Big returns likely for return to 'Narnia'

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New "Narnia": Unlike last summer, which was sequel driven from the get-go, this summer was front loaded with big-budget originals and is only now shifting into sequel mode.

It's a safe bet that with Disney and Walden Media's launch Friday (May 16) of "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian," the boxoffice will overcome last weekend's low-octane "Speed Racer" opening and resume the gleaming grosses with which "Iron Man" kicked off the season. "Caspian," of course, is the first sequel in the "Narnia" franchise that began with 2005's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which did nearly $292 million domestically and over $453 million internationally. The PG-rated epic fantasy adventure has the built-in advantage of being a brand name franchise targeted to families. Moreover, it's the kind of movie that Disney really knows how to market and distribute well.

Directed by Andrew Adamson, director of the series' original, "Caspian's" screenplay by Adamson & Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, who also collaborated on "Wardrobe's" screenplay, is based on the second in the seven-book series by C.S Lewis. "Caspian" is produced by Mark Johnson, Adamson and Philip Steuer, producers of "Wardrobe." It is executive produced by former Walden executive Perry Moore, executive producer of the original.

Starring again as the Pevensie children around whom the "Narnia" series revolves, are Georgie Henley, Skander Keynes, William Moseley and Anna Popplewell. The film's title character is played by Ben Barnes. Also starring are Peter Dinklage, Warwick Davis, Shana Rangi and Cornell S. John.

I was happy to have the opportunity recently to focus with Andrew Adamson on the making of "Caspian" and began by asking when he knew he was going to make a sequel to "Wardrobe." "I think at the point where we started to have a film that was coming together that the studio was kind of happy with, the studio knew that they were going to do a sequel," he replied. "It was at a later point that I decided I would do a sequel. The last film was logistically quite challenging and certainly took its toll and there was a period when I (questioned) whether I could do this again. At the wrap party of the last film Georgie Henley had asked me if I was going to do the sequel because obviously since the studio had decided to do it they wanted the kids to. I pretty much decided I was going to do it and then it was a matter of sort of having to psych myself up to it and get into the script and figure out how to proceed.

"Now 'Prince Caspian' was not the strongest of the books, I don't think, and because of that it created some challenges that I think actually made a more interesting film. It's like anything, when you're facing problems and limitations and have to come up with solutions sometimes those solutions actually create a whole new interesting thing and I think storywise that certainly worked out in this case."

Why did they go with "Caspian" as the second film instead of choosing another of Lewis' novels? "Well, it's the logical order in terms of the chronology of the 'Narnia' stories," Adamson told me. "It is also the second one C.S. Lewis wrote so in terms of the continuity of the kids' age it definitely was the logical one. They re-ordered the books later on and they put 'The Horse and His Boy' in between these two based on a letter that a kid had written to C.S. Lewis and said, 'I'm arguing with my Mum about the order these books should be in, but really, 'Horse and His Boy' should be next because it was during the reign of the kings and queens.' And C.S. Lewis had written back saying, 'You know, you're probably right.' And based on that I think it was Harper Collins that re-ordered the books much later on. But this was actually the second in the 'Chronicles.'"

After the blockbuster success of "Wardrobe," did Adamson feel he was in good shape to tackle a sequel? "The funny thing is that in many ways this one should have been easier because we'd all been through it before," he explained. "It was a lot of the same creative team. At the same time, I think we all learned from the last one and we all wanted to challenge ourselves further to do things that we had either not thought of on the first one or just hadn't had the opportunity or the chance to do. So in some ways we sort of made the film more difficult and more complex and gave it a bit more depth, a bit more grip, a bit more reality.

"One of the things for me was that I felt I had achieved a certain scope on the last film, but I wanted to achieve a greater scope on this film. I wanted to shoot more locations. I wanted to make better use of those locations. So that in itself just causes logistic challenges that everyone has to deal with. So it should have been easier. I can't say that ultimately it was in any way."

Asked how he prepared to shoot "Caspian," Adamson said, "I caught up on sleep. I got a trainer and did some exercise. I did approach it very much in the same way I approached the last film, which is to kind of say, 'Okay, C.S. Lewis wrote a children's book about an event and I'm going to make a movie of the real event' and to do that I sort of immersed myself in the book and then really tried to draw from it what the real story was behind the book -- kind of finding another dimension to the characters. One of the things I found early on is that I was trying to find out how can I relate to this personally? What's the emotional hook for me for the story?

"I found it in the older Pevensies who go back to Narnia and find that the place where they reigned and where they had these glorious 15 years has been destroyed. I related that to a childhood experience. I grew up from the ages of 11 to 18 in Papua New Guinea and it's a country that's gone through a lot of change since 20-odd years ago. I haven't gone back -- partly because the high school I went to is no longer there and the place I lived in has changed so much. The sense of loss that I always feel is so great because of that. That was something I found that I could really relate to in this story, particularly for the older two Pevensies who have to accept that loss and then be ready to move on. So a big part of my preparation in finding the story was accessing that personal story."

Shooting began in early February 2007 in New Zealand, he said, "and finished the end of September. I think it was about seven or eight months. There's a period about two-thirds of the way through a long shoot where it's too long and then you kind of get over that and your second wind comes and you start seeing the end and then it becomes one of those things like, 'I just need a little bit more time.' But I certainly recognize it's longer than the average shoot.

"We started out in New Zealand and did a little stage work there. Then we moved to the Czech Republic and started with some stage work and then went out to locations in the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia and then finished up again on stage in the Czech Republic. Because I wanted to shoot more locations that allowed me to kind of take advantage of two summers. So we shot in the New Zealand summer and then moved over and shot in the European summer and I got more exterior shooting time."

As for the key challenges of production, Adamson pointed out, "The days that were the toughest days were the nights, actually. The night shoot in the Castle was tough because it was a technically very difficult sequence in terms of stunts, creature work, CG and what the kids had to do. William does this stunt where he does a full Roy Rogers jump onto a moving horse. So it was just a lot of complex things that took a long time to set up and at the same time it was all shot at night so you're sort of doing it when you're not at your peak performance. That's probably the time that was the hardest.

"The other thing was just the weather. One of the bad side effects of shooting locations is that you're just a victim of the weather. You can spend a lot of time waiting. You know, you start establishing a scene. You say, 'Fine, this is going to be a cloudy day. I'll just shoot it as a cloudy scene.' And then the sun breaks out and you're stuck with that. You think, 'OK, do I go back and redo the work in sunshine? Or do I wait now for clouds? Or do I shoot it both ways and decide later?' Some of that can be kind of draining because there's just nothing you can do about it."

Prior to directing the first "Narnia" episode, Adamson had co-directed the animated blockbusters "Shrek" and "Shrek 2." I asked if with his background in animation he liked to storyboard his live-action films. "I do," he told me. "Certainly for these films that are technically quite difficult. There are definitely sequences in this film where there were no effects and I didn't worry about storyboarding to anywhere near the same level. I just wanted to let the actors do their thing and point the camera where I needed to. Then for a large portion of it because you are dealing with things that aren't there the road map becomes pretty important. So I do storyboard and actually do a lot of computer pre-viz, as well, for some of the more complex scenes.

"I have pretty much a full edit of the movie in some form with storyboards or pre-viz. That to me becomes an important part of the writing process -- being able to sit down and watch what you're writing without the overhead of the crew. It allows you to actually figure out some of the writing problems. I tend to overwrite a little and then in the storyboarding process in editing those boards together and putting dialogue and sound on it you realize what you don't need and you can end up with a more efficient script by engaging in that process. It's a process that comes really from animation, something we do all the time in animation. But I found it to be a really helpful writing tool."

Pre-viz, he explained, "is short for pre-visualization. It's basically a way of playing out a scene with a camera with three-dimensional characters and objects and locations where, effectively, you shoot the movie in a form before you even shoot the movie. In our case we worked with a team of eight or nine pre-viz artists. A sequence will get divvied up between them. You have the assets which are built -- your characters, your locations and the props and you do a very rudimentary animated version. It looks like really really cheap TV animation. You can go through many iterations and you can experiment and you can play with camera movement, you can play with links and how you're treating the scene and you can map it all out before you actually get on the set.

"The other thing that it's very useful for is that with these complex scenes there's sometimes three or four units shooting at once. So you can go through the pre-viz and say, 'You do that shot. I'll do this one. You guys go and do that one.' You can divvy it up and everyone has the same road map to work from."

Asked how he works with his actors, Adamson explained, "I table read. I tend to do the table reads during the writing process because you learn a lot from the real actors and sometimes with just friends and family reading aloud. Then I do rehearse -- not everything, but a lot of scenes I rehearse. Again, that to me becomes a helpful part of the writing process. You learn a lot when you start working with the real actors. They inform the characters, as well. And then it also is useful for when you're into blocking. Very often, the rehearsal will only happen the night before shooting. In some cases, there's not a lot of point in rehearsing until you have a location or set available. So quite often, after a day's shooting we'll go into a quick rehearsal and then sort of block for the next morning. But as much of that as you can do ahead of time I think is worthwhile."

Did he feel good about how production was going at the time? "Not always," he replied with a knowing laugh. "I do have a very strong production team and Phil Steuer kind of headed that up from a physical logistics point of view. He's a very good line producer, as well, and he was the line producer and production manager last time, also. Considering the difficulties that we're dealing with and considering that some days we had up to 1,200 crew. We were taking an army trained by (military advisor) Billy Budd and we were shooting with them in a number of different locations and moving that army to a small town in Slovenia. It was remarkable how smoothly it all went and I really attribute that to Phil and his team."

When I asked if there's a big difference in production between making a large-scale film like "Caspian" versus a smaller movie or if the same basic principles apply, Adamson answered, "I'm not really sure because I've never made a small movie. The one way I would answer that is that some of the scenes in this film were small. I'll say probably my most enjoyable day of shooting was shooting a sequence with the kids and Trumpkin (played by Peter Dinklage) on a boat in this beautiful gorge in New Zealand where you could only get in by boat or helicopter. It was just about a crew of 20. We were on two rafts.

"My script supervisor was doing video assist. I was operating a radio control for the kids' boat and a little electric output for our raft and directing -- and it was like student filmmaking. That made me realize there's a big difference between that and shooting a battle with 450 extras and techno-cranes and visual effects and all of those kind of things. It's made me really want to do one of those films that really only does have a crew of 20 people."

So might we see a smaller film from Adamson in the future? "Absolutely," he agreed. "I mean that's really what I hope to do next. After this I'm going to take some significant time off and spend time with my family and really just kind of clear my head and see what bubbles up in terms of a smaller film, I think."

Given that game plan, Adamson isn't directing the third episode in the "Narnia" franchise: "Michael Apted's actually started. He's been scouting in South and Central America and New Zealand and he may still be in New Zealand as we speak. I'll produce it with Mark Johnson again, but Michael's going to direct it."

Looking back at making the first two "Narnia" episodes, Adamson observed, "People have asked me, 'What did you learn on the first film?' I say, 'I learned that that old adage about not working with children, animals, visual effects and locations is very valid -- and then I went and did it again!' So I guess I didn't really learn anything."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Feb. 20, 1991's column: "Movie marketing is unique in that while it's one of Hollywood's most important functions, many of those who create film ads aren't studio employees. Instead, they're hired guns who work hand-in-hand with studio marketing executives on campaigns for specific films.

"One such firm, Hollywood-based Cimmaron/Bacon/O'Brien, was created in 1989 by the merger of Christopher Arnold and Robert Farina's then 10-year-old film advertising company Cimmaron Productions with Jeffrey Bacon and John O'Brien's Bacon/O'Brien design group, whose roots went back to 1982. …

"Talking recently to Christopher Arnold … I asked if the recession is having any effect on what Hollywood's willing to spend to develop campaigns. 'Historically, actually, recessions are good for this industry,' he told me. 'You won't find many other industries able to say that, but in a recession people do tend to go to movies more than usual. This may be because when money is tight people rediscover that movies are the cheapest night out you can have. I don't anticipate that the movie industry will be severely hurt by a recession…'

"'No advertising executive at any studio in town is going to be in a position where the producer or director of a movie is going to say, 'We went out and spent X on the movie and you (only) spent X minus 10 or 20.' A studio's responsibility to a movie that costs the amount of money movies cost these days is to back them up to the hilt with good advertising -- with the best advertising they can get. …"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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