Years after the film's release, director Chris Weitz revealed that the movie ended up being a "terrible experience" for him, since New Line Cinema constantly interfered with the result. Weitz' original script had a much slower pacing, allowing for more world-building, character development and exposition. However, the studio forced him to scrap a lot of what was not immediately essential to the plot, as well as tone down the religious subtext. They also overruled several of his casting decisions, and took over editing to get the running time under two hours. This decision necessitated re-shoots and a major re-arrangement of several other scenes to make the film coherent again. The most radical intervention was a studio-mandated happy end, by removing the original downbeat ending from the final cut with the intention of using this as the opening of a proposed sequel (which never happened). Weitz said that despite being a fan of the books, he didn't get to make the film he wanted.
The first movie to gross over $300 million worldwide while failing to reach $100 million in the U.S. Although a U.S. box-office disappointment (only grossing $70 million), the movie captured $302 million at the foreign box office, giving it a worldwide total of $372 million. This became a more common phenomenon following the expansion of the Chinese box-office market that began in 2010, even though this movie only grossed $4 million in that market. Unfortunately, New Line Cinema did not benefit from the foreign box office success: they had already sold the overseas rights before the movie was made, in order to secure the film's $200 million budget. The domestic failure of the movie caused the end of New Line as an independent company, when the bankrupt studio was subsequently absorbed by Warner Bros. in 2008.
10,000 girls turned up for open auditions in Cambridge, Oxford, Exeter, and Kendal for the role of Lyra Belacqua. In June 2006, twelve year old London schoolgirl Dakota Blue Richards won the part meeting the approval of Philip Pullman, the author of the novel.
In December 2004, Chris Weitz resigned from directing this movie, claiming he was daunted by the technical challenges of the story. In August 2005, Anand Tucker was hired to replace Weitz, with the twenty-four-carat approval of Philip Pullman. Tucker felt that this movie would have as its central theme "Lyra's search for self-discovery, and for a family." In May 2006, however, he resigned, citing creative disagreements with New Line Cinema, and Weitz returned to direct.
The planned sequels never developed due to underperformance in the U.S. box office and the uncertain economic climate. However, in November 2015, New Line Cinema announced they would develop an event series based on Philip Pullman's books instead, not related to this movie.
Nonso Anozie was replaced by Sir Ian McKellen as the voice of Iorek Byrnison. Chris Weitz stated in an interview with Empire Magazine: "It was a studio decision. You can understand why you would cast Sir Ian McKellen for anything, but letting go of Nonso was one of the most painful experiences on this movie for me. I need to say about Nonso, that he is one of the most promising and soulful young actors I have encountered in England and I've worked here for quite a bit now and he's actually in the next Mike Leigh. But it was, uh, that was kind of a dark day for me. I kinda wanna go out of my way to point out how much I love Nonso's work, and that's that."
Some scenes were shot in Norway, in places such as Bergen and Svalbard, but none of the actors or actresses were allowed to perform there, as the producers couldn't find an insurance company that would allow crew members to walk around with shotguns, and because the actors and actresses could fall ill, due to the extreme temperatures.
Nicole Kidman was raised as a Catholic, and on the topic of religious controversies of the movie, she announced that she wouldn't have participated in the movie if she felt it went against her religious beliefs.
Since Iorek, the armored bear, was computer generated, all Dakota Blue Richards had to interact with was a large, oval-shaped piece of fur without a head, legs, or the rest of its body. When Richards spoke her lines, Iorek's reply could be heard coming from speakers somewhere on-set.
Chris Weitz adapted Philip Pullman's work, citing this movie to be influenced by Barry Lyndon (1975) and Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977). He also mentioned that this movie would make no direct mention of religion or God, two of the key themes of the books, a decision attacked by fans of the trilogy. According to Weitz, New Line Cinema feared that "perceived anti-religiosity" would make this movie financially non-viable in the U.S. However, Weitz reassured fans by saying that religion would appear in euphemistic terms.
The "real world" night scene in Oxford that opens this movie included a digitally-added skyscraper that doesn't exist in the real Oxford. The scene morphs to the "alternate world" Oxford, which is, in fact, the actual current Oxford street scene.
New Line Cinema estimates that fifty percent of the potential box-office income was unaccomplished due to the religious controversy surrounding this movie. The production company sold off foreign rights, and proceeds from those sales covered about sixty percent of the one hundred eighty million dollar budget.
In July 2003, Tom Stoppard was hired to write the screenplay. A year later, when Chris Weitz was hired to direct, he rejected Stoppard's script, preferring to adapt Philip Pullman's work himself. He wrote an extensive 185-page screenplay that he later edited down to a 156-page shooting script, which was reportedly much more faithful to the book than Stoppard's version.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
In the original ending to the film that was faithful to the book, Lyra's father kills her best friend Roger in order to open a bridge to a parallel universe. However, during a radical re-edit by the studio, this ending was removed in favor of an abrupt but happier conclusion. The studio intended to use the unhappy ending as the beginning of the sequel, which sadly never materialized due to the film's disappointing commercial success.