Somewhere in England a cowboy and a witch are flirting on a balloon.
"It's a flying boat," clarifies Sam Elliott, the weather-beaten character actor who plays Texas aeronaut Lee Scoresby. Indeed, the airship looks like a dinghy held aloft by multiple balloons, a visual detail not mentioned in The Golden Compass, the first book in the wildly popular His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.
"One way to go is the traditional wicker-basket balloon," director Chris Weitz says. "But the kids want more these days." He's wearing a black T-shirt, a tan sweater with rolled-up sleeves, and aqua corduroys. He ambles around the soundstage, casually observing at the production he's responsible for. The budget for the film adaptation of The Golden Compass is $180 million, and almost no element of its production has been simple. "It's really hard to make a movie," Weitz says. "It's hard enough to make a small, bad one — trying to make a big, good one is definitely a challenge to your physical and mental stamina."
Eva Green, who plays the witch Serafina Pekkala, gets ready for the scene, flexing her jaw, adjusting her dress, quietly saying her lines to herself while she makes delicate figures with her left hand. Then she and Elliott climb up a 20-foot-high platform and into the ship. The walls all around them are a punishingly bright shade of green, useful for both burning your retinas and letting digital artists superimpose CG backgrounds later.
A technician turns on a humongous fan, on loan from the farm of Henry Braham, the largest producer of industrial hemp in England, who just happens to also be the film's cinematographer. With the actors' hair artfully blowing back, the balloon-ship begins to rock and sway. Its motion is controlled by another technician, who's wielding a toy plastic spaceship mounted on top of a joystick. A Panavision camera affixed to a SuperTechno 50 crane does an elaborately choreographed dance around the balloon while Green and Elliott look into the distance, which at some point in the future will be more than the color green.
Green says, "There's a prophecy about that child, Mr. Scoresby. She'll decide the war which is to come." Then Elliott muffs a line.
"Sorry, sweetie," he says.
The shot gets set up again. Green looks down at the technology surrounding her. "I feel like I'm in a computer game," she says, cheerfully enough. If she were, it's not clear whether the game would be winnable.
Set in a world of shape-shifting animals and armored polar bears, The Golden Compass was aimed at kids, but it has also been devoured by adults. Drawing in equal measure from Grimm's fairy tales and Milton's Paradise Lost, Pullman's trilogy has become wildly popular over the past decade, selling more than 5 million copies in the US alone. The Golden Compass won an assortment of awards and was dubbed "the most ambitious work since Lord of the Rings" by New Statesman.
In the wake of the success of the Lord of the Rings and Narnia franchises, it might seem like a no-brainer to use His Dark Materials as the basis for another series of epic fantasy movies — but this franchise comes with so many extra degrees of difficulty, it seems unbelievable that it ever even got a green light.
First is the sheer scope of the book: The action shifts from Oxford to London to the frozen northern wastelands of "Norroway" to a hole ripped in the sky underneath the Aurora Borealis, a portal to other worlds. Then there is the notion of "daemons," one of Pullman's great literary inventions. Humans in The Golden Compass have an externalized soul in the form of a talking animal. Children's daemons can change forms at will, but when they reach adulthood, the daemon's flesh becomes fixed and reflects the personality of its human: A servant might have a dog, a sailor might have a dolphin, and an Arctic adventurer might have a snow leopard. The daemons stay in close proximity, which means that every single scene in the movie could potentially have CG squirrels and golden monkeys scampering around. "It's like making two different movies," producer Deborah Forte says.
All those effects are the principal reason why the movie's got that gargantuan price tag. "It really is a lot, a lot, a lot of money," Weitz concedes. "Fortunately, it's more money than I can really understand, so that's helped me not to worry about it."
But most daunting of all, perhaps, is the trilogy's antireligious theme. The book's primary villains are the Magisterium (a renamed Catholic Church) and the Authority (known to you and me as the Lord Almighty). As Pullman once baldly put it, "My books are about killing God." That's not the traditional recipe for boffo box office at Christmastime.
New Line Cinema brought in bargeloads of cash with The Lord of the Rings, but lately it has had more middling success; its big summer movies were Hairspray and Rush Hour 3. The Golden Compass is the most expensive movie the company has ever made. If it doesn't do well, it won't just be a bad year on the balance sheet — the entire division could find itself folded in with its corporate big brothers at Warner Bros. Back in 1998, the heads of New Line essentially bet the whole company on a fantasy trilogy: an audacious wager that paid off as Peter Jackson's tale of hobbits and the Ring brought in billions of dollars. Now, almost a decade later, they're betting the house again.
I had conversations with Pullman about this, and as far as he's concerned, his story is a statement against dogmatic authority of any kind."
"Religious tyranny is one form of tyranny," Pullman confirms. "It's tyranny that's the bad thing. Totalitarian ways of thought are just as bad when they're inspired by religion as by some other body of doctrine."
NVDL: Amen brother.