A Director Confronts Some Dark Material

Chris Weitz likes to say that he is both the first and the third director of "The Golden Compass," New Line's $150 million film adaptation of the first volume in Philip Pullman's best-selling fantasy trilogy "His Dark Materials." From the start, Weitz was an unlikely choice. "The Golden Compass," which was published in 1995, tells the story of 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua, who lives in an alternate world much like our own. But in Lyra's world, each person has a "daemon": a speaking, shape-shifting animal that settles into a permanent form as its human companion matures; it is Pullman's elegant metaphor for the soul. In the first book, Lyra embarks on a far-flung adventure to uncover why English children are disappearing and what a mysterious force called "Dust" may have to do with it. A film version of "The Golden Compass," in other words, would be a visual-effects bonanza. Weitz was best-known for codirecting the comedies "American Pie" and "About a Boy" with his brother, Paul. So far in his career, he told a NEWSWEEK reporter visiting the film's set outside London last November, he had attempted only one visual-effects shot, for the Chris Rock movie "Down to Earth." "And we messed it up. So to put it mildly, the learning curve has been steep."

At one point, Weitz decided it was too steep. In 2004, Peter Jackson, who directed New Line's previous fantasy trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings," to 17 Academy Awards and more than $3 billion at the box office, invited Weitz down to New Zealand for a one-week crash course: Blockbusters 101. Jackson was directing "King Kong" at the time, and Weitz soaked up everything he could. Jackson also offered advice for dealing with New Line since his own relationship with the studio had soured. It was a thrilling week for Weitz. It also scared the daylights out of him. "Peter's operation was so impressive that, well, I realized the distance between me and Peter Jackson," he says. "At that moment, I realized the sheer scope of the endeavor. And I thought, 'You know what? I can't do this'." But Weitz hung in for a while, until he did an interview with BridgetotheStars.net, a Web site for Pullman fans, and allowed that a movie version of the trilogy would inevitably have to soften some of Pullman's broadsides against organized religion. (The villains in the books serve an all-powerful theocracy called "the Magisterium," which some people believe, incorrectly, is a stand-in for the Roman Catholic Church; the trilogy's title is an allusion to Milton's "Paradise Lost.") Instantly, a vocal slice of the fan universe branded him a sellout.

Weitz, who won the chance to write and direct "The Golden Compass" by sending New Line an unsolicited 40-page plea outlining his vision for the movie, was heartbroken. An opportunity of a lifetime had curdled into something else. He began to glimpse a future in which he would be attacked on all sides—by the book's loyalists and its enemies, by a cautious Hollywood studio, by an audience expecting nothing less than another "Lord of the Rings." He saw an outcome in which he'd be the guy who messed up "His Dark Materials." So he did the only sane thing to do. He quit.

"The Golden Compass" arrives in theaters on Dec. 7, and much of the hysteria that Weitz, now 38, anticipated when he walked away from the movie three years ago has come to pass. The film stands accused of being both anti-Catholic and not anti-Catholic enough—though no one making either claim has actually seen it. The loud, bristling organization known as the Catholic League is urging families to boycott a film in which the word "Catholic" is never uttered. Although the series has sold 10 million copies worldwide, and the third volume, "The Amber Spyglass," won Britain's Whitbread Prize for fiction in 2001, New Line is reasonably concerned that most filmgoers in the United States might never have heard of it. So, while New Line people play down the connection between "The Golden Compass" and "The Lord of the Rings" in conversation, they're quietly planting seeds all over the place, hoping for another bumper crop. In the first major trailer for "The Golden Compass," which stars Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, the iconic ring from "The Lord of the Rings" morphs into the new film's mystical, truth-telling compass. The film features two actors, Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee, from Jackson's trilogy—casting decisions engineered by the studio, not the filmmaker. The question remains whether Weitz's beguiling film is potent enough to escape from the shadow that New Line, with good intentions, has helped create. It's fortunate that the story of "The Golden Compass" is so singular, and that Weitz's film is an honest, admirable adaptation.

It hasn't been scrubbed of religion, either. While references to "the church" are gone from the film, no one over four feet tall could mistake the Magisterium for anything but an oppressive theocracy. Accusations of "heresy" abound. Buildings often resemble cathedrals. At one point, Kidman's character, the diabolical Mrs. Coulter, alludes to the story of original sin to justify a ghoulish purification rite that separates children from their daemons. But the film is not, Weitz says, an attack on people of faith; like the books, it tells a story "that attempts to rescue the religious spirit from its perversion into political power." In any case, says Deborah Forte, the film's producer, "when you talk to young people who are passionate fans of the books, they only talk about the golden monkey, and the armored bear, and Lyra, and daemons." Of course, that hasn't stopped Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, from accusing the film of being "bait" to lure children to the novels, where they will be ensnared by Pullman's "pernicious atheist agenda."

In person, Pullman is tall and inviting, with ruddy features and thatchy gray hair, and when he gets going about the attacks on the film, it's a reminder of how enjoyable it is to observe a polite English gentleman properly outraged. Pullman does, in fact, describe himself as an atheist, but his vocation is storytelling, and his only agenda, he said during an interview with NEWSWEEK, is "to get you to turn the page." "To regard it as this Donohue man has said—that I'm a militant atheist, and my intention is to convert people—how the hell does he know that? Why don't we trust readers? Why don't we trust filmgoers?" Pullman sighed. "Oh, it causes me to shake my head with sorrow that such nitwits could be loose in the world." (Donohue tells NEWSWEEK that he has "no respect for Pullman because of one word: honesty. He is a dishonest man. He didn't go after the Politburo, he went after the Catholic Church.")

Pullman was instrumental in luring Weitz back to the movie. After a second director came and went, he sent Weitz a handwritten letter, urging him to reconsider. An apparatus had sprung up around the film since Weitz had left: blueprints for a lavish production design by Oscar winner Dennis Gassner ("The Truman Show"), a coherent visual-effects strategy and a theatrical release date. "It suddenly seemed possible," Weitz says. His fears didn't vanish, but his years away from the film, during which he met his future wife, helped put matters in perspective. The couple had their first child, a boy, in June. "I find it easier to not worry so much. That's got to be age. Mellowing. A lot of therapy."

Much has been made of Weitz's inexperience with big-budget filmmaking, but he did bring one crucial talent: a gift for directing child actors. Dakota Blue Richards, the newcomer who plays the cunning, puckish Lyra, responded to an open casting call after seeing the National Theater's stage production of "The Golden Compass." She hadn't acted before, and never really wanted to. She just wanted to be Lyra. "I like to think I'm quite brave," Richards said during an interview on the set, the first of her life. "I stand up for myself. I don't let other people tell me what to do." Then she glanced at her mother, sitting nearby. "Unless it's my mum."

"Usually it's a gut-wrenching decision," Weitz says of casting Richards. "You realize how much rests on the shoulders of this person you're selecting. But I really didn't have any doubts. Dakota has a feral quality, something not quite tamed. She's completely unformulaic." In fact, she feels plucked straight from the novel. In the film's opening sequence, Lyra is rough-housing with a bunch of boys, and she's the imperious leader of the pack. But when the day's play ends, her warrior fa?ade melts into an impish smile. "OK, see you later, Billy," she says to her mate, then scampers home.

Pullman's fantasia is unusual for the genre: girls rule the roost. The author says he always envisioned Kidman playing Mrs. Coulter and wrote her a note saying so. "It's not so flattering when you think about it," Kidman says, laughing. Coulter is elegant, persuasive and chilling, which is how a lot of people find Kidman's acting. In her previous life as Mrs. Cruise, Kidman was often required to handle sensitive questions about his connection to Scientology. So it's not a surprise that she's well prepared for the controversy surrounding the film and doesn't even wait for a reporter to bring it up. "The story is more about authority now, rather than religion, which was important to me. I've been raised as a strong Catholic, and my grandmother would not be happy, or my dad for that matter, if we'd followed that part of the book." Kidman will deliver some version of this answer in just about every press interview she gives over the next year. NEWSWEEK's visit coincided with her final day of work on the film, and when her last scene was shot, Kidman handed out gifts to the crew and left—and everyone seemed to relax. People tend to worry when movie stars are around, whether they need to or not.

Studios, on the other hand, tend to worry when movie stars aren't around, which may explain the late decision to insert McKellen as the voice of Iorek Byrnison, the armored bear. "I lost that one," Weitz says, though, he adds, "if you're going to have anyone recast in your movie, you're happy it's Ian McKellen." Originally, Weitz gave the part to a British stage actor named Nonso Anozie. "I never thought the guy sounded like Iorek," says Toby Emmerich, New Line's president of production. "You want to support your director, so we said OK. But I just never stopped thinking that this guy didn't sound right." McKellen took over this past spring. "That's probably a function of 'Lord of the Rings' being such a watershed experience for everybody here," Emmerich says. "It's just in our DNA." The trouble is, Iorek is one of Pullman's most beloved creations—and on screen, when he opens his mouth, out comes the voice of Gandalf. Pullman fans are touchy about Tolkien. They believe they've got the superior trilogy, and they might wince at a decision that appears to consign "His Dark Materials" to junior-sibling status. Then again, the remaining two books in Pullman's saga will be made into films only if the first is a success. If a boost from "The Lord of the Rings" helps that happen, then maybe a little compromise isn't the end of the world.

Join the Discussion