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John Howe talks LOTR

May 10, 2001 at 9:51 am by xoanon  - 

Ringer Spy Armel was so kind to translate this article from ‘Les nouvel obs’ a french magazine. The mag recently interviewed John Howe, and they asked him about the LOTR movies, Tolkien Mania and more about a member of the Tolkien family actually having a role in the films?!

Tolkien-mania, by Dominique Gaulme

In the beginning was a nice scholar, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien. He was teaching philology in Oxford university and wrote Bilbo the Hobbit, a book that Rayner, son of Stanley Unwin, an English publisher, liked a lot. His dad gave him a shilling and never regretted it since it was an absolute hit. Unwin asked for a sequel and he finally got it more than 15 years later, in 1954 and 1955, because Tolkien had made up his mind to create a whole universe. The Lord of The Ring became a myth as soon as it came out and the Tolkiens settled in France to escape from too much fame. Even today, Christopher, his son, has to take an alias when travelling to Great Britain.

Stanley Unwin guessed that the movie industry would love LoTR and decided with Tolkien to give it up for big money or glory. At the end of 1957, first offers : three US businessmen want to make a cartoon. The fact they murder the names, calling Boromir, “Borimor”, that they want everybody to travel on eagle back, that the lembas turn out to be a kind of astronaut food, is ominous and the negotiations stop abruptly. But in the 70’s, the taxes rise too high and Tolkien has to sell a rights portfolio to Saul Zaentz, an American producer. In the portfolio, the movie rights.

That is why Tolkien’s heirs, and particularly Christopher, can object to anything but the films. They can’t prevent Alan Lee and John Howe, both conceptual artists for Peter Jackson, from illustrating the famous Tolkien Calendars till 2005, but as to the film, no way ! Christopher hates the very idea whereas one of the grand-sons flew to New Zealand to play a bit-part.

At first, John Boorman is asked to make the movie even if nothing was really possible before the digital special effects. With $3 millions, he tries to work on the script, to make the story shorter, but he fails and shoots Excalibur instead. They pass the buck to Ralph Bakshi who had made Fritz the Cat, the first X-rated cartoon. In 1978, LoTR, the toon, is released. Quite predicably, hollywood declares it a financial flop and the Tolkien addicts feel sick and betrayed. Moreover, Bakshi used rotoscoping, a real shame. Everybody forgets about LoTR for years, till Peter Jackson, who had helped Miramax, is proposed to make it “We are about to lose the rights, don’t you want to have a try ?”. He plans two films of 2 1/2 hours. One year and $12 millions later, Miramax gives up. Okay for one 3hour film and we’ll cut here and there. John Howe tells “They had already called for spin doctors to simplify the plot : “All these folks and coutries are much too complicated. Let’s say that Gondor and Rohan are the same and that Sarüman is a kind of Darth Vader. It was becoming Dungeons and Dragons, a real trash ! Miramax said to Peter “If you find someone else to shoot the films and $12 millions within three weeks, it is fine with us.” Fortunately, Pete found NewLine because they had begun to pack our sets for other projects.”

Three years later, the film is expected by millions of fans all around the world. The trailer on internet was watched by more people than Star Wars: Episode One. As for Episode Two, the secret is deep. We know the code name : Jamboree. We heard the working atmosphere was juvenile, a gang of old kids playing giants and hobbits. It seems the book defended itself quite well. Every attempt to alter characters turned out to be a mistake. For instance, the script writers had decided that Arwen, a part played by Liv Tyler, Aerosmith singer Steve Tyler’s daughter, was some kind of tough cookie, riding horses and fighting like a man to save her boy-friend Aragorn, a real he-man, not a slipper-footed dwarf. But Liv felt akward about it, even if it is the way women are shown today in the movies, and little by little came back to the real Arwen as depicted by Tolkien. Christopher Lee who plays Sarüman knows the books by heart and had been dreaming to have something to do with it since he read it.

Another one had dreamt : Sean Connery was looking forward to playing Gandalf. But Jackson chose the less conspicuous Ian McKellen. Sean never set a foot in New Zealand but everybody saw him there. Once a guy called to speak about “you know who”. He had spent his afternoon at a cricket match side by side with a man he was sure to be Sean Connery. He had asked semi-naive questions such as “Are you from New Zealand ?” On hearing a “yes”, he had thought it a stratage and wanted to be the actor’s professional guide during the shooting period. When fiction and fantasm mix together.

The second article :

A Passion for the Middle-Ages by Dominique Gaulme

John Howe opens his door, a little dishevelled and shortsighted, looking like Gandalf’s younger brother, his Gandalf, the one everybody knows. He speaks very good French with a slight Canadian accent -he was born in Vancouver-, plus the special Helvetic intonation since he has been living in Switzerland since he left the Ecole des Arts Déco in Strasbourg.

He just cannot believe someone came from Paris to meet him, moreover a journalist. Here is Howe’s paradox : quite famous as an illustrator, he and Alan Lee, his alter ego, are the conceptual artists of Lord of The Rings, the movies by Peter Jackson, but the public at large doesn’t know him. He feels even his job is not aknowledged. “When I am asked what is my profession, nobody understands. They think comic-strip or something like that. Sometimes I wonder wether I exist !”

John Howe does exist in his own universe, with bluish skyline, misty contours and haze he likes especially “because that is easier. It is so much more difficult when you have to draw everything”. Is he lazy ? Certainly not, he rarely leaves his working table and his inks because Tolkien is only a part of his work. We are expecting La Ville Abandonnée (The Deserted Town) with Claude Clément, and another book picturing the Haut-Konigsbourg fortress in Alsace. But, true enough, he doesn’t care for sandy beaches and palm-trees, he prefers green, moist places where to find mosses and lichens, where the impressive roots of his trees look like Art Nouveau wrought iron, where the cliffs turn into castles, where the willows never weep “I hate those trees, I cannot draw them!”. He loved New Zealand nature “the trees look normal but, in fact, when you examine them, they are bizarre. It is exactly what we needed for Middle-Earth.” Although he hates everything clean and modern, he sometimes illustrates science-fiction, but in his own way with medieval touches. As to the women, even if he admires Frazetta’s sexy heroins, he prefers scaly monsters springing out of the waves and when he has to draw a lady, he often asks his wife, Fataneh, to do it. In fact, we envy John Howe, he gave up none of his dreams and he gets money with them.

So, don’t ask him to change anything : his life turned upside down when he first came to Strasbourg. He would only know trappers’log-cabins and he discovered the sandstone laces of one of the most beautiful gothic cathedral in Europe. An actual cultural revolution which led him to make a book where gargoyles are real dragons. Since that day, John Howe is convinced the most perfect period of European history took place in the XVth century and more precesely during its last thirty years. “Everything is beautiful, the shoes, the socks, the castles, the caldrons, the lanterns, the windows. eveything but plague and poverty “.

He even made himself a nice rocking backed bench. Among the things that irritate him, the widespread commonplaces about the Middle-Ages : people were much shorter than today, they didn’t know how to make left and right shoes. “They were too busy building cathedrals, I guess!” When he has a little time, John Howe publishes a fanzine for XVth century lovers. Dragon is a mine of informations about lanterns, swords, measures, machicolations. So when it came to details during the shooting of Lord of the Rings, the team saw clearly it wasn’t going to be easy. He was adamant about Aragorn’s sword, it wasn’t to be molded in plastic like Conan the Barbarian’s ! He and Alan Lee took also a very special special care not to mix with Tolkien’s universe, ninjas, Bruce Lee, kickboxing and samurai. In fact, every two years, John Howe and his friends organize real medieval fights in armours in Haut-Konigsbourg castle in Alsace, so there is no way of cheating !

Posted in Old Special Reports on May 10, 2001 by

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