By Sasha Stone
Mirror film critic
The last person you’d expect to find dominating a banquet room in the Four Seasons Hotel is the tousled-haired, barefoot New Zealander, “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson. Yet, there he was, amid the spotless carpeted hallways scented with floral arrangements, and the good-looking hotel staff with faces like eager question marks.
Jackson had just appeared at a luncheon, and the abundant leftovers were being disassembled.
So, before I meet him, I ask, is he very tired? He must be tired. No, responds Jeff from New Line. Is he barefoot, I ask? Yes, Jeff says. “But he is staying in the hotel so it’s not so out of the ordinary.”
I’d read somewhere that Jackson had attended a press junket in New York barefoot. I was hoping for the same treatment at the Four Seasons.
The director lives up to his legend. The calluses are proof that it wasn’t just a publicity stunt. “It’s a comfort thing,” he answers, after I ask my first – obvious – question, “not any kind of religious or philosophical thing. I just prefer not to wear shoes whenever I can.”
And, indeed, Jackson does not seem tired at all — even though he is in town for a luncheon, a seminar at the Writers Guild (he’s nominated for a WGA Award, along with Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens) and various interviews, then off to London for the BAFTAS then home to New Zealand to finish post-production on the second installment of the trilogy, “The Twin Towers,” then to L.A. for the Directors Guild Awards, then back to New Zealand and finally here again for the Oscars.
“It’s a good kind of disruption,” Jackson says, after I take my seat in the room where he has held several interviews before mine. It is just the two of us and my tape recorder, which seems to hold the director’s attention more than anything else in the room. Jackson continues, “We had the post-production scheduled and we didn’t factor awards in.”
This is part of the reason why “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” is generating such excitement in Hollywood — more so than any of the other Oscar-nominated films. Jackson’s project is like the Sarah Hughes of the bunch — the rookie who comes from out of nowhere to clinch the gold. That Jackson and New Line didn’t factor awards into their schedule says a lot about what was on their minds at the time of production. They were taking a mighty risk.
This is particularly true for New Line, which shelled out $190 million plus for all three films sight unseen. Jackson, and one of the film’s stars, Ian McKellen, seem well aware of the risks involved, which is why they are working so hard to promote the film. A clutch of Oscars would go very far toward convincing other studios to take such risks in the future.
The almost-inconceivable project began one Sunday afternoon, during a discussion he was having with Walsh. The two decided then and there to begin making the “Lord of the Rings” into a film, something that has never been done (with the exception of the animated feature), likely because it was simply too overwhelming for anyone else to tackle. Jackson said in an interview with the BBC that they’d thought of doing two movies, but figured they could never get the backing. They were turned down numerous times before New Line took them on. Bob Shaye, head of New Line, reportedly told them “this isn’t two movies, it’s three.”
Describing Jackson as unassuming would be an understatement. In fact, he looks more like the key grip or the boom operator than the director. Yet his outward appearance is deceiving. A viewing of Jackson’s “Heavenly Creatures” tells you all you need to know about his talent. Yet there didn’t seem to be anything in his past work that would guarantee that the costly, top-heavy trilogy would be a success.
In a project filled with surprises, it is perhaps most surprising that the film would go on to make so much money, receive such critical raves (the film made the cut on over 25 top ten lists throughout the country, and was number one on at least 6), and above all, prove so satisfying for die-hard fans of the book, of which there are many.
In adapting the book, Jackson and his team of writers found that the biggest obstacle was creating a tangible villain. The villain in the book is manifested as a huge eyeball and the secondary villain spends all of his time in a tower. Jackson needed, he tells me, a villain to be a constant presence, so he took liberties with the story and ended up imbuing the ring itself with villainous qualities.
“Rather than just say `this is an evil ring’ and pop it in your pocket,” Jackson said. “I wanted to give the ring as much as a presence as I could — almost as if it was like a character. So we created a lot of movie devices that aren’t drawn from the book — but they’re movie things that sort of give the ring a presence. So we had it humming and whispering, which it doesn’t really do in the book.”
He also wanted the ring to appear very heavy, so they weighted it around Frodo’s neck, made the floor vibrate when the ring was dropped, and even made the ring strong enough to break the axe that comes crashing down upon it — all meant to remind the audience of the constant threat of evil the it possesses.
But one place Jackson was faithful to Tolkien was in his desire to make the film appear to be based in history rather than in fantasy.
“Tolkien never thought he was making fantasy,” he says. “He loved English sagas and the Norse sagas, and he found that England had lost its mythology.” Jackson goes on to explain how Tolkien wrote “Lord of the Rings” as if it took place in Europe about seven or eight thousand years ago.
Jackson held true to Tolkien’s objective. “It’s not this whimsical and big Hollywood art direction stuff — it’s actually more grounded than that. It influenced everything we did, every decision we made, in terms of design and the locations and with the actors, the way they performed the scenes.”
This dynamic, and the combination of the dramaturgy of Boyens, along with the visual style of Jackson and Walsh, is perhaps one of the main reasons “Lord of the Rings” is entertaining to crossover crowds throughout the world. There is also a joyfulness in the film that was apparently present during the intense year the cast and crew spent on set together in New Zealand. I suspect part of that joyfulness came from Jackson himself.
He is given over easily to laughter, and seems to be slightly giddy and surprised by how much attention his film is receiving. In fact, it would easy to mistake his warmth and accessibility for a lack of seriousness, when, in fact, it is quite the opposite.
Jackson becomes very serious, for example, when talking of his partner, collaborator, and mother of his two children, Fran Walsh. The two have been together two decades now and have collaborated on many films, including “Heavenly Creatures,” which Walsh co-wrote, and which was nominated for an Oscar.
It’s a real man who can stand so firmly behind a woman, and be as supportive as Jackson is with Walsh. They collaborate on everything, talking about the film(s) at night, and “all day long,” he says. Walsh apparently directed a few scenes for the first time in “Lord of the Rings,” including the key scene between Sam and Frodo at the end of the film. “It actually makes people cry,” Jackson says, clearly impressed with Walsh’s talent.
“Lord of the Rings” has been a family affair since day one. From the moment Jackson and Walsh began the project six years ago, both their small children have been living and breathing “Lord of the Rings.” Their childhood memories will be of swordplay on the set with Viggo Mortensen (who plays Aragorn), and lots of cameras and cranes. But when it came time for them to see the finished film, “They were really proud,” says Jackson, “Suddenly they realized what we’ve been doing all these years.”
Mounting a massive production that would ultimately make three epics at once (to be released in subsequent years) seems as impossible as parting the Red Sea. Yet, Jackson pulled it off. And, though some have credited the film’s success with it’s timing — the need to escape from the horror of the post 9/11 world — Jackson can’t see his film on those terms.
In fact, the director has trouble with anyone attaching his or her film to “such a horrific event.” “Lord of the Rings” was already completed before September 11 and Jackson sees no link whatsoever between his film and the tragedy. “I understand that other people want to write about it, but I prefer not to think about it,” he tells me, “It’s just a movie at the end of the day.”
Just a movie to some, something else entirely to others. To date, “Lord of the Rings” has made $283 million domestically, and $664 million worldwide — much of that attributed to multiple viewings of the film by devoted fans of Tolkien’s – and now Jackson’s.
Despite the international acclaim the film has amassed, and despite the fact that “Lord of the Rings” fans have elevated Jackson to godlike status, the director himself seems unfazed. “I really should identify with a sword-wielding hero like Aragorn,” Jackson says, “But really, I identify more with a comfort-loving hobbit like Bilbo Baggins, who would rather put his feet up in front of fire and eat cakes and drink ale, and not go on any adventures and lead a quiet life.”
At this point, a quiet life seems a long way off for Peter Jackson.
At the time of this interview, Jackson didn’t know his film would take Best Picture, Best Director, Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards.