Chris Weitz is a moviemaker on the spot. He has just directed a multimillion dollar movie fantasy, The Golden Compass, which opens around the world today. And nobody seems willing to let him enjoy it.
William Donohue of The Catholic League — without having seen the movie — has been complaining that it "teaches atheism to kids." The phrase "it's being marketed to children" is in most every e-mail-chain attack letter, launched by American Christian conservatives about "a self-described atheist" (author Philip Pullman) having access to their children.
Fans of the novels Compass is based on, especially in Britain where Pullman lives and writes, have expressed anger and disappointment that Weitz (who directed About a Boy) "watered down" the books' criticism of organized religion and the Catholic Church. Message boards on fantasy-film Web sites overflow with "he'd better not have screwed this up."
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of Britain's National Secular Society, isn't happy either.
"It is wrong that children watching these films should not get the opportunity to see the more balanced picture of religion," he says.
Still, the early reviews have been positive. And the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops endorsed the film with a review, saying that "most moviegoers with no foreknowledge of the books or Pullman's personal belief system will scarcely be aware of religious connotations, and can approach the movie as a pure fantasy-adventure."
Weitz is trying to let it all roll off his back.
"God's not in any trouble," he says with a chuckle. "I think he can take care of himself."
We reached Weitz, 38, a self-described "lapsed Catholic crypto-Buddhist," in Los Angeles.
Question: Reading online interviews with you, the tone and nature of the questions you're getting from Brits seems quite different from the ones you're getting from U.S. journalists. This is the "Why did you back off from Pullman's assault on religion?" vs. "Why do you hate Catholicism?" question.
Answer: Oh yes, that one. Britain is where the books are most known and revered, and America is where they're least known and thus, the most open to misinterpretation, these e-mails going around about [Pullman] based on second-hand knowledge of the books.
What I feel about it is, there are people in the States who are misreading the books as an attack on religion or Catholicism. And they're attacking a movie they haven't seen. I think the books are deeply spiritual and moral and support all kinds of virtues: kindness, compassion and courage. I'm a new father, and the last thing I'd want to do is hurt a child's spiritual development.
At the same time, there are some fans of Pullman who are equally scriptural in their approach to these books and want to drag them into a perceived culture war. Their demands that the films be aggressively anti-religious are every bit as wrongheaded as the boycott protests. People can be very hardheaded about understanding a book on its own terms.
Q: Did you see this coming?
A: I didn't expect quite as vicious an attack as the one that has come from Mr. Donohue. I suppose I spend half my time being bemused at being accused of having a "hidden atheist agenda" and the rest of the time just appalled by it.
I always hope that maybe it'll be as obvious to everybody as it is to me that he's a complete loony.
Q: The easiest thing to do in America is walk away from what is sure to be a confrontation with Christian conservatives. Did that have anything to do with your initial decision to give up on this project? [Weitz abandoned a planned film of Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy a couple of years ago.]
A: Actually, it didn't. I had no idea how to make a film with all these digital effects and that scared me off. Peter Jackson very kindly let me visit his effects people while they were making King Kong down in New Zealand. I learned how little I knew, and it scared me away.
But I wasn't put off by the possibility of there being a religious backlash to the books. I don't read the books that way.
Q:What was the visual element of the book that struck you as the most daunting to render on screen, on first reading it?
A: You've got these polar bears [he laughs], these sentient, warrior polar bears who also speak. Nobody knew at the beginning of the process how we'd do that, some digital effect or a mix of animatronic puppets, a guy in a bear suit or a real bear. It became obvious that the bears would have to be performances as controlled as any actor's performance. How do you convey the mass, the space that's filled with creatures like this, with digital pixels?
A real existential crisis!
But the experts observed real bears, tweaked them to more what we think a polar bear looks like. They have narrow chests, in real life. They don't look as strong as they actually are. How do you make a polar bear speak without it being laughable? We chose not to change the musculature of their faces.
They have to convey emotions and fight, all in this virtual world. I think we have one of the great CGI landmarks in our polar bear fight scene.
Every hair on every bear has to respond to an algorithm that takes into account what they're doing, how their muscles are being used, the meteorological conditions they're supposed to be in. That is scary, not the idea that somebody should try to organize a boycott of a movie they haven't seen.