Tens of thousands crowded the streets around the renovated old Embassy cinema in
downtown Wellington, ignoring the unseasonal cold wind of a mid December Wednesday
evening, to witness the stars and guests arrive for the premiere of The Fellowship of the
Ring. Every time a car deposited a guest at the start of the long red carpet, a cheer went
up from the crowd, who could not only see the arrivals in real life, but also projected on
a giant screen. Hugo Weaving and Elijah Wood with his fellow hobbits, Miranda Otto and a
beaming Helen Clark, the New Zealand Prime Minister, were loudly welcomed. But it was
Peter Jackson whose arrival triggered the biggest roar.
The unglamorous, un-celebrity, un-ceremonious Peter Jackson gave his countrymen a focal
point of pride that erupted like a fountain of joy in the gray New Zealand air. How did he
feel? "Fish out of water," he replied sheepishly as he moved slowly up the red
carpet, signing autographs, smiling in acknowledgment and briefly stopping to talk to the
two-man Urban Cinefile camera crew. His shirt was unbuttoned, his hair unruly and seeking
escape from any attempt to contain it, his beard a free-range chaos, Peter Jackson
nevertheless looked triumphant.
Of all the film’s several premieres around the world, this one was IT; The One
that meant the most and was the most exciting. It was home. It was where the largest
filmmaking undertaking the world has ever known was conceived, and completed. Here in a
city of just 300,000 - of whom many thousands worked on the film in hundreds of ways, from
standing around the set as an extra to panel beating armour for the battles between the
forces of good and evil – Peter Jackson was a hero. Indeed, all over New Zealand, he
was a hero. At that moment, he symbolised what New Zealand had yearned for over many
years: recognition as a place that matters. Jackson’s filmmaking trajectory had
finally arrived at its zenith: not only was this the biggest film ever, it was also
probably the best, by golly. It demonstrates the transfer of power to the creative forces
of a few determined people and shows what enormous enterprise New Zealand is capable of.
Peter Jackson, who turned 40 six weeks before the premiere, was King of New Zealand,
which had proudly re-christened itself Middle-earth for the occasion. (And The Wellington
Post was published under the masthead, The Middle-earth Post.)
In the glow of glory after the premiere, where the expectations of the film were
fulfilled, Peter Jackson spoke of what drove him and his team to spend over five years
(with two more to go) creating a movie trilogy from a book written by an English
linguistics professor two or three generations ago. "What’s remarkable about the
book, " he says, "is that for a work of fiction it is so detailed it feels
authentic and real. I wanted to translate that onto the screen. The result is a level of
detail that is extraordinary – and some of it you don’t even see on the screen,
but that was important to give us the flexibility when shooting so we didn’t have to
consider camera angles and placements. Everything around us could be in shot."
"The word real was our mantra"
Everyone involved with the film you talk to echoes this focus. "The word real was
our mantra," he says. "The characters weren’t played as archetypes,
even if they were archetypal characters. It’s very Tolkien…."
When he first gathered his actors around, it was agreed that "we would play it for
real. It wasn’t going to be a fantasy dwarf or a fantasy elf… but then we did
cast great actors," he says, "and we just had to identify the tone of the
film." Yes, and as Hugo Weaving points out, the most extraordinary memory he has is
the sheer endurance required, day after day, to cope with the logistics, the action, the
setbacks, the make up and costuming… for some 270 days of principal photography.
Jackson’s mental picture of the film developed during the writing stage; "you
start visualising it as you write it. We [Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens and Jackson] wanted
to make sure it didn’t look like an art department exercise. Fran, his life and work
partner, has worked with Jackson on other films, but this was Boyens’ first
screenplay. She brought her own love of the book to the table, and a commitment that
equaled the others’.
In the making of the film, Jackson paid as much attention to close ups as he did to the
epic battle scenes, or lyrical to dramatic landscapes. "We wanted to focus on the
characters and the story…they are what drives the film." That’s one reason
why all the characters seem so accessible, so close, so multidimensional. We are always in
touch with their emotions as the story unfolds.
"I never tire of seeing it"
By the time the film was being released to the public, Jackson had seen it several
times, "but funnily enough, I never tire of seeing it." He does, however,
contemplate a radical new way of seeing it: "I’d love to go to a hypnotherapist
and get him to wipe all memory of the film and the making of it from my mind, so I could
see it with a fresh eye." It was a desire to see the film version of the book, after
all, that drove Jackson in the first place. And while he’s serious about his wish,
he’s worried that "it won’t be reversible and then I’d have to finish
making the other two films without knowing what I’d done so far…"
Inevitably, Jackson has to explain how such a giant film ended up in his lap, in his
home town on the edge of the Southern Pacific. "Well, I really like the fact that it
happened the way it did," he begins. "It’s very unlikely that a studio
would finance three films and pick me to direct. It came about in a complicated way, a
series of events over three years.
"When I began to think seriously about it, I had a first look deal with Miramax,
who happened to be working with Saul Zaents at the time, who held the film rights. [Zaents
had produced the ill-fated animated version in 1978.]" This was the coincidence that
made it relatively easy for Jackson to be aligned with the project; Miramax was on board.
But as the script for a two-film project was being written, it became obvious that the
budget was going to be large, and more than Miramax could approve without a nod from its
parent, the Disney empire. Disney said no.
Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein then opted to make a single film, but Jackson implored
him to give them a 4-week turnaround window so they could shop it to other studios in the
hope of finding one with enough money, imagination or plain guts to take it on. It was the
middle of 1998, and work had begun on the design and construction aspects. The bill was
growing, with no-one to send it to.
"That moment was a dream come true"
After a series of meetings in Los Angeles, Jackson and his team were still unfinanced,
but there was one more meeting left before heading home. "We had a short video
presentation showing designs that were ready. It was about 25 minutes, and we took it
along to the last meeting we had set up. It was with Bob Shaye, the boss at New
Line." Shaye and other executives including Mark Ordesky, showed up for the meeting
and screening. "After they saw the tape, Bob Shaye turned to me and asked, ‘why
do you want to make two films?’ and I thought, oh-oh, this is another NO! Then he
said, ‘Aren’t there three books? Why don’t you make three films?’ That
moment was a dream come true," Jackson recalls with a wide smile.
"We then spent the next 14 months throwing things out and rewriting the screenplay
from two to three films and doing a redesign." (They didn’t get the final,
official money nod until early 1999.)
Published December 27, 2001