Plans to adapt Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl for the big screen were announced in 2001 before the first book was even published. It was not long after production had wrapped on the first Harry Potter film and producers were on the hunt for the next big fantasy franchise.
Sure enough, Colfer’s bestseller went on to become an eight-book series (the most recent, The Fowl Twins, was published in 2019), and while the Irish author was toiling away, Hollywood was working overtime to bring his magical world – with its boy genius who discovers a world of fairies, gnomes and dwarves – to the screen.
It would take until early 2018 before Disney officially got the ball rolling though, with Fowl Manor – the protagonist’s family home – built from scratch at Longcross Studios, just outside of London, and with Sir Kenneth Branagh at the helm.
When Yahoo visited the set in April 2018, very few had heard the word coronavirus, even less would know the seismic impact it would have on the world. The release of Artemis Fowl has been uniquely impacted by the pandemic, and it’s now set to be the first major franchise launch of the coronavirus-era, streaming exclusively on Disney+ from 12 June.
Back in 2018, the production crew were teasing a seven-film franchise, but whether that will now come to pass depends on how audiences at home react to this magical new world of mystery and fairies.
Who is Artemis Fowl?
“Artemis Fowl is the story of a very particular 12-year-old boy’s search for his missing father,” explained co-screenwriter Hamish McColl. Describing Artemis Fowl as “very particular” is like describing Paddington (McColl co-wrote the 2014 film) as “charming”: it’s accurate, but doesn’t tell the whole story.
Artemis Fowl is the latest generation in a long line of master criminals, he’s an evil genius in the making: “He is smart as a whip. He is one, two, three steps ahead, he thinks forwards, he thinks backwards, laterally. He has got a mind like a steel trap and it can bite,” adds McColl.
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Playing Fowl Jr is newcomer Ferdia Shaw, making his acting debut. Shaw was chosen from 12,000 boys who auditioned for the role, explains producer Judy Hofflund: “Our casting team literally auditioned every single boy in Ireland who wanted to audition. It was fun.”
His father, Artemis Fowl Sr – also an evil genius, played by Colin Farrell – has gone missing at the start of the film, and Fowl Jr is on his trail, with help from Nonso Anozie’s Domovoi Butler, his trusted servant and bodyguard.
Like Neo taking the red pill, or Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole before him, Artemis finds his world turned upside down when he discovers another realm that exists beneath the surface of his own. He receives a mysterious ransom message that demands a huge sum of fairy gold in exchange for his missing parent.
“In his search for [his father] he discovers a world beneath his feet of the world of fairies and trolls and goblins,” adds McColl.
The world of fairies
Just a short walk from the life size and habitable Fowl Manor set (it even has wifi), is Longcross Studios’ biggest stage: Stage One. In spring 2018, the 350ft long soundstage is home to a huge plaza in the underground metropolis of Haven City.
Fairies are human-sized in Haven City. They have a technologically advanced civilisation, powered by magic, that must stay hidden from the human world above. Standing inside Haven City, it feels organic, aquatic even, which is all intentional explains supervising art director Dominic Masters.
“We're effectively in an underground cavernous space which you have to imagine as being the bottom of the ocean without the water,” explains Masters, who gives us a guided tour of the Lower Elements Police (LEP) force headquarters, including a huge control room for the police force. A centaur called Foaly takes charge of any action from here, led by Dame Judi Dench’s Commander Root, when the fairies venture out of their world into Artemis’s.
We also visit the lava chutes, an ancient travel system once transported people from the underground world into the human world.
“Underneath here are rivers of lava that fairies have used over generations to transport people, in the fastest possible way, up to the surface. If you need to get up in a hurry, this is what you use. This is kind of an old technology – rusty, oily and rather knackered and a bit terrifying.”
It’s Artemis’ hunt for his missing father that brings these two worlds together. With Butler, he tracks down a fairy living above ground in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City. There he learns that fairies must periodically return to the surface world to renew their magic.
Artemis hatches a plan to take a fairy hostage when they come above ground, and demand his own ransom that he can use to set his father free from whoever holds him captive.
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The fairy that falls into his trap is Captain Holly Short, an elven reconnaissance officer of Root’s LEPrecon, played by Lara McDonnell, another newcomer with a spell in Tim Minchin’s Matilda on her CV. “She's an 84-year-old fairy who also looks like a 13-year-old girl,” explains producer Judy Hofflund. With her emerald green uniform and pixie cut, she looks like a long lost David Bowie creation.
“[Holly] is a feisty, young fairy police officer with a point to prove, and she doesn't use magic,” adds McColl.
In capturing Short, Artemis Fowl unleashes the full might of the LEP, who start a siege on Fowl Manor. It’s this siege that takes up the bulk of the story, and led reviewers of the book to describe the story as “Die Hard with fairies”.
Leading the charge is Dame Judi Dench’s gender-flipped Commander Root. Director Kenneth Branagh describes her performance as “Churchillian” and “Napoleonic”, and Root’s first act at Fowl Manor is putting the house in a time bubble, which effectively freezes time outside of the bubble.
With so much action taking place in the family house, Branagh took the unusual step of building the whole house from scratch, rather than a location or different interiors across different sounda stages.
“Traditionally, you'd build the exterior of the house and put the interior on the stage,” explains production designer Jim Clark. “But having just worked with Ken Branagh and Haris Zambarloukos his DOP, I knew very well that their style was a very fluid style. They love to do continuous, roaming, rambling shots, often from exterior to interior, and all through the house or the location. So we came to the decision we would build it interior and exterior as one location.”
Sat atop a long driveway, nestled among the trees at Longcross, Fowl Manor looks very real, and very habitable. Inside, every room is tastefully decorated, from Artemis Fowl Sr’s fully stocked library (12,000 books line the shelves says set decorator Celia Bobak) and a fully furnished kitchen, to Artemis Jr’s bedroom complete with LEGO Death Star (you have to respect Disney’s dedication to brand synergy).
“The studio’s brief was to make [Fowl Manor] last for seven years,” adds Clark. “It's fully insulated. It's fully soundproof. It has central heating. It has a Wi Fi system.”
It’s certainly been built to last, however when we visited it was rather battered thanks to an encounter with a rampaging troll and a burgling dwarf (Mulch Diggums, played by Josh Gad).
Whether Fowl Manor will be a location revisited in the future will depend on how fans respond to the film when it lands on Disney+ in June, but that was the plan back in 2018.
Disney confirmed the Fowl Manor set has now been dismantled at Longcross Studios.
Artemis Fowl is streaming on Disney+ from 12 June.