J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic mythological epic comes to the screen in the most ambitious of movie projects, as the New Zealand director brings all three novels to the screen over a three-year period. First up, is Fellowship of the Ring, shot in New Zealand simultaneously to the two other films in the trilogy. It’s no mean feat to be sure, but this eccentric New Zealander takes it all in his stride. Paul Fischer spoke to Jackson in New York.
Peter Jackson has been compared to Tolkien’s own Hobbits, which may be why he is appropriately dressed to meet the press for the film’s first major junket. Wearing his trademark khaki shorts, purple T-shirt and no footwear, it’s this relaxed disposition that suggests a director simply interested in being himself and not worrying about the rest of the world – least of all Hollywood. This is why he makes it a point to shoot all of his work in his native New Zealand. That’s the way it’s been and the way it will be. But the Hollywood establishment had enough faith in the idiosyncratic filmmaker to allow him not only to bring Tolkien’s classic fable to the screen, but to shoot all three films simultaneously.
“We always wanted to make more than one film”, Jackson explains. “For starters, we made a decision at the very beginning that you could never do Lord of the Rings as one film, which a lot of people have tried to do. I think that’s one of the reasons why it hasn’t been made for 50 years, because there have been scripts written and there have been filmmakers who have sort of dabbled with the project over the years that have tried to put it into one script and have failed, so we thought, we’re definitely not gonna make one.”
Originally, Jackson recalls, “we were gonna make two, and Miramax was developing the project with us for 18 months as two films. And then ultimately when New Line came on board it was New Line’s idea to make three. That was perfect for us, because obviously it’s like the three books.” Jackson hopes that by having shot all three films simultaneously, “was the fact that we’re actually asking audiences to become part of an event that they’ve never been asked to do before. I don’t think anyone’s ever said to a film audience: You know what, this story’s too big for one movie, so we’re gonna make three, and you’re not gonna see the end of the film, until you see all three movies.”
Jackson is not the kind of director who is obsessive. He wants to make it clear that “I’ve not had a lifelong ambition to make The Lord of the Rings, which is what a lot of people are sort of assuming that I’ve had.” Rather, he points out, “I’ve had a lifelong passion to make a fantasy adventure film, because when I was younger I loved Ray Harryhausen’s movies, as well as stuff like Jason and the Argonauts, and the original King Kong. I’ve always had a desire to make one of those fantasy adventure type films, and they don’t do those movies much any more.”
They don’t, he says, “because fantasy is a strange genre that has always been treated with huge suspicion and contempt by Hollywood, and certainly they lack confidence with fantasy, and because they lack confidence they tend to make them a little campy or a little over the top, or they get over-designed and it all becomes about production design and not about the story, and the characters, and the characters are usually very clichéd.” With Lord of the Rings, Jackson approached the novels “by deliberately trying to avoid that by making a conscious decision at the very beginning of our project, when we were starting to get our team together, we set ourselves the job of making more of an historical than a fantasy film, because I just thought that would be interesting, to treat fantasy as history, as if it had a degree of reality to it. So everything we did in the movie we tried to make feel real and just tried to avoid an over-designed sort of film and tried to make it more earthy and organic.”
One of the many challenges that Jackson and his team faces, is that he hopes audiences will accept the fact that there is no real ending to Fellowship of the Ring. It’s quite a leap of face, but the director is unconcerned. “I certainly hope that audiences are going into the Fellowship of the Ring realizing that it’s the first of a trilogy; I don’t want people going into it thinking that this is one movie, because I certainly don’t want to surprise people in that way, but we’ve tried to make the ending of the Fellowship of the Ring emotionally climactic. We couldn’t end the story, because obviously Frodo doesn’t get to Mount Doom with the ring in the Fellowship, so we’re definitely dealing with the fact that the story does not end, but we have done everything we possibly can to try to create a satisfying ending so that you feel that you’ve seen the end of this episode of the story and it feels that Frodo’s completed an emotional journey and hopefully leaving people looking forward to what’s going to happen next.”
We may live in cynical times, but Jackson believes that the themes to Tolkien’s trilogy are as relevant to contemporary as they were half a century ago. After all, so much of contemporary folklore, such as Harry Potter, would not exist with Lord of the Rings. “What that proves is that Tolkien’s themes are timeless in the genuine sense of BEING timeless, because he wrote Lord of the Rings pretty much during the years of World War II, having himself had horrific experiences in World War I as a lieutenant in the British Army. He went into World War I with a huge amount of school friends and at the end of the war only two of his friends were alive. He saw everybody die. And you know, that would affect somebody, and his themes of courage and friendship without strings attached and self-sacrifice I think resonate probably from his life experiences. He also felt that he was born 100 years too late, that he would have loved to have lived in the English countryside before the Industrial Age, because he really hated the spread of factories and chimneys belching smoke, and he hated, that the internal combustion engine was the greatest evil ever visited on the world. It’s interesting that America adopted Lord of the Rings as did the hippie generation of the ’60’s who were reading all sorts of messages with the Vietnam War and the atomic bomb. I mean, the young American reading the book today isn’t certainly thinking about Vietnam, yet it still has a message, so I just think his themes are universal and timeless, so you can obviously take from the book or the movie whatever you choose to take.”
And Jackson is confident that his screen version will reach an audience beyond the die-had fans of the book, of which there are millions. “I’ve made a FILM, where I felt my primary responsibility was as a filmmaker hopefully making a good movie. I didn’t want to be a totally slavish Tolkien interpreter and I didn’t feel that was my primary job. I mean there was a lot of money at stake, and I wanted very much to make a film that you could walk in off the street where you knew NOTHING about Tolkien, having never read the Lord of the Rings, and still enjoy the film. The book is regarded as being very, you know, it’s famous for being incredibly dense and detailed and rich, which is why it has such a huge fan following and I’ve tried to catch the feeling of Tolkien for the people that like the book but simplify it to the extent that you don’t have to have read the book to enjoy the film, so, it’s a fine line. You cannot please everyone, and I’m sure that we haven’t, but you can only ultimately, I think, make the best film that I could.” Few would argue that he has.