Set Visit: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Part II: Bilbo and Gandalf
This past summer, we were lucky enough to visit the Wellington, New Zealand set of director Peter Jackson's prequel trilogy to The Lord of the Rings, which kicks off with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey on December 14th. And while this particular Middle Earth adventure will feature plenty of new characters that we've yet to be introduced to on the big screen, a lot of old favorites are returning as well.
In fact, this first adventure is lead by the grand wizard himself Gandalf, and his trusty hobbit sidekick Bilbo, both of whom played key roles in the original series of films, debuting in 2001 with The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. This time around, a much young Bilbo is sought out as a "burglar" to help Gandalf and thirteen Dwarf warriors battle the dragon Smaug and win back Lonely Mountain and a treasure of gold for the disgraced dwarf race, all of whom have been thrust into seclusion.
Ian Holm originated the role of an older Bilbo Baggins, who first appears as a 111 year old Hobbit 60 years out from the adventures we will see take place this Christmas. He served as a supporting character in the first three The Lord of the Rings films, and drove the narrative of the one ring as its former owner. In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Martin Freeman takes over the role, playing Bilbo at 50 years old, comfortably enjoying middle age when Gandalf and the dwarves come calling on him for help.
We joined Martin Freeman on the Wellington set to discuss his take over of this iconic character, and right away he was quick to give us his take on the various degrees of Baggins, and his onscreen continuity with actor Ian Holm. He began by comparing the two versions of Bilbo, and their relationship to the one ring, as it pertains to both the prequel and the original three films.
I've watched the films again, obviously, in more detail before I came to this. I looked at Ian Holm's performance more when I needed to -- Again, I don't really know how much I should say, but there were points where it was relevant for me to look very closely at Ian Holm's performance.
I know why I'm cast, do you know what I mean? 'Cause I think we're not that dissimilar, physically, or whatever else. I think if I was, I don't know, Jeff Goldblum or someone, then I might be thinking, "Right, hang on, if he's the older me, I'd better attend more to something else maybe. Well, grow, for a start. But no, 'cause I think I was always trusted with it. All I was told, which I think was flattery, and probably bollocks, was, "You are the only person to play it." So I thought, "Well, if they think that, then I've got to trust that." And there's only so much you can run with someone else's thing. It's very helpful, in the way that it's brilliant as he is always brilliant, and it's a beautiful establisher of that character, and a very loved one, for obvious reasons. But it can also hamper you if you're thinking, "How would Ian Holm have done this?", then I'm fucked. So I've got to let that go. I've always been mindful of it, 'cause I'm familiar with it. But I think the work for that connection was done in the casting of me, rather than what I'm then going to do on top of it."
The actors had already been shooting for a year and a half when we arrived to talk with him. Martin Freeman considered the idea of having to hold onto the arc of Bilbo in terms of the story, and its timeline. That has proved to be difficult during this long process, but the actor thinks he's done quite well with the challanges.
Was there ever any pressure on Martin, knowing that there was such a fan push to help land him this coveted role?
Along with Gandalf, and himself, there are thirteen individual dwarves that are accompanying the actor on this long journey to the big screen. Martin Freeman revealed what it is like working as part of this massive ensemble.
So we've really held together as a group very, very well. And like anything else, like any other working relationship, it's about finding your place within it, finding when it's your turn, finding out when it's not your turn. And I'm amazed how well it's happened, I really am. It's one of the things I'm proudest of, actually. And I think it's one of the things we'll all be proudest of in ten years, is that we all maintained quite a good working relationship, and were pretty friendly, really. I think the hard thing is, don't make the drama school mistake of, first two weeks: "You're my best friend, I love you, I love you!" And then Christmas comes: "Ah, bitch." Because if you go in too strong, it will all go to shit. But we're all feeling each other out. Not literally, that would be wrong. But as a group, finding out just where we all slot in. And it's amazing -- I'm not trotting out any party line here, we're all getting on fine, which is about as good as you could hope for after a year and a half. And we're still going out for meals, still going out for drinks, still being round each other's houses without wanting to kill each other, which is no mean feat."
The actor was actually isolated from the others on set for a great deal of the shooting period, because as we all know, a wizard is quite a bit taller than a dwarf. This led to some not so fun moments, which found Ian having to act opposite a ball on a stick against a green screen while the rest of the cast was at the actual location.
I think because my reaction was so strong to it, it was very difficult and bewildering, Peter Jackson has managed to cut down the number of times we've done that since. But in the more general sense, it was the sort of feeling we had by the time we were making The Lord of The Rings: The Return of The King, that there had already been two films gone out, which had been much enjoyed. So we felt, which you don't often feel when you're doing a job, this is a job that the audience wants me to do.
But most of the time when you do a job, a play or a film, you're wondering, "Will there be an audience?" We know with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, there's going to be an audience. Millions of people are going to want to see it. So we fear we're not on our own. The audience's expectations are ever-present. So it's a more comfortable job than most. There's not that worry at the back, "Are we all wasting our time?" Which you can feel even when you're doing King Lear. So the difference, I suppose, the main difference between the two films, was the personnel. Everybody beyond the camera was familiar, from the director through to Emma who does my costume and Rick who does my make-up. It was back with old friends. But most of the cast, we hadn't met before here, although I knew some of them from England. And they turned out to be a very friendly bunch."
The actor continued by describing the process of acting against green screen, by himself, which he is clearly not a fan of. Though, he has found a way to work through it.
Ian McKellen went onto describe the role that Gandalf will play in this prequel adventure, and how it has a lighter tone than the previous trilogy.
I think I'm a bit gruffer than I used to be, and I'm certainly older. Although of course Gandalf ought to be a little bit younger, 'cause these events are happening sixty years before. But when you're sixty-seven thousand years old, I guess it doesn't make much difference. I'm comforting myself. And I obviously look very much the same, because a wig and a familiar hat, and a mustache and beard frame my own features, so there's not a lot of me there. In fact, my face has shrunk in the meantime, but it won't be particularly noticeable because it's covered up with hair. So I hope I'm not alarmed if I ever do sit through the [six] movies.
It is the same Gandalf. However, there were three films, and in two of them, I was Gandalf the White. And I don't make much connection between White and Grey, and I've never really liked the White. I never said I didn't like playing him, but I didn't warm to him. He's a man with a mission, and he's a commander, and he's a man working right at the end of his tether. Gandalf the Grey, I think Peter Jackson agrees, is a much more congenial person, and humane, and full of all sorts of life. And particularly when he's with the Hobbits. There's not a lot of Hobbits in this story, there's one, really. So whenever I'm with him, I think that brings out the side of Gandalf that you're talking about. I don't think he warms to the dwarves as much."
What about Gandalf and Thorin's relationship? Will it be more in-depth than what we read in the book?
Much has been made about the fact that there will be a third film, and that it includes scenes not in the original book. Here's what Ian McKellen had to say about that aspect of this new trilogy.
Stay tuned as we catch up with director Peter Jackson and Gollum himself, Andy Serkis in part three of our set visit.
To read our first set report from The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, which finds the Dwarves introducing themselves:
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.