Northern Lights

Why should "The Golden Compass" have a Director’s Cut

Why should "The Golden Compass" have a Director’s Cut

Author: ~Sphynx-SN - reprinted with permission (original url)

When demanded by the studio to cut The Godfather no more than 2h15m long, Francis Ford Coppola dried down the movie, cutting away everything that was not strictly fundamental to the plot, and with some effort got to 2h20m. The result was an irritated phone call from executive Robert Evans: “I asked for a film, you gave me a trailer!” And so Coppola could return to the original length of 3 hours, which fortunately is the film as we know it. The shorter version, says the director, preserved the main plot, but all the human material had been cut. The story remained, but without its color.

New Line’s The Golden Compass didn’t have the same luck. It ended up in the theaters as a 1h53m long movie, in which subsists the plot, but lacks the human material. The film is a long trailer for a much darker, deeper, more thrilling and still unreleased movie: the version of the director and writer, Chris Weitz. The released version is not at all the film as he wanted it to be… and there are several reasons to believe that the movie, as he wanted it to be, would be much better.

It is uncertain where came from the fateful decisions which made The Golden Compass, originally a very promising movie, to result in a regular work, and not much well succeeded at box-office. But there is no doubt that the most injurious decisions, taken by the studio two months before the release, against the director's wishes, were these: 1) the cutting of the ending sequence (to be used in the opening of the second film, of which there is no word yet) and 2) the inversion of the chronologic order between the events placed at, respectively, the experimental station of Bolvangar, and Svalbard, the kingdom of the ice bears.

Why were these two modifications particularly so harmful, from the cinematographic point of view? (Therefore, not entering the merit of fidelity to the original: this article is not meant to compare the movie with the book, but the theatrical cut with Weitz's original version, as fas as we can reconstitute his vision).


The first modification, because it simply eliminated the climax of the movie, which is by itself utterly disappointing. It was cast away from the projection an intense, surprising and thrilling ending, judging by the material seen in trailers and the storyboards of the previous director, Anand Tucker, based on Chris Weitz’s script, and the declarations of Weitz himself, who spoke of this sequence as a “great emotional moment” and compared it to the parting of Rhett Butler and Scarlett in the classic ending of Gone with the Wind. These final scenes would also present the impressive images of the Northern Lights revealing the way to another universe, opening a curtain in the sky to a beautiful city (moment that the special-effects technicians considered the most challenging of the movie), the meeting between the characters played by Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig, the tragic conclusion of Lyra’s rescue mission and her motivation to find the source of Dust before her enemies. Therefore an ending which, most probably, would make the audience leave the theatre satisfied and looking forward to the second movie, and/or willing to watch the first one again.

Instead of this, the version released in theaters uses an emotionally unsatisfactory ending, with a revolting anti-climax— to the people who read the book and expect what should have happened after, and the audience that didn’t read, which have its expectation destroyed by a sudden and lame ending. It’s like ending Star Wars when the rebel fleet is approaching the Death Star, and keeping the final battle for the beginning of The Empire Strikes Back. A cliffhanger that simply didn't work. When the credits begin to roll, the audience makes the same question of the bear-king: "Is that all?!"

The anti-climax is also consequence of the second modification, obviously made in virtue of the first, and have as well compromised the rhythm and the development of the movie, resulting in a pretty irregular edition: it’s easy to have the impression that from the half of the movie the quality decreases harshly and the story is astray. Let’s see why.

In the script and Chris Weitz’s original cut, Lyra was kidnapped by hunters at the Gyptian camp and delivered at Bolvangar, where she would find out that Lord Asriel (Craig) was prisoner in the bears’ fortress. After the events in the Experimental Station, she got to Svalbard and, because of a storm, she was parted from the group and taken to the bear-king, culminating in the fight between the bears Iorek and Ragnar, the great action moment of the movie.

Doubtless this original chronologic order has a fluency and coherence that were lost with the inversion of the events. In the final version, Lyra is taken by the hunters to the bear-king and rescued by Iorek, and then they move on to Bolvangar, while Lord Asriel is not imprisoned by anybody. Why, this way the bear fight, which should be a crucial scene because of that depended the rescue of Lord Asriel and all the following events, lost its essential importance, and Svalbard became a mere detour in the plot: an action sequence with not much significance in the story, almost superfluous, when it should have been a fundamental moment.

Besides, the uncomfortable sensation of anti-climax becomes bigger by the fact that --since the magnificent final sequence was cut--, after the fight of Iorek and Ragnar there is no other scene that is more thrilling than that duel for the rest of the movie, which returns to the plot after this detour and goes on for half an hour. The scene of the silver guillotine and the battle against the Tartars are less engaging than the bears showdown and would work better before it, with the rhythm of the movie rising, not after. The rhythm itself is fairly compromised when, soon after Iorek’s victory, without a “breathing moment”, there is a very raw transition and we see him and Lyra running to Bolvangar and getting to an ice bridge, in a roughly disharmonic cut. This particular scene feels utterly out of place.

And it actually is. Originally the ice bridge scene would take place just before the final sequence of the movie, and prepare for the emotional climax in the Northern Lights. It just dosen't work to put it right after the bear combat. In Chris Weitz's cut, between the fight and the ice bridge was a breathing moment, in which Lyra meets Lord Asriel and he tells her about the power of Dust, closing this way the plot points of the movie; and then the movie would have a reversal, leading fluently to the ice bridge scene and culminating in the dramatic ending.

Besides, it would be added the suspense of knowing that few time remains for Lyra to save her friend Roger from imminent harm at the other side of the bridge, while a battle aircraft attacks the bears’ fortress. In the final version these resources were wasted, and the scene lost all the impact it should provoke. I would risk saying, in the theatrical version this scene became pretty boring and pointless.

What’s more: in Bolvangar, Lyra hears Mrs. Coulter (Kidman) saying that Lord Asriel bribed his captors and set a secret laboratory. In the original version, Lyra would hear that Asriel is captive, after all it had been shown previously a sequence in which he was captured in the mountains by Samoyed hunters. But since in the final version the bears’ fortress is set before Bolvangar, and Lyra had already been there, it would make no sense if Asriel was prisoner of the bear-king, therefore the dialogue about the capture was replaced by this information about the bribe. Nonetheless the scene in which Asriel is captured remained in the final version. But why to keep a sequence that shows Asriel being imprisoned… only to say afterwards that he actually wasn’t?! Another important sequence that became invalid and turned into nothing more than a vague action moment in the film, without significance to the plot, and even incoherent.

These are by far the gravest flaws, but we can still turn our attention to other promising scenes, most of character development and plot deepening, that were excluded, presumably to keep the movie under two hours long.

Hollowed out

It is well known that New Line's recutting removed approximately 30 minutes of footage of Chris Weitz's original cut. Official storyboards, interviews, vídeos released in the internet, and other sources like illustrated books of the movie, offer a good notion of the great material that didn’t get to the theater— and until now, not even to the DVD or blu-ray disc.

Not only the end and the middle had problems in the final cut, but the beginning too. The movie opens with a travelling from a street in our world’s Oxford, through a "window" to Lyra’s Oxford, and then we hear a voice-over of Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) introducing the peoples of that world-- bears, gyptians and witches-- "à la Lord of the Rings", and explaining what are the dæmons and the alethiometer. Well, this beginning of the theatrical cut does not seem to be what Chris Weitz originally conceived, wrote down and filmed. By the following reasons: First, we can notice that almost every single shot of Serafina’s explanations were taken from other parts of the movie. And in the 5-minute preview there is an excluded (and beautiful) scene in which Lyra is walking across a corridor, followed closely by a mouse, which is followed by a cat. The mouse turns towards the cat and transforms himself into a cat. As the real cat runs away, the transformed cat turns to the screen and says: "That’s odd. She acts like she has never seen a person’s dæmon before."

It seems obvious that Chris Weitz intended to introduce the dæmons in the movie not with a simplistic voice-over explanation, but with this quite ingenious scene, which visually shows that dæmons change shape, talk and are somehow connected to human beings, and every person has a daemon. It would be a much more instigating overture and introduction to that new world, and a more interesting and surprising way of discovering dæmons.

Director Chris Weitz, such as actress Eva Green, did miss the subplot of the relationship between Green's character, the witch Serafina Pekkala, and the Gyptian Farder Coram (Tom Courtenay), which in the final version was reduced to a brief reference. Serafina is invisible when she visits the Gyptian ship to counsel Lyra, and in the complete sequence she sees her former lover but doesn't show herself to him, and asks Lyra to give him a spig of cloud-pine as a token of her affection; Eva Green describes the scene like this: “He can't see her, and it's painful for her too. So when he goes up on deck, she disappears, and he can sense her, or at least he senses something, but he goes back under, and he's very sad. It makes her cry. It's such a sad story.”

In the final version, we don’t only lose all this emotional touch, but also the visit of Serafina at the deck of the Nooderlicht is extremely quick and almost random, with a dialog that hardly justifies the entrance of the character in scene, and less yet the reason of Lyra’s affection for her.

In his screenplay, Chris Weitz has written for this scene a very fine dialog, which we can find in released storyboards [see the links below], with slight differences to the shot scene (for example, in the storyboard Serafina uses a knife, while in the movie is a bow.)

In the final version, nearly only 1/3 of the dialog remained: the part in which Serafina speaks about Bolvangar. It was cut the references to the bears and the coming war, and an interesting speech, seen in production footage, in which Serafina advices Lyra: “The great war. I don’t know what side the witches will take.” There is also no shot of the falling stars and Lyra sneaking outwards the cabin, still shocked because she saw, earlier, a wounded Gyptian die, as the Compass had foretold.

This scene of the death of the Gyptian spy, also excluded, is certainly to be missed. This event makes clear to Lyra that she had begun a really dangerous journey, in which people are dying while her enemies look for her— what would justify the following dialogue where Lyra confesses to her dæmon that she is scared of that quest in which they got themselves in. In the final version, however, it seems that Lyra has got intimidated and wants to go back home just because two mechanic spy-flies tried to get the Golden Compass.

All the time (and interaction) of Lyra with the Gyptians is quite reduced. In the end of the movie, the farewell is rushed. Actually, it barely happens: Lyra exchanges a look with the Gyptian-king, and they simply walk away. In a behind-the-scene video there is an interesting moment, in which Serafina Pekkala not only meets her former lover again, but also promises him that she will protect Lyra. Coram would say: "Whatever side you choose in what's to come, make it Lyra's side." Without such moments of character development, there is no time for the audience to create affection for the supporting characters, nor understand why Lyra does.

Other scene that was “considerably long, and cut to its essentials”, in the words of the director for the DVD commentaries, is the dialog between Fra Pavel (Simon McBurney) and the Magisterial Emissary (Derek Jacobi). In the final version, the two villains talk vaguely about Intercision and suspect Mrs. Coulter. In the trailer there are two speeches that didn’t get to the final version. The Emissary saying: “Her loyalty will be put to a proper test”, certainly referring to Mrs. Coulter, which is shown in the following scene having conflicting feelings; and Fra Pavel asking: “What is out about the Belacqua child? Rumors have been whispered up and down the countryside.” Details that, if are not essential, would deal better with the motivations and concerns of the villains. When the Emissary says that Mrs. Coulter will “demonstrate improvements to the Intercision process upon the Belacqua girl” and the scene ends, it feels pretty incomplete and a bit confusing. It doesn’t make clear what they are thinking and planning about Coulter and Lyra, as the complete scene should probably put at stake.

Also about this scene, in the 5-minute preview there are some excluded shots, like the Emissary handing some kind of report to an assistant, and an interesting shot from above, both beautifully cinematographed. The excluded shot in which the Emissary talks about Coulter's test of loyalty has also a great composition: the Chalice in the background of the Emissary is visually powerful and full of significance, when it comes to loyalty, faith, sacrifice and, of course, Authority. The scene had much to lose with such exclusions. Not to mention that the inscription in the symbol of the Magisterium on the floor, "Unica Ecclesia Super Omnia" [One Church Above All] was deleted in the final version. Which is comprehensible, but quite unnecessary, by erasing a subtleness, and a good artwork of the Art Department.

Another excluded moment exploring the villains is when the soldiers of the Magisterium invade Jordan College to arrest the Master. According to storyboards [see links below], in the original cut, where this scene was set shortly after Lyra’s departure with Mrs. Coulter, the Master would watch as the zeppelin takes flight (!), and then have a dialog with the Librarian, and then he would be arrested. In the theatrical cut, where this scene is set two scenes earlier (before he gives Lyra the alethiometer, "his last gesture as a free man", says Weitz in the DVD commentaries), the Master watches the zeppelin still landed (!), talks part of the dialog with the Librarian, and there is no invasion of the college.

Well, I wouldn’t say that the arresting scene is primary essential, but it would add some action and/or tension, as well as close the part of the Master, and explain better why he secretly gives the Compass to Lyra before the Magisterium can get hold of it in the raid of the college, and show the power of the Magisterium against free thought. Since in the 5-minute preview we see the shot of the Master watching as the zeppelin takes flight (!), and in the final trailer we see a Magisterial soldier breaking through a door at Jordan College, we can assume that the fate of the Master was in Chris Weitz’s original vision.

But not only long sequences make difference. Some problems of the final cut are so subtle, that four or five seconds more would solve it. For example, the first time we see Mrs. Coulter: the previous scene ends with the Housekeeper combing Lyra’s hair, then it cuts to a wide shot of the great hall, we see Mrs. Coulter walking to the table, we hear the voice of the Master reprehending Lyra, and finally we see Lyra. It’s an odd transition, somehow disharmonic; possibly because we lose Lyra as referential for a moment, instead of keeping the point of view. It would be more fluent if it showed first Lyra bored at the table, then the Master started reprehending her, and so we saw Mrs. Coulter crossing the hall during the Master’s speech, until she got to the table and interrupted him. Curiously, in the storyboard the scene is exactly like this.

In this sequence, it was also excluded a dialogue of approaching between Lyra and Mrs. Coulter, in which the girl talks about her parents’ death and Lord Asriel, and Coulter replies: “That’s a fascinating story.” It would help to become more believable when Mrs. Coulter invites the girl to be her assistant, under pretext of being able to trust her.

We may add that one detail was supposed to be somewhere between this scene and Lyra's departure with Coulter: the information that the Housekeeper's niece, Jessie Reynolds, was taken away by the Gobblers. That should to be why the Housekeeper, Mrs. Lonsdale, seems so weepy and worried in her next and last scene, when the Master asks her to stay by the door and see if he was followed.

This suppressed information would support the tension and make more palpable the horror of what the Gobblers are doing, which in the final version is quite vague and relatively light. Otherwise, the theatrical cut, with nothing more than Lyra talking recklessly with Roger that the Gobblers are kidnapping children, doesn't make the Oblation Board seem so terrible at that point. This omission (just like the exclusion of the Master's arresting) softens the sensation of danger, and when Lyra finds out that Coulter is in charge of the Gobblers, it doesn't seem big deal. Such exclusions, like many others, make the movie lack genuine drama and emotional impact.

Lyra’s life at Mrs. Coulter’s house has also a rushed cutting, in swift flashes. The speech of Mrs. Coulter, heard in the preproduction footage, comparing London with the society of the ice bears, is gone. The arrival at Coulter’s is presumed to be originally a bit longer, since we have glimpses of unreleased shots of these scenes in a 5-minute preview, for example Mrs. Coulter saying “Hope we’ll be happy here”, and Lyra entering her room looking pretty happy. Well, there’s nothing particularly wrong with the edition in swift flashes, but perhaps this point of the story could be a bit more explored, in order to add more consistence.

For example, in an environmental video of the DVD we see Mrs. Coulter giving Lyra a goodnight kiss. We can infer that this shot is from the scene in which Lyra is trying to figure the Compass, until Mrs. Coulter gets in the room and Lyra quickly hides the device under her pillow. Coulter says: “All washed and ready for bed?” and the scene ends. If the scene had proceeded and Coulter approached the bed to kiss Lyra, it would have a continued tension, which is interrupted because the scene ends just when the suspense is created with Coulter’s entrance.

Mrs. Coulter’s London party was a longer scene as well, according to an article of the New York Magazine (07/12/07). This article, which compares Tom Stoppard’s draft screenplay (rejected by the studio) with Weitz’s script, and this with the final version of the movie, refers to this and other scenes left out and asks: “Why was this all cut? (…) why did The Golden Compass need to be held to two hours? Surely the Lord of the Rings movies have proved that great epics can be epic length and remain successful? New Line had already spent $180 million on this movie; few of the new scenes would be expensive ones, as the big pricey set pieces from the book — the bear fight, the battle scenes — are already there on screen. In the end it was that decision more than any other that doomed The Golden Compass to mediocrity.” And still: “Weitz's original script was actually great and makes us sad about the movie that could have been.”


No doubt it is strange that an epic with the amplitude and depth of The Golden Compass really needs such a rushed, compact, dry and flat cut, with no space to develop its characters and keep its subtle details. Obviously one cannot put everything of a 400-page book in a movie, but Weitz’s screenplay had everything the movie needed to be great, and fitting perfectly in a 3-hour length or so. The very trailers and television spots suggested a very different movie of that which was released, to the utmost disappointment of the audience that expected His Dark Materials trilogy to be the next cinematographic experience of fantasy with the magnitude to fulfill the gap left after The Lord of the Rings, as the publicity suggested.

And it would not be impossible to supply this expectation, if the movie had been properly presented. After all, to make The Golden Compass an excellent movie it’s not needed to shoot it again, because in all its phases the project had many high qualities: a pertinent, well adapted and exciting screenplay, an astounding art direction, beautiful cinematography and soundtrack, a top cast with good performances, a competent and committed direction. With such a good work in all instances, it’s sad that all was damaged in the very final cutting, when two months before the release it was announced the modifications that put everything to lose.

Certainly Chris Weitz’s version is somewhere out there— beyond videos of unreleased scenes of the movie that leaked in the video-game and show us how the fateful modifications were taken in the last hours. Many of the cut scenes were already finished, or would be relatively cheap to finish, since the most expensive sequences were already post-produced. In interview the director himself showed interest in making a longer version of the movie for DVD, with two and a half hours lenght (40 minutes more than the theatrical version), an idea that Daniel Craig and Eva Green welcomed with enthusiasm. Logically, still not including the cut ending, that would be used in the opening of the second movie.

But now, with the probabilities of the second movie being produced looking more and more remote, what will become of the final sequence, and so many great materials that never left the editing room?

Chris Weitz is currently directing the second movie of the Twilight series (in which is also involved the composer Alexandre Desplat, from The Golden Compass), which makes even darker the perspectives for the shooting of The Subtle Knife and casts doubts on a potential Director’s Cut for Compass. Would New Line Cinema be interested in repairing the flaws and releasing a new cut, much more likely to be acclaimed? Would Chris Weitz still feel anyhow committed with the audience of His Dark Materials trilogy, which he considered to be the work of his life, and return to finish his cut if the studio requested?

In the extras of the DVD he declares that sometimes, during the production of the movie, he would access forums and fan sites in the internet and have “sleepless nights” with the lack of trust that many of these fans showed in him, unbelieving that he would be the right choice to adapt the trilogy. Well, today is recognizable that he made a great work both as screenwriter and director. It remains for us to watch his original version of the movie and check out this work more properly, since it didn’t get intact to us in the theatrical version.

Author: ~Sphynx-SN - reprinted with permission (original url)

Author notes & links:

Chris Weitz's latest word on this topic:

"All I can say is that with The Golden Compass, I didn’t get to make the movie I had planned to make. When I look at the film, at the casting and certain scenes, I’m very happy. As for the final product, I can’t vouch for that. I wouldn’t have made it had I known how it would pan out, but I learned a lot. For a start, I learned that you have to be in complete agreement about what kind of film you are going to make at the beginning of the process with the studio!"
(Source: Telegraph, Nov 12/2009)

"It was a terrible experience because I was able to shoot what I wanted to -- and then the cut of the movie was taken away from me and any reference to religion or religious ideas was removed. And the darkness and threat at the end of the story -- anything that made it not a happy, popcorn-type movie -- was removed. The voice of the key character was redone, all of this against my will.

And the fact of the matter is the people that the studio was afraid were going to raise up arms against the movie did it anyway.

I told them the best thing to do is to do an honest version of the story because at least then you know what you’re referring to. It’s like Mark Twain said, “It’s better not to lie because then you don’t have to remember what you said.” If you’re honest with the book, then you really can’t go wrong.

I’m guilty -- my original sin on that project was to agree to water anything down at all. I was careful not to offend anyone’s sensibilities while at the same time including the religious ideas and the intellectual ideas that are in the book, and wrote what Phil Pullman and I thought was a pretty great representation of his book.

From that point on, as soon as the shooting stopped and the first cut of the movie was presented, I was just hammered and my editor was fired and another editor brought on and gradually power was taken from me."
(Source: The Wrap, Nov 18/2009)

No doubts left: Chris Weitz's cut deserves to be seen!

Some storyboards mentioned in the text

Serafina's Scene

Coulter's Scene

Some more interesting stuff

Arresting of the Master

Billy Costa