Set Visit: The Golden Compass

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New Line Cinema is currently adapting Philip Pullman’s fantasy adventure tale The Golden Compass, which is the first volume in the author’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy. The movie is filming right now at Shepperton Studios in London and ComingSoon.net got a sneak peek at 10 minutes of early assembled footage when we recently visited the set.

The story centers around a 12-year-old girl named Lyra (played by newcomer Dakota Blue Richards) who is trying to find her best friend Roger. She lives in a world that is somewhat similar to ours, but in her universe a person’s soul lives on the outside of their body and takes the form of a talking animal spirit called a dæmon. As a child’s dæmon matures, it can change in shape, but as a person gets older, their dæmon settles into one form. The attachment between a person and their dæmon is incredibly forceful and a human without their dæmon is considered to be horribly disfigured and taboo. As Lyra sets out on her journey to rescue Roger, she finds herself on an unexpected mission to not only save her world, but ours as well.

The Golden Compass stars Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter, who is hopelessly enchanting but conceivably dangerous, and Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, who is a merciless voyager and intellectual with a peculiar past. The film also stars Sam Elliott as Lee Scoresby, Ian McShane as the voice of Ragnar Sturlusson, and Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala.

Although the screenplay was initially written by Tom Stoppard, the studio and Pullman felt it was not quite what they were looking for so they had the film’s director, Chris Weitz, rewrite the script. Ileen Maisel, senior VP of European Productions, said Stoppard “took the script in a direction that we did not want to make. It’s that simple. He focused on the science. He focused on the physics. And he focused on the majesterium. We always believed what Philip believed which is the story is about Lyra.”

Before we were shown clips from the film, producer Deborah Forte told us how long she’s waited for this project to be made and how excited she was that it’s really happening. “Just to give you a little context for what you’re going to see by way of background, this project for me started almost 11 years ago when I read the manuscript for “Northern Lights,” which is the name of “The Golden Compass” in the U.K. When I read the manuscript for the book, I thought to myself, ‘Who is this extraordinary writer?’ I had never read Philip’s work before. And wherever he’s going, I want to go with him. And it struck me that this material was singularly visual, emotional and cinematic. And I called him about making a film and he said, ‘Okay, I think it’s a good idea. Even though films never get made from books that are options, let’s see what happens.’ It took a very long time. It’s 10 years later now and it’s been a really interesting journey.”

The very first scene we were shown was of Lyra playfully walking across chairs to a really long table in Oxford’s Jordan College dining hall and talking to her dæmon.

In the next clip, Mrs. Coulter appears as Lyra is being lectured by a professor. “I know you don’t always understand our wish to educate you. Sometimes you do what others think best,” the scholar tells Lyra. Coulter then gracefully strolls in and sits next to her and whispers to her a secret and asks her not to tell anyone. “I’d never,” Lyra replies.

The third scene was with Lord Asriel as he sternly scolds Lyra in the garden at Jordan College. “I will not have my niece slithering around like an alley cat.” As the two are bickering, you can see Lyra’s dæmon change form, while his remains the same. He comments on it and she asks him about Dust, a particle that is rumored to fuse different worlds. “What do you know about Dust,” Asriel angrily asks. “Nothing,” she replies. “Good, keep it that way,” adds Asriel.

We also watched an extended scene featuring Iorek, a massive armored bear who Lyra helps during her quest. Iorek runs loose through an outdoor market knocking over everything in his way. Lyra sees what is happening and starts to chase him. Armed soldiers are also after the bear and they surround him with their weapons drawn as he hides in a nearby small building. Lyra, upset by what is taking place, reasons with Iorek and he races through the wall and faces the men. Lyra runs in front of him and begs the men to not shoot.

After the clips, Forte reminded us this is still a work in progress and not the finished footage and explained how it’s going to come together. “I just want to say in light of what you see here, it is very rare that a film of this scope and size and duration to have the initial concept art, which was created a very long time ago, actually be the template for almost every shot in the movie. I must say what Dennis [Gassner, production designer] and his team created with Chris [Weitz] is all here and we have not strayed very far from any of these images. So, it’s just a wonderful visual photograph for the film and the inspiration for the people who you’re going to hear from now, what they had so it set a context for them to work in.”

She also talked about the CGI element versus practical. “I think also some of those decisions were not just practical decisions. They were creative decisions. There’s a big difference I think to something like ‘Narnia’ and ‘Lord of the Rings’ and this story. Every one of the people you’re going to hear from and talk to today had a certain approach to this which is guided by Philip’s approach, which is to take something that is real and relatable and familiar. This is not a world where huge gargoyled monsters or magic – there’s no real magic in this world. It’s a real world but there’s a twist. Some sort of main twist and I think that’s the brilliance of what people here have created. It’s going to be relatable and familiar at first glance. And then you’re going to notice things, just the way you do when you read the books. Hey, this isn’t the Oxford, I know right now. What is this? But it’s Oxford. And so I think that that is a really big distinguishing characteristic that’s involved with the material we’re adapting and our approach to adapting the material. You’re going to hear from a number of other professionals and artists on the film who had the exact same challenge of how do we make it real and give it a twist? And then allow it to do what it needs to do to advance the total story and the emotional resonance.”

In addition to the short clips, we briefly saw Richards shoot an end scene where she is saying goodbye to Iorek. The scene was filmed on the H Stage at the studio which is really a huge green screen room. She is crying as she looks at a large stuffed white bear head on a stick. In between one of the takes, a makeup person puts eye drops in to make her cry easily. After that she’s back in character tearfully saying bye to her friend.

Forte talked about how happy she was to have cast Richards for the role. “I’m very proud of the fact that we have found Dakota Blue Richards who is our Lyra who you just met on the soundstage, because she is both an uncommonly good actress and personified a lot of characteristics of Lyra as a person. It’s one of those really wonderful moments when we asked New Line if they would allow us to move forward with an open casting call for this film, which is sort of weird on a very big movie to cast an unknown, and they said, ‘Yes, let’s see who you can find.’ And we did three open call sites. And the first one was Cambridge and Cambridge actually turned out the most promising candidates, even though many of these girls traveled the farthest and in retrospect it makes sense because the kids who were most passionate about the material were willing to travel any distance to try to audition for this part. And Dakota Blue Richards was among the first group.”

The Golden Compass will open in theaters on December 7, 2007.