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Feature: The Golden Compass

Look North

Warrior bear and Lyra

Starburst chats to producer Deborah Forte and production designer Dennis Gassner about the making of the film of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

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 is 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, 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 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’.

“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.”

To be fair, few critics will be looking to Kidman and Craig to see if they can pull off their roles, as they bring with them a weight of experience and proven talent. Richards, on the other hand, will be under incredible scrutiny, as critics evaluate whether she’s a suitable fit for the impulsive, ‘half-wild’ Lyra.

“She is an uncommonly good actress,” Forte insists, “and personifies a lot of the characteristics of Lyra. We asked New Line if they would allow us to move forward with an open casting call, which is risky on a very big movie to cast an unknown. They said, ‘Yes, let’s see who you can find’. We did three open call sites, one in the north in Kendel, one in Cambridge and one in Oxford.

“The first one was Cambridge and turned out the most promising candidates, and Dakota Blue Richards was among the first group. Philip kept calling me to see if we had seen any promising candidates and I said to the casting agent, ‘Just send him the DVD with the 40 kids that we selected, it’s going to take weeks to sort through them, and it will keep him busy for a while’. He called me 48 hours later and said, ‘It’s one of two girls’ and one of them was Dakota. It was just interesting that when Chris saw Dakota he felt the same way. He went through another month-long exercise to make sure that he had turned over every stone, but he knew all along that he wanted Dakota. And we’re very proud of her.”

Read the full interviews in
Starburst #355

Images © New Line Cinema
Feature © Visual Imagination 2007. Not for reproduction

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Starburst #355
October 2007
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