‘Golden Compass’ Director Chris Weitz Answers Your Questions: Part II

Judging from the sudden flood of commercials I’ve been seeing, the buzz machine really is starting to build for the film adaptation of “The Golden Compass.” To help stoke your anticipation for the flick we have director Chris Weitz answering your questions each week exclusively on the MTV Movies Blog.

Last week, in Weitz’s first “Golden Compass” Q&A, the filmmaker was exceptionally forthcoming. This week, we’re happy to say, the trend continues with Weitz weighing in on the extent of author Philip Pullman’s involvement, whether the film will be three hours long, what he makes of the Catholic League’s condemnation of the work, and more.

QUESTION #1 (from Kevin):
The relationship between daemons and people seems rather abstract, something that I’d think would be difficult to portray in a film that I’m assuming has no narration. How do you go about getting across the concept of “the great taboo” (aka people never touching other people’s daemons) and the strain one feels when his daemon is moving at a far distance?

This is a really good question because it points out the difficulties of adapting the “rules” of a book of this sort into a film. It’s easy in a novel to be completely unambiguous about the relationship between animal and daemon simply by stating it outright; whereas you get very few opportunities to do this in an elegant way in a film. Establishing the ins and outs of the relationship between people and their daemons is difficult because they are so subtle, and attempts to provide “examples” could be so clanging.

The key I think is to find good occasions for being expository when you are. In the film, for instance, Lyra explains that something is “worse than touching a person’s daemon with your bare hands,” and though the reference is quick, it’s obvious that this is a bad thing indeed. When the golden monkey attacks Pan, not only does he hurt Pan physically, but he drags Pan away from Lyra, which obviously provides a psychological component to the pain as well as establishing the deep symbiotic bond in that it hurts Lyra so much. Ironically, although I worried a lot about this issue, people tended to pick up on it instinctually, just through the visual language of the film; it’s pretty obvious, for instance, that for a child to lose his or her daemon is a terrible thing, even though in theory such a child looks no different from a “normal” child in our world. Much of it is in the playing of the actor, as well as the reactions that the character evokes in the characters around him. I found there was no need for any “horror” style makeup to convey the horror of the experience.

QUESTION #2 (from Brian):
In regards to the trailers for the film, I noticed that the early teaser and Comic-Con footage referred to Lyra’s alethiometer as an alethiometer, but that the new global trailer only called it the golden compass. Was this changed just for the trailer to make it as understandable as possible, or have all references to the alethiometer been changed to golden compass for the final film? If so, did you or the studio have a say in the name change?

The change was made only in the trailers, to make the storyline of the trailers more understandable. In the film it’s called both an “alethiometer” and a “golden compass.”

QUESTION #3 (from Juan):
How involved was Philip Pullman in the making of the film, and what does he think of it?

Philip was very involved in the making of the film, from before I became involved myself. It’s been one of the biggest treats of working on the film, not just for me but for Deborah Forte, the producer, and for Ileen Maisel, our production executive in London, to get to know him. When I was pretty sure that I was going to get the job to adapt the script and to direct the film, I e-mailed Philip to introduce myself and to sort of give him a run-down of how I saw the film. At that point, if he hadn’t agreed with what I was saying, I wouldn’t have seen any point in continuing to do the job. I was adapting his book, which also happened to be one of my favorite books, and the whole thing wouldn’t work for me unless I could turn around at the end of the thing and feel that I had done it to his satisfaction.

Thereafter, I was in touch with him all the time, usually through email but sometimes in person (for a tour of Lyra’s Oxford, for instance, to get a feel for the place and how Philip saw it). Sometimes it was to check if something I was making up fit into his general scheme of things, sometimes to ask advice on how to tell the story. Often we would pass scenes back and forth and there are a couple of scenes on the film that are basically Philip’s writing, give or take a bit of stage direction on my part. Philip came down to Shepperton to look at the production design and costumes in process, and he came to the set during shooting several times. I have to say I am extremely grateful for his support and the support he gave the actors, especially Dakota. He is a very gracious man an so his opinions were always couched in the most generous way possible. I usually try to avoid meeting my heroes because they so often end up disappointing you, but in Philip’s case it has just been an extremely pleasant relationship. I think that, besides his good nature, he recognizes how much I care about the books.

At any rate, as to the second part of the question, what does he think of the film, you would of course have to ask him as any response on my part is bound to be biased; but he seems to be happy with the film and with the way we tried to be true to the spirit of the story; and especially, I think, to the fact that the movie is really a story about Lyra first and foremost.

QUESTION #4 (from Edgar):
My question is in regards to the music in the film. How has it been working with composer Alexandre Desplat?

It’s been a real pleasure working with Alexandre, not only because he is an exceedingly charming and pleasant fellow but because he is enormously talented. I was introduced to Alexandre by Ileen Maisel from New Line, who had worked with him on “Birth.” He was very sensitive to the themes of the book, and most importantly to the fact that the film is seen very much through Lyra’s eyes. What this means is that as well as the grand orchestral stuff that accords with the big cosmic themes of the book, there was an intimate and childlike element of the story as well, a coming-of-age. I think we were of the same mind in terms of our references – that just as much as the Wagnerian weight that characterizes a lot of the fantasy scores of late, there should also be a romantic, elegant component that felt at times like Satie or Ravel. Alexandre is versed classically as well as steeped in the idiom of classic film scores, and this film offered him a really wide canvas. I think that anybody familiar with his work from “Birth” through “The Queen” and “The Painted Veil” last year will realize that he’s due for an Oscar. Here’s hoping.

QUESTION #5 (from HisDarkMaterials.org):
The potential of the upcoming film has become somewhat controversial, mainly due to the misguided notion that the books are deliberately and vehemently anti-religious and that the aim of the series was to “kill” God. Most notable, The Catholic League recently published a rather overzealous article that has been widely spread across a variety of media. How would you react to the statements made; that Philip Pullman is simply a messenger for a virulently atheist cause and is endeavoring to ensnare as many children as possible with his anti-religious message?

Hey guys, great website. Well, I agree with you. I think that the charge that Pullman wants to “kill God,” in children’s minds or anybody else’s, is wrongheaded, and has been supported with some really selective cutting and pasting. I think Pullman probably has an issue with a certain view of God – which is to say, as a subject worth killing people over. In that regard, the institution that I think most closely resembles the Magisterium is the government of Iran. I think it’s a shame that people are reacting to a movie they haven’t seen by attacking a book they haven’t understood. I also think that “His Dark Materials” is some of the finest literature written in the last fifty years, whether it be for children or adults, and that anyone who reads it with an open mind is likely to come to the conclusion that the “agenda” of the books, if there is one, is to promote and applaud loyalty, kindness, and the courage to follow one’s inner sense of justice.

QUESTION #6: (from Darren):
You have said that “I will not be involved with any ’watering down’ of books two and three” whilst Nicole Kidman has been quoted as saying “I wouldn’t be able to do this film if I thought it were at all anti-Catholic.” Without ’watering down’ the main subject matter of the remaining books, how do you propose to deal with the sensitivities of Ms. Kidman?

I think the key to your question is whether books two and three are anti-Catholic or not. Some people, for instance Bill Donahue of the Catholic League, think that they are. I do not. My feeling about how some people have approached the intellectual and theological content of “His Dark Materials” is that they’re refusing to deal with its variety and subtlety. If you look at the proto-myths behind books 2 and 3, you come up with the Gnostic idea of a demiurge – a fallen angel who sets himself up as God and rules by oppression. To use this rather obscure early Christian philosophy as a root-myth is to me not specifically anti-Catholic, any more than a film involving a Greek myth would. It sets up an alternate series of events in an alternate world.

Also important is the idea of the “felix culpa” – the notion that the fall of man was not a bad thing but a good one. This is a medieval theological concept, invoking the fall as the opportunity without which the messiah would not have come. In “His Dark Materials,” the “felix culpa” is Lyra’s falling in love with Will. Again, I don’t see how one is more anti-Catholic an idea than the other. It’s true that Pullman takes issue with dogma and with the abuse of religion for political power, but the critique about dogma applies far more widely than Catholicism or even religion; and the last time that the Catholic church directly exerted political power on a state level was during the middle ages.

In other words, I think that an accurate adaptation of “The Subtle Knife” and “The Amber Spyglass” would not be anti-Catholic. What would be anti-Catholic would be to go out of one’s way to attack people’s beliefs, which I sometimes think is what people have in mind when they want to apply their own ideas and glosses of “His Dark Materials,” which have been formed outside of the context of the books, to the films.

QUESTION #7 (from Nakono):
Mr. Weitz, what about the length? Does New Line plan to make another 3-hour per movie trilogy? How much from the book did you have to trim in order to meet your screen-time limitations?

Well, I think there’s no rule that says that fantasy trilogy movies have to be longer than a couple of hours. My aim was always to bring the film in at around two hours. I feel there’s been a sort of movie-length inflationary trend that has led to everything ending up at three hours. I think one might end up overstaying one’s welcome that way. If New Line is interested I could see doing a version of “The Golden Compass” which goes into more depth (and length); I reckon this would be of real interest to fans of the book and people who like the film. The idea was to tell a story with as much narrative momentum as possible, along with a bit of breathing and thinking room; I think eventually one ends up “cutting” or condensing as much from a novel whether one’s doing a to hour or a three hour version.