In a corner of the Weta Cave, happily surrounded by monsters, robots, ray guns and mythical dinosaurs, sits Richard Taylor. He has five Academy Awards, a few BAFTAs, a handful of Saturns and goodness knows how many other trophies and plaques on a shelf somewhere. He is the Director and co-founder of Weta Workshop, one of the best known creative arts studios in the world, and his business is more than likely a corner-stone of the New Zealand economy during times of large film productions. He is also a man accustomed to playing God. He creates worlds: Narnia; Middle Earth; Skull Island; and whatever crazy world Meet the Feebles exists in to name a few, and he does it all from within the walls of the Weta Workshop in Wellington, on the North Island of New Zealand.
For all of his successes he appears quite shy and a little bemused by the fuss being made by the small band of journalists who have descended upon the Weta Cave to find out more about the making of Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. RT took the opportunity to speak with him about what goes into creating a world, the importance of good weaponry and how his six year-old son became a king.
You are an expert in many different areas: design; anthropology; anatomy; history etc. What is your true passion?
Richard Taylor: We call ourselves momentary experts. You have to get this incredible wealth of knowledge for a very short moment in time but the moment the movie finishes your cup is in overflow, your cup of a brain, and you can only get more drips of water to flow if you let something flow out. If you asked me any of the details about square riggers for The Master and Commander today, I wouldn’t have a clue [laughs], but in the two years we were working on the film there was almost no detail I couldn’t recall about square riggers and how you build them.
My particular love is the creative arts. If we have any business plan it is – pursue the creative first and hopefully good business will follow. If everyone is inspired by the creative journey then good stuff will come along. There is no great plan to it really. I love sculptural arts as you see around you. Everything that we do ends up in some way being conceptualized sculpturally in the workshop now. I always dreamt of being surrounded by sculpture and the workshop is now dense with it. It is lovely to know that you can communicate creative ideas through sculpture, illustration and decision. I love world design; that is, the ability to take a holistic view of the world. We don’t design a creature until we know what the environment, the fauna, the flora, the carnivores, and the herbivores that surround them are like. We take an overview of their world before we dig down into the detail. On movies like The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, King Kong or even Lord of the Rings, it is a lovely way to work because we can look at the whole culture, history and the environment of the world before we start.
When you created Narnia, did you draw inspiration first from the books or did you work with the director just from the script?
RT: Narnia was a really interesting film to design. People often say that after Lord of the Rings, Narnia would be a bit of a doddle but of course it is not because CS Lewis comes from a very different place. If Tolkien was recognized as drawing strongly from cultural references from our own history, CS Lewis draws from an amazingly broad spectrum of cultural and mythological references across thousands of years. If you read about the creatures of Narnia you can see creations from a man-headed bull to a gorilla and then something as abstract as a centaur or minotaur.
It interests me that the first place we went to in our research was to the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. I had grown up on this little farm in New Zealand and the one piece of artwork I had was the Garden of Earthly Delights above my bed and I used to fascinate at the incredible inventions of Hieronymus Bosch. So when we came to make the movie and design this whole world and the director, Andrew Adamson referenced Hieronymus Bosch, it was like a door opening back to my childhood. The further we got into it, the further we realized that it couldn’t be so broad; that all the fauna, the flora, the creatures, and the cultures had to be tied together visually and symbolically. We probably did six months of exploratory design to find out what wasn’t going to work in Narnia. When you step through the wardrobe you step into a childhood dream state. The imaginings of a group of young children opens up the world to an immense level, but we were still restricted in that it was the imagining of a group of young children born in London and living in the 1940s. They knew a time without the filmic references that have influenced us over the last 50 years and we were respectful of that. We tried to seep them somewhere with a physical reality and a little bit of mythology. It is different from Lord of the Rings too, because Lord of the Rings is a completely lived in world. You’ve got to feel like when you entered the world it existed for thousands of years before. Everything is worn, or in some way worn out and starting to feel aged. But in Narnia things are fresh and new and bright and the spring is coming and you have to give the feeling that the children are experiencing a world that is just beginning to bud and that was a delightful challenge.
Prince Caspian takes place in a different time. Did you feel like you had to start over or did you find continuity?
RT: We knew Andrew‘s vision and we knew the world because of course we had two and a half years of studying it for The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, but we go into the world again hundreds and hundreds of years in the future. The Telmarines are an interesting race because they’ve come through a portal as well at some point. We wanted to play to all of the influences of their seafaring past. We tried to find mentions in the back writing of CS Lewis to give us points of reference. We took the seafaring to a much greater level during the design concept and then pulled it back a bit but it is still there for all the filigree, the points of the compass and the shield. The reference to their journey is emblazoned around objects like at the top of Miraz’s shield.
And of course the Narnians have turned back into animals and almost forgotten their own culture. It is the children who reinvigorate that culture and help them to be everything they can be. The resurrection story speaks of that point as once again Narnia unfolds from a very futile, deeply political and bitter world into something that can bud and flourish.
Can you talk about how the design you do here helps build the characters in the film?
RT: I never want our crew to think they are making props. I think that is critical for us. We are making an artifact that will be layered onto the actor to become the character. We are playing some small part in offering elements that allow that character to believe in who they are. Of course actors will bring that 10 fold anyway, but if we don’t go there then we are in some way lessening their ability rather than adding to it. A weapon is not a prop, a weapon was used to save one’s life and save one’s livelihood. You live and die by your ability to wield that object, so they must feel like real swords, like real daggers. Lucy could do some serious damage if she chose to stab that thing into someone’s neck. She is only carrying it on her side because that act might be asked of her. This isn’t play fighting back home in England. This is serious stuff so you try to build things that have credibility and an artistry and cultural reference through the history of Narnia.
The Narnian history has been a lovely thing to play to. The Magician’s Nephew, of course, allowed us to and weave through so much of CS Lewis’ thoughts. We also looked at literary points of reference about his life to try and think of things that might have influenced the culture through the story. We wrote a book called The Crafting of Narnia: The Art, Creatures, and Weapons From Weta Workshop in an effort to try and acknowledge the very things that might not be so apparent in the movie. The oak leaves are used in designs not because they make a nice motif; the oak leaves are there because they have a reference point back to Peter’s life and his journey. It may be spiritual or it may be ethereal, whatever it is it has some point of reference.
Was there a specific challenge on Prince Caspian that you had not encountered before?
RT: Prince Caspian was surprisingly challenging at a design level. In the first film the core of the world was the Narnians and the creative excitement of delivering this group of highly-sophisticated speaking animals and putting them into believable armor emblazoned with their culture. Then comes Prince Caspian and that has all been swept away by bitter in-fighting and political intrigue and men overbearing the natural world and all the motifs he wrote of so beautifully. Suddenly we were making a movie about war and factions and all of the ceremonial pomp and arrogance that goes along with a dominating race of people. They had allowed their military might to become much more ceremonial and grand so we focused on that first and foremost. It was a challenge not to keep thinking and reminiscing about everything that was the Narnians. When we approached the Narnians we had to draw them right back to a guerilla fighting force so they are primitively armored and crudely equipped. It was a psychological challenge letting go of those beautiful characters that had been developed so much.
I thought Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian as a film was astounding. I love it. I’ve seen it twice now, the second time with my six-year-old boy who is completely enraptured by the world. I felt that the second film was a very strong and forward movement from the first. I thought the children had found a completely believable place in the world and I found it to be a very adult movie. It didn’t trivialize the motifs we were trying to communicate.
Just a little side note; I took my children to Prague for the filming. My son had seen The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe but he doesn’t yet understand what cinema is or that it is make-believe. He thinks you are looking at a document, a reality. William Moseley to him is a king. When we walked on set William was dressed in full military regalia. He drew a sword, kneeled at my son’s feet and welcomed him as a fellow king. My son to this day thinks that he met the King of Narnia and he talks about how he went to the palace to see the queen. It is bloody marvelous.
Join us on a photo tour of the Weta Workshop and locations for The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian