'Golden Compass' Director Seeks True North

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 6, 2007

NEW YORK -- "I don't talk very much, usually," says Chris Weitz, taking a seat in the lobby at the Mercer Hotel. "I'm a very dour person."

The dour Chris Weitz, we should say upfront, will not be appearing today. The role of Chris Weitz will be performed by a chattier version of the man -- no less cerebral, but slightly more upbeat and dropping words like "hopeful" without irony.

Which is good, because Weitz has a movie to sell. And not some modestly budgeted teen comedy, like "American Pie," or adult romantic comedy, like "About a Boy," both of which he made with his brother Paul, both of which fared well at the box office. ("American Pie" did very well, actually.)

No, Weitz is here to hawk "The Golden Compass," a fantasy epic with all the trappings of a major Hollywood franchise in the making: source material in a beloved young-adult book (Part 1 of Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy), expensive movie stars (Nicole Kidman, Ian McKellen), tons of nifty special effects and a budget of about $200 million.

The goal of New Line Cinema, the studio behind this behemoth, is clearly a multi-part "Lord of the Rings"-style cash machine, complete with plush-toy spinoffs and fast-food tie-ins. But whether investments in Parts 2 and 3 are made depends on the response to this initial public offering, so to speak.

You'd think that with so much at stake, the studio would have been market-testing this baby for months. But Weitz says the computer-generated effects -- and there are a lot of them -- weren't completed until three weeks ago, so there wasn't much to try out.

"We're kind of flying blind here," he says, ordering a double cappuccino. "We have tests on how the marketing of the movie does with audiences, but not the movie itself."

The souffle of box-office success is never easily confected, but Weitz always knew that bringing "The Golden Compass" to theaters, where it will land tomorrow, would take extraordinary finesse. The book, published in 1995, is a parable that attacks the concept of organized religion -- more specifically, any religion that rules by fiat and claims an exclusive pipeline to the truth. The book describes a world ruled by a pious, punitive outfit called the Magisterium. It doesn't just dress its leaders in ominous frocks -- it tries to repress knowledge in the name of protecting humanity. It also tortures children by trying to rob them of their daemons, the soul-mate pets that every human in this alternate universe needs in order to think and live. The point, it seems, is to crush curiosity and freethinking and tighten the Magisterium's grip on power.

Weitz, who also wrote the screenplay, had to convey Pullman's cosmology while slaloming between two very different and very important interest groups: the book's fans, who would feel cheated if the movie didn't stay true to its anticlerical spirit, and the movie's backers, who would feel cheated if they infuriated religious people and the movie bombed.

The grumbling has already started. On fan sites, such as Bridgetothestars.net, you'll read a few complaints that Weitz soft-pedaled Pullman's critique of religious dogma. (The knock is based mostly on what Weitz himself has said about the movie, weirdly enough.) And the Catholic League issued a press release condemning the movie for roughly the same reason: The "watered down" theology of the film will lead unsuspecting parents to take their kids to "The Golden Compass," which will lead the kids to ask for the books for Christmas. "And no parent who wants to bring their children up in the faith will want any part of these books," the statement read.

Piece o' cake, Chris Weitz! We don't see what could possibly go wrong.

For the record, lots of fans have raved online about the movie, and it's been praised by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which called it "intelligent and well-crafted entertainment." But overall critical reaction so far has been -- what's the word? -- dour. Variety: "The prevailing tone is cold . . . and the pic doesn't invite the viewer to enthusiastically enter into this new dramatic realm." The Village Voice: "By insisting on many of Pullman's heady conceits but diluting the doctrinal antidote encoded within them, the intricate plot becomes an empty challenge. In drawing and quartering much of the novel's intent, Weitz ends up with a film that feels not just unfinished but undone."

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