If Middle Earth had a God it would be Peter Jackson. Certainly when it comes to the New Zealand film industry and the city of Wellington in general, Jackson himself is spoken of entirely in reverential terms. Even more than Robert Rodriguez is to Austin or George Miller is to Sydney, Jackson is so identifiably Wellington and a master of all he purveys.
That's understandable when you consider he's really the driving force responsible for the establishment of an entire film industry within the city. He led the charge which turned this picturesque, but remote city into a place that boasts world class studio production and post-production facilities, and with WETA a world leader in visual effects and film prop manufacturing.
In person though Jackson remains the unassuming, straightforward, confident and laid-back filmmaker he always has been. The man has always done his films the way he wants, studio demands and scheduling be damned. That probably makes him stubborn to the higher ups, especially those not used to the more sedentary and relaxed approach to filmmaking in New Zealand. On-set though, it makes for one of the most agreeable cinematic working environments around. Even well over a year into the project, Jackson is still having a ball playing in this incredible playground.
Of course that wasn't the case before filming began. Every hurdle that could have been thrown at this film was - the collapse of MGM, the absorption of New Line by Warners, disputes over rights ownership, disputes over residual revenue from "The Lord of the Rings," attempted blockades by the Tolkien estate, actor union disputes, and of course the arrival and ultimate departure of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro.
"It was an incredibly painful couple of years leading up to it, yeah," says Jackson. "That was the most stressful time. So stressful that I got an ulcer, which was awesome, but anyway the ulcer was actually quite good because it gave everybody six weeks of extra pre-production time which I think everyone was delighted when I was laid up for six weeks, they couldn't believe their luck." Jackson initially hadn't planned to direct these films, and was collaborating with del Toro between 2008 and 2010 on the project.
The departure of the "Pan's Labyrinth" filmmaker, which came down to scheduling and the whole MGM situation, "was a surprise" admits Jackson. Looking back now though he understands as at the time the project was stuck in limbo: "When Guillermo left we didn't have a greenlight and we didn't have a movie, and so it was freewheeling, in a sense, for at least two, maybe three months after he left we really - I was there as a caretaker, but it wasn't like anything much could be done 'cause there was no budget, there was nothing really. We didn't know what was going to happen with MGM."
Jackson says his initial reluctance about helming "The Hobbit" was because the idea of "an ensemble of thirteen dwarves terrified me," he says, "[and] I thought it would be much more interesting to see what somebody else did with it." His opinion now though has been completely changed: "The fact that there are thirteen dwarves in it is the great joy of the movie. I've actually swung a hundred and eighty degrees round now … we've given each of them personalities and things and they are very much the heart of the story … Actually I'm pleased it ended up the way it did."
Once filming began, the difficulties of launching this ship appear to have melted away. He says: "Since we've started shooting it's been pretty plain sailing, touch wood. It's been just a joy. I've been having a blast ... It was tough, but once we got it running it's been fantastic. It's been a lot of fun. I hope the fun that we've had is a spirit that goes into the movie. I hope you see that on the screen."
With Jackson's involvement as director comes the question of how closely this new trilogy will tie-in with the three previous "The Lord of the Rings" films. In the hands of another filmmaker there was bound to be differences, but with the man who basically created the cinematic incarnation of Middle Earth returning to that world, a more consistent vision was to be expected even if the setting is decades earlier.
Jackson certainly approached the material with that in mind. "The way that I went into it when I got involved as a director was that I'd go into it as exactly the same filmmaker that did Lord Of The Rings, like I'm returning to Middle Earth. In the sense that it's a real place, I'm there to tell another story."
That said there was certainly room for some tweaking considering the tone of Tolkien's book is lighter than the more straightforward good vs. evil elements of his later trilogy. "This one has a slightly more of a fairy tale quality, slaying dragons and going for gold. Just trying to get gold out of the mountain. The elements of the story give you room to change the tone slightly, but in terms of the look and the feel and the filmmaking style I wanted to keep it pretty consistent and keep everything feeling like it's the same world" says Jackson.
One change is the infamous ring which Bilbo discovers in Gollum's cave. Whenever Frodo put it on in the previous films, he would see a nightmarish shadow world in which the Eye of Sauron could find him. As Sauron is still out of action in this time, the ring won't have the same strength or abilities. Jackson says: "I think people in the Tolkien world have rationalized it as the ring doesn't really gain its power until Sauron comes back and actively starts to look for it … We're taking that approach. But we are very gradually building up the effects of the ring within the movie. So the first time he puts it on it is simply a magic ring, but each time he puts it on the effect of it gets to him [Bilbo] a bit more. He's in a shadow world, but not quite the nightmarish one that was in Lord Of The Rings."
Like "The Lord of the Rings," "The Hobbit" also explores themes of heroism and Jackson says a big draw for him with these films is exploring the unlikely heroic qualities of certain characters. Thorin, for example, he describes as "very much an anti-hero", while the hobbits are "always the greatest heroes 'cause they're us, they're the unlikely hero who is thrust into this incredible danger and they have no choice but to … try to survive and get through it … I find that sort of heroism in films really interesting."
Set Visit: "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey"
From inception to production, a set report on the year's biggest fantasy epic.
Interview: Sir Ian McKellen
Gandalf himself talks his initial frustrations and the joy of being a wizard.
Interview: Martin Freeman
The 'Sherlock' star on his the pressure of being Bilbo and fellow actors.
Interview: Richard Armitage
The handsome 'Spooks' star on what it is like to play a dwarf leader.