Chris Weitz Interview – THE GOLDEN COMPASS

     December 7, 2007

By now most of you have heard of “The Golden Compass.” The commercials have been playing all the time, the billboards are up in all the major cities, and New Line has spent a small fortune promoting the movie in the hopes that they can turn it into another “Lord of the Rings” franchise.

If you’re not familiar with the story, ”The Golden Compass” is the first book in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy. It’s a fantasy adventure, set in an alternative world where people’s souls manifest themselves as animals, talking bears fight wars, and Gyptians and witches co-exist. At the center of the story is Lyra (played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards), a 12-year-old girl who starts out trying to rescue a friend who’s been kidnapped by a mysterious organization known as the Gobblers – and winds up on an epic quest to save not only her world, but ours as well. The Golden Compass stars Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig and Sam Elliott, and features the voices of Ian McKellen, Ian McShane and Kathy Bates. The film is written and directed by Chris Weitz (“About A Boy”).

Anyway, a few days ago I was able to interview director Chris Weitz and Sam Elliott. While I already posted the transcript with Sam, now it’s Chris’ turn.

During our roundtable interview we discussed all the challenges of bringing the film to the screen, as well as what he had to cut out and what we can expect on the extended DVD. The interview is great for both fans of the books and people curious about the difficulties in trying to make a special effects extravaganza in the big Hollywood machine.

As always, you can either read the transcript below or download the audio as an MP3 by clicking here.

“The Golden Compass” is playing in theaters everywhere.

Question: You must be bummed that Steven Colbert is off the air right now because you would’ve gotten so much free press for the bears.

Weitz: I was thinking about that. I was thinking that it was a great opportunity to have Yorick as a wag of the finger or something like that. It’s an opportunity missed, yeah.

Question: What first brought you to this and made you want to make it into films?

Weitz: I read the books in 2000. I was working in London on ‘About a Boy’ and just for pleasure really. It was quite a while before I realized that I was to make a movie out of it. I absolutely fell in love with the books. I just think that they’re greatest works of fantasy in the English language actually [laughs]. So the opportunity to turn them into a film is my dream job.

Question: It’s been an on again off again journey though, right?

Weitz: It was because there was a point at which I became really terrified by the sheer size of the logistical components and technical components of making the film. When I first got the job Peter Jackson who I hadn’t met, but is just a kind of all around good Joe said, ‘Come to New Zealand and look at our facilities and meet my co-workers and learn about visual FX.’ So I went there for four days and I saw all that stuff and it scared the crap out of me. It was like, ‘I have no idea how to do this.’ I’ve now learned enough to really frighten myself because they were deep in the world of doing motion capture for the guys who were running away from Kong and doing computer pre-vis. I had never heard of pre-vis before and then we sat down with Peter and he was looking at a piece of scenery that was going to be in the back of a green screen shot. I didn’t understand what the hell he was looking at. I went to New Line and I honest said, ‘I don’t think that I can do this.’ So I stepped down as director and stayed on as the screenwriter, and then in the process of taking what was originally about a hundred and eighty page first draft down to about a hundred and ten page shooting script I started to get a sense of the execution of these FX and these landscapes and gained some confidence in myself.

Question: How quickly did you get your legs when you actually started directing and started to feel confident that you could do it?

Weitz: Pretty quickly once we got under way because the thing is I know a bit more about visual FX, or I know as much as a director really needs to know if they have a great visual FX supervisor, and we did have that. Mike Fink is one of the kind of lynchpins of getting this film done because he has decades of experience and a great aesthetic and if you have the best people it means that nobody is ever saying, ‘Actually, you can’t look that way because the mountains are going to stop and it’s just going to be green – ‘ or ‘You can’t sit in that chair because the monkey is supposed to be there.’ Instead you’re able to say, ‘Well, can Nicole [Kidman] do this action that she’d like to do? Will we be able to compensate by having the monkey do whatever it is that the monkey is going to do?’ So it comes down to being able to hand over to the visual FX people the live footage that will allow them to render the visual FX in a way that’s kind of responsive to the live action rather than the other way around. That means editing things sometimes sooner than you would normally want to, editing scenes together so that they achieve a certain degree of concreteness before the postproduction process. Then the visual FX can be as sympathetic to what you’re shooting as possible.

Question: Now Asriel and Coulter aren’t really major roles. Why was it important to have such major stars in them?

Weitz: Well, I think that obviously it helps us a lot to have these major stars because our lead is a complete unknown, but frankly it was because we could get them. The reason that we can get them is because of the books and because of Phillip Pullman’s achievement. Daniel Craig just loved the books and wanted to be in the film. We’re not going to turn that down and Nicole Kidman is just the perfect person to play that character. But also knowing that I’m trying to set the table for the second and third films in which the characters do become more and more important and in this world the characters are very grand figures who will have a huge effect on shaping sort of cosmic history and so having big stars is not an inimical to the whole idea. I think the great thing about Nicole is that although she is a big star she never acted as though she was slumming in a fantasy movie. She really took the character very seriously and as someone who believes that what she’s doing is right even when she’s acting opposite kind of a green Nerf football representing her demon. I thought that was incredible.

Question: Sam Elliot was talking about some of his scenes that got cut and also I could’ve sworn I saw footage in the trailer that wasn’t in the film.

Weitz: Yes, you did.

Question: What were we missing?

Weitz: In terms of Sam’s stuff we’re missing a flirtation between him and Eva Green which I took the liberty of writing into the story which I think that Pullman quite liked, but it didn’t fit into the kind of hurling forward motion of the narrative. We’re missing the footage which covers the last three chapters in the first book which I’m shifting to the beginning of the second movie. The reason for that is that it’s got some very dark stuff in it. It’s got some stuff that’s quite ambiguous and that people who haven’t read the books found quite confusing and to me it was more important to sort of build a firm foundation for making films two and three and knowing that I’d have a better chance of getting away with the rather disturbing elements in the end of the first novel at the beginning of a second film as opposed to trying to kind of pretty it up for the end of the first one.

Question: Were you frustrated by the PG-13 rating you got?

Weitz: You mean did I want it to be PG instead? No, I don’t think so. There are some elements of battle in the film that had to be portrayed with a certain amount of crunch. Otherwise we wouldn’t be doing Pullman’s book a service. I think that we always knew that it was going to be PG-13 because there are always going to be people dying. There were always going to be bad guys doing bad things to children and that stuff rightly gets the MPAA concern. So that’s okay. I think that parents should always keep an eye out as to what they’re children are seeing.

Question: New Line is famous for putting out extended editions of ‘Lord of the Rings’ because they had a lot of footage. Can we expect an extended version of this when it hits DVD and about how much longer would an extended version be?

Weitz: I really hope an extended version is put out because I’d really love to do a fuller cut of the film. I would imagine – it’s interesting. I would like to make the director’s version and not the super duper long version which is long for length’s sake. So I think that it could probably end up at two and half hours, I would think. So it’s not going to be the kitchen sink, but I do think there are areas that could be explored much more fully.

Question: Would you do something special for a Blue Ray or HD version?

Weitz: Well, I’ve already done this strange version of the director’s commentary where there’s actually a camera trained on me to do the commentary. I think that’s probably scary [laughs]. So there will be a chance of seeing me picture in picture, as if anyone wants to, and at the same time there will be B-roll that you can play while you’re watching the scene so that you’re looking at the sort of behind the scenes of the scene as it’s running.

Question: The running time came out at 114 minutes and you’re talking about a two and half hour version of the DVD in an optimistic way. Was there a pressure from the studio to make the movie under two hours or was this the version that you wanted to come out with or was there a negotiation?

Weitz: There’s eventually give and take. I don’t think that they were especially intent that it come in under two hours, but I always saw it as being around two hours because I think there’s sort of inflationary tendency in movies where they’re just getting longer and longer and longer, and I’m not sure I always understand why. What the studio wanted, I think, is a movie that moved at a real narrative clip and so did I. There are always sort of debates back and forth between directors and studios as to how long a scene ought to play out and whether a given bit of information is vital to a scene or not. For instance, there’s a love story between Eva Green’s character and Tom Courtenay’s character because Serafina Pekkala is hundred’s of years old and the reason that she’s helping Lyra which she said is that she was once in love with Farder Coram. It’s this really tragic love story, but it wasn’t central to the love story and so that’s a perfect example that in an ideal world where everybody understood the books the way that I do and love them the way that I do, then that would’ve been in the theatrical release. But it was inevitable that the viewership of the film, in order for this work, has to be larger than the readership of the books.

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Question: From a writer’s point of view, your adaptation of ‘About a Boy’ was updated to the time that you were making it. How much more faithful were you to Pullman and why would’ve this have been maybe less flexible in adaptation?

Weitz: Well, let me see. ‘About a Boy’ is focused so much on the songs of Nirvana and there was no way that we were ever going to get them anyway and I think it’s one thing to sort of have a period film which is set, say, in the ’50’s or what have, but to have a period film that was set seven years earlier just didn’t make any sense in terms of ‘About a Boy’. I mean, I hope that I’ve been really faithful to Pullman. I had a similarly good experience, my brother and I did, working with Nick Hornby. He was more occupied at the time actually writing stuff at the time and I had more access to Pullman than we did to Nick, at that time. So I was able to sort of check in with him at various points to sort of check the fidelity of something that I was doing and he was also really gracious about allowing me to collaborate or improvise on things that he hadn’t come up with yet. So I think the movie tries to be very faithful to the spirit of Pullman. It’s not always faithful to the letter of Pullman, but I think it’s important that we tighten down and that the second and third books become more and more faithful to the letter of his books.

Question: Having now worked with Nicole Kidman what do you think is sort of the secret to her strength and power, not just as an actress, but as a person?

Weitz: Well, let me see. I think there’s something quite unattainable about her, I suppose. First of all, she’s very…[laughs] I’m trying to say this without being pervy. As a physical specimen she’s out of the ordinary just in terms of feeling a bit like an art deco statue as much as like a person. So she’s got these elegant long and wonderful lines and she’s made for clothes to be styled for and she also somewhere along the way picked up the knack, that sort of [Greta] Garbo-like quality, of being enigmatic. I certainly had my moments of really feeling like I was paling around with her, but then there were other moments where she goes into her mode of acting where she’s in a different place. So you’re not sort of joshing around with her in between takes. She’s doing her serious thing and it’s best to let her take her approach to things. So I suppose it is that enigmatic quality to her, and of course there’s a mini-industry that’s grown up around that, of protecting that quality and of burnishing it and all that kind of stuff. But I think without there being that element there in the first place it wouldn’t be possible. It’s weird too. I think this idea of star quality is an interesting notion. I’ve always kind of attributed it a bit to celluloid and the strange kind of chemical quality of film and how certain faces react to the light and to the camera when it’s turned upon her. Of course now it’s going digital as well, but she seems to react to pixels as well [laughs]. So I don’t know. It’s hard to put your finger on.

Question: What’s the timetable for the next two films and are they going to stick with the titles of the books?

Weitz: Yes to sticking with the titles of the books. The timetable for the next two films would be, or well I think it’d be good to start preproduction in the next few months and they should be shot at the same time because then the element of financial gamble which this first movie represented – it’s the most expensive movie that New Line has ever made and so it was their biggest risk – now becomes a better bet, lets say, if the film does well enough to merit undertaking films two and three. I don’t know what the number is, but I imagine that there’s somebody at New Line who knows precisely how it all lays out down to the last farthing. Right now time is working in our favor because there’s a love story for Lyra that develops over the second and third books and it’s appropriate that she grow a bit older, but obviously you wouldn’t want to wait – it’s interesting here. ‘Narnia’, they’ve had to wait quite a while because I think it was deeply confusing to them that C.S. Lewis changed character in midstream between the first and second books and no one knew quite how to handle that. Fortunately we have a kind of continuity there and a lot of the really difficult things to tackle have been handled like what demons look like and how to make them – whether polar bears can be done digitally and all that kind of stuff. Some of those things then are already in our pockets.

Question: Have you already worked on the script?

Weitz: Hossein Amini who wrote ‘Wings of the Dove’ and who’s actually become a really good friend in this process has already written the first draft of ‘The Subtle Knife’ because I didn’t have time to both finish this movie and get a leap on beginning ‘Subtle Knife’. So, yes. In terms of the writing that’s already underway and everybody is kind of signed up in theory for a second go around.

Question: So are you hoping for a quick end to the strike?

Weitz: No, actually. As a union man and speaking not as a DGA member, but as a WGA member, it’s important that these issues get sorted out and it might be a long and ugly experience unfortunately because you’ve got this vast unknown distribution stream which will eventually – the internet is the future and it’s silly to deny that it’s going to be a big deal and some kind of just means of compensation has to be worked out.

Question: There’s been talk of a December 8th resolution, but I’m wondering if that’s the studios or the union saying that?

Weitz: For the strike? I don’t know. I hadn’t heard that. I know that they went back to the table.

Question: They went back to the table two days ago and it seems that they haven’t made any headway.

Weitz: That’s too bad because new media, that’s where it is. That’s it.

Question: If they contend that they don’t know how profitable it’s going to be, aren’t you just asking to have a percentage of zero?

Weitz: Yeah, like, what does it matter? It’s a percentage of something one way or the other. It will be really profitable because the delivery process will be nil. I mean, even now with digital project you’re going to be able to download films by satellite link without having to produce a print. It’s going to be very profitable.

Question: When will new media just be called media?

Weitz: [laughs] When it’s old media.

Question: It’s not that new anymore, right?

Weitz: I know. I guess it’s now really. I don’t know. I’ve yet to see someone really able to download a movie at home and be able to view it in a way that you might just be able to throw in a DVD. So I guess it’s new until that, but soon enough, right?

Question: Have you gone on ‘The Golden Compass’ website and taken the quiz that assigns you a demon?

Weitz: Yes. I got a wildcat which is like seventy percent of what everybody gets [laughs]. I was disappointed not to be something exciting.

Question: When you see this through do you want to change gears and go back to something smaller in scale or do you want to keep pursuing this kind of movie?

Weitz: No. I don’t want to keep on pursuing big stuff just for the sake of it. The idea here was that literally I said to myself that I’m probably going to go insane directing my next film and so it might as well be really big because it’s really hard to direct even a small film. In some ways, to sort of direct a low budget independent has tremendous pressures on it which I didn’t have on this one and we had tremendous resources that I’ve never had before on any other film. I think it’d be nice to not worry about what a character’s demon is doing because every time I was shooting a scene I’d have to worry about what the goddamn demon was going to be up to. I knew that the next time I filmed just two human beings sitting in a room I’m going to start thinking about what that person’s Ferret is going to be up to. It’s going to be really annoying.

Question: Do you seem them in here as you’re talking to us?

Weitz: [laughs] In my mind’s eye I do. I dream them.

Question: How liberating for you though, as a director, that if you dreamed of doing something or wanted something done on this that you had the resources, time and money to make it happen?

Weitz: It’s extraordinarily liberating and at the same time you can see what a threat it can pose. I mean, limitations are what make for a lot of the best bouts of creativity. So the fact that you can do anything now with digital FX doesn’t really mean that you should. On the other hand it was nice to have a foundry. I mean, we had our own foundry and we could make brass items and anything that we wanted to. Dennis Gassner found this turn of the 20th century maker of lamps called Bentley and he made the most beautiful things, but they were in museums so we couldn’t have them. So we made them instead and that’s pretty extraordinary. Then the alethiometer was cut by a laser in a German factory and was precision made. That kind of stuff is pretty extraordinary.

Question: Is your house now filled with brass items?

Weitz: [laughs] Very good question, but no. There was a point, I remember, where my assistant said to me, ‘If you’re going to steal anything now is the time to do it because they’re going to start cataloguing stuff. So you should put in your order.’ I didn’t. I just had other things on my mind so I got nothing. I got bupkis. I think that I’m signed up for one of the existing meters. God knows where they are now though and whether I’ll get mine.

Question: So how was that premiere party?

Weitz: It was pretty ridiculously overblown. I mean that in a great way. They had taken over this whole area and each room had an individual theme, a Majestarian room and an Egyptian room. The theme didn’t always necessarily match up with what you thought it would. Like the Egyptian room was really swanky kind of like a nice hotel or something, but it was big. It was loud. There were some things that were deeply puzzling about it like now there’s this new thing where they’ll play classical music and like really sort of model looking girls will come out playing on electrified violins and stuff. So there was a bit of that which really didn’t make much sense in terms of the world. There were some kind of Cirque Du Soleil stuff going on where people were hanging from floating balloons [laughs]. So it was fairly eclectic, but the alcohol was great and is the key to the success of any party.

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