Making the third 'Chronicles of Narnia' film was a trying venture on a number of levels. Not only was director Michael Apted stepping in for Andrew Adamson, the director of the first two films, but Apted also experienced a whirlwind of scheduling changes. On top of that, he faced the challenge of shooting a film that takes place primarily out to sea with a variety of monsters and creatures that would never be seen until post-production.
It's been quite some time since Apted signed on to direct 'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader' -- the film opens Friday -- and the director is quite anxious to see how his creation performs. Cinematical sat down with Apted, who was more than willing to look back on the experience --the good and the not so good -- and elaborate on everything from playing the waiting game while budget issues were sorted out, casting a character that could go on to star in a fourth film, working with a heavy amount of CGI and much more.
Andrew Adamson directed the first two films, so how did you end up taking over on the third? Did he choose to step down and did the producers approach you to direct or did you express interest?
No, the plan was that 'Dawn Treader' would be done back-to-back with 'Prince Caspian,' so obviously he wouldn't be able to do it since he'd still be in production with 'Prince Caspian' when 'Dawn Treader' was supposed to start. So that was the idea and I was hired to do it and then things went south; 'Prince Caspian' got stuck a bit. They had terrible weather problems, they went over budget, over schedule. Then they postponed 'Dawn Treader' six months because everybody was finishing 'Prince Caspian,' but I'd already been hired and I was already at work on 'Dawn Treader' looking at locations and working on the script. It was postponed even further because of all sorts of issues with budget and the performance of 'Prince Caspian,' which made them want to review the franchise and how much they were prepared to spend on 'Dawn Treader' or even if they wanted to do a 'Dawn Treader,' but I stayed aboard the boat.
Were you familiar with the books and films before signing on?
No, I wasn't. They were written after I was a child, and I don't remember really reading them to my children. I was aware of C.S. Lewis' work, but not particularly of those books as they hadn't been part of my childhood at all, so I got familiar with them when I got approached about doing 'Dawn Treader.'
So what was it that drew you to make this film? Did they offer you the job, you looked into it and liked it?
Yeah, I thought the book was good. I thought the book had problems, but I liked the idea of the book. I thought it had a lot of humor and color to it, which was good and I liked the idea of doing a sort of fairly epic film and then within the epic film is quite an emotional story with drama and good relationships, so I liked that. I liked the idea of a kind of double entendre of a kind of swashbuckling adventure on one level and psychological voyage on the other. I thought it was an interesting material and I also quite liked the idea of making a film about spiritual life, which I thought was old fashioned, but maybe not a bad idea to put in front of young audiences today.
You mentioned you thought there were some problems. Were these elements you decided to rewrite for the film version?
The book has no driving force; it has no narrative energy. It's a kind of a picturesque story of traveling from island to island without any real purpose to it and having adventures or discovering things as you go. That'd be a catastrophic film. You have to have a reason to go from scene to scene in a film and so we had to figure out a way to create at least a top line adventure story that would drive the rest of the movie along to keep all the incidents, to keep all the characters, but to give it some reason for existing as a narrative.
After you got past all of the pre-production, what was it like your first day on the set with such a large amount of people who'd been working together on the series?
Well, I'd been through this experience before on 'Bond.' I come in to do the 19th 'Bond,' ['The World Is Not Enough,'] so there were 18 films before and generations of people and actors that worked on it. That was a very friendly environment and so was this. I got on well with the children, I knew [producer] Mark Johnson and I brought my own DP, my own composure, my own editor. It was a nice compromise for me of people who were familiar with material and people that I'd worked with before, so it was a nice mix as far as I was concerned.
How'd you get along with your stars? Was the chemistry instant or did you do anything particular to try to build a relationship?
We had a lot of time. I met them in 2007 in Prague while they were shooting with Andrew and then I went out a couple of times to meet them and then there was a huge delay, a two-year delay between then and us starting to shoot. I saw them in London now and again. We did some test casting for Eustace in that period. I was in contact with them and we were familiarizing them with the development of the script, so by the time they showed up in Australia, I supposed it was June 2008, we already had a pretty strong relationship. We already knew each other pretty well. And I liked them. I liked the fact that they've done two big Hollywood movies, but they were totally unimpressed with that. They were interested in what the characters were, it was a much bigger demand on both of them than they had in the previous two films. I just saw them as regular people. They have strong family lives, they were interested in school and things like this. They weren't sort of stage kids who are just in it to stay in the business and for the fun and games.
Can you tell me about casting Will Poulter? Most of the cast was practically given to you, but his character is new to the series. What were your top concerns when finding an actor to play Eustace?
It was a big piece of casting because if they do the next book in the series, 'The Silver Chair,' then he's the lead in it. We met him early on because he'd done 'Son of Rambow,' that was all he'd done, but he'd done that and frankly, as soon as we met him, we knew he was our man. We saw a lot of other people afterwards to do diligence and also because we had a lot of time because the project got badly stalled. We knew he was good; we didn't realize he was as good as he turned out to be. He was very clever. He was very witty, humorous and could do anything we wanted him to, but underneath all that he was very appealing and it seemed critical to me -- the more I think about it -- that whoever played Eustace it was important he behaved in an unsympathetic and obnoxious way, but there should be something about him that didn't make your blood curl so you weren't upset when he appeared in his next scene.
So what is the plan with 'The Silver Chair?' Is it completely riding on the success of 'The Dawn Treader?'
I think so. I think if we do decently with this one then they'll probably give it a shot. Although I don't think they've quite decided whether to do that book or whether 'The Magician's Table' or whether they'll go back and do that, but I don't really know.
And should they continue, would you like to stay on board?
Yeah, sure. I'd like to be considered. I think it's going to take some time to get the thing in shape, but yes. I had a good time doing this. It was a long job and a bit chaotic because of the things that happened after 'Prince Caspian,' but of course I'd be interested. Absolutely.
Can you tell me about the actual Dawn Treader that was built, not the partially CGI one we see in the film?
We decided not to go to sea. We felt as long as we were near the sea and we could see the sea, then we could add some second unit work with another boat and create the feeling that we were at sea. The idea of going to sea on a boat, that was more or less unconscionable: The cost of building a boat that would actually float and sail was enormous. So the boat we built -- it was 100 tons -- it was a huge boat, but it never was built to sail. We built it on a car park by the sea in a place south of Brisbane in Queensland and we had a horizon line of about 100 degrees, which means you could look out to sea and see no land. The boat was built in stages and shipped out by truck and assembled by the sea and it was built on a huge gimble, which allowed it to go up and down, sideways and around in circles, so it wasn't particularly stressful for us. We were able to use the different weathers. I liked having different weather in different scenes, but we didn't have the problem of being at sea and having to have the equipment go across water to the boat.
Speaking of the weather and all of these elements, how was it shooting that final scene? Was that the most difficult one to get done?
Yes, it was. Right after we'd done the exterior stuff on the boat, it was taken to pieces like a jigsaw and shipped back to Surfers Paradise, where the studios were, then it was reassembled on the stage. So the stuff with the sea serpent, that whole sequence, was shot on a stage with a lot of blue screen and a lot of tanks with water being thrown on the actors all the time. We had a lot of equipment there so we could do a lot of complicated shots, but it was quite difficult because the sea monster and the dragon were totally computer generated, so the crew and the actors really had nothing to look at. We didn't even know at that stage exactly what the serpent would look like. We had an idea, but the idea changed once we started post-production. So, yeah, that was difficult and it was very uncomfortable because everybody was wet all the time and we still had it on the gimble, so the boat was flying around all the time. It was fun, but I think it was pretty tiring for everybody and kind of stressful for the children, who just had to be wet for hour after hour.
Because of the location, this film clearly has a very different look compared to the first two films. Were there any particular things you kept in mind when it came to connecting this film to the other two stylistically?
Because 'Caspian' had been a rather dark film, I think the feeling was to give this the light. There's darkness in it, but if in doubt, make it light. Secondly, we were never in Narnia. Narnia for us was the boat, so we weren't obliged to go back to the locations that Andrew had used in New Zealand and Eastern Europe, so we had a whole fresh palate for the locations. Some of the locations I did shoot on stages because they were so odd and surreal that I would never have found them, but the rest we did shoot outside because I wanted a realistic look to it, particularly the last scene on the beach. I didn't want that to be on a stage and have a slightly dead look so, although it was a big gamble on my part, I think it paid off; we went out into the wind and the sun and whatever and there was sea around them, obviously not a wave and obviously not Reepicheep, so it was all a bit odd. I think I was slightly more in the studio than Andrew did but I think it was the fact that we were able to get away from the locations that had been so dominant in the first two films.
So after all of this time, all of the setbacks and all of the production work, the film is finally hitting theaters. How do you feel?
Well, nerve-wracking, really. For me it's been over three years work. It's been a big adventure with all the visual effects; that was new for me. I had very few visual effects on the 'Bond' film. Then the 3D issue, that was all a new journey, so it's been a very lengthy and pretty stressful outing, so frankly, you hope it pays off. You don't want it to just slide away and disappear. These next three weeks will tell us a lot. As an answer to your question, I would say it's pretty nerve-wracking.