Into the Wardrobe: Bringing Narnia to Life
By Steven D. Greydanus
Before there are centaurs, fauns, or even a lamp-post incongruously burning in the middle of nowhere to establish that the forest beyond the wardrobe door is no ordinary wood, Andrew Adamson’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe creates the magic of the wood and the wardrobe with the enchantment on the face of young Georgie Henley, who plays Lucy Pevensie, as she gets her first glimpse of the Narnian wood.
Speaking with her fellow filmmakers at a recent New York press event, Henley revealed how director Andrew Adamson got that magical reaction.
“They actually blindfolded me,” Henley explained. “They passed me down the stairs, man to man, you know, into Kelly Park,” a New Zealand equestrian center where the Narnian wood stood on a set the size of a rugby field. “They took off the blindfold, and I walked out, and it was actually amazing. So actually Georgie’s first reaction is actually Lucy’s first reaction.”
Georgie wasn’t the only one whose actual experiences paralleled the onscreen adventure. “The making of this movie was in itself a through-the-wardrobe experience,” commented Anna Popplewell, the film’s Susan. “Going so far away, doing such unusual things. It was fun, but it was kind of daunting.” William Moseley, her screen “brother” Peter, added, “It was like we were a family, and we really felt close.”
Sometimes, it was a little too real. Asked about the hardest part of the shoot, Anna replied, “For me, probably, the Stone Table. We filmed it over a period of three or four days. And Andrew wanted very organic reactions and real tears, so, we were crying for three or four days. I ended up with a very blocked nose. But it was rewarding to do something like that as well.”
For Adamson, whose first two feature films, Shrek and Shrek 2, were shot entirely in cyberspace, working in the real world meant a whole new approach to filmmaking. “In animation, as a director, you have to think about everything,” Adamson noted. “You have to think about blinks. You have to think about dust. You have to think about every drop of rain. In live action you get that stuff for free. There’s a certain thing that just happens where you put a boy in armor with a sword on a horse and he’s going to feel noble, he’s going to look noble.”
On the other hand, real-world actors come with challenges of their own — for example, aging. To address this, Adamson made the unusual choice to shoot the film chronologically rather than according to production convenience.
“The kids were going to grow, there was nothing I could do about that… even though we joked about getting Skandar [Keynes, who plays Edmund] to start smoking,” the director laughed. “He grew six inches from when I cast him to when I finished the film. And also in the story, the Narnian air does make you more mature, it does make you grow emotionally, and I wanted to portray that physically.
“So even in the beginning, I sort of planned on, particularly with William, keeping him out of the sun, getting him to be kind of a soft British schoolboy, and then as we got into the production, getting him out training with the stunt guys, getting him out horse riding, and getting him into the sun, and letting him actually physically mature onscreen. So shooting chronologically allowed me to get the benefit of both those things.”
Not all the film was shot in the real world. Some of it was created on the computer screen, an approach Adamson knew all about, but had never worked with in a photorealistic context. The most important hurtle, of course, was Aslan. “We started developing the technology for Aslan about two and a half years ago,” said Adamson. “I knew I wanted him to be a very real, very physical, believable character that you never thought about as an effect. You just accepted him as who he was, and he had a real screen presence.”
Getting the look right was only half the battle. Aslan also needed a voice, which the director found in Liam Neeson. “It was an interesting and challenging character to cast — to create an omnipotent being that was still accessible,” said Adamson.
“Liam pursued the role. He came to me, and he offered to read for me, which was an amazing opportunity. And even over the phone, listening to him, I could hear this resonance — [despite] this tinny little speaker — this resonance, but mainly this warmth in his voice that was really ideal.”
Adamson laughs when someone points out the number of mentor or authority figures Neeson has played lately. (When the news of Neeson’s casting broke, critic Peter Chattaway quipped that this would be the third film this year — after Batman Begins and Kingdom of Heaven — in which Neeson schools a young man in the use of a sword… even if only to instruct him on keeping it clean.) “He’s just reached the age of sage,” Adamson agreed.
Although Aslan was entirely CGI (except for the Stone Table sequence, where a puppet was used), many of the fantasy creatures, such as Tumnus the faun and the centaurs, were created partially with actors and partially with digital effects. One non-human character, however, had to be brought to life entirely by the skill of the actor: the evil White Witch.
Actress Tilda Swinton explained her take on the character this way: “I, in a way, don’t play a character at all, because I’m not a human. I play the epitome of all evil, which is a free pass… into… all manner of nonsense. But there have been stereotypes of evil before now, and Andrew Adamson and I early on shared a secret with each other, that we felt that the stereotype of evil that shouts and screams and gets all hot under the collar has never really frightened us. And we wanted to look for something different.
Swinton added that “getting all hot under the collar doesn’t frighten [children] because if anything, it makes them know that grownups get hot too… but the thing that children find really unfathomable, because they never actually do it, is to be cold and to be emotionally disengaged and dominating and quiet as well.”
What about the next six Narnia books? Is Adamson committed to making them as well? “There was a point a couple of weeks ago where I was committed to never making a film again, after a year of visual effects,” he joked.
“If anything draws me into make a sequel, it’ll be the kids… If these kids do it again, I’ll probably do it again, because I care too much about them. I can’t imagine letting them go to another director. I’d be worried that they might treat them in ways that I don’t want them to be treated… I’m packing a long vacation. I have two kids now. I didn’t when I started this film. So I want to spend some time with them.”