After the colossal success of The Lord of the Rings, it’s interesting to watch New Line play it cautiously with two new potential fantasy trilogies. The first episodes in both trilogies are in production on neighboring soundstages at Shepperton Studios, near London’s Heathrow Airport, when RT visits in February 2007. But executives will wait until they’re both released before committing to make the next two films in each series.
And early indications following the release of the first film of the His Dark Materials series, based on Philip Pullman‘s trio of acclaimed parallel-world novels, suggests that decision will be a tough one to make. We’re still waiting to hear if The Golden Compass, with its A-list cast including Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, will spawn a sequel, though indications are that it probably won’t.
In the next soundstage over, director Iain Softley is taking a more grounded approach to Cornelia Funke‘s Inkheart trilogy about a family caught between the real world and the worlds created in various books, the third part of which hit bookshops last year. Instead of green screens, we walk into the Inkheart soundstage and find the massive interior of a ruined cathedral, with huge stone staircases leading up towards the high-arch of the ceiling structure, stretching several stories up above our heads. Along the left side is an entire village street, with shopfronts, electric wiring and stone buttresses. Much of these stones were brought back from Italy, where the exteriors were shot. This is the setting for the film’s big final sequence, which is being kept tightly under wraps as it apparently diverges from the novel to some degree.
In another soundstage, there’s the cavernous, torch-lit interior of a castle that houses the villainous Capricorn. The cast is in here, performing a scene in front of a blazing fireplace with an army of leather-clad henchmen hovering around the edges. Recently Oscar-crowned Helen Mirren is sitting patiently on a bench with her hands bound and her mouth gagged. Brendan Fraser is standing manfully in the middle, with his trademark floppy haircut and rising young star Eliza Bennett at his side. As Capricorn himself, Andy Serkis is facing him with a gleeful grimace, looking more than a little Dr. Evil-esque with that five o’clock shadow on his shaved head. And right on cue, Paul Bettany strides in with a long coat and wild hair to propel the scene forward.
They film Slate 73 three times, at which point Softley is happy. Bettany goes straight back to a conversation on his mobile. Serkis grabs another cup of coffee. Fraser retires to a director’s chair in the corner and continues reading a novel. He’s nearly at the end, and it clearly has him gripped.
It turns out that his passion for reading is the main reason Fraser was drawn to Inkheart. “One of the most important things about the book is that it’s written to be read aloud,” he says, “and I think it’s about the possibility to connect with kids again. To read something aloud to a kid really means a lot. So the book advocates literacy, and to make it into a film will continue that trend.”
Bettany admits that he’s not normally a fan of the genre. “I was reading the book with my 9-year-old when the script turned up,” he tells RT. “I usually find fantasy quite difficult, but I didn’t when reading this, and I think that’s because it’s so firmly set in this world.”
Serkis agrees: “It’s rare to read a fantasy script that’s firmly rooted in reality and yet can translate into a fantasy world. That was what was appealing about it.” For the film, the duct tape-obsessed Capricorn has been both deepened and lightened up, making him more shaded and much wittier.”
Bettany likes this increased complexity. “The characters aren’t entirely bad or good,” he says. “My character is an opportunist. Brendan’s character wants to get his wife back; I want to get back to my wife and children. And unfortunately those objectives really clash.”
In addition to the echoing sets, filming on location in Britain and Italy, and costumes made mostly of scratchy wool or skin-tight leather, the cast and crew have bravely tackled those two dreaded movie elements: children and animals.
“We’ve got great kids and great animals, actually,” Bettany tells us. “We’ve had no problems with children – just Brendan really! Eliza Bennett is incredibly articulate and smart. She works a day like we work and then does her school work.
“And we have 20 ferrets that are really good at certain things. One’s really stupid and just sits on my shoulder, and one is an attack ferret that runs up my arm and tries to get my ear, and then at the last moment they grab it and swap it for the dull ferret. We have so many ferrets!”
The ferret trainers are quick to point out that Bettany is exaggerating. There are only 12 ferrets, each with a specific skills including, yes, clinging to his shoulder, following him around or grabbing things and taking them to someone. In the film, the ferrets are playing pine martens, which means they must also wear tiny glued-on horns. And they have their own passports, complete with photos, so they can travel around Europe with the cast and crew. Presumably they’ll have their SAG cards by now as well.
After playing with the ferrets for just a bit too long, we also get to meet a Westie named Pepper, one of three dogs who play Toto, a literary character who travels into our world. Pepper, who’s been dyed a charcoal color to look like the Wizard of Oz character, performs his tricks with unusual enthusiasm. And it turns out that several other familiar characters may appear in Inkheart, including Mary Poppins, Scrooge, Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, and a crocodile with a ticking clock in its stomach. Tinkerbell had to be cut due to copyright issues.
Even with all this going on, easily the most colorful person on set is Helen Mirren. Decked out in a mad-artist costume in a floppy fur coat, diva head-wrap and gigantic rings and baubles, she has a mischievous glint in her eye that makes us curious about her character. The scene they’ve just shot barely involves her – she just sits there, bound and gagged, reacting with her eyes. And she’s clearly having a ball.
“In a way my particular character’s story is about learning to live in the real world,” she says, “albeit in the fantasy world of this wonderful film. So that’s the classic costume and the turban – very exotic, bohemian, a woman who lives in the world of literature.”
Her performance, of course, will take the character in a different direction than the book’s more cold-hearted depiction. “She’s not a nasty person, she’s an unthinking person,” Mirren says. “She’s just in her own world, living completely in the imaginative world of books, literature and poetry rather than in the real world. You meet people like this – professors of literature or history who are so into their own world that they can’t see out of it at all. And in being obsessed with their own world they become careless with the outside world. I think that’s the story of Eleanor. It’s not that she’s closed off, she’s just dreamy. She’s perfectly capable of stepping over a child to say, ‘Oh what a beautiful sunset! I’m going to write a poem about it.'”
At which point Softley interjects, “She’s very funny in the role!”
“I hope so,” says Mirren, with that devious twinkle.
We’ll no doubt find out when Inkheart is released in cinemas in the UK this Friday and the US on 23rd January.