Sir Ian McKellan: `The Book is the Book, This is the Film’ – Interview with Ian Mckellan

by Dec 22, 2003Lord of the Rings (Movies)

What appealed to you about playing Gandalf?
Well, it was a rattling good part. There’s humor there and, although he’s immortal, there’s a lot of humanity. There’s a chance to twinkle. He gets very stern. He shouts a bit. He’s very wise. He has a fight or two. There was a lot to do in the part! I think perhaps the enormity of the adventure was appealing, too.

You basically spent all of the year 2000 in New Zealand. Were you homesick?
Oh, well, I’m used to being away from home. I just hadn’t anticipated that New Zealand could live up to its reputation because many, many people who’ve been there are convinced it’s the most beautiful country in the world. And, of course, it’s not just the scenery. It’s not just the fact that it’s so empty. It’s not just the fact that there were no human beings on New Zealand until 800 years ago. Eight hundred years ago it was a Garden of Eden. There were no predators. It was a land mass without predators. Nature in perfect harmony. The birds seemed to be ruling the place–so successfully that some of them forgot how to fly because they didn’t need to. They had no enemies. And then along came man and spoiled it a bit and introduced predators, ferrets, weasels dogs, rats….

And movie productions.
[Laughs] Yes. But New Zealand isn’t a place full of tensions, rather of good intentions. And Peter Jackson and everybody I worked with on the film were locals and they all share national characteristics of calm and gentleness and determination and ability to work very hard and play very hard. Doing all this in the context of this very beautiful country made it the best job I’ve ever had, I think.

I’m trying to imagine Jackson, who’s a very calm, shy person, directing such a massive production.
Well, you know what he looks like, right? He looks eccentric: no shoes, no long trousers.

He wears shorts no matter what the weather.
The same shorts! And he only owns two shirts. They’re both pink. You can never be certain which one he’s got on. But there’s a lot of energy under there and willpower and ambition.

His early splatter movies are funny, but they’re so demented. I found them very hard to watch.
[Laughs] Well, I know. If I had been familiar with some of those movies I think I might have been less keen to join the band. But I think that making “Lord of the Rings” was an act of faith for a lot of people. The minute I got there I knew it was going to be all right. Ian Holm [who plays Bilbo Baggins] arrived he said, “What’s it like? Is it going to be all right?” And I said, “You won’t want to leave.” And a month later he said, “I don’t want to leave! I want to stay!”

Tolkien fans are so eager for this movie. For some of them, it’s going to be hard to see their beloved books condensed even into three three-hour movies.
There were times when I wondered if it mightn’t have been a viable alternative to make a long-running series for television that ran for three years and do everything in the book. I often feel when I see Dickens on the screen, “Oh, you can’t tell this story in two hours, it’s an insult to the book!” But the book is the book. That’s what I have to keep reminding the fans: the book is the book, this is the film. Although it’s not being made exclusively for the fans, it’s being made by fans. We’re all allies.

I’ve heard there won’t be any test screenings of “The Fellowship of the Ring.” That’s unusual for a such a big picture. Studios almost always want to show movies to an audience, and find out if they’re too long or too confusing or whatever.
People trust Peter. I mean, he’s the mad one. He’s got the vision and he’s got the power and strength and determination to carry it through. They don’t want anyone coming along on a rainy afternoon and saying, “Oh, I thought it should have a happy ending!” Peter is such a wonderful storyteller. He’s not going to deliver a three-and-a-half hour movie. He knows what people can take. He knows that they’ve got to cry in the movie. He knows that they’ve got to laugh. He knows they’ve got to be thrilled. Five weeks ago, when he was passing through New York, I asked him if he was he happy and he said, “Yes, it’s the film I wanted to make.” So if people don’t like it, he’s got it wrong and we’ve all got it wrong–but I just can’t believe that will happen.


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