When Douglas Gresham was a little boy, his mother Joy married C.S. Lewis (known to friends as Jack), the author of the Narnia books. There are two different movies about the touching story of the romance between the sheltered British bachelor, an scholar who lived almost entirely within the academic community and the outspoken American divorcee, a Jewish/atheist/communist-turned Christian and an award-winning poet, who challenged everything Lewis thought he knew. Gresham had two sons, and after her death they were raised by Lewis. Her son Douglas is now the literary executor of the Lewis estate and he is a producer of the films. I was lucky enough to get a chance to talk to him about “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” and what he learned from his mother and step-father.
I know many people have come to you over the years with proposals for Narnia films. What made you decide that Walden was the right group to work with?
I’ve got a secret technique. When we’re making decisions like that within the C.S. Lewis company, where I am one of the leading people, I go inside in a closed room and I pray lots. And then I follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit of God, which is what I’m praying for. And the Holy Spirit of God indicated to me that Walden were the people to go with. So that’s why I went with Walden, and I’m not sorry. As always, the Holy Spirit is right.
Like any other relationship, we have our storms, mostly storms in a teacup. But if you look on the screen, you see what it is like to work with them. We’ve put very good movies on the screen, very beautiful movies. And that’s proof of the pudding.
I was so glad to see how well the movie did in portraying the gallant soldier mouse, Reepicheep.
I love Reepicheep. He’s great! We worked hard on him. He had a relatively small part in “Prince Caspian.” But in “Dawn Treader,” Reepicheep is one of the stars of the movie. They often say you should never work with animals and children. Our whole movie is animals and children! And we have a two-foot-high mouse who steals the show. We had to make sure we wrote his dialogue very carefully and got it right. And we had to make sure that the special effects guys got it right and he looked absolutely realistic and he does come across as a real character in the movie. He’s a star! He’s an absolute star. We don’t have to pay him, but he’s a star.
He’s really the heart of the story.
He’s a pure knight of Narnia, who goes to Aslan’s country without having to die first. That’s Sir Galahad all over again. So we really have to get him right, and I think we did. And Simon Pegg did a wonderful job with the voice, absolutely perfect for him.
One thing I love about the movies is that they are very welcoming. If you are familiar with the books and the other movies you will find what you want to see. But if you are not, you won’t be left out.
That’s largely the part of the books. We don’t make sequels. We make stand-alone adventures that happen to include some of the same characters and places. This one shows us new parts parts of Narnia we’ve never seen before and many new creatures. There’s a continuity of casting but it’s a new story each time. You don’t have to have seen the other movies. You don’t even have to have read the other books.
But they’re also very respectful of the people who are fans, and as you know, those people have very strong views about how everything should look on screen.
I’m probably the most demonically fanatical Narnia purist of all time. So I do try to protect Narnia as much as I can. We do have to make changes in translating a book on screen. But I’m like a dragon jealously protecting the books; they’ll tell you I’m a real nuisance.
The Dawn Treader itself, the ship, looks just like I wish I could have imagined it.
Pauline Baynes, who did the drawings for the Dawn Treader originally gave us these fabulous drawings and gave us a guide from which to work. We took that and wound up with this beautiful ship.
You were essentially raised by C.S. Lewis after your mother died. What did you learn from him?
He was my step-father and the only one who lasted long enough to have any real parental role in bringing me up. I think what I learned most from him is that Christianity is not something you just believe in. It is not enough to just believe in Jesus unless you believe Jesus and do what he says. Jack was someone who lived his Christianity every hour of every day. That was a huge example to me. It took me a long, long time to wake up to it, mind you. I’m trying hard to follow his example but I’m nowhere near as good as he was. But I’ll keep trying until I shuffle off to Buffalo.
What gave him that gift of faith?
Humility. In his 30’s he realized he’d been going the wrong direction. It took me longer. But he suddenly realized that and he turned himself entirely over to Christ. He made no secret of the fact that the Holy Spirit of God was the real author of these books and brought the stories to him. He crafted them with his enormous literary talent. But he was a humble man and that enabled him to follow Christ very closely. I’m an arrogant and conceited man and that makes it harder for me.
I am the man I am today because Jack was my step-father.
What did you learn from your mother?
Courage and the value of courage. She was still making jokes on her deathbed and laughing at her disease. She said, “I have so many cancers I could form a trade union of them.” Once Jack said something particularly pedantic and my mother said, “Could someone please pass the pedanticide.” And once he said, “What do you take me for, a fool?” and she said, “I took you for better or worse.”
What has been the best part of the reaction to the film for you?
Just yesterday, our church was having a baptism at our house because we have a pool. A little girl we know brought a friend over because she told her I was one of the producers of the Narnia films and she didn’t believe there was someone who had been living in Narnia all his life. I met her at the foot of our stairs and her eyes grew as big as saucers. When someone is so enthralled and affected by the movies, it is lovely to see, a rewarding thing. And I heard from an Anglican priest who had conducted a funeral, and then went to the movie and said he was “ministered to” by “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.” That means a lot to me.
Be sure to watch the movies about Joy Gresham and C.S. Lewis, Shadowlands with Debra Winger and Anthony Hopkins and C.S. Lewis: Through the Shadowlands with Joss Ackland and Claire Bloom. Both are superb.
Director Julie Taymor (Broadway’s “The Lion King”) has a gorgeous visual imagination and a love of spectacle, both lavishly on display in the latest version Shakespeare’s final play, the story of a sorcerer’s revenge. But she uses it to enhance, not distract from the real magic of dazzling language spoken by magnificent actors.
The play’s Duke-turned wizard Prospero now becomes Prospera (Dame Helen Mirren), the wife of the Duke who was so distracted by her study of magic that her position was usurped by her husband’s brother, Antonio (Chris Cooper). She escaped with her daughter Miranda, with the help of the king’s adviser, Gonzalo (Tom Conti). For twelve years, they have been living on an island, cared for by a sprite named Ariel (Ben Wishaw) and the son of a witch named Caliban (Djimon Hounsou). Miranda barely knows that any other world exists.
Returning home by ship after a wedding, Antonio, Gonzalo, the King (David Straithairn), and their courtiers encounter a storm called up by Prospera, and they are shipwrecked and separated, each fearing all the others have died. Promising Ariel and Caliban their freedom if they help her, Prospera directs — and misdirects — the bewildered survivors. She puts Miranda in the path of the king’s son, Ferdinand (Reeve Carney), and they fall instantly in love. Prospera is delighted, but pretends to be angry and orders him to hard labor: “this swift business I must uneasy make, lest too light winning make the prize light.”
Meanwhile, the king and Gonzalo are searching for Ferdinand, with Antonio and the king’s brother, Sebastian (Alan Cumming), who realize that if they can kill the other two, Sebastian will be king. Prospera stops them with magic.
And then there is Trinculo (Russell Brand), the jester and Stephano (Alfred Molina), the drunken butler. They find Caliban, who is happy to switch his allegiance to them, especially when they give him his first taste of liquor.
Mirren is fiery and magesterial, holding her magic staff to the sky and commanding Ariel and Caliban. But she shows us Prospera’s devotion to Miranda and recognition that she contributed to her fate by allowing herself to be too caught up in magic to notice that Antonio was betraying her. She understands that the price for this greatest display of her art and her gifts so that she can return home will be to give it all up forever. The young lovers are a little bland, but the rest of the cast is exceptional — and surprisingly organic, considering that it includes classically-trained British stage actors like Mirren, Cumming, and Molina with American performers Cooper and Straithairn, three-continent Honsou and all-around wild child Brand. The visual touches perfectly evoke the themes of order and chaos, with Escher-esque steps vertiginously reaching bannister-less up the walls, found object-based props, and Prospera’s final costume, a fabulous mixture of natural material and tight, civilizing straps and stays.
Some suggestions for the movie-lovers in your life (and face it, that includes everyone)!
For the movie historian: Three sensational documentaries from Disney and about Disney.
Walt & El Grupo is a fascinating look at one of the turning points in the early days of the Disney company. The country was on the brink of WWII and the US government asked Walt Disney to be a cultural ambassador to South America. What Disney and his top artists (who referred to themselves as “El Grupo”) saw there was revelatory. The trip was an adventure in itself, but what is breathtaking is the chance to see the first glimpses of the images that would define the studio’s visual style for the next decade and beyond.
The Boys: The Sherman Brothers’ Story is the story of the brothers behind some of Disney’s most beloved songs, from “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocous” to “Chim Chim Chir-ee,” “I Wanna Be Like You,” and even “It’s a Small World” and “The Tiki Tiki Tiki Room.” There was loss and sadness behind the cheery songs, and the movie is a frank but sympathetic and very touching look at the partnership with enjoyable contributions from some of the stars who worked with the brothers over the years.
Waking Sleeping Beauty After a series of undisputed classics, Disney animation had lost its way with a series of expensive but forgettable duds, putting the entire corporation at risk. And then, in one of the most extraordinary corporate turn-arounds of all time, the studio re-vitalized the business at its core, captivating audiences with “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin” and then the record-breaking blockbuster “The Lion King.” Its drama is as gripping and its characters as endearing as the films it produced; the story behind the stories is an inspiring story about business, about art, about dreams, and about life.
For the Anglophile:
Acorn Media is the place for cosy mysteries (Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot), dashing heroes (Poldark), historical drama (Enemy at the Door, about the German occupation of the Channel Islands in WWII), and of course sharp and very silly comedies (Keeping Up Appearances, A Bit of a Do, Slings and Arrows, Beyond the Fringe, and more). And for comedy, drama, and a very sweet middle-aged love story, try the magnificent Dame Judi Dench with her real-life husband in A Fine Romance.
For the sports fan:
ESPN Films 30 for 30 Gift Set Collection, Volume 1. The 30th anniversary of the sports channel featured 30 films about sports from 30 top directors. The first six are now available in this box set: Kings Ransom directed by Peter Berg, The Band That Wouldn’t Die directed by Academy Award-winner Barry Levinson, Muhammad & Larry by Academy Award-nominee Albert Maysles and Bradley Kaplan, The U by Billy Corben, Winning Time: Reggie Miller vs. the New York Knicks by Peabody Award-winner director Dan Klores, No Crossover: The Trial of Allen Iverson directed by Academy Award-nominee Steve James, Straight Outta L.A. directed by Ice Cube and June 17th, 1994 by Academy Award-nominee Brett Morgen.
For anyone and everyone:
Give that new Blu-Ray player a test drive with the truly spectacular new edition of Fantasia/Fantasia 2000. It jumps off the screen with its glorious color and crystal-clear sound and it includes lots of great background and historical information plus the legendary “Destino,” designed by Salvador Dali and completed more than half a century later based on his plans. It’s available for a very limited time, so grab it now.
For the film buff who reads:
My Year of Flops: The A.V. Club Presents One Man’s Journey Deep into the Heart of Cinematic Failure is a rollicking romp through the many different categories of awful, from so-bad-it’s good to downright unwatchable. Whether you read for a twinge of schadenfreude-ish pleasure in knowing you will never have to suffer through big budget train wrecks like “Battlefield Earth” to justifiably unknown oddities like Johnny Cash’s tribute to Jesus, “Gospel Road” or to come up with some cinematic dreck for your Netflix queue, this is a great read.
Designs on Film: A Century of Hollywood Art Direction is the story of the people we know call production designers, the people responsible for making sure that every detail you see on screen, whether a meticulous re-creation of an historical site or the depiction of a wholly-imagined fantasy setting helps to tell the story. The reason these fantastically creative and hardworking miracle-workers are unsung is that they don’t want you to look at the screen and say, “Wow! That is an interesting futuristic car!” They want you to accept their vision so completely that you don’t realize what you are noticing. This book gives you what the movies do not — a chance to revel in the artistry of the creative geniuses who took the written words “yellow brick road” and “blade runner” and “chariot race” and “Rosemary’s baby” and Howard Roark’s blueprints” and made them come alive for millions of people.
Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M: Audrey Hepburn and Breakfast at Tiffany’s tells the story of the making of the movie based on Truman Capote’s novella Holly Golightly, glamorous on the outside, struggling between her heart and her wallet on the inside. It’s also the story of its era and its influence on that era. If you’ve always wanted the perfect LBD, this is for you.
Hail, Hail, Euphoria!: Presenting the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, the Greatest War Movie Ever Made is humorist Roy Blount, Jr.’s appreciation of one of the most deliriously delightful movies ever made, Duck Soup. Remember, this is the movie that made Woody Allen decide life was worth living in Hannah and Her Sisters. Blount tells us how it was made and why it was not appreciated as a classic for almost 30 more years. A lot of fun to read, this is witty and insightful and a good reminder to sit down and Hail Freedonia!
The Elephant to Hollywood is the autobiography of one of the most disarmingly charming actors in movies, Michael Caine. Filled with anecdotes about his encounters, the book benefits from an endearing humility as Caine describes his adjustment to working as a character actor instead of a leading man, recognizing that his love for his art was more important than his pride. (This, of course, led to acclaim and an Oscar.) This is also a rags to riches, follow your dream saga as gripping as any feature film, and a tender love story as well.
One of the year’s best films is “The Fighter,” with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale as boxing brothers Micky Ward and Dickie Eklund and Melissa Leo as their mother, Alice. Micky and Dickie (who asked that his name be spelled “Dicky” in the movie, so he could match his brother) grew up in Lowell, Massachusetts, a once-thriving mill town that fell on hard times when the textile business moved to the South. Dickie became a boxer who was referred to as “The Pride of Lowell.” He was Micky’s hero. But by the time Micky, the son of Alice’s second husband, was old enough to box, Dickie was a crack addict. The man who once knocked down boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard was featured in an HBO documentary called High on Crack Street. The movie is the story of the conflicts Micky faced as he had to decide whether to go with an outside manager who would pay him for training and take him away from Lowell or stay with his family, using Alice as his manager and Dickie as his trainer.
This project was a long-time dream for Mark Wahlberg, and he and director David O. Russell made sure that some of the details were authentic. The gym in the film is not a movie set; it is the real place where Ward trained and still trains. One of his cornermen, a police officer named Mickey O’Keefe, is played in the film by O’Keefe himself.
But, as with any feature film, there is some dramatic license in the characters and events in order to turn the messiness of real life into a story that can fit into two hours. For more information about the real story, check out The Hard Life and Times of Micky Ward and “Fighter” More Fiction Than Fact. Here’s a look at the real Micky and Dickie.