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'COMPASS' POINTS DANIEL CRAIG, NICOLE KIDMAN EAGER TO SHARE THE FANTASY.

Byline: BOB STRAUSS

>FILM WRITER

With all the drama surrounding the making and release of "The Golden Compass," now might be the time to note that some people had fun with the $180 million fantasy epic.

Particularly its marquee names, Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. Big fans of author Philip Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy, of which "Compass" is the first book, the Australian superstar and the latest, some say greatest James Bond, were thrilled to embody the scary adventuress Marisa Coulter and scientist-explorer-dissident Lord Asriel.

"The glamour aspect of it was really lovely," says Kidman, who can also currently be seen in dowdier dress and dreary brown hair in the indie dramedy "Margot at the Wedding."

"It's rare. Most of the time I spend as an actor trying to make myself look like a character; so you downplay the way you look. But in this film, they were constantly, like, 'We want to put you in the most magnificent dresses, we want you to be the best-looking you can be.' "

"The best thing for me was shooting in Switzerland, 20,000 feet up a glacier," enthuses Craig. "I don't think there was a downside to it, I genuinely would say so. It was a pretty happy shoot."

Well, eventually, maybe. Before "Compass" commenced shooting, screenwriter Chris Weitz, who's worked with his brother Paul on "American Pie" and "About a Boy," backed out of directing the logistically daunting production. Creating a magic-filled Victorian era-inspired parallel world where every person's soul takes the form of a talking animal companion called a daemon just seemed like too big a task.

Weitz's replacement, "Hillary and Jackie" director Anand Tucker, butted heads with the New Line Cinema brass and he, too, left the project. Then a more confident Weitz came back, though he remained very aware that the story's complicated scientific, metaphysical and theological themes make the film rather more difficult to sell than your basic Harry Potter wizard fest.

"It's the biggest financial gamble that New Line has ever taken," Weitz notes. "Bigger than 'Lord of the Rings,' because 'Lord of the Rings' was much more a known quantity around the world. Also, it was less expensive then. CGI is used in so many films now that the price has gone way up."

And we're talking lots of computer graphics for a film with squadrons of flying witches, retro-tech water- and aircraft, armored polar bears and a different digital critter for every character (sometimes more; the story's tween heroine, Lyra, played by English newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, has a daemon that keeps morphing from cat to ferret to various flying creatures).

Mrs. Coulter's daemon is a nasty golden monkey, Lord Asriel's a regal snow leopard. Though none of the film's actors ever worked with a real creature, pretending to wasn't as hard as it might sound.

"It was always either a little green ball or a total figment of my imagination," Kidman reports. "You just have to really concentrate and conjure up; you know, make believe. But that's your job as an actor. And now we're just used to working with green screen, and it's a big part of what we do."

"Acting with a snow leopard that isn't there?" Craig shrugs. "If the concept, which is one of the big attractions of this story, is that everybody has an animal with them and that animal represents half of their personality and never leaves their side, it's like being with a good friend. And you don't look a good friend in the eye all the time, do you? You just talk and you know they're there.

"I think the same applies to these animals. You're constantly aware of their presence but don't need to interact with them all of the time. I think that makes the special effects team's job much easier, too."

It was a good thing Kidman enjoyed the "Golden Compass" assignment: It was kind of presented to her as something no one else could do.

"Philip Pullman said that when he was writing the book, he pictured me playing the role, that my face kept coming up," the actress acknowledges. "So he wrote me a letter asking me to do the movie."

But Mrs. Coulter is so, well, nasty. In this movie, anyway.

"I was a little offended!" Kidman laughs. "But when he explained to me the arc of Mrs. Coulter over the three novels, I realized what he was getting at, so that's why I said yes. She's described as the villain, but she's much more complex than that."

As the trilogy plays out, Lord Asriel proves equally as unpredictable. For this one, though, he mainly has to explain some very arcane physics concepts like he knows what he's talking about.

No sweat, says Mr. Bond.

"The simple answer is that he knows about these things, I don't have to know about them," Craig says with a chuckle. "In the film and the book, the idea is that there are parallel universes existing right next to each other. Across what plane, I have no idea, a particle physician could tell you, probably. There are crossings between these universes, and he wants to open them up."

And he wants to free the people of his world from the politically powerful Magisterium, a Catholic Church-like religious establishment. Pullman's books have raised much debate -- the British author himself seems to be no fan of religion, although he has many defenders in faith as well as atheist communities -- and the idea of a film spreading some of those ideas has led to outcries from conservative groups such as the lay Catholic League.

For his part, Craig thinks a good intellectual time can be had with this aspect of the trilogy.

"The books raise a very strong debate, and a very healthy one," he says. "I totally disagree with the stuff about this being an anti-religious movie. This is not an anti-Catholic film, it's an anti-establishment film. I think this movie actually has a huge spirituality about it, and raises really important questions about faith and how it's abused and used as a weapon against people's free will."

Weitz, perhaps worried about alienating some of the Christian filmgoers who came out in droves for the first "Chronicles of Narnia" fantasy spectacular, doesn't view the religious criticism as any fun at all.

"My reaction to the protests is sadness, actually," the director says. "I think that they come from people who haven't seen the film and who haven't really engaged with the very subtle and elaborate ideas in the books themselves. They're just seeing something about religion which they're not sure that they understand or like, and objecting to it."

All involved hope, of course, that enough people will come to "Golden Compass" to make future cinematic engagement with the material feasible. None so much as its best-known actors, for one very good reason: they'd enjoy sharing scenes in parts two ("The Subtle Knife") and three ("The Amber Spyglass"), something which doesn't happen in "Golden Compass."

"I hope this series continues so we can have some scenes together," according to Craig, who says of the previous film he made with Kidman, last summer's sci-fi bomb "The Invasion," "avoid it if you can."

"I like Nicole very much, we get on, we're good friends, and I really enjoy working with her," he says. "So I hope the movies can continue, because there's a great story with the two of them in this series."

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss(at)dailynews.com

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5 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) DARE TO GAZE AT THE GOLDEN COMPASS

A LOT IS RIDING ON THIS OTHERWORLDLY CGI EPIC

(2 -- 5) Clockwise from top left, Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman and Dakota Blue Richards star in "The Golden Compass," in which armored polar bears are ready to do battle. All of the characters in the fantasy epic have daemons -- embodied in the form of animals -- that represent aspects of their personalities and never leave their side. Craig's is a snow leopard, Kidman's a golden monkey, and young Richards conjures up a whole host of creatures, including a cat, a ferret and many others that can fly.
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Title Annotation:LA.COM
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 7, 2007
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