LONDON PART I! Moriarty Visits The Set Of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, The First HIS DARK MATERIALS Movie!!
Published at: Oct. 7, 2009, 8:02 p.m. CST by Moriarty
It’s been just over a decade since Philip Pullman started publishing the HIS DARK MATERIALS series, and I’d certainly say there’s a passionate cult audience that has embraced the books. HIS DARK MATERIALS is an ambitious and difficult fantasy trilogy that features any number of pitfalls for someone trying to adapt it. Which isn’t to say that I think it’s wrong to try. Far from it... I admire the sort of obsessive vision it takes to try and turn something so literary into a film experience.
I’m just not sure I believe this is going to be New Line’s new LORD OF THE RINGS, which it needs to be based on the amount of money the studio is putting into the first film, THE GOLDEN COMPASS.
When I was invited to visit the London set of the film, I was happy to take New Line up on the opportunity. Normally, I try not to schedule things at the exact same time as other outlets, but in a case like this, everything came together at the last minute, and it was either join a fistful of other journalists for the tour or skip the production entirely. I’ve been interested in how this was going to work as a film ever since my first conversations with Chris Weitz way back when he was first announced as a possible director.
I like that he walked away from the project for a while because he was intimidated by the size of the production. Chris Weitz loves HIS DARK MATERIALS. I can tell you that I believe the book is in good hands in terms of respect for the source material. Chris strikes me as a director with taste. ABOUT A BOY didn’t have to be as good as it was. Even with the same cast in place, I’m willing to be that they could have made a shitty studio version of that film that would have made a lot more money, but it wouldn’t be as good as it is. Chris saw something in that material, brought just the right touch to it. I’m willing to bet he’s going to do just as well with THE GOLDEN COMPASS. And the special effects stuff will be excellent because Chris has hired some exceptional talent. Same with the stunts and the production design and the costumes and the cast. This is what $250 million buys you.
It buys you giant names at the head of every department. It buys you time to get your effects work finished right. It buys you a dream cast and the right to give an unknown the lead. After spending a day meeting the heads of those departments and walking through a fairly well-mounted presentation by New Line, I can say that everyone onboard is giving this film everything you’d expect, every bit of the expertise that $250 million is buying.
But can $250 million buy you an audience? And can it buy you a good film?
That’s a real question, and the most important one for New Line right now. Before I went to the set, I was skeptical of the film as a commercial property. It’s a fundamental thing... I’m just not sure I see this dense metaphysical fantasy story that is about the nature of free will and the value of our souls as something that any studio can sell to the public in thirty seconds.
And now that I’ve been to the set, I’m still skeptical of the film as a commercial property. Or even as a film worth watching. Seriously... what’s the thirty-second version of THE GOLDEN COMPASS? Or even the sixty-second version?
I asked this question of “Lord Asriel,” the webmaster for the biggest HDM fansite in the Netherlands, and he tried to sum up the themes of the book for me or he tried to explain daemons to me or he tried to somehow convey that this is good because people like it already. But he couldn’t do it. And, look... I think New Line’s run some great campaigns (LORD OF THE RINGS being the playbook for the new millennium blockbuster, as far as I’m concerned) and they’ve run some campaigns that just plain never worked (no matter how much they loved LITTLE CHILDREN, they never managed to open it)... just like most other studios.
This is a challenge. This is a huge, crazy challenge.
My suggestion is this: “Lyra is special. Here’s the Alethiometer that she uses. It tells her what to do. Here’s her daemon shifting shapes. It helps her. They’re on a journey. Where? North! Why? Save some kids! Polar bear! Daniel Craig! Cowboy! Lyra in the machine in danger! Nicole Kidman! TITLE UP.”
And then pray. It’s your best bet.
And I’m not being negative just to be negative, either. Like I said, I think the film might turn out to be very good. And I certainly think it’s faithful to the book.
But I think Brad Silberling’s A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS was a faithful adaptation that was stylish and well-cast, also, and the Lemony Snicket books are huge, commercial in a way that HIS DARK MATERIALS isn’t. The Snicket books are “dark,” but they’re also comfortable and franchise-minded. If the film got as close to the mark as it did, starring Jim Carrey, a bigger star than anyone who is appearing in THE GOLDEN COMPASS, and that film didn’t manage to connect with the public, then what chance does this series have?
If you’re not familiar with it, it is the story of a girl named Lyra who lives in a world that’s very similar to ours, at least on the surface. There are some notable differences. Airships and dirigibles seem to be a favored mode of transportation. Magic and witches are accepted as part of the natural order. And most significantly, every person has a daemon, a sort of external extension of their soul, an animal spirit that is attached to them and that follows them everywhere they go. Bringing those daemons to visual life and explaining them to the audience is one of the trickiest tasks that Chris Weitz and his team face. When people are still young, their daemons can change shape into several different animals, but as people age, their daemons shapeshifting powers fade, so that by the time they reach adulthood, the daemons have chosen one form and that’s how they appear all the time. I think that’s actually a lovely metaphor for the way our natures change as we “mature,” as we gradually close ourselves off to possibility and wonder. Children are potential, and so are their daemons. Looking at the design work for all the daemons, it’s obvious that THE GOLDEN COMPASS is trying to make them look like photorealistic animals. Nothing exaggerated or cartoony or fantasy about them. The daemons aren’t meant to look fantastic or wild, and they don’t. Neither do the polar bears, which also play a big role in the film. Iorek Byrnison is a down on his luck “panserbjorne,” living in shame because he’s managed to lose his armor. See, all of the polar bears in this world are warriors, and they all wear armor. Lyra meets Iorek and helps him regain his self-respect, and in return, he becomes her most ferocious defender. Their interaction is a big part of the film’s success... or failure.
When we walked onto the greenscreen stage, which looked a lot like every other greenscreen stage, three walls of towering green panels with the occasional reference X, it was just as cold inside as it was outside, so we could all see our breath. And when I say “all,” allow me to point out again that there were more of us than there were of crew members. It was a small army being herded around. There were an absurd number of people representing all sorts of print and online outlets present, and I’m sure by now, you’ve been able to read lots of good coverage, like the stuff at Collider or CHUD. New Line knows that the battle now is getting the word out, making sure that the title itself... THE GOLDEN COMPASS... becomes omnipresent in the next year, so that by the time it comes out, everyone will already have seen enough material to feel invested, fully acclimated to the world. There was nothing like a set on view. Dakota Blue Richards, the unknown who was chosen to play Lyra Belacqua, was the only actor onset. She was playing her scene with a large foam sculpture shaped basically like a polar bear, but with no detail work done to it. And, to her credit, she was acting her ass off. It was the best tearful farewell played to a vaguely polar-bear-shaped piece of foam that I’ve ever seen.
The rest of the cast is pretty impressive, which is why I think Weitz was able to cast the right girl, no matter who she is. Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig are going to become a familiar duo on theater screens this year, while this film also features a reunion between Craig and Eva Green. So far, the single most impressive thing I’ve seen from the entire production was a short scene played between Richards and Craig, who is Lord Asriel in the film, Lyra’s uncle. He’s been away for a while, leaving her to fend for herself. It’s what she’s used to. Lyra’s an orphan, and she was essentially raised by Jordan College, where her uncle is a scholar. He’s doing important work on something called Dust, which is the thing that sort of drives the plot of the film overall. It’s complicated stuff, and the nature of what it does and where it came from is some of the most provocative material in Pullman’s books. Lyra wants to be like him, and although he’s not in a lot of THE GOLDEN COMPASS, they’re casting him in the hopes that they’re going to make it to the third movie, where his role really explodes.
Nicole Kidman’s got the adult lead in the film. She is a mysterious benefactor to Lyra, but she’s got shady motives, and by the end of the film, Kidman gets to play a lot of different faces for Mrs. Coulter. I think she’s got the craziest of the daemons, a golden monkey with a disturbingly aware face. There’s something unnerving about it, even in the production art. Coulter’s connected to the larger mystery that Lord Asriel’s been pursuing, and she’s also connected to The Magisterium, which is Pullman’s metaphorical amalgam of both Church and State into one totalitarian controlling body. The big Kidman scene we saw was her first big scene at dinner with Lyra, and Kidman was in fine eccentric form. What I like about Kidman is the way she sometimes makes horribly embarrassing choices as an actor. Her baby doll performance in BEWITCHED is a nightmare, but I give her credit for making a strong choice and going for it. She really throws herself at roles in strange ways, and when it pays off, it can be riveting. I hope the scene we saw is indicative of how she’s playing Mrs. Coulter. She could be a memorable monster, which is great since the character’s got such a terrifying last name already.
We didn’t see any real footage of Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala, but we did see behind-the-scenes material of her learning to fly for her role as the queen of the witches of the lake, and I am prepared to go on the record as saying she is hot.
There’s a fair amount of magic at the conclusion of the film, it looks like, and some little flurries of action here and there earlier in the film, but I’m guessing this is not going to be a typical adventure film. The books have more on their mind, just like NARNIA did. As pro-Christian as those books are, and as much as they were a reflection of C.S. Lewis and his philosophy, Pullman’s books are almost a refutation of Lewis and his work. Pullman is a big proponent of choice and how free will is the single defining thing about us as people. It’s no accidental irony that Lyra spends much of the film following the direction of the Alethiometer, a device that looks like a big crazy compass/pocketwatch. By reading the way the device vibrates between small symbols, Lyra learns things, hints and clues about the fate of her friend Roger and the nature of Dust and the real agenda of Mrs. Coulter.
She’s able to follow what she learns from the Alethiometer and depends on it during her adventure. The question the books raise is whether or not that faith she places in the device is a good thing. Free will and the condition of your soul are the things driving these characters, not treasure or “ruling the world” or any of the conventional motivations of movie bad guys. And I’m all for that, of course. I just wonder if audiences will be able to get their heads around it. It’s like when we were watching the presentation by Dennis Gassner, the film’s production designer. He was excitedly explaining to us how the challenge of the film is creating a slightly different version of our world. “The Oxford in our film is not the Oxford everyone’s familiar with,” he said at one point. I think there’s one problem with that... not everyone knows Oxford. And even those who do might not know what it looks like... at least not well enough to know that they’ve altered this building or that one, but not the ones around it. Same thing with the Londong Gassner’s creating in the movie. It’s really beautiful production art, no question about it, and Gassner’s one of those guys who has more than proven himself, leaving in his wake a pretty fascinating roadmap across the last 20 years of film: THE HITCHER, EARTH GIRLS ARE EASY, FIELD OF DREAMS, MILLER’S CROSSING, THE GRIFTERS, BARTON FINK, BUGSY, THE HUDSUCKER PROXY, WATERWORLD, THE TRUMAN SHOW, O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU?, THE MAN WHO WASN’T THERE, ROAD TO PERDITION, BIG FISH, and JARHEAD. He works with strong visual artists, making possible some truly amazing things. I love the landscapes in his films, the spaces he creates. And as he talked about the way he works, it’s seductive. I get why Gassner is who he is. He thinks about every corner of the world you’re going to see in the film. He has an amazing art department turning out some remarkable things for Weitz to try and bring to life, and much of what we saw looked like it was shot directly out of Gassner’s production art.
I am glad to see New Line try to make this film. I think no matter what happens, there’s a lot of genuine love going into this one. The people who really click with Pullman’s books become a little evangelical about them, and if there’s anything I can say for sure after visiting the set, it is that fans are involved at every level with this film.
New Line’s sticking pretty close to their LORD OF THE RINGS marketing plan so far. If you haven’t done so, spend some time poking around their official site, which is still sort of basic. It reminds me a lot of that first LOTR site in terms of layout and design. The Alethiometer thing is interesting and does a nice job of explaining what it is. It feels like Weitz and the people supporting him are people who love the source material and they are doing their stone-cold best to honor it.
I want to think the audience is there for it. I’m just not sure they like their beliefs challenged or their faith questioned by what claims to be a fantasy adventure. You’re asking a lot of audiences, and I guess that’s to be commended. I’m glad you’re making this one, and I cross my fingers that you get the chance to actually finish what you’ve begun.
I’ll have some more set reports in the days ahead, including the second half of the London trip, a look at what I think is one of this year’s sleepers-in-waiting, and a chat with the director and producer of TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES.