Globe and Mail
15 May 2001
'The most colossal movie production ever
It may sound like hype, but the producers
of the three Lord of the Rings movies aren't losing
any sleep over the hundreds of millions of dollars
they've spent. They are betting they've made the next Star Wars
CANNES -- During the year-long media blackout
production of The Lord of the Rings movies, speculation ran rife.
This was the first time three movies had ever been shot together; at
a price tag of $270-million (U.S.), this was the most spectacular
budget ever. The Internet was abuzz with rumours: Had the budget
doubled? Tripled? Were there terrible delays? Nobody from New
Line Cinema was talking; neither was anyone in the movie.
But when the 14-month shooting schedule
was met on time, and
New Line put up its http://www.lordoftherings.net Web site last
spring, the high-risk venture began to look remarkably smart -- and
safe. Four-hundred-million hits on the Web site so far; a record
1.7-million downloads of the trailer in the first weekend and,
suddenly, the talk in the trades turned to: Forget disaster -- get
ready for the next Star Wars.
As a way of alleviating any lingering doubts,
and giving the first
movie, The Fellowship of the Ring, a high-profile boost, New Line
spent another $2-million to launch the series at Cannes this past
week to 150 journalists from around the world, with an advance
screening of 25 minutes. The next day, the group was whisked on
buses to a medieval chateau on the outskirts of town to talk with
director Peter Jackson, New Line president Mark Ordesky and the
The three books of The Lord of the Rings,
which J. R. R. Tolkien
claimed were really an extension of his work as a scholar of
Anglo-Saxon and Middle English, take place in Middle Earth, a
fantasy world of elves, wizards and orcs existing about 7,000 years
ago. The trilogy -- which is really one long novel -- follows the quest
of hobbit Frodo Baggins to take the One Ring, an instrument of
absolute power, across Middle Earth to the Crack of Doom, while
risking destruction from Sauron, the Dark Lord, and his army of
The movie version will be released serial-style,
with one film a year
for the next three years, starting on Dec. 19 when The Fellowship of
the Ring will open on a record 10,000 screens worldwide. The "most
colossal movie production ever embarked on" as the press kit
humbly puts it, was guided by 39-year-old director Peter Jackson, a
slightly pudgy, bespectacled, somewhat hobbitish man, who has
shown a gift for fantasy and special effects in such films as
Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners. He's closely tied to New
Zealand's WETA Digital, which has worked on all of his films. "This
isn't a movie for Tolkien fans. It's a movie by Tolkien fans," Jackson
says, by which he means that everyone involved in the project
viewed Tolkien as an artistic mentor.
Six years ago, Jackson decided it might
be fun to film the saga of
Middle Earth. The rights, which had originally gone to United Artists
in the late sixties (the books hit North America in 1965), had ended
up in the hands of Saul Zaentz, the former Credence Clearwater
Revival record producer, who produced The English Patient. First,
Jackson went to Harvey Weinstein of Miramax. Weinstein said, fine,
but just one movie. Jackson was insistent on his vision, and went to
New Line Cinema, whose CEO, Mark Ordesky, liked the
It was a chance, Ordesky decided, for New
Line to have "a
franchise" picture like the Star Wars or James Bond movies, the
giant cash cows of the industry. He knew what kind of following The
Lord of the Rings books have had in the past 40 years: 100-million
copies sold in 40 languages; the basis of an entire genre of fantasy
literature, games and other movies; and works embraced by the
sixties counterculture for their pro-environmental concerns and
perhaps the hobbits' fondness for smoking "pipe weed." Clearly, it
could be the next Star Wars.
"When you go and put down your $10
for a ticket next December,
you're beginning a journey with us," he says. "That involves the first
of three movies, video and cable releases and a series of franchise
opportunities that we'll present in the near future."
But even with the promise of such immense
public interest, Ordesky
wasn't going to put all the money down. The film has ended up
being executive-produced by Weinstein of New Line's rival Miramax
(New Line is a subsidiary of Warner Bros; Miramax of Disney).
Ordesky says he also has "many worldwide partners" involved in the
financing and distributing, who have put up money.
Jackson plays down the risk. For one thing,
he says the budget's
not as extraordinary as it looks: "What does a big special-effects
movie cost nowadays? One hundred and twenty to $130-million
typically. We're making three for $270-million. By my figuring, this is
at least $100-million cheaper than creating three movies
Movies are typically shot out of sequence,
with all scenes in one
location shot together. Shooting three movies that way made it
difficult for Jackson and the actors to keep their place in the story
straight, but this was obviously much cheaper than setting up and
shooting these scenes three times.
Besides, says Jackson, he wanted to tell
this as one story, much as
Tolkien conceived of The Lord of the Rings, and there were definite
logistic advantages in staying in his Wellington, New Zealand, home
while the cast (including Sir Ian McKellen, Christopher Lee, Liv
Tyler, Ian Holm, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Bean and Cate Blanchett)
flew in and out as they were needed. "I think any director who made
these movies would have thought of New Zealand," says Jackson. "It
is Middle Earth -- there's green fields like England, and mountains
and an extraordinary range of terrain in a limited area." And on the
positive side, being in a remote location made the veil of secrecy
around the production much easier to enforce.
The Cannes preview of the film this week
featured a scene where
the wizard Gandalf (McKellan) visits the hobbit named Bilbo (Ian
Holm), which effectively demonstrates the film's ability to digitally put
together characters of different sizes. The longer sequence -- which
had the press audience whooping and applauding -- involved a
battle with the corpse-like Orcs, a Cave Troll, and a narrow escape
across a crumbling bridge. The scene is action-packed,
suspenseful and on a grand scale, reminiscent of such blockbusters
as Star Wars or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
A day later, out at the chateau, the press
are invited to meet the
actors. Giant gargoyles look over the green lawn and terrace. A
shirtless man is using a power drill to apply a thatched roof to a
newly built cottage, part of the set being created for a Lord of the
Rings party. Publicists in headsets mill about. Liv Tyler, who plays
the Elf princess Arwen, is walking around barefoot, smoking
cigarettes. She says how scary the scene was. When it's mentioned
that remarkably little blood is spilled, she explains: "If we showed a
lot of red blood, it would have to be rated R. Fortunately, Orcs
bleed black blood, so they're not a problem."
When prompted, Tyler shows off her facility
in Elvish, which sounds
somehow Gaelic (her role exists only with subtitles) but refuses to
say what she has just said. "You'll have to see the movie." As with
all the cast members, she takes it as a foregone conclusion that the
movie will be a massive success.
"I think," says the veteran actor
Christopher Lee, in those deep,
mellow tones that we all remember from Dracula movies, "that the
only real comparison will be a film released before your time, before
my time even, and that's Birth of a Nation. We're talking about a
movie that will break all the records."
Nineteen-year-old Elijah Wood, who plays
Frodo, spent a full year in
New Zealand on the project, losing touch with his L.A. actor friends
in the process, but learning how to surf and scuba dive in
exchange: "It's hard to pack, knowing you're going to go away for a
year," he said. "So I packed everything I owned."
Wood was not in consideration for the role
initially -- Jackson and
his casting agents were searching in England for the right actor. But
Wood loved the book, and got a friend to videotape him reading a
section from it for his audition.
"We'd seen about two-hundred Frodos
and we were beginning to
despair. Then this package arrived, we put it on and said, 'Of
course,' " Jackson says.
Still, this isn't a star-driven vehicle,
any more than the Star Wars
films are: "You may imagine that you get paid enormous sums of
money when you're involved with a film for 14 months," says John
Rhys-Davies, the Falstaffian English actor who plays the dwarf,
Gimli. "This ain't true, when it boils down to it. All the money that was
spent on this is up on the screen. It must have looked an enormous
and risky project when they started it. Now when they have
400-million hits on their Web page, it's not looking quite so risky.
And when it comes out in six months and becomes the biggest hit of
all time, then nobody will believe there was any risk at all."
Every shot in the movies has some digital
manipulation. The WETA
company wrote new software to create battling orcs, hair and fire.
Most of the truly evil characters, such as Gollum, are entirely digital
creations, like Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
But everyone agrees one human star who will emerge is Wood, with
his fine features and big solemn eyes, that make him look like
Winona Ryder's little brother. As Lee says: "He looks like an elf. I
know he's a hobbit here, but he has a very Elvish face, and it's
instantly recognizable. I told him, after December he won't be able
to walk down the street."
"I'm very glad I'm in disguise,"
says Sir Ian McKellen. "If anyone
asks, I'll say, 'I'm sorry, but Gandalf was actually played by John
Hurt.' " Wood looks uncomfortable when Lee's comment is
mentioned, but he shrugs: "Yeah, I guess things are going to be
different. I don't know what it's going to be like, though this film can
potentially have a pretty big impact. There's a certain amount of
surreality, if that's a word, to what we do. . . but I'll just take it day by
day and try to go on my merry way, whatever happens."
Spoken like a true Frodo, before he is swept
away by a publicist to
join a truckload of his fellow hobbits to drive back to the city. As we
walk down the cobbled lane, the cast, in small gray vans, races by
us, waving. Inevitably someone calls out: "Elvish has left the
Visit the Globe & Mail website
Return to LOTR Cannes Coverage Main Page
Return to Zine 17 (Lord of the Rings Press Coverage)
Return to The Compleat Sean Bean