OF HUMANS AND DAEMONS:
The Story and Cast of The Golden Compass
The film tells the story of precocious 12 year-old Lyra Belacqua, whose curiosity and willful nature open the door to mysteries upon which the fate of her world comes to rest. An orphan, Lyra and is being raised among the mostly paternal company of the Master of Jordan College in Oxford (Jack Shepherd), where her best and most trusted friend is a kitchen boy named Roger (Ben Walker). "The Golden Compass is about free will and free choice, and Lyra is the ultimate example of that," says executive producer Mark Ordesky. "Lyra is going through her life doing her daily activities with no knowledge that the decisions she makes are going to ultimately save or doom not only her world, but all the other parallel worlds that exist. But essentially, she is still forming, and she is wild, willful and precocious."
To find the right young person to embody the critical role of Lyra, casting directors Fiona Weir and Lucy Bevan cast a wide net across the UK, ultimately seeing over 10,000 young actresses. "We had casting sessions in multiple cities," recalls producer Bill Carraro. "Literally thousands of young girls came out, really brave, wonderful personalities, and it was then honed down to a core group for the director. And when we found our Lyra, she just seemed born for the part."
Overwhelmingly, one young actress stood out - Dakota Blue Richards. "Dakota had a particular spirit that made you sit up and take notice," recalls Weitz. "I was looking at the tapes and there was this waif of a girl whose hair was unkempt, and there was something very strong and interesting about her."
"She is an extraordinary young woman," says Forte. "She's just 12 years old, and has never acted professionally before, but when she gets in front of the camera, she possesses that intelligence and feral quality, a little bit of wildness, that is perfect for Lyra. Even Philip, when we sent him the tapes, identified Dakota as the one."
Adds Pullman, "I'm delighted with the casting of Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra. As soon as I saw Dakota's screen test, I realized that the search was over. She has just the combination of qualities that make up the complicated character of this girl."
Dakota Blue Richards had read the books and seen the stage adaptation of The Golden Compass and jumped at the opportunity to play a character for whom she had a passionate affinity. Richards particularly admired Lyra's bravery and determination. "Because Lyra never had parents, she thinks no one can tell her what to do, so she never really does what she's told," explains Richards. "She does things other people would be scared of, like climbing the roofs of Jordan College, where she lives, and getting into fights with people. She likes to give the impression that she is better than everybody else because she's braver and more intelligent, and if she doesn't actually have a story to tell she'll make something up."
Lyra is accompanied every step of her life by her daemon (pronounced DEE-mon), Pantalaimon. A daemon, explains Philip Pullman, is "the person themselves. They're not separate from them. They are part of them, so much so that if your daemon was a cat and a real cat came along, the real cat would look at your daemon as a human being rather than a cat."
Throughout her journey, Lyra is constantly given strength, comfort and occasionally wary admonishments by Pan. "I think it's a very enticing concept, this notion that you have a running dialog with your soul for your entire life," muses Weitz.
But Lyra's life changes dramatically when she meets Mrs. Coulter, the beautiful and bewitching head of the Magisterium's General Oblation Board, who visits the college on business. A scholar and an explorer, Mrs. Coulter embodies everything Lyra hopes she'll someday be. "I don't think there are many people in the world who could convincingly play this character," says Weitz. "I believe that Nicole Kidman was the first person that everyone on the creative side wanted for Mrs. Coulter."
Executive producer Maisel had worked with Kidman on the film Birth and remembers that Pullman had sent a gift of signed copies of the novels to the actress and her family. "Nicole immediately understood the nature of Mrs. Coulter," Maisel notes. "She understood the power of the character; she understood the charisma of the character, and ultimately she understood the vulnerability of the character."
Adds executive producer Miano, "Nicole was the only actress that we ever talked about for the role. I believe Philip had her in mind years ago, and Chris's script went to Nicole first. We never entered into a discussion of anyone else because she was the only choice. Luckily for us, she shared our enthusiasm for this project."
The Academy Award-winning actress embraced the intricacies of Marisa Coulter, who has kept her true relationship with Lyra hidden from the child. "I've obviously played characters before that have done despicable things," Kidman relates. "Rarely do you judge the character you're playing. You have to work from within and try to find the motivations as to why she feels that what she's doing is right, and you hope that her humanity bleeds through."
"The chemistry between Mrs. Coulter and Lyra is a very specific one," says Chris Weitz. "Mrs. Coulter's allure and glamour draw her in, but there are other dimensions which Lyra will not discover until later. Nicole brings such experience, compassion, intelligence and insight to this role, and her style just meshed perfectly with Dakota's very natural, instinctual performance. Their relationship, while incredibly tricky, worked out seamlessly on camera."
Mrs. Coulter serves at the pleasure of the Magisterium, an all-encompassing government body that seeks to tighten its control on the people of Lyra's world. "Every society has felt the tension between the life-giving force of awe and wonder, and the political power that comes as soon as you have human structures," notes Philip Pullman. "As soon as you have human organizations you have people who have got the power and who wield it over other people, and you have people who are oppressed by that power, or who want to join the power themselves. You've got all these human structures, which work against the natural human impulse, which is one of wonder and delight at being alive and being part of this beautiful universe."
Seeking to create a rift in the structures of his time and place is Lord Asriel, Lyra's powerful and enigmatic uncle, played by Daniel Craig, whose performance in Casino Royale revitalized the James Bond franchise. Craig, a longtime fan of the books, leapt at the chance to portray Lord Asriel. "He's an explorer and scientist," explains Craig. "He has a mission. It's the most important thing, he thinks, in his life, and probably the most important thing in the history of the world that he lives in. He has discovered this connection between the worlds, and believes that there are millions and millions of worlds running in tandem, and that you can access these worlds if you know the way. And he is hell-bent on going out and finding out what it is, which is against the wishes of the Magisterium."
Like Mrs. Coulter, Lord Asriel's relationship with Lyra forms the kernel of who she is and who she becomes. "Lyra wants parents like every child does, and the way that Lord Asriel behaves towards her is what forms Lyra and makes her into this wonderful human being that she's becoming," Craig explains. "He is very tough with her, but he feels it's the only way to be because she's got to be as tough as he is. She has got no choice but to go out there and do it on her own. By the same token, her friendships and her connections become the most important thing in her life. And that's why people stick with them - because their bravery and their integrity are what always comes through in the end."
"Daniel has strength and fearlessness and ruthlessness - but it's a ruthlessness that has a level of emotion to it," comments executive producer Maisel. "He doesn't treat Lyra particularly well, and yet you understand that there's something else bigger that's going on and you appreciate that with him. In fact, because of how resonant the performances of Daniel and Nicole are, you understand why they're doing what they're doing, and you don't hold it against them. That's an incredible achievement."
From Lord Asriel's lips, Lyra first hears of the evocative phenomenon that he is traveling north to investigate - Dust. "She doesn't know what it is because no one has ever told her," explains Richards. "It's like the one thing they haven't tried to teach her. So, of course, she wants to find out everything she can about it. When she mentions it to Mrs. Coulter, she gets a bit scary. And Lyra doesn't understand because her uncle was speaking quite openly about it but nobody else seems to want to talk about it."
As all of the forces begin to coalesce around the north, where Lyra's adventure unfolds, Dust goes from a whispered, forbidden concept to a very real question at the core of her daring adventure. "I pictured it as having some connection with this mysterious substance called dark matter," Pullman explains. "Scientists don't quite know what it is, but because it's such an evocative phrase - dark matter - and because it fit very well with that line from Paradise Lost, I linked the two up."
Secreted off to London by Mrs. Coulter, Lyra soon finds herself on the run carrying a very sought-after artifact that was given to her by the Master of Jordan College (Jack Shepherd) before her departure - the alethiometer, a compass-like device said to tell the truth to the person who bears it. "It's a helping hand in way," explains Richards. "It shows you what to do and where to go when you're lost. But I also think it's got a mind of its own because although it answers your questions, it doesn't always tell you everything you want to know. I think it knows where to stop because it doesn't tell you more than you need to know."
"She has been gifted with this alethiometer, this golden compass, which tells her the truth, once she figures out how to read it," adds executive producer Ordesky. "So, by using it, she is looking into her own wisdom, which is of course still forming, because she's a child. Throughout the story she must read it from a place of innocence because there are truths she's not prepared to know."
Though she considers her a mentor, Lyra is horrified to learn of Mrs. Coulter's role on the General Oblation Board, which has been secretly kidnapping children from Lyra's world for use in their secret experiments at a lab in Bolvangar. "The villains of the piece believe these experiments are for the children's own good," comments Weitz. "That is about as foul a crime as one can imagine. And for Lyra, knowing that this woman she has admired is involved in the abduction of her best friend is unspeakable."
The revelation cuts her to the core.
Lyra flees and is scooped up by a band of Gyptians before the Gobblers - the General Oblation Board's henchmen - can find her. "The tribe of water gypsies have been keeping an eye on Lyra, and when she's threatened, they come to rescue her and take her north to the arctic circle," explains Jim Carter, who plays John Faa, the Gyptian king.
Though unaware of the role she is to play in the fate of her world, Lyra enlists the alliance of three people who will help her reach her task and save the children from the terrible fate the Magisterium has in store for them. One is Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green), Clan-queen of the witches of Lake Enara, who helps Lyra see the important role she must play in the coming war. "She's not a traditional witch," explains Green, who recently starred in Casino Royale and Kingdom of Heaven. "She's very maternal, very nurturing towards Lyra. It is quite a mysterious role, which I found very attractive."
She also enlists the help of an aeronaut from Texas, Lee Scoresby, played by Sam Elliott. "Sam has this extraordinary ability to sum up everything we mean by the idea of cowboy," notes Philip Pullman. "The grizzled veteran. The white moustache. The eyes that look a thousand yards. All these things. And his has this capacity to be both tough and wise, both threatening, dangerous and warm."
Her final alliance is with an estranged armored ice bear named Iorek Byrnison. "When she first sees him, she is kind of scared because he's really big, strong and wounded," describes Richards. "But she knows he's her only chance of having an armored bear as a friend." Eventually, Lyra finds in Iorek a kindred soul on whom she can unflinchingly rely. "Iorek is the only person that Lyra lets be better than she is," says Richards. "He's the only person that she truly accepts to be bigger and stronger and braver than she is. She looks up to other people and understands that they're important, but he's the one exception to her idea that she's the best."
Rounding out the cast are Ian McShane voicing the bear king Ragnar Sturlusson; Tom Courtenay as the wise Gyptian Farder Coram; Simon McBurney as the sinister Fra Pavel; Derek Jacobi as the Magisterial Emmissary; and Clare Higgins as Gyptian matriarch Ma Costa.
In the Arctic Circle, Lyra is reunited with Roger, but in ways she does not expect. She also begins to glimpse not only the truths about her own life, but about her world and the people who surround her. As her fate reveals itself, Lyra will need to muster all her strength, all her will and the help of those she trusts to find a way to change fate itself.
"Lyra travels from the relative safety of her Oxford to the edge of the world, where the aurora place and the space between all the parallel universes is thin," describes Chris Weitz. "She goes from innocence to experience and wisdom, and is put through enormous physical and emotional trials as she is swept up in this vast adventure. It's a very archetypal, mythic story about a girl who sets out to do something very personal, which is to save her best friend, Roger, and by the time she reaches her destination, saving Roger has given way to saving not only her world, but every world."
"It's a very exciting story about being a human being, and how difficult that is," adds Daniel Craig. "It's about growing up and how what happens in your childhood is the most important part of your life."
Design and Locations of The Golden Compass
To mount a production that harnessed the next evolution in filmmaking, director Weitz and the filmmakers assembled a team of artists, technicians and craftspeople to hand-craft the parallel world in which The Golden Compass unfolds.
Oscar-winning production designer Dennis Gassner worked with Weitz to conceptualize everything from Oxford colleges to the vast snowy wastes of the far north, home of the armored bears; from the sophistication of Mrs. Coulter's London to the bustle of the Northern port of Trollesund, and on to the ice palace of the King of the Bears, Ragnar Sturlusson, and Bolvangar, where Lyra finds the kidnapped children. The project would require hundreds of people to create a world with depth and scope from scratch, and bring the characters and their daemons to perfectly syncopated life utilizing a combination of practical and digital effects, as well as a working alethiometer - the golden compass of the title - and zeppelins, carriages, sky ferries, armored bears, spy flies, boats, barges and inconceivable machinery and artistry of a parallel age.
"The whole project is about translation - translation from something you would understand into something that is in a different vernacular," notes Gassner. "So, it's a new signature, looking into another world that seems familiar but is still unique. There's a term I use - called cludging - it's taking one element and combining it with another element to make something new. It's a hybrid or amalgamation, and that's what this movie is about from a design perspective. It's about amalgamating ideas and concepts and theoretical and physical environments."
Gassner and his team - headed by art directors Richard Johnson, Andrew Nicholson and Chris Lowe, set decorator Anna Pinnock, property master Barry Gibbs, and construction manager Andrew Evans - set about bringing the book's diverse world to life.
To conceptualize Jordan College, Gassner utilized exteriors from existing architecture in Oxford, Greenwich and Chatham, along with interiors built from the ground up at Shepperton Studios. "I first came to Oxford with Philip Pullman as my guide and he knows the college and the city better than anyone," recalls Gassner.
"People who have worked on and read the books and worked on the project, they've come to the project because they loved the books. The director and I have discussed the emotional fabric of this film at great length, now it's just a matter of getting that fabric made."
Some sets were fashioned practically at the stately Hedsor House, in Buckinghamshire. "We've basically used the structure of the house but changed everything to adapt it for the world that we're creating," says Gassner. Another essential practical location was London's Park Lane Hotel, the backdrop for the restaurant scene and the beauty parlor.
Shepperton Studios was transformed into a full-scale Golden Compass production facility, with huge soundstages filled with art departments, a foundry for the film's considerable brassworks, costume factories and offices, and yet others draped with green screens, flying rigs and painstakingly detailed sets showcasing interiors.
In the foundry, numerous versions of the film's enigmatic machine called the alethiometer were forged. The alethiometer is "a time piece, a magnetic piece," describes Gassner. "It's an emotional piece really. The history of time has been unique in terms of evolution, so we wanted to create a magical piece that belonged in the time family."
Pullman took Gassner to the Museum of Mechanical Pieces to show him some artifacts that formed the inspiration of the piece. "In a sense, the alethiometer is the fusion of all of that," the production designer explains. "It's the sum of all the parts. A lot of people on my team worked out the symbology and how it works and how Lyra uses it. It's become just one small piece in the puzzle. And our journey on this project is to find the right piece in every case."
The objects were first modeled on a computer, then processed through a cutting-edge rapid prototype machine, which renders out of resin a 3-D model from the computer. The model was then refined, engraved, acid-etched and painted in varying degrees of detail. "Some of them needed to be read, others needed to be dropped or just carried around in Lyra's pouch," says prop master Barry Gibbs. "The alchemical marks on the object needed to be precise, so we went to engravers to create those."
The bears' armor was likewise brought to life in the foundry after the bears themselves - and their armor - were carved into life-sized maquette sculptures that could then be scanned into the computer.
Similar maquettes were made for each daemon, from Lyra's Pan to Mrs. Coulter's golden monkey. Only dog daemons were performed by trained animals.
Designing the artifacts of a parallel world was, for Gassner and his team, "new, interesting, exciting and stimulating for all of us to look at, especially working with the young actor playing Lyra, who gets to take a journey through this world."
Ruth Myers, a two-time Oscar nominee whose credits include L.A. Confidential and Emma, worked closely with director Weitz and Gassner to create costumes that would be at once unfamiliar yet totally consistent with Lyra's world. "I talked to Chris Weitz about playing with fabrics so things weren't quite recognizable, not just home spun and hessian," she describes. "We were painting and printing and dyeing so the fabrics we used were unique. We'd talked about the Gyptians and wanting to give them some ethnicity, a sense that they came from all sorts of different places. With Mrs. Coulter, we talked about the most glamorous time she could exist, and looked at movie stars of the '30s and '40s. The costumes evolved."
As chaotic as the robes of Serafina Pekkala, the witch queen, the garment of the Magisterial Emmissary would conversely need to represent the picture of authority in Lyra's world. Even Lyra's transformation, from ruffian through her makeover by Mrs. Coulter and eventual bearing to the north, would need to precisely reflect her growing sense of self-awareness.
She found a responsive and knowledgeable collaborator in director Weitz. "Chris has a very sophisticated and intelligent visual reference," Myers notes. "He is possibly the first director I've worked with who you can throw a piece of really esoteric references and his own background of culture is so strong that he picks that up. I've loved working with him."
"Ruth's work is beautiful," says Weitz. "I felt that the costumes should feel like the best of every era brought forward and given a hybrid twist. Ruth's work was detailed to an incredible degree; everything feels lived-in and absolutely right."
Since everything would need to be created, Myers set up shop on-site in Shepperton. "I thought the only way we could do it was being part of the art department and opening up a huge workshop," she recalls.
Make-up and hair design were entrusted to Peter King, an Oscar winner for his work on New Line Cinema's Lord of the Rings, who was well equipped to find the right look for a raft of different characters in parallel universes.