News for Jan. 22, 2005

Narnia Set Report 2: Gloomy Halls and Golden Pillars

1/22/05, 9:25 am EST - weetanya

By Tehanu

On my next visit, things are a lot quieter in the Henderson film lot, and I have the chance to watch people preparing some of the other sets. The first thing I see is the great hall in the Witch's House. Again, it's built inside one of the big packing sheds that are used as soundstages, but once inside you forget that. The set builders have made a grim, grey, imposing space. The architecture is not exactly spiky, but the details on the walls are full of angles, like Art Deco only more threatening. Ranks of icebound pillars march down either side of the hall, and stalactites hang from above. It is truly a winter palace.

It's a place designed to put the White Witch's subjects in their place. The main floor is a sunken court surrounded by steps on all sides - no doubt the Queen's guards and bullies can look down from there onto anyone standing before her throne.

The throne itself is an angular heavy thing, once again looking like Art Deco furniture gone subtly wrong, and it sits on a platform well above the floor of the hall. A huge white fur rug is thrown carelessly across it. When somebody is sitting in that throne, there is no question of who is the boss in this place. The rest of the hall is utterly without comfort. It is empty.

There should be frozen statues of Narnians who have displeased the Witch scattered around the hall, but perhaps they are needed elsewhere. In other parts of New Zealand, film crews are preparing to shoot the great battle scene that occurs later in the book. Many of the Narnian statues will be needed at Flock Hill Station in the South Island, where they will play the roles of unfortunate Narnians caught by the Witch's sorcery.

My next stop on this set tour takes me to a place where plaster pillars are being cast and decorated for another set. Nothing could be more different from the pillars of the Witch's hall. These ones are rounded and beautifully proportioned, and they are painted to look like marble of a soft and delicate green colour. I look around for more details for the set, (things are lying around in various states of construction) and see designs that use Celtic motifs, such as you might see in an illuminated manuscript. There are lots of curves and spirals that seem ready to spring to life. In some cultures, (like the New Zealand Maori, for instance) spirals are a symbol of life and growth. Such things will go into the set for Cair Paravel, and their colours and forms seem full of a Spring-like energy. They should form a perfect opposition to the cold and deadly architecture of the Witch's house.

Three people are at work gilding the bases of the pillars. You would think that this would simply be a case of painting them gold, but that isn't how they do it. They are applying gold leaf. Each piece of gold leaf is only a few inches square and must be peeled carefully off a thin backing sheet, pressed onto the plaster surface and rubbed gently until it sticks without wrinkling. It looks like unbelievably slow and painstaking work. I ask if the leaf was real gold, and one of the crew replies jokingly that they have to find some way to spend up their budget.

On my last visit, I'd heard that the other children were fleeing across the melting ice with the Beavers on their way to rescue Edmund from this dungeon. More than one worried correspondent had written to ask whether this meant that Aslan's role would be downplayed. What if Aslan doesn't rescue Edmund? I'm able to ask film's publicist, Ernie Malik, about this apparent plot change. He stresses that the film follows C S Lewis's works very closely and keeps its themes intact. The official word on that is, Lamp Post Productions confirms that Edmund's rescue is very faithful to Lewis' book.

There's a point beyond which it doesn't pay to press my informant too hard, so I leave it at that. It's the same problem we faced reporting on The Lord of the Rings: if there was a way to find out exactly how the movie would be made, how could the movie surprise us when we finally went to see it? It would become, as somebody once said, ?just a visual Xerox of the story we already know.

Edmund may be imprisoned, and the children may intend to rescue him, but apparently they do not carry out their plan. The Beavers are there, after all, to warn them not to attempt it. There is time for Edmund to be taken away on the dreadful sleigh journey by the Witch first, and her plans for him can be thwarted by Aslan as in the book. Certainly the Stone Table exists for Aslan's pivotal scene, and film crews have been working around it for over two weeks.

What is interesting is that nobody's denied that at some point Tumnus is imprisoned with Edmund, instead of spending most of the story as a frozen statue in the Witch's courtyard. I think this may add up to some additional scenes that don't detract from the book. After all, if the film has a fine actor like James McAvoy playing Tumnus, it's a shame to have him appear only in one scene near the beginning, when he invites Lucy to tea, and then let him disappear from the film until near the end. It would make sense to give us more time with the character of Tumnus. He is a typical Narnian, and the audience has to get a chance to care about Narnians and their fate. If Edmund spends time imprisoned with Tumnus, we may see him realise that he has been misled by the Witch. He must see that the nature of Narnian creatures is very different to what she made him believe. Perhaps in that dungeon he will finally realise what he has done by betraying them. That could be a very emotional moment. It would lead naturally to his moment of pity later on when he sees the Witch turn other innocent creatures into stone. One of the themes of the book is Edmund's learning to feel sorry for others besides himself, and the movie won't suffer from spending time on that. Well, the next thing on my visit was a little unexpected: Centaurs! But that will have to wait until next time.