Ring of Secrets
By Alan Somson
Somewhere, anvils are ringing. Somewhere, the orc armies are clashing swords and preparing for battle. Somewhere, presumably, the finishing touches are being put to the shadowy – computer – figure of Gollum himself.
Apart from guesses based around the Miramar studios of director Peter Jackson, such is the secrecy surrounding the mammoth production of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, you’d be hard pressed to know.
Filming might be less than a month away but, despite informed guesses by observers all around the globe, Jackson’s people are adopting a “neither confirm nor deny” response to virtually all questions about production. Especially about cast members.
“Sorry, maybe we can say something in a few weeks,” is the standard response from the ever-polite “Publicist”, Sian Clement.
Not surprisingly, rumors abound. In an Internet article, Jackson is accused of “teasing his stalkers unmercifully”. But the detractor concedes that the secrecy is “probably the only thing to do when you’ve got tens of thousands of [people] spying on you, criticizing you, questioning your judgement and thr4eating you with dire consequences if you mess around with the elves or the hobbits”.
There’s also the fact that others who have attempted to film the trilogy – notably animator Ralph Bakshi in the late 1970’s – have come spectacular croppers.
There’s a lot at stake for a director who, Heavenly Creatures aside, is otherwise best remembered for small-budget experiments such as the gruesome The Frightners and the antisocial Meet the Feebles. But with filming just a few weeks away – we’re still not sure where – something had to slip out.
And for that we can be grateful to Jackson, who has at last given an interview, albeit to a British newspaper. Some of the news is stunning.
In an interview with the Guardian’s Mark Burman, Jackson confided that the entire trilogy will be made in one long film shoot, to be cut together.
This means that unlike George Lucas’s Star Wars six – or is it nine? – part series, filmgoers will be able to enjoy each part of the Ring trilogy within a few months of each other.
“Shooting three movies back to back has never been done before,” Jackson said. “But I think it’s unfair to say to an audience, ‘Come to The Fellowship of the Ring and, if it’s successful, we’ll make part two’.
The first film, The Fellowship of the Ring, is due to be released in 2001.
The other important news for the Ring aficionados is the announcement of which characters will inevitably have to be cut from the massive classic.
Tom Bombadil doesn’t make it, Treebeard does and Gollum, as guessed, is to be played by a computer.
Casting decisions we think we know include: Elijah Wood as Frodo Baggins, Bearer of the ring; Sir Ian McKellen as Gandalf, the old wizard; Sean Austin as Samwise Gamgee, Frodo’s faithful sidekick; Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins, the original Ring Bearer; Christopher Lee as Saruman, the evil wazard; Stuart Townsend as Aragorn, warrior king; Billy Boyd as Peregrin Took(pippin), hobbit follower of Frodo; and Dominic Monaghan as Merry, another hobbit follwoer. It’s a pretty fair guess that Liv Tyler will play Arwen, elf princess of Rivendell, though one report suggests she is to play fairy queen Galadriel.
John Rhys-Davies and Timothy Spall have been guessed for the part of dwarf Gimli (Rhys-Davis is believed to be more likely). Orlando Bloom is to be Legolas, the elf warrior. It’s also common knowledge that the hobbits will all be played by normal-sized people, to be fiddled into the requisite shape by Jackson’s computers. Not an easy task when hobbits aren’t exactly scaled-down humans. For a start, they have enormous feet.
In his interview, Jackson has given clues about the landscapes he has chosen to convey the essential Middle Earth. According to Burman, you’ll find Weathertop in Waikato, Edoras in Canterbury 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’s not,” Jackson said. “It is our earth in a period that predates the Egyptian empire and the Greeks. Lord of the Rings stretches across England and the rest of Europe in a time of pre-history.”
“Tolkien envisaged it taking place 7000 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.”
Burman comments on his interview that though the US$130 million (NZ $230 million) that New Line Cinema is putting into the movie venture “wouldn’t buy James Cameron a funnel on the Titanic”, New Zealand exchange rates, labour costs and Jackson’s in-house effects facility, WETA Productions, make the sum effectively US$300 million.
Overall, the saga is understood to have a $360 million budget, which would make it the second- or third – largest production ever.
“So somewhere, right now, in the Kiwi mist, the forces of light and dark are gathering for an almighty ruck,” Burman says.
According to him, chain mail is having to be brought from India, but most of the armour for the 15,000 extras is being knitted out of string “by the 70-year-old ladies of a Wellington knitting club”.
That last claim is demonstrably untrue. At least, the production people spoken to laughed, and no knitting club in Wellington will put its hand up. Though magic wrought with knitting needles has a ring of Jackson truth in it.
Certainly, we know that the 15,000 extras are to be turned into an army of 100,000 with a computer software package called Massive which can grow it'’ own battles at the push of a button.
There’s also comforting assurance from Jackson that “most 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 he would be appalled.”
“The key is to say we’re not making a fantasy movie, but to approach it as if we’re making a historical film”.
Jackson also has the answer to criticisms that the task is simply too big for any director to tackle, let alone a producer of small-budget splatter films.
Burman suggests that no fantasy film has ever been memorable – “Force yourself to remember Hawk, the Slayer, Krull, Labyrinth, Willow, The Dark Crystal or even The Sword and the Sorcerer,” he says.
Jackson responds: “I don’t think a classic fantasy film has ever been made”.
“That’s one of the reasons 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, it’s going to be pretty extraordinary.”
“We are going to make a very personal movie, our interpretation … this is not a definitive version that replaces the word. Lord of the Rings is a wonderful masterpiece and will always be so.”
“But I’ll feel pretty good when I see 10,000 Uruk-hai storming Helm’s Deep. It’s worth making the movies, just to see that.”
No argument here. Roll on the filming…