Cast & Crew
Peter Jackson

Cast & Crew
Sir Ian McKellen

Cast & Crew
Sir Ian Holm

Cast & Crew
Elijah Wood

Cast & Crew
Sean Astin

Guardian Unlimited
August 5, 1999

Hobbits Wanted: No Little People Need Apply
Mark Burman

What's very long, has big hairy feet and takes two years to get to a cinema? And do you really want a Gandalf to go with your fries? There's a man in New Zealand who knows the answers to these and a hundred other questions. Questions that keep pouring across the internet and by snailmail from fans of JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, desperate to know if this man is about to mess about with, knowingly butcher, or indeed completely bugger up their favourite book.

It's been 62 years since Professor Tolkien sent his Hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin off from Middle Earth's leafy shire to a world-consuming war - all because of one little, precious ring. And no one has come close to getting all those hundreds of pages of epic fantasy on the screen.

Oh, John Boorman has thought about it a lot from time to time. Animator Ralph Bakshi even did the dirty on us and stuck half the story into the cinemas in 1978 - a grotty-looking affair that is best forgotten. But in fact, it's the BBC that's come the closest, with Brian Sibley and Michael Bakewell's luxurious radio adaptation. Maybe Orcs and Hobbits are better left in the head?

But film director Peter Jackson would beg to differ. The first Kiwi king of splatter, the man who stuffed infant zombies into food blenders, and gave us films such as Bad Taste, The Frighteners and Heavenly Creatures, is about to make the century's last epic film. There's something wonderful about that: a director who started off cheap'n'nasty getting to play Cecil B De Mille in New Zealand.

I can almost hear him hugging himself with glee across the static of an international phone line: "I'm a real believer in trying to push yourself," he says. "And if you're a film-maker, I don't think there's anything more amazing to be involved with than The Lord of the Rings. It's the holy grail of film-making. It's a once in a lifetime experience, and if we do it and we can be proud, then we want to retire when it's all over."

The "we" in question is Jackson and his writing partner and wife, Fran Walsh. Back in 1995 they were just finishing The Frighteners and contemplating a remake of King Kong when one of those unlikely moments of Hollywood synergy brought the film rights to the book within their grasp. Initially, the deal, brokered by cigar-chomping Miramax mini-mogul Harvey Weinstein, offered them the chance to squeeze the book into just two films.

Now a different mogul, Bob Shay of New Line Films, has given them the chance to have it all, or nearly all. Three films made back to back. One very long production across the whole of New Zealand, with Jackson in the middle, directing core parts of the story, while overseeing, via satellite, the rest of the sprawling shoot. The first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, will be released in the summer of 2001, the next in the trilogy to follow in a matter of months.

Getting out of Mordor alive would seem an easier option but Jackson sees no choice if he is to maintain fidelity to the story as well as keep the attention of a global audience that is already working its way through another little epic trilogy from George Lucas.

"Shooting three separate movies back to back has never been done before," says Jackson. "But I think it's unfair to say to an audience, 'Come to The Fellowship of the Ring and, if it's successful, we make part two'. That's not what we're doing. We are making the entire trilogy, one long film shoot and then we'll cut them all together. I guess it's a certain form of madness."

Madness perhaps, but Jackson has never forgotten his roots as a fan, his love of junk and collectibles. Imagine if David Lean was sitting there posting responses to detailed questions about camels and what Fagin should look like. Yet Jackson has patiently responded to endless questions on websites such as Ain't It Cool News. "I do read the websites. People post up opinions about the actors and the story and I sometimes sit there for hours and hours and read the comments. It must be very frustrating to feel your favourite book is going to be filmed and think, 'How are they going to stuff it up this time?' "

So, for the curious, Jackson (pictured) can tell you that Tom Bombadil doesn't make it in, Treebeard does, and Gollum is being played by a computer. Oh, and Sean Connery isn't quite right for Gandalf. Sir Ian McKellen takes that role while Ian Holm plays Hobbit again as Bilbo Baggins, Timothy Spall essays the dwarf Gimli and two Americans, Elijah Wood and Sean Austin, practise their best shire as Frodo and Sam. Which partly answers another inevitable question: how do you find a Hobbit that can act his furry feet off?

"Well, we've thought about that a lot. We still have tests to do but the Hobbits are the principal characters. If you study Tolkien's descriptions of them, they are really described as small people. Between three and a half to four foot tall and they're not strange in any other way than these large, hairy feet.

"I know casting authentic little people is the way that some people have thought we'll go but it just doesn't fit what Tolkien wrote. So we are casting normal sized actors and using prosthetics, computer tricks and other less complicated trickery to reduce them in size. I certainly don't want to use puppets or CGI (computer-generated imagery) characters because this is a story about real people."

Perhaps Jackson's most difficult task won't be working out what Sauron looks like or whether a Balrog has wings but how to please both the generations of fans and those apt to wander into the multiplex who will feel more than a little lost in a sea of names, places and races. "The main answer is to let the story unfold very gently. You have to take the audience by the hand and not overload them with too many names. But, in a sense, cinema has an advantage over books because when you are reading you are flipping back, with only the words to commit to memory. Now you'll see a king with a long grey beard and a strange looking crown and even though, quarter of an hour later, you might have forgotten his name, you'll remember his face and how he fits into the story. It's going to be a little easier in a way!"

Easier is not the first thought that strikes you about such an ambitious undertaking. There is the small obstacle of making a fantasy film that doesn't go all dry ice and really rotten dialogue on you. Force yourself to remember Hawk the Slayer, Krull, Labyrinth, Willow, The Dark Crystal or even The Sword and the Sorcerer - turgid to a troll - and you begin to see the potential problems. "I don't think a classic fantasy film has ever been made," says Jackson. "That's one of the reasons why I get really excited with the book because, as you turn the pages, you get a sense that if you can capture some of this stuff, then it's going to be pretty extraordinary.

"More than anything, I'm keen to avoid that American heavy metal look. It's a style that I don't think is appropriate but it's been used on a lot of Tolkien artwork and I think Tolkien would have been appalled. The key is to say we're not making a fantasy movie but approach it as if we're making a historical film."

That is why Jackson is staying put in his native New Zealand, a country that George Lucas has already used as the backdrop for his sub-Tolkien homage, Willow. It seems that, for Jackson, New Zealand is the only place to reach Middle Earth. You'll find Weathertop in Waikato, Edoras in Canterbury, NZ and the Shire taking shape on the rolling hills of the North Island.

"People think of Middle Earth as being a completely mythical place but it is not. It is our earth in a period that predates the Egyptian Empire and the Greeks. The Lord of the Rings stretches across England and the rest of Europe in a time of pre-history. Tolkien envisaged it taking place 7,000 years ago. So we want real landscapes but we want them heightened. New Zealand is perfect because it's a slightly skewed version of what Europe is."

There are other, equally convincing, arguments that there is no place like home. The moguls of Los Angeles will be more than just a Lear Jet away from dropping in. More importantly, although the $130 million that New Line is putting Jackson's way wouldn't buy James Cameron a funnel on the Titanic, New Zealand exchange rates, labour costs and Jackson's own in-house effects facility, WETA, make that sum more like $300 million.

So, somewhere, right now, in the Kiwi mist, the forces of light and dark are gathering for an almighty ruck. Anvils are ringing to the sound of Orc armour and dwarf axe blades being knocked into shape. Chainmail is a little trickier: that has to come from, of all places, India. Armour for the 15,000 extras is being knitted out of string by the 70-year-old ladies of the Wellington knitting club.

Those 15,000 will then be turned into an army of a 100,000 via a neat piece of computer software called MASSIVE which grows its own battles at the push of a button. It's De Mille with all mod cons, and you can almost hear Jackson drooling with anticipation.

"We are going to make a very personal movie, our interpretation, what's in our heads. This is not a definitive version that replaces the word. The Lord of the Rings is a wonderful masterpiece and will always be so. But I'll feel pretty good when I see 10,000 Urukai storming Helm's Deep. That's what I want to see. It's worth making the movies just to see that".