, the sentient artificial intelligence who is effectively the second lead of the Halo franchise after Master Chief. In the show’s biggest nod to the game’s history, Jen Taylor, who’s voiced the character since the first game in 2001, is also playing Cortana on the series via performance capture. But she says the show’s version is “a new and exciting, different kind of beast.”
“It feels familiar and different at the same time,” she continues. “I hope people will be excited about that. Do you want it to be exactly the way you’ve already played it and already seen it? I’m not sure. It will be interesting to see how the fans respond to that.”
• • •
For a fleeting moment in the early 2010s, Microsoft flirted with entering the streaming space with its Xbox Entertainment Studios unit. By the time “Halo” officially landed at Showtime in 2014, however, Microsoft had shuttered XES, giving the pay cable outlet sole distribution rights.
Gary Levine, Showtime’s co-president of entertainment, says “Halo” was an intriguing, if unusual, prospect, given Showtime’s slate of boutique, high-end adult dramas. “It was undeniably a potent piece of intellectual property,” he says. “But it was far afield from anything we’d done.”
The challenge was to take the video game’s backstory and turn it into a show populated with rich and engaging characters, while not scrimping on visual effects — something Showtime is hardly known for — for complex battle sequences that fans would very much expect to see. “It took a while to get there, and we had some twists and turns,” Levine says.
No kidding: Microsoft initially announced “Halo” would premiere in the fall of 2015. According to Wolfkill, early versions of the show did lean further into a more classic Showtime drama space, with storylines that focused on the personal lives of the Spartan super soldiers. “Deeply exploring their personal life is maybe something that comes in Season 2 or Season 3,” says Wolfkill.
The greatest hurdle was sorting out what to do with the lead Spartan, Master Chief. In the games, the first-person perspective makes Chief a shell for the player. “He’s everybody, right?” says Kane. “He’s you, he’s me, he’s a 6-year-old girl, he’s a 15-year-old person in a different country. Whoever plays the game is him.”
That is perfect for a game character and deadly for scripted drama. But when Kyle Killen (“Lone Star”) came on board as showrunner in 2018, he hit upon a shrewd narrative path that embraces the video game DNA: Master Chief starts as a complete cypher, engineered to be so devoid of individuality that he literally has no sense of taste, and the rest of the season slowly fills out the void.
“We’re going to tell a story about a man discovering his own humanity,” says Kane, who joined the show as co-showrunner in 2019. “In so doing, he’s invited the audience to discover that guy’s humanity too.”
Eventually, Levine says, “we got the script to the place where we said, ‘You know, this is a deep dive into character. What are the costs of turning human beings into killing machines?’”
Even after Killen cracked the central story, crafting Chief’s personal journey within a sprawling science fiction epic that involves multiple warring factions and far-flung alien species was not, it turns out, an easy task. Production delays caused original director Rupert Wyatt to drop out in December 2018, and Killen exited the series in 2019 because he didn’t want to leave his family behind during a lengthy production in Budapest.
“I was told you might have to go to Hungary for five or six months,” Kane says of signing on to the show. Thanks to the pandemic, “I was there about two years.” During that time, Kane estimates he wrote upwards of 265 drafts of the first nine episodes, balancing everything from the needs of the expansive production to story notes from 343 and Spielberg to the desire to fold in as much from the Halo mythology as possible.
“There are characters that are mentioned once in a book that I was able to give a whole backstory to, and other characters that were already well written that I just had to drop in,” he says. “I have to give credit to Microsoft. You can pitch them something brand-new, and unless it really complicated them in terms of the canon or the values of the show, they embraced it.”
Then in February 2021, Showtime’s parent company — once ViacomCBS, now Paramount Global — announced that “Halo” was moving to Paramount Plus. Levine, as he’s said before, calls the show a better fit for his corporate sibling. “We knew it could really thrive there, and they could throw a whole lot of money at it to ensure it’s a success,” he says. (Levine also notes that while Showtime turned “Halo” over to Paramount Plus, “they gave us ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’” — an “ambitious and interesting” series from Alex Kurtzman based on the ’70s David Bowie film that will star Bill Nighy, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Naomie Harris. “It’s not like we abandoned sci-fi. We got one that was more in our lane.”)
After spending the better part of a decade working with Showtime, Wolfkill is relieved that the cable company will remain in its studio role for Season 2 of “Halo.” But she’s also happy with the change of venue.
“Obviously, we’re a platform company, so we understand how important content is on new platforms,” she says. “There’s something really unique about being an important piece of content on a new platform. And I love that energy. I don’t think that level of energy we would have had coming into Showtime.”
“Halo” is, however, losing Kane, who will step down as a showrunner after completing Season 1, with David Wiener (“Brave New World”) taking over for Season 2. Amblin’s Falvey says Season 1 ends with “a great cliffhanger,” so don’t expect the series to make any major time jumps.
For his part, Schreiber is busy packing back on 30 pounds of muscle to play Master Chief again — and trying to get better at playing the game. “I’m in the middle of a Halo: Infinite campaign right now; I’m having a great time,” he says. “I’m constantly seeing all the things that are similar to what we were doing [on the show]. So that’s really, really fun.”
He laughs. “In terms of improving my gaming ability, I don’t know if there’s any hope for me, to be honest.”
Todd Spangler contributed to this story.