NewsWire: Creating Middle-earth - New Zealand Herald

Peter Jackson and some of his cast - Elijah Wood, Sir Ian McKellen and Karl Urban.
Mark Mitchell/New Zealand Herald
The New Zealand Herald reports on last Saturday's Lord of the Rings press conference and takes a look at the films' history, including some of the controversies.

Creating Middle Earth
by Russell Baillie and Tim Watkin
New Zealand Herald

We are in Minas Tirith. From the outside, it looks like a towering pile of plywood sitting precariously at the top of a quarry in the Hutt Valley. From the inside the place looks seriously old, with its imposing archways, columns and walls the colours reminding of the ice and rock of a glacier.

As photographers jostle to snap a team photo of The Lord of the Rings cast and crew in a courtyard after a 40 minute press conference, the temptation to take a closer look at the stonework proves too much.

Tap, tap. It's not stone. It sounds and feels like the side of a fibreglass boat.

As the media drive away, some of the actors depart in their chauffeur-driven limos. Some mill about swapping theatrical embraces. There's a lot of love in the quarry tonight.

Director Peter Jackson leans against his in-need-of-a-wash Mercedes four-wheel drive chatting with the lofty Sir Ian McKellen. For a man making three movies at a time from the best-loved book of the past century, Jackson looks worryingly relaxed.

There have been three previous films based on Tolkien's Middle Earth, but all have been animated and none have tried to tackle the entire Rings trilogy.

The popularity of the tale has drawn rumours about live-action films led by leading fantasy directors such as Ridley Scott, Terry Gilliam and Tim Burton. But no one dared. Then, with steady advances in the technology allowing the blending of live footage with computer graphics, such a project became possible. Although Jackson was seen by many as an unlikely, offbeat choice for the second most expensive movie project ever, his use of cutting edge computer imaging alongside human actors in Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners showed that he and those who worked at his special effects company WETA had the right skills for the job.

For example, normal size actors play the diminutive hobbits and dwarfs but will be digitally shrunk during post-production and many of Tolkien's fantasy creatures will be entirely computer-generated.

Jackson could also offer producers the perfect set -- his home paddock and the hills behind it. In terms of both scale and the detail of our diverse landscape, New Zealand fits perfectly into the role of Middle Earth.

Tolkien, with a mid-20th century worldview smaller than our own and writing on a British scale, imagined quite compact lands, with dramatic changes from downs to forests to mountains to lakes.

By basing themselves in New Zealand, the film-makers have been able to minimise the use of models and fake backdrops in favour of remote locations through Tongariro, around Jackson's home town of Wellington, and in rural Canterbury and central Otago.

If you could roughly divide the production of The Lord of the Rings into its own trilogy, right now we are near the end of the second third.

Much of the first story involves Jackson's quest to get the films made at a length that would do the source material justice. Original backers Miramax initially wanted two three-hour films, then got cold feet and said they would only back one three-hour movie.

Jackson got the option of finding another studio and took it. He eventually found a partner in New Line willing to stump up -- at the time of the production announcement in August 1998 -- a projected budget of $NZ264 million.

Two years later that budget figure is the subject of much speculation with some estimates as high as $675 million, compounded by the Kiwi dollar's drop against the greenback. At the conference, American producer Barrie M. Osborne (a veteran of effects and make-up heavy flicks like Dick Tracy, Face/Off and The Matrix) said the budget had been "enhanced" but that questions of how much should be answered by New Line. Repeated inquiries to New Line in Los Angeles drew a blank on the "how much?"question.

(As Tolkien wrote about Bilbo's party : "It will have to be paid for," they said. "It isn't natural and trouble will come of it.")

The second story of the making of The Lord of The Rings is of the scripting and the shooting, which the makers say will wrap just before Christmas. As often happens in films, the screenplay has been a work in progress throughout the production. And, says Jacksn, it's got more and more like the book as they've progressed.

"Way back at the beginning we thought there is quite a bit of this we are going to have to alter or change, do things to turn the book into a film but the more we got into it and the more we really started to know the books in great detail, it would be fair to say we've gone further and further back to the books again. So a lot of our so-called clever ideas at the beginning we've long since abandoned and Tolkien hopefully has a fairly clear voice in the film."

Which is probably just what the Tolkien fandom -- who have been debating the minutiae of the film on the internet since the production was announced and have done their best to snoop on the secretive shoot -- want to hear.

The web-based guardians of Middle Earth, the many spies who scour the filming locations and debate on-line every piece of gossip garnered, have, on many issues and rumours, fretted and growled: most notably over the omission of Tom Bombadil from the script, the use of the Elvish language (Elvish lives!) and, in a scandal so horrendous it's being called Arwengate, the prospect of Arwen, the Elven princess played by Liv Tyler, doing a Xena and swordfighting.

"Jackson's chick-in-chink (armour) depiction of Arwen is crass, vulgar and insulting to women everywhere," howled one writer.

"I am heart-broken at finding Bombadil will be cut," wept another.

Other devotees ave accused Jackson of "arrogance" and "destroying the mythology," but most have been understanding of the constraints of time and film that Jackson must work within and, mostly, the glimpsed snippets have earned generous, even gushing praise.

"I will bet my hat that the Lord of the Rings franchise will outperform anything George Lucas could ever dream of," says Los Angeles playwright and actor Cliff Broadway, who is known on-line as web-columnist Quickbeam.

One writer condescended to sympathise with Jackson, reminding others his audience were merely "average movie fans, not experienced Tolkien fans," while another rather soberly said, "we should all have patience and faith."

The number one LOTR fan in New Zealand -- other than Jackson himself -- is possibly Erica Challis, who when she's not being a flautist with the Auckland Philharmonia, helps maintain the site with a partner in Canada.

During the shoot, Osborne served her with a trespass notice for her supposed spying on Wellington sets -- she was in Queenstown at the time. The diplomatic Jackson later invited her to a set for a chat and a look round.

Might she and her fellow LOTR obsessives be setting themselves up for something that might be called "anticipointment" -- by the time the movie comes around, you may have feel you've already seen it?

"Maybe! But there's a year of post-production to come during which the sound and editing and special effects people will work their magic in secret. I'm confident that they can surprise us all.

"I think following the filming could make the end result more enjoyable in that we'll be like connoisseurs of the process -- we'll appreciate what's been done well, what's been difficult to achieve. After all, Tolkien fans already know the story, so for us the fun is in seeing how it's been translated into film."

How about LOTR becoming just another bit of pop culture for at least three years as the three films are released annually?

"A lot of real Tolkien fans do have a kind of reverence for the books, and they will be outraged by the fast-food and toy tie-ins -- and worst of all the book tie-ins if New Line is contemplating such a thing as dumbed down "quickie" versions of the story. Many fans believe that the movies and any resultant fads will lead more people to discover the books. Others won't forgive what they'll see as an incursion of rampant Hollywood greed into their treasured fantasy.

"The book works on many levels, and all those levels will remain for readers to find once the fad aspects of the movies are gone."

The book, at its core, is a work of imagination. It takes us to Middle Earth, a fantastic place that we can only know from Tolkien's words and in our own minds.

That is one of the reasons fans care so deeply about it and why the film is such a risk. So many readers have made this film in their own imagination -- sketched the characters, pictured the landscape, cast the actors -- that they feel a sense of ownership. For them, whatever appears on the screen will jar or even betray their own vision.

Which is why Jackson has been clever to release snippets of the film and, while his staff might complain publicly about spies, why he should be thankful for their efforts. Those stolen pictures and anecdotes help blend Jackson's version of the story with our own before we are exposed to the film itself.

And what Jackson must do -- above and beyond making a visually sumptuous, entertaining, comprehensible film -- is somehow convince us to share his vision of Middle Earth.

Jackson remains philosophical and unbowed: "I am trying to do this movie exactly like I imagined it. To do anything else would be silly," he told last weekend's press conference. "Ultimately it always has to be an interpretation."

And looking back, as the film is about to enter its third stage, the post production, Jackson says New Zealand has been more than just helpful scenery.

"I think New Zealand has been incredibly supportive. Everybody has been very helpful in all the small towns we have been to, this huge army kind of invades a town and everybody is just very helpful. It's an experience where I think the whole country has been behind it. It has that sort of feeling about it."

On the day after the press conference we see Faramir (Australian David Wenham) just miss Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his entourage at a crowded seaside cafe in Seatoun. No one bats an eyelid.

On the flight north an hour later, you can briefly see Minas Tirith on Haywards Hill below, there's Mt Doom and Mordor on the central plateau, and somewhere in the rolling countryside a few jet age minutes later, sits Hobbiton. They all seem so close in this small country of ours -- on a similar scale perhaps to Tolkien's Middle Earth. Someone should draw a map.

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