May 2000 (#125)
Source: Mad Movies
The Lord of the Rings: Chronicle of a foretold Masterpiece
Peter Jackson's adaptation of Tolkien's
work was an event a long time before the first
scene was shot. Now that some shots of the Lord of the Rings are totally achieved
(and are totally sublime), here is explained the long pre-production of the movie, time
where all is decided and drawn.
John Howe, the visual concept.
It's not surprising to see the names of
John Howe and Alan Lee in the visual
conception of Peter Jackson's movie. Those 2 illustrators share between them indeed
the paternity of the most *official* pictures of the universe of the Lord of the Rings, and
perhaps also the more living, the more concrete. John Howe recently was a member
of the jury of the Festival of Fantastic Movies held by his adoptive-city of Neuchâtel [in
Switzerland], for which he drew the poster, of course. We asked him to share with us
some of his memories of working on a project that make us vibrate from impatience.
He very kindly agreed to unveil part of it, in the limits of his discretion duty.
Interview by Rafik Djoumi.
What is your upbringing?
A more or less steady and straight one,
Art schools, then work. I grown up in Canada,
then I studied in France, in Strasbourg, and I now live in Switzerland. When I was
young, I liked Heroic Fantasy. I was feeding on it. But art was not a premeditated
choice. I've always drawn, I've never stopped it, and I've just searched a job in which I
could do it. I began with children books, as it's where you find the biggest demand. I've
chased after Tolkien's editor for a long time. I went as far as Frankfurt, in pictures
exhibitions, to show my work, only to be told every time that I should come back the
next year. At last, I published something in a calendar in 1987. Then, I got a first
request for the cover of The Hobbit in paperback. That went on until the end of Middle
Earth's history, some 20 covers later. Alan Lee and myself, we were very closely
associated to these books. The Gandalf that everybody knows became a picture that
cannot be dissociated from the novel. Which causes me to worry about its use.
How did Peter Jackson hire you?
We got a phone call from him at 3AM, due
to time lag. My wife and myself were
delighted. Of course, there's always a *Wait, I will think about this* on principle, but we
were consenting. After that, we couldn't sleep during the whole night. Later, my wife
our child and myself went to New Zealand. It was 2 years ago. We did 2 stays of 6
What was your timetable there?
We were constantly meeting with Peter Jackson
and his wife. During the time where
he re-wrote the script, we saw him less often, but otherwise we saw him every day.
Whatever, there was little chance we could progress in the dark on a matter he
wouldn't have studied before. He keeps an eye on everything and has a good
memory. For every meeting, every set and scenery, we were sketching all the day. We
were making daily 5 to 10 big drawings. The purpose was to submit ideas. So, the
drawing itself wasn't important, even if it needed some finishing touches: the idea
was of prime importance. Then Jackson came back and we showed him the
sketches. We discussed them, reviewed all, and remained in this environment as
long as we hadn't found something that suited him. Jackson is a rather amazing
person. He always likes to be surprised, delighted. Despite his preconceived ideas,
he doesn't come with a definite idea, which we have to conform to. He wants that
people go really deep inside themselves; it's very stimulating. Sometimes, we didn't
find at all what Jackson was looking for. For instance, the Uruk Hai took time; but we
weren't alone on the job. There was also a team of 6/7 designers who took care of the
creatures, the armours, and the weapons; and we took part at the collaboration with
them. When Jackson already had in mind a picture that existed, it was rather short.
But when he wanted something original, we had to really rack our brains. It went this
way for a long time, before he began the realisation of scale models and this kind of
things. Then, we worked on the models and the sets.
Had you read the script?
Yes. But I personally cannot judge what
makes a good script. However, I realised that
the less interesting things of the book had a whole new life when they were put into
Did you work on the 3 movies?
Alan lee and myself divided this universe
between us. As his children are adults, he
remained in New Zealand. We roughed out the whole together. I designed the inside
and outside of Bag End, and especially Barad Dur, Minas Morgul and all this kind of
places. But there wasn't any exclusive right. If we had an idea to submit, nothing
prevented us to do it. We were meddling with everything, nearly everything, as the
costumes have been designed later. When the various scenarios were more defined,
we had more often to go into other departments to give our opinion. Near the end, we
passed perhaps some 2-3 hours drawing, and the rest of the day we went to see
what was going on next door. Everybody was working in the same building, a kind of
huge maze-warehouse rebuilt, filled with designers, sculptors, prosthetics-makers,
model-makers A real creative bath. There wasn't any closed department. Everything
goes from one room to the other, and you're only some steps ahead of the computer
room. Peter Jackson really made there an astounding installation. He invested in a lot
of things to build his big studio. He went to work cycling 15 years ago; now, he's
bought all. He always refused proposals to go in the US. He wants to do things at
home, in Wellington. And it's there that's he's the toughest. He makes people come to
him. What he managed to do is very impressive.
How did you manage the fans' expectation?
I think Jackson doesn't really care about
it. He's a creator, a director. He says himself
that one doesn't need to burn the books when one goes buy the ticket at the theatre.
He is very modest about it. He doesn't claim to make a definitive version of the book.
He makes his own movie. I know I do the same when I draw, otherwise, one would
work upside down. On one hand, Jackson obeys to his producers, because they give
the money, but on the other hand he has his own conviction about many subjects. But
I think he should restrain himself a bit, because they want that a young audience
could see the film too. And you know Pete's movies Though, he's able to film
people, human beings, in a very sensible way, and I believe that, if he gets what he
wants, it will be very spectacular.
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