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Last Updated: Thursday, 29 November 2007, 11:56 GMT
Golden Compass stars feast on fantasy

By Caroline Briggs
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra Belaqua

The Golden Compass, based on Philip Pullman's novel Northern Lights, opens in cinemas worldwide next month.

When Dakota Blue Richards landed the role of Lyra Belacqua in The Golden Compass, she celebrated in typical teenage style.

"I didn't know what to do," she laughs, "so I had a little scream-fest and did a little dance."

For 13-year-old Dakota playing Lyra was simply a dream come true. It was meant to be. Like Lyra, she explains, she is loyal, and overly inquisitive. She also talks too much.

But more importantly, she beat 10,000 other girls - no mean feat for a girl with no previous acting experience - to join a stellar cast which includes Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter, and Daniel Craig as Lord Asriel, in director Chris Weitz 's big-screen version of the book.

Daemon - In Lyra's world, people's souls live on the outside of their bodies in the shape of animals
Alethiometer - An intricate device that can answer any question formed in the mind of the user. Only Lyra has the ability to read its symbols
Dust - A mysterious substance that Lord Asriel travels north to search for
The Gobblers - An army of childcatchers, the General Oblation Board, who steal children and ship them to the Arctic to carry out experiments
Magisterium - The Magisterium is a church-like organisation that represents all dogmatic groups
The Gyptians - A gypsy group of boat-people who have a strong sense of loyalty and love. Their children have suffered most at the hands of the Gobblers

And despite her apparent ease, Dakota, who appears in almost every scene, says she was well aware of the pressure of carrying a high-profile film on her young shoulders.

"It was hard work and you do find that you are very exhausted by the end of the day... But now it's life as usual. People don't recognise me, which is fine by me."

The Golden Compass is a great romp of an adventure. Lyra, who believes she is an orphan, is raised by her uncle Lord Asriel and dons in the dusty corridors of a parallel-world Oxford college.

The untameable Lyra, and her daemon Pantaliamon, scamper on rooftops with her gypsy friend Roger, and wage war on the other local urchins.

But when Roger disappears, kidnapped by a mysterious group known as the Gobblers and whisked away to the frozen North, Lyra vows to save him.

She is helped along the way by a white witch called Serafina Pekkala, the Gyptians, Texan aeronaut cowboy Lee Scoresby, and an armoured bear by the name of Iorek Byrnison.

French actress Eva Green, 27, plays the 400-year-old witch Serafina.

'Good bruises'

She learned to "fly" for the part, which she says was worlds away from her best-known role as Bond girl Vesper Lynd in Casino Royale.

"It was very scary because I was very high above the ground," she says.

"It was very physical because you had to go very fast and land very sharply, and I rehearsed for three weeks with stunt people who were very patient with me.

"I got some bruises when I rehearsed the co-ordinated fights, there were flying arrows and killing people, but good bruises. They made me tough."

Eva Green as Serafina Pekkala

Green, like the rest of the cast, says she wanted to be involved in the film after falling "completely in love" with Pullman's trilogy - The Northern Lights, The Amber Spyglass and The Subtle Knife.

But bringing Pullman's colourful tribe of characters to life against the surreal cityscapes and snowy Arctic landscapes was never going to be simple.

Director Weitz, 38, read Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy when making About A Boy in 2002, and says he was immediately struck with the ambitious storytelling and breathtaking vision of the books.

He signed up to direct the film, only to pull out a few months later, citing the scope of the "technical challenges" as the reason. He readily admits he "got scared".

Within months he was back on board, and while he acknowledges it was "every bit as hard" as he anticipated, he harbours no regrets.

We had tremendous resources at our disposal, absolutely astonishing
Director Chris Weitz

"I realised just what a huge undertaking this was going to be. At the time I was a lonely single man and I realised that it was going to eat up three years of my life and I would be spat out the other end. What would become of me?" he laughs.

"So I bowed out as gracefully as I could, but stayed on as a screenwriter.

Visually stunning

"In the intervening months I started to realise it was manageable. I met my wife, got a life, and realised I could actually manage to do this."

Weitz said he delighted in playing with his large budget - reportedly in excess of 200m - and created a visually stunning world which manages to look both futuristic and retro, thanks to its steampunk trappings.

They did tentatively try to use real animals for the daemons, but they either tried to "fight or mate", Weitz laughs.

Nicole Kidman as Mrs Coulter and Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra Belaqua

"We had tremendous resources at our disposal, absolutely astonishing," he explains.

"We had a foundry of our own to make brass items. We were able to recreate these turn of the century lamps and do all kinds of extraordinary things."

The sheer scale of visual effects in the film meant the stars spent a lot of time acting in front of a green screen, with the computer generated daemons, fighting bears and flying witches added in post-production.

"The green screen work was fine - it was just like being on stage," explains Green.

"But you don't know what the landscapes are going to be like around you, and I was so amazed by the daemons when I saw the end result. The special effects are extraordinary."

Daniel Craig, who spent some of his time filming in Switzerland, said: "There was a lot of CGI but we also had a great set designer, and I had very little talking to do to inanimate objects.

"I think I lucked out on that one."

The Golden Compass opens in the UK on 5 December and in the US on 7 December.

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