Tolkien tale, lord of the box office?

By KAREN BUTLER  |  Dec. 13, 2001 at 5:24 PM
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NEW YORK, Dec. 13 (UPI) -- If Miramax honcho Harvey Weinstein had had his way, J.R.R. Tolkien's epic "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy would have been condensed into one movie --a concept which director Peter Jackson said he found appalling.

Fortunately for the millions of fans who cherish the books, Jackson ("The Frighteners," "Heavenly Creatures") got out of his deal with Miramax and offered his idea of making more than one "Lord of the Rings" movie to New Line Cinema. New Line then hired him to direct not one, but three spectacular, special effects-laden tales of Hobbits and wizards fighting evil in fictional Middle Earth.

To top it all off, the director who had never before directed a hit movie pulled off an unprecedented feat: He simultaneously shot all three movies for half the price of a Hollywood production by filming in New Zealand, all while remaining faithful to the spirit of Tolkien's stories.

"The biggest savings is (because) it's a New Zealand-based show," Jackson revealed to United Press International, during a recent interview at Manhattan's posh Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. "I think the fact that we're making them in New Zealand ... I think we're able to make them for about 50 percent of what they would cost (in the United States.) If I look at something like 'Pearl Harbor,' which, if you believe what you read, was a $150 million budget and then compare to our movie what it's got in terms of (computer-generated special effects) and locations, which are very expensive, and just the size of the cast and things, I would imagine it would cost about $180 million to make 'The Fellowship of the Ring,' just the one movie, in the States, if you just do a comparison between those two movies. And so (the three movies cost about) $270 million, $280 million. So, we've made ours for about $90 (million), $92 (million), $93 million (each)."

He went on to say that the main reasons he decided to film the three movies at the same time were the financial savings and the fact that his whole cast could appear in all three movies since they simply stayed on for the 15-month shoot instead of going away, making other movies and then coming back to the "Lord of the Rings" set.

"The theory behind shooting three films at once was really based on two things," Jackson explained. "Financially, it does make some savings. ... You don't have to do a lot of pre-production for the second and third films and also you get this big cast of 20-odd actors together, and you don't have to re-assemble the same team of actors twice more. ... So it seemed like a sensible way to do it. ... We're doing something that no one's really done before. ... Instead of being a movie and two sequels, it's really just one story that's split into three, and you're asking audiences to sort of buy into the fact that you're going to show the story over three different films, and we felt that if we were asking an audience to participate in that, we didn't want there to be two or three years between the movies. And if you shot them separately, it would inevitably be two, or even three years, between them because of the time it would take to set up and make each film."

Jackson said that filming all three pieces of the trilogy also ensured continuity, since nobody aged noticeably during the 15-month shoot the way they would have if they filmed the three movies separately over the course of six to nine years.

This technique also meant that the sets did not have to be rebuilt twice. For example, Jackson shot at once all of the scenes that take place in Hobbitdon, which included the opening of the first movie and the ending of the third film.

The first film in the trilogy, "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring," opens next week. It has already garnered rave reviews from critics who have seen advance screenings of it. The two sequels, the first of which is already being edited, will be released in 2002 and 2003. The films star Elijah Wood ("The Good Son,") Ian McKellen ("X-Men," "Gods and Monsters,") Liv Tyler ("Armageddon," "Stealing Beauty,") Viggo Mortensen ("28 Days," "A Perfect Murder,") and Sean Astin ("The Goonies.")

Barefoot, with a mess of unruly hair and wearing shorts in December, Jackson described casting the trilogy as a fun task.

"We were in this wonderful position of being fans of 'The Lord of the Rings' and being able to pick our dream cast of who in the world would you want to play Bilbo and who would you want to play Gandalf," Jackson recalled. "The casting kind of divided itself up into two categories, I guess. It was the actors that we had ideas about right from the beginning.

"For instance, we always wanted Ian McKellen to play Gandalf and we always wanted Ian Holm to play Bilbo, so there was never any other actors considered for those roles, and Sean Bean for Boromir was always one of our favorites. And then there were the unknown actors. There were the characters like Legolas, who is the elf, we had no idea who we would cast. We thought of all the actors around, but we couldn't think of anyone who could play that role, so we went out casting for a completely unknown actor and Orlando (Bloom) showed up..."

"And Elijah came to the project in a very unusual way, as well, because Frodo was a very difficult (part to cast)," Jackson continued. "When we cast our minds to who would be good, we just couldn't think of any actor in the world for Frodo. We were a little biased because we were assuming that an English actor would play Frodo, so we were thinking of English actors, and we went to London, and we auditioned completely unknown English boys and we saw about 200 in three weeks and every time the door opened in the casting office, you hoped that Frodo would walk through the door, but it never really happened ... and suddenly this videotape showed up in the mail ..."

He continued: "Elijah Wood had sent the tape and, at that point, I had never seen an Elijah Wood film. I knew his name, but I didn't really know his face. ... We put the tape in the machine and Elijah had rented himself a cheesy Hobbit outfit. He got a friend of his to go out with a video camera in the woods with him, his backyard or somewhere, and he was under these trees, sort of doing Frodo, and he had hired a dialect coach to train him so he was doing the correct accent. ... the second I saw the tape I thought he was perfect."

Although most of the people involved with the production of the screen trilogy are ardent admirers of the Tolkien books, Jackson said it was important to him to make films that people could enjoy even if they hadn't read the novels.

"We took a lot of care to make a movie that anyone can walk in off the street... and still understand and follow the film," Jackson said.

"The book is renowned for its complexity and it has a fan base, which adores it because of the complexity and detail that Tolkien goes into, but we were determined that we would not let that weigh the film down -- that we really wanted to make an enjoyable film."

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