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In a parallel world, where human souls take the form of animal companions, one child stands between the end of free will and the beginning of a new age.
Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is only 12, but even she knows that doing what you're told versus doing what you feel is right can yield very different outcomes. A rebellious orphan living as a ward at Jordan College in Oxford, Lyra belongs to a world that is one of many parallel worlds - unseen, intangible dimensions where humanity evolves with subtle differences.
But Lyra is never alone in hers - she goes everywhere with her daemon, a small, ever-changing animal called Pantalaimon. In other worlds, one's soul resides inside the body, silent and unseen. In hers, a daemon is a lifelong companion.
INTO THIS WILD ABYSS: Adapting The Golden Compass
Writer/director Chris Weitz encountered the first book in Philip Pullman's widely read and award-winning trilogy while making his acclaimed film, About A Boy, for which he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (along with his brother Paul). "I had heard from friends of mine about a fantastic and life-changing British fantasy series that was 'written for children but really for adults,'" he recalls. "I was absolutely stunned by the imagination, daring and intelligence of the books. As far as ambition and philosophical depth, they left everything I had read previously in the dust."
To gain the opportunity to adapt Pullman's immersive tale for the screen, Weitz presented New Line Cinema with a manifesto describing how he saw the film, and then dedicated the ensuing three years to bringing his vision of the film to life. "It offers everything a filmmaker would be interested in - a compelling story, fascinating characters, psychological and philosophical depth, wonder and the chance to make a beautiful film," Weitz explains. "It's a fantastic story, about things that matter, like the human spirit, loyalty, kindness and free will. When you are directing a movie, you have to have utter commitment to every aspect of it, and there was nothing about this project that I didn't feel absolutely passionate about."
Like Pullman, Weitz attended an "Oxbridge" college - in his case, Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied 17th century literature and developed an affinity for John Milton, whose work resonates throughout Pullman's books. Pullman, in fact, titled his trilogy from the enticing thematic connections between Milton's mention of "His dark materials" in Paradise Lost, Book II, and "dark matter" - the very essence of the universe:
"Into this wild abyss,
the womb of nature and perhaps her grave,
Of neither sea, nor shore, nor fire,
But all these in their pregnant causes mixed
Confusedly, and which thus must ever fight,
Unless the almighty maker them ordain
His dark materials to create more worlds,
Into this wild abyss the wary fiend
Stood on the brink of hell and looked a while,
Pondering his voyage…"
For producer Deborah Forte, the journey to bring Pullman's novels to the screen had begun nearly 11 years ago when she first read The Golden Compass (called The Northern Lights in the UK) in manuscript form and immediately pursued the rights on behalf of Scholastic Media. "I thought at the time, 'This is an extraordinary writer, and wherever he's going, I want to go with him,'" Forte recalls. The Golden Compass unfolds in a world that is, "not traditional fantasy; it's not traditional science-fiction," Forte continues. "When people read these books, they are presented with an instantly engaging world that is entirely original and at the same time relatable."
Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy - comprised of The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass - became a critical success and publishing phenomenon, selling 14 million copies around the world to date. The trilogy also began collecting awards, including the prestigious Whitbread prize, which no novel for children had ever won previously.
Executive producer Ileen Maisel of New Line Cinema discovered the books and found that a number of her colleagues, including Mark Ordesky and Michael Lynne, had also taken the plunge into Lyra's world. "It's a story of a young girl's journey to self awareness and understanding the price of free will," Maisel describes, "set against extraordinary worlds of fantasy as well as reality. Philip doesn't call this a fantasy. Philip calls this a reality novel. That's the way we look at it, and that's what's so exciting about it because Lyra does things that all of us wish we had the ability and the courage to do. And that's why I think we all relate to her and believe in her."
The ideal synthesis between material and adaptor had been struck. "Chris Weitz is so smart and so thoughtful," says executive producer and New Line President of Production Toby Emmerich. "He also has great humanism and artistry paired with a real instinct for making fun, entertaining movies. We got very lucky with Chris and have every confidence that he has made a compelling, exciting film."
"Everyone was fully prepared - each department and every individual working on this movie understood the material from inception," says Forte. "They appreciated it. They had a vision for it that dovetailed with Chris's vision for the movie, and so it was off and running the moment Chris walked into this project."
Weitz, Forte and the entire filmmaking team found a powerful ally and steadfast resource in Pullman himself. "I'm adapting Philip Pullman," explains Weitz. "So, while there is some compression involved, my commitment is to carry over the spirit of his vision and this world he has created."
"I've done my part," says Pullman. "I handed it over to Chris and his team to make the film. I couldn't have people to trust my story to who were more trustworthy, and I know my story is in good hands."
Weitz met on numerous occasions with Pullman and discussed the film throughout development and production. Weitz also set sail for Svalbard, Norway - 1000 miles north of Oslo and a key location in the story - where he wrote the bulk of his adaptation.
"I believed in the film's potential when Chris first turned in his 156-page draft 2 ½ years ago," recalls executive producer Andrew Miano. "He poured so much of his own heart and soul into the material, along with a deep faith in the universe Pullman created." Adds producer Bill Carraro, "Chris Weitz adapted the book in such a wonderful manner and carried that dedication and commitment into directing. The writer in him was always helpful to everyone working to put together the movie because he could always focus on the elements that were most important, from design to stunts to acting to effects."
The production would be a vast one, with striking vistas, myriad creatures and next-generation visual effects. But for Weitz, the key factor in his adaptation would always be the truths at the heart of Pullman's story. "The magic of the piece is as much in the relationships as in the potential for spectacle," he says. "Though it's an enormously well-conceived parallel world, it speaks very truthfully about our world, about our lives as children, parents and individuals in society. And although the heroine is a child, there is nothing childish or silly about this story. It must be treated with human sympathy, in terms of the emotions of the characters, and the gulf in scale between the cosmic and the personal must be bridged as well as Pullman bridges it."
New Line Cinema Production President Toby Emmerich adds, "When I read the book, I fell in love with the relationship between Lyra and Iorek, the armored bear. Chris has beautifully realized this in the film, capturing a great performance from Dakota Blue and marrying it seamlessly with incredible computer technology. It's an extraordinary relationship that could only exist in Lyra's world, but it is still very human and very emotional."
Writer-Director Chris Weitz most recently produced the critically acclaimed film, In Good Company, along with his brother and collaborator, Paul Weitz. He previously co-directed, with his brother, the award-winning hit film About a Boy, adapting the screenplay from the Nick Hornby novel. The screenplay received an Academy Award nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, as well as similar nominations from BAFTA, Writers Guild, Chicago Film Critics and Humanitas; the film was named one of AFI's Movies of the Year and was nominated for the Golden Globe award for Best Comedy, winning Best Studio Comedy Feature at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival.
In 1999, Weitz and his brother formed Depth of Field, their Los Angeles-based production company. Their diverse slate of upcoming projects include A Stolen Life, a remake of the Bette Davis classic to be directed by Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl); the feature adaptation of Michael Moorcock's fantasy epic The Elric Saga; the comedies Army Geek and The Last Bachelor Party; and the WWI drama Silent Night.
Weitz's first directorial collaboration with Paul was on American Pie, the phenomenally successful first installment of the Pie franchise, which was followed by American Pie 2 and the final installment, American Wedding, both of which he also executive produced.
Prior to their screenwriting work on About a Boy, the brothers collaborated on several screenplays, including Antz and Madeline (adapting the popular children's book). Weitz also made his acting debut in the Sundance Film Festival hit Chuck&Buck.
Writer Philip Pullman is a graduate of Exeter College Oxford where he read English. He became a teacher at various Oxford Middle Schools before moving to Westminster College in 1986, where he spent eight years teaching.
Pullman's first children's book was Count Karlstein in 1982, followed by The Ruby in the Smoke in 1986, first in a quartet of books about a Victorian adventurer, Sally Lockhart. A successful television production of this starring Billie Piper and Julie Walters was transmitted at Christmas 2006.
Pullman's celebrated trilogy, His Dark Materials, made its debut in 1995 with The Golden Compass (Northern Lights in the UK), followed by The Subtle Knife in 1997 and The Amber Spyglass in 2000. These books won many awards - including the Whitbread Book of the Year for The Amber Spyglass, the first time the award has gone to a children's book. To date the trilogy has sold 14 million copies around the world.
He is currently writing a sequel to His Dark Materials, entitled The Book of Dust.
The Photography and Visual Effects of The Golden Compass
From the inception, the visual palette for The Golden Compass involved varying moods that changed in subtle ways throughout Lyra's journey.
An Emmy award winner and BAFTA nominee for Shackleton, director of photography Henry Braham worked with Weitz to bring into focus the vast canvasses he sought while never losing touch with the psychology of the individuals in the scene.
"The color at the beginning is rich, golden, warm tones," Braham describes. "We're in a parallel world where the night and even the moon is golden, as opposed to a silvery blue moon. That is the Oxford world."
In London, Lyra is dazzled by the dramatic change in scenery from Oxford. "She goes on this fantastic physical journey to Mrs. Coulter's London, which is sparkly and seductive," he explains. "With the practical lights, we burned them out a bit so they're kind of white and crisp. But when she escapes from Mrs. Coulter, the night-time London in our parallel world has a much greener light."
As she moves north, the landscapes become "cold, silvery, blue hues, which will be a romantic version of the north," Braham describes. "I've spent some time on the ice in the Arctic and it's actually very beautiful. There is a lot of color in the ice."
Planning for the substantial visual effects was worked intricately into the production plan, so that tests could begin even prior to physical production. "Fundamentally, the process of how we were going to do something and, more importantly, why we were going to do something, was decided a lot earlier," recalls Braham. "Some scenes required a huge load of visual effects painting, and previsualizations helped us all stay on the same page."
Weitz entrusted visual effects supervisor Michael Fink and his VFX producer Susan MacLeod with helping to realize the film's complex effects needs. Three visual effects facilities were also employed extensively on the project - Cinesite and Framestore CFC in Britain, and Rhythm & Hues in the United States. Cinesite's VFX supervisor Sue Rowe, Framestore CFC's supervisor Ben Morris, and Rhythm & Hues supervisor Bill Westenhofer, and their teams set a pace of 40 effects shots per week from the time they commenced their work until the final mix.
Gassner, Braham and Weitz worked closely with the visual effects department to create a seamless relationship between practical and live action photography and digital effects. "They gave me the freedom to move things around, and continuously make changes as the storytelling demanded," recalls Weitz. "Nothing was impossible for Mike and his team. Their flexibility and ingenuity throughout this process have been remarkable."
After the initial storyboarding phase of the film, an animatic was created to help frame each scene for the effects elements that would need to be created and composited. "This is the biggest and most complex film I've ever done," notes Fink. "It took me 30 years to figure out how to do it, and I feel like my whole career has led up to this film."
"The greatest challenge was the film's various crowd scenes, with multiple humans and multiple daemons," says Weitz. "These scenes would not have been possible with live animals because daemons don't act precisely as animal pets - they are an active part of the human they accompany."
The most immediate and ubiquitous effects elements in the film are two main characters who are not human - Lyra's daemon, Pan, who takes many forms as children's daemons do, and Iorek Byrnison, an armored polar bear.
Rhythm and Hues handled the animation of the daemons and setting the stage for their interaction with human actors. "You need to know how big it is, how much it weighs, how it moves, and you need to communicate this to the actors and find a decent surrogate, whether it's a green sock or a puppeteer pantomiming in the air," says Rhythm and Hues' Bill Westenhoffer. "Mrs. Coulter's monkey is a cool character, as opposed to Pan, who jumps around a lot. We wanted that reflected in the character so when our puppeteer does his performance it conveys to the actors how their daemon will behave."
Likewise the character Iorek Byrnison's performance was critical. "This is not a polar bear - this is a Panserbjørne, which wears armor and speaks," notes Fink. "So, as we animated each piece of the bear, whether it's running across a fjord with Lyra on his back, or embroiled in a fight, or having an intimate conversation, its muscles, its expressions, even the movement of its fur all had to be precisely unique to that character in that moment."
Throughout production, Fink and his team focused primarily on the most important mandate for these digital characters - performance. "They have to perform as well as the human actors in the movie," explains Fink. "Forget the technical stuff - the fur and armor, the scratches, the dirt under the fingernails - the most important facet of these characters was capturing emotion in their performances."
All elements were continuously cut together throughout production and post-production by veteran editor Anne V. Coates, who had previously won an Oscar for David Lean's film Lawrence of Arabia back in 1960, and continues to work today in her 80s. "I think Lawrence of Arabia is the greatest film ever made and I've always wanted to work with Anne Coates," says Weitz. "Coincidentally, she had an interest in the books. For me it's fantastic - I get to work with one of the greatest editors of all time. Anne brings a wealth of experience in storytelling. She's very quick; very aware of visual effects."
The end results bowled over even a diehard fan of the books. "It's really being done exactly how I imagined it," says cast-member Daniel Craig. "It's a testament to Chris's passion, the work of his crew, and Philip's incredible writing that is so universal, that this world could be brought to life in such a staggering, cohesive way."
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THE ART OF ADAPTATION