While The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey returns director Peter Jackson to the classic realm of The Lord of the Rings, it also brought forth quite a few new challenges, including shooting with an ensemble of 13 dwarves, a hobbit, a wizard, and a dragon, shooting in 3D, and shooting the first-ever 48 FPS film to be shown as a wide release in cinemas across the world.
The man hasn't taken these challenges lightly. This past summer, we met up with the acclaimed filmmaker behind such neo-classics as Heavenly Creatures, Braindead (aka Dead Alive), Meet the Feebles, The Frighteners, and of course, the original The Lord of the Rings series, to talk about his return to Middle Earth. It was here in Wellington, New Zealand that the filmmaker opened up about his experiences in coming back for this very popular franchise, and the challenges that came with it.
Helping to bring this latest journey alive is Andy Serkis, who not only reprises his role as Gollum, but also serves as a second unit director on all three upcoming Hobbit adventures, which includes The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (December of 2012), The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (December of 2013), and The Hobbit: There and Back Again (July of 2014).
Before speaking with Peter Jackson, Andy took a few minutes of his time to explain his presence on the set, which did not include his mischievous alter ego.
"Peter Jackson asked me to direct the second unit, literally a handful of weeks before I was coming down to reprise the role of Gollum for a couple of weeks. And just leading up to that, before principal photography started, Peter Jackson said, "Will you come and direct the second unit for about a year-and-a-half?" So it was a big, big turnaround. But Peter Jackson's known that I've been heading towards directing for some time, and it's just a wonderful opportunity. It's fantastic working with a crew that I love and that I've been working with for many, many years, on various different projects. So it made total sense.
[I was asked] to do it 'cause he wanted someone who'd been through this experience before, and also someone that he was comfortable handing over performance to.
It's very, very different to a traditional second unit on a project of this scale. We're shooting all the aerials."
And with that, he was gone, back to the task at hand. Director Peter Jackson, on the other hand, had taken a good chunk of time out of his busy schedule for us, allowing for a quite genial conversation. And as this is a return to a film series that won him a number of Oscars, he started his conversation by comparing The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and the time spent on the set of both properties. Despite the new challenges, it still feels the same. Mostly...
"Obviously, it shouldn't feel like anything entirely different. But at the same time -- 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 The 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, but the characters within the story, as well as the story itself, since you're dealing with thirteen dwarves...It gives you a different tone and a different feel in places than The Lord of the Rings did. The Lord of the Rings was incredibly good and evil, black and white. The world was at stake, Sauron. It was pretty basic, and the tension that was involved in the story. Whereas this one has 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."
The director continued by explaining the continuity between the two trilogies.
"Obviously that's all embedded in Tolkien, 'cause J.R.R. Tolkien, he didn't know anything about the ring when he wrote The Hobbit and then he wrote a whole trilogy around the ring twenty years later. The way that it's rationalized, and 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, so it's asleep for a while and in the days of Frodo it's getting very agitated and it wants to find its way back to Sauron. 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's simply a magic ring, but each time he puts it on the effect of it gets to him a bit more. We're doing a little story within that.
He is in a shadow world, but not quite the nightmarish one that was in The Lord of the Rings. Again that was more influenced by Sauron and the Eye of Sauron and all that, so we're not dealing with that this time round, but it's the beginnings of that, it's the infancy of that."
It surprised no one when director Peter Jackson announced that he was turning his planned two-part sequel into a trilogy. Of course, it is all based on one single book, which meant that the world of Tolkien would be expanding. Peter reflected on the sometimes precarious nature of adding scenes back into what is now considered classic literature.
"It is interesting. It does go back to what we were talking about before, when you do have the slightly weird situation where Tolkien wrote this as a children's book in1936, I think it was, and then later on he wrote The Lord of the Rings and obviously this world grew in his mind, and then he tried for several years -- He was toying with the idea of republishing The Hobbit as a rewritten book that would tie in to The Lord of the Rings. That never really happened, but a lot of the material ended up in the appendices of the later editions of The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King. I think it was tagged on to the end of that. So that was a lot of his material that he was at one stage, continuing to rework back into a revised The Hobbit. We've got access to all this material, so we are able to delve into those appendices and search for little clues about bits of story and some of them are only half formed. You get the feeling that maybe if he ever did sit down to really flesh it out we would have got a lot more information from some of those writings. We are taking that and things shouldn't be arbitrary in movies. I always get frustrated if suddenly something happens and it has no particular reason for happening. Yeah, Gandalf visits Hobbiton, he loves hobbits, he remembers hobbits are very insular and they're very contained. Their suspicious of the outside world and he just remembers this young Bilbo Baggins as a young child who was the one hobbit that he sees that loves adventure, likes danger, loves scary stories. That has a more outgoing spirit, and when he wants a hobbit to be a burglar on this adventure, he returns to Hobbiton many years later and he finds Bilbo. He deliberately hunts down Bilbo, because that's the hobbit who he thinks would be the best one to pick for this. He's appalled and shocked to find at the end of eighteen years Bilbo's become stuffy, and ultra conservative, and not at all like the little boy that he remembers. So that's the beginning of their relationship really."
Peter Jackson continued by talking about the agendas of the dwarves, their leader Thorin, and some of the characters they come in contact with.
"A lot of people in this story have agendas. Dwarves want to get their homeland back. Thranduil wants to get what's owed to him in the mountain, what he perceives as being his, and Bilbo is the one person that doesn't have those sorts of motives, but he finds himself caught up in this crazy adventure with these characters that he's got to deal with and come to terms with. It's interesting.
Thorin is very much an anti-hero in some respects. He's become so obsessed with what he believes to be the right thing that he crosses a boundary in a way, with the dragon sickness and things. So he is an interesting character, and Bilbo -- 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 get the goodness within themselves and the strength within themselves and try to survive and get through it, so they're always the most interesting heroes. They're not flawed, they're just unlikely heroes. They're not the sort of person you would really think would be able to take on a dragon, but when you see them actually doing that, I find that sort of heroism in films really interesting. Legolas is just a hero. I don't identify myself with Legolas that much. Just go and let Orlando do his thing and it's great for the movie. It's good."
Finally, the director talked about some of the new technology he is working with, and offered his thoughts on shooting in both 3D and 48 FPS.
"I just think that we're living in a world where the technology is advancing so rapidly. You're having cameras that are capable of more and more -- The resolution on cameras is jumping up. Three or four years ago filmmakers using digital cameras were shooting at 2K and now we're shooting this at 4K and I'm sure within three or four years it'll be 8K. It's just going insane with the development, the speed of it, and likewise projection. And shortly the one thing we're all hanging out for is brighter projection for 3D, but the laser projectors are on the horizon and they're certainly going to massively improve the brightness, and theatres are building bigger screens. And it's really a question of do you just say, "Okay, this is what we've been used to for the last seventy-five or eighty years, and that's what we're going to stick with." Or do you explore ways to actually harness this technology to give people a better experience, and we're also, as an industry, we're facing a situation where less young people, especially, are coming to see films anymore. It's too easy to watch them on your iPad. Too easy to stay at home and play games, and so I think anything that we can do to provide a more immersive and spectacular experience-- Filmmaker have been doing it, 65 mm, 2001, Stanley Kubrick and David Lean, they shot in these huge big formats to try to make it sharp and clear and that was like the equivalent of five-K in the film stock days. Todd-AO was 30 frames a second, wasn't it, for Around the World in 80 Days. There's been people trying to push it, but of course the just effect for seven or eight decades projectors were pretty much locked into twenty-four frames per second. We had to get past the mechanical film age to be able to explore other things, but it will be interesting. I personally think 48 frames is great, but we'll just wait till everyone can just see a whole full length movie, graded and timed and we'll see what people think."
Stay tuned for more from the set, as we delve into The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in the near future.
To read our first set report from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which focuses on Thorin Oakenshield and the Dwarves:
To read our set report focusing on Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf:
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey was released December 14th, 2012 and stars Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Ken Stott, Graham McTavish, William Kircher, James Nesbitt, Stephen Hunter. The film is directed by Peter Jackson.