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Set Visit: Golden Compass

Feb. 15, 2007by: Jenny Karakaya

It's times like these when I have to admit that I have the coolest job in the world! I'm not sure how often someone can say that but when JoBlo.com got invited to cover 2 cool set visits for New Line Cinema in one of the greatest cities in the world (London, England) that's the only thing that kept repeating in my mind. The invitation was to attend two fantasy films in current production (the other is INKHEART).

First let me begin with a quick recount of the day leading up to the first set visit for the THE GOLDEN COMPASS. This will be the toned down version from the in-depth description provided in the "JoBlo.com does London " piece. Needless to say, every minute leading up to my departure and arrival in London felt like delirium. The entire experience felt surreal from the moment I hopped into a spacious black London cabby to the minute I approached the rich city center to arrive at our beautiful hotel overlooking the The Green Park (otherwise known as Buckingham Palace 's backyard). A sweet welcome to the extraordinary, historic city indeed!

Although a bit jet lagged, I wasn't about to let the time difference stand in my way. Following a fulfilling breakfast in the morning, I checked into the hospitality suite where I was greeted by the cool folks from New Line Cinema to receive a general 411. After some fun sightseeing I joined the other journalists to get whisked away to a wonderful welcome dinner where the bonding began, as we all got into our groove and prepped ourselves for next day's set visit. Morning came and we were swept away to London 's Shepperton Studios to get a peep at our first set visit. Let me begin with a brief description of this sensational, yet dark fantasy world otherwise known as THE GOLDEN COMPASS.

SYNOPSIS

Based on the first book of Philip Pullman's best-selling and award-winning trilogy His Dark Materials, The Golden Compass is the first volume of the exciting, philosophical, fantasy adventure adapted, written and directed by Chris Weitz. It is set in a parallel world where people's souls live outside of their body in the form of a daemon, talking bears fight wars, and children are kidnapped by an evil group known as the Gobblers.

The story is based on a brave 12-year-old girl named Lyra who embarks on a long journey in order to solve the mystery of her best friend Roger's mysterious disappearance. Upon her rescue expedition originating from Oxford 's Jordan College to the arctic north, Lyra uncovers the frightening truth behind the kidnapping and inadvertently ends up on a fascinating, complex quest to save her own world as well as ours.

A discovery made by an open casting call is gifted newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, who is the perfect embodiment of young Lyra. She joins an all star cast consisting of Nicole Kidman as the glamorous yet deceptive Mrs. Coulter, Daniel Craig as the ruthless and mysterious adventurer Lord Asriel, Eva Green as the good witch Serafina Pekkala, Sam Elliot as Lee Scoresby and Ian McShane as the voice of armored bear king Ragnar Sturlusson.

THE SET

We entered the Shepperton Studios with a heightened sense of intrigue to discover the alternate world of The Golden Compass awaiting for us. Anxious to feed our hungry curiosity, we were led into an enormous but very cold green screen studio. As I glanced around I took notice of some fake snow, some fake icebergs, fake stuffed bear heads, a film crew and Dakota Blue Richards filming her scene as the adorable Lyra. We were greeted by the courteous director Chris Weitz, whose credits include ABOUT A BOY and AMERICAN PIE. Although a little disappointed by his inability to stop filming to speak with us, it was apparent and understandable that duty called and required him to continue working under a tight deadline in the final days of filming.

THE SCENE

Huddled among a large group of reporters (partly for warmth), we gathered around to witness approximately three or four takes of a young Lyra, bundled up in an adorable winter white furry coat and knit hat talking to a dismembered Polar bear aka Iorek. lorek isn't your everyday Polar bear however. He is a renegade armored polar bear deposed as king of his clan by a deceitful brother.

In the scene, Lyra is facing the prop bear head who's bobbling head is controlled with a rod and who's loud, deep, echoing voice is heard presumably from a pre-recorded (or live) loudspeaker somewhere in the room. She speaks and cries, bidding Iorek a tearful adieu in an imaginary North Arctic to continue on her expedition and hunt for Lord Asriel, and to ultimately unveil the secret of Dust. Iorek refers to her as Lyra Silvertongue who reciprocates his affection with a heartfelt departure. This is the last scene in part one of the trilogy. Her adventure will presumably continue to unravel in part two of the trilogy titled The Subtle Knife, if part one meets and surpasses the box office expectations.

We are told that there are several takes needed of this scene in order to ensure that Lyra and Iorek are at exact eye level for obvious finishing touches that need to be made with CGI in the post production phase. Tear drops are also strategically placed in her eyes between takes to intensify the emotion and evoke additional tears during this climactic scene. Weitz remains intently focused on the TV monitor as the scene continues to shoot over and over again to guarantee the desired perfection.

PROPS SET

Our large herd of reporters were next led to the adjacent set for a presentation and examination of the props used in The Golden Compass. Costumes, statues, furniture, the sky-ferry, jewelry and artwork were on display throughout the large sized room for observational purposes. We were given a tour of this museum assumably set up especially for our learning pleasure. Presentations were given by producer Deborah Forte, the production designer Dennis Gassner and costume designer Ruth Meyers.

Meyers walked us through the wardrobe which she explained was designed to represent the typical 1920's Edwardian look; plaid, dark suits, long ruffled dresses and velvet robes for the oxford scholars. Also on display were dark, flowing tulle dresses for the witch, and Eskimo-like outfits for the Gyptians.

Some of the interesting set pieces dispersed and arranged throughout the room were the large sky ferry (zeppelin) manufactured for Lee Scoresby's transportation, a heavy-duty tent representing the Gyptians habitation, and the exquisite furniture set up as Mrs. Coulter's living quarters. Her living room consisted of classy black and gold furniture, an elegant chaise long, gold statues and a gorgeous portrait of her and a golden monkey representing her daemon. Also on display was her bedroom's pink and white vanity set complete with lotions, spray perfumes and brush sets emanating old glamour.

Gassner gave a detailed presentation of the concept designs illuminating his inspiration for the set and the representation and importance of symbols in recreating an alternate world set in the 1920's. He talked about using London 's arched Air Street as his template for London 's architecture as well as his philosophy in using symbols such as a circle and an oval in his concept designs. He explained that the circle representing good and oval representing evil, were symbols used in architectural designs, logos and objects.

EARLY FOOTAGE PREVIEW

Our presentation eventually led into a unique 10-minute feature reel of early clips revealed from the film. Although incomplete, it was a vivid unveiling and creative foretelling of what's to come in THE GOLDEN COMPASS.

In the first scene we saw Lyra running across the dining room chairs along the long table in Oxford 's Jordan College while talking to her un-rendered, thus invisible daemon Pantalaimon.

Then next scene introduced Mrs.Coulter embodied by the inconceivably stunning and elegant Nicole Kidman. She epitomized an ice princess with the perfect combination of glamour and danger. Mrs. Coulter made a commanding grand entrance into the dining hall as if working the catwalk. Looking fabulous and unbelievably sophisticated in her gorgeous sequined dress, her blonde hair was softly curled and pinned to one side, clearly reminiscent of the 20's allure. As she sat down beside Lyra and whispered in her ear, it was apparent that Mrs. Coulter's manipulative charm and magnetism could very well spellbound and ravished anyone to succumb under her formidable power.

The following scene introduced a bearded Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel in the Jordan College garden, scolding Lyra when she asked about a thing called "Dust". He was clearly infuriated and wanted her knowing nothing about it. His inexorable and ferocious bark was a chilling and convincing affirmation of Craig's impressive talent.

Another scene was of Iorek wreaking havoc and knocking down everything while running around loose through a market. Lyra watching this unfold ran to his rescue to plead with the soldiers gathered around to shoot Iorek. Just as a soldier was about to pull the trigger, Lee Scoresby showed up taking control of the situation with his own gun.

There were also some special CGI effects of Lyra riding on Iorek's back through the North and an alternate universe created of London with glass and iron buildings thanks to Christopher Wren's vision. There was a magnificent shot of the sky ferry flying over the city with an incredible view of the Magistrate building.

Lastly, we were shown how CGI of a snowy North, polar bears and Lyra riding on the back of a stationary mechanical bear are used to translate into realistic and creative footage.

STUNT SET

Upon completion of the presentation, we were all scurried off to a final green room which was designated for stunts. Here we got a taste of what a fight sequence looked like. A diversified group of trained males and females of different age groups re-enacted a cool, coordinated and impressive stunt fight scene. It almost appeared to be a fun dance rehearsal although I imagine that special effects will emphasize the brutality and violence in the final cut.

Next we received a demonstration of how witches magically fly around in the film. One of the stunt coordinators saddled up in the harness to illustrate proper lift off, twirling and landing. We also saw some raw footage of Eva Green who plays Serafina the witch, flying around in the harness. Two volunteers from our group got the opportunity to saddle up and take off for fun. Although it appeared to be very enjoyable, I chose to abstain from the activity in the fear of getting sick.

Before heading over to a gourmet luncheon at the Shepperton Studios, we were given a final gunfire presentation One by one, each gun used in the film was brought out and fired off. We were advised to cover our ears with each thundering blast but like a fool I jumped at every expected and anticipated shot simply because they were loud and frightening. What can I say, I don't like guns!

SOME INTERESTING FACTS

  • Tom Stoppard was originally engaged as the screenwriter for the film

  • Before Chris Weitz came on board to direct, Sam Mendes was allegedly rumored to be directing

  • Allegedly Stoppard's script was eventually rejected and Chris Weitz was appointed to adapt the script for The Golden Compass as well as direct it

  • Stoppard's script is said to have had taken a direction too focused on the Majesterium rather than the story of Lyra

  • Producer Forte has been trying to make this film for almost 10 years

  • The producers had Nicole Kidman in mind for the role of Mrs. Coulter from the very beginning

  • Forte expressed a sincere concern and commitment to the authenticity of the film which is why they decided to shoot in London

IN CONCLUSION

Although it was unfortunate that we didn't have the opportunities for any interviews due to the crazy filming schedules and deadlines, it was an impressive set to visit and witness. Based on the footage and scenes, Richards captures the essence of the innocent Lyra quite effectively thus making the gamble of the open casting call worthwhile. Kidman and Craig are remarkable while Pullman 's imagination is realized with a genuine recreation of a multifaceted and philosophical world. The cinematography is quite beautiful with enhanced vivid colors that give a realism and authenticity to this alternate, fantasy universe in THE GOLDEN COMPASS.

The film is set for release on December 7th, 2007, and you can check out its official website at: www.goldencompassmovie.com.

Source: JoBlo.com

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