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'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."

Weitz will not read these reviews, or any others. "If they're favorable, I dismiss the review as something I already knew," he says. "If it's negative, it's something I hadn't realized and they're absolutely right."

You'd recognize Weitz if you ever saw "Chuck and Buck," a terrifically creepy indie film from 2000 in which he is stalked by a gay childhood friend. He pulled off leading-man good looks in that movie, and seven years later, at the age of 38, he's like a harried update of that same guy -- with two days of beard growth and a swirl of dark hair that screams "bed head." Not to mention a wife and a baby, both sitting nearby. When the cappuccino comes and he warms up, Weitz takes off his sweater, revealing a red T-shirt that in yellow letters says "Keep Calm and Carry On."

"It's a phrase from British propaganda posters during World War II," he says. "It apparently was all over the place. I saw it and loved it, so I bought about 14 of them and sent them to everyone doing postproduction."

Weitz grew up on the Upper East Side but has a slight British accent, something he acquired during 10 years at a boarding school in London. It was an idea of his father's, who had landed in London as a 10-year-old after fleeing Germany in 1933 as Hitler came to power. The younger Weitz went to Cambridge, where he studied 17th-century literature and authors like Milton and Donne. That background helped when he pitched himself as the writer and director of "The Golden Compass," but that is hardly the first time that his British education helped him in Hollywood.

"What that system teaches you is how to be strident and absolutely assured of something you don't really know anything about," he says. "It's a great skill for Hollywood. They want you to tell them that you know how to do things, so that they can feel better about the fact that nobody knows what they're doing."

As a serious fan of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, Weitz says he'd be a little wary, too, if he heard that the dude from "American Pie" would direct "The Golden Compass." In fact, when his name first surfaced on fan sites, he barely beat out "nobody at all" in a poll of candidates for the director's job. He lobbied for it anyway.

"He brought in this 30-page manifesto of how he saw the movie, the characters, what's important about the movie, where you need to deviate from the book," says Mark Ordesky, a New Line executive producer. "That manifesto got him in the room. Then we met him. And he's incredibly book-smart, as you can tell, but a lot of incredibly smart artists can't tell stories. We had the sense that he could tell an ambitious story smartly but with some humanism."

Weitz, the son of a Jewish dad and a half-Jewish, half-Catholic mother, describes his own religion as "lapsed Catholic crypto-Buddhist." He has faith in some kind of supernatural explanation for the universe, which he says gives him an affinity for religion in general. Yes, he snipped out some of the more aggressively anti-religious elements of "The Golden Compass," most notably any mention of "church" in connection with the villains. He didn't want to offend churchgoers. And the more people who read a trilogy he calls "a masterpiece," the better.

Are there plans yet for a sequel?

"I'm supposed to be bullish," he says, contemplating the field of rivals for holiday movie dollars, "and I am. On December 7th, I suppose there'll be some guy somewhere with an adding machine who'll figure that out. We've got vampires [in 'I Am Legend'] and chipmunks in 'Alvin and the Chipmunks' attacking us, and they're going to eat into our box office. We'll see what kind of damage they do."

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