August 29, 1998
Brings 'Lord of the Rings' Home
Making a trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy classic Lord of the Rings is a world away from film-maker Peter Jackson's humble, home-made beginnings. He talks to Mike Houlahan.
Peter Jackson has one regret about making a film of the Tolkien classic Lord of the Rings -- that he won't have the thrill of seeing for the first time a favourite book translated to the big screen.
"I know when I see it I'll be remembering how we filmed that scene, or how we got around that problem, or how many hours that shot took to complete."
That slight twinge of sorrow is nothing compared to the excitement -- and maybe a little terror -- Jackson feels at being entrusted with what is believed to be biggest motion picture production ever undertaken in the southern hemisphere.
"It's like the holy grail of cinema," Jackson says.
"It's a time when the technology of cinema now enables us to tell this story. I really think it would have been impossible to do Lord of the Rings before the advent of computers.
"With computers, we've arrived at a time when anything you can imagine can be put on to film, and obviously anything Tolkien could imagine can be put on to film."
Lord of the Rings will be a three-movie trilogy made by Jackson for the United States company New Line Cinema. It has a $NZ264 million budget, a far cry from Jackson's first film Bad Taste, made by grace and favour and shot during weekends with a cast and crew of friends and workmates.
With the success of that film, he was able to make the splatter/puppet film Meet The Feebles, and another splatter-fest, Brain Dead. He then made Heavenly Creatures, a very different, more cerebral film examining the 1954 Parker-Hulme murders, which won Jackson and partner Fran Walsh an Oscar nomination for best screenplay.
He then shot The Frighteners, his first Hollywood movie. Its $NZ50 million ($US25 million) budget was small by Hollywood standards, but Jackson was told by executive producer Bob Zemeckis that because he was filming in New Zealand, he was making the film for half what it would cost in the US. It is that economic advantage which has helped bring Lord of the Rings to New Zealand.
"If you look at my career, the first three and a half films I made were funded by the New Zealand Film Commission, and it was only because of the reception of those films, and that they were funded from here and people paid attention to them, that I was able to make The Frighteners," Jackson says.
"Because I made that film, I can make this. Everything has a progression, and there's absolutely no reason other New Zealand film-makers, if given the right support early in their careers, will not achieve these sorts of results.
"It's not because I'm someone special. It's because I have managed to make five films, and it's only when you have a track record -- and the films I've made haven't been huge hits, they haven't been enormously successful films but they have been made -- that someone will entrust me with this project. It can happen for other Kiwi film-makers as well."
What Jackson does have, and what made him the film-maker entrusted with retelling a story voted the Book of the Century by British and New Zealand readers, is Weta Digital, his special effects studio.
Jackson goes quite crimson at the mention of New Line's description of him as the new George Lucas, but he is fiercely proud of the achievements of the Weta staff.
They will shoulder much of the responsibility of converting Jackson's interpretation of Tolkien's vision into cinematic reality.
Published in 1954-55, The Lord of the Rings is an epic saga of a battle between good and evil, set in the mythic world of Middle-Earth. Halflings, elves, wizards, dwarfs, and men battle to preserve the land from the dark lord Sauron and his armies of orcs, goblins, and wolves.
Although Tolkien's book is one of the classics of fantastic literature, Jackson is adamant that he wants Middle Earth to look as realistic as possible, which is one good reason to film entirely in New Zealand.
"New Zealand is the best country in the world to shoot this film, because of the variety of locations we have. If you look at Lord of the Rings, you go from the Shire to Rivendell, to the Misty Mountains, to Mordor. Landscapes are very important in the story, and New Zealand has all those landscapes.
"A lot of our location shooting will be enhanced with a computer. We'll add a different sky to some scenes, play around with the cloud formations, use rays of sunlight, do a lot of subtle tweaks on the computer to give it a magical ambience. We'll add a lot of the castles, fortresses, and cities with the computer.
"But I want it to feel real. I don't want it to feel like an artificial studio movie environment. The ideal scenario is you get a sense we've gone to Middle Earth, the castles are all still there, and we've done this by taking our camera crew and extras and filming it in the real places Tolkien wrote about."
However, Tolkien's books are not just about fantastic places, but also extraordinary people and locations. Weta will not only have to create the golden forests of the elven Lothlorien and the fell swamps of the evil realm of Mordor, but the people of Middle-Earth: dwarves, hobbits, orcs, and wizards.
About 50 people have been working on the special effects for a year, Jackson says. With shooting -- which will take a year -- not due to begin for seven to eight months, and 18 months set aside for post-production, time is on Weta's side.
Most of the key characters will be played by regular actors, with computer graphics, blue-screen matting, and other tricks making people the size they are supposed to be. Beyond those principal characters, an enormous number of creatures and various beasts will be created by computer.
Perhaps the most daunting of Weta's tasks will be the recreation of the many epic battles of Lord of the Rings. In Tolkien's books, forces of hundreds of thousands of soldiers clash, and Jackson wants those battles recreated on the scale Tolkien envisaged.
"We've been working for a long time on a piece of software that is about a year ahead of what people are doing elsewhere in the world," he says.
"It's an artificial intelligence-based software, so that we can have as many digital soldiers or orcs, or whoever as we want, and they all think for themselves and don't have to be animated one by one. I want to put battles on the screen that are bigger than anyone else has ever done before."
Jackson says his approach to Lord of the Rings will be to presume that the events in the book really happened. He says it's the feeling you get when you finish Tolkien's book, and treating the films as historical pieces rather than fantasy pieces will make them more satisfying.
"I wouldn't want to make a film this big if it were anything other than Lord of the Rings," Jackson says.
"It's just the quality of the story and the wonderful characters. It's so magical and exciting. I think it is worth spending three years of my life doing."