“It’s just a movie” – Peter Jackson on The Lord of the Rings
With the final instalment of The Hobbit just hitting the big screen, we return to Creative Screenwriting's detailed interview with Peter Jackson, just prior to the release of the first instalment of The Lord of the Rings.
By Erik Bauer.
Born in New Zealand on Halloween in 1961, Peter Jackson began making movies with his parents’ Super 8 camera at an early age. At seventeen he left school and, failing to get a job in the New Zealand film industry as he hoped, he started work as a photo-engraving apprentice. After purchasing a 16mm camera, Jackson began shooting a science fiction comedy short, which, three years later, had grown to the seventy-five minute feature Bad Taste (1987), funded entirely from his own wages. The New Zealand Film Commission eventually gave Jackson money to complete the film, which has become a cult classic. “I got into filmmaking by doing horror movies, by doing low-budget splatter films, which is a good way to break into films,” says Jackson. “It’s a great genre to make some sort of an impression on people when you haven’t got much money and you want to make a movie.”
Jackson’s other film credits include The Frighteners (1996), the adult pup pet feature Meet the Feebles (1989), and Braindead aka Dead Alive (1992), which Jackson co-wrote with Stephen Sinclair and Frances Walsh. Braindead played at festivals around the world, winning sixteen international science fiction awards including the prestigious Saturn. Jackson and his co-writer Frances Walsh received widespread acclaim for Heavenly Creatures (1994), which was awarded a Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival and nominations for both the Academy Award and Writers Guild award for Best Screenplay
“I wasn’t one of those total The Lord of the Rings aficionados,” says Jackson. “I read it when I was eighteen, and I didn’t read it again until the whole idea of doing the film came up seventeen years later.” Jackson and partner Frances Walsh began adapting The Lord of the Rings in April 1997 at Jackson’s Christchurch, New Zealand home. Starting with a 90-page outline of the three books, Jackson and Walsh rewrote the outline again and again seeking the essence of Tolkien’s story.
Of that difficult process, Jackson told readers of ain’t-it-cool-news, “….the books themselves are not structured to easily equate to a screenplay. Most of the first book is a gentle stretch of journey and masses of exposition…For the movies, we will have to make motivations a little tighter and more urgent. We have to focus on The Ring, Sauron, and the threat to Middle-earth.” Jackson says, “The way that we often write is to provide different layers over subsequent drafts, i.e., write the villain in one draft, get that working, then go back over the scenes and humanize him in the next draft.”
When the task of adapting scripts for all three books became too much work, they recruited their long-time collaborator Stephen Sinclair (who did not receive screen credit) and New Zealand writer Philippa Boyens for assistance. The writers crafted two approximately 150-page scripts for Miramax. After the project was taken over by New Line, that 300 pages was broken into three 110-page scripts, each adapting the narrative in roughly one of Tolkien’s books. Work would continue on the scripts for over a year with final revisions made on the set as the writers took every opportunity to tighten the screws on their narrative.
Jackson is very aware of the incredible opportunity he has gained for himself. “It gives me a chance to break new ground in the movies. Every film genre has been done well over the last 100 years, but not this type of fantasy story. If we get it right, it will be the first time. No filmmaker could ask for a greater challenge than that.” He has already made history with The Lord of the Rings, becoming the first person to write and direct three feature films simultaneously.
Where did your spark for making Lord of the Rings come from?
A lot of people somehow think I’ve had a long-standing ambition to make The Lord of the Rings, which is not actually true. What I have had is a long-standing ambition to make a fantasy film. My desire to become a filmmaker began when I was eight years old and I saw the 1933 King Kong on TV. It’s still my favorite film, and I love it because it’s a wonderful piece of fantastic cinema that does everything a fantasy film should do: transports me out of the real world, shows me things, amazing and exciting things, that I know I’m never going to experience in real life, and locations that I’m never going to go to. I’ve always had a desire to make a film like that. When Fran Walsh and I were making The Frighteners in 1995 we were thinking of what to do in the future. I’d wanted to get away from horror and do a fantasy film like the Jason and the Argonauts/Sinbad type of films, but do them with computer effects so that the technology advances. For a little while we thought about doing an original fantasy film. You know, you sort of think of a Lord of the Rings-type of film, because Lord of the Rings was automatically the benchmark that you compare all fantasy stories to. But then Lord of the Rings was on our minds and we started to wonder, why hasn’t anybody made a live action Lord of the Rings?
Once you were interested, how did you pursue the rights?
We made a phone call to our agent Ken Kamins at ICM, and asked him if he would do some research for us to find out, you know, who had the rights, which ultimately were with Saul Zaentz. Saul Zaentz had had The Lord of the Rings rights for about twenty-five years and Ken said that Saul had been approached by different filmmakers at different times but had never really embraced the idea of doing a live-action film, that he didn’t think it was really possible.
How did you convince him?
Well, we didn’t have any direct contact with Saul ourselves, surprisingly enough, at that time. We’ve obviously met him since, but what we had in 1995 was a Miramax first-look deal. So we called Harvey Weinstein at Miramax because the nature of our first-look deal was that any project or any property that we wanted to acquire the rights to, we had to give Harvey the first option. As it turned out, Harvey got really excited about the idea, and he got even more excited when he found out that Saul Zaentz had the rights because Saul Zaentz was the producer of The English Patient and Harvey had just taken the film over from Twentieth Century Fox, who’d put it into turn around just before it was due to start shooting. So Harvey and Saul had this thing going with The English Patient right at the exact moment that we made that phone call, which was extraordinary luck, really.
How do these books speak to our day and time?
Well, I just think the books are universal in the sense that they are about good versus evil, about heroism, about innocent people who have to display courage and be brave in a way that they never thought they could. They talk about great friendship, about friendship under adverse conditions, friend ship without strings attached. I mean, they talk about things which I suspect are relevant at any point in history.
Ralph Bakshi [director of the 1979 animated adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers] has said that he feels it’s impossible to do Tolkien. That it’s impossible to get the brilliance of what Tolkien wrote about. And in a recent interview, he made what would seem to be a direct challenge to you in saying, “You know, as far as everything in the book, I can’t do it, and the next guy’s not going to do it, even in a million movies.” Do you agree with that?
I agree with it to some extent. There is a particular style in the way that Tolkien writes, there’s a style in the way that he describes things that make the books incredibly enchanting to read. Now that’s not going to be in the film because, you know, Tolkien can spend a page describing the weather as the Fellowship have their breakfast and pack up their bedding and get back on the road again. What we’ve tried to accomplish is to take the story and the characters and to try to honor as many of Tolkien’s themes as we can and to also incorporate things that we felt were important to him. But you know, the film version of The Lord of the Rings is only our interpretation of a wonderful book.
Is that just to cover yourself from diehard Tolkien fans, or do you really feel you’ve brought your own personality and perspective to this material, and made it your own?
That’s a good question. I guess what I’ve done is to try to be the final arbiter for a lot of good ideas from a group of people. I’m a filter towards achieving a goal and I try to encourage everybody to suggest ideas. Now whether it’s Philippa Boyens and Frances, whom I wrote the script with, and then later those people who are designing the film, it’s all to create a movie that I’d love to see. That’s my ultimate goal. I’m just trying to sort of filter the great ideas down to making a film that I would really like, because that’s the most honest thing I can do. I can’t make the film for millions of other fans. I can only really make it for me. You know, that’s the ultimate agenda there.
It seems one of the things you’ve brought to it is an increased role for comedy.
A little bit, a little bit. Not too much, but a bit, yeah.
Your films have a certain love of campiness and caricature. Is there a place for that in Lord of the Rings?
Not really, no. I don’t think there’s anything campy in The Lord of the Rings. Caricature–only to the point of view that characters like the Hobbits have certain, you know, traits and certain humorous qualities in their like for food and, you know, the love of six meals a day, and their dislike of adventure and of discomfort. And then, you know, these elements that Tolkien writes that are naturally quite funny that can be exploited, in a general way, but certainly the humor that we have is fairly gentle, and there is a degree of humor in the characters that Tolkien wrote himself. There was more humor in The Hobbit than there actually is in The Lord of the Rings, but certainly, you know, that humor is transferable.
I have sort of an inherent dislike of things that take themselves too seriously and I just think there’s a sort of a pompousness that I’m always trying to avoid and sometimes I really try to avoid it big time. In The Lord of the Rings I didn’t want to make a self-important sort of pompous fantasy adventure. I wanted to make something that was gentle and sweet and in part, obviously, scary and exciting and adventurous, and humor’s an important part of making that. I also think that humor helps make the world feel real. Humor is part of the way that all people survive. No matter what the circumstances, there’s usually room in most peoples’ lives for a good laugh and some humor, and I think that this helps make these people feel as real as you or I, rather than being clichéd characters.
What freedom did you feel you had to shape Tolkien’s story in crafting your screen narrative?
It was interesting because as the screenplays went through various drafts, they got closer and closer to the books. We did an exercise at the very beginning, draft one if you like, where we said there’s stuff in the books that doesn’t work, the plots are cluttered, and there is stuff that characters do that we don’t like, so let’s try and improve the flaws of the book and make it much more of a film, make it much more like what you’d want the film to be. Not that we necessarily did anything horrific, but we certainly made changes in areas that we felt we needed to make changes. But by the time we wrote another four or five drafts, each time we’d read the book a lot more, we’d immersed ourselves much more in the world, and each draft got closer and closer to the books, to the point that now we really haven’t made any substantial changes to the books. What we have done is we’ve shortened things and we’ve tightened things up and we’ve lost some characters. But we ended up with a story where what happens within sequences and within acts of the film is fairly close to the books.
What control did Miramax and New Line exercise over the development of the scripts?
Well, fortunately with both Miramax and New Line we’ve been given a lot of freedom. I mean, I think that because The Lord of the Rings is so complex and so dense, it’s a project which the studio has a very difficult time asserting any sort of authority over us as screenwriters, because you would have to have some sort of expertise in The Lord of the Rings to do so. Mark Ordesky, the New Line creative executive, is certainly a big Lord of the Rings fan and so from that point of view we’re lucky, because Mark loves the books as much as we do. The biggest difference with the Miramax version is they didn’t embrace the idea of doing three movies, so we decided to split the trilogy of books into two movies and that led to certain structural changes that had to be made. For instance, the first movie of the two was going to climax with the Battle of Helm’s Deep, which is in the middle of The Two Towers, the second book. So we manipulated the structure a lot, pushed and shoved the story around in order to make it work as two screenplays. Then it was Bob Shaye at New Line who wanted us to return to three films and to stick with the structure of the books, so that was fantastic. I mean, that was a key moment which enabled us to shift to being much more faithful to the books in the way the story unfolds.
You’ve said that your most daunting challenge was shaping an ending for Fellow ship. How exactly did you approach that?
Well, the ending of the films, and in particular The Fellowship of the Ring, are obviously a challenge. The first thing you do is you make a fundamental decision about what sort of ending you want for the first movie. Because we do have quite a unique position in which we’re making three movies back to back, and that there’s going to be a year between each film, we asked our selves do we end the first movie with a complete cliffhanger, someone in jeopardy, with a feeling of the story being up in the air, or do we try to wrap things up in a much more tight way?
I think the answer lies somewhere in between. We didn’t feel we wanted to end with a cliffhanger because I didn’t want people walking out of the cinema with a feeling of anxiety. That wouldn’t have been a satisfying experience. If you were releasing your second movie three or four months after the first, you could probably get away with that, but a year we thought was too long to leave people in that position. But also we had the problem, or fact, really, that the story of The Lord of the Rings is about Hobbits who travel to Mount Doom to destroy a ring inside a volcano, and we know that they’re not going to get to Mount Doom at the end of this film; they’re not going to get there until the end of the third film. So that’s the basic problem as well. Whatever you do, you’re telling a larger story that has no conclusion at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring, so before we had written a word of the script we constructed a new ending built around the character of Frodo that will hopefully be emotionally satisfying.
The breaking of the Fellowship was clearly the climax of the book and the film, and that had to have an emotional resonance for Frodo. That’s really what we based the plan around when we devised how to end the film. Frodo needs to decide that he doesn’t need the others or, more than that, that the others pose a danger to him, because the ring is starting to exert power with the people around him. That’s really the climactic moment in the film, and we thought it was very important that when Frodo makes a decision and goes on alone [with Sam trailing behind] at the very end, that you feel good for him, you feel he’s courageous, and that there’s some real hope now.
From a structural perspective, did you also work at building up the final confrontation to give it more impact? Specifically, creating an antagonist to be defeated?
The interesting thing with The Fellowship of the Ring is that you’ve got internal conflicts and you’ve got external conflicts. The external conflict is the fact that there are other forces in this world that also want the ring. The Orcs and Uruk Hai from Isengard…. Saruman sends them to capture the Fellowship. So we definitely built that up, and we created a character of one of the Orc-like creatures, a character called Lurtz, who’s not in the books. It’s the only time in the movies that we’ve created a character that Tolkien didn’t actually write about. Because we thought we needed to personalize the leader of this band of Orcs. It’s Saruman who is the villain, but he doesn’t leave Isengard, he dispatches his guys to go get the ring, so we wanted to actually create a character of the leader of this group who goes after the Fellowship. That helps us beef up these external forces of opposition that lead toward the climax, which is this battle on the slopes of the River Anduin just before the Fellowship breaks.
The other strong force at work is the internal conflict where the ring has this incredibly seductive attraction to other people and particularly men, Aragorn and Boromir feeling it stronger than the Hobbits. That is providing just as much jeopardy to Frodo as the Orcs that are pursuing them. We definitely used those two external/internal forces concurrently to crank the climax up into something that’s pretty powerful.
It seems to me that your project is unique, in that you’re telling a single story over three films. What gives you the conviction that audiences will respond to this kind of installment approach to storytelling?
I don’t know. I have no idea how I’d respond if it was me. I’d think it was kind of neat that somebody was making three Lord of the Rings films and I could see them one year apart. I think that’s fine. I think it’s brave, courageous, and it’s a great way to tell the story. I think that’s the reason why, in fifty years, The Lord of the Rings has never been made into a live-action film because people have been trying to squeeze it into one single film and it’s impossible. So I think in a way it’s the reason why it’s been made now, because some body’s had the courage to actually do that.
The initial reviews and response to Harry Potter have been strong. Do you think this impacts The Lord of the Rings? Does it raise the bar for the release of your film five weeks later?
I’ve always looked on Harry Potter as an extremely positive thing for us. I mean so much of the media’s attention has been focused on some imaginary competition between us and them, which I just have never really under stood, because, talking on a purely cold-blooded financial basis–if Harry Potter is very successful, then it can only be good for us. There is no downside for us because if people love Harry Potter, they’ve got another year to wait for the next Harry Potter film but The Lord of the Rings opens in four or five weeks. If you’ve suddenly developed a love for fantastical cinema or imaginative stories, then we’re the next one down the line. So Harry Potter only helps us. I’ve never seen any downside to it at all. Ultimately, people will make up their own minds which of the films they prefer, which they thought was the better film, it doesn’t really matter. I mean, I think there’s certainly room in the marketplace and in people’s imagination for both stories.
What’s it like to be living in the fish bowl that is this huge fan base for The Lord of the Rings?
It’s been interesting. I’m glad I’ve been in New Zealand making the film because I am protected from it to some degree, but I’m very much looking forward now to the day that The Fellowship of the Ring becomes a movie, because I think for so long, it hasn’t been a movie, it’s been sort of like this anticipated event, and it’s been going on for about three years now. It’s a long, long time to have everybody winding themselves up and to have all of the rumor and all of the gossip and all of the anticipation and ultimately, it somehow–it’s almost not fair for what this is. It’s just a movie. It’s just like anybody else’s film. It’s just a bunch of people who’ve made a movie and hopefully if you go see it and you pay ten bucks to see it, you know, hope fully you’ll enjoy it and say that you had a good night out at the films. That’s all I really want it to become. I want it to become a movie. For so long it hasn’t felt like a film, but it’s about to become one and then it will be all right.
This article first appeared in Creative Screenwriting volume 9, #1
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