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Director Michael Apted on Why the New Narnia Film Was ‘a Bit of a Struggle’

Since the Pevensie children last ventured into the magical land of Narnia for 2008’s Prince Caspian, there have been some changes in front of the camera — Lucy (Georgie Henley) and Edmund (Skandar Keynes) are older in the new sequel The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and instead of returning to Narnia with their older siblings, they’ve brought their bratty cousin Eustace (Will Poulter) with them — but none of those changes compare to what went on behind the scenes. Despite the windfall generated by the first filmic adaptation of the classic C.S. Lewis franchise, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, its expensive follow-up, Caspian, underperformed so badly that Disney dropped the series entirely. Fox picked it up, cut the budget, and replaced franchise helmer Andrew Adamson with the British director Michael Apted, who knows a thing or two about what works in a long-running movie series (he masterminded the Up documentary franchise, which tracks real people in seven-year installments, and he also directed a James Bond film, The World Is Not Enough). So was Dawn Treader then smooth sailing? Not quite, the candid Apted told Vulture.

Congratulations on snagging the queen for the premiere of the movie. Did she attend when you premiered The World Is Not Enough?
No, no, no, this was the first time. I’ve done royal premieres before, but not with her. She doesn’t do that many these days, so it was an honor to have her. She tends to unload that to the princes rather than schlep out on a winter’s night to the West End to see a movie, so it was great that she showed up.

Having made the Up films, does that give you additional perspective when it comes to directing young children?
In one way, it does. I learned that you should never talk down to them. It kind of pisses me off when you see people talking down to kids and teenage actors, and I learned doing the documentaries that you get nothing out of people that you patronize, nothing at all. So maybe that’s the lesson I learned doing those films, and it put me in decent shape to direct people who aren’t adults. They may have equal footing with adults when it comes to the years [of experience], but that’s irrelevant; it’s not the years, it’s the attitude.

With both Bond and Narnia, you’re coming into a series after the rules have been established by other producers and filmmakers. Still, did Narnia give you more leeway than Bond?
I think so. With Bond, I was following eighteen movies. They did want changes, but they were very specific changes: They wanted to use women more in the franchise, they wanted more character, they thought they had great actors who just weren’t being used properly. When it comes to changing certain attitudes of Bond or certain story points, though, you always run up against a brick wall. “Let’s have Bond do this!” And they’d say, “No,” and I’d say, “Why?” And they’d say, “Well, he wouldn’t.” I just had to respect that they had an instinct about it. I think with Narnia, it’s a different franchise and all the stories are quite different, so the director gets a lot more freedom to suggest the tone, but nonetheless, you’re right: I was under pretty strict orders. The advertising said, “Return to the magic, return to the whatever-it-is of Narnia,” so that was my burden, that was my task. I think looking at Caspian, you could see what the problem was. It was pretty evident the way it had to go.

You’ve changed Caspian’s accent from the second film — now Ben Barnes speaks in natural British tones instead of this vaguely Mediterranean voice.
Two reasons. One, I didn’t like [his other accent], and I didn’t think it did him a service. He’s a very nice actor with a very nice voice, and I wanted to dump that accent anyway. The other issue is that when Andrew did Caspian, he shot it in Eastern Europe, so he was using Eastern European actors and he went for that European version of English. Now, I was shooting in Australia, so my challenge was to use Australian actors and get them to have English voices. What I didn’t want is Australians trying to be English and Ben Barnes trying to be Central European or whatever, so it was a question of my taste and circumstance. He was a bit nervous about the decision, because he thought it would look as if he had failed to do the accent, which he hadn’t. I said, “Look, I’m going to step up for you if you get that response.” Basically, I didn’t like what it had done to his performance, and I thought he managed to be more natural in Dawn Treader than in Caspian.

The producers have been very candid about the fact that they were disappointed with the second film. What lessons did you draw from how that did?
In all fairness, that one was a pretty dark book. I don’t think it’s as interesting or magical or as much fun or witty as the two that surround it, so I think that’s the heart of the problem. That’s all I can really say: It was a tough book to adapt, and I suppose they didn’t really realize they were in problematic fields. The first one was such a huge success that I think probably everyone thought, “Well, the franchise is on track and can speak for itself.” But I think they learned the hard lesson that it wasn’t a home run, that they had to really work at it. I think it was tough for them, and God forbid that I would criticize them for what they did, but we had our own problems with Dawn Treader because it’s a difficult book to adapt. It has no [consistent] energy to it, and we had to take fairly bold measures to give it a narrative spine that would drive the emotion and humor of this story. That took us quite a long time to figure out. The [makers of Prince Caspian] were coming in off the back of a huge hit, when I suppose the name “Narnia” was gold dust, but we really had to step up and work at it.

What happened with the voice of Reepicheep, the heroic warrior mouse? Eddie Izzard voiced the character in Prince Caspian, then Bill Nighy announced that he would be doing it for this film, and now in the final cut, it’s Simon Pegg.
I wanted to change Eddie because I wanted the voice to be older and have a bit more attitude to it, and so I went to Bill Nighy and I thought he did a good job, but the studio didn’t like it. They thought his voice was too old and I tried it twice with Bill because he’s a terrific guy and he was upset. So we did it again and the studio still wasn’t convinced by it, and I didn’t want to put Bill through any more of that and we had to move on. We tried a lot of people, and Simon walked in and there was something about it that I liked – I liked the vitality and subtlety of it – so I did it with him. People responded to it and it worked out, but it was kind of an awkward [situation]. It was awkward for Eddie, it was awkward having to say to Bill that this wasn’t going to work. I think Simon did well, but it was an awkward time for me.

Eustace is an almost thrillingly bratty character — you guys really went for it. Were there any worries, though, that he might be too unsympathetic for children to eventually root for?
The initial studio response was somewhat negative to him. They said, “He’s hysterical, but not hysterically funny — he’s a hysteric! He’s got to be more sympathetic. He’s a cartoon.” And I said, “Hang on a bit, sympathetic? There’s not a breath of a hint of sympathy in what Lewis wrote.” His whole point was that Eustace was insufferable and one of the elements of the story was his journey and his redemption, as it were. I must say, I had to stand my ground a bit with the studio, and I think we came through. I was convinced that we were doing it correctly, but it’s always nerve-racking when people say it’s over-the-top because there are some good people at Fox and they have good instincts.

The other unnerving thing that I contested with them was that half the movie is the relationship between Eustace and Reepicheep. If we didn’t deliver that, then we wouldn’t have a complete movie, and of course I was fought on it on every front because it’s so expensive to do Reepicheep. They were balking at the cost, because after Caspian came out, my budget was pretty much halved and I was always fighting budget battles. One that I really sort of gave blood on was to preserve Reepicheep and preserve that relationship.

It seems crucial, since that provides all the emotional payoff at the end of the movie.
Yes. They would always say to [liven] up the end, but then they would cut the sword fight. I would say, “Well, sorry — I know that the sword fight is one of the most expensive scenes in the movie other than the serpent battle, but if we don’t have a sword fight, we don’t have an end.” So that was again a big fight, but it was all about the tone of Eustace and the journey he had to take. It was sticky stuff. Generally, the movie was hard because to me, it’s a story with real kids and real adventure and real threats, but against a barmy background — barmy, in the sense that it’s a crazy background with Dufflepuds and magicians and all this. You can’t satirize it or make fun of it, you’ve got to take it all seriously because the kids are taking it seriously. You can’t stand outside the film winking at it, saying, “Hey, this is a hoot. Let’s have some fun with this, and now, back to the story.” So that was sort of troubling on a daily basis, to get a tone that acknowledged that there were crazy things and events, but you had to keep the line of what was real for the characters. It had to be serious for the audience, and that was a bit of an internal struggle for me, I must say.

As J.K. Rowling has noted with dismay, by the end of the book series, Susan is effectively nixed from Narnia because she’s gotten too enamored of stockings and lipstick. You do have Susan back briefly in this movie, as the subject of male attention. Were the seeds being planted for that?
No. What was central was [screenwriter] Michael Petroni’s brilliant idea of dramatizing Lucy’s jealousy of Susan. We wanted to make that story. I’ve heard this before, that Miss Rowling thinks that [Lewis] was a misogynist. I don’t know about that and I don’t want to get into that, but I do think Lucy’s temptation was very well drawn by Michael, and I think it’s something a lot of young women will acknowledge. In some ways, Georgie was living through it, because she has older sisters, and I think she understands that odd jealousy that younger sisters have for the older ones. As for [Susan’s fate], I don’t think this particular franchise thinks that far ahead. That’s more than three films down the line.

Despite the conflicts you had making the movie, if it’s successful, would you consider coming back to Narnia again for another installment?
Sure, of course I would. Of course. We may have been lucky — we may have come up with something, we may have a shot — and I don’t want to go on about it, but it was a pretty grueling ride. There were a lot of fingers in the pie: the [Lewis] estate, Walden, first Disney, and then Fox. There were a lot of chiefs and a lot of difficulties, and I think things like that would have to be sorted out beforehand, before we got into it. Of course, if they wanted me to do more and this was successful, I’d be stupid to say that I wouldn’t want to come back, but there has to be a few ground rules established. This was a little bit chaotic for quite a lot of the time.

Director Michael Apted on Why the New Narnia Film Was ‘a Bit of a Struggle’