Interview: Voyage Of The Dawn Treader Director Michael Apted

For the third and probably final installment in the movies based on C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia series, there were a lot of changes to be made. Not only does the bulk of the film, Voyage of the Dawn Treader, happen at sea on a massive boat, not only are two of the Pevensie children (Peter and Susan) missing from this adventure and replaced by cranky cousin Eustace (Will Poulter), not only is the story totally separate from the mainland of Narnia we've known before, but the story of the novel itself had to be significantly changed in order to provide a driving narrative for the film. With all those changes going on in the film it made sense to make a change behind the camera, and veteran director Michael Apted was brought on to guide the Dawn Treader and the Pevensies through their latest Narnian journey.

Apted is no stranger to working with children in one way, having directed the documentary Up series about British schoolchildren and following them throughout their lives, and he's also got big-budget movie experience, with the Bond film The World Is Not Enough on his resume. Dawn Treader, though, marked Apted's first venture into heavy CGI animation, not to mention his first time shooting a 3D film and working around the challenges of a film set on the water. Talking to him over the phone last week, I asked Apted about how he navigated the potentially treacherous relationship with previous Narnia films director Andrew Adamson, how he decided to change Lewis's book, why he doesn't consider himself an auteur, and the advice he got from Gore Verbinski and Peter Weir before shooting this film. Voyage of the Dawn Treader opens wide this weekend.

I know you visited the set of Prince Caspian to talk to Andrew Adamson before starting this. What did you guys talk about and what did you learn from him?

Well he was up to his eyes in Prince Caspian. He had only been on the film bout five weeks, and clearly was in for a very very long haul. He was entirely distracted by his own work. He was very kind and very nice, I met the children, I met him, met the production staff. Then I went away and had to meet with Disney and Walden and all that, then I had to go out again and they gave me the job. They hoped to go straight from Caspian to Dawn Treader but they ran into trouble with Caspian, with the shooting. It was going on, and then they had trouble finishing it and then they didn't do so well. They engaged me too early, really. Really Andrew didn't come into play with me until I was almost starting to shoot the film.

Were you able to forge your own thing, then, because it had been a while?

it was quite a while. But Andrew was very helpful. I think he behaved better than I could possibly have done. He was supportive and he came around for bits and pieces when I was shooting. It must have been difficult for him, because he truly did create the thing, he cast the kids, and there was I parading around like I owned the joint.

You had a tricky challenge with this story, because it's episodic and getting away from the basics of the first two films. You seemed to develop and emotional throughline for the children, in both Lucy and Edmund's desire to be like their older siblings. From what I remember that isn't as present in the book.

My aim was, really, I wanted to do a big landscape, a big picture as it was, but give it an intimate emotional life. I find some of these big films soulless, a lot of big color and noise and whatever. I wanted to take a film that had a large scale and give it an emotional center. I think it's in the book, but I just made sure it wasn't swamped by visual effects and 3D. Plotting the relationships, particularly the one between Eustace and the mouse, which I always regarded as central to the film, the major love story in the film.

You're also adding a lot of action pieces.

We had to, yeah. Clearly the flaw in the book is there's no motion to it, no engine driving it. It's a very casual picaresque book, and that would be catastrophic in a movie like this. So we went into the next book and discovered there was some stuff missing in the narrative. There was a big gap between the end of Dawn Treader and the beginning of Silver Chair, so we took some of the stuff that was missing, as it were, the green mist and the witch and all that. We created ourselves a storyline that made you want to see the next scene, and also the possibility of some stronger action than in the book.

You've directed some big action films in the past, but none that relied so much on computers, and particularly CGI characters. How did you handle moving into that technology?

It was a big deal to me. I have a lot to learn. When I did the Bond [1999's The World Is Not Enough], which was a big movie, it didn't have anything like these visual effects. this was a new thing to me. The thing I learned on Bond is "Don't panic, and do it step by step." Frankly don't be afraid to say, "What the hell is going on, how am I going to do this?" If you get good people around, I think people embrace someone who doesn't pretend he knows it all, and is open about his ignorance. Doing the 3D conversion was fun too. I'm not a young man, I've been doing this a long time, and it keeps you going to do new stuff.

Dod you feel like you always have to keep up with the new technology, whatever it's going to be?

I like to. I'm not an auteur, i don't write my own stuff, I don't have an overt vision of the world that I want to keep writing about. It depends on other material. I don't want to repeat myself, so I always go for stuff that gives me a bit of a challenge.

The argument for you being an auteur is the Up series, which you've really put your stamp on. The fact that those movies are about children growing up, and this movie has some of the same things-- did you bring any of that experience into Dawn Treader?

Well, probably not so much when I was doing it, but more now. People say, well how do you direct children, and i look back on those documentaries. You don't get anything out of kids if you talk down to them or patronize them. I treat them as if they're regular adult actors, and they were interesting people, and I found that was the best way to connect with them, not to talk to them.

Water is famously hard to shoot on, working on a boat or even in the tanks. How did you adapt to that?

I went to see a lot of people. I talked to Peter Weir, I talked to Gore Verbinski, and their advice was "If you can avoid going to water, don't go." We built this huge boat, 100-ton boat, we built it by the sea so I had a horizon of about 100 degrees and it was on a gimbal. It could go up and down and backwards and forwards, and it could go in a circle so I could follow the sun around. CGI technology is so advanced with water that I think we got away with it. It was that new technology with water that saved my backside and avoided having to go to sea and all the trouble that would cause. We'd still be out there shooting, I think.

Katey Rich

Staff Writer at CinemaBlend