Andrew Adamson owns your imagination. It’s true. By creating the worlds of the Shrek movies and Narnia, Adamson has done as much as anyone to guide the blockbuster fantasy worlds that dominate our collective imaginations. The New Zealand director who thought he would be a mechanic has gone from a computer animator to the director of some of the biggest movie franchises of this decade. And even though the upcoming Prince Caspian movie will be the last Narnia film he directs, his presence will be felt throughout the rest of the series, since he’s staying on as an executive producer and says he’ll keep an eye on where things go from here.
Below is an interview with Adamson from the day after he first screened the movie for an audience—with his full cast and crew in attendance. He stood up before the screening and said how nervous he was to be showing the film, but the next morning he was all smiles. Read below what he had to say about raising his kids on film sets, Ben Barnes’ questionable accent during his audition, and whether or not he sees Indiana Jones as competition.
So you’ve been working around the clock to get this finished?
Yeah. I think Woody Allen was the person who said that directing is just choosing your compromises. In the last few weeks, that’s what it really feels like. Along the way you make decisions that have consequences. In the last few weeks, you make decisions that are final. Apart from the fact that you’re just trying to film, because there’s people literally grabbing prints out of your hands and shipping them off. We finished this film one reel at a time to make the print date. They were printing reel one before we even finished reel five. It was a difficult film to finish, but any film is, because you are saying, ‘OK, this is good enough now.’
I remember more than a year ago Disney made an announcement that the original release date had been pushed back. Were you having problems with it, or were there other reasons?
I think the Christmas release date that they very early on intended for was never a realistic release date. It’s certainly never a release date I got behind, because it was all I could do to finish this one. I literally put the last visual effects shot in at 2 o’clock Monday morning. I saw a print of the film for the first time all together myself on Wednesday. So it’s been right to the wire. [Note: Adamson is talking to us on Saturday. He really means it] And there was no reason that this needed to be a Christmas release. It made a lot sense for the last film—Father Christmas was in it, it was set in winter, it was a very Christmas-y film. This just felt more like it could be a summer film.
How challenging was this compared to the first one?
You know what, it should have been easier. You always think, ‘OK, I’ve done it before, so it’s going to be easier,’ but the problem is because of that, there’s a natural tendency to put up more challenges in front of yourself. Then there’s also the expectation. OK, the last film was this big, the audience is going to expect at least that. Then you find that it expands from there, whether driven by yourself or driven just by the nature of the film taking over and rolling on its own. It became a logistically very challenging film. There’s a lot more action, we have a lot more extras because we had the Telmarine army. We shot a lot more locations, which was a very deliberate thing. All of those things added up for it to be more challenging.
Any trepidation in altering the book? The writers said you had to make some changes.
There always is, though I saw one of the Narnia fan guys there last night, and he was absolutely speechless with enthusiasm, so I consider that a good sign. There’s always that trepidation. I actually read the book again on the plane on the way over here, because I thought I’d better do my homework. Actually, because after you work on something for two and a half years, you can’t remember what was there and what you made up. And I was really pleased to find, in reading the book, even though structurally it’s very different, I felt like I was reading the same story. The thing that I said had to do with both of these is say, OK, if this really happened, and C.S. Lewis wrote a book for small children about that event. I want to make the movie of the real event. So I’ve tried to stick to all the key points.
How different is it to go from directing animation to directing live-action?
This is kind of like both, because you do the live action part, and then you have to go and do the animated part, with all the animated character. It’s largely the difference between a sprint and a marathon. The intensity is the same, the duration is different. In animation, you get a lot more chances at things. You can refine over and over and over again. In live-action, obviously, when you’re got those 500 people looking over your shoulder, you can’t have as many chances to do things. The nice thing about doing a combined live action-animation kind of thing is you don’t necessarily have to reshoot stuff. You can give lines to animated characters that you do six months down the track. In both films I’ve actually repurposed scenes and added lines later on with animated characters that have made the live action part better.
Any worry that this is going to be the rest of your life?
No, no, I’m actually stopping directing these after this one. I’ve said on the Internet I only ever do two of anything. The last two films have been quite big and quite challenging, but since the first Shrek I’ve overlapped films. I’m taking a long break, actually—I’m taking a year off, and just develop things. I’m looking to do something quite different.
What things will you do to get away from all the work?
That’s one of the things I want to spend a year figuring out. In all seriousness, I remember when I left high school—because I never went further than that—I remember two weeks later thinking, ‘I don’t have any homework!’ And the realization that I had free time. I’m trying to regain that.
How involved will you be in Dawn Treader?
I’m going to produce it with Mark again. I don’t know how much I’ll be onset. I’ve certainly said to Georgie I’ll be there if she needs me at any point. Like I said, lately I want to spend some time—I had two children on the last film. The oldest of which is five years old, and about to start school.
Are you protective of the world at all? With Harry Potter, after the first two Alfonso Cuaron came in and changed the whole world. Are you worried about that happening?
I think that is really kind of my job, on the next one, and what it was for the third Shrek-- trying to make sure that we stay true to the overall tone and vision of the first couple of films.
Did you read these books as a child, and what are your favorite childhood books?
These were the first sort of big books I remember reading. In retrospect they’re not really that big. At about eight I started reading The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, and I think I remember reading The Last Battle when I was about ten and not wanting to turn that last page. They were very much a part off my childhood.
Are your kids enjoying your movies?
[They are]. They have no point of reference. They think it’s perfectly normal to have friends who are in movie. On the last film I was testing the video game at home, and Isabel came and sat beside me and said, ‘Oh, Georgie.’ Completely normal.
The violence in this film is pretty intense for a PG film. Did you have any concerns about it?
I did want it to be intense, and I wanted it to be a relatively hard PG. I wanted it to still be accessible to small children, but to have a reality injected into it, where the life and death situations feel real. It’s always a hard thing, because I think different people have a different level of acceptance as to how exposed they want their kids to be to intense action. I don’t think it’s violent. I don’t think there’s anything in it that’s graphic. I don’t think there’s anything in it that’s gratuitous. But the action is quite intense, and quite tense at times. I think the main thing is you’ve got to be careful about duration, duration of things like the intensity of the sound. You don’t want kids to feel beaten up at the end of watching this. You wanted them to be excited about the action without feeling like their ears are blown out. One of the things that was almost unintentional, but worked very well, is in the middle of the battle cutting away to Lucy. In some ways cinematically that’s a nightmare, because you’ve got all this action, and suddenly you’re in this quiet scene with two people talking to each other. At the same time in retrospect it was a huge relief, just to have a break from the battle.
All of the big summer movies are heavy with special effects. Do you feel you’re competing with them?
Certainly we’re competing with them in the marketplace. We’re all going to be in theaters at the same time. People are going to have to make a choice about what they say. I think it’s a really strong summer. I think this may be one of the strongest summers we’ve had in a long time.
Do you feel like you’re competing with them with the visuals that you use?
Not really, because I don’t think you can. You don’t really know what someone else is doing. They’re all so different, which is the other saving grace I think. Between Iron Man, this and Indiana Jones, which they’re saying will be the three biggest, they’re such different films. I’m hoping we all do well, obviously.
What’s your relationship with fans? Do you visit message boards or blogs?
You’ve got to be careful, because it can drive you crazy. Anonymity is a strange thing. People say a lot of different things when they’re anonymous than they would if they met you face to face. I tend to stay away from them. Every now and then if we have a trailer going out, I want to see how generally it’s being received. I don’t spend a lot of time on the Internet, because it will just drive me crazy.
How did you choose Ben to play Caspian, and how far was the net cast?
The net was cast pretty much around the world. I wanted to make the Telmarines of kind of Mediterranean descent, with the whole thing of coming from pirates and all that. It started casting in Italy, France, Spain, Central America. Ben came as kind of a surprise. He got in a very good Russian accent—I have to tell him, actually, that his accent sounded more Russian than Spanish—he got the nuance in the script. By this time it was quite late in the game. I was already prepping in New Zealand. So I arranged for him to fly to L.A. and I flew to L.A. from New Zealand. One, he’s very charming. He looked good for the part. I wanted someone who looked very different from William. He’s just a very accomplished young man, who still looked like he was sixteen years old.
Did you make any conscious decision not to bring in big stars for this one?
Not really a conscious choice. I made a very conscious choice in the last film with casting Tilda. I didn’t want ‘such and such as The White Witch.’ I think in terms of the fantasy realm, you’re asking the audience to go one step further—you’re asking them to believe someone they’ve seen over and over again, now to believe them in a new role and to believe you’re in a new world. That was part of it for me. I think these films didn’t need a big star from a financial stance. I wouldn’t have any problem with casting a big star if they were good for the role, but at the same time I didn’t feel the need to go after anyone in particular.
As a kid, did you think you would grow up to be doing this?
I was planning to be a mechanic. I didn’t think I would be doing this.
How did it happen?
A series of accidents, and actually literally a car accident that stopped me. When I left high school, I was planning to enroll in architecture—I decided not to be a mechanic. I was in a car accident right before and I missed university enrollment, and sort of stumbled into a job doing computer animation. That just sort of led to working on commercials, which brought me to the U.S. It wasn’t a very deliberate path.