Chris Weitz Takes on a Golden Challenge
by Paul Fischer
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Chris Weitz has gone from American Pie to About a Boy to his latest film, the ferociously challenging The Golden Compass. Controversial and fascinating, Weitz, who quit the project at one point, talks about his experiences to Paul Fischer in London.
Paul Fischer: The Golden Compass was a huge departure for you, and you felt so passionate about it. Why did you quit at one point?
Chris Weitz: Yeah, I did. Well, I’m very passionate about it because I love the books, I read the books for pleasure, not with an eye to making a movie, in the first place, and they quickly became some of my favorite books, and Philip Pullman is kind of a literary hero to me. I think they’re some of the greatest works at the end of the last century, so that’s why I did it. Why I quit briefly was because it was obvious—it was kind of a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I went to New Zealand and I checked out Peter Jackson’s facilities there and met all of his—his prop master and his effects people and did some motion capture stuff and (laughs) I learned just enough to know how little I knew, and how for the next three years of my life I was going to be in this very unfamiliar world. And at the time I was single, and I thought, I’m just not going to have a life for three years and at the end of it I’ll be kind of spat out the other end, and god knows what will have happened by then. So I backed away, but a few months later the opportunity came again and I couldn’t turn it down.
PF: What did you learn from this…?
CW: I think the thing that surprises me most is that directors like myself who are used to directing actors walking around and sitting on their butts and talking can be very scornful about the effects, as though it were just a bunch of computers and things blowing up and giant robots and that sort of stuff. Actually there’s a tremendous amount of artistry brought to these details. The animators are like actors and the amount of attention to the aesthetic of this aspect of the filmmaking is really extraordinary and impressive.
PF: Talk about Kate Bush’s contribution.
CW: I just lucked out because she’s a friend of Philip Pullman’s and a fan of the book. I mean in many cases in this film I lucked out because people love the books. Nicole and Daniel wanted to do the movie because of Philip, not because of me. I was just along for the ride (laughs). At least I didn’t fight them off—let’s put it that way. And so…the books held a fascination for a lot of people and drew a lot of talent and are responsible for the extraordinary cast we were able to assemble.
PF: You shot an ending which you never used. Was it never intended to be used at this point?
CW: No, I intend for it to be used for the next film because I wanted to protect it. We shot the last three chapters of the book, which are really quite ambiguous in the ending and quite harsh and dark. It became clear that audiences who were not familiar with the books were confused and appalled by the end of the movie, and in order to protect the character of these last few chapters, I thought, well it can work at the beginning of a second movie, but I’m going to get a lot of pressure to kind of pretty it up for the ending of the first movie, so in a way, deciding to leave it as a cliffhanger was a way of protecting the spirit of the end of the book. And anyway, to me, and I think Pullman would say, he’s telling one story, Lyra’s story, throughout the whole thing, and it didn’t particularly matter where one movie ended or where the other one goes. It’s disappointing the fans because they want to see as much as possible. They think of it in terms of one movie per book, but having spoken to Philip about it, I don’t think he’s terribly concerned.
PF: How big a gamble is that still? In the event the film doesn’t do well, you have the most expensive DVD extra ever made.
CW: Yeah. Well, it’s not like we’re going to lose any less money if people don’t go see the movie. So yes, that’s a gamble, but the whole undertaking has been a huge gamble on the part of New Line. It’s the most expensive film they’ve ever made, because things have become so much more expensive between making Lord of the Rings and this one that I felt this was the ending that provided the best kind of financial framework in which to shoot the next two movies.
PF: You cut a film with the ending that’s in the book and you screened that and after the reaction, you then recut.
CW: Yes, you have to remember that the ideal audience for this film has to be much larger than the number of people who are familiar with the books and the audience members who hadn’t seen the books were often confused by ending. They thought—well, did Lyra go to heaven? I think that the difference between the media also accounts for it—that a novelistic ending to a novel can be quite lovely and…beautiful. And the last sentence of the first book is absolutely beautiful. But there is no last sentence per se in the movie. It’s a last image, and what you show in that image can either be very confusing and rather avant garde…a person walking off into nothingness, or you can show where she goes to which then makes it quite specific and following realized. So you know, it was a challenging decision to make but I’ll stand by it.
PF: Are you free to give the budget?
CW: Am I free? To be completely honest with you I don’t know the final budget on the film. At one point I did when it was all about getting the budget down to size, but eventually you had to consider that—you know—special effects guys are being flown in from Los Angeles to be put to work 24 hours a day—around $200 million would be a bare estimate.
PF: Setting aside the director’s cap for the moment, how much of a challenge was doing the adaptation and how tricky was the exposition?
CW: Ah, a good question, both of them. It was a big challenge. It’s a bigger challenge to adapt something you care about than something that you don’t. It’s a bigger challenge to adapt a good book than a bad book. In a good book you want to preserve as much as possible. In a bad book, you know exactly what to throw out. So as a fan as well, there are all these wonderful scenes in the book that didn’t necessarily move the plot forward in a cinematic sort of way. So deciding which of those would have to go and what kind of (revisions, excisions?) and condensations to make is very tough. And in terms of exposition, you have a world of incredible complexity with rules that are very complicated, and I hate expositional writing so the key is to try to be as elegant as possible about expressing the rules of this world. And yes, we had a prologue but we tried to make it as short as possible in terms of explaining as few things as possible for an audience that wasn’t familiar with the book.
PF: How helpful was it to be both writer and director as the two have arguments with each other? And has Pullman seen the film?
CW: Oh, gosh, that’s a mind-bending question. I suppose—there’s a give and take, because the director has to win some arguments because the writer can write some things which are not filmable, you know, a thousand Indians coming over the hill. And there are the visual effects equivalent to that. there’s the creation of the universe which one would like to start the movie with in some ways, and you’re constantly balancing the visuals one might like to have with what really is the best use of your resources, so for instance any scene with a thousand people each of them with a demon is extraordinarily costly, so you have to be very careful about when you do that sort of thing.
I wasn’t present when Philip saw the film. That would probably have been bad for my heart…he likes it very much. That’s what he’s told me…You know, he’s a very gracious guy. The reason I say that’s what he said to me is that he’s an extraordinarily gracious fellow and I’m sure he would find something nice to say to me even if he were deeply disappointed.
PF: How much time do you have committing yourself to this franchise if it all goes ahead?
CW: Well…we’ll find out pretty much whether it’s a going concern. That depends on how the first movie does, although we’re reasonably confident.
PF: Would you object to doing the next two simultaneously?
CW: I think that would be the way to do it. Yeah, absolutely. There would be no point in stopping between the two productions. You would do it as one massive .
PF: To me, Derek Jacobi and his cohorts look like officials from the inner sanctum of the Vatican. We’ve been told of attempts to water down the links to the Roman Catholic Church, but I’m not sure you’ve really succeeded.
CW: I always knew I’d kind of be stuck between a rock and a hard place, between fans worried about the books being watered down and religious people worried that the books are sort of a recruiting poster for atheism—which I don’t think that they are. Philip Pullman is an atheist but I don’t think that His Dark Materials are an aggressive attack either on the Catholic Church or on religion.
PF: What about C.S. Lewis and The Chronicals of Narnia?
CW: He doesn’t like C.S. Lewis (laughs), but he’s spoken to that. I wasn’t a big fan of Narnia because even when I was a child, I felt I was being sold something. I thought something curious was going on, that something was a bit fishy. Which is exactly why I wouldn’t want to make this movie as any kind of hidden-message film.
I did take out the use of the word “church” as the bad guy because even though in Pullman’s ultimate universe, they use the word “church” to define the magisterium, to me in the condensation of a movie and its message, it would unnecessarily offend religious people who might go and see the film. I think the film, just like the book, still has an issue with religion or god abused in order to gain political power, but to me the closest thing to that is the theocracy in Iran, not any of the church’s that exist in today’s world. That’s kind of my feeling on that.
PF: Your brother is working on Cirque Du Freak. Has he asked your advice? Are you involved in the script?
CW: He does ask me about special effects. What are they? (laughter) Yeah. I think my role on that will be to try to help him as much as I can in the sort of steep learning curve of being a non-special effects director entering into that world, and to try and give him the benefit of my occasionally painful experience learning about all this stuff. No, he’s written the script so I won’t be a co-writer. I think my best function would be as a visual effects adviser…eminence grise of special effects…I am I guess one of the 20 or so people who’ve been through this kind of insane process and learned at the feet of some really great special effects people, like Mike Fink, who’s an extraordinarily talented and experienced special effects supervisor.
PF: Do you still own the rights to the Ulrich books?
CW: Yes, we do. We still have rights to the books. I think I know enough to know how to get it made. I’m very excited about doing that because Michael’s been very patient with us and we’re gonna do it—
PF: When do you think you’ll work it into your schedule?
CW: As soon as I get back to L.A., we’re going to look for a director.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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