Jes Bickham talks to Dan Abnett, scriptwriter of the new CG animated Warhammer movie Ultramarines
November 29 sees the release of Ultramarines, the first ever movie based Games Workshop’s grim and gothic Warhammer 40,000 . Directed by Martyn Pick and produced by Codex Pictures, this computer animated feature tells the tale of a squad of the titular Ultramarines (a chapter of the superhuman Space Marines, the elite military forces of the Imperium of Man) deep behind enemy lines, investigating a mysterious distress call.
The script of the movie was written by none other than Dan Abnett, no stranger to the Warhammer 40,000 universe himself as he’s written a copious amount of books for Games Workshop’s Black Library publishing imprint. We sat down for a natter on bringing Space Marines to life…
SFX: You’re no stranger to Warhammer 40,000 , of course – but how did you get involved?
Dan Abnett: “Codex themselves approached me! I didn’t know anything about it until they did. When they came to me and said. ‘You seem to know your way around Warhammer and can write a sentence,’ that’s when it first started for me!”
How much of story was shaped by you, as the scriptwriter?
“I shaped it from scratch in as much that it became pretty obvious to me, from working on 40K for the best part of a decade and also doing a lot of licensed work in my life, which beats we would need to hit. You know, to make a definitively satisfying first 40K movie. We had to cover certain basics or we’d be missing the core of the IP, which we’d need to begin with. That was the start point – then it was left to me to come up with the actual story, which became a matter of knocking it back and forth with the producers to make sure they were happy with it.”
“One thing the film’s got in spades – that Martyn the director brought to it – is this wonderful sense of atmosphere. It’s there in the trailers. He’s great, he can play up truly cinematic feelings of mood, pace and situation that achieve something that’s completely to different the admittedly wonderful cut-scenes you get at the start of the game, which is immediately what you think of when you see animated Space Marines. But that would be relentless after 90 minutes, and seeing what Martin’s done in terms of composition of figures and camera angles and so on is really astonishing.”
Was it difficult to translate tabletop models into moving pictures?
“From my point of view I’ve written – at the last count – something like 35 Warhammer novels, but surprisingly few are Space Marine novels. A lot, like Gaunt’s Ghosts , are about the Imperial Guard, who are ordinary people and therefore speak with contractions. Space Marines are these great posthuman giants, more stentorian in their approach to conversation, and writing that and getting the actors to grasp that was a challenge. You don’t want them to sound silly but you don’t them to sound too colloquial! Striking that balance was tricky but they’ve achieved it beautifully. I mean, I’d be writing lines and reading them out to myself and thinking ‘Gosh, that sounds bonkers’, but then you think of it coming out of the mouth of a seven-foot armoured bloke voiced by John Hurt!”
Speaking of which, you’ve got a wonderful cast: John Hurt, Terence Stamp, Sean Pertwee…
“It’s an absolutely awesome cast. Fantastic voices! Wonderfully characterful, too. The other problem you have with Space Marines is that they’re essentially meant to be cloned copies, genetically manipulated to be these ideal warriors and that means they’re very, very similar, which gives you enormous trouble in trying to give them any kind of personality. It’s not like one can have model railways as a hobby! So to have incredibly characterful and unmistakeable voices is terrific.”
There are many different chapters of Space Marines, and the Ultramarines are the noblest and most “normal” of them. Did that make your job harder or easier?
“I picked the Ultramarines for the movie, and we knew we needed Space Marines for the movie. And if you need to understand what a Space Marine is, you look at the Ultramarines – you get the very essential basics of what a Space Marine is about from them. And the other wonderful and popular chapters such as the Space Wolves, Blood Angels and whoever are often Space marines plus another characteristic element. They’re Vikings, or vampires, or whatever, and I felt that, from a starting point, you don’t want to complicate things by having to explain what a Space Marine is AND why THESE Space Marines are different. You just want a Space Marine first and foremost and we can work from there.
“Ultramarines are the starting point for all things Space Marines – they’re the default Codex army, for instance – but of course as soon as the film was announced all the fans went how can you say Ultramarines are the best! Blood Angels or Dark Angels or White Scars are the best! It took my by surprise, it’s like football teams, you know, everyone has their own favourite they’re passionate about.”
Ultramarines is released on DVD on 20 November. Pop over to www.ultramarinesthemovie.com for more details and order information.
There’s more on Ultramarines in the latest issue of SFX .