Discussion of The Golden Compass, which took place at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival on March 24th 2007.
The panel: Philip Pullman, Deborah Forte and Mike Fink (Visual Effects Supervisor). Chaired by Mark Lawson.
Mark Lawson: Philip can we begin by talking about your inspiration for the books.
Philip Pullman: Landscapes of Hell in Paradise Lost by Milton was a starting point. The fire, darkness and wild landscapes. I really wanted to steal that. Also, the works of William Blake. I certainly didn’t expect that it would ever be made into a film. I expected just a few hundred readers and I am astonished at the success.
Deborah Forte: I first read the story in manuscript form. I spend a lot of my time reading manuscripts. I was looking for that special work. I thought this book would make the most beautiful film; it’s so visual and compelling. I thought wherever Philip is going I want to go with him.
My background is in publishing. The challenge was to make a film that would live up to the promise of the books. As readers, you really owned Philip’s story in your mind’s eye. I have to translate that to a communal experience and to live up to the promise that the writer has given to the readers. It’s a very big undertaking.
Only 2% of auctioned manuscripts actually get made into films. I credit New Line, it’s because of their vision that this is film is being made at all. This project has been twelve years in development. But I waited until the trilogy was completed before finding a studio and financial partners.
I had lunch with Philip when he was writing The Amber Spyglass. I asked Philip how the trilogy was going to end. He said (she looks at Philip); do you remember what you said to me?
Philip Pullman: No, I don’t recall.
Deborah Forte: You said, “Imagine how boring the world would have been if Eve had not taken a bite of the apple.”
Mark Lawson: You did have a change of scriptwriter on the film is that right?
Deborah Forte: It isn’t uncommon on big films to have several writers. Some big films if you look at the credits have seven or eight writers. We had two Tom Stoppard and Chris Weitz. When you develop a script, it cannot have all the narrative of the novel. You have to tell the story in a condensed way
Philip Pullman: I liked what Tom Stoppard wrote, but the studio didn’t.
Deborah Forte: Communication is key as all the characters belong to Philip. All the interactions and communications I’ve had with Philip have been rich and plentiful. It was always about sticking with Lyra, to focus on Lyra.
It was important for us to know what was sacrosanct. We needed to be sensitive to Philip’s concepts and themes; it’s easy to get sidetracked. Sometimes you can fall in love with a scene but know that you’re unable to execute it. It’s a push pull situation. So the script must be carefully managed to tell the story but remain true to the book and the vision.
You then have to deliver on the promise of the script. It’s not one person, there are several team captains in charge of bringing the film to the screen, Dennis Gassner the Production Designer was the first of those team captains to come on board. He toured Oxford, he went to museums and he hired a team of conceptual artists and began to put images together. It was a very exciting time. The studio has been very supportive in helping to deliver a very ambitious project.
Philip Pullman: It has been fascinating to watch the process develop. As a novelist, I knew nothing of the film world. As it turned out, they had all read the books. I was surprised to learn that this is not always the case! But they have the vision in their minds. I have been very impressed that all the production team understood the concept of the books; that they are about Lyra and her parents.
Deborah Forte: When Philip Pullman came to set, it was like having a rock star on board. Everyone was asking, “What time will Mr Pullman be on set?” Philip had a wonderful visit with the Props Master. He had a team of one hundred and twenty people working with him making the props and Philip was really interested in the forge. All of these people wanted to have their work live up to Philip’s approval and validation.
Mark Lawson: Let’s talk about the casting for this film. This is the first fantasy film with A-List stars.
Philip Pullman: Well I wouldn’t say that to Ian McKellen.
Mark Lawson: He’s a great actor, but I wouldn’t really say he was an A-List star. What was your dream casting?
Philip Pullman: My dream casting Nicole Kidman and Sir Laurence Olivier, circa 1945, but he was not available. The ambition was not to find the movie stars, but the best actor for the role. Nicole Kidman has amazing versatility she can be warm and cold, seductive and terrifying at the same time. It was essential to get Lyra right. I didn’t know how they were going to do it, but they did get it right.
Deborah Forte: We all agreed it should be a young person who would come into the role and be naive and who could grow throughout the film. New Line recognised that Lyra needed to be someone with very little acting experience, which is a big risk for studios as it is the main part.
We saw ten thousand girls in open auditions. The casting agents did a good job. The first casting session held in Cambridge was the most promising. A DVD was made of the prospective candidates, the best forty girls. Philip viewed that DVD, and 48 hours later, he said “it’s one of two girls” and Dakota Blue Richards was one of those two.
Mark Lawson: The current James Bond, Daniel Craig will be playing Lord Asriel?
Deborah Forte: He is a brilliant actor; he has a presence that makes you watch him on the screen. I saw him in Layer Cake and he was great. He had a ruthless streak in that film which Lord Asriel also has.
Mark Lawson: Yes, there is a bit of history with James Bond as Timothy Dalton played Lord Asriel in the first run of the theatre production. Timothy Dalton who of course played James Bond in Licence to Kill and The Living Daylights.
Philip Pullman: Both Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig are brilliant actors.
Deborah Forte: It must have been daunting for Dakota Blue Richards to have her first acting day with Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Daniel met Dakota on the first day of filming, which was in Exeter College gardens. I knew she was a little nervous. Just before they were about to shoot, he started smiling at her and then he began jumping up and down on the spot to make her laugh. Dakota didn’t know what to do, she looked up at him in bewilderment and then she just mimicked him. So they were both jumping up and down on the spot. It really put her at ease; it physically relaxed her.
Mark Lawson: We’ll move onto the visual effects. Mike that is particularly challenging with this film isn’t it?
Mike Fink: It’s one of the big challenges.
Deborah Forte: The visual effects are more subtle than say The Lord of the Rings because of the dæmons. Mike’s job is to make it look real. He has to do what words do in the book, but in film has to be done through pictures.
Mike Fink: There are three people responsible for the teams bringing the words to the screen. The Director of Photography, the Production Designer and myself. I’ve worked for thirty years just to make this movie. Unfortunately, it is too early to show complete footage from the film itself. I’m going to show you some footage of films I’ve worked on to give you an idea of my background. By the way, when I say “I” what I really mean is a team of one thousand people.
[Mike shows footage from Constantine].
Mike Fink: The inspiration for the vision of Hell in this movie is a nuclear blast shockwave that just goes on and on forever.
[The next clips are from X-Men and X2. Mike shows clips of Night Crawler, Mystique and Magneto].
Mike Fink: This is the scene here where Magneto (played by Ian McKellen) is imprisoned. Magneto’s cage, everything in the picture apart from the actor is completely synthesised.
Now we do have some clips from The Golden Compass. Although, they’re only about 10% finished. It’ll give you the sense of the scale. This is the visual manufacturing process for the ship. The ship is CGI, but water and camera angles came from filming a ship on the ocean. Water is too difficult and time consuming to synthesise otherwise. This is the ship arriving at Trollesund. The ship on the sea tells the tale through pictures of Lyra travelling; an exercise that takes up a lot of text to describe can be done almost instantly in moving images.
[Mike shows clips of the ship’s transition from initial CG model and through various stages in the process].
Mike Fink: We did a lot of research into the animals for the dæmons. For example, when Pan takes the form of a ferret, we studied ferrets with extra high definition film, so the camera can zoom in on the fur. This one is Pan as a mouse.
[Mike shows footage of real animals filmed for research purposes].
Mike Fink: This was then translated into CG models, the fur rendered and animation tests undertaken. We don’t want them to look like a visual effect. This process ensures that the dæmons will look organic.
[The creation and movement of Stelmaria, various other dæmons, a concept sketch of the London skyline and Mrs Coulter’s sky ferry are shown].
Mike Fink: All of our work in progress on the London scenes is based on the concept sketch by Dennis Gassner the Production Designer.
Mark Lawson: Has Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings made it easier for studios to understand this film?
Deborah Forte: Perhaps, but it is most important that the film lives up to the book’s reputation. Historically, there had been a conversation where the film does not begin with Lyra and Pan as in the book. There are much bigger set pieces in the book, which could have been a starting point and a more gradual way to get into her story. But it was felt that it was critical to explain the human/ dæmon relationship as soon as possible. If left to later in the film, it would have taken too long to explain. Exposition is death to a movie.
Philip Pullman: Yes, exposition could kill the flow of the narrative. It’s about Lyra; it begins and ends with her.
Mark Lawson: What about the film’s anti-religion theme?
Philip Pullman: Not anti-religion, but anti-oppression, anti-authoritarian. It’s opposed to the use of theocracy for political gain. The Church in Lyra’s world is very different from our own, as many things are.
Deborah Forte: I feel the story’s main concept themes are love, courage, responsibility and honour.
Mark Lawson: But the story dramatises the death of God?
Deborah Forte: Not the death of God but the death of oppressive authority.
Q: Having read the trilogy, I was very excited to hear that the film is being made. How can you convey the beauty of the books in film? How does the film compare to the theatrical performances of His Dark Materials?
Philip Pullman: Theatre works by metaphor. In theatre productions, we have to pretend more, as we do not have the facility to convey all of the visual images on stage. Actors wear animal masks for the dæmons and the audience pretends they can’t see the actors. There are more constraints in theatre, such as the theatregoer’s purse or the length of time the human back can bear. The production took place in two rather than three parts, as they needed to show all of the production in one day. Nicholas Wright made two shows each lasting three hours. I liked the production a lot, particularly the music, the music played in the Land of the Dead sends shivers down my spine when I just think about it.
It’s different to the processes involved in bringing the story to film. It’s a very different thing altogether. Whilst the constraints of production and expectations of the audience are very different, there is no better studio than New Line to produce it.
Q: How do you feel about the change of title from the original Northern Lights to The Golden Compass?
Philip Pullman: Before I settled upon His Dark Materials for the trilogy, the working title was The Golden Compasses, again taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost. It refers to a pair compasses. These same God’s Golden Compasses can also be found in William Blake’s work. The editor at the publishers in New York thought I was referring to the alethiometer and they wanted to use The Golden Compass as the title for the book in the US.
In many countries, the first book was published under the name The Golden Compass, so this is how most people across the world recognise it. In fact, that same editor was responsible for changing Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which makes sense, into Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, which does not.
Q: Are you pleased with the film so far?
Philip Pullman: I’m very pleased with everything I’ve seen. People seem to want argument and confrontation to develop, but I could not be more pleased with it. The casting is terrific, and we have definitely found the right Lyra. The story has been treated with great respect. The visual effects are brilliant, the costumes and sets are all very faithful to the story.
Q: It was reported that the Director Chris Weitz pulled out of the film? If so, how did you persuade him to come back?
Deborah Forte: We gave him a second chance. We convinced him and he realised his mistake.
Q: Would the first book be different if the two later books had not been written?
Philip Pullman: I may have liked to change some parts of the story retrospectively, particularly from the first book. But with film, you have the luxury of looking ahead and adapting the story accordingly.
Q: What is your favourite scene of the film so far?
Philip Pullman: I have two favourite scenes. The first is when Lyra first meets Iorek Byrnison. The second scene is a quiet, but beautiful scene, which takes place on Lee Scoresby’s balloon. It’s Lee and Serafina Pekkala talking while Lyra is asleep. They are flying into danger and share that time of quiet comfort and inevitability together. The mood is very accurate to the book.
Q: The Mulefa are not shown in the theatrical production. Why? Will they be shown in the film?
Philip Pullman: There are some things you can do on stage and some you can’t. It would have been difficult to have those creatures trundling along on wheels on a stage. It was the same with the witches. It’s practically impossible to have several witches on wires flying around everywhere on stage. Wires would cross over, get tangled and the whole thing would end up very messy. Also, you cannot easily convey the vast space and landscape on stage. In film, you can have vast panoramic shots of landscape.
Deborah Forte: We went to Svalbard to shoot some amazing landscapes to help bring the audience into the film. The film does have flying witches on wires, airbrushed out of course. The costumes for the witches are wonderful, really colourful and ethereal.
Q: How will Dust be portrayed in the film?
Mike Fink: With great difficulty! It’s difficult to explain, but the process of its appearance and interaction will be very carefully developed.
Q: Have you ever been asked to produce a visual effect that you couldn’t do?
Mike Fink: Only once. The director asked me if I could do it and I said I didn’t think so. I got a physicist from a German company to research if it was possible. I don’t really want to explain the visual effect because it’s complicated and I want to keep this short. I ended up giving up after a lot of time and effort. But with enough time and money now, there is nothing we cannot show. But this is not important; instead to be true to the concept of the story.
Deborah Forte: It appears that technology has caught up with Philip’s imagination. The film may have been quite disappointing had it have been made six years ago.
Q: Some of the audience will know every word of the book; other cinemagoers will not have read the story. It is difficult to cater for such different audiences?
Deborah Forte: As long as we follow the roadmap of the true story, we hope to appeal to all.
Q: You began to write these books several years ago. Do you feel like you’re stuck in a time warp as you have to re-visit the story over and over?
Philip Pullman: I’m writing my new novel, that’s my priority. Re-visiting the story has been in several formats and settings. It’s been through several incarnations: the audio books, the plays and now the film. It’s been around a bit this story. I’m very fortunate and flattered that people want to make my novels into films. I’m confident it will do well in film.
Q: In the book, there are some graphic scenes such as the dæmon separation scene. What audience are you aiming at? What film certification do you think the film will be given a ‘12A’ rating or a ‘PG’ rating?
Philip Pullman: I cannot predict what the audience is going to be. In film, audience prediction is different.
Deborah Forte: I’m not sure what rating the film will be given. We must make the best film we can out of the story.
Mark Lawson: But surely there are financial implications. You do have some power with that, if the Film Board came back with a ‘15’ rating you could re-cut the film, would you do that?
Deborah Forte: Yes, a ‘15’ rating would be damaging.
Q: Are there any bits in the book that won’t be in the film?
Philip Pullman: Yes all my beautiful prose! No, no, all of the essential elements are there. When I read the novels aloud for the audio books, it took eleven hours. So you have to cut it, but it’s not as drastic as it might seem. There is a lot of description in the novel, but it will just be done with visuals in the film.
Q: Where are you up to with the sequel The Book of Dust? Could you tell us what it’s about?
Philip Pullman: It’s about Dust. It’s not really a sequel. The main character will be Lyra of course, and she will be a bit older. But I don’t really want to say too much more than that yet. I’m well into the story, but I’ve had a lot of interruptions. It will be published in two years or so.
Q: When you began writing the first book, did you know it was going to be a trilogy?
Philip Pullman: Not precisely, but I knew it was going to be a long story of at least one thousand pages. It’s difficult to get a book of that size published unless you’re a famous author. The story divided itself naturally into three parts, so that’s how it was published. And that’s how The Lord of the Rings is divided of course.
Q: Why did you call your main character Lyra?
Philip Pullman: Because she was Lyra to me from the very beginning. I didn’t have to work on it, but with other characters, I did. For example, I had to work out Iorek Byrnison because he was from the North and he had to have a Nordic sounding name. It was the same with the witch Serafina Pekkala, which was taken from the Helsinki phone book.
Mark Lawson: Really? One persons name or what is a combination?
Philip Pullman: It was two separate people.
Q: With child actors growing up fast what stage are at in the scripts for The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass?
Deborah Forte: We have a screenwriter writing the script for the second film and outlining the plot of the third.
Q: Did you write the books with an awareness of cinema?
Philip Pullman: I think every novelist in the past one hundred years has written with an awareness of cinema. However, if you look at the works of Charles Dickens his panoramic impressions of a city are cinematic. If you read the opening to Bleak House, it’s a shooting script, with an awareness of writing with a sort of fluidity. So it hasn’t changed it very much. It’s something that’s inspired me a great deal. I’ve also stolen a great deal from Milton and from every book I’ve ever read. But I did acknowledge the other works at the end of The Amber Spyglass.
Q: Do you remember the moment when you first had the idea for the dæmons?
Philip Pullman: Yes, I was on the sixteenth draft of the first chapter. Raymond Chandler, an American detective writer once said, “When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand.” It moves the story on like nothing else. Pantalaimon is my gun. I realised I needed someone for Lyra to talk to; otherwise explanation takes time and gets in the way. So I had a man come through the door with a gun.
Mark Lawson: Thank you very much. I believe there’s going to be a book signing now. Only two books each please.
Philip Pullman: Yes and could the children be allowed to go first in the queue.
Disclaimer: Please note that whilst every effort has been made to transcribe this event accurately. Recording was not permitted at the venue. Therefore, some words/phrases are missing from this report.