Cast & Crew
Christopher Lee

August 26, 1999

Christopher Lee Throws Hat in Rings
Kasia Anderson

With the unofficial confirmation that British horror legend Christopher Lee is joining its cast, anticipation is starting to skyrocket for Peter Jackson's upcoming fantasy trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. Based on the beloved novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, Rings is currently still only in pre-production, but the pre-release buzz is starting to percolate at a pitch on par with The Phantom Menace.

New Line Films, the studio bankrolling what may prove formidable competition for that other trilogy, has confirmed some of the rumors surrounding Rings production. The three films (Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King) will be filmed back-to-back in Jackson's native New Zealand, with the Heavenly Creatures director also co-writing and co-producing. Over 1,200 special effects shots will be supplied by Jackson's own special effects company, WETA Digital, which has worked over the last two years to develop technology to dutifully render Tolkien's fantasy world. As Jackson put it in a New Line press release, "It has taken 45 years for filmmaking technology to finally catch up with Tolkien's imagination." The director also has the daunting task of meeting the expectations of Lord of the Rings fans worldwide: considered one of the greatest fantasy sagas of all time, the trilogy has sold over 50 million copies and been translated into 25 different languages since it was first published in 1954.

Set thousands of years ago in the magical realm Middle Earth, Rings' story follows Frodo Baggins, a plucky young member of a race of cheery little people called Hobbits. But things become decidedly less pleasant after Frodo is given a "harmless" ring by his aging cousin, Bilbo. Turns out this ring's no trinket; it's the near-indestructible creation of the menacing Dark Lord Sauron, and can control all of Middle Earth's inhabitants. To prevent it falling into the wrong hands, Frodo and a band of human, dwarf, elf, and hobbit cohorts join the wizard Gandalf on an expedition to destroy the ring by tossing it into a far-off volcano. Along the way, they are hounded by dark forces too terrifying to describe….

The story of Rings' journey to the big screen is a saga in itself: Around 1996, accomplished producer Saul Zaentz (The English Patient, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) was approached by several studios hoping to develop the project. Foremost among his suitors were Miramax heads Bob and Harvey Weinstein, who failed to land a deal due to a clause in Tolkien's will which reportedly bars parent company Disney from any use of his material. However, the Weinsteins did acquire the rights to Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, and successfully pitched the project to Warner subsidiary New Line earlier this year. (The Weinsteins will serve as executive producers of the franchise, with Zaentz co-producing).

New Line originally stated that there would be no confirmed cast list until all Rings' parts were filling, spawning a blizzard of rumors linking everyone from Sean Connery to Keanu Reeves to the trilogy. Michael Regina, who runs TheOneRing.net fan site under the alias "Xoanon," told Reel.com that despite the studio's original reluctance, several major roles are all but formally taken.

Many impressive players have tossed their hats into Rings: Besides Lee's turn as evil wizard Saruman, Elijah Wood (Deep Impact, The Ice Storm) is set to play Frodo, Ian Holm (The Sweet Hereafter) will be Bilbo, and Sir Ian McKellen will trade X-Men villain Magneto's cape for wizard Gandalf's robes. Infamous Rings baddie Gollum will be a purely computer-generated character -- one of WETA's major effects efforts. Also, since Hobbits and their kin are small in stature (typically around 3-foot-5), another of Jackson's big tasks will be to digitally downsize the human actors to the appropriate scale.

As for the remaining open parts, the rumor mill is still churning. Liv Tyler's name has been mentioned to play one of two female leads - Elven Queen Galadriel and human Princess Eowyn. There's also been whispering of the potential involvement of real-life lovebirds Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke; Xoanon says New Line President Michael DeLuca has mentioned "something about a married couple," but there has been zero confirmation on whether they or another rumored costar, Ben Affleck, is attached to the project. Xoanon mentions on the site that "Tolkien's grandson, Simon, and possibly his great grandson are to appear in the upcoming LotR film."

Insider sources claim that New Line may already have overshot its initial budget of $130 million, even by as much as $60 million. Filming, which will last approximately 18 months, was originally slated to start around September 20, but is now bumped down to October 11th .The projected release date for the first movie is Summer 2001, with the next two coming out that winter and the following summer, respectively.