They say that on a movie set, the director is God. Not today. Not in the low mountains outside Christchurch, New Zealand, where on this December 2004 afternoon, heavenly forces are fighting Andrew Adamson for control over The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a $180 million adaptation of C.S. Lewis' beloved children's classic. On a vast plateau of sheep-grazing turf known as Flock Hill Station, the animation superstar (he codirected both Shrek flicks) should be staging Armageddon. The White Witch (Constantine's Tilda Swinton) should be leading an army of ogres, black dwarves, and pig-snouted boggles into battle against four British siblings and their legion of unicorns, satyrs, and assorted talking animals. But the field lies empty, thanks to a roaring gale that could knock a Minotaur on his arse. A day of shooting imperiled, and Wardrobe is already behind schedule.
Yet not all is lost. Down at base camp A sprawling village of trailers and tents situated next to a gurgling river Adamson is salvaging time with greenscreen work. Garbed in a chain-mail dress with a lion's-mane collar, Swinton mushes a polar-bear-drawn chariot that will be rendered later with computers. Suddenly, Marilyn Manson starts screaming: ''REACH OUT AND TOUCH FAITH!'' The Scottish actress punches the air to the sinister stomp. Her White Witch is pure Antichrist glam, and she felt Manson's ''Personal Jesus'' could get her in the mood. Everything's rockin' then, really rocking, as the hammering gusts cause the overhead lights to sway. A month ago, another windstorm blew away the first greenscreen tent. No one wants to take any chances. ''I do wonder if we're going to wind up in that river, splashing our way out,'' says newcomer William Moseley, 18, who plays big brother Peter. ''Pretty crazy.''
And so, Adamson retreats to the catering tent, filled with half-dressed beasts killing time. Rail thin and pale, with shoulder-length blond hair, Adamson could be the missing link between Steve Buscemi and David Spade, only taller. Usually, the 39-year-old New Zealand native radiates a winning mix of confidence and gentleness. At the moment, he just looks beaten. Maybe now isn't the kindest occasion to ask Adamson about making his live-action directing debut on a movie of this scale, expense, and significance. But hey: What else is there to do?
''What I'm doing...'' and then a windblast wallops the tent. He shakes his head and laughs. ''Oh, I don't know what I'm doing.''
And to think, it won't be getting any easier from here.
That's what Andrew Adamson had in mind after Shrek's exhausting trek. Something small. Every fantasy franchise in Tinseltown from Willy Wonka to Lemony Snicket wanted a meeting. Adamson just wanted a nap, then to make a tiny little art film thing. Then, Narnia called.
Before Harry Potter was there actually such a time? there was The Chronicles of Narnia. A seven-volume series of slender novels, Lewis' enduring creation (over 85 million sold) was a melting pot of fantasy and folklore (much to the disdain of the British author's buddy and mythic purist, J.R.R. Tolkien), colored by the cosmology of the scholar's Christian beliefs. Wardrobe, the first book, published in 1950, is your archetypal through-the-looking-glass tale: Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy Pevensie refugees of the London blitz discover that a mysterious, fur-packed closet tucked away in a country home is actually a portal into a wonderland of chatty critters, all awaiting the return of a messianic lion, Aslan, who will end the Witch's reign of tyrannical winter. Says Swinton: ''I think the world is evenly divided between people who read these books as children and those who didn't.''