An Interview with J.W. Braun, Author of “The Lord of the Films”

by Sep 1, 2009Books

the lord of the filmsthe lord of the films I got a chance recently to correspond with JW Braun, the author of the upcoming book “The Lord of the Films: The Unofficial Guide to Tolkien’s Middle-Earth on the Big Screen,” and I have to say, it was a pleasure speaking with someone with such a passion for LOTR and such a great sense of humor. This is the first of two articles concerning the book — this one will contain an interview, along with some great photos and excerpts, and the second will contain a review of the book. Enjoy!


– So, let’s start with a pretty basic question — how did you get into The Lord of the Rings?

Well, I’ve always been interested in magic and dragons and that sort of thing. I grew up where Dungeons & Dragons was invented back when that was a pop culture phenomenon (I’m making myself look old now, aren’t I?) I played it a lot and loved the idea of a merry band of adventurers with different backgrounds and different abilities setting out on a quest together. Actually, I still love the idea. Anyway, one day when I was about ten (back in the 1980s), my parents went on vacation and I had to spend the week at my cousin’s house. Partly to keep me out of his hair and partly because he knew of my interest in D&D, my cousin said, “You have got to read The Hobbit”. And he even showed me the Rankin/Bass cartoon adaptation. That got the ball rolling. I enjoyed the cartoon. I read the book and was delighted to find out it was even better. When my parents got back, I had them to take me to K-Mart and bought The Lord of the Rings. Reading it at first it was a bit of a culture-shock, and it took me a while to get into it. By the end, though, I was saying, “This is even better than The Hobbit!” And to me The Lord of the Rings has represented the pinnacle of entertainment ever since.

– Why did you decide to write The Lord of the Films?

I’m a big fan of Star Wars, Star Trek, Robotech, Harry Potter, and some other fictional universes. Most of them have “unofficial” tie-in books of some kind or another, and I’ve enjoyed reading them over the years. Unlike the official tie-in books, the “unauthorized” ones are free to analyze and criticize as much as they want. And praise seems more genuine when it’s not coming from someone getting a paycheck from the owners of whichever fictional universe the book is about. The unofficial guidebooks also help give some order to these fictional universes and serve as handy reference books. I always wanted to write one that fans would enjoy.

When it comes to The Lord of the Rings, there have been many books (including encyclopedias) written about Tolkien’s version. And that’s certainly understandable. I mean, after all, that is the definitive version. However, there have been few books about Jackson’s version, other than the New Line Cinema approved books that came out to promote the films. I wanted to fill this void. I truly believe that while Jackson’s adaptation obviously has parallels to Tolkien’s original version, the film trilogy is an independent entity meriting a book about it alone. Really, it’s something fans on the internet have known for years. You see message boards with forums completely devoted to the movies. Why not have a book like that?  You know the internet is great, but I think books will always be special because apart from the fact that you don’t have to worry about the information disappearing or moving around on you, books are a package you can hold in your hand and touch, and there’s just something cool about that. You can collect them and know you’ll always have them. And that’s sort of what I wanted to make – a collector’s item that people could put up on their shelves right next to The Lord of the Rings movies.

– There’s so much to the story of Lord of the Rings —  how did you manageto condense it all into 176 pages?

Actually, I didn’t. Its about 220 pages. Unfortunately, (as of the date I’m writing this) the places selling it online haven’t yet updated their information to reflect the final product, even though my publisher sent it in months ago. (I have a feeling that I’m not exactly up there with “J.K Rowling” priority-wise to the booksellers. I don’t know why. She’s only sold a few million more books than me.)

220 still doesn’t seem like a lot, does it? But there are a few reasons the book is not longer. Firstly, I didn’t want this book to waste anyone’s time. I didn’t want readers to have to search through my writing to figure out what the hell my point is. A good writer usually says what he or she wants in as few words as possible. Secondly, I also didn’t want this to be a tedious book. For example, in my sections dealing with mistakes, I don’t cover every nitpicky mistake in the films, like “in this shot, Orlando’s index finger is on the string of his bow, but in the next shot it is touching the wood.” I mean, it IS a movie for crying out loud. But the Orc falling down in the background… I’m all over that! (I cover some less obvious mistakes, too, don’t worry.) Also, to keep it from getting tedious, I didn’t want to belabor the things that are already well known, like the Fellowship actors getting matching tattoos. I do mention it (and the date), for the sake of completion. After all, some people may not know that, and it’s nice to have it there with the other information. But I tried not to waste time on points that have been covered to death, especially on the DVDs. Thirdly, I tried not to repeat myself in the book. I have several different sorts of sections, and even some games and puzzles which reveal information themselves (such as a guessing game where you try to identify which actors were fans of the LOTR books before joining the film project and which were not), but I didn’t want any of the information to overlap. The result is 220 pages that pack a pretty good punch. Fourthly, and finally, this book is really for people who own the films on video, DVD, or Blu-ray. I suppose it could also be for people who enjoyed the films at the theater but don’t own them, but unlike the old days when that was a dominant market, today even the casual fan usually buys these sort of blockbuster films for their collection. I’m beginning to find it rare to walk into a home where they don’t have the LOTR movies! My book, therefore, isn’t intended to and doesn’t need to replace the films. Rather, it supplements them. That saves my book a lot

of space, if you get my meaning.

– How long have you been working on The Lord of the Films?

I began interviewing filmmakers back in 2002 for my now defunct website (and for the very undefunct The One Ring). I also took a lot of notes and visited a lot of message boards at that time, which is sort of where the roots of the book began to take shape in my head. I began writing the book itself in 2008.

– In the book’s description, it says it contains both behind-the-scenes information about the trilogy and “details” about the upcoming Hobbit films. How did you get your hands on all this exclusive information?

Well, it’s not all “exclusive”. The information comes from many different avenues. (There’s actually a source list at the end of the book) Lots of interviews, websites, magazines, newspapers… I read and read and tried to contact as many people as possible. Also, places like The One Ring have presented links to information about The Lord of the Rings for about ten years, and I was one of those fans who was checking out places like this site from the start. That gave me quite an education itself. It served as a good starting point. I was also a charter member of the Lord of the Rings Fan Club, and I collected every magazine the club issued. Rereading those for my book was fun and reminded me of many things I had forgotten. Howard Shore released these LOTR music sets called, “The Complete Recordings” with a downloadable a guidebook that’s like 300 pages or something, and I read through that whole thing. That took a while, but it really gave me an education about the music in the films! And then there’s the always accurate, tried and trusted source that never lets me down, wikipedia. (Please note, that was sarcasm, and I didn’t actually use wikipedia for much more than checking out spelling – which sometimes had wrong anyway.) In truth, regarding The Hobbit, I don’t have any groundbreaking, earthshattering news. I do give an accurate rundown of what’s going on, though. Certainly my book does contain some information that can’t be found anywhere else (some eye-openers as Bilbo and Sam might say!), but a lot of it could be found elsewhere if you spent ten years slogging your way through tons of material and were as crazy as me. My hope is that even the fan who has spent the past decade watching the films over and over while religiously visiting The One Ring will look through my book and repeatedly say, “I didn’t know that!”

– Who were you writing this book for? Hard-core fans, or occasional viewers?

I actually have a section in the book that looks at the various audiences the filmmakers had to consider when making The Lord of the Rings. You had the hard-core know-it-all fans, the casual fans, the fans of The Hobbit who hadn’t read LOTR, and the people who didn’t know Tolkien from Tolstoy. The section tells you how the filmmakers dealt with this.

As for me, I had both groups in mind. I wanted my book to make sense to the guy who’s never read the books and just likes The Lord of the Rings as a fun flick. (My publisher helped me with that, because there are people at ECW Press who don’t know much about The Lord of the Rings, and they would read my work and tell me what they thought of it and what needed work.)  At the same time, I wanted the person (like me) who’s over the top crazy about the books and films to be able to read it without saying, “I already know that. This is boring.” I wanted it to be a book I would wish to buy myself. I’d never let “writer J.W.” gyp “hard-core fan J.W.” out of $13. And I didn’t want to let anyone else down, either.

– What new perspective do you believe you bring to the trilogy?

We all bring different perspectives, which is why in addition to my viewpoint I incorporate other viewpoints into the book as well. In the abstract sense, my perspective is that of a fan of the books who looks at the films as their own independent entity. I also am a longtime fan of Middle-earth on film who watched the Bakshi and Rankin/Bass films a zillion times in the 80s and 90s before devoting myself to following (as a fan) the production of the Jackson trilogy from 1997 (when the first rumors leaked out) to 2004. (Like Tom Bombadil, I was there at the beginning, I remember when Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was supposed to be two films, then one film, and then watched it turn into three! Like Tom, I’m not in the films, either.) I also visited many LOTR message boards and websites between 1999 and 2007, and so I was able to hear many viewpoints from many different fans, which enriched my own viewpoint.

Of course, twelve people can watch a film and see twelve different movies. As I say in the book, my perspective isn’t meant to replace the reader’s but to supplement it.

– Who did you interview in writing this book? What was it like talking to them?

I corresponded via e-mail with a lot of different people. (I find it works better than using the phone.) There was Kiran Shah, Elijah Wood’s scale double. He was very nice. Ralph Bakshi answered some questions for me, and I even got permission to use some rare behind the scenes pictures from his animated adaptation. I interviewed artists from the Jackson films, and they were all very generous. Actually, my favorite interview was with an Orc extra named Zac (the whole thing is in the book). You know, I can’t imagine myself as Ian McKellen. I can’t imagine myself as Alan Lee. But I can see myself as an extra, and Zac is a great storyteller who makes you feel like you’re out there with him, making the films. He tells you exactly what the daily routine was like for the regular guy out there in “Middle-earth”.

Oh, and speaking of Ian McKellen, I corresponded with him at the beginning of the project. He was great. I’d send him an e-mail saying, “What did you film today?” and I’d get an e-mail back saying, “The cart at Hobbiton. Lots of fun!” It was like e-mailing an uncle. Except my uncle’s not very good at responding.

– The Lord of the Rings is, to many people, a very important and emotional story that effects many parts of their lives. Besides inspiring you to write the Lord of the Films, how has LOTR affected your life?

I could write another book about this subject alone! Throughout my life, I’ve always compared the situations I face (from the mundane to the extraordinary) to situations in The Lord of the Rings. I can’t help it. I make supper, and I think of Sam’s cooking fire in The Two Towers. I see poor stonework in a driveway, and I think of Gimli complaining about such as Minas Tirith.

I’m also always asking myself, “What would Gandalf do in this situation?” or “What would Aragorn think of this?” They were my role-models growing up, and I still think of them as such.

And then there’s the less abstract way it changed my life as a child. When I first started to read the books, I was a poor reader who didn’t have a very large vocabulary and didn’t do very well in school. In fact, it took me an absurdly long time to finish The Lord of the Rings, because I was very slow and had to look up many words in the dictionary. (I remember “ere” was one of them.)  When I finished the first time, I (of course) had to reread the books again (and again). Because of this, I became a much better reader, and because of that, I became a better student. So The Lord of the Rings was a tremendous help for my education, and it did a lot for my self-esteem, too. I probably would never have learned enough to write a book had it not been for Tolkien.

– What was the most interesting thing about working on your book?

I enjoyed choosing where to put each photo. “I’ll put Liv here… and Orlando here… hmmm, Minas Tirith would be good here.”  Apart from giving me something to look at besides my writing (which I had read amillion times by that point), it began to give the book a finished, polished look. It was interesting to see how the process works from a publishing standpoint, too.

– Is there anyone else you would like the fans from TORC and the LOTR fandom in general to know?

Yes. If you buy my book and you like it, please help me spread the word! Tell a friend. A good review at amazon always helps, too. I’m not just saying this from a selfish standpoint. I want my publisher and other publishers to see that there are a lot of LOTR fans out there, and that there’s a market for books of this kind. It will make it easier for other writers to publish books of the sort that I would like to see. And who knows, maybe I’ll write a sequel to my book afterThe Hobbit films have been released.

illustration by Jacquie Roland for The Lord of the Filmsillustration by Jacquie Roland for “The Lord of the Films”

And here are some excerpts from the book:

Introduction to The Lord of the Films:

“You do realize your performance as Gandalf will outlive us all, with each new generation discovering the magic of these films, right?”
Back in 2000, when Ian McKellen had his email address posted online for the world to see, and any crazed fan of the upcoming Lord of the Rings films could send him hyperbole, he received the above email.  In this case, however, while the fan (which was me) probably was crazy, the words were more than mere hyperbole. The films have already enchanted folk from all around the world and are recognized as fantastic cinematic adventures filled with good and evil, swords and sorcery, epic battles, and true romance.
This book serves as your guide to Middle-earth on the big screen. Through its pages, you’ll discover the true magic of the incredible live action Lord of the Rings films. This guide can be read two ways. Reading it cover to cover like a conventional book will allow you to learn about the journey of these films, giving you the story of their creation from beginning to end. You might also enjoy reading this book while simultaneously watching the films, allowing you to watch them with a new appreciation or to look for details you missed before.
This book is not a substitute for watching the films or reading the books they are based on. It would be pointless for me to retell a story that has already been told so well on the page and on film. What I will do, however, is go beyond the films to provide a deeper understanding. This means, of course, that out of necessity this book contains Lord of the Rings plot spoilers. If you’ve not yet seen the films, I urge you to watch each of them at least once before using this guide. The Lord of the Rings books are magnificent too, and well worth reading; however, no knowledge of the books is necessary to understand or enjoy this book.
You might know that there are two different versions of each film. However, if you’ve only seen one version, don’t panic! Most of the information in this book applies to whatever you’ve seen. Occasionally, however, I’ll specify one version. The “short” versions, released theatrically before being released on DVD, are referred to as the “theatrical cuts.” The longer versions, released on DVD some months later, are referred to as “extended editions.”
As we go scene by scene through The Lord of the Rings, you’ll see that each section has a title followed by a brief summary of whatever part of the film it covers. You’ll then find four subsections. For fun, they are named after the Free Peoples of Middle-earth:
What the Big Folk Were Saying
– “The big folk” is what Hobbits call people like you and me. These are comments from ordinary folk that were overheard in the movie theaters.
What the Wizards Know
– Here you’ll find behind the scenes information I gathered from numerous sources over the years, giving you inside scoop on the development of the films.
What the Elvish Eyes and Ears Have Noticed
– These are little details in each scene you might not have noticed and can look for the next time you watch the films.
The Foolishness of a Took
– These are mostly bloopers, production errors, or nitpicks.
Along the way, you’ll also see sidebars with compilations of information. Some help tell the story of how these films were made, but others are simply for fun.
I’ve also included “Easter Egg Alerts,” which apply only to the Platinum Series Special Extended Editions (the four disc sets). Easter eggs are hidden bonus features that don’t appear in the DVD menu. While none are included in the other sets, there are several in the original extended edition releases.
Please keep in mind that a dozen people watching the same film will have twelve different experiences, and this book can’t contain every opinion. But in addition to my own observations, I’ve included interviews I conducted with some of the people who worked on The Lord of the Rings. These designers, artists, and actors share with us the experience of working on the films, and tell us what they think about the trilogy. Of course, the opinions shared in this book are not meant to supersede the reader’s thoughts and experiences, but only enhance them with more information and ideas.
Finally, knowing that Lord of the Rings fans are some of the most intelligent, active people out there (in my completely unbiased opinion), I threw in some games at the end of the book to challenge you.
So prepare to rediscover the haunting beauty, mysterious sorcery, and powerful forces of Middle-earth as we journey together. Prepare for the Lord of the Films!

Sample Chapter

The Companions seek shelter in the hidden Elvish realm of Lothlórien. Its ruler, Galadriel, gives them warnings and gifts, sending them on their way in boats.
What the Big Folk Were Saying
“What’s he gonna do with an avon bottle?” — A man as Frodo is given the phial of Galadriel
What the Wizards Know
– Jackson shot the Fellowship meeting with the Elves of Lothlórien in two different ways. In the first, which appears in the theatrical cut, Haldir tells the Fellowship they have entered Lothlórien and must go before the Lady of the Wood. In the second, the Fellowship is chased into Lothlórien by the Moria Orcs, only to be rescued by the Elves who are then uncertain of what to do with Frodo since he who carries a great evil. The extended edition uses a combination of both, using the beginning of the first and cutting to the Fellowship after being rescued in the second. (This is why Legolas says, “Our Fellowship stands in your debt.”)
– Craig Parker (Haldir) became involved with this production at its earliest stages. He was cast as Frodo in a recorded version of the script Jackson used for his storyboards. If you have the Platinum Series Special Extended Edition, you can hear Parker, as Frodo, narrating the prologue. It is on the first disc of the Appendices, under “Visualizing the Story, Early Storyboards.” Jackson shared this recording with the cast to show them what he had in mind.
– The filmmakers added music, borrowed from other films, onto these storyboards to give them an idea how everything was working cinematically. While the Art Department had been listening to the soundtracks of films such as Braveheart (1995) and The Last of the Mohicans (1992) while they worked on their designs, Jackson thought these scores were not subtle enough for The Lord of the Rings. After some experimentation, Jackson found that music from The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Naked Lunch (1991), and Crash (1996), worked surprisingly well with his storyboards. He then noticed that these compositions, as well as others he thought appropriate, were all by the same person: Howard Shore. Shore, who had been a Lord of the Rings fan since he was a boy, was contacted. He gladly offered his services.
– What do the Grand Chamber of Rivendell, the interior of Orthanc, and Galadriel’s Glade have in common? The sets were all built at the same spot: Studio A.
– Ngila Dickson, costume supervisor, found the Elven cloaks the most difficult costumes to create in terms of finding a material that was realistic but unrealistic at the same time.
– Deadline pressure forced Dickson to create multiple designs for some of the main characters’ costumes, so shooting wouldn’t be delayed if Jackson didn’t like how a design looked. The costumes that were made but not worn by the lead actors were used by the extras.
– Those darn Elven cloaks forced the Costume Department to redesign the backpacks because of how the two pieces of gear interacted. This is another case where Tolkien could write whatever he wanted, but the filmmakers had to deal with reality. (Think about poor McKellen who originally had to carry around a scarf, a hat, a staff, and a sword wherever he went! No wonder he has Gandalf lose some items throughout the journey.) The packs in the film come up over the shoulders, fit under the arms and tie between the shoulder blades. The quiver of arrows carried by Legolas had to be tied in a complex way to keep it from bobbing around as well.
– Monaghan was allergic to his Elven cloak.
– When Jackson agreed to cut out the gift-giving scene from the theatrical cut, he made New Line Cinema promise to release the extended edition before The Two Towers — which shows  some of the gifts in use — hit the theaters. This is why the extended edition was released in November 2002.
What the Elvish Eyes and Ears Have Noticed
– So what does Ishkhaqwi ai durugnul (as Gimli says in the extended edition) mean? It loosely translates to: “I’ll be in the third film, and guess who won’t!” Alright, it really means, “I spit on your grave.”
– Aragorn’s emphatic Elvish to Haldir in the extended edition, urging him to let Frodo into Caras Galadhon, translates to: “Please understand, we need your support! We need your protection! The road is very dangerous.”
– The lyrics for the “Lament for Gandalf” (which Legolas refuses to translate) are three verses about Gandalf coming from the West to guard Middle-earth, but departing too soon.
– In the extended edition, when Sam recites his little poem about Gandalf’s fireworks, he speaks of “silver showers.” The scriptwriters must have thought that “golden showers,” as it is in the book, might be taken the wrong way. (I didn’t notice any outrage from the purists here.)
– In the extended edition, Boromir tells Frodo that Gandalf would not want him to give up hope. He is being kind. A short time later, Boromir admits to Aragorn that it’s been long since they had any hope.
– Boromir says, “My father is a noble man.” Interestingly, his father Denethor is played by John Noble.
– “The Scouring of the Shire,” a chapter about the Shire being overrun by thugs, would never make sense at the end of a film adaptation of The Return of the King unless a great deal of exposition was presented first. (And even then it would be anticlimactic.) It does, however, work well as a warning to Frodo in this first film. (And it’s nice to see it somewhere.)
– Sean Astin has said that filmmaking is a counterintuitive process, where actors are often forced to pretend the opposite of reality. (For example, if a scene takes place in the snow, it’s usually filmed in a hot studio.) These films take this axiom to a new level. We have Pippin, the youngest of the Hobbits by far, being played by an actor who is older than Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), the embodiment of an ancient Elf. And Blanchett, playing a character noted for being tall, only stands about 5′ 8” while Gimli, noted for being short, is played by an actor who stands over six feet tall. Think about that one while Galadriel looks down upon Gimli!
– Lady Galadriel’s gift to Gimli in the extended edition is impressive considering she refused the same request from Fëanor, one of the greatest Elves in Middle-earth history and creator of the palantíri.
– This film has some interesting parallels with The Wizard of Oz (1939). Both were filmed about forty years after the books they were based upon were published. Each film is about a young orphan on a quest away far from home who gains companions along the way. Each film includes an homage to a somewhat unpopular previous attempt at a film adaptation (released in 1925 and 1978 respectively). While Oz was being shot, thirty-year-old Buddy Ebsen was replaced by forty-year-old Jack Haley as the Tin Woodsman. While Fellowship was being shot, twenty-six-year-old Stuart Townsend was replaced by forty-one-year-old Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn. The Wizard, played by Frank Morgan, appears in Oz only briefly, but Morgan appears throughout the film in other roles. The Lord of the Rings, played by Sala Baker, appears only briefly in The Fellowship of the Ring, but Baker appears throughout the film in other roles as well. Finally, The Wizard of Oz was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture but lost to Gone With the Wind (1939), another adaptation of a book. The Fellowship of the Ring was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture but lost to A Beautiful Mind (2001), an adaptation of a book as well. In 2008, the American Film Institute named their top ten favorite fantasy films: The Wizard of Oz came in first, and The Fellowship of the Ring came in second.
The Foolishness of a Took
– The London Sunday Times interviewed Blanchett in July of 2000. Since the writer of the article didn’t really know what this Lord of the Rings thing was all about, she did a quick search on the internet to get some info to fill out her piece. Thus her article said: “For the uninitiated, Galadriel is the good sister of the evil but beautiful Queen Beruthiel, who imprisons the Fellowship of the Ring in the forest of Lóthlorien. In the book, Galadriel frees them from her sister’s clutches. It’s a small but memorable part, and Blanchett lobbied hard for it.” Kids, this is an example of why you shouldn’t rely on the internet when you do book reports.
– When the Fellowship is departing from Lothlórien and Galadriel is riding in her swan boat, a crew member makes an unscheduled cameo behind and to the left of the Elf.

Sample Sidebar:

Creating the Colors of Middle-earth: From the Green Dragon to the Grey Havens
The photographing of The Lord of the Rings took place over a period of four years, with some shots filmed when it was bright and sunny, and others when it was cloudy and grey. Some scenes included parts that were shot outdoors mixed with parts shot indoors. Other scenes included models and digital images. How was all this footage put together cohesively, allowing the viewer to focus on the story and not the weather?
Peter Doyle introduced new software for this trilogy, which allowed the filmmakers to color-correct and tone each piece of footage. In addition to allowing the filmmakers to match differently filmed shots for a scene, this new tool offered great freedom in shaping the look and feel of Middle-earth. For example, by manipulating the colors of a Rivendell, shifting them into a part of the palette nature doesn’t really give us, the result subliminally creates a place that seems familiar but feels new. The filmmakers also learned how to manipulate the lighting, fading a scene to a darker color, echoing the emotion on-screen, over such a period of time that the audience doesn’t realize it’s happening, although it’s felt subconsciously. The software was so advanced, the filmmakers could manipulate portions of each frame individually, enabling, for example, the color of the sky to be brightened as a scene progresses to reflect a mood, or to subtly whiten a character’s face as he dies.
The software was so advanced, the filmmakers could manipulate portions of each frame individually, enabling, for example, the color of the sky to be brightened as a scene progresses to reflect a mood, or to subtly whiten a character’s face as he dies.
Perhaps most important, software allowed all the films to be shot simultaneously while still achieving Jackson’s wish that each film would have its own individual look and feel, breaking up the monotony three identical films would have created.
You can buy the Lord of the Films at Amazon today!


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