Peter Jackson is at home in Middle-earth or, at least, the piece of it he’s created within Stone Street Studios, the filmmaker's production facilities just across the bay from Wellington, New Zealand.
The visionary director of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which captivated the imaginations of fans all over the world and ultimately yielded 17 Oscars, has “gotten the band back together” for one more foray into Middle-earth.
Like The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit trilogy is based on the timeless masterpiece by JRR Tolkien, which has been well loved by generations of readers.
At the moment, Jackson is deep within one of Stone Street’s sprawling soundstages, conferring with director of photography Andrew Lesnie. The two stand in a little clearing amidst some large, gnarled trees, made of polystyrene and plaster rather than wood, surrounded by walls of green screen and a full complement of cameras, tracks and gear. If it feels like déjà vu, that’s exactly what the director intended.
“We do want these movies to work as a linear storyline and feel like they belong at the beginning of the other three movies,” says Jackson.
darker in tone but playful
Set 60 years before The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the film follows the titular character of Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, as he is recruited by the Wizard Gandalf and 13 Dwarves, led by the legendary Dwarf warrior Thorin Oakenshield. With little more than a map they can’t completely read and Thorin’s consuming drive to reclaim his homeland and legacy, Bilbo is swept up in an epic journey through the treacherous and wondrous Wild on a quest to reclaim the lost Dwarf city of Erebor, which was long ago raided and conquered by the dragon Smaug.
Martin Freeman as young Bilbo Baggins
Jackson drew on both Tolkien’s intricate and layered 1937 novel and an additional treasure trove of material Tolkien developed in the decades after The Hobbit was first published. “This new material was more serious, darker in tone, and more in line with The Lord of the Rings,” says Jackson.
So, Jackson and his collaborators on the screenplay — Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, along with Guillermo del Toro — set about piecing the material together. “With these films, we wanted to take the charm and humour of The Hobbit and blend it with some of the back story and tone of the appendices,” Jackson notes. “We wanted to make the very best films we could... films we’d like to see.”
“The Hobbit is much more playful than The Lord of the Rings,” Walsh notes. By the time we get to the end, Tolkien pulls himself into the place where he would begin that epic journey of writing The Lord of the Rings. The nature of honour and leadership and power — those big themes that are quite prevalent in The Lord of the Rings — were sleeping and being awakened towards the end of The Hobbit.”
And then the long and ever-evolving journey to adapt the piece began. “It was quite easy, surprisingly easy, to fall back into this world,” comments Boyens, whom Jackson describes as “the world’s biggest Tolkien geek.”
Fear is the key
The director had an epiphany early one morning while watching Sherlock on his iPad. “I phoned up Martin’s (Freeman) agent in England and said, ‘Look, is there any way Martin would consider doing it if we stopped shooting for three months and let him go back and shoot the second series of Sherlock?’ I’m damn glad that I made that phone call. It was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life.”
In a world infused with so much mystery and magic, Freeman sees Bilbo as “the eyes and the ears of the audience because he’s the nearest thing to an audience member there is in the film, really. We all have fear, we all have reservations, and we all have places that we’re scared to go, whether they’re internal or external. It’s certainly something I can relate to.”
With his gentle good looks, unpretentious way and easy wit, it becomes clear why Jackson felt so strongly that Freeman had to play Bilbo. “There are a lot of opportunities, obviously, for wonderful comedic moments, which Martin’s fantastic at,” Jackson comments. “But then you want to feel the truth of those moments. So, when he’s literally holding a sword and facing a troll, you want to feel that he’s really in danger and he’s this poor little guy.”
‘terribly, terribly glad to be back’
Sir Ian McKellen, once again donning the hat, robes, and beard of Gandalf, has had a similar experience post The Lord of the Rings. “There was a part of me that didn’t want to go back and do him again. I felt as an actor that that’s my job, a character I’ve discovered, and perhaps there’s not too much more. But I’m terribly, terribly glad that I did come back.”
larger than the lord of the rings
Peter King (make-up and hair designer), who won an Oscar for his work on The Lord of the Rings, has had a hand in innovating the process of remaking actors as Hobbits, Dwarves and Elves, and notes that the process has come a long way since then. “This has turned out to be a much larger film than The Lord of the Rings, as far as our department’s concerned, because there is much more attention to detail,” King says. “The prosthetics are much finer, much better, so you can use more. It’s much easier to pop on a nose, and the application is quicker than before.”
And Jackson has the final say. “My job is much more about telling a story, and capturing the emotion and essence of a scene. You don’t have to worry about how you’re going to shoot the film anymore like you used to in the old days.”
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The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey releases tomorrow