New Line launch has a familiar ring

Times Staff Writer

There's no denying that Hollywood worships sequels. New Line Cinema has taken the love affair one step further: It's cloning not a movie, but a movie launch.

For the second time in six years, the studio has come to the Cannes Film Festival with a few minutes of an unfinished film in tow. It's to prove, yet again, that New Line not only hasn't trampled a beloved piece of fantasy literature, but also has turned out an impressive epic. The drill turned out beautifully with 2001's sneak peek at "Lord of the Rings" footage. But can lightning strike twice with "The Golden Compass"?

In the works for six years, "Compass " represents what New Line -- and writer-director Chris Weitz -- hopes will be the first installment in another trilogy of ambitious blockbusters. Like "The Lord of the Rings," which had a tortuous path to the screen, the first movie adapted from Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" books did not coalesce easily. And as was true with New Line's choice of Peter Jackson to adapt J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Golden Compass" represents a steep wager on a counterintuitive filmmaking choice.

Weitz is moving from alternately crude and clever comedies ("American Pie," "About a Boy") to an epic, effects-laden children's adventure, set to open Dec. 7.

Weitz's most expensive film previously was 2001's $35-million "Down to Earth." The price tag for "The Golden Compass": $180 million. The most special-effects shots the director ever has put in a film was one. The not-quite-final effects tally for his new tale of a 12-year-old girl's trip across the tundra and the universe: 1,000.

By unveiling 10 minutes of assorted scenes from "Compass," New Line wanted to prove to its Cannes audience of media, cineastes and distributors that Weitz was up to the assignment. Roughly 100 journalists turned out for the first of four scheduled Cannes previews of the clips.

"We want people to feel the excitement of the material," said Bob Shaye, New Line's co-chairman. "We're not claiming it's the second coming of 'The Lord of the Rings.' We think it's a great work in its own right."

New Line initially hired British playwright Tom Stoppard to adapt the first Pullman book (called "Northern Lights"), but the studio was unhappy with his script, deeming it uncommercial. New Line production chief Toby Emmerich started meeting with new screenwriters including Weitz, who Emmerich considered a longshot.

Although he seemed an odd choice to adapt such a book, Weitz's previous movies were filled with surprising optimism and kindness. Weitz pitched Emmerich a way to make the book both believable and relatable and got the job.

"He came really prepared," Emmerich recalled. "He knew the books cold."

The cast includes Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig -- now a true star after his triumph as James Bond in the recent "Casino Royale" -- and Eva Green as the witch Serafina Pekkala. British newcomer Dakota Blue Richards plays Lyra, the headstrong girl who is at the center of the story.

As the Cannes footage showed, Weitz's vision for "The Golden Compass" is both expansive and personal. He has brought the book's memorable battles to colorful life, but has tried not to lose sight of the children at its center.

Similarities to "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy are inevitable but not completely accurate, according to Weitz.

"The success is something they'd like this to emulate, and they share aspects of scale. I also think they are both concerned with identifiable human emotions," he said. But he noted, "They are really quite different. 'The Golden Compass' is its own thing, and people are less familiar with it than 'The Lord of the Rings.' So I will do whatever I can to open people's eyes to it," Weitz said.

"The 'Lord of the Rings' is ultimately about loyalty and friendship. This movie is about free will, growing up, and parenting."

Tough going

It was going to be a long night for Weitz. Inside his London post-production offices a few days before the first Cannes screening, the director was not so much juggling balls as chain saws.

As soon as Weitz finished recording new dialogue with "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory's" Freddie Highmore (who had replaced another actor), Weitz stepped into an editing suite with "Lawrence of Arabia" Oscar-winner Anne Coates, who was cutting a scene that should have included Nicole Kidman but whose car-crash injury during "The Invasion" prevented her from participating in additional "Golden Compass" shooting.

After he was done working with Coates, Weitz reviewed a number of new special-effects shots with visual-effects supervisor Mike Fink. Weitz liked what he saw from one of the three main effects vendors but winced over what another had sent along. A supposedly menacing bear was hopping like a bunny, and a disquietly sentient monkey was thumping like a far less cunning gorilla.

"They had it right, and then they tried to make it fancy," Weitz said to Fink and his team. "It's not right."

Fink raised one more issue. For its closing shot the film needed a perfect sunset, and the leading candidate was a city along the Italian coast. But when the sun sets there, the town is filled with people, meaning the residents would have to be removed digitally. Weitz then moved into an editing suite with Peter Honess, where they cut together a rough version of a child abduction.

There was one more thing. Weitz, 37, and his new wife, Mercedes Martinez, were just 10 days away from the due date of their first child.

That Weitz even found himself in this place -- both at the helm of a massive movie and about to become a father -- was remarkable. But after listening to him talk about the movie and his personal life, it began to make perfect sense.

Like much science fiction and fantasy, Pullman's award-wining novel unfolds in a world that is fractured between reality and the extraordinary. At the center of the first book stands Lyra, a headstrong girl of initially uncertain parentage. Like everyone her age, she is accompanied by a daemon (pronounced demon), an ever-changing animal that is both counselor and emotional id.

Aided by her daemon, Pantalaimon, and a truth-telling device called an alethiometer, Lyra sets off to discover why so many young children are vanishing. Before she uncovers the secret behind the abductions and their connection to a mysterious intergalactic substance called Dust, Lyra encounters flying witches, armored bears and creepy doctors.

But around the time Weitz completed the screenplay, he started to panic. The physical production was imposing --months of filming and highly technical editing in London -- but the 36-year-old Weitz also worried about his own maturity, and about working for the first time without his brother Paul, his collaborator on "American Pie," "About a Boy" and "Down to Earth."

"I quickly realized I didn't know how to make it," Weitz said, gobbling up a chicken dinner and sending his enormously pregnant wife home with a kiss and a hug.

"At that time, I was in over my head. I didn't see myself going to Europe for a year and a half and really being honest with what I thought I could do. To be honest, I was going to have a nervous breakdown. The mind-breaking logistics of a movie like this are really daunting."

So, in late 2004, he quit.

After Weitz bowed out, New Line considered scores of replacements and in August 2005 hired Anand Tucker ("Hillary and Jackie"). Tucker started casting, hired production designer Dennis Gassner ("The Truman Show") and assembled a short test film. But New Line thought Tucker's version was too expensive and fired him.

'I always wanted Chris'

"In fairness to Anand, I always wanted Chris to direct the movie," Emmerich says. By May 2006, Weitz was back in the director's chair. This time, he felt ready.

"I was in a good relationship with somebody -- Mercedes -- that I was in love with," said Weitz, who also starred in Mike White's "Chuck & Buck." "So I had a life, and some of the stability I lacked in my late 20s and early 30s."

He kept Gassner as his production designer -- "He is kind of the key to this puzzle," Weitz says. Then he filmed for 97 days, roughly double the production schedule of "About a Boy."

"The resources we had on this film were so beyond my imagining," Weitz says, marveling that the movie even had its own foundry to cast metal props and set dressing.

After having initially cast the adult Adam Godley as the voice of Pantalaimon, Weitz recast the part with the high-pitched 15-year-old Highmore. It changed the entire relationship between the Lyra and Pan, making it more intimate, and Pan more vulnerable.

john.horn@latimes.com

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