By MICHAEL HELMS
Fangoria Magazine #217, October, 2002
Ten months after Fango last spoke with Peter Jackson, it’s the voice of an almost completely different person that comes pulsing down the phone line early one Sunday morning. Jackson is in London putting the finishing touches on The Two Towers, the second film in his Lord of the Rings trilogy (opening December 18), and he’s in fine form. While he was in the exact same situation last year, the circumstances have now changed markedly, considering the massive worldwide success of the first chapter, The Fellowship of the Ring, that has occurred in the interim. Between bouts of laughter, a very relaxed Jackson lets the conversation weave all over Middle-earth and beyond.
To begin, Jackson outlines the work pattern behind the film series: “We had eight months of principal photography to shoot all three movies,” he explains. “The editors then started an assembly, so last year all my attention was focused on getting a fine cut of Fellowship. While that was happening, there was a version of The Two Towers cut. By the time Fellowship was finished, The Two Towers was in a state where I could critically view it to determine improvements and what to do in terms of pick-up shot planning. All this year has been spent on crafting The Two Towers, just as next year will be spent on The Return of the King.”
While Jackson denies any conscious effect of Fellowship’s success on his Two Towers work, he is willing to concede to other factors. “We are in an interesting situation where normally, if you’ve made a movie that is successful and then set out to start work on a sequel, you have to go right back to the beginning to devise a script. The success of the original film would surely inform you in terms of the creation of the next one. This is why I think many sequels try to be more of the same thing. People get worried and get locked into a formula and think, ‘This worked the first time round, therefore we must do it again.’ But in our case, because we had already shot all three films at the same time, we were much less able to change anything. We had The Two Towers together. It was shot at the same time as Fellowship, just as the next part of the story. Obviously it has the same sensibilities working for it — the same writers, same director, same cast, same DP; everything is a continuation, but the biggest difference is in the original book.”
Without pause, Jackson elaborates on the challenges set by J.R.R. Tolkien’s source novel. “The Two Towers has, in a way, been the most difficult of the three to adapt. It has a much different tone from Fellowship, and that’s ultimately a healthy thing. I’m sure that if we had made Two Towers as a completely separate exercise after finishing Fellowship, it would be very much like Fellowship. It’s inevitable that we’d want to get conservative and do more of the same thing, but what we’ve ended up with, because we’ve done them sort of at the same time, is a film that’s actually very distinct. It’s probably a preferable way to go in the end. It’s a little bit darker and less fantasy-oriented, which is inevitable.
“Fellowship dealt with a lot more fantastical elements,” he continues, “in the sense that we start in Hobbiton and meet the hobbits who live in this great village. We then meet elves in Rivendell and dwarves and go to Moria. In The Two Towers, the story centers more on the world of men, which gives the story a more realistic, historical kind of feel — a little in the direction of Braveheart.”
Early buzz has suggested that Towers is the most horrific of the three Rings films, but Jackson remarks, “We don’t reach Mordor yet, so the dark, scary stuff doesn’t come until Return of the King. I personally think one of the scariest things in The Two Towers, though, is the Frodo/Gollum/Sam relationship. We took a lead from Tolkien, but have gone a bit further into the area of the psychological thriller. There is no action with Frodo and Sam in this film; they’re simply slogging their way to Mordor, but the complication is Gollum, whom we briefly saw in the first film. He joins them very early on and they become a trio. The psychology of who and what Gollum is, and the mind games he starts to play on them, is kind of interesting.”
However, genre fans can expect more physically monstrous elements in this movie. “The main creature component is two very distinct characters: Gollum, who’s a computer-generated character, and Treebeard. Both play scenes with the principal actors. I would say that Gollum has as much screen time as Elijah Wood [Frodo] and Sean Astin [Sam]. I mean, he is one of the cast, literally, whereas in the first movie the monsters tended to do Harryhausen-esque cameo appearances. These creatures are in the movie from the beginning to the end.
“One of the biggest challenges has been creating Gollum as an actor rather than a CG creature,” Jackson continues. “This is really the first case I can think of where a computer-generated creature has had to be a dramatic actor. Jar Jar Binks was a comic-relief sidekick, but Gollum has to deliver a performance that is as complex and compelling as anything Elijah or Sean do. He can’t be anything less — he shares scenes with them, he has dialogue with them. He has to have the same emotional impact. One tough aspect is just his physical look. You want a CG character not to look like a CG character, and to have very realistic skin and hair, eyes, movements and everything else. Then it’s how you get this computer thing to act in a way that’s as good as a human being.
“Andy Serkis, a British actor we used, has really been the key to that. Andy was cast along with the rest of the actors way back in 1999, and he was out in New Zealand for the full 18 months of the shoot. He also appears in Return of the King. He was on set with Elijah and Sean and blocked the scenes with them. He was Gollum; he did the voice. Every time they’re looking at Gollum, they’re actually looking at Andy. We shot empty plates so we could paint him out. It wasn’t quite the Harryhausen technique, in which you have the actors performing to a golf ball or a mark on the wall and pretending the creature is there. We did it the other way around in that we had the actor in the scene with them so that they could act with somebody, and then we removed him entirely and replaced him with a computer version of the character. Even in postproduction, Andy has remained on board to provide the final voice tracks for Gollum.
“Treebeard [John Rhys-Davies, who also returns as the dwarf Gimli] is a 14-foot-tall Ent,” Jackson continues. “He’s not a walking, talking tree, but rather a shepherd of the trees. The trees have the ability to move and to kill, but they have to be kept under control in the forests of Fangorn. The forests have shepherds who are supposed to look after them and keep them in some civilized order. That’s what Treebeard is. His skin is like bark and moss, so he looks a bit like a tree. And then we have cameo appearances from creatures that have a much bigger part in Return of the King. We briefly see the Nazgûl, which are these giant, winged dragonlike creatures that the Ringwraiths ride, since their horses were drowned in the first story. They have a significant role to play in the third film and we briefly see them here.”
Epic combat scenes, which were among the highlights of Fellowship, will also be present in full force in the new movie. “Another big challenge of Two Towers was creating the battle of Helm’s Deep, which so far in the story is the biggest battle we’re handling,” the director reveals. “Helm’s Deep is a huge castle in the mouth of a valley; it’s a refuge rather than being a strategic gateway to somewhere. Rohan is under attack, and all of the civilians — the women and children — have fled to Helm’s Deep where they can hide behind the castle and be safe. Saruman’s strategy is not just to burn the villages down and destroy the crops, but to wipe out all human beings, so women and children become a particular target. The fact that they flee to Helm’s Deep puts them in one spot, so he puts his entire force against this castle. Frodo and Sam are elsewhere, and so are Merry and Pippin. Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli have ended up there with about 300 soldiers, so it becomes them against 10,000.
“That takes place mostly at night, and it was so complex that we filmed for about four months of nights,” Jackson continues. “Viggo [Mortensen, who plays Aragorn] was fantastic. He just threw himself into it tirelessly. Every night he’d come along and just fight some more. And the miniature for Helm’s Deep was the very first thing we built for this film. Way back in 1997 when we first went into production, Richard Taylor and the guys started work as we were still developing the script. Obviously we were a long way from starting to shoot the film, but they had to decide what they were going to design and build first [laughs]. We chose the castle of Helm’s Deep. So a huge miniature was built for us to shoot a lot of the background plates, and we’re just finishing filming the miniature on a stage right now. So it’s five years since it was built; it’s one of the quirks of doing three films back to back with such a long prep time.
“We also have a sequence which is not in the book, but I liked the idea of developing a sequence that Tolkien hadn’t. We use creatures called Wargs, which are like giant crosses between wolves and hyenas. They have saddles and they’re like horses for orcs. They’re vicious and do as much damage as the orcs themselves. The Warg exist in the book, but Tolkien never used them in a particularly graphic way, so we’ve certainly taken that a bit further. Basically, you have a battle between riders on horses and orcs on Wargs [laughs]. It was interesting to figure who would do the most harm. Orcs can fire their arrows and throw their spears and do damage, but the Wargs themselves can leap on the horses and take them down, which we see. So it was quite fun to do a pitched cavalry-like battle where half of the horses are creatures that are much more vicious.”
On the human villain side, Jackson notes that the return of Saruman (Christopher Lee) also involved creative adaptation. “There are many things about adapting Tolkien that cause problems, and if you were writing a totally original story you would definitely do things differently,” he says. “One of the problems with Saruman is that for the entire story he stays in the tower where we saw him in Fellowship. His role ends up being a pretty similar size to Fellowship, but the good thing — the one thing Tolkien did do at the end of Two Towers — was to bring the war to Saruman, which leaves him heavily involved in the climax.”
Genre fans have been thrilled by Lee’s participation in the Rings trilogy — perhaps none more than Jackson himself, who confesses, “One of the perks of the job is when you get to work with one of the people you’ve been a fan of ever since you were a kid. There are certain moments when I can’t quite believe I’m on the set or even just sharing the same space with them. I was obviously a huge fan of Hammer movies when I was young. Christopher Lee is a legend. You somehow never dream that you’re going to meet these people, let alone work with them. I try desperately hard not to be a fan; I found myself having conversations with Christopher Lee about anything but Hammer movies [laughs].
“But on the last day of shooting, I did bring down some stuff to get signed — a Man With the Golden Gun one-sheet and a Dracula, along with other stuff he did. Finally [laughs], I got my posters signed at the last minute, because I was too scared to ask. The thing about Christopher Lee is that he has a wonderfully young spirit. And talk about being sharp. He’s full of stories, and in all the time that I’ve worked with him and spent time with him, I’ve never heard the same story twice. The times I’ve enjoyed were moments on set where I’d have half an hour while we were fiddling with the lights or setting up a dolly. Christopher would be sitting in his chair, and I’d just go over to chat. It was deliberate, because I’d just love hearing all his stories and experiences from the war and stuff.”
Joining the returning Wood, Astin, Mortensen and Lee are a number of new faces in the cinematic Rings world. “The story takes us into the kingdom of Rohan, the kingdom of men,” Jackson says. “It’s a Norse-based Icelandic culture. They live in thatched huts on this prairie land and everything’s based on wood. They’re Cossack or Mongol types who ride on and worship horses. We wanted to cast very Nordic-looking people, such as Miranda Otto from Australia. Karl Urban, a Kiwi actor, plays Eomer. The King is played by Bernard Hill. We also meet Wormtongue, who’s not so much part of the culture of Rohan. He’s human, and over the course of time he has ingratiated himself into the kingdom, but he’s ultimately a Saruman kind of spy. Brad Dourif plays him.”
Next to Lee, Dourif probably has the longest genre resume of anyone in the Towers ensemble, and Jackson is clearly just as impressed with him. “Brad Dourif,” the director laughs. “He’s fantastic. He’s just one of those iconic actors. I’ve seen films with Brad in them since I was a kid, and it was a thrill to work with him. He’s great and he’s funny; Wormtongue is a very sneaky character, so he’s not out there like some of the characters Brad’s played; he’s more held back. He’s very quiet, and he ingratiates himself into places where he shouldn’t go.
“We wanted to create an interesting physical appearance too; Wormtongue’s makeup was something we spent a lot of time on,” Jackson continues. “Even though he’s human, you get this image of him from the book which is something less than human. He’s a very Uriah Heep type of character, very slimy. The makeup is subtle but quite effective; we gave him a new nose and put these terrible warty growths on his face. Then we shaved off his eyebrows. We decided that would be a really distinctive look. Over the course of the shoot, he had to make several trips to New Zealand, because he was one of the characters where it was impossible to schedule all his scenes in one big lump. Every time he got on the plane to come back, he did so with his eyebrows shaved off [laughs].”
Even with all the new characters to keep track of, Jackson was adamant that Towers not contain a refresher course on the events of the previous movie.
“One thing we decided to do with Two Towers was to assume that everyone who comes to see it has already seen Fellowship, and not to cater to the people who haven’t. The studio was really keen to include a little recap at the beginning of Two Towers. I found the concept to be a very TV device, the sort of thing used to support a miniseries or something. I thought it would make the whole thing look cheap and tacky, so I just said no. If you haven’t seen Fellowship now that it’s on DVD, you have no excuse [laughs]. If you haven’t seen Fellowship, you shouldn’t really be coming to see The Two Towers. We pick it up the moment Fellowship leaves off and just crack into the action.”
Certainly, the enormous box-office returns for Fellowship suggest that few who see Towers will have trouble picking up on the story. Jackson doesn’t mince words about how much happier he’s been this year thanks to that success. “Last year, we were reminded on multiple occasions that New Line’s future hung on the film — they would remind us and we read it in numerous magazines. Yep, that was tough. This year, the pressure has been much less psychologically. The creative pressure has actually been greater, though. No one knew what sort of film Lord of the Rings was going to be. Now people have seen the first film, and we do feel very strong expectations for the second. Even though that expectation was there last year, it wasn’t quite so bad, because people didn’t know what to expect. People were hoping to like it, but they didn’t really know.
“This time around, because they’ve seen Fellowship, they’re obviously expecting Towers to be just as good. That has provided its own kind of pressure. We’ve been very, very careful not to be complacent. You know, if you were a mercenary studio, it would be easy to bang out Two Towers, even Return of the King, in a way that was less satisfying just because you knew that the audience would still come. We’ve been very determined to avoid that. We’ve actually worked harder this year. We’ve put more effort into Two Towers than we did into Fellowship, and that’s just because we want to give people who are expecting it to be good the best possible film we can.”
Jackson is immediately dismissive of Oscar considerations (Fellowship was nominated for 13 Academy Awards and won four, though Jackson missed out on a Best Director prize), but can still float opinions on the subject: “It’s not the reason to make any film, so I never even think about Oscars when I’m shooting. One reason is that it would be bad luck, and another is that it’s the completely wrong motivation. I’ve got no idea, but because Two Towers is a little bit darker than Fellowship, that will handicap its Oscar chances. They will definitely be greater with Return of the King, which has a more triumphant kind of feel. The Two Towers is a bit like The Empire Strikes Back in relation to the first three Star Wars films. The middle one tends to be darker and more intense. It’s unresolved and takes a bad situation from the first film and makes it worse [laughs].
“Things really don’t get any better in The Two Towers,” he adds, “because we’ve got to have the struggle become more intense and harder to set up for The Return of the King, which will be the most fun of the three films. It will still have a certain amount of darkness, but it will be fun in the sense that after two movies, we will finally get to the climax [laughs]. Return starts and just continues in this huge cacophony of climactic action.”
One thing The Two Towers will share with Fellowship is a running time of about three hours. “I have never had any edicts from the studio to cut anything,” Jackson says. “There was a pragmatism with the cutting of Fellowship, and even in a sense with The Two Towers. These are rare expensive movies, and you do want to get the biggest audience you can, and we thought we were taking enough of a risk with a three-hour film. We knew the studio was riding on it, and we knew they wanted something between two and two and a half hours, which would be much more commercially smart. They didn’t force us to cut a two-and-a-half-hour film, though, and we felt ourselves that anything over three hours would be much more difficult to attract an audience to. “We just couldn’t afford for the box office of Fellowship to suffer because of the length,” he continues. “No matter how good or enjoyable a film is, at three and a half hours you’d simply put people off. It’s as simple as that. So our focus was on releasing a film that was under three hours. We worked very hard to get that cut, and The Two Towers has actually been the same. At one point, Two Towers was almost four hours long, and we’ve been working hard to get it under three. These are sensible cuts, though — it’s not a case of the studio forcing the filmmaker. In this case, the filmmaker doesn’t want to release a film over three hours, because it’s not a smart thing to do with all this money at stake.”
Even though he can’t afford the time to work out which version he prefers, Jackson is definitely enthusiastic about the impending DVD release (coming November 12) of a longer version of Fellowship. “Certainly there are a number of good scenes that are not in the theatrical version; they’re not just padding,” Jackson says. “They’re well-written, well-performed, good character things. The DVD is just an indulgence that gives you the opportunity to see stuff you didn’t in the theatrical version. We’re very happy for it to be seen, and obviously there seem to be enough fans who are interested in seeing it. It’s not really a way of saying that this is the definitive or best version of the film. People can watch it and decide for themselves. I actually don’t have an opinion. I haven’t really compared them, or even thought about it [laughs].”
One project that Jackson’s fans would love to see come to fruition is his currently stalled King Kong remake. “Universal have said that they’d be interested in doing it, but Fran [Walsh, Jackson’s co-writer on Rings and Kong] and I are committed to doing one or maybe even two smaller films after Lord of the Rings” he says. “If we were to do Kong — and we haven’t had anything more than an initial expression of interest from the studio — we’d be looking at something like 2006. I don’t know, to be completely honest, whether Universal would want to wait. At this point in time, it’s sort of out there as a possibility, because [the original is] still my favorite film, and to go back into it would be fun.”
On a more positive note, Jackson, who has now just about completed his own journey to Mordor and back, adds, “I am seriously thinking about the idea of another zombie film. Part of the fun of doing low-budget horror films is the freedom you have. I’m kind of thinking that it would be fun to shoot something over a long period of time. Whatever we might do after Lord of the Rings, I’m seriously thinking of filming on the weekends. We might be doing another movie, but on days off we would go out with a small crew and shoot some scenes and put it together over a long period of time. It’s not a bad pace, and the idea of doing that appeals to me a lot. I’m in the early stages of thinking about this, and it’ll be another year before I can actually do anything, but certainly now is the time to start planning.”