“Anything that made ‘Golden Compass’ not a happy, popcorn movie was redone against my will.”
It was inevitable that Chris Weitz should be picked to direct the second installment of the "Twilight" saga, “New Moon” — his grandmother starred with Bela Lugosi in the 1931 vampire classic, “Dracula.”
“American Pie” marked an auspicious directorial debut for Weitz back in 1999, followed by “About a Boy” and the ill-fated “The Golden Compass." The latter, a poorly received adaptation of the beloved book by Philip Pullman, failed at the box office. The debacle is widely considered responsible, in part, for Warner Brothers’ acquisition of New Line in 2008 and which Weitz says the studio basically took out of his hands.
Now Weitz is back with what is sure to be one of the hottest movies of the season, “New Moon.” Here, he talks about losing control of “The Golden Compass” and taking the "Twilight" reins from Catherine Hardwicke.
Coming off “The Golden Compass,” how did you find yourself in such an enviable position with ‘New Moon’?
My friend Eric Feig works at Summit, and when things didn’t work out with Catherine Hardwicke, I think I was the first person that he came to me not because of my background in vampires but because of my background in CGI, in directing young actors and also in adapting novels.
Did you have to audition?
There’s always the "Are they crazy?" meeting. You’ve essentially agreed to do something, and then they meet with you just to see if you’re going to start barking while sitting at the table. So I passed that test. Crucially, Stephenie Meyer had approval over the director of the film. So I spoke to her about the book and about scripts and she asked a bunch of questions about why I was doing it and if I felt that I could tell this story in spite of the fact that I was a man.
What about the issue with Taylor Lautner? He was in, he was out …
He was never out, but there was some doubt because in the second book, Jake is supposed to be 6-foot-5 — and Taylor isn’t. In the first movie, we only saw the sweet-natured side of him, but I thought, "I can take this guy and go to the angrier places that he needs to go to."
Where were the doubts coming from, Meyer? The producers? The entire team?
I don’t want to point fingers, but I think that Stephenie, the studio, the producers, didn’t know if the guy who they’d seen in “Twilight” was the guy who was going to be Jacob in the second movie simply because it wasn’t there for them on screen. But the fans, too, actually wanted him. I think that they would have been very upset if we changed Jacob. And he was willing to show, not only the determination to kind of rebuild his entire body, but to go to those emotional places that he had to.
How much did “The Golden Compass” prepare you for this?
It gave me a grounding in the process of CGI — which is a very specific one — and doing that on a large scale. It also taught me that you must adapt a beloved book faithfully.
New Line was very hands-on for "Compass" …
It was a terrible experience because I was able to shoot what I wanted to — and then the cut of the movie was taken away from me and any reference to religion or religious ideas was removed. And the darkness and threat at the end of the story — anything that made it not a happy, popcorn-type movie — was removed. The voice of the key character was redone, all of this against my will.
And the fact of the matter is the people that the studio was afraid were going to raise up arms against the movie did it anyway.
I told them the best thing to do is to do an honest version of the story because at least then you know what you’re referring to. It’s like Mark Twain said, “It’s better not to lie because then you don’t have to remember what you said.” If you’re honest with the book, then you really can’t go wrong.
When you compromise so much, the material loses what made it distinctive in the first place.
Yeah, I’m guilty — my original sin on that project was to agree to water anything down at all. I was careful not to offend anyone’s sensibilities while at the same time including the religious ideas and the intellectual ideas that are in the book, and wrote what Phil Pullman and I thought was a pretty great representation of his book.
From that point on, as soon as the shooting stopped and the first cut of the movie was presented, I was just hammered and my editor was fired and another editor brought on and gradually power was taken from me.
So, in terms of what I learned for "New Moon" is if you go into this situation, you should be straight forward about what you’re going to do.
Do you all that make you stronger?
I think for a long time it wasn’t true and I lost a lot of sleep, literally. I was really upset for a very long time. And making "New Moon" has sort of healed me of that because I realized, "Oh yeah, you can actually work with people collaboratively at a studio and all have the same intention."
I’m very lucky. If I didn’t know Eric, I might not have been the first person that they thought of. I probably would have been on a list of people. And, y’know, from really sort of possibly being blamed for destroying an imminent franchise, “The Golden Compass,” to hopefully maintaining, or maybe even strengthening, this franchise.
It feels like a really good recovery.
So, what’s next for you?
I rarely ever have my next thing, and I’m rarely sort of juggling different possiblilities. For me, it’s like going out with two or three girls at once and, like, telling them all that you love them.
I’m gonna make a movie about a Mexican gardner. It’s basically “The Bicycle Thieves” set in Los Angeles, and I’m going to make it with Summit, if it all works out, cause this has been a very pleasant experience. It’s a drama, there’s no CGI, it’s on a smaller scale, but I think it’s a great story.