by Stephanie Banbury
Legions of Hobbitophiles can breathe easy. Just 26 minutes of the year’s most breathlessly awaited film, New Zealand director Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, was released to the world’s press in Cannes early yesterday and, everyone agreed, it looked wonderful – good enough even for J.R.R. Tolkien’s millions of obsessive fans.
“It’s a movie by fans,” Jackson said later. “We were just lucky enough to be fans who also got to make the movie. We have respect for those people because we are them.”
The media at Cannes was shown Ian McKellen as Gandalf visiting Ian Holm as Bilbo Baggins in his little hobbit house in Middle Earth – in fact, recognisably the country around Wellington – and the Breughel-like festivities for Bilbo’s 111th birthday party. They saw Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring battle the spectacularly reptilian Orcs, and Hugo Weaving as elf lord Elrond.
In the most spectacular sequence, the band of hobbits and elves leap for their lives across a crumbling bridge in the mines of Moria. There were more gasps from the audience as our mythical heroes faced down a lumbering cave troll wielding a battle-axe. Coming out of the cinema, back to the real world of Cannes cafes, the same line was repeated everywhere: “I can’t wait to see more.”
There has never been a movie project like Lord of the Rings. Jackson filmed all three feature-length films of the trilogy at once – a mammoth undertaking that took 15 months. They will be released, however, at yearly intervals, to allow adequate time for post-production. The first, The Fellowship of the Ring, will open for the Christmas season this year.
The project was backed by Hollywood production company New Line, with a budget of $US274 million ($A525 million), putting it firmly in the major blockbuster category. This is a huge investment, especially in a director who has never had a big hit. Even more remarkably, Jackson was able to shoot the whole thing in his hometown of Wellington, New Zealand, using a largely Kiwi crew.
In the year it was running full pelt, Lord of the Rings was one of New Zealand’s biggest employers. “It was always assumed I would make it in New Zealand,” Jackson said. “There were budget advantages and, more than that, location advantages. We were able to find everything we wanted in Middle Earth in New Zealand and you’re never more than two hours from anywhere.”
It also helped to keep the cast united in a long and often physically gruelling shoot. “We felt like a family,” said Orlando Bloom, who plays Legolas, an elf. “We were on an island, so far from the rest of the world.” When they had a break, the four actors playing hobbits went on a holiday to Australia together. “You’d think we’d want a break from each other, but we didn’t,” said Sean Astin, who plays Merry.
Jackson said he treated Lord of the Rings like a historical epic rather than a fantasy, paying attention to every detail. Vocal coaches taught them the Elvish language, one of 14 languages Tolkien made up as part of his mythical world.
“Some days I can’t remember my own name,” said Liv Tyler, who plays Arwen. “But I can remember all my Elvish lines.” She repeated one; it sounded like Welsh.
Cate Blanchett plays the powerful elf Galadriel, but was unable to be in Cannes.
Tyler said they also had to practise swordplay and learn to ride; Viggo Mortensen, who plays Aragorn, took up riding bareback. Mortensen shrugs this off and smiles when Sean Bean, who plays Boromir, recalls that he once found him fishing at 4am. “I enjoy being in the woods,” he said, “and I had to look as if I were good at it.”
In some ways, said Sir Ian McKellen, they all fell in love with it. He had not read the books before he took the part. “I scarcely knew who Gandalf was, but I rapidly learned there are millions who do. I’m a late believer. But Tolkien is dealing, so imaginatively, with issues that are so central to human life that I think it’s the most important job I’ve had.”
Jackson’s previous films include Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners and schlock-horror films Bad Taste, Meet the Feebles and Braindead. Shooting films with melting zombies, often for almost no money, gave Jackson and his team a thorough grounding in devising special effects and prosthetics. It also gave him a cult following, a ready-made audience for Lord of the Rings.
Christopher Lee, the legendary Hammer horror star, appears both in Lord of the Rings – as the evil Sauron [actually, he plays Saruman — David] – and in the next episode in the Star Wars series. But while they’re both fantasy projects and have huge fan followings, he sees them as nothing alike. “They’re not remotely alike except that they’re major productions,” he said. “Star Wars is more clinical, in a way, whereas Tolkien’s story is full of so much love. Star Wars is more science than fiction, if you know what I mean.”
Whatever they do at the box office, the Lord of the Rings films will have a long life on DVD and a booming souvenir toy market. Mark Ordesky, the executive producer from New Line, tried to play down the commercial side, evidently fearing a press backlash. “It is too elegant and cherished to be hyped; this is a classic,” he said solemnly. “Three generations have read this book, with a fourth coming up.”
Jackson chipped in: “But the toys are pretty cool.”
New Line chose a Cannes chateau, complete with crenellations and a faux portcullis, for the press launch. Hung with watered silk banners and crossed pikes, with underground hobbit houses installed as follies in the grounds, it will be the scene of a lavish launch party tonight.
For the cast in Cannes, it will be a reunion. “I miss it,” said Bean. “I just want to return to where we filmed. When you finish, it’s a strange feeling. You’re there doing the laundry, with no sword and no surrounding elves.”