[At the end of a long day of TV and press interviews, Adamson is supping Earl Grey Tea in a blue and cream drawing room at Cliveden House, an impressive country manor. We’re sitting in front of a roaring fire, which has Wedgewood vases dotted across the mantelpiece, beneath an oil painting of an aristocrat and her dog. In the huge wooden hall there are suits of armour, tapestries, antlers mounted on the wall and photos of the Queen Mother and Charlie Chaplin sitting on the grand piano in the corner. A full moon is rising over the mansion, which is nestled in a forest that’s flushed with autumn colours – mahogany, gold and rust. Adamson is obviously tired but he’s friendly, genuine and enthusiastic about his film…]
How would you describe the current state of Hollywood at the moment? 2005 hasn’t been a great year for Hollywood… any sense that King Kong and the Lion are going to be the saviours? I think Harry Potter is going to be a big film as well.
It definitely hasn’t been the best year for Hollywood and a lot of people are questioning whether this is a change in film viewing and whether it’s a distribution issue and I think it’s largely about the films. Are there films that are capturing the audience’s imagination? Obviously we’re seeing there is a lot of interest in Harry Potter and King Kong and The Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe, so I do think this Christmas we’re likely to see a change in that.
You don’t feel that the business has got stale, that it’s struggling? No, I don’t think so. It’s all about are there good stories being told well, and maybe there’s been a shortage of that this year.
Can Disney make it into the 21st century then? (laughs) I think they’ll survive! (laughs)
What sort of pressure have you been under to perform, and how did that play out day to day, were the studios on your back every day? No, I think any time you make a film you want it to be successful, you want it to appeal to the audience and you want it therefore to be financially successful. So it pays for itself and you get to make other films. I don’t think… people ask, is it the scale of things, is that where the pressure comes from? And it’s not, it’s really the existing audience, the existing fanbase.I felt the same way with Shrek 2 because we’d created a fanbase with the first Shrek and I felt responsible for that fanbase with the second one. While making that, I started this film, and this book has been read by probably over 100 million people and some of them feel as passionately about it as I do and I think the pressure is satisfying the existing fans.
There’s been a lot of talk about the marketing, do you have any part to play in that at all? I try and stay out of the marketing as much as possible! The marketing of this film is something that’s been more interesting to the press than any of the public. Religion is a big issue in the States, and I think that a lot of people.. no one had seen the film and there was really nothing else to talk about until they’d seen the film. I think that now that people have seen it, that all goes away and they can just appreciate it as a film.
What do you think of the actual marketing campaigns though? There’s the two campaigns – do you think it’s important to get those two… [interrupts] I don’t believe there are two campaigns, I think as I say this is something the press has hung on to, kind of the idea that we would market to any particular audience is crazy, I mean Disney is going to market the film to everybody. They want everyone to go and see it, they want to get their money back! So as I say I think it’s really become an issue in the press, which is really a non-issue.
How do you see the film in terms of your career, following Shrek? It’s definitely a stepping stone. I’ve felt after every film, that I should stop. I was very lucky with the first Shrek that it was very successful and I thought, well, it probably doesn’t get any better than this, I should stop making them now, quit while I’m ahead, Then I was foolish enough to do the second one and it was even more successful and as beloved as the first one and I thought okay now I really should stop. And then this came up and it was really my love of the book which motivated me to do it and so far very few people have seen it but it’s been so well accepted by everyone who has and people are assuming it’s going to do very well at the box office and, if it does, then maybe I should stop now. But I feel obviously that with every film you make that, if the film’s successful you have more and more creative control and it’s closer and closer to your vision and while I’ve had that with both Shrek films, I think this is even closer to what I imagined when I started it.
You joke about stopping but won’t you have to be around for more Narnia films?! Haha! I don’t think all six, no! I might make another one, I might actually end up doing two but I can’t imagine doing all seven. I’d like to work on not just Narnia and Shrek for the rest of my life!
I wonder what it’s like to be an outsider in Hollywood? Obviously you’ve been there since 1991 but is it an issue… what’s it like to be a Kiwi in Hollywood? You know, it never seems to be an issue until I work with new people and they make fun of my accent! Which I know most of New Zealand thinks is an American accent but every time I start working with new people they don’t understand me and they mimic me in a way that I think, ‘oh I do sound different’.
But I never really felt like an outsider, largely because Los Angeles and Hollywood is all outsiders, it’s a strangely accepting society because there are so many people from so many different walks of life who come there. And because of that, it’s very non-judgmental. I’ve lived in San Fransisco and I found that to be a more judgmental city even though it’s a nicer city, it’s more laidback, but there’s an establishment there that doesn’t exist in LA. LA is one of those places where it is what you make it, you really can find what you’re looking for as long as it’s not natural beauty!!
There’s obvious comparisons being made with Lord of the Rings… are you getting a lot of this, are you being touted as the new Peter Jackson? I don’t think so… it’s inevitable that there are comparisons, because CS Lewis and Tolkien were contemporaries, comparisons because Peter and I are friends, comparisons because both films were made in New Zealand.
There was a very nice article I read early on, with the comparison that I’ve enjoyed the most, which was how CS Lewis had helped Tolkien get the Hobbit published, because he was already established, and how [the article] was saying it was the success of Lord of the Rings which helped get this film made which I believe is true, because it certainly helped me make a film which was faithful to the book. Peter had shown being faithful to a classic piece of English literature was commercially viable and that gave people a little bit more faith in doing that again with this film, being true to an original source. So I enjoyed that comparison, but I think beyond that they are very different films. Tonally, visually, story wise, they’re such different films even though they exist in a fantasy genre.
Do you think it will give New Zealand tourism a second bite of the cherry, that it could lead to Middle Earth being repackaged as Narnia? I think they’re hoping for that! You can already see some of that coming out now, and I don’t know if they will do the Narnia tours and so on but I fully expect they will.
The interesting thing is, being there and having been away for a while, is this expectation now that people say oh we’ll see you at the Oscars. It’s like this weird expectation that New Zealand as a country now, that any film made there is going to have this huge success. Obviously I hope this one is, but obviously we’ve been very lucky as a country to have so much success in the film world lately.
So is this run of good luck a coincidence then, that you and Peter are both New Zealanders? I think so, I mean, who knows? We’re similar ages, we grew up reading similar material. He was as big a fan of this book as I think I was. I think there’s an openness in New Zealand and a freedom, in the way I grew up anyway, that encouraged the openness of imagination. There was an interesting thing happening at school, when I went to school in New Zealand before I went to Papua New Guinea…
Where did you go to school? I started off in Glendowie, in east Auckland and then I moved to Papua New Guinea when I was 11 years old and did the rest of my schooling up there.
But it was a time in teaching where the emphasis was on creativity. To this day I still can’t spell because I was learning creative writing. But in retrospect, apart from writing my official letters, I’m very glad of that because it was all about using your imagination. And maybe that’s part of the reason that some of these fantasy, imaginative films are coming from New Zealand.
How did you get to LA? I was working in New Zealand at a company called Video Images, before that I was with The Mouse That Roared. Initially I was recruited by PEI to northern California, they were based in Sunnyvale at the time and I had met some people when I’d gone over for a computer graphics conference and they liked what I doing and hired me to come over and work on [tv] commercials and station ID’s, the kind of thing I’d been doing in New Zealand. Around that time, computer animation was moving into the film world and I saw the opportunity to tell stories that were longer than 30 seconds. And that were not just on the air when people went to the toilet! I worked first on Toys which was coincidentally a Mark Johnson Production as well. And that just got me interested in the film world, and it led to other visual effects films which then lead to contacts which got me involved in Shrek and Shrek kind of led to this.
What TV commercials did you do in New Zealand? Did you do any that were well known? I did some that were infamous! There was a Minty’s commercial that was on for years, there was a Telecom commercial where a face turned into a telephone that was voted one of the worst 10 commercials of the year, which I was particularly proud of. I did all the opening station identities for TV3, when TV3 came on air, did a lot of stuff for Radio with Pictures, and those kinds of things. At that point there were only two companies in New Zealand doing that kind of work.
Are your family still in New Zealand? My parents are still in Blockhouse Bay.
Brothers or sisters? I have two brothers and a sister that are all still in New Zealand also.
How often do you get back to New Zealand? Well fortunately for this film, I’ve been back there a lot. My daughter is two and a half and I think she’s been there six times now! And I got to spend a year back there while making the film, which was great, and great for the grandparents. I have now a seven-week-old daughter as well, so I’m looking forward to getting back there soon and introducing her to the rest of the family.
Actually, I’m looking forward to getting back home and introducing her to me!! (laughs).
You could say New Zealand is your Narnia, your alternative world? It is kind of an alternative reality, it is a little bit that way! We had a hidden away place in the Coromandel that’s very much where I go for peace and quiet and ultimately I think we would end up living back there. I think it’s a great place to raise kids, I think it’s a much more free existence than you have in most of the rest of the world and I do look forward to a point where I could go back there and live for a while.
Would you make more films back there? Who knows, I mean, right now I’m five days off finishing this one and it’s hard to contemplate ever making another film again!
[Second interview begins…]
Why did you want to do this story? Largely because I grew up with the story, I loved it, it was definitely something the estate wanted, that the studio wanted, but more than that, it was just something that I wanted. I’d seen other attempts at adapting this book that weren’t true, that weren’t faithful, and I was very disappointed when I’d seen them so it was just something I had always wanted to do.
You read the books when you were 6 or 7 or something? Eight. I wasn’t quite that far advanced! (laughs)
Can you recall, what were the things you really liked about it? There were certain images that were burnt into my imagination, burnt into my memory, things like the faun in the snow with an umbrella. I think what I liked about it, what I remembered about it very much was the idea of stepping through the doorway into a magical land, I think that very evocative idea that places exist beyond our perception. That was very interesting. But I think in retrospect, looking back at it as an adult, what appealed to me, I liked about it, what most appealed children like about it is the fact that it is very empowering, these children are treated like kings and queens of Narnia, they have responsibilities, they’re making decisions, they’re the solution to the problems, I think that’s really empowering for kids. So many kids want to be treated like adults and these kids are treated like kings and queens and given that responsibility.
And they get swords! (laughs)
From Santa Claus ..Yeah, exactly. Who’s an arms dealer!
How much say did you have (re working with Lewis’s stepson) He had a lot of say but fortunately we agreed on most things, so it never really became an argument or even really a serious debate. I met with them right at the beginning, obviously, and laid out my vision for the film and it was very much the way Doug [the stepson] saw it as well. So we were very lucky to see eye to eye which is probably why I ended up doing it.
He’s a real asset particularly when it came to adapting things and wanting to stay faithful but still we added, we changed, we took some stuff out. And to be sure that I wasn’t doing something that was getting too far away from CS Lewis’s attempt. I had Doug to always bounce things off, I could pretty much call him at any time and say, I’m thinking about changing this, what do you think and he could give me a perspective on what he believed Jack was intending at the time he wrote it.
Was it more difficult… to direct live action as opposed to digital animation? Yeah, but the nice thing is that people do things automatically! You don’t have to have control, you don’t have to tell your actors when to blink. Tilda was funny, because she talks about wanting to be the first human I operated, and interestingly enough, she very instinctual but she can also be very technical as an actor, and she would say to me, do you want me to do this with my eyebrow? And it would be like live animation – like, sure, if you can do that on the third word… and the thing is, she can! (laughs) And she can look very convincing doing it!
So, the difference really is that in live action, you put all your actors together, you put them in an environment, you put them in costumes, you give them your weapons… you put William on a horse, in armour with a sword and he feels noble. In animation, you have to do that with the actor, you have to create an environment – you’re in a studio and you have to make the actor feel noble. You’re not given those extra tools.
On the other hand, in animation you get to work with the actors on a one on one basis, in live action, everyone’s there together, the actors are there, the crews all around, there’s time pressure, you don’t get the same, single-minded focus. So the two things kind of balance each other out.
Everyone’s been talking about you as the laidback guy… who’s, y’know, totally relaxed! I must be internalising!
It must be a kind of acting because being a director on a movie set like this must be hell to..?… Yes and no, I mean, I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t enjoy it. I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t fun. I think in order to make a film which is enjoyable you should enjoy the process and I think ultimately that comes through. I think if you treat people well then they are going to do better work for you. So that’s not to say I wasn’t stressed.
I think I only yelled at the kids once, and it was one of those situations where the sunlight was going and they were messing around and I just yelled at them to stop it. And it was quite interesting because it had a really good effect. Everyone went quiet, the whole crew. And I realised that it’s good not to yell except when you really need to.
I am pretty determined to enjoy what I do and I made a decision early in my life to only work with people I like. Because it’s hard enough, and I want it to be hard for the right reasons rather than the wrong reasons. So I won’t say I didn’t get stressed but I was trying to keep that away from everyone else.
So how big a challenge was the CGI? You know, fortunately it’s not as big a challenge any more. When we started the film it was, and there was a lot of development that went into a number of characters, Aslan being a very important one. In some ways though, once we’d accomplished Aslan, the wolves were probably the next most difficult thing because we were using real wolves combined with CG wolves. And the ability to cut back-to-back.
There’s a moment in the film where we start with a real wolf, looking at the beavers’ house, and then he turns around and says ‘Take them’. And we switched to a CG wolf. And that was a big challenge. Because if you stay in the CG world you’re always looking at a CG character, you’ve got nothing to compare to, and its when you start having that comparison sometimes, the tricks are shown.
In some ways I think the wolves were a great achievement, and Aslan, on the other hand, had to have an incredible screen presence, he’s not just another character, he’s a very central character in the film and he had to be very convincing. And you had to get all the emotion of a little girl, reaching out and grabbing his mane. You didn’t want people thinking, at that point, ‘how did they do that?’ you want them just going with the emotion. That was pretty technically difficult.
Why is the wolf Morgan the only one who speaks with an American accent? All the wolves do in the end. Interestingly enough, Oreius does, the main centaur and it’s very strange because he’s a New Zealander! – you’ll enjoy this [to the Listener] – when Patrick [Kake] was doing it, he’s done a lot of American films, and he start doing the voice, and I said, well just do it with your own accent and he looked really stunned and he goes, I don’t think I can act with a New Zealand accent! He’s so used to using an American accent.
I wanted a number of different accents, I wanted the world of Narnia to have a sense of a wider ethnicity, that the different species and the different creatures would come from different places, have different heritage and different accents. I ended up with probably less of a range than I would have intended but you know, it’s not like you should have different accents within a world.
You don’t think the Americans will be offended then? At the same time there’s so many British villains in films, it doesn’t hurt to have an American villain in a British film!
Getting Aslan’s voice correct… it was quite a process wasn’t it? It was quite a process, and one, it’s just it’s coming out of a lion and it has to have incredible depth and resonance.
The other thing is the complexity of the character. There’s a line in the book that says he’s not a tame lion, at the same time he’s very warm and paternal and he needs to really have both sides. The other thing was discovering the character and, in my first attempts at trying the voice, I don’t think I’d found his character yet. As I worked more on it, and recorded with different people and developed it further, he became more human and more vulnerable.
The last even six months, I gave him a sense of humour which he initially didn’t have. It’s suggested in the book that he’s joyous and celebratory but the book’s quite sombre and I realised at some point that I wanted to see what Aslan was like on his day off! He can’t always be the King of the World, he’s gotta have some time to put his feet up and watch TV. And I wanted to see that side of him.
And Liam was someone who was able to bring that warmth and power and humour and still have that incredible resonance and incredible depth.
And he’s a Jedi Knight. Yes. Exactly!
The voice reading… do you follow every step of that process with the actors? Yeah, and interestingly, strangely enough, there’s a process I use in animation, where, in all the offlines, I read against the actor. It’s a way of subtly directing, as well, because I alter my performance and that changes the response. And I carried that through to the live action from the point of view that I would do the off screen, with most of the cg characters I would do the off screen [voice] for that reason. It gave the kids something to perform to. And it meant I could shift their performances very subtly.
Images… did you do a lot of research for that or was it your own imagination? A combination of both. When I set out to do this, I said very early on that I don’t want to make the book so much, as I want to make my memory of the book. I think my 8 year old memory had been expanded over the years – the battle was an example. It’s very small in the book,[or] it’s not small, but it’s described very briefly. He spends more time describing the boiled eggs than he does describing the battle. But I remembered an epic battle – I was surprised, when I went back and read the book as an adult and looked at that page and a half and thought, where was that battle I remembered? And it is a lot to do with the way CS Lewis wrote. He planted seeds and let them grow in your imagination. He would say things like, I can’t tell you how bad this is or your parents won’t let you read the book. And so consequently you fill out this incredible evil thing. In some ways as a director it was a huge liberty because it meant that I could use my imagination, in other cases it was a huge challenge because everyone else who had read the book had used their imagination and might have had a different interpretation. So it was a combination of talking to a lot of people, who had read the book, getting their impressions and seeing how mine jarred with theirs. Shooting in New Zealand, it’s hard to find people of our age who didn’t grow up with the book, so I had that reassurance of people walking on set and saying this is exactly how I imagined it. But largely, it was just ultimately through relying on what I remembered as a child.
What was the role of Weta in this process? They’re very involved in the initial design. I started with Weta; I started on this film about three and a half years ago and started with Weta straight away. And Richard Taylor is a very good friend. They have a real integrity to their design, they look way into the depth – talking about the different cultures, we looked at the origins of all the mythological creatures, what cultures they came from. And wanted to give them their own history, their own heritage. and at the same time look at what the reality was behind the myth, look at ancient drawings of these mythological characters and then say well, anatomically, how would that have worked, how would a human body be connected to a horse body? Which lungs would they use, which stomach would they use? All of those kinds of things! And the group at Weta really do go into a great amount of detail and thought behind their designs, which I really appreciated.
In previous adaptations, there hasn’t been much on the war, why did you choose to begin with that? [the adaptation opens with a bombing raid and subsequent evacuation of the children to the professor’s house in the country, is about first 10-15 minutes of the film] Well there’s one line in the book that says, ‘During the bombing raids of London’, and obviously it was dealing with children that were evacuated. To me, the story was very much about family and about this family that was very disempowered in World War 2, that ultimately go through to Narnia and through their unity as a family are empowered, and I really wanted to set the context. I particularly wanted to explain to kids today that.. I mean, a lot of kids today in the Western world are very fortunately not to have experienced war and I really wanted to set up a real life and death situation for these kids, so that you then believed in the life and death situations that they enter into in Narnia. I also wanted to wake up the audience and say, this is not your father’s Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, or your mother’s Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I think everyone goes in expecting to see four British kids in a house and I liked the idea of starting the film in a much more dramatic way and everyone going, wow, this is a bigger film than I expected. And then you see the four kids in the house, and I’ve already set the context for the world and a bigger story.
The end is quite violent… were you worried about the ratings? I wanted to keep it a PG, kids down to 7 and 8 years old read the book and I wanted them to be able to see the movie. But I was never worried about that, I thought the thing that would take it closest was the stone table sequence because it really did have to be terrifying. It had to be somewhat traumatic so that was the scene that worried me the most. In the end, the only thing the ratings board had an issue with was a scene that I had where the phoenix lays the fire down, I did have some creatures running through the fire and catching alight, and that was the only thing that they really wouldn’t allow me to do [under PG]. Which is fine, it wasn’t really necessary. I never wanted to be gratuitously violent, I wanted the violence, the battle to be more about the emotion, I wanted Aslan’s death to be more about the emotion than the knife going in.
Would you go back and do another one? I’m sure the studio will want to do another one and obviously there’s seven in the series. I don’t imagine I will do all of them but I don’t know if you’ve met any of the kids yet but we formed a as family and I can’t really imagine anyone else directing. So if anything sucks me back it will be the kids.
Which one would be the next one? Prince Caspian. It’s the next story with these four children.
The role of the girls staying behind, you changed that a little did you? I did. I was adamant about that actually. That was the only thing Doug and I debated at length. He was concerned about changing the intent of what CS Lewis wrote, and I said to him, ‘Look, I’ve just made two films that are empowering for women, I’m not going to make one that is disempowering. I think it’s offensive that Father Christmas gives them weapons and then tells them they can’t use them, that they have to rely on their brothers. The line in the book was that, battles are ugly when women fight. And that’s a little bit sexist!
But in the context of the era, it wasn’t considered sexist at the time, and you’ve got to judge everything in context so I don’t judge CS Lewis harshly for that, it’s just that that message today is the wrong message. So the compromise we came up with is that he says to Lucy, when she says, ‘I think I can be brave enough’, he says, ‘that’s not the point, battles are ugly affairs. And that applies to everyone, no one should have to go to war.
But I felt like, Susan should get to use her bow, why not?!
It was funny because when Anna came to it as well, she’d obviously read the book and she said to me, there’s gonna be a little girl power in this film isn’t there? And I said definitely!
Does it ever bother you the comparisons with Lord of the Rings, given you’re a New Zealander? It’s inevitable, there’s a lot worse films to be compared to so I don’t mind being compared to that! I think ultimately they’re very different stories, they’re very different films. It’s true that CS Lewis and Tolkien were contemporaries, Peter and I are contemporaries, we’re both from New Zealand, they’re both epic fantasies, but I think ultimately, and you’ve seen both films, they’re very different films. They’re tonally very different, I mean, to me this really is a story about family.
It’s an intimate family drama that is taken to epic proportions. It’s a new world as opposed to the old world of Middle Earth. There will be comparisons but I think in the end both films stand on their own.
You’ll be head to head at the box office… I like to think we’ll be supporting each other at the box office! I do think it’s been a difficult year for films – there just haven’t been a lot of big financially successful films. I think Harry Potter is apparently very good… What I hope will happen, and what usually happens is that when there’s a good film people enjoy that experience and they go and see another one. These three films will hopefully support each other over Christmas.