Wall Street Journal
Peter Jackson

The Wall Street Journal
December 2, 1999

The George Lucas of Christchurch
Laura Landro

Move over, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo. Sauron, Frodo and Aragorn are ready for their close-ups.

In a land far, far away from Hollywood, the cameras have started to roll on one of the most ambitious movie projects ever undertaken: the filming, more than 50 years after its publication, of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy trilogy, "Lord of the Rings." New Zealand's verdant valleys, volcanic plateaus and snow-capped mountains are being transformed into Tolkien's mythical kingdom of Middle-earth, where his saga of the epic struggle between good and evil unfolds. George Lucas borrowed some inspiration from "Lord of the Rings" for his "Star Wars" series; if little-known director Peter Jackson can pull this off, he may well go global with his local reputation as "the George Lucas of Christchurch."

But Mr. Jackson is trying something even Mr. Lucas never attempted: completing physical production on three separate films in one marathon 15-month shoot. For New Line Cinema, which is financing the $180 million project, that means an up-front commitment to three movies, rather than waiting to see how the first one does before proceeding with the others. That's a big risk for the maker of such tried-and-true series as the "Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Austin Powers" films.

"Could it backfire? Sure, if the first film is a disaster it doesn't augur very well for the next two," says Robert Shaye, the founder and CEO of New Line, the feisty onetime independent that is now a unit of Time Warner Inc. "But -- and I'm knocking on my desk here -- we feel very certain that this has a universal currency in terms of interest, and we think it could be a franchise right off the shelf."

Steep as $180 million sounds -- and epic films do tend to go over budget -- Mr. Shaye points out that the figure works out to $60 million a movie, a little more than the current industry average. New Line is covering its bets with a number of international financial partners, and there could be serious lucre in merchandising and licensing deals. Moreover, technology is economy: Thanks to a new generation of digital effects, Mr. Jackson is able to embellish much of the world of Tolkien's richly imagined creatures, from Orcs to Balrogs; to stage battle scenes that would once have required a cast of thousands; and to make real human actors such as Elijah Wood and Sean Astin look like pint-sized Hobbits (they'll use good old-fashioned prosthetics for the big hairy feet).

There are no expensive megastars, though the cast ranges from such classical actors as Sir Ian Holm, Sir Ian McKellen and Cate Blanchett to young heartthrobs like Liv Tyler and Viggo Mortensen (he signed on recently to play Aragorn after Stuart Townsend dropped out in the first days of shooting). There are 85 speaking parts and, even with effects, enough extra work to give the local economy quite a boost for the next couple of years.

Under Mr. Jackson's decidedly ambitious plan, filming will be finished before the first movie is released, probably sometime in mid-2001. The first, "The Fellowship of the Ring," will close with a trailer for the second, "The Two Towers," which in turn will promote the third, "The Return of the King." New Line expects to release them at six- to nine-month intervals (avoiding any "Star Wars" prequels). "If we say we're making 'Lord of the Rings,' we can't tell a third of the story and then make people wait two years to see what happens," Mr. Jackson says.

Excitement is already at a fever-pitch among the rabid legions of "Lord of the Rings" fans; the trilogy has been translated into 25 languages, with more than 50 million copies sold world-wide in the past five decades.

My mother gave me the books when I was about 10, and I later shared them with my two younger brothers. We spent most of our school years reading and rereading all three until we could recite passages from memory. I even used the Elven rune alphabet Tolkien provided in the glossary to write deep dark secrets in my preteen diary, so as to thwart anyone who might find and read it.

But that's nothing compared to the "LotR" obsessives who have been swarming over the Internet for months buzzing about the movie, agonizing over whether the film would be faithful to the text, debating the casting choices and trading tidbits of gossip about the project. ("I've been filming the books in my mind for the last fifteen years . . . " is a typical posting.) Fans were in a state recently over the posting of an image said to be "Sauron's Eye," the big peeper of the Dark Lord himself, and few seem to be able to get it though their heads that Sean Connery is not going to be in the movie. ("Never talked to him," says Mr. Jackson.) This week the Internet buzz is about delays in filming caused by torrential rains in New Zealand.

At first somewhat agog over the Internet frenzy, Mr. Jackson and New Line Cinema are shrewdly using it to their advantage, bringing this built-in audience into the process from the very start. Mr. Jackson has already done two Web interviews with the Harry Knowles "Ain't It Cool News" Web site, answering questions on everything from how the evil Gollum creature will be portrayed (not a real human actor, but a digital creation that will be scary, for sure) to whether the Tolkien estate is involved (it isn't). New Line is also planning to videotape interviews with Mr. Jackson, as well as conduct live remote chats with him for broadcast over the Internet during production.

It is thanks mainly to Mr. Jackson's determination and his embrace of modern technology that "Lord of the Rings" is being made at all. Producer Saul Zaentz acquired the movie rights from United Artists, which had bought the rights from the author but never made a movie. Mr. Zaentz produced a truncated animated version covering about half the saga in 1978, but it was a critical and commercial bust, and the fans hated it. Mr. Zaentz hung on to the rights for years. Though there were a few offers to try a live-action feature, conventional Hollywood wisdom said the trilogy was unfilmable, the costs of making three such movies prohibitive.

Cut to 1995, when Mr. Zaentz hooked up with Miramax Films and Mr. Jackson, a fanciful and original director whose work included "The Frighteners" and "Heavenly Creatures," the latter a sobering true tale of a 1950s-era New Zealand matricide that blended live-action with some rough but tantalizing fantasy sequences using Plasticine figurines and some computer effects. Mr. Jackson and longtime production partner Fran Walsh took a crack at Miramax's request to squeeze the trilogy into two movies, but Mr. Jackson says he feared "any attempt to compress the story or simplify it would disappoint" the millions of fans of the books who were sure to be the core audience. Eventually Miramax agreed to give Mr. Jackson a little time to try and set the project up at another studio.

Mr. Jackson approached New Line executives, whom he knew from a "Nightmare on Elm Street" script that he had written for them but was never produced. Mr. Jackson showed Mr. Shaye and New Line President Michael Lynne a short video reel demonstrating how the creatures would be made, how the effects would work, and how, for example, a massive battle could be staged with digital software effects that would make it seem as if thousands of extras were on the screen. Messrs. Shaye and Lynne were impressed -- really impressed. "It was amazing: things we hadn't seen before, that played tricks with perception, with how vision works," says Mr. Lynne. "We were blown away."

Mr. Shaye says he was ready to take a "leap of faith" on three movies, but his experiences with sequels, despite their financial success, had been rough -- reassembling casts, settling on new scripts and luring back directors. Universal Studios had made "Back to the Future" II and III at once; why not film three "Lord of the Rings" movies in one fell swoop, and work on postproduction and editing simultaneously?

Mr. Jackson, meanwhile, was already deep into the next generation of digital effects, having helped start an effects company, WETA Digital, after an epiphany he had watching Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park." "I thought, 'Oh my God, I've got to get into the technology business. Otherwise I will be stuck down here in New Zealand with old-fashioned techniques and never be able to do the kinds of films I want to make,'" Mr. Jackson says. He and Ms. Walsh revised their two-movie script into three, returning to the structure of the original books. WETA will create more than 1,000 special effects for the trilogy and has about 80 computer artists on the project.

Will the effects overwhelm the story? "'Lord of the Rings' is wonderful source material, an amazingly intricate epic story with wonderful characters," says Mr. Jackson. "We're just trying to take all the great stuff from the books and use modern technology to give audiences a night at the movies quite unlike anything they have ever seen before." Except in their imaginations.