Oscar winning producer Mark Johnson talks to Movies.ie about the logistics behind Prince Caspian, released on DVD this weekend
Mark Johnson is a the producer behind the recent Narnia movies, he’s worked on many big TV shows and blockbusters including ‘Good Morning Vietnam’, ‘Bugsy’ and ‘Rain Man’, for which he received an Oscar.
Here, he talks about the logistics behind a franchise as big as Narnia, which is released on DVD in Ireland this weekend.
Q: You’re starting work on the third Narnia movie soon, do you wait on purpose to gage how Prince Caspian does you start the next one?
Mark Johnson: No we did that after ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’ because we weren’t sure , how well it was going to work; so we didn’t start making preparations to do ‘Prince Caspian’ until it came out. We’re assuming, you know perhaps correctly or incorrectly, that this one will do well; so we wanted to be prepared to go into the third one straight away. The idea now is that we have one that comes out every two years. I don’t mean arrogant about it, but the movies have to work both artistically and commercially for us to keep going. So obviously we will see how this one goes.
Q: Were you surprised that ‘The Golden Compass’ who tried to go the same avenue didn’t perform too well and was not very understood.
Mark Johnson: I’m not quite sure why, because I like the movie a lot, you know people have said to me, ‘aren’t you worried that fantasy movies aren’t doing that well now based on that film and a couple of others’, and I think it’s always a question about quality. If it’s a good film, if it’s emotionally there, which I think what happened with ‘The Lion and the Witch’, it wasn’t just that it was a big fantasy film, it had real heart and a soul to it. I think you have to take each film individually. They used to say that westerns don’t do well any more, and then someone went out and made a good western and it was successful so you can’t take anything for granted. You still have to make a good film.
Q: Are you hoping to kind of avoid the kind of religious problems that surrounded the first film?
Mark Johnson: I don’t know that they were actual problems. The first film was about faith and finding faith, and this film was very much about losing it and regaining it. But I think it’s faith in such a general sense, what’s wonderful is that the film worked all over the world, in places where it didn’t necessarily have any kind of religious connections, they were just great stories. And so we set out to make movies that we thought were representative of the books without any specific message or, as I say, messages of faith and regaining faith, I think those are ones that speak to everybody.
Q: There’s a time span of 1300 years, between the first movie and the second movie, what challenges did you have trying to get this across on screen, while keeping Narnia familiar to the people who had seen the first movie?
Mark Johnson: That was a real relevant question for us when we were making it. It’s interesting – on a film maker’s stand point, we toyed with the idea, of bringing back characters that were instrumental in ‘The Lion and the Witch’. We would have loved to bring back Mr. Tumnus, or Mr. And Mrs. Beaver, but there is no way you can justify it in 1300 years. But in terms of the Landscape of Narnia, is that it’s an older and somewhat corrupted Narnia, that’s why we filmed only a portion of it in New Zealand and most of it in central Europe. So we wanted to make a Narnia that, unlike the first one, had intentionally been filled with snow because it had had the 100 year winter. This one we wanted to make a much darker, exactly sinister, but a Narnia that had been subverted somehow.
Q: Is it easier, from your point of view, to deal with a new actor like Ben Barnes (Prince Caspian), to try to get him the type of rapport that’s going to follow you for years instead of dealing with someone that is known?
Mark Johnson: We never wanted to use anyone known. You know, for a long time when we were making ‘The Lion and the Witch’ it was reported in the press that we were talking to Nicole Kidman to play the white witch, but that was never the, never the case. It always struck us that Narnia was the star of it and we didn’t need stars.
Q: Do you find it difficult to push Narnia as a franchise considering it’s main cast changes every movie?
Mark Johnson: Well it’s interesting you know, we had the four kids in ‘The Lion and The Witch’, and this film. The older kids disappear now. The two younger ones will disappear after the next one, and then we introduce a new character named Eustace, who then is the star in the next one. The only character who appears in all seven books is Aslan the Lion. And so, Prince Caspian has two movies, this film and the next one, in which he is front and centre. And then he’s gone.
Q: Did you try to change that? Did you struggle with that idea?
Mark Johnson: You can’t really, these books are so important. The readers are so loyal, and sort of rabid about these books I think if you were to make big changes there would be an uproar. It’s hard, because the name of this movie is ‘Prince Caspian’ so you have to put Prince Caspian out there but when we tested the movie, we found that the audiences were so happy to see the four Pevensie children back. There was such good will from the first film that the original cast are as important as introducing a new character.
Q: Is Liam Neeson (the voice of Aslan) , committed to all future Narnia movies? On that note as well, did you have a retainer on the original cast to return on the chance that a sequel might be created later?
Mark Johnson: Yes. What they do, traditionally, especially when you are working with a young cast, you sign them for that film and two optional films. So we have them for at least three films. In Liam’s case, it’s a pre-negotiated contract. He could always say he doesn’t want to do it. Or in theory we could say that we want to replace him with somebody else, but that won’t be the case… he’s so identified with Aslan now.
THE CHRONICLES OF NARINA: PRINCE CASPIAN is released on DVD in Ireland on November 14th