Peter Jackson Talks About His Crowning Achievement
When New Zealand director-writer-producer Peter Jackson (Heavenly Creatures, The Frighteners) first took on the daunting task of making a film of J.R.R. Tolkien’s epic fantasy The Lord of the Rings, he says he tried to keep a simple vision foremost in his mind — “to make a film I’d enjoy seeing myself.”
The result is not only the biggest (three films shot back-to-back in New Zealand over 18 months, with another three years spent on post), the longest (each is some three hours long), and the most expensive (around $300 million) fantasy-adventure project ever created, but a triumphant adaptation of The Lord of the Rings.
Here, Jackson talks about making the trilogy, working with DP Andrew Lesnie, and some of the groundbreaking effects in the final film in the trilogy, The Return of the King.
We also talked with producer Barrie Osborne and Richard Taylor of Weta Digital, the New Zealand-based visual effects house that created some 1500 digital shots for the final film.
How did making this film compare with making the first two?
As a director I had a lot more freedom on this film than the other two, and shooting The Return of the King was always very enjoyable. To give you a picture of how it all worked, the three films were shot together but very much out of sequence. So on some mornings we’d shoot a bit of The Two Towers and then move on to Return of the King if we were in a particular set or location or with actors we needed for both films. So they were all out of sequence, and we always felt The Return of the King was the emotional pay-off and climax to the whole project. And the actors also enjoyed those days more as there were more emotional scenes for them to play. The first two had a lot of exposition and introduction of characters, while this one was free of that. The plot was set up and the dynamics, and we were able to race to the climax. And it had to be the most emotional, and the way I always thought about this one was that it’s the reason why you make the other two. It’s a trilogy and you just want to get to that last chapter.
I don’t know if it’s normal with other filmmakers — I imagine it must be — but you end up imagining the whole thing in your head from the start. So when I was working on the screenplay with the writers I’d use that to establish the film in my mind. I’d write all the descriptive elements in the script, and it’s all very specific: “Extreme close up of ring, cut to Frodo’s eyes,” and I’d even add in sound effects. “The ring has a very creepy humming sound.” So I used that process to establish it in my head and then obviously I’d modify and update it as people like Richard Taylor [director] at Weta and our conceptual artists came on board. And their new ideas almost always improved on what was in my head. A lot of people have said to me, “Surely you can never improve on your original vision.” And my experience is actually the opposite. I could imagine what the mines of Morea would look like as I was working on the script, but when I saw some of the artists’ conceptions it was so much better.
Can you talk about working with your DP, Andrew Lesnie (Babe: Pig in the City, Two If by Sea), and the visual look of the trilogy?
I’d never worked with him or even met him before, but he’d shot the Babe films and I thought they looked amazing, the way he’d used backlight and the sun and natural light to create a very magical effect. And Babe had that larger-than-life feel about it that I wanted. So when we began looking for DPs in early 1999, I first decided to get either an Australian or New Zealand DP as they’d be used to the way we make films. Every country is slightly different in that way, and I immediately thought of Andrew. But he was shooting MI2 in Sydney, so I was a bit stuck then. But then after three weeks he left MI2 — apparently there was a lot of friction on the set, and we called him the next day and persuaded him to fly over to meet. Then we showed him all the designs and sets and he got very excited, and I liked him a lot.
We have a similar sensibility, and I just felt it’d work very well, and it did. The way I worked with Andrew and the way I like working is to show up on set, have the cast on set with us, and then block through the whole day just like a rehearsal. We’d spend an hour just rehearsing and then Andrew and I’d just walk around with a viewfinder and lens and look for interesting shots and angles.
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