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INT: Mark Johnson

01.20.2005

Part 1 of set visit / Part 2 of set visit
Interviews:
Tilda Swinton / Producer Mark Johnson

In late September, I (along with four other super cool web journalists) was flown by Disney studios to Aukland New Zealand, to visit and write about the shooting of C.S. Lewis’ children’s book THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE. On our 5-day whirlwind tour into that world, we were able to take in everything “Narnian”, from being witness to such hallowed places as The Stone Table to watching, in amazement, all the beings that were set to stone in the Witch’s Courtyard. We saw a bevy of creatures during our stay, the evil as well as the pure of heart; that inhabit that land. Imagine seeing fauns, boggles, centaurs, satyrs and giants all in the span of a few hours (and we saw some even freakier creatures in the bars at night, but that’s another article for another day).

We also had the opportunity to speak to everyone from the film’s director Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Shrek 2) to the lucky lady who won the coveted role of the evil White Witch Jadis – Tilda Swinton (The War Zone, Adaptation). To read my coverage of the Armageddon Pulp Convention that featured the filmmakers from LWW click here, and for my extensive report on all the sets and happenings I witnessed during my 5-day tour of LWW, click the links above.

One our first day there, we met with the producer of the film, Mark Johnson. A man who not only picked up the Oscar for producing RAIN MAN, but also worked with director Barry Levinson on almost all of his other films, including the masterpiece that is -- DINER. He‘s also responsible for the underrated THE ALAMO as well as one of my favorite family films, MY DOG SKIP.

So, here is Mark Johnson (along with the film’s unit publicist, Ernie Malik who chimes in on a few occasions) chatting about this epic retelling of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

MARK JOHNSON

The scale of this production is the biggest thing you’ve done, can you talk about that?

Johnson: Oh, by far. The only other movie the two of us [Ernie and Mark] worked together on was The Alamo, which was the biggest movie I’d ever done. It’s just huge and for me. I’ve never worked to this degree with the CGI, I produced this movie Galaxy Quest, and we did a fair amount of work in that but not to the degree here, and some of the stuff we’re attempting to pull off is there’s going to be the most photo-real animals you’ll ever see, so Aslan has to be a real lion because if he looks like a stuffed lion in a little girl’s bedroom, he’s dead, we’ve already seen…. it’s spectacular, you wouldn’t know. You’d look at it and you’d say we saw a shot of two girls walking down the street with a real lion.

Did you read the books before becoming associated with this film?

Johnson: You know, strangely enough I didn’t. My kids did and I was always aware of them but I never read the Lord of the Ring books either. I read them [the Narnia books] before Andrew and I first met and I was a little worried because the books, some of the biggest stuff in our movie is not the biggest stuff in the book, and in fact, some of the stuff in the books - the final battle, which is a huge sequence in our movie, is only referred to, it’s like “oh you should have been there”… we actually take you there. What he said to me is I don’t want to make a movie based on The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I want to make a movie based on my recollection, and that’s really what it is. He brings his boyhood imagination to it...

Had you seen any of the other film versions of the book?

Johnson: No. There’s the BBC one I was forbidden from seeing. They tried to make this before, at Paramount, but they just couldn’t get the script right.

At what point will the decision be made to start on the next one?  Opening weekend, or even before?

Johnson: You know, technically, I’ve heard that there is some reluctance to start the sequel until the original has proven itself to be a success. That’s kind of too late for us, because it means the sequel - the earliest it could be available is 2, 2 and a half years after the original, which I think is too late. Also we have a problem because the kids will almost grow out of the roles.  We are about to have the writers start on Prince Caspian and that’s motivated by a number of things.  That’s the one the four kids really figure in, and they are a year older, at the opening they’re at the train station to go off to school, it’s a year later, so that we can live with. Already, I don’t know if anyone has mentioned this to you, but Georgie and Skandar, who play Lucy and Edmond, have both shot up between 3 and 5 inches since we started filming. We are shooting the movie very much in continuity, so it actually helps; they become more grown up in the course of this adventure.

How much does the children’s film schedule effect the production?

Johnson: I can’t quite quantify that. It’s a problem. I produced a movie called A Little Princess, and we worked with lots of young girls, and then My Dog Skip, also with kids, and you need a great assistant director who can schedule the movie. So unfortunately, for example, if I were having a scene with a kid, we would shoot all of his or her scenes or shots, maybe do an over the shoulder, and when it came time to do me, that kid would be sent home I’d be acting to a stand-in. you have to do that sort of thing. That makes it harder, but if it’s done right you don’t lose any of the actual shooting time, you just need to be more judicious.

You talked about the battle scenes in the book. Are there any other elements that you’ve expanded on?

Johnson: We’re going to start this movie during World War II, so we see the bombing of London, and then we go to the Pevensie’s house, and we see them running into the bomb shelter, and then they’re put on the train to be sent to the countryside, which is where the professor lives and the adventure begins. So we get to start the movie with a big action sequence, and also, for a young audience, it tells us that there is a battle in Britain and it’s true, thousands of kids were sent into the countryside while London was being bombed.  And, the battle, that’s one paragraph in the book.

Any other things?

Johnson: Those are the two big things, I'm sure there are some others; I think we’re very faithful to the book, both in spirit and the specific. And I’m very aware of it, very often you do a movie based on a book and there are loyal readers of the book who don’t want you to change anything. Years ago, I produced The Natural and people were furious that we’d changed the ending, even though the author of the book loved it, and we have a movie out this summer in the states, The Notebook, and some people are upset that we made changes to it.

Were you looking for unknown kids?

Johnson: Yes. I don’t know that we wouldn’t have gone with a name, but I don’t know what names there are unless you look at Harry Potter, and that wouldn’t have worked, but I don’t think there are any big names - some of our kids have done a little bit of film work.

In the book there’s a lot of narration, did you take the narration out?

Johnson: I don’t foresee any narration at all.

Malik: (Laughing) Nicole’s [Kidman] going to narrate all seven books.

Johnson: You know, the crazy thing about that is, she was never approached, we never talked about her. I heard that she read these books and loved these books, I just heard that from the press, I don’t know if that’s true and we had a scout here October of…exactly a year ago, we were here and there were a bunch of us in a helicopter on the South Island, and somebody reported that Nicole Kidman was with our scout. Andrew Adamson has really long blond hair, so we don’t know if someone saw him, and if so, if I were Nicole I’d be upset. Andrew’s an attractive man, but he’s no Nicole Kidman. All of a sudden, I found myself apologizing to her agent - and I know Nicole, I didn’t talk to her, and to her publicist, apologizing for something we didn’t do, because we were reading this, that Nicole was going to do it, and the great one was that she was going to narrate all seven books for 94 billion dollars.

Malik: Whatever it was, the kid that plays Edmund, Skandar Keyes, said: “I want to renegotiate my contract.”

With the rabid fan base that a project like this has, do you pay any attention to rumors that go around the internet?

Johnson: We always watch it, and if something seems to be against the spirit you sometimes want to correct it, but I just love the fact that there’s so much interest.  We had, early in our shooting, the prime minister of New Zealand came to the set and had her picture taken with the kids, and that was the first time they were revealed anywhere, and we checked later on and people were doing a tally of who thought Skandar was right for Edmund, who thought Georgie was right for Lucy, so on one hand you want to stay out of it, on another, you’re thrilled they’re taking that kind of attitude.

Besides the Nicole Kidman thing, what’s the craziest thing you’ve read about the film?

Johnson: That’s the craziest one. There was some concern early on, on the part of the New Zealand union that we were hiring a lot of Australians. And there was a rumor that our whole crew was going to be Australian, which, from a production standpoint, makes no sense. If you hire someone locally, you don’t have to put him or her in a hotel, and pay for airfare and per diem, and all that sort of thing.  So why wouldn’t you? The great one was that we were having our sets built in Australia and then shipping them to be assembled here. I was still in Los Angeles, and I was talking to a reporter, saying: “this makes no sense.” Eighty five percent of our crew is Kiwi, is New Zealanders. There are a number of Australians in the art department, and our Production Designer is Australian.

With the casting of Tilda, were there any other choices for that role?

Johnson: We talked about other names, she always seemed right because I think she has an almost otherworldly quality to her. Very beautiful but there’s something just a little…and she has that alabaster skin, and profile, and all of that works just great for us.

And casting the voices?

Malik: We still haven’t cast Aslan. That’s another rumor…Morgan Freeman, I already said to the Webmaster, he’s already played God, why would we want to…

James Earl Jones…

Johnson: James Earl Jones has one of those great voices, like if Orson Welles were still alive, and at the same time, you like to go with the name that’s not recognizable.

** Since this interview, it was announced that actor Brian Cox would be the voice of Aslan in the film **

Do you have any contact with the family of CS Lewis?

Johnson: Oh, yeah, the estate is made up of C.S. Lewis’ two stepsons, and they’ve been great partners, obviously protecting the books, but also being mindful of the fact that we’re making a movie at not everything will stay the same.

It looked like you added some new characters?

Johnson: Andrew’s being very creative about some of the characters, both in the White Witch’s army and also in Peter’s army so we have all kinds of creatures and I can’t tell you offhand which ones are in the book.

Malik: There are character’s in the book that aren’t given names, and we identify them with a name, the sleigh driver for the white witch…

Johnson: He doesn’t have a name in the book.

You have wolves and kids on the same set. Are there any paranoid parents?

Johnson: No, because they’re never on the set together. We tried to bring reindeer into the country and were unable to because apparently reindeer have a whole host of potential viruses that don’t exist in New Zealand. One of the great things about New Zealand is that there are no dangerous animals, no snakes, no bears or wolves. In fact, When it became clear that the reindeer did have these viruses, the person working with us, helping to bring reindeer in and put them in quarantine, he said: ”if they land here I’ll shoot them myself.” As a New Zealander he was not going to let anything in here that would create some kind of illness. So we have some animatronic reindeer, and in other sequences, we’ll use some CGI.

Other animals you are using?

Johnson: Horses and mice.

Is there a run time you’re aiming at?

Johnson: No.  Lately, a lot of kid movies have been long, 2 ½ hours. I don’t think this needs that kind of time at all. Ideally I’d like it to be a two-hour movie but it really does come down to what works for us.

What was the most difficult sequence to shoot?

Johnson: The interiors of the White Witch’s compound, it is so hard to light, the camera man, Don McAlpine, who shot Moulin Rouge, said to me: “I have no idea how to do that,” and came in over the weekend and played with fluorescent lights, and was hanging Christmas lights around the set. And then there are little things. The wolves, they look great, but Andrew’s really tough, he said: “They look too happy. They look like they’re having a good time.” So we had to arrange it in some way so they’d look angry, teach the wolves to act…(laughs)

What’s the most rewarding thing you’ve done?

Johnson: You know, Lucy meeting Mr. Tumnus just brings tears to my eyes, it was so sweet, there is a sense of…he’s been told that humans are evil, and he all of a sudden meets this little girl, and seeing the two of them just become fast and dear friends. And I think it was the first time I sat there and really felt the potential of the movie. I always knew that it was there, but I just looked at that and thought, “This movie is going to really work.”

Stay tuned to JoBlo.com for more Q&A’s we conducted with the cast and crew of THE LION, THE WITCH AND THE WARDROBE in the coming weeks and months.

Source: JoBlo.com

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