Uncovering a secret world

The stars of The Spiderwick Chronicles talk to Helen Barlow about bringing yet another fantasy series to life on the big screen

When the Harry Potter movies became a worldwide box office sensation for Warner Brothers, other Hollywood studios were eager to emulate that success. Paramount put all its weight behind turning the five slender volumes called The Spiderwick Chonicles into a big-budget family movie. After all, the books had sold millions and had been translated into 30 languages, so it seemed like a good idea.

Authors Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black met in 1996 when Black interviewed DiTerlizzi about his artwork for Dungeons and Dragons.

Finding they had a shared a love of the gothic and macabre - in particular fairies - they became instant friends and colleagues. They came up with the idea of a creating a Field Guide to Trolls and Goblins about a character who could see into the fairyworld, and this became the basis for The Spiderwick Chronicles, where the ominous Spiderwick mansion is as much a character as Hogwarts is in the Harry Potter stories.

The movie draws on elements from the five books. The story tells of a recently separated mum, Helen Grace, (Mary Louise Parker) arriving with her daughter Mallory (Dubliner Sarah Bolger) and twin sons Jared and Simon (both played by Londoner Freddie Highmore) to live in Spiderwick, a mansion formerly the home of the kids' great-great-uncle Arthur Spiderwick (David Strathairn) and great-aunt Lucinda (Joan Plowright).

Now it's inhabited by an array of fantastic creatures and Jared, the more adventurous twin, taps into their secret world via the field guide Arthur created, as well as a seeing-stone.

He soon discovers why Arthur was kidnapped: Arthur's field guide had developed magical powers and the dastardly shape-shifting ogre Mulgarath (played in person by Nick Nolte and voiced by him in various ominous forms) needs it to stay alive. Other creatures include a kind of house caretaker called Thimbletack (voiced by Martin Short), who tries to warn Jared about the book, but the fun really happens in the fantasy world, entered via the field guide, where he meets a friendly hobgoblin named Hogsqueal (Seth Rogen), a pack of dangerous goblins and beautiful, mysterious fairies and sprites.

Highmore was already an old pro after such fantasy extravaganzas as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Arthur and the Invisibles and The Golden Compass, while Bolger's natural zeal had impressed in Jim Sheridan's In America.

Bolger was hired to portray the boys' feisty elder sister, a talented fencer who becomes Jared's helper in his quest. Yet Highmore was interested only if he could play both twins.

"I know real twins would have been easier to film but I did the screen test as two people to see if it would work out," explains the articulate 16-year-old.

Certainly producer Kathleen Kennedy, who has worked with Steven Spielberg for 30 years, knows a gifted young actor when she sees one.

"I've worked with a lot of wonderful child actors and for them to understand what the scene is about and the subtext of the scene is rare. Freddie had to find very specific characteristics for each of the two boys. A director can give him ideas but he still has to find what they are and be consistent throughout the performance. There are very few kids who can do that."

SPIES: Jared (Freddie Highmore) and Hogsqueal (voiced by Seth Rogen) watch the wicked creatures. LOWDOWN

What: The Spiderwick Chronicles - from another series of fantasy books, this dark and violent number starring a double dose of Freddie Highmore as twins has been described as "part E. T., part Labyrinth, with a dash of The Goonies" Where & when: Opens at cinemas today

Aimed at: Eight to 14-year-olds. Younger kids may find its ogre - he is Nick Nolte after all - and goblins a little scary

Highmore likens the eventual on-set changeover of characters to a Ferrari pit stop. "I'd rush into the tent and within a minute I became the other character. It was fun mixing things up. Most of my time as Jared was spent running around and smashing things, but at the end of the day it was good to be Simon and sit down and cuddle a cat."

Bolger had impressed at her audition by arriving without her Irish accent. "I'm a European playing an American and if they kept hiring me to play Americans I'd be very happy," she admits while promoting the film in Los Angeles. How is she handling the extensive press junkets for the film?

"Everyone seems to be very nice and I'm having a blast! I get to promote a movie that I had a lot of fun on. I talk a lot apparently. They've just told me I have to shut up sometimes."

Bolger seems to be taking all the attention in her stride, and like Highmore intends to remain in Europe and go to university. Still, how do her friends react when she returns from America? "Oh, they go crazy. They go,`Sarah! What are you on?' They see me in the newspaper and they do think it's crazy. But I tend not to say much because I don't want to exclude myself from them.

"It seems to be a very charmed life but it's a lot of hard work too. I did five intensive weeks of training with the fencing and I made sure my American accent worked. I fight with goblins in the film and had to make sure I could slice through them and kick them and make it look authentic. People think it's all red carpets and limousines but it's not."

Nolte came to the film via Kennedy, who had seen him at work on Over the Hedge, where he created much menace voicing a growling bear.

"The whole unseen world of goblins and trolls appealed to my imagination," Nolte says. "Ogres can live for 1000 years and Mulgarath is 995 years old and he's desperate to live longer."

Originally Nolte was only to voice the character but his intense, powerhouse presence meant the producers couldn't resist having him in the film. "It was just too tempting," Kennedy laughs. The only problem was he couldn't see through the yellow lenses over his eyes.

"I'd sometimes miss the bed and end up in the closet," says Nolte.

Despite Mulgarath's presence, the film is not that scary for kids. "This is very definitely a kids' story, where the scary parts live only in the world of fantasy," says Kennedy. "It's suitable for 8 to 15-year-olds but some 6- or 7-year-olds would be fine with it.

"It's up to parents to know their own kids."

LOWDOWN
What: The Spiderwick Chronicles - from another series of fantasy books, this dark and violent number starring a double dose of Freddie Highmore as twins has been described as "part E. T., part Labyrinth, with a dash of The Goonies"

Where & when: Opens at cinemas today

Aimed at: Eight to 14-year-olds. Younger kids may find its ogre - he is Nick Nolte after all - and goblins a little scary

- NZ Herald

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