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Variety screens ‘Golden Compass’

Director Chris Weitz talks about blockbuster pic

It’s only been four months since Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig invaded theaters together in “The Invasion” but the star pairing was back in action Thursday night at the Variety screening of “The Golden Compass.”

Though neither star was able to attend, writer-director Chris Weitz talked about the challenges of being responsible for a highly-anticipated tentpole release, based on the series of fantasy novels by Philip Pullman.

“It really scared the crap out of me,” the helmer admitted. “I thought it would be too much of a logistical load.”

Accustomed to co-directing modestly-budgeted comedies like “American Pie” and “About a Boy,” Weitz was looking at a $150 million fantasy epic where humans walk beside animals (daemons) and polar bears battle to the death.

“Eventually, I went back to New Line and respectfully withdrew because I didn’t think I’d be up to the technical challenge of it. And so I stayed on as screenwriter while Anand Tucker took over as director but when he and New Line didn’t see eye to eye, they came back to me and I found I couldn’t turn down the opportunity twice.”

Weitz surrounded himself with a veteran crew including visual effects supervisor Mike Fink and production designer, Dennis Gassner, who Weitz called “the lynchpin of this whole exercise.”

Of course, the visual look of the film wasn’t the only challenge faced by Weitz.

“There were probably three things that would’ve killed the movie. One was the daemons and one was the bear. And then there’s Lyra, and that was the single most crucial decision of the whole process.”

Lyra Belacqua, a twelve year old girl, is the film’s emotional compass, and newcomer Dakota Blue Richards brings a determined strength to the highly coveted role.

“We wanted to cast an unknown so it started with thousands of girls going to open auditions, but the first time I saw her, I knew there was something to her,” said Weitz. “She does a marvelous job!”

Though the film ends rather abruptly, Weitz expressed hope that he’d be able to continue the story with sequels.

“It was always conceived as a trilogy but the cost to make these kinds of films has risen so high, that really the only gamble that could be taken was for the first film to be shot on its own. There’s more footage past the final scene in the film but my decision was to push it to the beginning of the second film because it’s quite dark, ugly, difficult material that was in danger of being softened up by considerable marketing pressure,” said Weitz, who had nothing but praise for Pullman’s series.

 “I think you’d be doing it a disservice not to shoot three movies worth. Although we’re in a very sort of cosmic mode right now, it just gets more and more ambitious in terms of the visual scope and the incredible story that’s being told.”

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