Published at: March 14, 2008, 12:28 a.m. CST by Moriarty
Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here.
Mark Johnson wasn’t what I expected. And neither was Narnia.
When I was first asked by Disney if I wanted to visit the Prague locations for PRINCE CASPIAN, the second film in their Narnia franchise, I wasn’t sure. This was August of last year. I was in the middle of a number of things. But what made my mind up was a conversation I’d had with Howard Berger on the night we wrapped PRO-LIFE. He was talking about what he wanted to do in the second NARNIA, and what he’d discussed with Andrew Adamson. And listening to him talk about it, it was obvious that Howard wanted to do something different on the second movie. That he was excited about it. I liked his work on the first one. It’s good stuff, and I don’t think anyone was surprised when they won best Make-Up at the Academy Awards. The mix of the practical and the digital is very canny, and just the chance to watch them shoot some of that... remembering how cool it sounded when Howard described it... I told Disney I’d do it.
Howard Berger and Andrew Adamson on location in Usti
The chance to meet Mark Johnson also played some part in the decision. As long as I’ve been in Los Angeles, Mark Johnson’s been a huge name as a producer. He won his Oscar for RAIN MAN the year I moved here, and before that, he’d produced a whole string of great Barry Levinson films. You never know what kind of face time you’ll have with some of the key people on a film when you go for a set visit, so I hoped I’d have a chance to at least chat with him a bit. Especially since it seems like he’s making a very different kind of film these days than he used to, and I’m always intrigued when someone sort of reinvents themselves so successfully, and with so little fuss about it.
Same with Adamson. I’ve spoken with him a few times over the years, as far back as early screenings of SHREK that Dreamworks held for the press. He’s always struck me as a very smart, very relaxed guy who seemed to have a very good idea of what he wanted.
The first time the press ever talked to Adamson was at the Pasadena campus for Dreamworks Animation, where he basically pitched us the film, then showed us sequences from it. Listening to him, it was obvious that Adamson is a great storyteller. He’s a guy who knows how to lay out a story, a sequence, a scene. I’m sure that’s what makes him effective as a director... that ability to convey his idea of what a sequence is.
I had plenty of time to think about what I wanted to see during my visit during the 8,000 hour flight from Los Angeles to Germany. I don’t know how they manage to keep the plane aloft that long, but whatever. The miracles of modern science, eh? I just know that by the time I get off a transatlantic flight, my body is almost always twisted into some crazy pretzel shape that I can’t shake off. Modern air travel for people over six feet tall is like being tortured for being a heretic during the Crusades.
Then there’s a fourteen minute connecting flight from Germany to Prague that is on a plane the size of my car. While my spine is still weeping, I’m shaken up inside this tiny plane, bounced around, and generally terrified. I’m met at the airport by a smiling guy with a sign who speaks no English at all. Except for “I’m sorry.” He’s friendly enough, though, and he lets me talk and ask questions he can’t answer as we drive into the city. It was overcast and shitty as we drove in, and I laughed when the first sign of any kind that I saw as we left the airport was, inevitably, for McDonald’s. The closer we got to the city itself, the more interesting the buildings got. I love going to a country with real history, a country that’s existed for a long time, a country with roots. Europe and Asia fascinate me. And I’d never gotten a chance to visit Prague before. That drive in was all-new for me, and I ended up snapping photos of every little thing, the cable cars and the Esso stations and the river and the angel statues and the Delvita markets and the production ID sign on the dashboard with the film’s codename printed on it: TOASTIE. And above the title, a drawing of Reepicheep, toasting a piece of bread on an open flame. Disney’s counting on Reepicheep to be a big part of this film’s appeal, and since learning Eddie Izzard’s doing his voice and seeing how they plan to use him in the film, I’m starting to think they may be right.
It was nice of my driver to indulge me, since I’m sure I was annoying. He got me to my hotel right in the middle of the city, and I got checked in for my first night. I spent the afternoon and early evening walking around, looking at the architecture of the city, had a light dinner at the hotel, then slept like the fucking dead until the next morning, doing my best to kill any possibility of jet lag. After all, “east is the beast,” as they say. I gave myself 12 hours to sleep, and I even stacked the deck a bit with a couple of Tylenol PMs. As a result, I was able to get up early enough to enjoy breakfast the next day and then meet up with Ernie Malik, the unit publicist, and my guide over the two days I was set to spend on location. It was my first time dealing with Ernie, and he quickly became one of my favorite publicists I’ve ever dealt with during a set visit. And it wasn’t because he was some cream puff who just vanished to let me do my thing, either. Far from it. Ernie had a pretty serious agenda during the visit. He was efficient at getting me in front of the different departments and shuttling me to some pretty remote spots so that I could see the various units at work. What made Ernie a real pleasure over the two days was the obvious way he loved film in general, and the experience of working on them. He’s one of those people who seems like they’ve been around movies their whole life, and he’s never allowed his exposure to the process to ruin his enjoyment of the final product. That’s a rare thing, and especially since Ernie’s an older guy who has been around and who certainly has had the opportunity to get cynical about it all. Since we spent several hours at a time driving from location to location, we had a chance to talk movies, and it turned into one of those great film geek conversations where you drop favorites on one another and compare interests. It made it easier for us to talk about PRINCE CASPIAN along the way because Ernie was able to talk to me in the shorthand that hardcore film fans share.
Our first destination that first day was Barrandov Studios, which is a must-visit for anyone working on a film in Prague. It’s one of the largest studios in Europe, built in the ‘30s, and for a while, it was cranking out movies as fast as any Hollywood dream factory. But when the Nazis took the country over, they actually expanded the facility, building new sophisticated soundstages and then using them to create propaganda films. Those giant stages the Nazis built are still standing, and still in constant use precisely because of how well-built they were.
When the Nazis were kicked out, the State took over the studios, and as a result, they were able to encourage a lot of young Czech voices. Milos Forman and Jiri Menzel and Ivan Passer and Jan Kadar all made early films at the studios with the support of the government, and the films played a major part in the international film scene, well-respected, influential. The studios have real history, and movies like AMADEUS and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and Kusturica’s UNDERGROUND and RAVENOUS and FROM HELL and THE BOURNE IDENTITY and HELLBOY and THE BROTHERS GRIMM and HOSTEL and CASINO ROYALE have all shot at the studios over the years. I’ve slowly but surely been visiting all the major studio lots all over the world, and Barrandov was definitely a major one on my list.
As we drove up, Ernie explained that the first sets we’d be visiting were some of the biggest builds of the film, the castle of Miraz and the Telmarine Village. I could see the outside of the castle set as we drove up, all scaffolding and wood panels. I love that. I love seeing the bones of a set before seeing the set. There’s that moment where you cross the line into the illusion, and I always love seeing where the line is, how elaborate the illusion can be.
In this case, it was pretty remarkable. We actually walked around the giant castle set first so that my first view was of the Telmarine Village, a pretty elaborate set that was fronted on one side by a large greenscreen, and which overlooked the Prague countryside. There was a large twisted tree that reminded me of the tree in PAN’S LABYRINTH. We were joined by Mark Johnson at this point, my first introduction to him, and right away, I was struck by how relaxed and approachable he seemed. I’ve been hustled through set visits before, and I’ve certainly had situations where I felt like an intruder, even after being invited. There was none of that with Mark. Right before I got on the plane for Prague, we got hit with that one-two punch of Antonioni and Bergman dying, so that was one of our first topics of conversation. And it didn’t feel like someone testing me, either, as so many film conversations do these days. He was obviously a fan of both filmmakers, and he seemed genuinely distraught at the loss of them. I’m not sure how much of CASPIAN takes place in the Telmarine Village, but the attention to detail on every part of the rather sprawling town square was ridiculous.
That’s what the budget of these films buys you... “ridiculous.” And by that, I mean, almost impossible to comprehend. The amount of work that goes into these films, work that never directly shows up onscreen, is staggering. One of the things I always loved about Harry’s LORD OF THE RINGS set reports was the sense that he kept getting lost in how amazing the detail of the world was. He was convinced, even standing there close-up, that Middle Earth was a real historical location, faithfully recreated, and not just a fantasy setting. That’s the same impression I got standing by the base of the twisted tree with the greenscreen extension behind it, looking back into the village. I love how set designers use angles to create the impression that something stretches on just out of sight, and no matter which way I looked, I got these great lines of sight with archways and twisting cobblestone streets and the curved fronts of buildings. There was a well in the middle of the square where I stood and, oddly, a crane arm held up one building via a series of suspended cables. But not above the others... just right there in place next to the rest. There were several things onset that they played coy about, and that’s to be expected. They are always worried about spoilers, even on a film based on such a beloved series of books.
Based on the conversations I had with everyone while I was there, the overall series is very much on their minds. They are planning to make as many of these as possible, and it seems like they’re thinking about all of them already, trying to figure out what shape they’ll take. I’m curious to see how they handle THE MAGICIAN’S NEPHEW, which might be my favorite of the series, and a prequel. It’s going to be strange no matter when they make it, just because of where it falls in continuity. Planning on THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER was in full-swing while I was in Prague, and one of the things Mark wanted to talk about was how much he felt Apted had settled into the director’s chair, and how DAWN TREADER was shaping up to be something totally different than either of the first two films.
That’s really the beauty of the NARNIA franchise, isn’t it, though? Even if you didn’t like the first film, there’s no guarantee that the others are going to be anything like that. These stories each seem to almost demand different things stylistically, and that means there’s a lot of latitude for each director to really give these films a personal signature.
Looking back across the studio grounds, I could see the exposed guts of the Telmarine sets and the distant castle, which almost looked like a full-sized build from where we were. As we got closer, though, we could see where the bluescreens (both blue and green were in use on different sets) were stretched to create extension panels to be added later. Miraz’s presence in built into the very architecture of the castle, with a heavy eagle motif in the detailing on everything. The main courtyard of the castle is the one complete environment, and standing in the middle of it, looking around in all directions, I felt like I was back in the Prague town square, surrounded by real history, real buildings. Since there were major action sequences being shot all over this set, it had to be substantial, able to handle that sort of wear and tear. Running up the stairs, pulling open doors... everything had genuine weight and heft. There was nothing flimsy or temporary about the way everything felt.
We took a walk over to the soundstages, but for the most part, they’d already finished much of the big soundstage work by the time I got there. Several of the sets had already been removed for other productions to use the stages. I saw one stage where they’d reproduced the top of the castle, where the beginning of one of the major battle sequences was set to be staged.
You may have seen the shots in the new trailer of the kids being carried by the Griffins towards the castle from above, and that leads directly into the scenes they were planning to shoot on those castle-top sets. There was also a large stable set still standing, but it was about to come down, having already been used for an important sequence earlier.
Walking through the Barrandov buildings, on some of the top floors, Mark pointed out long rows of cabinets... and by long, I mean like a football-field length hallway from one end of the main soundstage building to the other, completely lined on one side with cabinets that run from the ceiling to the floor. Like something in a Terry Gilliam film. All of them... filled with cans of film that nobody has catalogued and documented. Cans of film, I’d like to point out, that have been there since the Nazis ran the joint. Just walking along that hallway and imagining what kind of crazy-ass propaganda might exist, or even what other darker surprises might be in those cans... it made me regret killing my lead in CIGARETTE BURNS something fierce.
Upstairs, I was shown a rough assembly of about ten minutes of footage. Since then, I’ve seen a lot more, including what I’ve seen at BNAT and what Disney’s shown me. And I think it looks pretty cool. I think it looks like they’ve made a more substantial film. I like the fact that the casting really isn’t about Big Name Guest Stars, but seems to be about finding actors who can simply be those characters... like Sergio Castellitto as King Miraz or Ben Barnes as Caspian. One of the things that immediately struck me is how different Narnia itself looks this time out. There’s a much more organic, grounded feeling to the world, and the thousand years that has passed in story terms seems to have led to a more decayed, lived-in environment. Part of what bothered me about the first film is just how stage-bound it felt. Even the real locations had so much digital work done to them that they felt false to me. One of the things I love about great fantasy or SF filmmaking is the way they use parts of this world and features of our planet to suggest these fantastic landscapes. When you can just create anything you want in a computer, there’s something less impressive about it. Here, there’s a sense that they went out and they found the world they wanted. After screening the footage, I said goodbye to Mark for the afternoon.
The last stop at Barrandov that Ernie had arranged for me was in the costume department where costume designer Isis Mussenden had laid out a presentation of her designs for the film, both sketches and the actual costuming. I know there are costume geeks out there, but for me, this is one of the departments where the less I notice the work explicitly, the better I think the work is. I shouldn’t be thinking about what lovely costumes I’m looking at... I should simply accept them as part of the texture of the world, and Mussenden’s work all seems to be drawn on this film from a very classical European sensibility, historically based, and it all just seemed to be very functional, not showy. By this point, Ernie was checking his watch, though, acutely aware of the drive time we still had ahead of us.
He wasn’t kidding. First, we had to drive about an hour in one direction, to a place called Brdo, north of Dobris, where they had created the Fern Forest. Which is strange, considering it was a real forest we were going to.
It’s just that the sequences we were going to watch them shoot required more than just a forest. They required a forest where the entire floor of the forest is made up of lush green ferns. So they actually took potted ferns and buried the pots... hundreds and hundreds of them... so the ferns filed in the forest floor for the action that had to be staged there, most of it involving Reepicheep and the other mouse warriors. On the day I was there, they were shooting a scene involving the camera racing along near the ground on a wire rig, the ferns all rustling as if the mouse warriors were running through them, leading into a fight with some human-sized soldiers. As we arrived, Ben Barnes was there, in full Caspian garb, waiting to shoot his part of the scene. Also there, in full costume and make-up, and also waiting, was the one and only Warwick Davis. I love Warwick Davis. As far as I’m concerned, he’s the STAR WARS kid who had the experience that we all wanted in the ‘80s... plucked out of obscurity to play a major role in the film film of the STAR WARS trilogy. Sure, he was playing a teddy bear, and sure, we didn’t see his face in the film, but still... in 1982, any kid in America would have flipped out at the opportunity to appear onscreen with Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia, no matter how ridiculous his costume. And the fact that Davis carved an entire career out after that start (and after the commercial disaster of WILLOW) is sort of amazing, and I admire him for the way he’s done it.
Watching Warwick and Ben together, though, my first thought was that Disney needs to send these two on the road together to promote the film, because they were hilarious. Ben’s still fairly new to film, having had most of his training onstage, and much of the cast seemed protective of him, knowing how much of this film’s success depends on him. Warwick teased him mercilessly, and complained loudly about how long he’d been waiting in full costume and make-up just to shoot his scenes, but it was all obviously part of the way Warwick handles the inertia that’s part of the process, especially on a film this big. He loves to bust balls and tease, and Ben seemed more than happy to give back with the same energy. It was strange to see how much artificial dressing had been done to the location considering the lush natural beauty surrounding us on all sides, but it was about creating a specific landscape, and as we stood there chatting, I watched the crew resetting the physical effects to create the rustling of the unseen mouse warriors.
Meanwhile, the weapons master for the unit walked over to let me check out some of the WETA weaponry that had been created for the film. There was a working crossbow that had surprising heft, and I set it and fired it a few times without a bolt in it. It’s beautiful craftsmanship, and when you see how these things work practically, it’s obvious that WETA hires people who know exactly what they’re doing and don’t just design for appearance. The same thing was true of the sword that Ben carried. There was a light foam model, and then a heavier “hero” sword that they handed to me. When Warwick got up to stretch, I was able to check out the detailing on his costume, like tiny things tied around his arm or woven into his beard, or the heavy rings he wore and the scarring on the backs of his hands. Even up-close, he looked to be in his 60s, authentically aged and not just made-up.
I had time to grab a drink from craft services before Ernie and I headed back to the car. It was already after lunch, and we still had a couple of hours of drive-time ahead of us to get to the next location, which was actually on the other side of the city in the opposite direction, in a place called Usti Nad Labem.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen Usti. That giant green-grassed battlefield is Usti, and it is, to be blunt, the asshole end of nowhere. We practically drove to Germany, it felt like, and we were actually pretty close to the border when we were in Usti. Everything I’d seen so far that day had been second-unit shooting, but Usti was where the main event was going on, and Ernie assured me that it would be worth the hour and a half in the car. When we arrived, we parked at base camp, and the company was just finishing the lunch break. We had time to grab a little food, and as I was looking for a place to sit, we ran into Howard Berger himself. If you haven’t really seen Howard in photos, he looks like he’d be just as comfortable running with a motorcycle gang in the ‘70s as he would be creating latex Minotaurs. He’s a big guy, gregarious and outgoing, and once you’re friendly with Howard, he’s one of those immediately demonstrative people who make you feel welcome every time you walk into a room. In this case, he was still excited about how well the Comic-Con presentation for CASPIAN had gone, and that’s what we talked about while I ate quickly. Once I did, he offered to show me the staging area for his make-up team.
One of the reasons I first fell in love with horror films was because of the make-up involved. I came of age during the heyday of the latex revolution, when guys like Tom Savini and Rick Baker and Rob Bottin were kicking ass and taking names. Even more than the scares, it was the make-up that hooked me. It was the idea that someone could sculpt such crazy, extreme things and apply them to human beings and make you believe you saw something so insane for real. Howard and his team had a massive job to do on CASPIAN, making up hero creatures for close-ups and then costuming and making up creatures for the backgrounds as well. Their work has to mesh with the work done by the VFX team, the costuming team, and it all has to combine to create an illusion that is completely convincing on camera. The staging area was at the back of the craft service tent, a giant separate tent that was as long as a football field, where the make-up tables were set up and where the armourers also had their gear stashed. It’s weird seeing a whole rack of furry Minotaur hides hanging. The battle masks and the swords and the body armor... all of it in bins or on racks... it’s like the greatest playground a kid could ever have. It made me want to grab a sword and run outside to attack someone.
Which, oddly enough, is exactly what I found William Moseley doing a few moments later. It’s the horror movie addict in me, but every time I read or type the name “William Moseley,” my first thought is of Chop-Top, the disgusting hitchhiker in TEXAS CHAINSAW 2. That’s Bill Moseley, of course, the character actor who also made such a strong impression in THE DEVIL’S REJECTS. The William Moseley who starred in THE LION, THE WITCH, & THE WARDROBE and who appears again in CASPIAN is the actor playing the oldest of the Pevensie kids, Peter. In the first film, I felt like the two younger kids were given the good roles and plenty to do, sort of stranding the older kids on an island of bland. It wasn’t their fault... they just didn’t have much to do. This time out, it looks like Moseley plays a major part in the fortunes of Narnia, and he’s taking his role as an action hero very seriously. When we found him, off to the side of base camp, he was in the middle of boxing training for the day, and I can tell you that his trainer wasn’t taking it easy on him at all. Moseley looked like he was enjoying the hell out of himself, and we let him continue with the promise we’d talk more when he was done.
We walked out towards the main location, and like I said... if you’ve seen the trailers, you’ve seen Usti. They used a field they found there to build the final battleground in the film and Aslan’s How, a major location in the story. I used to think that unnatural green color from the battlefield at the end of THE PHANTOM MENACE was something Lucas created in a computer, but sure enough, the field in Usti was so vivid it looked fake. We had to walk the long way around the entire field, since there were posted signs all along the edge warning, “Zakaz vjezdu a vstupu na laouku!” I think that’s Czech for “Step on the grass and screw up continuity, and we will lose your plane ticket home on purpose.” Heeding that warning, I followed Ernie all the way around the outer edge of the field, avoiding ATVs carrying film crew and giant mud puddles. Finally, we reached a place where we could walk out onto the field. We were at the furthest point from Aslan’s How, the main set, and from where we were, it just looked like a sheer rock cliff face, not like a set at all. We could see the ruins in front of it as well. But all the attention of the crew was on the end of the field where we were, and where the forces of King Miraz were assembled for the final assault.
I walked past monitors on carts and all sorts of equipment and dolly track that was waiting, just in case, but I’ve seen that sort of thing before. I was much more interested in the full-sized trebuchet catapults that were set up. These things are crazy to watch in action, giant wooden slings that use counter-balance to fling their ammunition the full length of the field.
There were also giant crossbows, designed with that same eagle head I saw at Miraz’s castle, that stood taller than me. As I got closer to the trebuchet, I realized that although it was a full working model, there were blue-screen elements on the part of the device where the ammo would go. Meanwhile, a surprisingly small army had been assembled in one part of the field. I was told that digital trickery would fill in the rest of the battlefield, using that same group multiplied and repositioned over and over. There was one line of horsemen out in front that represented the various Princes who were aligned with Miraz, all of them ready for war. The scenes being filmed were the last few moments before fighting broke out, when Miraz is still trying to convince Caspian and the Pensevies to back down. Needless to say... that doesn’t really work out.
Ernie waited for a break in the action, and then introduced me to Andrew Adamson. I always feel like Andrew should be fronting a prog rock band in the ‘70s when I talk to him. There’s a playful intelligence to him, and his long hair and slender build suggests he might well be at home in Rivendell. We talked a bit about his approach to this movie, and since I’d already heard what Howard Berger had to say, it gave me a way in, something I could offer to see how Andrew would respond. As soon as I brought up the idea that this is a more adult Narnia, Andrew dove in, explaining how much he loved the notion of a land gone to seed while it’s only been a few years in our world. The more he talked, the more it seemed like this is also a way for him to really test his own limits as a live-action director. I think on the first film, his primary concern was just getting it all finished. This time, though, it seems like he’s got room to really make the film he wants to make, and despite the size of the sequence he was shooting and the complexity of it, he seemed relaxed when we spoke, rolling with the unpredictable August sun overhead and the language barriers, at ease with his second trip to Narnia. He showed me a pre-viz of a key moment in the final battle (a pretty huge spoiler I won’t reveal, since it gave Ernie the publicist heart failure when he realized what Andrew was playing) and talked to me about how he approached this entire picture with a very different sensibility than the first one. He’s not kidding when he says that there’s more action this time out. CASPIAN seems to race from one big action set-piece to the next, something that should thrill the kids who loved the first film, who are all a few years older now. It may also help with audiences who are hungry for a big action-fantasy this summer, because this plays fairly rough.
It was already late in the afternoon when we got there, so they promised I’d be back the next day, and I walked around the entire outside of the field again with Ernie, back to his car, and then back to Prague for the evening. Mark Johnson called and asked if I wanted to go to dinner. When the Oscar-winning producer of the film you’re visiting asks that question, the correct answer is “Where are we eating?”, no matter how tired you are, so a few hours later, I found myself in a car on the way to a seafood place for what I was told would be an incredible meal.
Take it from a fat man: they were right.
I wouldn’t necessarily connect “great seafood” and “Prague” in my mind, but sure enough, the food was delicious and the conversation was great. I never got the feeling I was being worked, either, the way I am on some sets. Mark strikes me as a guy who still really enjoys this process, and we talked about what a huge difference the NARNIA series is from the small personal films he made with Barry Levinson back in the day. What came across clearly was how he looks to challenge himself, and how he still thinks of filmmaking as the ultimate example of getting to run away with the circus for a living. He’s been doing this for a long time now, starting with some work as a production assistant for William “Hurricane Billy” Friedkin on SORCERER and CRUISING. I love good Hurricane Billy stories, so I asked him to share some, and he told me one that was so good I have to pass it along.
Keep in mind that, when he was making SORCERER, Friedkin was one of the hottest filmmakers alive. He was coming off of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and THE EXORCIST, and they offered him whatever he wanted to make his next film. A notorious control freak, Friedkin got a contractual promise that absolutely no one would see any dailies from the film except for him and his editor. While he was shooting in South America, though, he grew increasingly paranoid that Sid Sheinberg (the head of Universal at the time) was watching the dailies against his wishes. There was no way for Friedkin to be sure, so he decided to test his theory. There was a very strange little South American guy who had been hanging around the set, and they hired him to appear at the head of every roll of dailies. They would tell him what to say in English, and he would repeat every word into the camera, so that the dailies would start with three minutes of “FUCK YOU, SID SHEINBERG! YOU EAT THE SHIT! GO FUCK YOURSELF!” The most virulent, vile things they could think up, they got this guy to say. And they never heard a word of protest from Universal, so either they really weren’t watching, or they knew better than to complain and Sheinberg just had to sit there and take it.
Either way, that’s an awesome use of studio time and money.
After dinner, I thanked Mark and his assistant (the much-younger Mark, also a really sharp and interesting guy), and I went back to the hotel to crash out as the jetlag finally got hold of me.
The next morning, I was up early and on the road back out to Usti to watch as much filming as I could. I was sort of amazed when we got there to realize that they had a mobile wireless transmitter that allowed me to get perfect Internet service sitting in the middle of this remote field. In fact, I updated the site that day, posting a few stories while sitting in video village. Filming had shifted to the other end of the field for the day, and that meant we were watching William Moseley in full battle garb as well as Skandar Keynes, who plays younger brother Edmund. Skandar gave my favorite performance in the first film, and talking to him and William together, there’s a lot of natural chemistry between them. They would pick on each other and tease constantly the way real brothers would, but when it came time to shoot a scene, they were right there together, working it out with Andrew.
One of the things I really liked about Andrew’s approach to shooting was that he had giant speakers rigged up around the location, all of them tied into his iPod. So he could play anything he wanted to try and stir the cast and crew up during takes. By the time I was there, it seems that they’d gone through everyone’s iPod a few times, and they were desperate for new tunes. There was a minor skirmish over what to play, and Andrew ended up turning to me. “Do you have an iPod?” I offered mine up, and he searched the artists list. Seeing something he liked, he hooked mine up to the speakers and then cranked up some Bowie. “Heroes,” appropriately enough, as Will and Skandar took their places at the edge of the ruins in front of Aslan’s How. This is where the Pensevies choose to stand and fight against Miraz and his army, and watching them shoot the scene, William really did seem like he’s come into his own as an action hero. Between takes, it seemed to me like coming to the end of the shoot was a bittersweet thing for them, since they’re not in the next films. I think they’re excited about the work they’re doing this time, and I think they’re also sad they won’t be back.
In addition to William and Skandar, there were an assortment of Narnia creatures gathered around the base of the cliff as well, and between takes, I walked around to look at the make-up and the costumes. I loved the Minotaurs and the Centaurs this time. In order to give them right height and the right sort of walk before the digital, they were wearing these things called PowerRisers:
There’s something really strange about seeing a dude with a Minotaur head and a blue-screen stocking bottom wearing those and bouncing around with a sword in his hand. It makes you realize just how crazy this business really is, and it also makes me feel lucky to live in an age where filmmaking and technology are in such rapid flux. I love watching this sort of thing live, knowing that the filmmakers are having to mix low-tech and high-tech trickery to get the effect they want.
After spending the morning watching William and Skandar stare down the army of Miraz (which wasn’t actually there), we broke for lunch, and I was invited to watch dailies while we ate. One of the things that surprised me was that part of the dailies we saw were from the miniature unit. Yep... that’s right. There are some major miniatures that were created for the film, and watching the tests, it looks like you’ll never realize what you’re looking at in the final film. You’ll just buy these swooping shots of the castle as real, or you’ll assume you’re looking at great CGI. Audiences today don’t even consider the possibility that they might be looking at a model of something, but it happens more often than they think. Overall, everything I saw was intriguing, with a very sharp look and a really dirty, gritty quality to it. Narnia feels much more like a real place this time. Lots of the footage was designed with post-production CGI in mind, so it was hard to tell what the final shots would look like.
After lunch, we walked back out to the field to watch them shoot the moment where Miraz orders his army to open fire on William and Skandar. The ground had been rigged to fire off these huge explosions of dirt from the impact of the rocks thrown by the trebuchet, and I have to give the boys credit... they never flinched, no matter how close the blasts were. After a few hours of that, Andrew had them start the charge, where William orders all of the creatures behind them into battle, and that was how they spent the rest of the afternoon.
More than anything, the sense I got from the entire production was one of momentum. On giant-budget films, I’m never surprised when I walk onto a set and see a bunch of people standing around bored, waiting for this technical glitch to get worked out or that motion-control camera to reset. It’s deadening work at times. The directors of films like that almost look like war veterans when you see them towards the end of a shoot, hollow-eyed and exhausted. I remember when I was talking to Gore Verbinski near the end of AT WORLD’S END, and I thought he was going to fall asleep in the middle of his own sentence.
There’s none of that in what I saw of NARNIA. These filmmakers were already deep into the prep for the next film, already cutting sequences as they shot, always moving towards the next set-up. It seems to me that they are in the NARNIA business in a big way, and that they have a very strong idea of how they want these films to look and feel. That’s got to be encouraging for fans of the novels.
Me, I’m just happy to see that they didn’t decide to imitate the first film ad infinitum, but that they are instead dedicated to pushing themselves and trying to make each film special and different. There’s not much more you can ask of them, and when PRINCE CASPIAN hits theaters in May, I’ll be curious to see if they pull it off.
In the meantime, you can see quite of bit of what I’ve described to you in this new behind-the-scenes featurette from Disney, including the trebuchets, the fern forest, the courtyard of Miraz’s castle, and more.
Wanna know the strangest thing of all about this entire trip and the publication of this article?
The first day of my set visit in Prague, my wife told me on the phone that she was pregnant. And this week, as I’m publishing the article, we had that baby, something which I didn’t even connect until I got a congratulatory call from Mark Johnson last week. He was amazed that enough time had passed for me to already have the baby. Looks like their gestation on this film is almost over as well, and you’ll hear more about that in Quint’s report on his visit to the editing room in London, which should be posted very soon.