In the News: The George Lucas of Christchurch - The Wall Street Journal
The George Lucas of Christchurch
by Laura Landro
The Wall Street Journal - December 1, 1999
Move over, Darth Vader, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.
Sauron, Frodo and Aragorn are ready for their close-ups.
In a land far, far away from Hollywood, the cameras have
started to roll on one of the most ambitious movie projects
ever undertaken: the filming, more than 50 years after its
publication, of J.R.R. Tolkien's classic fantasy trilogy, "Lord
of the Rings." New Zealand's verdant valleys, volcanic
plateaus and snow-capped mountains are being
transformed into Tolkien's mythical kingdom of
Middle-earth, where his saga of the epic struggle between
good and evil unfolds. George Lucas borrowed some
inspiration from "Lord of the Rings" for his "Star Wars"
series; if little-known director Peter Jackson can pull this
off, he may well go global with his local reputation as "the
George Lucas of Christchurch."
But Mr. Jackson is trying something even Mr. Lucas never
attempted: completing physical production on three
separate films in one marathon 15-month shoot. For New
Line Cinema, which is financing the $180 million project,
that means an up-front commitment to three movies, rather
than waiting to see how the first one does before
proceeding with the others. That's a big risk for the maker
of such tried-and-true series as the "Nightmare on Elm
Street" and "Austin Powers" films.
"Could it backfire? Sure, if the first film is a disaster it
doesn't augur very well for the next two," says Robert
Shaye, the founder and CEO of New Line, the feisty
onetime independent that is now a unit of Time Warner Inc.
"But -- and I'm knocking on my desk here -- we feel very
certain that this has a universal currency in terms of
interest, and we think it could be a franchise right off the
Steep as $180 million sounds -- and epic films do tend to
go over budget -- Mr. Shaye points out that the figure works
out to $60 million a movie, a little more than the current
industry average. New Line is covering its bets with a
number of international financial partners, and there could
be serious lucre in merchandising and licensing deals.
Moreover, technology is economy: Thanks to a new
generation of digital effects, Mr. Jackson is able to
embellish much of the world of Tolkien's richly imagined
creatures, from Orcs to Balrogs; to stage battle scenes
that would once have required a cast of thousands; and to
make real human actors such as Elijah Wood and Sean
Astin look like pint-sized Hobbits (they'll use good
old-fashioned prosthetics for the big hairy feet).
There are no expensive megastars, though the cast ranges
from such classical actors as Sir Ian Holm, Sir Ian
McKellen and Cate Blanchett to young heartthrobs like Liv
Tyler and Viggo Mortensen (he signed on recently to play
Aragorn after Stuart Townsend dropped out in the first days
of shooting). There are 85 speaking parts and, even with
effects, enough extra work to give the local economy quite
a boost for the next couple of years.
Under Mr. Jackson's decidedly ambitious plan, filming will
be finished before the first movie is released, probably
sometime in mid-2001. The first, "The Fellowship of the
Ring," will close with a trailer for the second, "The Two
Towers," which in turn will promote the third, "The Return of
the King." New Line expects to release them at six- to
nine-month intervals (avoiding any "Star Wars" prequels). "If
we say we're making 'Lord of the Rings,' we can't tell a third
of the story and then make people wait two years to see
what happens," Mr. Jackson says.
Excitement is already at a fever-pitch among the rabid
legions of "Lord of the Rings" fans; the trilogy has been
translated into 25 languages, with more than 50 million
copies sold world-wide in the past five decades.
My mother gave me the books when I was about 10, and I
later shared them with my two younger brothers. We spent
most of our school years reading and rereading all three
until we could recite passages from memory. I even used
the Elven rune alphabet Tolkien provided in the glossary to
write deep dark secrets in my preteen diary, so as to thwart
anyone who might find and read it.
But that's nothing compared to the "LotR" obsessives who
have been swarming over the Internet for months buzzing
about the movie, agonizing over whether the film would be
faithful to the text, debating the casting choices and trading
tidbits of gossip about the project. ("I've been filming the
books in my mind for the last fifteen years . . . " is a typical
posting.) Fans were in a state recently over the posting of
an image said to be "Sauron's Eye," the big peeper of the
Dark Lord himself, and few seem to be able to get it though
their heads that Sean Connery is not going to be in the
movie. ("Never talked to him," says Mr. Jackson.) This
week the Internet buzz is about delays in filming caused by
torrential rains in New Zealand.
At first somewhat agog over the Internet frenzy, Mr.
Jackson and New Line Cinema are shrewdly using it to
their advantage, bringing this built-in audience into the
process from the very start. Mr. Jackson has already done
two Web interviews with the Harry Knowles "Ain't It Cool
News" Web site, answering questions on everything from
how the evil Gollum creature will be portrayed (not a real
human actor, but a digital creation that will be scary, for
sure) to whether the Tolkien estate is involved (it isn't). New
Line is also planning to videotape interviews with Mr.
Jackson, as well as conduct live remote chats with him for
broadcast over the Internet during production.
It is thanks mainly to Mr. Jackson's determination and his
embrace of modern technology that "Lord of the Rings" is
being made at all. Producer Saul Zaentz acquired the movie
rights from United Artists, which had bought the rights from
the author but never made a movie. Mr. Zaentz produced a
truncated animated version covering about half the saga in
1978, but it was a critical and commercial bust, and the
fans hated it. Mr. Zaentz hung on to the rights for years.
Though there were a few offers to try a live-action feature,
conventional Hollywood wisdom said the trilogy was
unfilmable, the costs of making three such movies
Cut to 1995, when Mr. Zaentz hooked up with Miramax
Films and Mr. Jackson, a fanciful and original director
whose work included "The Frighteners" and "Heavenly
Creatures," the latter a sobering true tale of a 1950s-era
New Zealand matricide that blended live-action with some
rough but tantalizing fantasy sequences using Plasticine
figurines and some computer effects. Mr. Jackson and
longtime production partner Fran Walsh took a crack at
Miramax's request to squeeze the trilogy into two movies,
but Mr. Jackson says he feared "any attempt to compress
the story or simplify it would disappoint" the millions of fans
of the books who were sure to be the core audience.
Eventually Miramax agreed to give Mr. Jackson a little time
to try and set the project up at another studio.
Mr. Jackson approached New Line executives, whom he
knew from a "Nightmare on Elm Street" script that he had
written for them but was never produced. Mr. Jackson
showed Mr. Shaye and New Line President Michael Lynne
a short video reel demonstrating how the creatures would
be made, how the effects would work, and how, for
example, a massive battle could be staged with digital
software effects that would make it seem as if thousands of
extras were on the screen. Messrs. Shaye and Lynne were
impressed -- really impressed. "It was amazing: things we
hadn't seen before, that played tricks with perception, with
how vision works," says Mr. Lynne. "We were blown away."
Mr. Shaye says he was ready to take a "leap of faith" on
three movies, but his experiences with sequels, despite
their financial success, had been rough -- reassembling
casts, settling on new scripts and luring back directors.
Universal Studios had made "Back to the Future" II and III
at once; why not film three "Lord of the Rings" movies in
one fell swoop, and work on postproduction and editing
Mr. Jackson, meanwhile, was already deep into the next
generation of digital effects, having helped start an effects
company, WETA Digital, after an epiphany he had watching
Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park." "I thought, 'Oh my God,
I've got to get into the technology business. Otherwise I will
be stuck down here in New Zealand with old-fashioned
techniques and never be able to do the kinds of films I want
to make,'" Mr. Jackson says. He and Ms. Walsh revised
their two-movie script into three, returning to the structure of
the original books. WETA will create more than 1,000
special effects for the trilogy and has about 80 computer
artists on the project.
Will the effects overwhelm the story? "'Lord of the Rings' is
wonderful source material, an amazingly intricate epic story
with wonderful characters," says Mr. Jackson. "We're just
trying to take all the great stuff from the books and use
modern technology to give audiences a night at the movies
quite unlike anything they have ever seen before." Except in