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Feature: The Golden Compass

On set…

Article opener

We chat to producer Deborah Forte and production designer Dennis Gassner about the making of this adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novel

On a vast soundstage at Shepperton Studios, a young girl is standing amid a vast plain of green that is punctuated by rock, ice and snow. Her only companion is a stick on which rests the head of a bear; as the scene is acted out, the creature’s voice is played in, and actress Dakota Blue Richards interacts as if it were alive. When The Golden Compass will be finally released after months of editing and post-production, this sequence will look very different indeed: Lyra Belacqua will be in the frozen wastelands of the North, bidding farewell to the bear King Iorek (voiced by Nonso Anozie), a mighty creature rendered in CG.

Welcome to the world of The Golden Compass, a $150million production that New Line hopes will have the same kind of success as their Oscar-winning Lord of the Rings trilogy. Based on the first book (UK title: Northern Lights) in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the movie has a stellar cast that includes Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman, Sam Elliott and Eva Green (Casino Royale), and is directed by Chris Weitz, whose credits include American Pie and About a Boy – here diversifying into a huge and expensive Fantasy adventure that’s brimming with action, effects and imagination.

Like Tolkien’s classic, this trilogy has many fans who will likely vent their frustrations if Weitz’s film doesn’t live up to their expectations. It’s fortunate then that among them is producer Deborah Forte, today keen to stress her own desire to do justice to Pullman’s words.

“This project for me started almost 11 years ago when I read the manuscript for Northern Lights,” she says. “I thought to myself, ‘This is an extraordinary writer’. It struck me that this material was singularly visual, emotional and cinematic and I called Philip about making a film. He said, ‘OK, I think it’s a good idea, even though films never get made from books that are optioned, 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.”

Pullman’s story begins in Jordan College, Oxford, where parentless Lyra – who has been raised by the scholars – overhears a plot to assassinate her uncle Lord Asriel (Craig), a rich and powerful explorer. Lyra secretly warns him, then hides away to observe a meeting of the Cabinet Council, where Asriel reveals his findings from the frozen north: he has photographic evidence of a phenomenon known as Dust, which is drawn towards the bodies of adults, but not children. And he has an image of a city, suspended magically in the sky within the northern lights, which could prove there are worlds beyond this one.

“When Philip and I sat down to talk about the film 10 years ago we both said that our first pick for Mrs Coulter would be Nicole Kidman,” admits Forte. “Many years later, we do have Nicole Kidman, we have Daniel Craig, we have a fabulous cast who are authentic to their world and the material.”

This article first appeared in Starburst #355

Read the full interview and more from The Golden Compass in
Xposé #106

Photo © New Line Cinema
Feature © Visual Imagination 2008. Not for reproduction

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Xposé #106
Spring 2008
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