Jackson, filmmakers embark on another Tolkien trilogy
Posted December 11, 2012
He's won Oscars, the box office and legions of followers. Give him the hat off Gandalf's head, though, and Peter Jackson is all crocodile tears.
On the last day this past summer of principal filming on the director's new The Hobbit trilogy, Ian McKellen gifted him with his wizard headwear, turning an emotional Jackson into a sobbing mess on McKellen's shoulder.
"You can't get to the end of 266 days of shooting with all these incredible people you're working with and not feel like it's the end of the journey," Jackson says. "It's hard. It's like a family breaking up and going to different parts of the world."
However, the gang who popularized fantasy flicks for the masses with three The Lord of the Rings movies is back on Middle-earth for The Hobbit: The Unexpected Journey (out Friday), the first of three movies adapting J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 children's book.
A trio of Lord of the Rings films followed the young hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his fellowship's mission to travel to Mount Doom and destroy the powerful One Ring. The Hobbit acts as a prequel of sorts set 60 years prior and starring the hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), a homebody who is whisked out of Bag End by the wizard Gandalf on a quest to help Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his group of fellow dwarves take back the Lonely Mountain from the monstrous dragon Smaug.
It's Jackson's aim to bring the audience as close to that adventure as he can, too, from using tight close-ups of actors to embracing a higher frame rate - 48 frames per second instead of the conventional 24 - to make Gollum, the turkey-necked Goblin King and other creatures feel more real than ever before.
"I don't like when you're sitting in a cinema and you're watching a film, and that separation exists between your seat and the screen," Jackson explains.
"There's hobbits and dwarves and orcs and wizards. This stuff is usually never taken that seriously - certainly before Lord of the Rings, fantasy was never taken seriously. Yet I'm really intrigued by the idea of fantasy played totally real, played straight, played truthfully, played with genuine emotion, and yet there's that fantastical side to it as well."
Coming back to Middle-earth was a bit of an unexpected journey for Jackson as well. He admits he needed to move on to other projects such as King Kong after he released 2003's The Return of the King, which won 11 Academy Awards including best picture, before finally reaching a deal in 2007 to do a pair of Hobbit films.
Guillermo Del Toro was originally slated to direct The Hobbit, but when he left the project in 2010, Jackson says they had no set budget, no schedule and no green light from Warner Bros. Also, MGM was supposed to be co-financing it and was bankrupt.
All the politics were sorted out after a few months, but in order to meet the goal dates for release, Jackson felt it was best for him to go from producer to director again: "I started with a sense of duty, but even on the first day of the shoot, I thought, wow, this is actually fantastic."
Now, he adds, "I'm so glad I did it. That's what fate decreed: We'd get Pacific Rim from Guillermo and you get The Hobbit from me."
Filming in New Zealand was a bit smoother this time around, Jackson says. "Certainly on the first day it felt like I was standing at the base of a mountain, looking up and the peak of the summit was in the clouds. I didn't have any concept of how steep the climb was gong to be except I had done it once before."
Also working in The Hobbit's favor: The years since The Lord of the Rings have seen great strides in technology thanks to Jackson's effects company Weta Digital's work on King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes and especially James Cameron's Avatar, says Weta senior effects supervisor Joe Letteri. "It's the science we've learned on top of the artistry over the last 10 years that you're now seeing."
Jackson may be putting Tolkien's fantasy land in his rear-view mirror soon, though. The rights to the author's last book, The Silmarillion, are held by Tolkien's estate, and Tolkien's son Christopher was not pleased with Jackson's Lord of the Rings movies, although the filmmaker has reached out to him over the years.
"I read an interview with him that did make me laugh a few years ago. He said that Peter Jackson took his father's book and turned it into a series of action movies," Jackson says with a laugh. "I thought, well, Christopher Tolkien has clearly never seen a Michael Bay movie."
Fortunately for those who took the time to learn Elvish, they have two more Hobbit movies to mark on their calendars: The Desolation of Smaug (scheduled for Dec. 13, 2013) and There and Back Again (July 18, 2014).
The Hobbit is arriving just as a new generation is ready to be raised on fantasy movies, according to writer-producer Philippa Boyens, and the filmmakers have focused on creating a kid-friendly tone that matches Tolkien's original unexpected journey for Bilbo.
"It's much more tumble-out-your-door," she says. "It's not tumble out your door to save the world, which is basically what Frodo has to do. He has to flee the Shire and he's immediately hunted by these incredibly dark creatures.
"What I love about the tumbling out the door in this one is Bilbo doesn't know what he's doing, which is great. That side of him takes over, and hopefully it's a side we've all got in us, that ability - when it's offered and it knocks on your door, especially if it's a wizard - to be brave enough to go 'Yes' and do it."
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