The $264 million, 12-month, consecutive three-picture shoot will be the Ben-Hur of the Southern Hemisphere and provide work for 300 crew, 63 actors and 15,000 extras while breaking spectacular new ground in computer-generated effects.
It's being funded by New Line Cinema and is the American independent's biggest production since it was founded in 1967.
"We are completely committed to Peter Jackson's vision for this trilogy, and we will make sure that he has the necessary logistical, financial and creative support to complete a project of this size and scale," New Line CEO Robert Shaye said in a statement.
Jackson, whose last movie was The Frighteners for Universal Studios, likens the colossal exercise to shooting 25 low-budget movies in one year. "We will have five copmlete units working full-time", he told Onfilm. "Even the smallest will have the crew of a low-budget New Zealand film. If they were shooting the equivalent of five films over a year, that would equate to 25 movies."
Jackson says The Lord of the Rings, which starts principal photography in May, will be the biggest film project undertaken outside the US and UK and will pump more than $230 million into the NZ economy. "Ninety percent of the budget will be spent here. We'll be shooting each movie for twice the budget of The Frighteners."
The effects of each also will be far more elaborate and go beyond anything previously achieved on screen. One key character will be played by a synthetic thespian and armies of computer-generated soldiers will virtually animate themselves.
"We will have more than 200,000 soldiers fighting in one shot," Jackson says. "We are developing a technique which will give them artificial intelligence.
"There won't be any animation - just 200,000 extras who have been trained to kill and who can think for themselves. We would be a year ahead of what anyone else is doing in this area."
The three movies will boast 1200 computer-generated shots - Titanic had about 450 - and will be shot on location around the coutnry and in Jackson's Wellington studios. Satellite links will keep Jackson abreast of studio work while he's in the field.
"It's taken 45 years for filmmaking technology to catch up with Tolkien's imagination," Jackson says. "In New Zealand we have both the computer technology and the landscapes to bring the unique world of Middle-Earth to life."
But timing was just as crucial. When Jackson and partner Fran Walsh thought of adapting Tolkien's good-vs-evil epic as their next project in November 1995, they immediately ran the idea past Harvey Weinstien of Miramax, which had co-financed Heavenly Creatures. "Producer Saul Zeantz owned the rights [to The Lord of the Rings] and had a reputation for not entertaining any approaches," Jackson says.
"But Harvey had helped Saul out with The English Patient when Fox put in in turnaround. Because they had a very good relationship, Harvey was able to do a deal. So the one guy we contacted happened to have a relationship with the one guy who had the right and had always refused to part with them. They were very fortuitous circumstances." Likewise, Jackson's friendship with New Line/Fine Line bosses - and Tolkien buffs - Mark Ordesky and Michael De Luca. It streches back 10 years when he and Danny Nulheron wrote a spec screenplay for New Line's Nightmare On Elm Street franchise. "The Freddy Kreuger script never got made but we stayed in touch," Jackson says.
Ordesky was instrumental in securing The Lord of the Rings when Miramax developed cold feet about the project's scope. (The Weinstein brothers will retain an executive producer stake in what Shaye called a "unique collaboration" between rivals in independent filmmaking.)
"Harvey Weinstein and Bob Shaye are probably the last two guys in the film business who operate on gut instinct," Jackson says. "Other studios are so corporate and run by people without passion for film. The thought of making films back to back is something they couldn't imagine - it's outrageous to them."
Also pivotal to The Lord of the Rings' timing is the fall in the value of the NZ dollar. "You could not make this project for $US130 million in the US," Jackson says. "But in New Zealand the budget goes to $260 million and you'll probably get $300 million of screen value on film for just under a third of the price [in the US]."
Sidebar 1: Calling all Hobbits
Casting of The Lord of the Rings will get under way before Christmas.
Director Peter Jackson says New line will want some "name" actors but New Zealanders will be in more than 50 speaking parts.
Normal-size actors who play the Hobbits will have their height reduced by computer effects.
Jackson and Fran Walsh, who wrote the screenplay with Stephen Sinclair and Philippa Boyens, will co-produce with Tim Sanders (The Frighteners). Grant Major (Memory & Desire) is production designer, Jamie Selkirk post-production producer and Charlie McLellan of Weta Digital the effects producer; Weta Physical's Richard Taylor will supervise the design and construction of creatures and miniatures.
Internationally renowned Tolkien artists Alan Lee and John Howe have been in Wellington since the beginning of the year producing conceptual designs for the movie which New Line will release as a Christmas/Northern Hemisphere summer event during the 2000-2001 calendar year.
Sidebar 2: If not for the Film Commission...
Peter Jackson hopes The Lord of the Rings will improve the film industry's public funding prospects.
"Successive governments have regarded film as a niche cultural activity like the ballet or Symphony Orchestra, to be indulged with a minimum of funding and support," he says.
"But filmmaking could be a huge income-earning industry for this country. It would be great if someone in Government would sit back and examine what's happened here.
"I am a Kiwi filmmaker who was supported by the Government for making my first three-and-a-half films (Heavenly Creatures was co-financed by Miramax). Then let me make some more.
"The Frighteners brought $30 million into this country. And The Lord of the Rings will bring $230 million into this country.
"Imagine a couple of projects like The Lord of the Rings being made every year in New Zealand. It's certainly achievable. But I've only been able to pull it off because I was nurtured and supported through nearly four movies.
"Under current funding, a filmmaker may get money to make their first low-budget feature and if they're lucky money for a second. But there is a glass ceiling. Frustrated filmmakers are going offshore. I would not have been able to make The Lord of the Rings as my third movie. I had to develop credibility. It's like backing a racehorse - you have to get a certain amount of form before you can attract this kind of money."
Meanwhile, co-producer Tim Sanders will be asking the Government to support The Lord of the Rings through cooperation with departments such as Conservation for locations and the like. "I'm sure the Government will see benefit in helping us to achieve a phenomenal result," he says.
"We can now stake our claim as an industry adepy at both low-budget, indigenous films and big-budget, international blockbusters - which can only mean repeat business and a high profile for New Zealand."
Sidebar 3: Jackson runs rings around rivals
Two months ago it looked as if The Lord of the Rings would go the way of Peter Jackson's King Kong re-make.
The latter was part of a two-picture pact with Universal and Miramax. When Universal iced King Kong because of rival projects like Godzilla and Mighty Joe Young, Miramax took over sole rights to The Lord of the Rings.
At that stage it was going to be a two-picture dramatisation. "To tell it properly as a piece of cinema you need five-and-a-half to six hours of screen time," Jackson says. "Anything less than that you would lose substantial characters and events. Miramax agreed and we developed a 300-page screenplay."
But in recent weeks Miramax decided the project should be turned into a three-hour feature. "That would have cut the screenpla in half," Jackson says. "We would have had the Reader's Digest version."
Jackson and partner Fran Walsh told Miramax's Harvey Weinstein they couldn't live with such a creative compromise; he said if Miramax couldn't make the movie with Peter Jackson, it would hire another director.
"It was very friendly but right to the line," Jackson says. "We struck a deal with Harvey that we'd walk away from the project but at least give us a shot at making it somewhere else first. He gave us three weeks.
"We spend the first week in New Zealand making a 36-minute documentary about what we wanted to do with The Lord of the Rings so we could pitch it to other studios. We used computer-generated technology and artwork and design and animatronics. Because we had been working on the project for 18 months, we had a huge amount of material we could pull together.
"The second week Fran and I flew to LA and hawked our wares. We had a little suitcase full of stuff."
Jackson thought their chances of finding another studio was 50:50. While he knew pitching the shooting of two movies back-to-back would be a hard sell, "I was confident because The Lord of the Rings is such a wonderful property and we had 18 months' worth of great visuals."
Even so, he didn't count on New line chief Bob Shaye saying the obvious way to film The Lord of the Rings was as three movies - shoot the trilogy back-to-back and release them a few months apart.
"New Line's lawyers spoke to Miramax's lawyers and out lawyers so we could make it work," Jackson says. "Harvey was extremely supportive to get the deal done."
And if agreement hadn't been reached? "I always had plans B and C. I had three or four offers to direct in the US - all interesting films - and another couple of New Zealand-based projects with reasonably large budgets."
[Footnote: Onfilm interviewed Jackson about The Lord of the Rings' fate when rumours first circulated in late July about Miramax pulling back from the project. Because progress was at such a delicate stage, Jackson asked - and we agreed - to not publicize the difficulties until the project's future had been decided.]
Sidebar 4: Getting fit for battle
The biggest challenge Peter Jackson faces with The Lord of the Rings?
"Getting physically fit and staying fit because I know how exhausting it is to shoot," he says. "The Frighteners took six months and by the end of that I was a wreck.
"We'll have two-to-three breaks so the shoot will stretch beyond 12 months. These will give me a rest from filming and a chance to focus on the cutting of the movies as well."
Jackson says he isn't daunted by the scale of the project because it's been in development for so long. "I would be terrified if this was day one. But we've done the bulk of the script work and storyboarded just about everything. Fifty people have been working on it for about a year."
The screenplay will expand a little and have to be divided into three movies instead of two, which means essentially returning it to the format of the books (The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King).
"But we have to make it work as three movies," Jackson says. "You don't want to leave the audience dissatisfied [after each installment]. They have to have a sense of fulfillment as well as anticipation for the next movie.
"It's not appropriate to put a traditoinal cliffhanger at the end of each film - it will have to be more satisfying than that."
The closest Hollywood's come to making a trilogy back-to-back was the Back to the Future sequels, which Jackson's Frighteners collaborator, Robert Zemeckis, directed.
"Bob said it was real tough," Jackson says.
"The difficulty is in post-production because you're post-producting one movie and shooting another at the same time ...
"We'll have to finish and deliver part one while shooting part three."