NewsWire: The most colossal movie production ever embarked on - The Globe and Mail

The most colossal movie production ever embarked on
The Globe and Mail

CANNES -- During the year-long media blackout surrounding the 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 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 cast.

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 Orcs.

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 demographic.

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 individually."

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 building."

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