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An Oscar could be waiting for ‘Return’
By Susan Wloszczyna, USA TODAY
Aragorn, Legolas, Gandalf in RohanWELLINGTON, New Zealand — The place: Lord Elrond’s rarified chambers in the elf oasis known as Rivendell. The mood: Toe-tappingly impatient. The problem: Liv Tyler, she of pointy ears and plump lips, is not to be found.
Meanwhile, cast and crew wait in a cavernous soundstage at Stone Street Studio and prepare to shoot more takes for The Return of the King, the hotly anticipated finale of the three-film adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings.
Suddenly, Tyler hurries in, contrite and confused, chunky boots peeking out from under her flowy frock. “I was told to go get a touch-up,” she says, explaining her tardiness to a scowling Carolyne “Caro” Cunningham, the first assistant director who bulldoggedly guards against such disruptions.
Makeup perfect. Matter over. The actress regains her composure and assumes the bewitching aura of elf princess Arwen, who implores father Elrond (Hugo Weaving) to assist her mortal beau, mighty warrior Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), as he claims his rightful place as ruler of Middle-earth.
And one coronation may just lead to another.
The real man who would be king, as the trilogy winds down with the release of the third chapter on Dec. 17 and the launch of the awards season, is director Peter Jackson. The bespectacled dumpling in wrinkled shorts and worn sneakers (when not barefoot) is plopped in his preferred on-set seating, a burgundy-hued easy chair. It’s a very apt throne for a cinematic genius who eschews Hollywood pretensions and prefers to create his art mere minutes away from his home in this gloriously scenic land of his birth.
Aragorn and EowynThe cherubic, 41-year-old Kiwi, flanked by crafty co-writers Fran Walsh (his companion of 16 years and mother of his two children) and Philippa Boyens as they do script updates on the fly, madly multi-tasks as usual.
But he’s clearly pumped about fine-tuning his favorite film of the series. The Return of the King concludes the tale of hobbit Frodo (Elijah Wood) and his quest to destroy an evil ring that began in 2001’s The Fellowship of the Ring and continued with last year’s The Two Towers, out on DVD Tuesday (an extended cut is due on Nov. 18) with a 10-minute King preview.
With a combined price tag of about $310 million, all three movies were shot simultaneously and principal photography was completed in 2000. But a chance to reunite everyone for extra filming and tweaking has been budgeted for each following year, and the last round of pickup shots was done this past spring.
“Everybody feels we are paying off the story now,” says Jackson, taking a rare breather. “The scenes tend to be the more emotionally charged, which is why the actors enjoyed them and why I enjoyed filming them. It absolutely has to be the best. We owe it to people.”
The highlight of the closer, which the director confirms could run longer than the three-hour length of its predecessors, is the thunderous clash at Pelennor Fields. The fierce faceoff between the good citizens of Middle-earth and the dark forces of Lord Sauron promises to make the skirmish of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers look like a hobbit family picnic.
Peter Jackson Directs Sam and Frodo in Shelob’s LairBolstered by previous success, Jackson is rather relaxed under the circumstances. “The mood’s kind of enjoyable,” he says. “I certainly don’t feel as constrained this time around.” But the confident calm he exudes belies the sense of urgency and purpose in the air that goes beyond the product on the screen.
The push is on. Not only to make The Return of the King even more awe-inducing than the rest, but also to ensure it wins the year’s top Oscars, namely best picture and director. Jackson and company have been so far denied the prizes and fans have cried foul. The crusade for recognition commences with the release of the first Towers DVD.
“Peter is too humble a person to campaign himself,” says Richard Taylor, a pal and collaborator for the past 15 years who oversees Weta Workshop, the acclaimed effects factory where sneering orc masks are molded and elven weaponry is forged. “He will leave it to the laps of the gods. He has bigger things to do ultimately. But it would be obviously wonderful if he were recognized for the superior director he is. There is no doubt in all of our minds that these films have a longevity, that they will be watched 60 years from now.”
Elrond and Arwen in RivendellNot that Jackson and his talented team at the state-of-the-art facilities in suburban Miramar haven’t already achieved feats that are nearly as legendary as those of his mythic heroes. The first two Rings films have collected a total of 19 Oscar nominations and won six. Together, they’ve grossed more than $1.8 billion worldwide, becoming the most successful fantasy series since Star Wars. Also, last year marked the first time since 1974’s The Godfather: Part II that a sequel to a best-picture nominee also was selected as a contender.
And, apologies to Titanic’s James Cameron, Jackson already is king of the world of directors in terms of salary and clout. Not only has he built his own filmmaking empire an ocean away from any Hollywood meddling. His next project is a dream come true, a retelling of the great-ape classic that inspired him to become a filmmaker, 1933’s King Kong. At minimum, he’ll be paid a record-high $20 million upfront for the privilege. That’s beyond even Spielberg bucks.
A ‘Rings’ toss at top Oscar
Taylor and his fellow effects masters at Weta (pronounced WET-a and named for a near-indestructible insect) have been justly rewarded for their groundbreaking work with Oscars for both Fellowship and Towers. But there’s a feeling that exists not just here in “Wellywood,” where the director is a local hero and major employer, but in Hollywood, that academy members are saving the ultimate honors for the last Rings hurrah.
LegolasThere is no guarantee, especially when several other grand-scale epics, including war dramas The Alamo and The LastSamurai as well as the seafaring Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, will be in the running this year.
Then there is the odd grudge that Oscar voters apparently hold against sci-fi and fantasy. While a few genre titles such as 1939’s The Wizard of Oz and 1977’s Star Wars have competed for best picture, none has ever won. It’s as if entertaining somehow equals frivolous.
“It’s a shame, isn’t it,” Taylor says. Jackson’s lack of glad-handing last year probably contributed to him being overlooked in the directing category. “There’s no doubt that Pete must be disappointed. But I am fairly close to him and he has shown no sign of being disheartened. He is a bigger person and more of a gentleman than that.”
However, New Line Cinema, the studio behind Rings, has gotten the message: Although the academy obviously admires the results, it most likely considers the trilogy to be an effects showcase rather than an emotional journey and an acting tour-de-force.
ArwenSo rather than focus on such digital hocus-pocus as Gollum, the hissing computerized goblin inspired by actor Andy Serkis’ behind-the-scenes performance, it’s time to play up the human element and the intimate encounters.
As Jackson describes the main objective behind this year’s extra shooting, “We’re tending to look at scenes that we already did the first time around and make the character moments more powerful.”
That could lead to the cast receiving more consideration, too. Only Ian McKellen as wise wizard Gandalf, a supporting nominee for Fellowship, has caught Oscar’s eye.
Bernard Hill, who plays King Theoden, thinks Sean Astin’s Sam, Frodo’s steadfast companion, might get noticed. “That’s such a hard role, being the lower-case buddy to the upper-case hero,” he says. “But he’s got it just right.”
Mortensen, who could very well be nominated as best actor for his intensely soulful emoting, is pleased with the shift in emphasis. “The special effects have really been top level, but the human relationships are going to hold up much longer than any effects.”
That is why Hill and Karl Urban as nephew Eomir have remounted their steeds in full war regalia to lead Rohan horsemen once more into battle. In front of an outdoor blue screen that will be filled in later with backgrounds, the pair pose for close-ups, shouting, “They flee, they flee” and “Drive them to the river, drown them like rats.”
“Pete said today that one of the things we learned from Helm’s Deep was that we needed to go in on the heroes,” says Hill, the British character actor best known as the doomed captain in Titanic. “So we’ve isolated moments that tell the story of the battle, but do it through the hero characters.”
However, few have delusions of grandeur as part of a huge ensemble. New Zealand native Urban, for one, knows his place. “My profession is orc killer,” referring to the evil race that serves as Sauron’s army. That equals “screaming, fighting and rallying the troops.”
Goodbye elves, hello ape
There is much more work left to be done on the technical side that will continue well into September. But the end is indeed in sight, a fact punctuated by farewell parties where tears mingle with champagne bubbles each time the lead actors wrap their scenes.
Adds Mortensen, “Everybody on the cast and crew pretty much wear their hearts on their sleeves. They’re unabashedly sentimental about how it’s coming to an end.”
But the Peter Jackson story continues as another King — as in Kong –looms. Taylor’s department has invested four months into designing clay models of apes and dinosaurs for the Christmas 2005 release. The remake will take place during the same ’30s era as the original, but no definitive word yet on whether the monster gorilla will be a totally digital creature.
With Jackson still focused on the trilogy, “We actually haven’t had one single meeting yet about how we will technically achieve what is ahead of us,” Taylor says.
Alex Funke, the visual effects director of photography for the miniature unit, and the detail-obsessed creators of backdrops are itching to monkey with a replica of the Empire State Building. “The crew is saying, ‘Hey, when we get to New York, I’ve got a great idea on how to light the skyscrapers.’ One of my electricians is already hunting for little light bulbs.”
And from little bulbs, big ideas sprout.